On Ray Brassier and Prometheanism

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

I’ve just made my way through philosopher Ray Brassier’s 2007 book Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. It’s often heavy-going — I confess to following barely half of it, and fully understanding less. In familiarising myself with the contemporary crop of philosophers pegged as ‘speculative realists’ (a term Brassier now sees as having outlived its usefulness), I certainly warm more to animistic, aesthetically-oriented folk like Tim Morton. However, while I have problems with Brassier’s ideas, I admire his tenacity, and watching him speak he seems genuine at least — someone worth engaging with.

Having failed to fully keep up with him through the conceptual rabbit holes he explores in Nihil Unbound, I’m going to weigh up the broader import of his ideas in the light of an interesting talk he gave in New York in 2013 titled ‘On Prometheanism (and its Critics)’. It runs to about an hour, split between a series of videos, with more for the Q&A:

Now, the figure of Prometheus plays a significant role in the narrative of North. When we imagine the extent to which ancient civilisations envisioned the supreme power of the cosmos as being embodied at the high centre of the north celestial pole, and appreciate that fire’s levity identified it as the element of the highest heavens, the story of Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods is given its cosmic frame. Some say Prometheus stole fire from the showy blaze of the sun. Some say he stole it from the Hestia’s more discreet hearth at the summit of Olympus. The latter image uses the Cosmic Mountain trope to give form to the potent but experientially subtle vision I call the polar cosmos: the world pivoting on a vertical axis, an axis which organises things into a clear hierarchy of power. Prometheus raided the very heart of divine supremacy over earthly life, and brought a spark of that pivotal power back down for humans to use.

Brassier’s Prometheus, a figure he wants to ‘rehabilitate’, is that which gained force from around four centuries ago, during the European scientific Enlightenment. I take the Copernican Revolution as the historical turning point which ushered in this phase, and gave birth to modernity. Despite being a well-worn temporal landmark for this shift, it’s still rich in edifying resonances. We find in it a twofold transformation of the (European) human place in the cosmos, and much of the energy of modernity arises from the friction between these moving folds.

Firstly, we’re familiar with the notion that the cosmic refiguring kicked off by Copernicus, removing Earth from the centre of the cosmos, was a kind of humiliation or belittling of humanity. Freud famously cited the work of Copernicus as the first of three modern humiliations, removing humans from a privileged position in space. The second humiliation came from Darwin, whose evolutionary theory showed that we are not exceptional creations, but just another creature. The third blow, according to the modest Dr Freud, came from psychoanalysis, showing us that we are not even in control of our own inner selves. In this narrative, Copernicus set in motion the eviction of humanity from its naive home.

But at the very same time, of course, Copernicus initiated a tremendous elevation of the human role in the cosmos. After all, in the old Christian cosmos, with Earth as the centre of everything and divinity surrounding it in the far-off fiery empyrean, our place was lowly. In Pico della Mirandola’s seminal ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ (1486),1 Earth is ‘the fermenting dung-heap of the inferior world’. The dignity which Pico argues passionately for is not in the spatial centrality which Copernicanism upset, but in the potential for divinity which Pico believed God bestowed on us, and which Copernicus promoted by inspiring such a world-shaping elevation of human knowledge. Pico’s God says to Adam:

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

Many of the figures who pushed forward the revolution unwittingly sparked by the mild-mannered Copernicus were Hermeticists, magicians even, who saw the genesis of modern science as the opening of the way to godhood. Thoroughly mystical and alchemical ideals infused the origins of rationalism and humanism. Copernicus’ contemporary Charles de Bovelles, a heavily Pythagorean mathematician and canon who did much to nurture the Renaissance image of Prometheus as a thief of intellectual fire, wrote in 1510:

Man representing the world to himself is like the apex of a triangle or the center of a circle: everything that exists outside that reference point is like the base of the triangle or the circumference of this circle—made so that he can see himself therein.2

The polar cosmos — conjoining the figure of the verticalised triangle and concentric circularity — can be sensed vividly here. Although Copernicanism acted to a significant extent to demolish this cosmic image, at the same time the intellectual (and subsequent material) aggrandisement consequent to this revolution also turbo-charged the anthropocentrism made so vivid by de Bovelles.

