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Brassier, you’re still stuck

by on February 7, 2013

I’m going to be thinking about Ray Brassier’s rigorous, fascinating, and face-palmingly simple argument against correlationism for a long time. But I’d like to sort through some initial reflections here. Basically, his argument runs thusly: the thought of an object is different from an object, and correlationist arguments conflate the two. Consequently, their logic falls apart. For Brassier, the gap between the phenomenon and noumenon can be “converted into an identity that is not of the concept, even thought the concept is of it.” We can think of an object and we can think of an object outside of thought, and the object outside of thought does not necessarily have to be subsumed under the structure of thought just because we are thinking about it (like Fichte and Deleuze do, in different ways). To attribute the status of thought to everything else is gross anthropomorphization. I imagine the debate going like this:

Correlationist: You can’t think of a real tree, because it’s just a thought of a tree.

Brassier: Yeah you can. Just because I’m thinking of a tree, that doesn’t mean that there’s not also a real tree.

Correlationist: But you’re still just thinking about a real tree.

Brassier: So what?

When I put it this way, this article seems not so interesting anymore. Brassier himself admits at the end that this doesn’t really get us anywhere. Personally, I think Brassier is still just spinning around in the same solipsistic circle that any correlationist is in.

Anyway – is it actually a gross anthropomorphization to ascribe the structure of thought to everything else? Are we not qualified in attributing the status of human thought to everything else, as if it were a cosmic principle? I think that by rejecting this kind of anthropomorphism, Brassier is falling into an even grosser one. Brassier is still falling into the trap of assuming that humans are separate from, or at least not equal participants in, the reality that they observe through their senses. This is a grave mistake, I think. I ask Brassier – what reality, what object, what subject? How am I any less a direct part of nature than an apple? Why do you peg me into being an observer and not a direct piece, as much a part of any given object as that object is a part of me? Did everything not come from the same big bang? Following from this, a human thought could be a good model from which to draw conclusions about the rest of reality. Because it’s the same thing as the rest of reality, and I’m a filthy underminer. But what did I just do here – am I back into correlationism? Because I don’t feel comfortable there either. I don’t really want to be burdened with subscribing to any philosophy that posits my own subjectivity as separate from the rest of existence. And not just because it’s uncomfortable, but because it doesn’t make sense. So maybe I don’t buy either correlationism or Brassier’s refreshed realism. So what am I? A cosmic monist, I guess.

Also, it seems like none of the philosophers we are looking at take into account the fact that there are different kinds of thought. (Someone brought this up in class two weeks ago. I think it was Martin, so kudos. Unless it was someone else, in which case, kudos to them, because I like this idea.) I can absorb sensory data about trees when I walk through the forest without actually consciously thinking about those trees. Does that count as thinking? Is it direct contact with reality, reflecting the fleeting, ungraspable nature of the real in the fleeting, ungraspable nature of that kind of ‘thinking’? Personal experience would lead me to believe that in order to learn about anything, you can’t consciously think about it. You need to slip into a receptive, non-thinking mode (there is a word for this in Buddhism – Samadhi) and stop grasping after it. Is to be in that mode to commune with reality? I don’t know if even Buddhism holds that to be true, but nonetheless…is it?

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5 Comments
  1. traviswmatteson permalink

    I’d like to address your comment concerning the different types of thought. I’m very interested in the idea of a nonthinking receptivity as a potential starting point for aesthetic experience. The Russian painter Kazimir Malevich once said, “Man distinguished himself as a thinking being and removed himself from the perfection of God’s creation. Having left the non-thinking state, he strives by means of his perfected objects, to be again embodied in the perfection of absolute, nonthinking life.” In my studies of concrete poetry, this position appeared to be formative for a number of different concrete poets working in the mid-twentieth century. Malevich seems to be addressing the question you pose above, but I’m interested in what you’d make of the idea of access to nonthinking life through “perfected objects.”

    I’m not sure, however, that none of these philosophers allow for or take into account different kinds of thinking. In particular, I think Harman addresses this question in the paradox of knowing/not knowing Obama. Additionally, I think Harman would suggest that, just like language, these different modes of thinking are not fundamental enough to constitute an “ontological rift” between humans and nonhuman objects. Perhaps nonthinking receptivity is the pre-linguistic object position, whereas the more active modes of thinking function only within the linguistic realm.

    • 7sshare permalink

      “Perhaps nonthinking receptivity is the pre-linguistic object position, whereas the more active modes of thinking function only within the linguistic realm.”

      Yes, I think so.

      “…access to nonthinking life through ‘perfected objects.'”

      I think that the whole idea of ‘trying’ to access nonthinking life through something like a perfected object is a mistake. The only way to do that is to stop trying.

      Malevich is the man, by the way. I’m a big fan of his.

