martes, 19 de enero de 2010

Childporn @ Church




http://www.youtube.com/wat
ch?v=1zpiHT0RHS0&feature=channel

In this lecture Zizek extends his diagnosis of the supplementary unwritten content supporting an official ideology to the relationship between pedophilia and Catholic Church's ideology. Zizek proposes that it is not only a matter of individual pathology, but an integral, albeit unwritten, part of ideological seduction, such that even individuals who were not previously pedophiles would be transformed through their experience in Catholic priesthood. The analogy is thus made to his earlier example about Nazi ideology: officially it's about revolution and collective emancipation (class struggle, National identification...), but implicitly it's just an excuse to dodge the true subversion against capitalism, keeping it operative in a reactionary fashion, with the racial scapegoat of racial hatred to abuse the Jews as a virtual screen. So the conversion to spirituality would be analogous to the conversion to National Socialism in that both use their explicit message to finally indulge in their obscene desire.

But here I see quite serious problems in the argumentation advanced by Zizek. Why would the development of previously heterosexual males into pedophilia through their involvement with the Church be a matter of 'unwritten rules' and not of an involuntary and non-coveted biological change? We can indeed fathom the case of a heterosexual developing pedophilia as the result of his alienation from women; but this is still not sufficient to assign pedophilia as part of the content of Catholic ideology. Farmers develop zoophilia just like prison inmates homosexuality, not because their institutions have an obscene undertext which reads '...and you can have sex with animals" or "...and you can become a homosexual!".

The analogy with the Nazi example is in this respect badlyl grounded; since that is reasoned by acknowledging pre-existing disposition to abuse of the Jews, and its realization to consummate the seduction proper to a subject who already, albeit silently, was an anti-Semite. The case of heterosexuals turning into pedophiles being analogous would presuppose a similar pre-existing disposition to engage in acts of pedophilia, rendering the argument incoherent since we presupposed heterosexuals were converted into pedophilia by the seduction of Catholic discourse. It would be absurd to contemplate a genuinely heterosexual individual freely aspiring to convert to pedophilia, consciously or unconsciously, unless he was already pedophile. The same absurdity would apply to jail inmates or farmers. Zizek must rather presuppose that even in the cases where it was reported that 'normal heterosexuals' had been seduced into pedophilia this was the result of an unspoken (perhaps frustrated) pre-existing disposition to engage in acts of pedophilia.

But this doesn't quite work to fulfill Zizek's pretences either, since then it is really only a matter of those individuals involved, entering the institution for those purposes, and not of the tacit content of the institution seducing one into doing it. So, we either have an involuntary development without predisposition (not even tacit), or the contingent disposition of individuals and not of the obscene undertext of Catholic ideology. Either way, Zizek's attempt to extend the argument of the obscene Real supplementing the official symbolic discourse is seen to supervene ultimately on a prior disposition, which returns plausibility to the standard diagnosis of these being cases concerning individuals and not some general content of the institution or its ideological spooks. Now, it is very much possible that cases with pre-existing dispositions towards pedophilia may have been unconscious or consciously present in an individual; in quite different forms too.

For example, an individual may not want to accept to himself that he is a pedophile, but ultimately may use spiritual conversion as an excuse to engage in acts of pedophilia. Imagine an individual being horrified at the prospect of engaging in such acts but nonetheless infested by the desire to do it. This person may ultimately project explicitly the shift to priesthood to himself as a genuine act of spirituality, in order to provide a virtual screen to render bearable the implicit approach to a space to satisfy his pedophilic acts. In this succession, the symbolic texture of the explicit goal of the message ('I do this to obtain spiritual realization') is indeed supplemented by a Real undertext which is the drive's true aim ('I can have fun with kids'). But even in such a case, we are still far from Zizek's projected generalization. The individual in question would be effectively seduced by the Catholic institution as an opportunity to engage in acts of pedophilia, but it couldn't be said that the institution as such seduces one into pedophilia as part of its unwritten text, since this additional content is necessarily supplied by the pre-existing disposition of the individual who seeks satisfaction.

The Installation as Description Without Place




http://www.youtube.com/wat
ch?v=C-viUxnlbQ4&feature=PlayList&p=736EBCFFCDC67E0D&index=0

Badiou proposes in this extraordinary exposition that an installation is an example of what Wallace's Stevens calls "description without place": a presentation which does not find itself placed, and where objects are presented outside their normal appearing in a world. I want to elaborate on this idea, roaming a bit in some general considerations.

Does the description without place proper to the installation to which Badiou testifies displace the objects and the relations which constitute its contents, or does the installation rather displace what is outside the installation-set with its objects and relations? What is actually displaced in the insertion of an installation into a space for its exhibition, and what relation does it obtain therefore by its subtraction from its integration into their worldly placement?

Which is the splace (space of placement) and which is outplace: installation, its outside, the world?

First, I think the installation's primary function is related to how it introduces the spectator's gaze into the ambiguity of the space between the objective organization of the artwork-set and the worldly-set. This is an extension of what Lacan calls anamorphosis; the subjective distortion which, in synthesizing the presentation of a being, blurs what is outside it; the negative alienating function of the subject's agency which Hegel famously condensed in a single statement: 'the spirit is a bone').

