On Levi Bryant’s ‘Axioms for a Dark Ontology’

Levi Bryant has drawn up a brief manifesto of a nihilist reflection on the world and life’s place in the one and only world as a mere accident. His materialism in the matters of human belief brings forth succinctly and strikingly a conception of the world as void that is reminiscent of Lucretius. World here functions as a pure void, an empty space on which the dance of matter takes place. This distinction of matter and world seems to recreate the full/empty binary which then is grafted on to existence as a whole, or, the universe. The manifesto is well worth a read and long contemplation, as well as a follow up from arranjames.

But must we abide by these terms and this conceptual framework? The world conceived as it is here is doomed from the start to void and nothingness, which is clearly the only conclusion that could follow from this conceptual treatment. When imagining the world as a single unified place (and this must be an exercise in the imagination, or perhaps an intellectual excursus within a conceptual model), it could not possibly be full and perfectly meaningful to the point of which a perfectly understood significance could give cultural actors access to it. The world is at once occupying the figure and the ground, holding both the indisputable ’thereness’ of existence as object and also the setting, place, or environment upon which all objects dwell. Lying within this word is the collapsed distinction which at first allows for a meaningful object to become a thing under consideration with its own properties, tendencies, structures, and relations to other objects. An object must always ’be’ amidst a backdrop, a backdrop which tries to attain distinctly objective status as a cognizant thing when the unification meant for an object is “outsourced” to its own ground.

This linguistic movement of a binary opposition (figure/ground) is accompanied by the enormous successes of scientific institutions which have brought along with them a discourse rife with philosophical undertones of disinterested objectivism. However, these matters are largely ignored by today’s scientists and left to the “lofty intellectuals” so they can do their work of infinite knowledge production in their secure, unchallenged ’world’. Their experiments, results, and the method so fruitful in producing useful technologies for their nations do indeed prove themselves over and over again to be of great worth. Though the dis-coveries of these material things in their patterned movement can lay claim to truth in the minimally predictive sense, when science moves to theory and, either consciously or unconsciously, harkens back to the beginnings of science in the certainty, finality, and universality it must (if sincerity and honesty is given to the words and concepts with which they construct those theories) admit to itself that it is engaging in philosophy. Recourse is always given to a history of actors, experimenters, and observers that carry science from one new mode to the next, and the unifying thread of science does indeed have a history that goes as far back as when ’physics’ was called ’natural philosophy’.

Bringing up the paradoxes and entanglements of science with regards to the nihilistic refusal of meaningful belief in the world is can be of some utility here since it problematizes both subjective commitment and disinterested (supposedly non-subjective) knowledge. If the separation of subject and object would be held apart so firmly, the subject would be forced to have as its object of conscious adherence (ideology if you want) the forced choice between a foundational social/ego or bare objects/things. I believe things are more complicated and intertwined along with Merleu-Ponty. The reflective and inward-folding that a solitary writer is privy to can be also recognized as an object in the “mind-space” so as to balance the linguistic relationship. A sentence that makes sense, written down or spoken between those within a common discourse must be the result of an actor in a performance – and on a stage. Ideas are inextricable in thinking about the world and any of its particular objects and we must place them some*where* – as we must do with objects, placing them in the world. However, when the object tries to become its own ground, to take over the whole stage as it were, we get an idea that attempts to both produce its own existence and declare for itself nothing at all.

This is an extremely important topic, since I have both flirted with nihilism and remain very open to the Spinozist-Lucretian-Nietzsche Delueze thread that treats nothingness as nothing (as a mere linguistic nothing and not a source of creation or attachment). This all set within the problem of global warming and the threat of ecological collapse which I want to hold out as avoidable. There is so much still yet to be done.

Having gone this far into the labyrinth of theory I should make something clear: these thoughts gave been germinating in my mind for quite some time now from various sources. But those consistent bloggers have made it seem like there was a community of participants willing to read what I wrote and I owe you all thanks for inspiring me to experiment with this mode of expression. It is very strange indeed having so many ideas floating around both the Internet and my face to face encounters and this reassures me that I am onto the right track with regard to the topics, even if the content is disputable. A great deal of my influence has come from reaching out into other spheres and keeping running debates with friends and fellow autodidacts, but blogs allow rough thought to just “get out there” and be seen. The books that I’m drawing from in this piece which I haven’t yet been able to make good enough essays about yet are Cornelius Castoriadis’s Crossroads in the Labyrinth (a staggering work of theoretical genius), Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests, and Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. I’ll get around to coming up with more substantial works on these books soon since they have been so educational and I want to share.

As a teaser: the social actor is inextricably bound up with yet opposed to Nature. Nature is less a world than it is a labyrinth. The place, region, or territory is neither neutral or empty. The place of nature (seeing as it is that the social must juxtapose with nature) is the forest.