  2. The point you made in the second to last paragraph is one that I have been struggling with since an undergrad course on the science of consciousness. I often refute anthropomorphizing at all levels: perhaps it’s just a general dislike of vanity, perhaps because it seems to be the underlying reason for humanity’s rather senseless destruction/manipulation of its surroundings, as though the universe exists only to satisfy our own “needs” (which probably falls in line more as a general rejection of any notion of a hierarchy of life/existence). At the same time, it is equally vane for me to assume consciousness is uniquely human (which I don’t, many biological experiments have been performed that prove a wide variety of creatures have a complex consciousness: most notably, great apes, dogs, elephants, and most shockingly as of late, octopi), I prefer to think of consciousness as taking varying forms, and while human consciousness may be underwritten by arbitrarily applied semantics, I do not feel that reduces thought to a hollow shadow of language, as thought seems to be an obvious prerequisite for conceiving language systems, but that’s just a chicken and egg argument and I know it won’t go anywhere.

    I would also like to respond/ask a question about the following quote:
    “Are we not qualified in attributing the status of human thought to everything else, as if it were a cosmic principle? I think that by rejecting this kind of anthropomorphism, Brassier is falling into an even grosser one. Brassier is still falling into the trap of assuming that humans are separate from, or at least not equal participants in, the reality that they observe through their senses.”
    I agree fully that Brassier seems to be considering human beings as being separate, but I did not feel he necessarily diminishes our participation in reality. I would be very interested in hearing you draw out this point a bit further. While I see that he places a great deal of emphasis on the observer, it didn’t strike me as though the act of observing necessarily removed the viewer as a participant. A certain solipsism takes place in the act of any observation, but conceptualizing always keeps us slightly outside of ourselves (back to language), so even internalized thought is still taking place outside of ourselves to some degree, which fits wonderfully into Monism as far as I understand it.

    One last point which I think lends itself well to Travis’ comment: I believe you are correct in that it was Martin that made the point about collecting data about trees without conscious thought, and I could not agree more. The cognitive sciences seem to be in agreement that our perceptions are very much selective in that they are prioritized, but in order to prioritize, all data must first be collected, sifted through by the subconscious and then (and I really hesitate to use this term, fearing a lapse into the notion of the Cartesian Theater) projected into the conscious. To one degree or another, we absorb all available stimuli, but since consciousness is limited, not all of the sensual qualities of reality will find their way to the forefront, and thus data collection is not necessarily rooted in the semantics that so undermines philosophical notions of human consciousness. If anything, this selection is a primitive survival instinct that likely predates semantics and human evolution in general. Deer, for instance, possess this selective skill, and I think it is safe to assume every other hunter, gatherer, predator, prey etcetera does as well, which would explain why deer do not stop to eat some particularly green clover while being chased by wolves. While drawing this point out further will again lead back to a question of privilege in regards to human “style” consciousness, there is a great deal of evolutionary debate that wonders whether consciousness is rooted in fear-driven hyper-awareness made permanent due humanity’s relative lack of natural defenses, which would not make consciousness unique to humans at all, rather humanity had to adopt a different version of consciousness, one that is slightly more aware of potential dangers and thus seeks more detail in some respects while dismissing it in others. This seems like a plausible distinction that explains variances in consciousness, while not granting it solely to humans.

    • 7sshare permalink

      “I agree fully that Brassier seems to be considering human beings as being separate, but I did not feel he necessarily diminishes our participation in reality. I would be very interested in hearing you draw out this point a bit further.”

      What I am saying is that the subject / object problem, which philosophy has been circling around unsatisfactorily for thousands of years, will never be solved because it is a non-issue. This is because to engage it is to necessarily separate human consciousness from its surroundings, as if it were not its surroundings. Once you invoke subject and object, you are drawing a distinction that does not actually exist. This diminishes human participation in reality because it makes us feel like we’re over here, and reality is over there.

  3. jmdaven permalink

    I agree to some extent with Deleuze that the problem of correlationism necessitates an investigation of “difference.” Brassier’s work to distinguish a tree outside thought I think lies within this framework as well, but only if one is willing to admit that “difference” and “outside” are related, which Deleuze would probably take issue with. Thinking difference in itself as Deleuze sets out to do, would to me be both impossible and the condition of possibility, as I think Derrida would say. In this case the difference between the object in itself and my perception of the object, or the difference between the object and myself, is not exactly false or even superficial, but a structural necessity. However, this does not mean that the subject is fundamentally separate from the object either.

    Perhaps Brassier is too insistent upon the division of the subject and the object, and yet reducing or turning to an absolute monism would I think miss the mark as well. Although Deleuze’s particular brand of monism appeals to me more than other monisms which often too easily overemphasize universal identity, his still seems to rely on a problematic ability of thinking difference in itself and replacing identity with sameness. I am unconvinced his ontology of difference is as strong as Derrida’s structure of difference. Either way, I prefer both to Brassier’s naive realism.

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