I’d intended to participate in an online reading group, proposed by Nate, centered on Chapter 25 of Marx’s Capital Vol. I, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”, and had been preparing some preparatory posts on my reading of Marx, when I suddenly had to uproot and move to Scotland. To make a long story short, I was relatively unsure I would be able to attend graduate school this Fall, until a last minute unexpected change in circumstances made it possible. Now that I’ve settled in here, I should be posting somewhat regularly again, although my busy schedule will make it difficult to be as productive as I was over the summer.
Now before I go into my reading of Marx, I should emphasize how I approach his work. My reading is centered around developing what Mark Fisher has called ‘eliminative Marxism’. Before I go into detail on the nature of this conjunction, I want to first discuss what exactly is meant here by ‘eliminativism’. Now this position is most commonly associated with the naturalistic doctrine, promoted primarily by Paul Churchland, that the ‘folk psychological’ understanding of being human must be supplanted by a more rigorous and scientifically sound image. It has been, moreover, carried over into Speculative Realism by Ray Brassier, who attempts to leverage this doctrine against the ‘folk metaphysical’ understanding of being as essentially correlated to thought. In this way, Brassier seeks to level the ontological distinction between man and world which has for so long inhibited philosophy.
Yet we must be careful in carrying out such a leveling, which should not resemble the object-oriented operation of ontological flattening (I know that Graham likes to preserve a residual hierarchy of object-types, but he nonetheless is clear that man and other objects must ‘stand on the same level’). I admit, I think these operations generally tend to strip away hard won capacities that, while not ontologically essential, are nonetheless thoroughly real and important. I am thinking here of epistemic normativity, and intelligence in particular. OOO’s leveling (the violence of which is most evident in Latour) crudely dissolves the structures of cognition which our ancestors have spent millennia perfecting, and apparently for little more than an unsustainable ontologized sophistry. Unsustainable, because as a theory, it cannot give good reason for its own application, it cannot normatively secure itself, appealing entirely to ‘personal preferences’ and ‘intuitive draw’.
This lack of normative security is a similar problem for Churchland-style eliminative materialism, as Brassier expertly diagnoses. To be brief: because all theories are equivocally structures of neuronal vector activation, Churchland must provide some reason why the theory that ‘all theories are equivocally structures of neuronal vector activation’ is preferable to others. He has to jettison familiar appeals to ‘truth’, which are bogged down in the folk-epistemology he seeks to undermine, and hence attempts to rely on a sort of pragmatism. Yet this entails either resorting to an illegitimate claim of the essentially advantageous yield of this theory in the measure of reproductive fitness (which, even if correct, would nonetheless assume an essentially preferable status of survival…); or otherwise sneaking the ‘super-empirical’ virtues of science into a transcendental position through the backdoor. In other words, even if Churchland’s model of cognition (or one similar to it) is objectively correct, this cannot offer the necessary justification for the elimination of ontologically equal though epistemically bankrupt theories to the contrary.
Brassier’s transcendentalization of elimination itself, his insistence of the indifferent meaninglessness of the Real, is designed precisely to bypass this difficulty. After all, Churchland’s position is not that ‘I’m right, and all theories that disagree with me must be disregarded’. Rather, it is simply that all theories must be exposed to the absolutely inexhaustible contingency of the Real, in the sense that no theory, no matter how reliable or or predictively successful, should be safeguarded against undermining evidence. Moreover, this obliges a ruthless experimental ethic that refuses to ever allow a theory to rest comfortably, continuously probing the world for the unaccountable or inexplicable. The ultimate wager is, finally, a Hegelian one: that the limitation of our capacities to understand the world is in fact a positive ontological condition, it is the very incompleteness of the world itself. This thesis is really speculation at its purest, and is one that deserves far more than indulgent assumption…but such attention cannot be afforded now.
At this point we need to step back from the attempted full immersion in the scientific image demanded haphazardly by Churchland. It is foolhardy to assume that the manifest image (prescribed by folk psycho-ontology) will eventually pass away from popular use as science progresses, and that eliminativism ought to therefore focus only on purging it from scientific practice. But it is even more foolhardy to think the active pursuit of such a total renovation of public consciousness is preferable, even if possible. After all, the scientific image today nowhere exists without a complex interdependence with the manifest image, radicalizing the corrosive implications of the folk-concept of ‘truth’ as normative standard, insofar as truth ultimately equals the undermining of every value and meaning as ontologically grounded. Brassier’s entire project in Nihil Unbound culminates in the isolation of the occult umbilical cord which not only ties the scientific image to the manifest image from which it was born, but with which the child is now slowly disemboweling its mother. The monstrosity of this metaphor only tames the unimaginable transcendental horror of that movement which it dissimulates.
The ultimate question which arises, and one left open at the conclusion of Brassier’s book, is how this transcendental horror can be ‘valorized’ as such without the hitherto obligatory domestication and neutering it found at the hands of the manifest image. Yet any good Marxist should begin to recognize an unsettling parallel: isn’t this transcendental horror perfectly embodied in the mechanisms of Capital, by way of which all values and meanings are suspended in the name of expanding the power to suspend all meanings and values in the name of expanding… This sort of cancer, however, is far from the transcendentalized force of nihilation effected by Brassier’s postulated organon of extinction, in that it only suspends significance while simultaneously preserving and absolutizing the force(-of-law) it formerly gentrified. Whereas sovereignty in its traditional form sought to instrumentalize mythic violence to secure itself (this is a crude oversimplification, but should suffice for our purposes here), capital instrumentalizes sovereignty (as transcendental anchor of existential significance, not only in law but in thought as well) in the name of a generalized violence, a generalized state of exception. Brassier’s transcendental eliminativism, on the other hand, points toward a politics in which not only is the concrete meaning secured by sovereignty universally suspended, but in which the very structure of sovereignty or ‘correlation’ (inclusive exclusion of the Real by thought, or mythic violence by law) is dissolved. Next time, I’ll begin to discuss how Marx can help us understand the political form of Brassier’s eliminativism, by way of negotiating the problematic intersection between the two.