15 thoughts on “On Levi Bryant’s ‘Axioms for a Dark Ontology’

  1. Nice post. I don’t think anything you say here is inconsistent with the naturalism I endorse. Cultural meaning, the signifier, etc, is all fine. What’s being disputed is theological meaning and purposiveness. What you outline here is just the claim that sentient beings make meaning, throwing it over the world like a robe in the morning.

    • Thanks Levi,
      The purpose that a subject gains from belief must not come strictly from the subject alone but also a place of discourse situated in social sphere. This tangled relationship of action within a meaningful context illuminates the place-thing distinction I’m tryin to draw out.

      One thing I would definitely dissociate myself from in the set of axioms is the world as “all there is” at the end. A naturalistic outlook seems to take the world as an ultimate background, while I want to say that there are social places (worlds) and non-social, natural places which cannot subsume the social. Even in a world-place we are entangled in the social, and the place nature was once localized in opposition to the city in poetry and literature – the forest.

      • Sorry for taking so long getting back to you, Bill. I’m just now getting to this comment. You’re right, we diverge sharply here:

        One thing I would definitely dissociate myself from in the set of axioms is the world as “all there is” at the end. A naturalistic outlook seems to take the world as an ultimate background, while I want to say that there are social places (worlds) and non-social, natural places which cannot subsume the social. Even in a world-place we are entangled in the social, and the place nature was once localized in opposition to the city in poetry and literature – the forest.

        Within naturalistic frameworks, nature is not something opposed to the cultural or social world. Nature is not a place you “go to” like the woods or remote mountains. Rather, there’s only nature and societies and cultures are formations in the natural world, not unlike coral reefs and amazonian rain forests. If you’re interested, you can read more about why I think this and what I have in mind here in my brief article entitled “wilderness ontology”.
        I think the nature/culture split is problematic for a variety of reasons.

      • Thanks for getting back to me Levi,

        I am definitely not a naturalist and nature is certainly not something I believe can stand in for a totalizing view of the world. This claim for “all that is” or that “everything is nature” is only credible after natural philosophy (physics) has had so many successful findings. These “advancements” are only possible with an observer trained to see something in anticipation. As the store of knowledge within the field increases, the observer/experimenter has a huge stock of concepts, formulas, history, etc. to draw from in order to “see nature”. This is’t to say that the world is observer created, but that meaningful discourse is intertwined with an observer even if that discourse will outlive any particular observer.

        The idealist vs. objectivist debate is a trap though. The Subject – object distinction is a necessity in the structure of language, i.e. sentence creation. The big problem I have with naturalism is that it repeats the god’s-eye view from nowhere in saying: “it’s all just X”. It’s the infinitizing of the ground in the figure/ground distinction.

        Most importantly, I think that the fascinating truths that the history of science has produced are indispensable in breaching the bounds of the text, but this need not be done under the banner of naturalism.

  2. Pingback: Meaning and Purpose Again | Larval Subjects .

  3. Pingback: Reflections on nihilism as a belief system | Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. Hi Bill,

    I agree that none of the above contradicts my own position either. In fact I think nihilism is an emancipation from idealism (or epistemic sovereignty) in all its forms that leaves us not with void and nothingness but simply what is. Beneath the delusional structures of the epistemic sovereignty and the state of indistinction it leads us to is precisely the Merleau-Pontian (and I think Stoic) ontology of bodies. In a sense I agree completely with your idea that this is all a refusal of the autonomy of the idea. Like Stirner, I want to say that man’s head is haunted, that he has set himself up so many Spooks and given himself over to their Causes. Unlike Stirner, an avowed Hegelian and Idealist, I do not think that this reveals the concrete ego beneath it. Nor do I agree with Marx’s response to Stirner, which was to move away from species-being to the collectivity of the “social individual”; rather I think we are left with what is common to each of these concepts but is irreducible to either because it serves as their impersonal foundation and traverses any attempt to delimit one from the other: the flesh.

    So, with Stirner we can say “all things are nothing to me”, but the “me” that speaks is properly speaking not a self or a subject but the intertwining of transcorporeal beings themselves. It is to the flesh that all things are nothing in the sense of groundless, foundationless, without meaning that stands over and above its own complicated enfolding and traversals. Finally, this is an an-archic thought that seeks to let all bodies be the bodies they are (and are not), and to combine and recombine them in other ways, and to let themselves recombine with one other. What comes of all this is not impoverishment but abundance.

    • So much agreement! Most of the time this would be positive but there is a point of difference here.