But how is this concrete anamorphosis effected in the case of the installation with regards to the ambiguity between the installation and world, inside and outside, splace and outplace? This is a question as old as art: wherein lies the limits of the artwork, and where does the limit lie? Needless to say, the last century has been the century of the deconstruction and experimentation of displacements of the margins of the work, from the function of the frame in urban/site intervention (Buren, Goldsworthy), to the conception of audience qua observer in performance art, where the subject actively participates in the becoming of the work itself. Likewise, Malevich's simplicity strikes in its haunting ambiguity: where does the subject's gaze end and the objectivity of the work properly begin? In this last case with Malevich the ambiguity is taken to its ontological limit: the black aquare can either appear as the density of the object alienating the sterile whiteness of its background, or this whiteness can itself appear as the pierced space, haunted by the central void of an simple blackness lurking at its center. The subject's constitutive gaze is thereby inscribed on the work; the relation presented in the artwork is not so much representational as much as perspectival, not directly constituting reality as much as introducing an irresolvable split into it. So when Lacan had to cross the signifier of the subject, this means to testify the agency of the subject as that of introducing a constitutive split in Reality, the anamorphosis which for Hegel defined subjective negativity.

But let us return to the installation.

Concerning the arrangement of objects and relations, the installation clearly presents a novel effect with respect to painting, drawing or theater performance. The difference is clearly one between the idea of representation and the inscription of scission or to the subject of lack as participating in the work. One doesn't think of a painting depicting a living room as being 'taken away from its organic placing' just because it is in a museum or enframed; the frame clearly excludes such organic 'place of dwelling' from the ideal placing of the idea in the work. As Gadamer put; the artwork ( is not a mere copy, since in its representation it does not mean to signal the spectator away from the work itself, but is itself the work as presented which retroactively renders the original an Idea in which representation of the artwork participates: “The picture then has an autonomy that also affects the original. For strictly speaking, it is only through the picture (Bild) that the original (Urbild) becomes the original.” [Truth and Method: Pg. 136]

The installation of the living room on the other hand, does not clearly delimit a qualitative difference between outside and inside; the question is one of placement: how does the installation appear in this space, concretely, and what does it say about the relations it exhibits in relation to the gap it introduces in the world? Allowing our free transit from the installation-set to the world, the artist thereby inscribes the mediational void of the spectator between the two places:

First, the world as splace and the installation as cut or fragment (outplace).
Second, the world as limit (outplace) to the splace of the abstracted relations of the installation.

It is this scission which I propose to watch more closely now.

The mediational void which is the spectator marks itself in the irreconcilable duality: either the installation is organically displaced from the world, or it is the world which is excluded by this placeless fragment. The installation is either objectivized as a non continuous, thereby displaced, element in the worldly organization (splace), or limit to a dys-functional space of objective relations which excludes what is outside itself as a whole. What are these dysfunctional relations in the installation?

The installation deals with the insertion of the spectator into the determination of the ontological consistency of the work as object, and the world in which it appears. From the spectator's position outside the installation, the world as the place of relations finds an abrupt interruption of the normal sequence of objective relations in it. This limit appears localized, there where another sequence of objects-relations begins, a second description which, although identifiable as being part of the world, is inserted separately to what it 'mundanely' to a consistent totality, to a fully constituted functional space.

For example, in Hirst's pharmacy, even if one assumes the medicinal pills presented in the installation are recognizable as actual pills, and even if they could in fact be sold in a pharmacy for the treatment of illnesses, they do not appear in their installation within the nexus of this finality. The pills, and their presentation in the installation, are isolated, there to be perceived only within the enclosed set of the relations they have with the objects inside of its contours, severed from their missing complement, a lack guarded by the indifferent world at its uncertain margins. The imaginary supplement which would grant the installation its completeness is equivalent to its imaginary recognition as a displaced part of the world, either as an obstacle in the open path of what continues the continuity of the stability of the world (as outplace), or being itself alienated by the surrounding world (as splace), in the scission palpable through the uncertain imaginary body from which it is subtracted . The relations exhibited in the installation are thereby merely fragmentary and incomplete at all ends; the imaginary sets to work either to project the displaced installation as obstacle to the preceding harmony of the world as place, or the installation is the place which appears in claustrophic alienation, like a child desperately looking for her lost mother in the tumult of a flocking crowd.

This displaced objectivity in the installation, defined by Stevens as 'description without place' and cherished by Badiou, finally does present identifiable relations between objects in the world; negatively in relation to the extent that they appear as organs, wrested from their organic integration to the world's stipulated functional homeostasis. But the scission of the artwork from its integration into a normal network allows us see the installation as objectivized precisely insofar as it is a de-functionalized exhibition of functions (relations between sets of objects), wrested from their mundane finality. In their rearrangement they thus present a sort of material abstraction, a scission of the intermediary links which leads to specific destinations in a world. This material abstraction, engraved in the constitutive split between outside and inside, splace and outplace, finally calls into question the missing element just as much as what it presents. From the outside, the installation is what is in excess of the world (the world would be regular without this exception); from the inside it is what can only acquire completeness by integration to a missing totality, as lacking alinated from the turmoil of the world, a child wrested from the mother, and in fundamental excess or interruption. This integration into the artwork in which it spaces itself in the claustrophobic alienation from the world is, of course, not the clear 'white paper protected by its whiteness' announced by Stevens and which demarcates the forms of drawing, but rather a confusing darkness, the indifferent march of the void of the world.

This is the objective outplace which, with carrying intensity, describes the void of subjective life in the anamorphosis of the Real; the cut which places the installation at an unforeseen split relative to the subject's position, exactly like Zizek attributes to Lynch and his revolution in cinema, and which Badiou reminds us apropos Stevens.

