Slavoj Zizek: The Thin Red Line

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

– Dylan Thomas

As we know the notion of the gap or crack in the world is central to Zizek’s philosophy, the sine qua non of its dialectical core or kernel. Between a passion for the Real and a passion for the Semblance humanity seems to be caught in the net of an illusionary drive toward opposing truths. Are either of these positions right? Zizek says there might just be a third way:

There is not just the interplay of appearances, there is a Real— this Real, however, is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap which prevents our access to it, the “rock” of the antagonism which distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. The “truth” is thus not the “real” state of things, accessed by a “direct” view of the object without any perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism which causes the perspectival distortion itself. Again, the site of truth is not the way “things really are in themselves,” beyond perspectival distortion, but the very gap or passage which separates one perspective from another, the gap … which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable. The “Real as impossible” is the cause of the impossibility of our ever attaining the “neutral” non-perspectival view of the object. There is a truth, and not everything is relative— but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.1

This vacillation between the Real and the Semblance Zizek tells us is at the heart of Plato’s Parmenides: in the history of philosophy, the first exemplary case of “vacillating the semblances” occurs in the second part of Plato’s Parmenides, with the deployment of eight hypotheses on the relation between Being and One (ibid, KL 1210-1212). What is unique in all of Plato’s dialogues is that he leaves out the one philosopher that could have helped him: Democritus. And it is to Democritus that Zizek turns for his concept of the gap between Being and the One: in Democritus’s notion of the non-word, den:

Democritean atomism is thus the first materialist answer to Eleatic idealism: Eleatics argue from the logical impossibility of the void to the impossibility of motion; Democritean atomists seem to reason in reverse, deducing from the fact that motion exists the necessity that the void (empty space) exists. The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness/ the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void/ nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e., there is an indistinction of being and the void.(Kindle Locations 1539-1544).

“If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being,” says Zizek. In order to get from nothing to something, we do not have to add something to the void; on the contrary, we have to subtract, take away, something from nothing. Nothing and othing are thus not simply the same: “Nothing” is the generative void out of which othings, primordially contracted pre-ontological entities, emerge— at this level, nothing is more than othing, negative is more than positive. Once we enter the ontologically fully constituted reality, however, the relationship is reversed: something is more than nothing, in other words, nothing is purely negative, a privation of something.(Kindle Locations 1544-1548). He continues, stating:

This, perhaps, is how one can imagine the zero-level of creation: a red dividing line cuts through the thick darkness of the void, and on this line, a fuzzy something appears, the object-cause of desire— perhaps, for some, a woman’s naked body (as on the cover of this book). Does this image not supply the minimal coordinates of the subject-object axis, the truly primordial axis of evil: the red line which cuts through the darkness is the subject, and the body its object?(Kindle Locations 1549-1552).

Zizek tells us that most – so to speak, atomists have gotten it wrong from the beginning, that they have turned this den, this less than nothing into its opposite, a something.

The rise of den is thus strictly homologous to that of objet a which, according to Lacan, emerges when the two lacks (of the subject and of the Other) coincide, that is, when alienation is followed by separation: den is the “indivisible remainder” of the signifying process of double negation— something like Sygne de Coûfontaine’s tic, this minimal eppur si muove which survives her utter Versagung (renunciation). The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”( less-than-nothings).(Kindle Locations 1522-1527).

So that an anachronistic reference to Kant can nonetheless be of some help here: meden follows the logic of negative judgment, it negates being as a predicate, while den asserts non-being as a (positive) predicate— den is nothingness (the void) which somehow “is” in itself, not only as a negation of (another) being. In other words, den is the space of indistinction between being and non-being, “a thing of nothing,” as the “undead” are the living dead.(Kindle Locations 1531-1534)

Den is that gap between Being and the Real.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1201-1209). Norton. Kindle Edition.

8 thoughts on “Slavoj Zizek: The Thin Red Line

  1. Two questions, then:

    1. Is this ‘gap’ the source of our awareness of what Zizek wants to signify as a ‘less than zero’, a pure opening that can only be called a nothing, a void – the absence of a presence. Or is this gap identical to this absoulute zero?

    2. I struggle to know what Zizek is trying to get over here. Is it a bare existence, or beingness that is prior to ‘creation’ or the +1? And is this thinking and saying of the ground zero a philosophical gesture towards pure materiality, as in or similar to Laruelle’s One?


    • Yea, I understand your predicament, he isn’t always perfectly clear. But the truth is in his use of the double negation of negation. He affirms two voids: the absolute zero of nothing, and the subtraction of less than nothing (den) as void. It is out of the interaction of den and the absolute void that Being arises; i.e., before all positivity, before that thin red line there is the nothing that is something and the nothing that is no thing.

      I’ll add in the page number where he explains the difference… I think I’ve covered aspects of that in other posts, but will get a quote and page number ( I need to buy the actual paper bound version, I hate kindle since many of the books use that kindle location crap). I’ll do some research where he covers this in both Tarrying with the Negative, Less than Nothing, and other works…

      What’s been interesting to me is that his form of materialism starts with the void… being an insubtantialist, he starts with atoms not as substantial formalists do with positive entities like we see atoms in those inheritors of atomistic science after the Neo-Platonists down through its revival in the 16th to 18th century. He sees atoms against the grain: as manifestations below the thin red line as the less than nothing that is something – an entity that interacts with the Nothing or Void that is empty absolute vacuum. And out of this interaction they produce the objects above the line as positive entities.

      Because of his long winded convoluted habits of speech and writing he almost needs an editor or commentator to rewrite his works for clarification. His mind is too mercurial, he fleets from one thing to the next without pondering or pausing long enough to catch his breath…. funny sometimes, at other times just exasperating. Takes a lot of concentration to go along with him on some of these longer essays…


    • I think this sums up the difference in his two conceptions:

      The materialist solution is very precise, and it concerns the key paradox of the Higgs field: as with every field, Higgs is characterized by its energy density and by its strength— however, “it is energetically favorable for the Higgs field to be switched on and for the symmetries between particles and forces to be broken.” In short, when we have the pure vacuum (with the Higgs field switched off), the Higgs field still has to spend some energy— nothing comes for free; it is not the zero-point at which the universe is just “resting in itself” in total release— the nothing has to be sustained by an investment of energy. In other words, energetically, it costs something to maintain the nothing (the void of the pure vacuum). Maybe some theosophical traditions are on the right track here, such as the Talmudic idea that, prior to creating something, God had to create nothing, to withdraw, to clear the space for creation. This paradox compels us to introduce a distinction between two vacuums: first, there is the “false” vacuum in which the Higgs field is switched off, i.e., there is pure symmetry with no differentiated particles or forces; this vacuum is “false” because it can only be sustained by a certain amount of energy expenditure. Then, there is the “true” vacuum in which, although the Higgs field is switched on and the symmetry broken, i.e., there is a certain differentiation of particles and forces, the amount of energy spent is zero. In other words, energetically, the Higgs field is in a state of inactivity, of absolute repose. At the beginning, there is the false vacuum; this vacuum is disturbed and the symmetry is broken because, as with every energetic system, the Higgs field tends towards the minimization of its energy expenditure. This is why “there is something and not nothing”: because, energetically, something is cheaper than nothing. We are here back at the notion of den in Democritus: a “something cheaper than nothing,” a weird pre-ontological “something” which is less than nothing.(Kindle Locations 21074-21089).


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