      Nihilism as I understand it is the belief in nothing; it is still a belief, a subjective utterance of attachment said amidst bodies affects and the big material soup. Nihilism reaches that moment of rejection of all belief systems given to it and frees one to more creative engagements with people and things – since there is no secure place to stand on one must keep moving on energetically. All well and good.

      However, I think along with Nietzsche that nihilism arises when the previous values have devalued themselves, when why? finds no answer. What nihilism is Not is the mere act of negation of one side of a binary to hold on to the other, e.g. “There are no individuals only the world,” or “there is only my experience, not the external world.” For me, we cannot proclaim to believe in nothing and still regain the material world considered as a whole. The idea that all things are nothing, but existence, that which is, is finally allowed to be what it is or what they are after asserting this nothing seems like a rhetorical trick. I don’t agree at all with the concept of ‘withdrawal’.

      I haven’t read much Stirner but I will soon. I think our historical position in a social setting is inescapable (especially when writing), just as much as material beings colliding and combining. The chasm of the linguistic character of the world asserts itself no matter what we may say or write.

      Nihilism is I think a step in the right direction, but its all about what comes afterward: how much more joyful experimentation will you undergo? what will this encourage you to study? how does this make resistance more effective? For me, in nihilistic moments, I turn to mythology – present and old (if I’m not scheming with some friends).

      • I like the spirit of your reply but I can’t agree with nihilism as the belief in nothing. Nihilism isn’t a belief any more. That was the subjective-cultural nihilism of Nietzsche; this is the objective-naturalist nihilism of science. In this way it is completely possible to agree with nihilism and not to suffer the despair this position is meant to bring with it.

        Ray Brassier says that philosophy ought not be a sop to human misery. So philosophy “ought” not perform this function… okay. So what? How are we to read this ought? If it is stating that philosophy has no duty to be sop to human misery, well fine…but the absence of duty doesn’t mean its not a possibility; and if it mean “is not desirable” then this is Brassier’s own desire; if it is in relation to some “expectation” then perhaps this is also all for the good. All the phrase eventually means is that there is no reason to expect philosophy to make us happy. There again, why did we ever think it should?

        On withdrawal, I agree with Michael at archivefire that bodies are epistemically withdrawn (I can never fully know or fully experience any other body, nor my own) but I do make material contact with them. This seems almost common sensical to me.

      • Okay, this Brassier character seems well worth a read and I’ll get on that.

        If nihilism is not socio-cultural belief from a subject anymore then I would be on board. But it’s the suffix -ism that bothers me. Nihilism seems stuck with a subjective action of attachment with that assertion of an -ism. Even the naturalistic nihilism still carries along with it that subject-object dichotomy and objective bodies or the external world still distinguishes themselves/itself from a a speaker. This is why bodies must be epistemically withdrawn in my view. We are sort of trapped within language and the subject-verb-object structure of the sentence.

        Despite these limitations, Deleuze and Guattari and can get past the -isms and create rhizomatic books of desire-flows that make no proclaims of subject-world titles and establish immanent planes that singularization bodies and radically integrate cutting-edge science – without the Naturalism. Sign-codings and (-de/-re)territorialization analysis needs no positional stance and are fluid and amorphous.

        My background with nihilism feeds on Nietzsche and Philosophy by Deleuze, with the later desire/flow/plane/rhizome work held in mind.

      • Well, the desire to get outside of language is one that is mistaken from the start. With Derrida, we have to remember that language isn’t just something we are trapped in, it is something that enables us. Without language could we even conceive of joy or pleasure?

        The -ism of nihilism is problematic, but I don’t know how else to speak of it at the moment.

        I can’t speak to D&G very much as my readings of them are secondary. Insofar as I can speak of them, it seems from how they have filtered down to me their planes of immanence aren’t very far away from the corporealism that comes from Stoicism and from Merleau-Ponty. Bodies aren’t just human to me, they are much closer to Guattarian machines. I think there are always positional stances (what stance isn’t a stance from some place in relation to some other place?) but that they are necessarily provisional. Surely de/reterritorialisation- or ac/deceleration, from another angle- imply some kind of meta-stability?

        On Stirner. My attention was drawn to him by reading Hakim Bey. I was very briefly obsessed by Stirner for a summer. I have only just started thinking about him again because of a few conversations with a friend. It transpires that Saul Newman (a “post anarchist” who has written on Deleuze and Stirner) has produced an edited volume treatment of Stitner. I might have to put it on my reading list.


      • Great, I’m going to look up Saul Newman, and Hakim Bey is one I’ve enjoyed and am currently seeking out works.

        Lots to chew on. I’ll come up with something to make my thought more clear later!

      • Although, he is an idealist who launches a scathing and corrosive attack on all idealism… but ultimately rests on the self as a “creative nothing”; unable to give up that last Idealism.

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