There is finally something of an ironic distantiation in the installation: its relations are merely quotes, marginal organs, exposed in their structural dependence to an absent sphere (the white void of the real which Mallarme named the 'anti-paper'). But at the same time the work immanently doubts the structural coherency of what it opens, what it interrupts when we, outside the space of the installation can identify as an abrupt suspension, a reminder of another place making palpable its fragmentary and incomplete instantiation.

If the surrealists introduced ontological relativity to the object as subjective constitution (idealist anamorphosis, Kant), and if Malevich introduced ontological anamorphosis to designate the purely positional distinction between the Same and the Other in which the activity of the subject is located (dialectical anamorphosis, Hegel), then we can propose that in the installation serves to introduce anamorphosis into the distinction of artwork/world itself, blurring their very separation (Real anamorphosis, Lacan).

Perhaps Badiou's greatest contribution is to locate the proper emergence of the subject beyond this placed purely formal and differential blind spot in reality, while recognizing in it the evental subtraction from the representational placings: the generic excess to the stability of the natural ontological order which distributes the multiple in a world. It is this subjective constitution which sustains the empty perspectival placement which dichotomizes the scission between the place and the outplace, the cut inside and the untamed force which lays as background.

The Void: Being or Subject, Badiou or Lacan?



Peter Hallward (2003), among others, has pointed out that a gap separates Badiou from the Lacanian conception of the Real , since truth concerns the subject’s engaged transformation of the Real in a (local) process of fidelity, whereas the Lacanian Real seems assigned to its immoveable resistance to the effects of the Symbolic, thus to a kind of perpetual inaccessibility from the realm of nomination. This is why Hallward suggests that the Lacanian associations with “…horror, brute materiality, mystery, and fixity” [ST, Pg. 15] must be dropped from Badiou’s ascription of the Real. In the end, for Badiou, it is this very inaccessibility of the Real which becomes transformed into a possibility for the subject incorporated to a truth. In Badiou’s more poetic language: “Miracles do happen.”

In the concluding chapter of his book, Hallward furthermore underlines Badiou’s greatest achievement as precisely having been the systematic “…separation of the merely ineffable, insignificant horror of death from the generic destitution demanded by any subjectivation” [Pg. 262]. The Real for Badiou is re-placed by the subject’s interventional link in a truth-procedure, and so is not the mere ‘limit-experience’ of a fixed point against the ontic order, in which the subject can be nothing but the gap between its own void and the internally excluded object of desire, with the excess of its death-drive founding its libidinal thrust (ultimately a ‘nothing counted for something’, the proper barred subject: $) [Ecrits, Pg. 861]. It is in this excess from symbolic appropriation which for Zizek (2003) finds nothing but ‘an indivisible remainder’, Badiou finds the potency of every situation for evental change, or as Bruno Bosteels (2002) adequately put: “Pinpointing the absent cause or constitutive outside of a situation, in other words, remains a dialectical yet idealist tactic, unless this evanescent point of the real is forced, distorted, and extended, in order to give consistency to the real as a new generic truth.” Contra Zizek’s support for such a Lacanian ‘excremental’ view on the subject, Hallward thinks in such a view the Real is ‘…incapable of provoking the slightest reaction from within either the domain of purely multiple being as being on the one hand, or the domain of an immortal subjectivation on the other.’ [Ibid] In this way, Hallward anticipates Badiou’s own brief opposition to the Lacanian (and Zizek’s) Real in a brief note to Logics of Worlds, where it is finally designated as an obstacle ‘…so ephermal, so brutally punctual, that it is impossible to uphold its consequences. The effects of this kind of frenzied upsurge, in which the real rules over the comedy of our symptoms are ultimately indiscernible from those of skepticism. ” [LW, Pg. 563]

I would certainly agree in that the fixity of the Real in the Lacanian is 'dynamized' by putting it in reach of the subject within the inventive production of Truth, thereby displacing the strict Lacanian conception’s limits to its encounter as limit (say, through the experience of anxiety). However, there is no reason why both ‘versions’ of the Real cannot overlap in what sustains the association to experiences of horror and brute materiality (the question of mystery remains undecided for me). This is because those experiences relate to the Real in both Lacan and Badiou by virtue of their ‘traumatic dimension’, their mark as points outside the situation’s symbolic appropriation or nomination, as sort of ‘limit experiences’ to the possible. It is ultimately just the fixity of the Real and the precise form of the subject’s relation to it which separates both conceptions. So while Lacan offers two options to cope with the Real in humanistic disavowal and the capitalist integration , Badiou’s insertion of the subject to the rare displacement of the Real in an event allows us to see how contemporary ideology conflates these two options under the obscuring gesture of the democratic fetish.

Finally, we can agree with Zizek in that the barred subject’s permanent split from the Real remains a point of excess to our symbolic life, and with Hallward in that Badiou’s theory of the event and participation of truth allows for a precise inventive contact with it at the point of the unnamable (the indiscernible of any situation). Since this point is clearly discernable in the ontological situation (as parts of generic subsets, in excess of the naming resources of the encyclopedia of knowledge. ) Badiou can preserve the evanescent character of the Real and admit the power of subjective intervention in the consequences of an event. So to Zizek’s qualification: “…a Truth-Event can operate only against the background of a traumatic encounter with the undead/monstrous Thing.” [TS, Pg. 162] Badiou could simply retort a triumphant ‘Yes! But it is precisely the form of action that to the monstrous limit-‘Thing’ that decides between a subject’s emergence in an inventive fidelity to the Truth-event, reactive denial, or obscurantist occultation’ . Or, as Bosteels (2002) has put, for Badiou it is insufficient for the production of truth a recognition of the Real as impasse, since what is ultimately at stake is its sequential displacement: “Can any new truth actually emerge in a couple from the sole recognition of the real that is their constitutive impasse? For Badiou, the truth of love or politics is neither this impasse nor its symptomatic outbreaks in the moments of crisis. The formal impossibility of the sexual or social bond, which certainly reveals itself in such a crisis, is at best a site for a possible event, but the truth of a love encounter or a political manifestation consists only in whatever a dual or collective subject makes happen afterwards, on the basis of this event as being generally applicable to the entire situation.”