How can we envision this paradoxical transformation? One way is to see that a certain internalisation took place. The empirical support for the polar cosmos, the concentric paths of the celestial bodies around us, lay in ontological tatters. It was revealed as mere appearance, a corporeal illusion formed by Earth’s rotation, now overshadowed by the intellectual vision of our orbit around the sun — and then by the concept of an infinite, centreless universe. But behold, the power of the intellect which conceived these things! In transposing the old vertical power structure of the cosmos — God above and Earth below — onto the human frame — the veracious intellectual ego above and the mechanical, illusion-ridden body below — the Copernican shift enacted a Promethean seizure of divine potency and centrality. This mythic seizure underwrote the subsequent explosion of technological power, as the spark of intellectual fire began to generate mighty new tools and machines.

It’s interesting to note here the factor which is one of the few things to unite the ‘speculative realists’. That is, opposition to something Quentin Meillassoux, whose work seems to quietly inform much of this philosophical current, called ‘correlationism’. This refers to Immanuel Kant’s self-described ‘Copernican Revolution’ in which he shifted the locus of reality into the human mind, arguing that the mind actively constitutes reality — to such an extent that reality can’t be understood apart from it. While this opened up valuable avenues for exploring the mind’s role in shaping our world, it also entrenched the kind of Renaissance anthropocentrism exemplified by de Bovelles, with man as the measure of the world. Meillassoux suggests that, since Copernicus took us away from the centre of being, Kant’s move was actually a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’.3 The observation is well taken; but in fact, as our glimpse at Renaissance anthropocentrism suggests, Kant’s use of the term is perhaps more than wrong-headed hubris. He captures the other, Promethean part of the twofold Copernican shift — which may well be the more consequential part.

So where does this leave Brassier’s relationship to Prometheanism? His talk is largely a discussion of a 2007 paper by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, ‘Some Pitfalls in the Philosophical Foundations of Nanoethics’.4 Dupuy urges caution in the quest to remake humanity through the convergence of nanotech, biotech, infotech and cognitive science (NBIC). Brassier challenges this conservatism. While acknowledging that the NBIC convergence is trumpeted by neoliberal capitalism (in the form of the US National Science Foundation), he insists that there must be room for marrying negative antipathy to capitalism with some kind of positive Promethean promotion of radically transformative technology. His problem with Dupuy is the latter’s appeal to a kind of residual theological conservatism. Discussing how traditional cultural patterns enabled people to make sense of suffering, Dupuy writes:

The sacred played a fundamental role in this. The modern world was born on the ruins of traditional symbolic systems, in which it could see nothing but arbitrariness and irrationality. In its enterprise of demystification, it did not understand the way these systems fixed limits to the human condition while conferring meaning upon them. When it replaced the sacred with reason and science, it not only lost all sense of limits, it sacrificed the very capacity to make sense.5

There’s a potent dualism here, which hinges on the Copernican Revolution, and which saturates modern thought: between modern secular reason and traditional religious dogma. I sympathise with thinkers like Dupuy, who rightly questions the inflated humanism that we know now more than ever can lead to terrible unforeseen consequences (not to mention more immediate impacts such as tedious egotism). At the same time, I also sympathise with Brassier in his aversion to the distasteful hangovers from monotheism.

