Quick note on Brassier’s reading of Adorno and Horkheimer

Civilization proscribes mimetic behavior as a dangerous regression.

— Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound Enlightenment and Extinction

Brassier reminds us that for Adorno and Horkheimer, both “mimesis and subsumption are intimately connected to fear: a nexus of terror links civilization’s fear of regression, the individual’s fear of social disapprobation, the fear of conceptual indistinction, and the prey’s fear of its predator” (45-46).1 The point being that these concepts are bound to terror: “the terror of mimetic regression engenders a compulsion to subsume, to conform, and to repress, which is itself the mimesis of primitive organic terror” (46). At the end of a long passage he quotes form Adorno and Horkheimer they summarize what we face today: “The camouflage used to protect and strike terror today is the blind mastery of nature which is identical to farsighted instrumentality” (46).

As Brassier sees it mimicry is both a “defense mechanism and a weapon” (46). He describes the notion of reversibility as being central to this mimetic process of mimicry:

Mimetic sacrifice effectuates a reversibility between the threatening power which is to be warded off, and the threatened entity which seeks to defend itself through sacrifice. It installs a reversible equivalence between dominating and dominated force, power and powerlessness, the organic and the inorganic. Ultimately, this reversibility renders the anthropomorphic vocabulary of fear and intimidation inappropriate…(46)

Pertinent to our later age of computers and instrumental reason Brassier tells us that the “Enlightenment consummates mimetic reversibility by converting thinking into algorithmic compulsion: the inorganic miming of organic reason. Thus the artificialization of intelligence, the conversion of organic ends into technical means and vice versa, heralds the veritable realization of second nature – no longer in the conciliatory aspect of a reflexive commemoration of reason’s own natural history, but rather in the irremediable form wherein purposeless intelligence supplants all reasonable ends (47)”.

Brassier hones in on the fatal flaw within Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s project as he sees it:

Disavowing the irreflexive nature of natural history, Adorno and Horkheimer’s speculative naturalism ends up reverting to natural theology. It is the failure to acknowledge the ways in which the socio-historical mediation of nature is itself mediated by natural history – which means not only evolutionary biology but also geology and cosmology – which allows philosophical discourses on nature to become annexes of philosophical anthropology. (48)


1. Ray Brassier. Nihil Unbound Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave McMillan 2007)

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