From the side of the subject, the fixity of the Real assigns the subject to the constancy of its libidinal structure, identifiable as the gap sustained by the fantasy towards the embodied impossible object-cause of desire (objet a). On the other hand, the possible displacement of the Real marks the subject’s rarity to militant engagement in truth-procedures: “The choice is here between a structural recurrence, which thinks the subject-effect as void set, thus identifiable with the uniform networks of experience, and a hypothesis of the rarity of the subject…both returning the void to, and reinsuring it within a function of suture to being…”[BE, Pg. 432] Robert Hughes (2007) does well to remind us, however, that this ‘contact of the Real’ is not strictly its transformation into a consistency as Zizek (2007) remarks, (the void as such is never a positive term of the situation, outside ontology), but a displacement. Or, put differently, in Badiou’s own words, “what we know of truth is merely knowledge” [Conditions 192f]. For more on this separation see Hughes’ objection to Zizek “From Purification to Subtraction: Badiou and the Real”, where he writes: “Badiou seems well aware that the status of the truth as real is lost in that very process and that has instead relapsed into mere knowledge…” [Pg. 177]

Below we will see how the horrific contact with the real (the Lacanian lamella designated above in film) can be also the very site which needs to be bereft of its evental potency, insofar as both descriptions describe within a specific situation the impossible point which demands deferral and occultation, outside the confines of the symbolic. Horror cinema uses this for the elevation of suspense and tension; the impending appearance of the traumatic image guarantees this experience in the anticipatory suffering of fear as an experience of the proximity of the Real. In politics the deferral is accomplished to substitute the experience of the Real, to obscure (in Badiou’s precise sense) the unbearable image which threatens the symbolic and its revolutionary (evental) potency, thus avoiding contact with it, pacifying the unease of foreseeing its direct confrontation. From this it is a short walk to the conception of mortification as a category for politics; the imperative to rebel against the democratic materialist obscuring of the horrific Real which pacifies the emancipatory potency of evental sites in an ideological blackmail advertised as the struggle for ‘democratic peace’ and against violence.

It is to this purpose that Badiou has forged the bedrock for a new typology for describing the distinct forms of subjective constitution, which renders palpable the exceptional character in which a subject can appear in a concrete situation, and in towards concrete ‘destinations’ with respect to Truth .

(15) As Bruno Bosteels (2002) shows, elsewhere Badiou designates on the other hand the Lacanian dialectical fixation on the primacy and indivisibility of the symbolic in the logic of place, blocking the path towards the production of new truths, and thus indexing it (along Mallarmé) to the risk of idealism. Bosteels writes “…the problem of this doctrine is precisely that, while never ceasing to be dialectical in pinpointing the absent cause and its divisive effects on the whole, it nevertheless remains tied to this whole itself and is thus unable to account for the latter’s transformation” (Pg. 179) In this ‘oscillation’ between the priority of the symbolic (as the site for an algebra of the subject) and the primacy of the Real, Badiou’s Theory of the Subject rescues the materialist necessity to take sides with the latter (materialist) nearness to the Real within a transformative theory of agency; to ask finally whether the real ‘…cannot also on rare occasions become the site for a newly consistent truth’. [Ibid, Pg. 181]

Brainstorms / The Thanatosis of Enlightenment


In the first chapter of his recent Nihil Unbound: Enlightment and Extinction, Brassier synthesizes John Marshall and Gurd's objections to Paul Churchland's case for a materialist eliminativism aimed to displace the 'manifest image' articulating traditional psychological functional accounts of cognitive life, in favor of a functional neurobiological account linking neural sets (vector activation space) to brain structure (synaptic weight space).

I will offer a very simple defense of Churchland which, I think, should nonetheless be noted, even though these attacks on Churchland are not Brassier's main target in that chapter.

The synthesized objection is rendered straightforwardly in the assymetry Marshall and Guard find between functional cognitive types, pressumably guaranteed by vector activation, and neurobiological states linked to specific synaptic configurations:

“Behavioral disorders index functional categories which are subject to different neurological instantiations – different physical aetiologies can engender identical cognitive disorders” [Pg. 14]

- My first impression to this is to say: so what? It is not clear which 'behavioral disorders' can correspond to the hypothesized cognitive function between vector activation spaces and synaptic structure. The question begged is whether the relevant behavioral disorders are constructed on the basis of the neurobiological functional account, or whether these behavioral categories remain as baggage from other registers of cognitive life. If so, that the same cognitive function can map identical behavioral disorders to different neurological synaptic configurations is no guarantee that the behavioral disorders in question are properly based on neurological functions corresponding to vector activation spaces. If on the other hand a richer typology of cognitive life may be achieved circumscribing to neurobiological functions which would appear identical to non-neurological functional ascriptions of behavioral types, the eliminativist materialist can say this just entails the superior descriptive specificity of the neurological register, not subject to the descriptively simpler behavioral jargon obtained from non-neurological functional registers .

