On Levi Bryant’s Axiomatic Absolutism *

The “new materialism” is neither new nor materialism. It is, in fact, the old vitalism. Now I don’t mean to disparage the new materialism when I say this, or to position myself as some old Wise One who goes around proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. What I want to do is actually make a point that the historian of science Georges Canguilhem makes in his book,  Knowledge of Life (Fordham 2008, orig. 1965). He says that vitalism’s great flaw is its “excessive modesty.” Instead of arguing for the “originality of the biological phenomenon” as a sort of “islet” within the larger empire of the inorganic, vitalism should rather situate the “science of matter” within “the activity of the living”. Rosenstock, Bruce[1]. (2013).

“Humans are a particular type of animal among other animals and are not the pinnacle of being or existence. All human cognitive powers are biologically rooted or grounded. These cognitive powers evolved for the sake of getting around in a hostile world pervaded with other predators and for reproduction.  It does appear, however, that our nervous systems are able to deploy themselves in ways that go beyond these original evolutionary aims. Our cognitive systems did not evolve for the sake of knowing the world or representing it as it is; which is why we must perpetually engage in critique in our knowledge-producing practices to protect against the insufficiencies of our cognitive structures. Consciousness has no special insight into the workings of the body from which it arises, nor any special insight into the causes of its cognitive and affective states.  As a consequence, evidence drawn from introspection has to be treated with caution” Levi Bryant (21-25).
The axiom that humanity is not ontologically grounded as an entity superior to other ecologies, as a thesis, does not stand the most preliminary scrutiny: Dr. Bryant presupposes the indeterminacy of “human” essence in relation to a world of ecologies, each accorded a unique essence in relation to their differential ontic status. This allows him to argue that the laws of thought govern the phenomena of nature in a tautological register, thereby assuring himself of the apodicity of scientifically analytic propositions on the reality of natural phenomena. The problem in Dr. Bryant’s argumentation for science is that it includes a hidden propositional dimension: not only is humanity a discrete semantic entity for man, but also for all other species: this logical universalism is not part of scientific reality where multiple paradigms are at work synchronically. The only way this move is possible is if Dr. Bryant has presupposed the sufficiency of the ontic register of logic to be a necessary condition for natural phenomena that are also somehow subject independent; an incoherent claim. Thus, the laws of thought[2] are taken a priori to be the underlying semantic ‘reality’ of all creatures across species; there is no warrant to this claim as neurobiological data suggests an incomprehensible diversity in neural and adaptive structures. “[3]It has been said of George Boole’s algebra that the ‘reasoned and self-consistent system of high-school algebra’, which Boole himself called The Laws of Thought, and which has lead to the Boolean algebra of inferential logic, was attained by ‘incomprehensible’, ‘magical’, and qusimathematical methods’ (6). It is somewhat comical that Boole’s Laws of Thought (7) require a computational operator, either human or machine but necessarily external to the system’: simply, it is the [4]Other of the logical system. “This fact alone renders the self-consistency of Boole’s system (and all subsequent attempts at producing AI via logic) irrelevant, as an external user must be involved to do the real thinking of interpretation. That is not to say that Boole’s algera or Boolean algebra are irrelevant, only that they are in principle insufficient to accurately model thinking, or intelligence, or mind”.


This view also invests the ontology of human facticity with a universality and concreteness of actual semantic concerns that are simply not accessible to the empirical method: the notions of retro-causation, tonic-binding of libidinal forces as sublimation, the primacy of the letter in the psyche and other concepts on which Bryant’s psycho-analytic practice depends would be rendered universally unintelligible if the empirical analyticity of concepts were logically predetermined by their necessary apodicity. The idea that we must protect ourselves from our failure to produce knowledge in conformity to reality through phenomenological investigation, which Dr. Bryant upholds as an axiom, is no more than an ad hominem with no ear for paradox: the primacy of the empirical worldview rests, foremost, on the universal sufficiency and apodicity of the laws of thought reconfirmed in retrospect to a presupposed experimental sufficiency; if the laws of thought are universal then there is no sufficient warrant for the claim that consciousness has no access to the body, and to bodily reality. Is not science, then, a product of the phenomenological embodiment of dialectical consciousness created retroactively by the experiential register of logical sufficiency?