There’s a great tragedy in this dualism, unable to appreciate the value of limitations without sensing the stifling aura of authoritarian religious myths. The way in which the conceptual embrace of the world of the animist hunter-gatherer can defuse this tragedy became one of the guiding themes in the narrative of North. The pre-agricultural world acts as a third term which upsets the neat opposition between modernity and the traditions of religion. In the preface to Nihil Unbound, Brassier writes:

[T]he disenchantment of the world understood as a consequence of the process whereby the Enlightenment shattered the ‘great chain of being’ and defaced the ‘book of the world’ is a necessary consequence of the coruscating potency of reason, and hence an invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, rather than a calamitous diminishment. The disenchantment of the world deserves to be celebrated as an achievement of intellectual maturity, not bewailed as a debilitating impoverishment.6

When we learn that this ‘great chain of being’ is a largely a relatively recent construction of the agricultural and civilised religions, and that in the hunter-gatherer’s world thrive very subtle forms of ‘enchantment’ which embrace uncertainty, even a nihilism of sorts,7 this ceaseless clash between pro- and anti-modern stances loses much of its boorish, polarising energy. Hunter-gatherers exhibit many behaviours we would label ‘spiritual’, but anthropology shows that their beliefs are emphatically not just ‘primitive’ forerunners of ‘mature’ religion. In many cases, animism entails far more sophisticated cognitive strategies than religion, just as forager diets are often far more varied and nutritious than those in farming monocultures. It’s appropriate that the trickster is often prominent in hunter mythologies,8 for this ambivalent figure embodies the kind of playful and sophisticated approach to the world which both traditional religious and modern scientific attitudes often struggle with.

Prometheus overlaps with the trickster to a certain extent. In common with many tricksters, he is a ‘culture hero’, a champion of humankind, a bringer of technology (fire). However, he is limited, and his story betrays him as a ‘quasi-trickster’ — a transitional figure between the sophistication of the animist hunting world and the dualistic traps of civilisation. For a start, he is paired with a brother, Epimetheus — ‘hindsight’ to Prometheus’ ‘forethought’. Already we have a taste of the religious splitting of ambivalence into good versus bad. What’s more, he’s rather witless. His famous theft of fire is a partial fragment of a larger tussle between him and Zeus. Humans had fire originally, but Zeus withdrew it in retaliation for a trick Prometheus played trying to do Zeus out of the good bits of a meat sacrifice. Humans were once again caught in the crossfire of Prometheus’ conflict with Zeus. And the fact that Prometheus was eventually caught, and punished eternally, marks him as a far less capable trickster than, say, Hermes. He singularly fails at the important bit of playing tricks: getting away with it. As Lewis Hyde notes in Trickster Makes This World:

The story ends with its hero in inexorable pain. Trickster, by contrast, is the consummate survivor, always slippery, always able to invent a situation and wiggle free, always willing to abandon a project or an ego position if the danger gets too high. […] Tricksters sometimes suffer, but that is never the end of it; the end is levity and speed. Prometheus is too serious.9

I sense that this seriousness comes from being entangled with, due to direct opposition to, the High God figure. A similar fate often bedevils Satanism. To the extent that Prometheus or Satan are fixed in an antagonistic relation to a pompous figure of supreme power, they are caught up in the terrible dramas that such a supreme and absolutist power constellates. Modern science is haunted by its birth in opposition to the theological rationalism of the Middle Ages. It’s telling that over-serious, blundering Prometheus, rather than sly Hermes, has become the main totem of technology’s acceleration away from the traditional religious cosmos.

Brassier certainly seems to be too smart to be caught up in the witless excesses of Prometheanism cast in this light. And while the substance of his position is found in his thorough reasoning, there is also a sophistication in his choice of mythical reference. The title Nihil Unbound consciously recalls the revisionist drama by Percy Shelley, Prometheus Unbound. But at the same time, the subject of this implied mythic release is just a word; nihil bears no trace of archaic personification. There is an interesting tension here, between the frame of the mythic drama and the implied absolute break with myth.

Of course, the break with myth is never absolute. And nihil perpetuates certain structural aspects of monotheism — especially the universalism which sets both monotheism and nihilism in stark opposition to the local, multiplicitous concerns of early paganism and forager animism. Brassier’s concern is with ‘nothingness’ as the ultimate ground of everything, just as monotheism posits God as the ultimate ground of everything. Both fixate on ultimate grounds. Meaning in Brassier’s cosmos is always local, always contingent and ephemeral — and, as with sublunary matters in the Christian cosmos, this just isn’t good enough. Everything has to begin and end with what is conceived as ultimate and absolute — and whether you conceive this as an all-powerful deity or a sheer absence, this is a demand which seems to misappropriate the indeterminacy of life. Nihilism, in theory, clears the ground for new forms of meaning — but of course, allowing such things to flourish implies an abandonment of nihilism. As an ‘-ism’, nihil can demand a mirror image of the obedience demanded by God.

