Monday, 26 October 2009

Ray Brassier and the Invention of Experience

Firstly, before I kick off with this critical response to Ray Brassier’s revised version of Genre is Obsolete, here’s a brief explanation of my motives. I had originally composed a (crude) response to an earlier version of this article a year or so back, which is still available here. Then as now my intention was not to try and find fault with a currently fashionable philosopher by over-scrutinising a peripheral work, one which is light-hearted in tone, and was clearly never intended to mark their final statement on art. My main interest in this piece stemmed from the fact that it overlapped with my current field of research (namely, finding epistemological criteria for Marx’s concept of labour through an exploration of its heritage in German Idealist aesthetics). It was also one of the rare examples in which speculative realism wasn’t confined to an internal critique of philosophy and instead dared venture out into that great outdoors and analyse an object: the artwork. In my view, there is little doubt that the philosophers associated with speculative realism are producing some of the most exhilarating works within philosophy today. Who else is offering us the chance to ground science in an absolute, intervene directly with our species-being, invent a speculative god, and bring justice to the dead? Yet another aspect of their work which makes them so readable is that they provide us with a critical standpoint from which we can jettison vast swathes of continental philosophy as so much dead weight:

‘Is this text too focussed on the problems of subjective reception without metaphysical grounding?’
‘Yes?-then throw it in the round-file with all the other correlationisms.’
‘Is this text prosecuting an ontology without adequate epistemological considerations?’
‘Yes?-then throw it in the round-file with all the other pre-critical metaphysics…’

…A great pincer movement which whittles down contemporary philosophy to the size of a pinhead. The danger is that such a procedure will leave philosophy with all the contemporary relevance of a scholastic debate concerning the number of angels who’ll fit on a pinhead, regardless of whether or not mathematisation makes them more 'real'. Of course this appeal to common-sense can easily be dismissed on formal grounds alone, as proof of my 'anthropomorphic myopia' or naivé 'correlationalism'. Nevertheless, I hope the following response to the set of extraordinary claims contained in the revised version of Brassier’s Genre is Obsolete will generate a lively discussion; it has at least forced me to clarify, develop, and expose my own position to similar critical scrutiny.

On a personal note, I was one of those graduate students at Middlesex University who were lucky enough to have had the pleasure of Dr. Brassier’s teaching, and I can confirm that his genius for philosophy is easily matched by his brilliance as a teacher. Many of the ideas in the following post (particularly those concerning the contemporary significance of Schiller) can be directly attributed to his lessons, whilst all the errors are mine alone. Rigorous critique is perhaps the best compliment for a philosopher, and it is this sentiment which motivates the following post.

A critical response to the claims contained in the revised version of 'Genre is Obsolete' available here (p68-73)

1. Noise understood as a critically potent artform is discussed primarily within a cultural domain, whose relationship to socio-economic conditions remains vague and underdetermined. (I agree, but I think, logically, it would be very difficult to have an objective analysis of an artform in which consideration of the artwork didn't predominate.)

2. If Noise is a cultural commodity, then so is the critical theory which examines it, and as such, both are compromised by their status as commodities within a capitalist society. (I agree, and this claim implies that we accept the Marxist definition of the commodity as 'a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties'...)

3. Both the artwork and its accompanying criticism are subject to the same romantic illusions which beset all forms of art. (Here the claim seems to be alluding to the folk-psychological conception of freedom subjectively experienced through the creation or critique of art.)

4. Recent critical theory is often compromised by its analytic tools which are no longer relevant to our current social context, and this problem means that critical theory has become just as politically debilitating as the conservative artworks which it attempts to expose. (This blanket condemnation of all cultural criticism would need to be backed up with a few examples, if it's not just a reactionary appeal to common-sense couched in rhetorical symmetries.)

5. No genre of music is inherently more subversive than another. (Is this because the critical potency of an artwork only stems from its critical analysis? If so then this would imply that no form of art is more objectively subversive than another because an artwork's subversive capacity is solely determined by the critic's subjective analysis. Or this statement might just be a critique of the nominal term 'genre' which does not adhere to the artform and has little semantic valence.)