It is true that science works at the level of analytic sufficiency but it is merely cretinous to suggest that this sufficiency bears no relation to the synthetic dimension of purposive human activity; the use of science is structured by a human desire for a certain noetic universality, defined in the patent and latent artefacts of human culture and civilisation. Science is not a worldview: it is a set of methods to manufacture products that satisfy the demands of humanity; what phenomenology informed by psychoanalysis seeks is the desire concealed by its demands. As a duly compensated champion of Lacan, Dr. Bryant knows that all demand is actually a demand for love. “The demand for love can only suffer from a desire whose signifier is foreign to it. If the mother’s desire is for the phallus, the child wants to be the phallus in order to satisfy her desire. Thus the division immanent in desire already makes itself felt by virtue of being experienced in the Other’s desire, in that this division already stands in the way of the subject being satisfied with presenting to the Other the real [organ] he may have that corresponds to the phallus; for what he has is no better than what he does not have, from the point of view of his demand for love, which would like him to be the phallus” (Écrits § 693).

Then, if there is any warrant to the profession of psycho-analysis it lies in the unique imaginary access it provides the analyst into the desire of the Other; the Other of science too. One only wishes Dr. Bryant upheld his profession with the same conviction that he introjects into the dead letter of empiricism given a compulsive, in the sense of “reactionary”, and unconditional a priority.


This drive, such as the one that compels Dr. Bryant’s empirical cathexis is merely “[5]…[a] causal mechanism that motivate[s] action for survival and” is “…independent from need. What” Lacan “…means by this is that” the “drive is in part psychological and that it goes beyond the biological element. For example, I may have a need for complex French meals that goes beyond the drive for food. A second example might involve my need for certain Italian suits rather than mere clothing. This implies that we make psychological interpretations of our physical needs that generate the language problem—and desire”. The question someone as intelligent as my worthy interlocutor must ask is: what is the desire of science concealed in its explicit demands for criterions of empirical validity; the question of desire ultimately structures the symbolic appurtenance of the imaginary relation that humanity has with the “real” unconscious semantic commitments of its demand. It is evident that Dr. Bryant has no inclination to raise these difficult questions because he is invested in a cathexis that is inimical to a reduction of jouissance issuing from analytic non-closure; he takes conceptual pride in being allowed to remain irresponsible to the demands of objectivity from two opponents: the respectable apodicity of empiricism and the phenomenological access of psycho-analysis to the imaginary relation that structures “objectivity”. “[6]The status of “not being” a part it creates the omniscience of the analyst. In clinical experience, the omniscience and omnipresence of the analyst is the imaginary constitution of the subject, as he tends to position the analyst into all his causes. Analyst is to be the father, the phallus, the logo and the lover. The subject will try every mean to make analyst’s presence in every scene that he needs the analyst to be there. The presence of the analyst is not supposed to be the gazing point but he shall be a part of the imaginary. It is because the analyst does not involve in his imaginary by keeping distant and actualizing its position as the Other that the subject will have to face the unconscious presentation directly. This twist is the undoing process, which puts the subject imaginary into the symbolic process by entering into the verbal dialectics in the analytic discourse with the physical presence of the analyst in the real”.


In his [7]quest to abdicate from his position as the guardian of psycho-analytic desire he comes to be manipulated by an establishment dedicated to the phantasmal industry of satisfying “needs” of an Other that insinuates itself in the very texture of actuality and its difference from the empirical register of evidentiality. As Terence Blake beautifully explains the situation: ‘[8]Having been soundly trounced for his puerile version of naturalism, Bryant has decided to dress it up in aphorisms and re-name it “post-nihilism”. It’s true that just as in the case of “axiom” we need a dictionary to read his text correctly. Remembering that Bryant has styled himself a “post-mastery” Lacanian we can be pretty sure that the prefix “post” means “credulous”, so the syntagm “post-nihilist praxis” translates out as “creudulous naturalist theorising”, which does seem an apt description of Bryant’s actual practice’. I claim that this is evidence of Dr. Bryant’s symptomatic disagreement with the insights made available to him by the tools of his trade. Rather than address the lacunae introjected into the empirical object by the big Other analyst supposed to know he calls the impasse his master and plays slave to an obscure object a-xiom.




[1] < http://itself.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-vitality-of-vitalism/ >.