If there’s any sophistication in Brassier’s supplanting of Prometheus with nihil, what does it achieve? Does it attain a complex blend of the twofold post-Copernican transformation, confrontation with nothingness inducing humility even as new energy is found in this for human elevation? Frankly, I find it hard to place Brassier on the spectrum between these poles. He stops short of some of the more gung-ho accelerationist rhetoric. But isn’t his nihil an absolutisation of the railing against limits which fuels the Promethean story, a removal of most if not all reasons to question human ambition? His clearest comment on this issue in the talk is this: ‘Instead of trying to recapture this theological equilibrium between immanence and transcendence, between the made and the given, the task is to recognise the stratification of immanence, and the fact that there are structures of involution, and of reflection, within the natural order, whereby rules or concepts, rationality itself, can emerge out of physical patterns and processes.’ This seems promising, a quest for a kind of immanent array of (presumably evolving) limits. Is this a step beyond nihilism? It’s hard to tell, as this ‘natural order’ is left undeveloped as a concept.

What’s clear is that Brassier errs on the side of ambition, against limitations. He acknowledges the ethical problem inherent in the progress of Enlightenment science: the more we objectify and understand ourselves as just a contingent part of mechanistic nature, the less we’re able to define what we should be, to say it’s better to become one thing rather than another. But he seems to have little to offer by way of addressing this problem (at least in terms that I understand), other than accusing those who fear its consequences of facile sentimentality, and advocating untrammelled forward momentum for lack of any other possibility.

Dupuy’s piece quotes Ivan Illich on the fact that we will never eradicate disease and death, arguing that the pursuit of their eradication — surely one of the prime driving forces behind NBIC convergence and transhumanist Prometheanism — is a ‘puerile dream’ for which we will sacrifice ‘something infinitely precious’. Our finite bounds are seen as the primary anvils on which we forge meaning. Now, it’s hard not to sympathise with Brassier’s reaction against this. ‘Be very wary when people tell you you’re suffering for a reason,’ he says slowly and emphatically. Illich is a brilliant and important thinker, but also a Catholic, and his tradition carries a big load of baggage when it comes to justifying suffering. It’s good to be suspicious.

At the same time, Brassier has to face the challenge of asking people to prefer the idea of suffering for no reason. Should we not also be wary when people ask this of us? And we should bear in mind that whatever the immediate backgrounds of transhumanist cheerleaders, this philosophy owes a vast amount to the Christian denial of death and distaste for our lack of control over the flesh.

What’s more, lurking behind Brassier’s speculative realism is Meillassoux’s spectacularly wacky idea of the ‘inexistent God‘ — the idea that God doesn’t exist, but may exist in the future. I can’t find any indication of Meillassoux’s position on the radical technological futurisms that cluster around the idea of the Singularity, but it’s not a stretch to discern in his speculations a theology of the most extreme transhumanism.

I’m not clear on the real import of Meillassoux’s strange vision, but whatever store Brassier sets by it, the latter doesn’t seem to envision a divine future eternity. His nihilism is founded on a rock-solid trust in scientific abstractions, specifically a projection forward of Meillassoux’s concept of the ‘arche-fossil’. This is a name for objects or events proposed by science that existed before the emergence of life. Our apparent ability to map existence prior to our existence, even prior to the existence of Earth, or of atoms, creates all sorts of interesting problems and opportunities for philosophers concerned — as are Brassier and Meillassoux — with Kant’s anthropocentric legacy. Brassier extends Meillassoux’s ‘ancestral’ objects with a focus on ‘descendant’ objects — most importantly, the scientific contention that the universe will suffer an eventual and complete collapse into nothingness. Brassier’s faith in this projection — the ultimate ground of his nihilism — is apparently total, so ‘in logical time’ it’s already happened. The closing words of Nihil Unbound declare that ‘the subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead, and that philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction.’

