How to Squeeze an Entire Universe into Three Seconds or Less: An Answer to ‘Brassier’s Problem’

The discovery that a number of people are not only mining the problematic that obsessed me when I was a graduate student, but actually homing in on the same family of texts that I had gravitated to has… well, to put it honestly, convinced me that maybe I’m not so crazy after all. I’m not talking about the new ‘Continental Realists,’ but rather philosophers who are mining parallel, but quite critical tracks: David Roden, Martin Hagglund, and Ray Brassier.

I’m presently reading Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, which is turning into one of those rare syncretic works that handily outruns the ‘original philosophies’ that it explicates, critiques, and attempts to synthesize. It’s certainly not a book I would write, and I actually think it’s unfortunate that Brassier’s imagination became mired in works like After Finitude, which (as far as I can tell) succeeds in being every bit as antiquated as it attempts to be. (I’ll be posting on Meillassoux in the near future, but ‘correlation’ strikes me as a dull attempt to foist the epistemological dilemma as a profound and novel diagnosis of the tradition (Laruelle’s ‘decision’ is much more interesting), backed up with an egregious misreading of Heidegger, and a very curious (given his use of set theory) second-order blindness to way his claim-making cuts against the claims made).

Brassier strikes me as one of those hardy philosophical souls that can actually revel in the ugliness and dread of what ‘it’ discovers/gerrymanders. He has no ‘cherished affirmative misconceptions’ to bring the dove of discursive reason back to the ark of manifest necessity. Nihil Unbound, for instance, argues that nihilism presents a profound opportunity, a way to unshackle philosophy from intentional parochialism. Given my commitment to theoretical incompetence, I’m always inclined to favour claims that cut against human vanity.

In a recent interview for Thauma, Brassier articulates what he thinks is the philosophical question (and which I would argue is the socio-cultural question as well):

“The problem consists in articulating the relation between the dialectical structure of the conceptual and the non-dialectical structure of the real in such a way as to explain how real negativity fuels dialectics even as it prevents dialectics from incorporating its own negativity.”

This is the question I think I ‘answered’ just before abandoning philosophy ten years ago. The jargon is different from the mongrelized terms that I use, which is what might make it seem so alien at first, but it translates readily, I think, into a crucial criterion: any causal explanation of intentionality should also explain why intentionality seems causally inexplicable.

I imagine Brassier would be uncomfortable with this expression because of the way it elides any explicit reference to ‘negativity,’ which is to say, time. The reason I buried time was simply to tease out the way his question brushes up against the Hard Problem, the naturalization of Consciousness, something which mystifies me as much now as it ever did. Why should there be Consciousness at all? I haven’t the fucking foggiest. Why does consciousness have the structure it does? Ah…

We are our brains in such a way that we cannot recognize ourselves as our brains. This is the claim I’ve been flogging for quite some time–the Blind Brain Theory. And if you reread Brassier’s quote, you’ll see the very same ‘in such a way.’ You’ll see, in other words, that Brassier is asking a question about blindness. How can negativity drive dialectics in such a way that dialectics remains curiously blind to negativity?

Enter the null frame theory of the now.

The (dissertation-killing) question I’ve been asking myself for these past ten years is how might the perspectival structure of consciousness hook up with the structure of the thalamocortical system. Since the visual field is the primary way we ‘envisage’ perspective, I asked myself what could neurostructurally account for the peculiar structure of the visual field. The most difficult-to-fathom thing about our visual field, I realized, is the way our periphery fades into ‘edgeless oblivion.’ It’s neurostructural correlate, one can assume, is simply the point at which the information available to integration runs out–an information horizon.

The thalamocortical system (TCS) is literally carved up by information horizons–it simply has to be. If the visual information horizon explains the peripheral vanishing act that structures our visual field, what other structural peculiarities might be explained in information horizonal terms?

