An Imbecile’s Guide to Zizek

“…the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”

– Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy

Somewhere between the idiot and the moron lies that strange negativity Zizek names the imbecile, a creature that knows he does not know; yet, who knows that in knowing this he knows more than he should know. He tells us that Less Than Nothing is neither a guide for the perplexed, nor a fully explicated encyclical of Hegel’s system, but is rather The Imbecile’s Guide to Hegel, adding insult to injury. Yet, if the truth be known, by a Lacanian reversal, this guide is not so much about Hegel as it is about that imbecile who is its guide and explicator: Zizek himself; or, that self-reflecting nothingness that purports to carry the name of Slavoj Zizek.

“So what does a becile know that idiots and morons don’t?” asks Zizek. He relates the fictional account of Galileo who in the moment of renouncing his greatest triumph and discovery of the truth of our Universe mutters the words “Eppur si muove” (“ And yet it moves”), after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the sun. The reality of this fiction or the fiction of this reality only underpins the truth of such a precarious movement. One that acknowledges that even if I renounce this truth to save my life from an Inquisition, that the truth as truth shall prevail. The powers that be,  those who would pretend to enforce their static model of falsehood upon us, will in themselves be the harbingers of the force of the truth they deflect and expunge,  as the truth of a future which is always moving toward us. They themselves will be forced to accept such hard truth, acknowledge that this new science has uncovered new narratives of creation, ones that go beyond their own cherished religious fictions, yet incorporate its strange forms even as it outstrips them and lays them bare to the very forces they fear: the void and the abyss of freedom.

Less Than Nothing endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. (Kindle Locations 292-295).

Because reality is empty, void, vacuum it must be “supplemented by fiction” (KL 297).  What is interesting is just at the point that he introduces the Derridean concept of supplement he then relays a joke:

Recall the old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: “O, God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!” After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: “O, God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing!” After this spectacle, an ordinary poor Jew also stands up and proclaims: “O, God, I am nothing …” The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: “What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he too is nothing!” Effectively, one already has to be something in order to be able to achieve pure nothingness, and Less Than Nothing discerns this weird logic in the most disparate ontological domains, on different levels, from quantum physics to psychoanalysis. (Kindle Locations 296-303)

This is the realm of Freud’s drives, of the weird logic that allows even the impossible possible of the creation of the universe out of nothing; yet, this nothing is not empty, this less than nothing is a something that like the fabled “Higgs Field” exists as something whose negative energy is less than nothing but produces out of its interaction within the void the very fabric of spacetime itself.

More than anything Zizek presents us with the delirious truth of immortality, but of a different kind from those religious truths that humans have been spoon fed for so many thousands of years. What escapes death is not the unique individual but some strange obscene particle, reduced neither to a Buddhistic sense of desire, nor to a Heideggerian sense of Will but is part of that jetting negativity of the Freudian drive that continues to move even after entering the Void where nothing remains but a something that is less than nothing.

What happens when we discover that we are condemned to exist forever? One can wail and gnash ones teeth, bewail one’s predicament, fall into depression, rage at the unyielding emptiness that surrounds one; or, one can just accept one’s fate, one’s immortal life. But what is one really accepting? What is this immortal life of which less than nothingness is the devil’s bargain?   One could accept the axiom of Zizek’s book: “One divides into two…” follow the breadcrumbs of this dialectical quest, interrogate the usual suspects: Hegel and Lacan, decipher what they have concealed, or left unsaid in the gaps of their ghostly discourses, reverse engineer the silences of their gestures, reveal the pattern in the dark. Ultimately this leads one to a new theory of the Subject, and to a new theory of reading philosophy: the Subject as the veritable self-reflecting nothingness that is itself less than nothing; and, of philosophy as the before and after of German Idealism.

If Kant found reality to be full of cracks and antinomies, his disciple Hegel discovered gaps and antinomies in the mind of the philosopher himself; both discovered that the world is not some harmonious whole, but is a disturbed and scandalized dimension of inconsistences that only art could salvage through a superior aesthetic judgment. Yet, as Hegel showed us the point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart. Hegel’s gaze upon reality is that of a Roentgen apparatus which sees in everything that is alive the traces of its future death.(Kindle Locations 393-395).

With Kant philosophy was put on a new footing, his conception of the transcendental constitution of reality included in it the whole history of the science of Being that preceded it and at the same time sublated it into his system: it was Kant who introduced the difference between ontic reality and its ontological horizon, the a priori network of categories which determines how we understand reality, what appears to us as reality (Kindle Locations 406-407). With Kant something happened, instead of asking the old questions about reality, about what things are as they are he asked something else: he asked what the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things is, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do?(Kindle Locations 418-420). Kant discovered another strange aspect to philosophy, one no longer has direct access to the truth of things; instead, one only has access to a history of certain metaphysical illusions, to a long line of philosophical ideas that have tried to explain the truth, not the truth itself. So for Kant it is a history of these philosophies of metaphysical illusions that must be written before one can clear the path to truth: the “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.” (Kindle Locations 438-439).