While this is not at all a declaration of despair for Brassier, I nevertheless can’t help but think of the young Woody Allen in Annie Hall, catatonic with depression at the thought that the universe will one day break apart — rendering everything else meaningless. Perhaps Brassier thinks of the mother and the doctor when he hears his critics.

Is this despair of a piece with the inability to accept personal death? There’s obviously some mileage in this reduction, but there’s also clear differences. Philosophy — along with disciplines such as meditation and psychedelics — is often described as being an attempt to prepare for death. And the implication is usually that death is at best a vast unknown. Acceptance and ‘letting go’ — even into nothingness — is the dominant theme in mystical traditions.

Consideration of the death of the universe surely involves another level, or projected intensification of this confrontation. However, Brassier’s Promethean avowal creates a curious double attitude to extinction across the macro and micro scales. His philosophy hinges on the acceptance of the ultimate death of everything. But both Buddhist humility and childish depression are avoided by the fact that this acceptance is rallied in aid of a kind of large-scale existentialism, a declaration of radical freedom in material power. Ironically, this power takes the form of Promethean technologies which to a large extent seem to be being channelled toward life-extension and death-obviating strategies that are fuelled by a refusal of personal dissolution. This is Brassier’s handling of the twofold post-Copernican movement, in which he puts cosmic humiliation (the death of everything) in the service of human aggrandisement (human control of matter). It’s an interesting position, but problematic in the extreme.

In his talk he quotes J.G. Ballard: ‘All progress is savage and violent.’10 For Brassier, this, as a truth, is an argument against conservatives like Dupuy who balk at the apparently tremendous risks implied in NBIC convergence. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, basically — and omelettes are necessary, or inevitable. Brassier advises ‘recognising that the catastrophes, the unforeseeable consequences of our technological ingenuity, are not an objection to the desire to be able to foresee and control.’ He doesn’t present a very strong argument in support of this position — again, apart from attacking its conservative opponents, and stating that ‘it’s a kind of sentimentalism to think that some savageries are not better than others.’

More importantly, though, this realist-macho defence of ‘progress’ (which, for any nihilism, is damnably hard to define) is merely the flipside of the Illichian defence of suffering as a source of ‘meaning’. How is progress prioritised over meaning to the extent that suffering for the former is justified, but not for the latter? When one draws a line from this embrace of progress’s ‘savagery’ to the transhumanist aspect of Meillassoux’s divine carrot on a stick, one enters a hyper-Marxist theology, at once barbaric and the apotheosis of civilisation, in which the technological construction of God becomes the unassailable rationalisation for any amount of death and suffering. Whether we consider Meillassoux’s future God (as an answer to ‘why suffer?’) or Brassier’s end of everything (which answers with ‘why not?’), we encounter a potentially perverse justification for present suffering with the capacity to dwarf the mayhem wreaked by Christianity and twentieth-century Marxism.

To be clear, such potentials are a million miles from Brassier and Meillassoux’s intentions and concerns, but it’s odd at best that Brassier takes no time out from his rehabilitation of Prometheanism to address them coherently.

Anyway, does Prometheanism need ‘rehabilitation’? In some sense, Brassier’s call to counter anti-Prometheanism strikes me as being very similar to Steven Pinker’s railing against the ‘orthodoxy’ of the ‘Noble Savage‘. Pinker’s attack on the supposed Rousseauian mainstream of modern life always came across as being heavily coloured by his immersion in academic and intellectual circles. It’s possible to make an argument that twentieth-century intellectual life has been dominated by claims about a benificent ‘state of nature’. However, once one moves into the wider public world, the argument becomes harder and harder to sustain. Likewise, Brassier’s concern that Prometheanism needs rehabilitation comes across as strange when we consider that we’ve just emerged from the century in which we managed to artificially kindle the forces that power the stars, here on Earth’s surface. The ‘tide of anti-Enlightenment revisionism with which so much twentieth-century philosophy has been complicit’11 is real, but Brassier seems to be overestimating its impact on the practices of science, industry and politics, and overestimating the need to challenge its power. Perhaps it’s been performing a thankless but necessary task of slowing ‘progress’ down to a more humanly manageable pace? It’s certainly not been dictating policy – as Brassier’s highlighting of the neoliberal enthusiasm for NBIC affirms.

