Further Adventures of Slavoj (The Rocketman) Zizek: How I entered the whirling abyss…

The violence of the Real is that it is the Gap through which we must pass if we are to travel to the far shores of reality. Yet, to do this we must have a guide, a sort of Hermes in reverse: instead of the winged creature that brings messages from the gods, we have Rocketman bearing gifts from the material worlds we all live in. And, where is his message to be found?

The Parallax View

“The ultimate ontological status of material being as a substance divided against itself-this ontology of a “barred Real” is developed through analyses of Zizek’s fashions of combining German idealism and psychoanalysis – is identified as the crucial precondition for transcendental subjectivity genetically arising out of an immanent plane of materiality.”

– Adrian Johnston, Zizek’s Ontology

For a history of this trace we term the “Real” we must return to Schelling who once asked “What, then, is ultimately the reality that inheres in our representations?” (Schelling 1994b, 69). Johnston in his revealing study of Slavoj Zizek’s Ontology tells us that shortly “after formulating this query, [Schelling] contrasts “the real” with “reality” ( die Wirklichkeit) , and indicates that the latter refers to experience as given to the subject (i.e., “reality” in the Kantian sense, as the realm of experiential objects) , while the former designates something more fundamental, a tangible, solid ontological foundation that remains resistant to being accounted for by any purely idealistic emphasis on the subject’s self-enclosure within the confines of reality as experience” (71).1

So already we discover that the ‘Real’ is something that defies description, that even a careful appraisal of its features cannot lock it down into some definable set of elements. If reality is what is given to the Subject as-experiential and the ‘Real’ is something that cannot be tied to either the given of experience for-us, but is something else, something that provides the bedrock, the very foundations of this ontological subjectivity but is not accessible to it, then how can we know what it is? Johnston mentions in a passing note that this distinction between the Real and reality is used by Lacan for a period of twenty-seven years without any reference to the influence of this prime precursor. A little anxiety of influence here? Johnston mentions that with Schelling we already have the first critique of Kant, and the first critique of the correlational circle:

“He [Schelling] insists that the very raising of an inquiry into what is “real” within the subject’s representations demands a striving “towards the real” (zum Realen) , that is to say, a struggle to step outside the closed circle of the finite, limited reality of consciousness” (71).

Schelling in his critique of Kant discovers a flaw in the master’s reasoning, he discovers (according to Johnston) that Kant’s transcendental subjectivity cannot account for the genesis of its own experience, which undermines the very foundations of transcendental philosophy. (73) As Schelling states it:

Kant fights against empiricism only insofar as he, in opposition to Locke and above all to Da vid Hume, demonstrates an a priori element for the understanding in the empirical representations themselves-but how he himself arrives or arrived at this assertion he basically does not explain, or does so only tacitly by only beginning with experience in the founding of this assertion, namely the experience of the observed generality and necessity of those concepts. (Johnston, 73 : Schelling 1994a, 104)

So begins the search for a ground of grounds, a foundation for the transcendental subject, one from which the Real and reality can be explored. Schelling saw that something else was missing in Kant’s critiques, the question of “How it happens that things come to be represented at all, about that there is the deepest silence” in Kant. (74) As Johnston states it “the Schellingian task, spurred on by this silence, is to formulate a genetic transcendentalism, a system in which the gradual emergence of the transcendent (al) , along with its corresponding modes of experience, is grasped as a philosophically explicable process immanent to a monistic ontological register” (74). In a note to this Johnston mentions that Zizek too uses the Schellingian insight to formulate his own transcendental materialist perspective:

This is a task that Zizek, too, can be seen to take up via his combined use of German idealism and psychoanalysis in the effort to forge a transcendental materialist theory of the subject according to which, to put it in Schellingian language, the seemingly transcendent ideality of subjectivity is a rupture in the fabric of being , immanently produced within and by the inconsistent, unstable [proto-] materiality of the Real-as-ground. (74)

It seems we are moving toward a genetic transcendental materialism founded on the very rupture or gap between the thinking and being which is both immanent to it and founds it as its groundless ground. Johnston quotes Zizek in a commentary on this passage by Schelling:

Here Schelling is the exact opposite of Kant: Reason is originally “ecstatic,” outside itself; it never begins in itself; its activity is never founded in itself, but always triggered by … some collision which provides the impulse to the thought – this collision, this encounter with the real, distinguishes an actual experience from the mere possibility of experience. On the contrary, Kant … proceeds in the opposite direction: he sets up the network of the conditions of possible experience in order to make sure that the actual experience of the real, the encounter with the Thing, will never take place, so that everything that the subject will effectively encounter will be the already gentrified-domesticated reality of representations. (Zizek 1996b, 74-75)

Rocketman explores the ecstatic, shamanistic roots of Reason, that it never begins in itself, that it is shaped by catastrophic forces and collisions with the Real which create for the first time a distinction, a cut in the fabric of reality, that allows one to abstract out of the processes of sense datum the differentiations of experience thereby producing triggering events of thought. As Johnston states it, in his confrontation with Schelling, Zizek emphasizes that this archaic Grund beneath reason, giving rise to the rational and yet excluded from it, is to be conceived of as a whirling abyss of pre-symbolic drives in conflict with each other (75).

We will need to enter this whirling abyss of the drives as we continue our explorations of Rocketman and his adventures into the strange ontology of transcendental materialism in our next post…

1. Adrian Johnston. Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy 2008)

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