6. Critical theory cannot be critical whilst it still relies upon neo-romantic clichés about the transformative power of aesthetic experience. (Yet the kinds of 'transformation' that art might induce can be understood in many senses, including the idea that certain kinds of art-such as Noise-draw attention to the neo-romantic clichés of aesthetic experience. As such, this edifying experience of the artwork might be said to transform our relationship to being through 'amplifying' our capacities to act, to use a Brassierian expression.)

7. By focussing upon the bodily and psychic effects of Noise (or art), critical theory demonstrates its dependence upon a privileging of (inter-) subjective experience as the locus of art's edificatory power. (Yet, from a realist perspective, wouldn't this focus upon the actual physiological effects of art be a step in the right direction towards an objective analysis of aesthetics? Or does this statement imply that art's effects take place at a different level of reality than that of the subject? From a scientific standpoint, critical theory is severely compromised by its metaphysical appeal to subjective experience as a means to shore up its political commitments; but this problem seems to be endemic to all forms of critical philosophy, whether it's based upon Marx's invocation of the possibility of labour one day becoming an 'end in itself', or Brassier's own veneration of scientific research as a form of practice which grants humanity with the bracing knowledge of its own insignificance. In both cases there's a de facto privileging of a particular mode of being-or 'subjective experience'-viz, the liberating aspect of freely determined labour on the one hand, and the edificatory import of scientific research on the other.)

8. Neither playing nor listening should be considered the privileged loci for political subjectivation. (Ostensibly this statement is simply the common-sense claim that neither playing nor listening to Noise should constitute the primary means for political expression. More profound is the underlying claim which appears to be a rejection of aesthetic-politics tout court. In particular, I would contend that this statement is a coded reference to both the origins of aesthetic-politics in the role of 'play' in Schiller's Aesthetic Education, and its fullest realisation in the concept of 'attunement' in Heidegger's Being and Time. However, despite the commonsensical nature of the first claim and the auspicious critical legacy of the second, I would argue that it is not so easy to relinquish an aesthetic component to our normative accounts of the good. For example, consider Schiller's concept of 'play': this can be understood as the means by which human species-being develops beyond its biological capacities and its societal self-restraint through achieving a new harmony between these opposing determinants which results in the production of the 'play-drive', the plastic development of human life through history.[1] Rather than being considered as a vital impulse which surges through the artist, the term play can still be understood in its colloquial sense and simply functions as a descriptive analogy for how this process is experienced. More profoundly, it marks the moment in the process where subjective 'sentience' becomes objective 'construction' through its concrete expression in a material culture. Despite the dubious humanist teleology-hardly redeemed by the fact that the capacity to play is granted to all living beings-the notion that 'play' represents the mode of being constituted through the advancement in our understanding of the objective world, which is subjectively experienced as an increased capacity to act-could this not also be said in relation to scientific practice? And isn't this notion of science as the means to real liberation precisely what makes Brassier's work so exhilarating? The more we know the determining conditions for human life through the activity of our critical investigations and our scientific practice, then the more we are capable of re-constructing it. Aesthetic experience need not be thought of as the passive reception of somatic or psychic phenomena, but instead could be understood as the synthetic activity which corresponds to the speculative dimension of all modes of human enquiry when engaged in the construction of new modes of life. As an afterthought, how else can one have loci for political subjectivation without the postulation of a subject who acts?)

9. The notion of (inter-) subjective experience is a myth which achieved its fullest realisation in the culture of early bourgeois modernity. (Footnote to Martin Jay's Songs of Experience notwithstanding, this claim makes an illegitimate transition from the historicity of 'experience' as a particular semantic concept-which presumably relates to the notion of qualitative subjective experience being the ultimate guarantor for bourgeois standards of value-to the critique of experience as a metaphysical category full stop. One can criticise the former without implying the latter.)

10. Critical theorists who privilege (inter-) subjective experience do so at the cost of impeding our recognition of the increasing number of technological determinants which directly transform our conscious experience. (Non sequitur: it does not follow that a philosopher who concentrates their inquiries upon the question of the subject will therefore be less concerned with the ways in which new technologies re-configure our capacity for subjective experience. In fact, the opposite is equally plausible, that these philosophers will be more concerned with the way in which technology has allegedly called this category into question. If the claim is simply that there are too many idealist philosophers currently operating with archaic conceptions of human inter-subjectivity, then this is a moot point.)