AI researcher and Singularity cheerleader Ben Goertzel makes a simple and convincing case that we are currently ‘unpromethean’ in the documentary Singularity or Bust (from about 1:54 to 3:50):

The sad thing is, the amount of resources, the amount of energy that our society devotes to these things [NBIC] is very, very small. […] We expend far more of our energy and attention on things like making chocolatier chocolates, or more attractive underpants than we do on creating new forms of matter, improving human cognition, extending human life, ending scarcity, ending human suffering, creating advanced artificial minds.

In a way he’s right. To me it looks like the pinnacle of our Prometheanism thus far — nuclear energy — created a wave of dissonant fear when it erupted at Hiroshima. Our ambitions to reach the moon kept the Promethean flame burning for a while, but after a bit of walking around on that grey ball, we retreated into the virtualities of the financial ether, and the petty hedonism of consumerism. These currents aren’t wholly unpromethean, however. They are both underwritten by a conviction that there are no limits. They are decadent forms of Prometheanism, but in their destructive ignorance of healthy social and ecological boundaries, they still testify to the perils of Promethean unboundedness.

Brassier’s handling of the post-Copernican tension between humility and elevation, wherein science’s testimony to our future extinction becomes — via rigorous if labyrinthine logic — an argument for Promethean remaking of traditional limits, seems confused or incomplete to me. My grasp of his position is hampered by a very incomplete grasp of his full argument — it’s still unclear to me how he presumes to rein his position in from amoral technological advocacy. Is any risk worth taking, since we’re all doomed anyway? If not, against what are risks and benefits measured? His cynicism about Illich’s appeal to accept death, disease and other limitations as our most profound source of meaning is well taken. But if we should be careful of people telling us we need to suffer to have a chance at a precious thing called ‘meaning’, why should we not by equally careful of people telling us we need to suffer to have a chance at a precious thing called ‘progress’? Both terms seem as nebulous as they are enticing and apparently necessary. I seriously doubt that either is workable without significant concessions to the other.

In the end, any mature thought needs to be able to take on board and properly manage shadow aspects of phenomena, and this process is only hampered by occupying a position opposite to the phenomena. We need to be able to see that Prometheanism is rife with puerile dreams, as facile as any sentimentalism, without having to appeal to easily-refuted dogmas based on a religious projection of civilised patriarchy.

Civilised theology is not the ancient ground of human values out of which science is catastrophically tearing us — our values were being forged and experimented with for hundreds of millennia before the idea of a single authoritarian God congealed into dogma. But equally, not all premodern concerns with sacred virtualities are benighted mud out of which science is lifting us into the light. Religion has important precedents in the world of animism, precedents which were nevertheless often more sophisticated than later monocultural monotheisms.

The polarity between modern science and religion is desperately in need of defusing, and the ‘third term’ of forager animism is an important tool for this task. Brassier is right that we shouldn’t simply cling to religious conceptions of sacredness in order to avoid the apparent problems created by science and rationalism. But his solution of complete abandonment of the past, of an ever-purer refinement of rationalism and a bold following of it wherever it leads, seems to be tainted with the puerile shadow of Prometheanism.

The genie is all the way out of the bottle, and there is no question of returning to the forager’s world, just as there is no question of returning to traditional religion. However, if we begin to allow a return of our pre-civilised modes of thought and being, we can catalyse debates more interesting than the clash between science and religion, and defuse the polarity which has made such fools of them both.

Header image based on a photo by Steve Jurvetson (CC)