[2] See < http://djmarsay.wordpress.com/bibliography/rationality-and-uncertainty/logic/booles-laws-of-thought/ >.

[3] See < http://polyhistornaut.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-laws-of-thought/ >.

[4] “[t]here are some beliefs, the most fundamental ones, which are from the very outset ‘decentered,’ beliefs of the Other; the phenomenon of the…” analyst “‘…supposed to believe,’ is thus universal and structurally necessary. From the very outset, the speaking…” analyst “…displaces his belief onto the big Other…” a-nalyst “…qua the order of pure semblance, so that the…” analyst “…never ‘really believed in it’; from the very beginning, the…” analyst “…refers to some decentered other” a-nalyst ‘…to whom he imputes this belief. All concrete versions of this analyst ‘…supposed to believe’ (from small children for whose sake parents pretend to believe in Santa Claus, to the ‘ordinary working people’ for whose sake Communist intellectuals pretend to believe in Socialism” to the a-nalyst supposed to know who must pretend to be revealed to the analysand as a pure symptom in himself) are stand-ins[8] for the big Other…[9]” a-nalyst. The big Other a-nalyst is the reflected semblance of the analyst wherein he discerns the form of the question posed by his own preconscious in an economy of surplus jouissance produced by the pursuit of the objet d’ a-nalysis. Or, to put it simply, the analyst must [symbolically] die for an analysis to come to closure beyond its nexus with the analyst’s genitality. This death is of religious significance; in death the analyst becomes the sum of the analysand’s appeals to randomity intercepted by the instinctual forces which impel his neuroticism”. < https://lacquesjacan.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/reflections-on-alan-roland-2011/ >.

[5] See < http://episeattle.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/lacan-introduction-part-iii-kevin-boileau-missoula-montana-usa/ >

[6] See < http://sachara.wordpress.com/theoretical-writings/biology-science-and-analytic-truth-part-i/ >.

[7] “The concept has faced serious revision over the history of psychoanalysis, and it becomes immediately necessary to jump ahead to Otto Fenichel, who notes that “instinct” is in fact a poor translation of the German Trieb, better translated as “drive”: Inherent in the concept of instinct is the idea that it represents an inherited and unchangeable pattern; in the German concept of Trieb this unchangeability is by no means implied. On the contrary, the Triebe obviously are changed in aim and object under influences stemming from the environment, and Freud was even of the opinion that they originated under the same influence. This incorrect equating of instinct and Trieb has created serious misunderstandings. [9]

Indeed, psychoanalysts have at various times stooped to biologizing the instincts excessively, perhaps excessively ignoring social or individual factors. Yet it also must be noted that it is impossible to follow Lacan, who despite correctly polemicizing against those who would use the concept of instinct to assert “the existence of morals in nature,” incorrectly writes that the drive in Freud’s work “has nothing to do with instinct”. [10] If Lacan is correct to discard the concept of instinct in favor of the more precise “drive,” he is wrong to assume that there is no connection. After noting “the impossibility of thinking its [Trieb’s] precision theoretically,” as opposed to a conceptual imprecision, Althusser quotes Freud explaining drive as “a limit concept between the somatic and the psychical”, remaining optimistic that biology and historical materialism will one day be capable of scientifically elaborating the contents of the unconscious. [11]” See < http://revolutionarydesire.wordpress.com/a-cop-sleeps-in-each-of-us/classical-freudian-psychoanalysis/ >.

[8] See < http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/dark-subjectivity-and-an-apodictic-hermeneutics-of-science-on-naturalism-as-nostalgic-pathos/ >.


2 thoughts on “On Levi Bryant’s Axiomatic Absolutism *

  1. Exactly! The fact of the matter is that Lacan retains a certain nostalgia for German idealism, which is by and large anathema to the scientifico-clinical paradigm which Bryant is forced to occupy. He is torn between, not at ease in the line of sight of his Master.

  2. It is my impression that Lacan is too “weird” for Bryant and that he is actually very uncomfortablewith, or even afraid of, his master. Thus he does everything in his power to dilute domesticate and normalise Lacan’s ideas. This is what the hybridising with Harman’s OOO was supposed to do, but it is increasingly obvious to everyone, including Bryant, that this hybrid is not viable.

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