Ray Brassier – Dialectics Between Suspicion and Trust

This is our reading for Saturday, January 27th.  You can find the details at our meetup.com page, and a pdf of Brassier’s paper here.  You can watch him deliver an older version of the paper here.

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

1. Paul Ricoeur famously described Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as the “masters of suspicion.”  All three of them saw a fundamental discrepancy between what we think we mean, intend, or desire and the real forces that condition what we intend, desire, or mean.  These forces are things like class antagonism, the will to power, and sexual repression.  They mislead us about the contents of consciousness, and are something like causal explanations of how we think (despite not being mechanistic or empirical, like a neurological reductionism might be).  

2. These forces produce effects, such as middle class ideology or neurosis.  The effects are like symptoms, in a quasi-empirical way: their proper description is also an interpretation.  While they are meaningful, their proper interpretation requires something more than simple awareness—their “observation” is already their interpretation.  This means that these explanations are not purely causal, but exist on the border between reasons (which involve subjective beliefs and desires) and causes (which do not).

3. We could explain someone’s action by their belief it would advance their career, or we could explain it by cataloguing the neurophysiological states they went through before, during, and after the act.    The masters of suspicion offered a different sort of explanation, one with two entailments.  First, the effects of these forces are meaningful, though this meaning is not produced or made by the usual sort of conscious awareness.  Second, these forces are not causes like a physical cause would be.  There is a kind of subjectivity involved, but it is an impersonal subjectivity:

It is the discovery that there is a kind of theoretical objectivity that is neither empirical, nor neutral, nor value-free, and that this objectivity is the correlate of a kind of subjectivity that is neither individual in the Cartesian sense, or transcendental in the Kantian sense, nor universal in the Hegelian sense, that distinguishes the theoretical accomplishments of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud from those of empirical science as well as traditional philosophy. (100)

4. This is how the three masters are seen as challenging the pretensions of Enlightenment philosophy and the empirical sciences.  In the 20th century, this came to be known as “theory.”

Philosophy and Theory

5. Brassier quotes Fredric Jameson’s description of the challenge Marx and Freud presented to traditional philosophy:

[T]he dialectic belongs to theory rather than philosophy: the latter is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause.  This dream is of course the after-image of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’.  Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its ‘truths’; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unravelling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds.  We may put this another way by saying that the two great bodies of post-philosophical thought, marked by the names of Marx and Freud, are better characterized as unities of theory and practices: that is to say that their practical component always interrupts the ‘unity of theory’ and prevents it from coming together in some satisfying philosophical system.

6. Jameson’s insistence that “the dialectic” belongs to theory rather than philosophy is strange, because the dialectic is most obviously associated with the arch-philosopher Hegel for whom philosophical thought and dialectical thought are synonymous.  According to the standard conception of Hegel, philosophy can create a form of absolute knowledge which is both consistent and complete.  It is this claim to comprehensiveness that Jameson thinks Marx and Freud challenge; dialectics belongs to theory rather than philosophy because theory recognizes that reason cannot be transparent to itself.  It recognizes the ways in which reality prevents us from obtaining comprehensive, consistent knowledge, and this is a dialectical recognition.

7. In short, dialectics identifies the cause of the incompleteness of every system; to understand this, we have to see how theory re-articulates reasons and causes after Kant.

Kant: Justification and Explanation

8. Two of Kant’s achievements are relevant here.  First, he offered a non-metaphysical (or non-theological) account of human reason.  While divine reason is intuitive and immediately apprehends the infinity of particulars, human reason is discursive because its intuition is sensible—it depends on the empirical.  It must use concepts, which are rules for connecting representations via judgments.  His second achievement was to distinguish rational justification from causation; thinking is normative and rule-based, not a set of causally determined mechanisms. Judgements might be correlated with psychological states, but cannot be identified with them.  Mind is not a substance, but rather the normative sphere opened by the use of the conceptual.  This split between reasons and causes is probably the culmination of the modern revolt against Aristotle, for whom reasons are causes: “More precisely, reasons cannot be disassociated from causes precisely insofar as formal and final causes are inscribed together with their material and efficient counterparts into the substantial architecture of reality.  This fusion of reasons with causes, whose guarantor is God, is the hallmark of the theological worldview” (102-103).  