If the old behavioral types can be substituted by descriptively richer results in terms of neurbiological vector types, while not sacrificing relevant positive relations, then it is not clear why the former create problems for the latter. It is not clear just as it is not clear that the uniform ascription of witchcraft to different behavioral attitudes should encourage us to preserve mysticism over the differentiation of physio-psychological states which are non-coextensive with the uniform function mapping of ‘witchcraft’ to a bundle of those states (say, schizophrenia and fever delirium). Nothing is said to the purpose of showing how vector activation spaces would be at pains to draw the same relations while drawing out crucial new differences, in a new typology of behavioral types.

The eliminitavist can simply claim that the differences in the neurological correlates to singular functional categories is no obstacle unless another account can show the same or greater explanatory advantages of the neurological register. That behavioral disorders linked to specific vector types can have more than one weight space configuration is a perfectly admissible result, as long as it provides one with greater specificity than competing theories. On the other hand, a complete identity between distinct pathologies in old behavioral types only signals to the limitations of the primitive cognitive functional discourse which is to be dismissed as part of the manifest image, and which would pressumably be overcome by neurobiology. Put bluntly: that ‘behavioral disorders’ can appear identical where neurobiology may find crucial differences attests to the superior explanatory power of neurobiology, unless one can demonstrate a comparably restrictive insufficiency in the latter to trace appropriate similarities.

Of course, this all leaves pending the precise criteria for descriptive superiority which would allow us to safely decide over both registers, assuming such a comparison is even possible. Brassier spots two difficulties with Churchland’s account:

- 1) Empirical resemblance between brains and neural sets are no guarantee they are superior to other models of cognition.

- Churchland’s point is precisely that such a certain sense of 'model of cognition' is to be dropped. Even if we agree with Churchland in that the criteria for superiority is not immanent to the putative resemblance between brains and neural sets, we can say Churchland is not proposing a superior model for cognition, but attempting to displace traditional functional accounts of cognition in favor of a neurobiological account in which something like cognition is either neurobiologically grounded or else deemed meaningless. Indeed, it all turns on how the criteria for such superiority is established, and whether this superiority is itself neurobiologically grounded, finally the core of Brassier’s more subtle argument.

I will deal this with this in a later occasion, but for now lets pass to Brassier's second observation.

- 2) “Second, in the absence of any adequate understanding of the precise nature of the correlation between psychological function and neural structure, whatever putative resemblance might obtain between neural architecture and network architecture sheds no light whatsoever on the relation between the latter and the abstract functional architecture of cognition. Where network architecture is concerned, although some degree of biological plausibility is desirable, empirical data alone are not sufficient when it comes to identifying the salient functional characteristics of cognition.”

- Here we should point out that Brassier presupposes that the functional architecture of cognition is something fundamentally distinct from the neurobiological account displaying specific vector activation functions to specific neural synaptic configurations. How we choose to ‘transcribe’ these relations into a typology of cognitive types, if at all desired, is a task ahead of neurobiology, not a constraint prescribed by formerly existing registers of cognitive functioning to which neurobiology must accomodate itself. In fact, Churchland would probably say that these ‘salient functional characteristics of cognition’ are subject to elimination unless properly understood from specific neurobiological configurations. Which and whether these configurations can be made still to make sense by way of analog functional relations to more primitive cognitive functional discourses is entirely debatable, but the wager is that these are entirely subservient to whatever neurobiology can elucidate in the form of relations.

The real debate is ahead of us: can the criteria proposed for an ethics of theoretical preservation/displacement be strongly enough sustained in the neurbiological order obtained without evoking folk psychological notions not rigorously specified in terms of neurlogical relations.

Ray Brassier - Nihil Unbound: Enlightment and Extinction, Chapter I, section 1.6

In section 1.6 of chapter I, Brassier explains Churchland’s superempirical criteria for theoretical superiority, in order to justify the displacement of alternative linguaformal, folk-psychological theoretical frames of reference in favor of his neuro-biologically based Prototytical Vector Activation paradigm (PVA). Brassier offers the following criteria as “superempirical virtues” : conceptual simplicity, explanatory unity, and theoretical cohesiveness. (P.M Churchland 1989: 139-51).

Brassier finds that Churchland faces difficulties in reconciling his theory of representation based on neurobiology with these super-empirical virtues which he esteems to be finally metaphysical, rather than biological. Since vector prototypes would replace theories of correspondence, discrimination of theories is to be made by appeal to these super-empirical virtues. Brassier underlines that Churchland needs a theory of adequation between representation (vector prototypes) and represented (super-empirical virtues); that is to say, he must account for how the PVA paradigm somehow corresponds to these super-empirical virtues in such a way so as to necessitate the elimination of alternative theories. This must be reconciled with the fact that, at the neurological level, there are no ontological distinctions to be made between theories: all theories are activations of vector prototypes, or put bluntly, all theories “…are equal insofar as there is nothing in a partitioning of vector space per sé which could serve to explain why one theory is ‘better’ than another.’

So the question is: why is the vector activation paradigm superior in what concerns the super empirical virtues, if this superiority is not based on the homology between PVA and the realm of its constraints, i.e. if it is not based on the ontological affinity of PVA to super-empirical virtues.

How do super-empirical virtues allow us to discriminate between theories if not on ontological terms, if not on representational kind? Churchland bases his answer around how super empirical virtues enable evolutionary efficiency qua the organism’s adaptive relation to its environment. So we are, it seems, at the pragmatic end where theories display super empirical virtues as indexes of evolutionary efficiency, meaning that the advantage of the PVA paradigm is to be gauged in terms of how super-empirical virtues simply result from evolution.