11. Technology is now an invasive component of agency, which promises to re-construct the ways in which we understand (inter-) subjective experience, identity, and agency. (No-one denies the fact that new technologies affect the way humans experience the world or construct their identities. No-one denies that new technologies may have an impact on how we can conceive of 'agency'. Not even Brassier denies the fact that the agency of this new technology is working in tandem with a non-technological form of agency, albeit a tandem which has one side 'refusing to peddle'. How we conceive of this relationship between the technological and the non-technological components of agency has been the task of many philosophers. Heidegger, for example, during the course of his lectures on Nietzsche, will take this question back to its alleged philological source in the strange symbiosis between techne and poiesis in ancient Greek, whereas Derrida will explore this problem through his discussion of the dual role of the pharmakon in Plato's Phædrus, aiming to demonstrate how the technology of writing has irreversibly transformed human consciousness. Merely pointing to this problem, however, is simply a phatic gesture with no explanatory power.)

12. The commodification of experience is not confined to the level of ideology, and cannot be remedied by ideology critique. (It is encouraging to see that Brassier still retains the Marxist conception of commodification as part of his critical arsenal, yet strange how he implies that commodification was ever something which could be fought at the level of ideology. For Marx, commodification should not be regarded as merely a subjective experience of alienation, but is a social relation produced by the real objective conditions which result from the capitalist mode of production. In this regard, ideology critique means simply making people aware of these objective conditions so that they can find concrete means by which to change them.)

13. The commodification of experience is a concrete neurophysiological reality which can only be challenged by neurobiological resources. (Here I am unsure of what is being claimed: whilst it is fairly orthodox to assume that commodification is something which manifests itself through actual physical beings, I am not sure why this phenomenon can only be challenged by 'neurobiological resources'- I am not even sure what 'neurobiological resources' are. Perhaps this claim refers to the fact that the actual re-construction of human species-being will involve the utilization of scientific technology. If so then this is still an orthodox Marxist position. The only difference would be that Marx would not imply that the philosophical confrontation-with neurobiological resources, with commodification-as a neurophysiological reality, is primarily determined by its technological aspect. How else could 'neurobiological resources' challenge 'concrete neurophysiological reality' without some steering agent or plan in mind, whilst accepting that both agent and plan are fully determined by historical conditions?)

14. The compositions of Shave and Runzelstirn produce a dissolution of genre in the cultural domain which prefigures the dissolution of forms and structures within social existence. (I understand this broad claim to mean that the way in which Shave and Runzelstirn undermine genre conventions in art precedes an analogous disruption of the concrete manifestations of social forms. This romantic idea that artistic experimentation prefigures the creation of new modes of social existence can be traced at least as far back as Schiller and Hölderlin.)

15. The substantialization of experience via phenomenological description of the effects of Noise (or art) has little epistemological credibility or critical purchase; therefore it should be discarded. (Whilst this statement seems phenomenologically apt, I think it is more problematic on a philosophical level. Although it is true that colloquial terms used to describe an aesthetic experience might be refused as folk psychological qualia, no conventional art critic would confine their analysis to a description of the subjective effects that artworks had over them whilst they played, listened, or composed. Here there would also seem to be the logical problem of considering an aesthetic phenomenon without recourse to aesthetic criteria. Even if art could be theorised as a physical phenomenon produced by a certain kind of abstract expression of determinate socio-historical conditions, which in turn triggers new modes of abstract reflection-then this would still require an active subject who 'experiences'. It is one thing to suggest that we should be rid of an appraisal of art which merely records unsystematized sensory perceptions, quite another to contend that we can completely omit the category of experience from an analysis of art which seeks to activate its ’critical and political potency’.)

16. The compositions of Shave and Runzelstirn maintain a ‘critical and political potency’ within their artwork without requiring the postulation of a subject who undergoes aesthetic experience. Instead it is the ‘cognitive import’ of their artwork which reveals not only how the categories of genre are inherently unstable and can be re-moulded (at will?), but, analogously, that this permeability also applies to the boundaries between the social, psychological, and neurobiological determinations of culture. (Clearly, the artworks of Shave and Runzelstirn cannot be reduced to the ‘cognitive import’ of their work which apparently stipulates that the complex interrelationships between different social and physical determinants are plastic. If their artworks only meant this, then it would reduce their works to the form of a banal statement, and nor they wouldn’t be classifiable as art. It seems to me that the means by which they prove this assertion is as important as what is meant. Far from evacuating the need for aesthetic experience, it is the process of their aesthetic experiments which proves its reality, to the extent that their compositions represent a leap beyond the genre conventions of music, a leap spurred on by the desire to go beyond the neo-romantic conventions of music, and proven in the novel experience of the listener.)