9. There are two ways Jameson fits into this.  First, for Jameson, systematic philosophy is a kind of theology which tends towards the fusion of reasons and causes: “This is what renders philosophy an apologia for the status quo at best, or a rationalization of oppression at worst” (103).  The pretension to truth is ideological, and justification is suspect.  Second, dialectical theory is different from philosophical dialectics because it recognizes the way that practice throws a monkey wrench into systematic conceptualization: “‘Practice’ here names not just the interruption of the autonomy of the conceptual but also the non-conceptual conditioning of the conceptual” (103).  Or in other words, all our pure thought about the world is troubled in two ways.  First, there is no such thing as “pure thought”—all thinking is attached to particular ways of doing things.  Second, pure thought is conditioned or altered by various non-rational forces.

10. Basically, philosophy focuses entirely on concepts, and this will always have an idealist bent to it (because it lives entirely in the mind); but theory introduces the “materialist primacy of practice.”  From here on out, “theory” and “materialist dialectics” are basically synonymous.  They both point out how the a-rational causes effects in the rational.

11. For materialist dialectics to really counteract the idealist emphasis on concepts, it has to allow for a non-intelligible transcendence to puncture the self-sufficiency of the intelligible order.  Put another way, philosophy relies on concepts to make everything clear and rational, but theory insists that all this clarity always has a kernel of the a-rational in it.  Philosophical rationality cannot stand on its own; it cannot be “self-sufficient.”

12. It is this dialectic of theory and practices that challenges the Platonic meshing of truth, justice, and justification.  Supposedly, truth and justice are connected to one another.  That which is just can always be justified by its relationship to the rational truth, and it is this connection that theory attacks.

13. Justification is discursive, and theory claims to have an emancipatory potential as the transcendence of practice disrupts the relation between justification and justice: “What is just cannot simply be what is justifiable” (103).  The key point is that if the “force of the better reason” is an alibi for power, and rather than being a rational authority it is is a form of coercion.  Brassier says, “The demand for justification becomes a more insidious instance of oppression” (103).  This is the basic genealogical move, the unmasking of reason’s pretensions.

The Genealogical Reduction

14. If the break between reasons and causes is the line between the modern and the pre-modern, then the genealogical critique of this break is the beginning of the postmodern.  The genealogical critique turns Kant’s distinction against him by showing that reasons are caused by a-rational forces like class interests and so on.  Importantly, the claim is not only that reasons are caused by the irrational, but actually constituted by the irrational.  This complete reduction to causation is what strips reasons of their normative force.

15. When Jameson says that theory’s critique of philosophy operates “through a complicity with the being of current language,” he means that critique operates immanent to discourse.  Critique finds within discourse resources which can then be turned against the thread of their “logical-philosophical overcoding.”  Doing this means identifying the effects of non-discursive, a-rational forces within rational discourse itself.

16. The actual mechanism of this subversion is the discovery of the distinction between what Robert Brandom calls epistemic states, or believings, and semantic contents, the believed, or in other words, between asserting and asserted.  Critique reduces reasons to causes by establishing a causal chain for acts of believing, severing them from justificatory factors.  The semantic contents (the actual beliefs) are quarantined in an epiphenomenal state, and called ideology.  Brandom puts it this way: “A genealogy explains the advent of a belief, in the sense of a believing, an attitude, in terms of contingencies of its etiology, appealing exclusively to facts that are not evidence, that do not provide reasons or justifications, for the truth of what is believed.”