Brassier thinks Churchland’s problem is that it is hard to see how one could ground the display of super empirical virtues at the neurological level. Even if we accept that vector prototypes qua representational theory are indifferent to these virtues, they still have to be reflected at the neurological level to sustain the eliminitavist. So Brassier seems to be suggesting that Churchland needs to link the super-empirical virtues and weight synapse space configuration at the neurobiological level to show how the latter are constrained or predetermined by the stipulated super-empirical virtues of ontological consistency, simplicity which he identifies in the PVA paradigm. Churchland simply assumes this is how it works without offering an argument in favor of this.

At this point, Brassier stipulates that the reluctance to demarcate a concrete relation between vector coding process and the super empirical might be because Churchland would thereby be forced to admitt that the intrinsic neurocomputational structure is continuous with the super empirical features of the world. Even if there is no distinctive ontological homology between PVA paradigm and the superempirical virtues, the evolutionary adaptive qualities of the super empirical virtues must function as an intrinsic constraint to the vector coding process.

“For in order to make a case for the neurocomputational necessity of superempirical virtues, Churchland would need to demonstrate that the latter are indeed strictly information theoretic constraints intrinsic to the vector coding process, as opposed to extrinsic regulatory considerations contingently imposed on the network in the course of its ongoing interaction with the environment.

This leads Brassier into two diagnosing apparently problematic alternatives for Churchland” [Churchland: Pg. 20]

1) Super-empirical virtues are constitutive features of the world – The brain reaches out to the world, the world is neurocomputationally constituted, since the constraints intrinsic to the information processing of the brain by the worldly virtues would depend on the brain’s reaching out into the world to seize these virtues. Then we engender a form of empirical idealism.

“Since for Churchland perception and conception are neurocomputationally continuous, the result is a kind of empirical idealism: the brain represents the world but cannot be conditioned by the world in return because the latter will ‘always already’ have been neurocomputationally represented. We are left with a thoroughgoing idealism whereby the brain constitutes the physical world without it being possible to explain either how the brain comes to be part of the world, or indeed even how the world could have originally produced the brain.”

But if, as Churchland admits, the neurocomputational coding process of the brain is limited by the organism, extending it to make it a constitutive feature of the world then he could propose a homology between the worldly super empirical virtues and the neurocomputational brain, without thereby claiming the former is constituted by the latter. In fact, the argument from the start appeared to be that the brain’s coding of information was constrained by the super empirical virtues which in lieu of evolutionary efficiency. Indeed, Churchland would merely need to qualify his statement and say that even if the neurocomputational constitution is indeed limited by the organism, its constitution is continuous to the super empirical worldly structure; in fact constrained by them. However, this seems problematic, since it drains Churchland for any resources to substantiate the existence of such a world, or the putative independence of the super empirical virtues.

So, as Brassier contends, we would either seem to reverse to the empirical idealism, or else force a primitive realism in which the notion of world, along with its super empirical strata, remain only accessible from the purview of the neurobiological constitution. Since to claim the continuity between the neurocomputational register of the brain and the world finally only grants access to a neurologically constituted world, we are left with the strange picture in which the evolutionary constraints to the organism’s information coding lies in the neurobiological constitution of the world as such. This view seems rather untenable.

2) The second alternative Brassier contemplates is a realism where a pre-constituted physical world directly constitutes/conditions the neurocomputational brain: but in this case the borders between brain and world seem to require a general theory of representation which is not exclusively neurobiological, and which would require a general metaphysical account of how these distinctive features of the world enter in relation with the brain to constrains it.

“Since for Churchland perception and conception are neurocomputationally continuous, the result is a kind of empirical idealism: the brain represents the world but cannot be conditioned by the world in return because the latter will ‘always already’ have been neurocomputationally represented. We are left with a thoroughgoing idealism whereby the brain constitutes the physical world without it being possible to explain either how the brain comes to be part of the world, or indeed even how the world could have originally produced the brain.

Thus, Churchland cannot effect a neurocomputational reduction of superempirical virtue without engendering a neurological idealism, and he cannot reintegrate the neurocomputational brain into the wider realm of superempirical virtue without abandoning eliminativism altogether.”

I will continue to comment on this later.


Let us recall some of Brassier’s points leading to his objection of Churchland’s knighting of the PVA paradigm. He sees the tension in two commitments:

- Scientific Realism - The explanatory excellence of the PVA model is made legible by the verifiable ‘super-empirical virtues’: conceptual simplicity, explanatory unity, and theoretical cohesiveness. The question here will then concern the justification for the precise nature of these super empirical virtues. - Metaphysical naturalism – Brassier claims Churchland implicitly relies on a metaphysical framework to achieve the justification needed for scientific realism on the basis of an a priori guarantee of an adaptationist rationale measured in terms of the congruence between representation and reality. The question here is about whether this rationale is sufficient to render EM consistent or persuasive. To do this we must in turn ask:

(a) Whether this is consistent with EM’s claim that no notion of success is theory-neutral, but that each theory shifts the blueprint for what success is without there being an isomorphy to the brain’s structure. Brassier will finally suggest that to claim the PVA model could supply such evidence is to tacitly suggest that PVA’s exhibition of the super-empirical functions are more representationally ‘accurate’ or ‘correct’ since they function as precondition for the others. But the abandonment of a privileged notion of success, such as in a ‘correspondence’ theory between PVA and the super-empirical features, means that PVA’s purported displacement of folk semantics, distinguishing between ‘true and false’ representations, is in fact internally reproduced in its own dynamics in the representation between brain structure and super-empirical virtues as constraints to the organism.

