The Death of Thought

Giorgio Cesarale, “The ‘Not’ of Speculative Realism,” Mute 19 February 2014

… This is the very same paradox contained in the thought of death: if our physical and psychological annihilation were conceived as the correlate of an act of thought, we would, once again, transform nothingness into being, and we would prevent ourselves from thinking our nothingness. In order to think death, in other words, we have to think, chiastically, the death of thought. … Meillassoux’s discourse is probably one of the most extreme forms of nihilism in contemporary thought. Nihilism, in fact, does not simply amount to the affirmation that existence is worthless. Nor, as Brassier argues, does it have a special relation to disenchantment, to the awareness that reality is something indifferent to our existence. More radically, nihilism is a conception according to which any being ‘is’ in so far as it comes from nothingness and ends as nothingness. This also means that any conception of being as destined to nothingness is nihilistic. We can therefore conclude that the philosophy of Meillassoux perfectly corresponds to the instance of nihilism, as it is based on a principle — the principle of factiality — according to which only contingency is not contingent, only factuality is not contingent.

… One of the premises of our analysis was to locate Meillassoux, Brassier and Harman under the rubric of ‘nihilism’. To recall the introduction to the article, it is ‘strange’ or ‘weird’ to affirm that a philosophical proposal that claims to be ‘realist’ can be rooted in nihilism. But the concept of nihilism we have taken into account is the Heideggerean one, which we believe has a much more radical meaning than the usual one, since it affirms nothingness as the primary horizon of being. In this precise sense, all the three thinkers we have just examined can be called ‘nihilist’. Meillassoux in fact thinks facticity as what comes from nothing and can return to nothing; Brassier on the other hand conceives being-nothing as what determines being, although it is undeterminable and undecidable; and lastly Harman bets on the possibility of renewing the comprehension of the object-world through the introduction of a concept of the ‘real object’ which is, by definition, withdrawn from access. However, as we tried to argue, it is hard to preserve the radical character of negativity without ‘compromising’ it every time with its opposite. If, in fact, Meillassoux and Brassier ultimately conflate negativity with being, Harman does not succeed in rendering negativity capable of directly structuring ontology. However, what probably needs to be analysed more attentively is their primary philosophical gesture, namely, the violent exclusion of negativity from the field of being. …

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

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This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too

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“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.