17. The genealogical reduction not only claims force has causal power, but that force also constitutes reasons: this is why the propositional content of beliefs is just an expression of, e.g., class antagonism.  This inference from effects to causes is a priori rather than empirical—more specifically, it unfolds within the immanence of discourse itself, which is why it is not a metaphysical claim.  It is also anti-empirical; these genealogical postulates are “superempirical”.  They cannot be placed on either side of the a priori or a posteriori divide; Brassier says they are effects which “can be tracked within a suitably enlarged (not to say equivocal) conception of ‘experience’” (105).

18. A global genealogy has to reject the question of whether or not these forces are real, because a request for justification like this presupposes the validity of Kantian epistemology understood as identifying conditions of justification for knowledge claims.  Brassier says,

The superempirical forces diagnosed by global genealogy are not objective factors discernible from an epistemically neutral standpoint; they are unconscious determinants whose identification presupposes the adoption of the genealogical standpoint.  Yet not that the critical unmasking of (rational) justification as (ideological) rationalization continues to presuppose the intelligibility of justification, albeit as absent or unrealized.  The exacerbation of suspicion presupposes the dereliction of an underlying trust. (105)

19. We need to keep in mind the distinction between local and global versions of genealogy.  This distinction follows from two different approaches to the superempirical and the unconscious.  Marx and Freud describe the superempirical in terms of production and drives; they provide theoretical frameworks for explaining unconscious processes, and it is this explanatory function which makes unconscious processes rationally tractable—this is the condition for the interdependence of theory and practice.  On the other hand, Nietzsche’s will to power is a metaphysical play of forces which appears in different types of will, either sick or health.  Unconscious determinants are evaluated according to a normative opposition between sickness and health, an opposition which works precisely because it is not amenable to conceptual justification.  

20. Basically, Marx and Freud use reason to expose reason’s illusory self-sufficiency: they explain the mechanisms through which self-consciousness is deformed by unconscious processes.  They are local genealogies which expose determinate pathologies.  In contrast, Nietzsche’s genealogy is global: all rational motivation is reduced to psychosomatic inclination.  Brassier says, “This pathologization subsequently ramifies through critical theory via the confluence of Nietzsche’s proclamations about the ubiquity of the will to power—reason is domination—with Bergson’s utilitarian demotion of the intellect—reason is manipulation—and Heidegger’s suggestion that idealization (i.e. conceptualization) is the forgetting of appearing—reason is amnesia” (106).

21. What Brassier wants to argue is that global genealogical reduction reinstates the theological fusion of rationalization and causation in a kind of practical transcendence: “Practical transcendence becomes the reason that justifies the causal destitution of reason: a reason whose rightness or justice cannot be discursively justified.  But the notion of unintelligible justice, of a rightness that refuses discursive justification, is ultimately theological” (107).  Resolving this takes us to Hegel.

The Spirit of Trust

22. In his forthcoming A Spirit of Trust, Robert Brandom says Hegel preemptively neutralized the reduction of reasons to causes.  Hegel places the Kantian distinction between belief and content within a discursive community, and changes it into a distinction between practical attitudes and normative statuses, each of which presuppose the other.  “There would be no normative statuses (truth or falsity at the level of assertion, rightness or wrongness in the domain of action) without practical attitudes that treat assertions and actions as correct or incorrect, right or wrong” (107).  Likewise, the idea of a practical attitude—a believing—that would not be an attitude toward something would be incoherent.  In short, it is impossible to describe someone as a “believer” without saying there is something determinate they believe, and that what they believe is true or false.

23. The idea that beliefs can be identified independently of meaning, or that meaning can be fixed independently of beliefs, is what Brandom calls semantic naivety.  Semantic naivety has three assumptions.  First, that the determination of semantic contents is prior to the application of that content in a judgment.  Second, that what things mean is independent of how things are.  Third, that meaning is independent of use.