Indeed the tacitly suggested affinity between the PVA model to gauge the appearance super-empirical functions seems to betray the required neutrality of theories, implying that the functional features in fact obtain as precondition for all others, since they follow a priori from the evolutionary constraints legible in the brain’s anatomy, and not as contingent facts pertaining, say, to a generalized ethology about organisms and environment. - In order to push the putative affinity between PVA’s neurocomputational model for representation and the world, Churchland has to construct the world as being either:

(*) Neurocomputational Idealism: Neurocomputationally constituted thereby making the world conform to neural features.
(**) Metaphysical abandonment of eliminativism by a metaphysical externalism: Advocating that the world has a structure coded by the brain, extending his neurocentric perspective to a metaphysical externalism, which he is precisely what EM was aimed to abandon by PVA’s self-sufficiency.

Therefore, EM’s appeal to PVA’s support on adaptational constraints results in a tacit metaphysical avowal of (**), thus inconsistent with eliminativism, or else inconsistent with the materialist requirement that there is no a theory neutral conception of success.

The first possibility extends into metaphysics by stipulating of a world-structure which comes into relation with the brain. The second poses PVA’s theoretical-neutrality by proposing evolutionary adequation is registered by the degree of resemblance between the super empirical virtues and the brain’s structure. This would mean PVA preconditions the possibility of theoretical reflection, thereby making it the one discursive sphere capable of producing ‘true’ representations. But this tacit metaphysical view conflicts the idea that theories are discerned in virtue of the super-empirical virtue rather than by representational kind, since the PVA exhibits precisely a kind of privileged representation. But since, as Churchland admits, it is each theory has its own post for success, then how can the PVA theoretical function exceed this constraint so as to reveal by its own means the super-empirical virtues without evoking a metaphysics which threatens eliminativism? The lack of this metaphysics, or rather, the conceptual weaknesses of the proposed metaphysics, is precisely what Brassier renders as troubling:

“As a result, Churchland’s case for eliminativism oscillates between the claim that it is entirely a matter of empirical expediency,15 and the argument that seems to point to the logical necessity of eliminating FP by invoking the PVA model’s intrinsically metaphysical superiority…

But the problem for Churchland is that it remains deeply unclear in precisely what way the extent of an organism’s adaptational efficiency, as revealed by the degree to which its representation of the world exhibits the superempirical virtues of simplicity, unity, and coherence, could ever be ‘read off’ its brain’s neurocomputational microstructure.”

But the problem for Churchland is that it remains deeply unclear in precisely what way the extent of an organism’s adaptational efficiency, as revealed by the degree to which its representation of the world exhibits the superempirical virtues of simplicity, unity, and coherence, could ever be ‘read off’ its brain’s neurocomputational microstructure.” [NU: 22].

Brassier argues that if neurocomputational representation reads the precondition for all theories, then these cognitive functions function determine evolutionary ethology. Brassier claims this seems to relapse into idealism, since the super-empirical virtues registered in the structure of the brain's vector partitions determine evolutionary ethology. If the determination of all other theoretical domains, such as those pertaining to environment, supervene on neurocomputational features, then indeed we seem to be in the corner of idealism; or with no further resource than the Kantian appeal to a noumenal 'in-itself' at this point. Lacking a consistent account on why PVA exhibit these features so as to necessitate the elimination of other theories.

“If superempirical virtues were already endogenously specified and intrinsic to the brain’s neurocomputational microstructure, then it would appear to be a matter of neurophysiological impossibility for an organism to embody any theory wholly lacking in these virtues. Paradoxically, it is the eliminativist’s supposition that the former are intrinsically encoded in the brain’s cognitive microstructure that ends up considerably narrowing the extent for the degree of superempirical distinction between theories, ultimately undermining the strength of the case against FP.” [Ibid: 23]


Now let us move into chapter II:

On the course of explaining the ‘speculative fusion of Hegel and Freud’ advanced by Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialectic of Enlightenment, Brassier exhibits the three strata or levels on which mimetic sacrifice would develop according to the authors:

- The biological speculative: Sacrifice of the outer layer of the organism to the inorganic, so as to shield the interior milieu.

- The mythic sacrifice of the living to the Gods; animistic reciprocity between victim and gods, and the possibility of controlling the God’s will through the system of exchange. This system effects a non-conceptual equivalential relation between the two beings.

‘If exchange represents the secularization of sacrifice, the sacrifice itself, like the magic schema of rational exchange, appears as a human contrivance intended to control the gods, who are overthrown precisely by the system created to honor them’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002: 40).’

- The self’s sacrifice of the present for the future, its sacrifice of the desires/drives in the present occasioned by impressions to the future. This level presumably coincides with the sacrifice of the organism’s self-defining will to realize its desires (the drive to ‘lose oneself in one’s environment’) to imitate nature’s egoless (dead) adaptational indifference. Presumably this is where mimeses turns into the conceptual subsumption of instrumental reason. Reason mimics death, in its indistinction from dead organic matter, treating everything as a homogenous inert stuff through conceptual identity, in order to dominate nature, thereby repeating the primitive mythological gesture of sacrifice (to the non-living). So ironically, the introjection to control inner nature repeats the mimetic compulsion to sacrifice it sought to get rid off.