The null frame theory of the now (a more complete formulation can be found here) proposes that the most peculiar feature of temporal awareness, the now, is a temporal analogue to the most peculiar feature of visual awareness, the visual margin. The TCS only has access to so much temporal information. If you think about it, the temporal field has to possess a point where ‘timing runs out’ (an LWOS) the same way our visual field possesses a point where vision runs out. So what possible structural consequences might obtain?

Well, where the visual margin enforces visual locality you might expect a temporal margin to enforce temporal locality. We only visually differentiate this and nothing more, because the TCS only has certain visual information and nothing more. Likewise, we only temporally differentiate this and nothing more, because the TCS only has certain temporal information and nothing more. The same way the visual margin has to be the sightless frame of seeing, the temporal margin has to be the timeless frame of timing. The TCS can’t ‘time timing’ any more than it can ‘see seeing,’ though it can access supplementary channels of information to transform both fields into windows.

The temporal field can only discriminate this temporal locality (the TCS can only integrate the temporal information it can access) and nothing more. Thus presence. Since the temporal field cannot discriminate the time of its own temporal discriminating it cannot differentiate itself from itself. Thus abiding presence, which is to say (as crazy as it sounds), self-identity. Since the TCS accesses and integrates this information with supplementary channels, the temporal field becomes an atemporal window onto a temporal world, the same way the visual field becomes a blind window onto a visual world. The latter we call our eyes, the former, our soul.

Even after all these years my skin still pimples when I think about this. The analogy I sometimes use (and worked into an aphorism for The Prince of Nothing) is that of a spiral, how it becomes a perfect circle when viewed on end. The illusion of the circle is a consequence of missing a crucial extra dimension of information. The world projects itself through us, and we confuse the projection for something self-contained, abussos in the sense of Dennett’s ‘skyhooks.’ Abussos, bottomless, everywhere we turn our medial origins are hidden from us.

Information horizons are a consequence of information integration. As Guilio Tononi[1] puts it: “Because integrated information can only be generated within a complex and not outside its boundaries, it follows that consciousness is necessarily subjective, private, and related to a single point-of-view or perspective.” Well, not quite. The only thing that actually follows is that consciousness is private. If concepts as incredibly difficult as subject, POV, and perspective simply ‘fell out of’ information integration then you wouldn’t be reading this. Information horizons follow from information integration, and what I’m saying is that the vexing perspectival structure of consciousness follows from information horizons.

So, to return to Brassier:

“The problem consists in articulating the relation between the dialectical structure of the conceptual and the non-dialectical structure of the real in such a way as to explain how real negativity fuels dialectics even as it prevents dialectics from incorporating its own negativity.”

So the global dynamics of information integration change moment to moment, but this information is not available for integration (in that modality), so the ‘negativity’ (as Brassier terms it) that renders the ‘complex’ (as Tononi terms it) non-self-identical in fact, cannot be taken up as a datum within that complex. So even though we remain utterly ignorant as to why information integration (of any kind) should give rise to consciousness, we can nevertheless explain why consciousness appears to remain self-identical despite the continual transformation of its contents–why Hume bumped into oblivion searching for the Self. ‘Real negativity fuels dialectics even as it prevents dialectics from incorporating its own negativity,’ because the information pertaining to the global process of information integration cannot itself be integrated. Consciousness is literally reflexive because it is irreflexive. The resulting consciousness perceives itself to be a circle it is not rather than the spiral that it is. You, as you read this, are a structurally mandated ‘cognitive illusion’ (whatever the hell that means anymore). What the TCS misapprehends, we become, and because everywhere we look we find the spiral, we are perplexed as to what we can be. So we begin interrogating the circle. Philosophizing.

Problem solved?

It seems to me that this is an empirical question, and I invite anyone in the sciences reading this to come up with possible ways this can be empirically pursued. Otherwise, if we simply assume (as we do every time we move between philosophical claims) that this does solve Brassier’s Problem, then a veritable cornucopia of speculative possibilities open up. Enough to make me dizzy, at least.