17. Since experience is a myth, what do we have to lose? (We have nothing to lose precisely because Brassier’s conception of experience is really a straw target which doesn’t exist. If experience is construed in terms of phenomenological descriptions of the mysterious effects of art, then it can be easily disposed of, and I would argue that it has been largely done away with in all current forms of art criticism. If however, we are contending that one can have a conception of art, science, or politics which does not depend upon a subject which acts or experiences in some form, then this remains to be proved.)

18. Removing subjective experience from our objective analysis of culture would entail an intervention in both the sociological determination of our neurobiology and the neurobiological determination of culture. (Is it necessary or even possible to eliminate the role of subjective experience from an analysis of the sociological determinants of our neurobiology? Surely conceptions of our sociological determinants require some notion of social-being, which is premised upon some account of subjective experience, which, by definition, cannot be reducible to the physical sciences (yet)? And why should we intervene in the neurobiological determinants of culture unless we possess a minimal critical distance from ourselves, armed with some speculative constructions of how humanity ought to be?)

19. Whereas the conventions of Noise have ‘substantialized’ the putative negation of genre into something all too generic, Shave and Runzelstirn evade this problem by composing an ever-changing eclectic fusion of hitherto incompatible genre. This chaotic influx draws attention to the synthetic character of all experience, and Shave and Runzelstirn’s stoic refusal to remain within the confines of a predictable style whilst at the same time denying the possibility of originality has paradoxically enabled them to compose (insubstantial?) music which is truly original: sui generis. (I don’t see how this commentary on Shave and Runzelstirn moves beyond a postmodernist conception of the artwork as a kind of foundationless bricolage, nor do I understand why the assertion of the synthetic character of all experience is to be considered innovative. The idea that the synthetic experience of artistic production is a result of objective biological mechanisms below the level of the subject finding a new accord with sociological determinants beyond the level of the subject can be traced as far back as Schiller’s Aesthetic Education. More pointedly, if Brassier’s commentary on Noise aims to analyse the phenomenon without relying upon folk-psychological accounts of subjective experience, then what is the epistemological status of his own discourse? Perhaps it serves as a kind of narrative about our world which stitches together research from the physical and social sciences. For all its rhetorical differences, how far Brassier’s mode of rational discourse moves on from the veneration of rational consensus found in the works of Jürgen Habermas has yet to be seen. The question remains whether the alleged universal consensus of science serves us better than the construction of the 'fictional' universal within aesthetic experience. If one can only compose after first learning to play and listen, then between science and metaphysics resides a new realist conception of history.)

20. What remains of the good after the elimination of the beautiful? Following Brassier, we can ascribe the category of aesthetic experience to all that is (subjectively) wrong with the world; thus aesthetic experience is confined to an ideological form which can be overcome through the cold wisdom of knowing our objective limitations. The originality of this position lies in the way it eschews any appeal to the idealist notion of subjective freedom as manifested through direct intuition. The weakness is that it still remains at the level of ideology, with a critique of false consciousness which fails to account for its own production. If, as Alex of 'Splintering Bone Ashes' has noted, the alleged anhedonia of Thomas Ligotti is compromised by the pleasure he takes in writing (even if that pleasure is re-configured as the drive to share his own 'displeasure' with the world), then Brassier's critique of aesthetic experience might be compromised by the need for a subject who 'speculates', with speculation thereby becoming the de facto mode of privileged experience. The alternative challenge may be to re-invent 'aesthetic experience' as a stand-in descriptive term for the processes by which the subject raises itself above their objective determinations through a) coming to know them, and b) experimenting with the possibilities which this new knowledge makes available. Whereas the epistemological constraint upon this 'aesthetic education' could derive from the practice of empirical history, broadly understood as the objective means by which we can distinguish the reproduction of previous determinations of social-being from the invention of new modes of life, as realised in the material expressions of a culture.

[1] Coincidently, during the course of his lectures on Nietzsche, Heidegger will note in passing how Schiller is perhaps the first to layout the philosophical foundations for history in his Aesthetic Education. (Reference currently unavailable)