24. Local genealogical reduction shows a discrepancy between practical attitudes and normative statuses using already existing standards of assessment; “It identifies pathological norms in the name of reasons that are theoretically accessible and hence acknowledgeable in principle” (108).  Reason disenchants reason.  In contrast, global genealogy insists on a complete break between practical attitudes and normative statuses, leaving the statuses to ideology.  But this has to assume that we can identify practical attitudes without reference to normative statuses; it must insist that it is possible to describe someone as a believer without saying there is something that they believe, and this is where global genealogy becomes incoherent.  As Brandom says, “If disillusionment about the reality of norms of reasoning entails semantic nihilism, then it is self-defeating: the genealogist’s claims would entail that her own claims are senseless.”

25. Semantic nihilism is inconsistent because it has to draw on semantic resources to describe the beliefs whose semantic contents the description is supposed to be ruining.  But more importantly, When reasons are reduced to epiphenomenal ideology, we can only intelligibly describe the causes underlying those “reasons” by postulating explanatory forces, like the will to power.  Postulating these forces reintroduces the self-sufficient systematicity attacked by Jameson reappears in global genealogical reduction because it disavows normative presuppositions.  “The disavowal is predicated on the appeal to a reason that is not a reason,” but rather a cause, whose content cannot be traced back to any belief.  The attempt to explain beliefs independently of meanings ends up in a one-sided abstraction which has to be transcendentally grounded in a causal order.

26. The application of a norm is also the instituting act that determines its semantic content; application, institution, and determination are all bound together.  To accept this holism is to realize that “every critique of ideology must draw on ideological resources” (110).  Critical consciousness is not “other” to ideology, and ideology is not wholly delusional: ideology is a condition of critique, and critique reinstates ideology.  

27. Does this mean that this holism privileges current forms of life, or does it require some sort of revolutionary reason?

Reason and Revolution

28. Brassier begins by saying, “Once knowing has been equated with judgment and judgment pathologized as complicity with ‘the wrong state of things’, then the desire for revolution (but ‘revolution’ now theologized in a manner anathema to Marx) becomes fatally complicit with the desire not to know as the condition of emancipation” (111).  This desire recurrently appears, and is contingently conditioned, but is another example of unselfconscious deception.  The pretension to disillusionment is naive.  The genealogical re-fusion of reasons and causes can only be metaphysical.

29. There is an obvious rejoinder to Brandom’s language.  He uses terms like “status,” “responsibility,” and “obligation,” which sound like references to bourgeois property relations.  This should be conceded, but we need to remember this is exactly Brandom’s point: discursive self-consciousness is causally anchored in pre-discursive social structures, but this does not disqualify its rationality.

30. The standoff between philosophy and theory ultimately boils down to two things.  First, there is the confidence in reasons’ justificatory resources, which implies a continuity between the justifiable and the just.  Second, there is theory’s suspicion of this link.  Theory’s exposure of the gap between the justifiable and the just is itself unjustifiable, and is reason’s “other”.  However, Hegel’s basic insight is that reason takes time, and so the dogmatism that fully equates the justifiable and the just and the theologized skepticism that completely separates the two both fall short.  It is precisely the failures of justification which spur  reason to belatedly recognize the current inadequacy of justification to the demands of justice.

31. This makes Hegel the thinker who preemptively superceded the opposition between the Enlightenment and postmodernism: “we are rationally compelled to recognize that the history that subjects us is also the history that sets us free as subjects; but free only to recognize what must be borne in order for us to be free.  Hegel is a sphinx: what is is really wrong, but only what is really wrong can be retrospectively acknowledged as what was really right.  There is no escape from the slaughter-bench of history.” (112)  What is revolutionary about reason is not simply overturning norms and hierarchies, which would be philosophically conservative, and it is not about holding discourse accountable to a transcendent absolute, which would be theological.

It consists rather in marrying the logic of explicitation, identified by Brandom as the compunction to extract reasons from causes, with the diagnoses of the unconscious blockages, whether social or sexual, impeding this labor of extraction.  The call to combine rational explicitation with the disenchantment of reason is the call to reconstruct the form of life in which the pathologies of discursive and social practices have their common root. (112)



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