Kant’s systematic rendering of the philosophical errors of all philosophies that preceded his was the truth of the critique: its power and its ultimate failure – “what we get at the end is not the Truth that overcomes/ sublates the preceding illusions— the only truth is the inconsistent edifice of the logical interconnection of all possible illusions” (Kindle Locations 446-447). The difference between Kant and Hegel on this very point is that for Kant, this “dialogic” process of truth emerging as the critical denunciation of the preceding illusion belongs to the sphere of our knowledge and does not concern the noumenal reality which remains external and indifferent to it, while, for Hegel, the proper locus of this process is the Thing itself. (Kindle Locations 448-451).

Zizek makes a good point that Kant’s conscious design was to save Christianity through his systematic undermining of the metaphysical illusions of philosophy, but that what happened instead was an indirect destruction and undermining not of philosophy but of the very truths that had supported the theory and practice of Christianity for almost two-thousand years. “Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right? (Kindle Locations 457-458).

Zizek threads his way through Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel highlighting the tributary aftermath of Kant’s great influx. The madness of Fichte is worthy of study he tells because it provides us an in depth study of subjectivity itself. Schelling floats between a philosophy of identity and revelation, giving us a look at the pre-Freudian world of drives: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark “ground of Being” which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is “in God more than God himself.” (Kindle Locations 468-469). For Zizek Schelling discovers evil, the power of this negative energy below the threshold, the something that is nothing: the “nothing” with which we begin should be a “living nothing,” the void of a desire which expresses a will to generate or get hold of some content. (Kindle Locations 489-490).

Between Schelling and Hegel the greatest truth fell, the two highpoints of German Idealism which are the middle Schelling and the mature Hegel: “they did what no one else dared to do— they introduced a gap into the Ground itself” (Kindle Locations 503-505). A poet of the age, Holderlin, realizing this great problem  offered his own solution: “the split between substance and subjectivity, Being and reflection, is insurmountable, and the only reconciliation possible is a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles (Kindle Locations 535-536). The other two solutions to this gap were provided by Schiller and Schlegel. Schiller believed that a free human life within nature and culture is possible if it achieves that kind of internal organization, determination from within, or harmony of parts that is characteristic of both natural and artistic beauty. While Schlegel believed, on the contrary, that to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry— a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness (Kindle Locations 545-546). So between the contemplation of beauty as harmony, and its ironic and never ending restless imperfection two aesthetics were born that shaped the modern esthetic approach to objects, mind and art.

Zizek tells us that Hegel occupies here a fourth position— what he adds to Hölderlin is a purely formal shift of transposing the tragic gap that separates the reflecting subject from pre-reflexive Being into this Being itself. Once we do this, the problem becomes its own solution: it is our very division from absolute Being which unites us with it, since this division is immanent to Being.(Kindle Locations 551-553). Hegel’s greatness resides, Zizek tells us, in incorporating the truth of narratology Hegel shows us how Hölderlin’s solution shifts the focus to how (as Lacan put it) the signifier itself falls into the real, that is, how the signifying intervention (narrativization) intervenes into the real, how it brings about the resolution of a real antagonism. (Kindle Locations 583-585).

It is upon Hegel’s insight that the entire book rests: “the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth).(Kindle Locations 588-590). Its what resists us in things, those obstacles that arise in our negotiation with reality that allows us to notice the cracks and fissures in things themselves thereby allowing us in our inability to grasp these things to know their truth.

On a personal note Zizek admits that there are cracks in both Hegel and Lacan, that for years he and his friends have read Hegel through Lacan, and that through this process had slowly uncovered issues and concerns:

Recently, however, limitations of this horizon have appeared: with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock— in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots …), all of which failed. (Kindle Locations 604-607).

So he asks, “Where do we stand now?” And, his answer: “My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape (Kindle Locations 608-610). He explicates further on his use of Lacan:

Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. (Kindle Locations 616-620).

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism  Norton. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “An Imbecile’s Guide to Zizek

    • Yes, exactly, there are no ontological guarantees. One must continue, not give into cynicism or pessimism, but realize that this will always be an uphill battle; a battle that will probably have to be renewed day by day against oppressive forces at whatever level. The key is for both him and Badiou, as for Foucault: to think power without the Master signifier, without Soverignty, without Authority in the singular or elite. This is why in his book on Violence he stresses we must go back and “Learn, learn, learn…”

      I also agree that most on the left have either taken his statements at face value, or if not at face value then have tried to construe them from a common sense viewpoint, rather than realizing in his Lacanian dialectic the radical movement of his provocations. This is both the glory and the detriment of his writings that they can lead to multiple readings and misprisionings. As with all great writers there is no literal translation of his thoughts, there are only good and bad misreadings… The Art of Reading well should be on everyone’s agenda these days…. we live to close to the surface texture and sometimes forget the depths of the ocean of writing… learn to swim again…


      • you really have done a nice job in working through Zizek hereabouts and I was pleased to hear how he covers some of the themes that you have been illustrating for us.


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