“But where sacrifice had previously served as a means for mastering external nature, it now becomes introjected as the suppression of the power of internal nature. However, this sacrificial subordination of means to end in fact reverses itself into a subordination of ends to means, for in learning to repress the drives and desires whose satisfactions define it; the human organism effectively negates the ends for which it supposedly lives.” [NU: Pg 37]

Observation: This seems to hold well and dandy as long as you hypotesize the prevalence of the satisfaction of drives and desires to be the constitutive human functions. It is less clear why this must necessarily be the case. However, Brassier has strategic reasons for this. The alternative route might perhaps be to say that the organism’s development of conceptual theorization is precisely what defines it. But this can lead us back to Churchland: if we posit this quintessential function to be constituted of something like a set of super empirical properties (which would target the ‘measuring stick’ for what success is in conceptual subsuption).

So, the disenchantment of nature is nothing but the sacrifice of the non-conceptual equivalence to the concept’s subsumption by identity, the sublation of the very distinction between animate and inanimate to make the distinction the dead inert matter which needs conceptual subsumption to be dominated. Identity thinking thereby severs mimesis of its commemorative aspect and directly asserts its control by subordinating the flux of the present to the subsumption to the concept. Not quite unlike Heidegger’s own diagnosed ‘metaphysics-of-presence’ which end in the reign of modern technology, A&H stipulate a horizontal dialectical development leading from the organism’s evolutionary sacrifice of its outer layer to the sacrifice of the inner life of the subject to imitate disenchanted nature through the subsumption to the concept (the Idea).

“In the terseness of the mythical image as in the clarity of the scientific formula, the eternity of the actual is confirmed and mere existence is pronounced as the meaning it obstructs […] The subsumption of the actual, whether under mythical prehistory or under mathematical formalism, the symbolic relating of the present to the mythical event in the rite or abstract category in science, makes the new appear as something predetermined, which therefore is really the old. It is not existence that is without hope but the knowledge which appropriates and perpetuates existence as a schema in the pictorial or mathematical symbol.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002: 20–1)

This gap between the pure present of flux and the subordination to the concept is the gap between non-identity and identity, the act of the subject’s (Hegelian) negativity. So the task for reason is to go beyond this perpetual fixation with the present to and its pathological subsumption of the concept to inquire about the historicity of reason itself: its aims and destinations, Just like thought thinks of nature as what gives itself to the mind, perpetrates and imposes itself compulsively, so it imagines itself as a mechanism of compulsion (trying to overcome its drives in the extirpation of animism by conceptual identity). But in doing so it reinstates its subordination and incapability of reflection, since it merely repeats the compulsion to sacrifice, to death this time. The subsumptive conceptual projection of instrumental projection thus remains unreflective, and compulsive:

‘Objectifying thought, like its pathological counterpart, has the arbitrariness of a subjective purpose extraneous to the matter itself and, in forgetting the matter, does to it in thought the violence which will later will be done to it in practice’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002: 159)

So let’s hear more about the ‘healthy’, reflexive use of reason!

Apparently, the healthy commemoration of reason consists in restoring the severed mediation between the subject and the object: instrumental reason disenchants nature in its mimesis of death, of the inorganic, in which conceptuality surrenders the ends of the organism to the means, drives are inhibited in the compulsion to subsume under the concept. This is what Brassier labels the ‘schizophrenia’ of reason, as emblematized in the general form of today’s capitalism.

Brassier thinks that the restorative commemoration begins by the historical reflexive awareness on its own deployment; the passage from in-itself to for-itself, reason’s realization of its repetitive compulsion. However, it is here that we see that the presumably anthropological notion of mimesis displays its fundamental reversibility to biological/adaptative mimicry. In the end, the fear of the mimetic impulse ends up repeating the impulse.

“Whether sameness is established conceptually through the synthetic subsumption of particularity, or organically via the imitation of the inorganic, it remains bound to terror. More precisely, the terror of mimetic regression engenders a compulsion to subsume, to conform, and to repress, which is itself the mimesis of primitive organic terror”

It is precisely when conceptual mimesis sacrifices itself to the object in the inorganic, disposing of itself as subject, that the evolutionary thanatosis coincides with the cultural alienation from nature in which space amputates nature from itself. This way ‘second nature’ is made to appear precisely adaptative in that it disposes of the need for the subject in the imitation of the inorganic; the ‘second nature’ envisaged by Brassier is not the restitution of subjective mediation, but the (already effective) disposal of ‘organic’ or animistic nature which demands the extirpation of history from space. This repression of the inorganic is thereby visible in the organism’s sacrifice of its inner mileu to it, just like at the biological level the organism sacrifices its outer layer to the inorganic.

“Civilization’s embrace of lifelessness in the service of self-preservation, its compulsive mimicry of organic compulsion in the repression of compulsion, reiterates the originary repression of the inorganic.”

Finally, it is the natural-scientific reinscription of history into the pure exteriority of space, indifferent on the subject’s belonging to it or mediation, which provides it with its strength, both as a precondition for all ‘cultural’ history, but ultimately because it can relegate the former into a mere annex of a philosophical anthropology.

"Disavowing the irreflexive immanence of natural history, Adorno and Horkheimer’s speculative naturalism ends up reverting to natural theology. It is the failure to acknowledge the ways in which the socio-historical mediation of nature is itself mediated by natural history – which means not only evolutionary biology but also geology and cosmology – which allows philosophical discourses on ‘nature’ to become annexes of philosophical anthropology. This leads us into the question of correlationism; as we will see in the case of Meillasoux rampant criticism of post-Kantian philosophy and its obsession with mediation."