- Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction
It has become a truism that superhero narratives are interesting not for the morally upstanding virtues of the heroes but for the critiques of those virtues put forth by the villains. But not all villains are alike—some just want the simple things in life (money, power, love), while others take on villainy as a form of therapy. Beyond these kinds of villains, there is a special type—the arch-villain. The arch-villain is not only the inverted double of the hero, but, whereas the hero builds up a moral axiomatic system, the arch-villain undermines it by chipping away at its weak points and its fissures, delighting in the ruses of contradiction, inconsistency, paradox. The aim of the archvillain is not simply to destroy the world, but more specifically to be present at its destruction, to bear witness to the end of the world—or, in a kind of inverted memorial, to bear witness to the creation of a nothingness at the heart of the world. This problematic is also portrayed in many science-fiction narratives (especially of the "space opera" sort), but it can also be seen in the long tradition of apocalyptic narratives in the monotheistic traditions (and here the problematic is often resolved by having God fulfill the archvillain's role of bearing witness to the end of the world). The archvillain exemplifies this basic dilemma, which is really a philosophical problematic: how to achieve total annihilation without being annihilated. Or, put another way: how to think with the absolute extinction of thought.
This question is at the heart of Ray Brassier's Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. The strength of Brassier's book is to have reinvented the question of nihilism as a philosophical question, after Nietzsche, Sartre and postmodernism. While nihilism is often dismissed as a disenchantment with a world that doesn't make sense, and that doesn't make sense "for us," it can also be regarded as the pinnacle of thought itself, taken to its logical conclusion. If nihilism, for both Nietzsche and Sartre, was something to be overcome (either by a revaluation of all values or by a renewed theory of the subject), for Brassier nihilism in our contemporary era is something different. What does nihilism mean today, in relation to groups like Anonymous, or Griefing, or to the Voluntary Human Extinction movement? Nihilism is not, in Brassier's hands, something reducible to psychology, or to the ressentiment of a subject in crisis about its own subjectivity. Neither is it a symptom of the failure of reason to adequately comprehend and find meaning in the world, settling for the compromise of language games and the free play of signifiers. For Brassier, nihilism is "the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the 'values' and 'meanings' which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable" (p. xi). Nihilism is interesting precisely because it poses the question of a fundamental incommensurability between thinking and living, between subject and world.
Brassier's book is divided into three parts, each of which deals with a particular facet of nihilism. The first part looks at nihilism as the product of a disjunction between thought and reality, reason and nature. Brassier addresses this question in the philosophy of science (including the work of Wilfrid Sellars and Paul Churchland and the development of cognitive neuroscience), while juxtaposing this to the critique of scientific reason in the Frankfurt School. Part One closes with what is one of the most intelligent readings of Quentin Meillassoux's concept of "correlationism" (put simply, a limit-concept that demonstrates that any thought of X is always a thought of X).
In Part Two Brassier takes an in-depth look at two contemporary attempts to address the limit-point of thought/reality, reason/nature introduced in Part One—the "subtractive philosophy" of Alain Badiou, and the "non...