Absolute Recoil: Slavoj Zizek and the Foundations of Dialectical Materialism

I’m finally reading Slavoj Žižek‘s new work Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism, and already found he’s entered a shooting gallery.  The first thing one realizes is that the work is not about dialectical materialism it is rather an introduction to it as a didactic education in its practice/praxis:

The present book is an attempt to contribute to this task by way of proposing a new foundation for dialectical materialism . We should read the term “dialectics” in the Greek sense of dialektika (like semeiotika or politika): not as a universal notion, but as “dialectical [semiotic, political] matters,” as an inconsistent (non-All) mixture. Which is why this book contains chapters in—not on—dialectical materialism: dialectical materialism is not the book’s topic; it is, rather, practiced within these pages.1

Oh sure, there will be much theory, but that is not the point of the book, rather it is the practice of dialectical materialism as praxis not theory. The basic thematic of the book is based on a term from Hegel absoluter Gegenstoss, which Hegel uses only once, but at a crucial point in his logic of reflection, to designate the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss (Zizek, p. 1). He continues:

the present work endeavors to elevate the speculative notion of absolute recoil into a universal ontological principle. Its axiom is that dialectical materialism is the only true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity. All other forms of materialism, including the late Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter,” scientific naturalism , and neo-Deleuzian “New Materialism,” fail in this goal. The consequences of this axiom are systematically deployed in three steps: 1) the move from Kant’s transcendentalism to Hegel’s dialectics, that is, from transcendental “correlationism” (Quentin Meillassoux) to the thought of the Absolute; 2) dialectics proper: absolute reflection, coincidence of the opposites; 3) the Hegelian move beyond Hegel to the materialism of “less than nothing.” (ibid. 4)

 Zizek is not known for mincing words, no he intends on demolishing his critics with an iron fist; or, at least presenting his case as a form of carnival shooting gallery in which he discovers each pertinent target and begins slowly and methodically taking them down.

He will lay out the territory to be mapped, telling us that in Part I he will perform a critical analysis of two representative nontranscendental materialist theories of subjectivity (Althusser, Badiou). The second chapter deals with the transcendental dimension and describes the move from the Kantian transcendental subject to the Hegelian subject as the “disparity” in the heart of Substance. The third chapter provides an extended commentary on Hegel’s basic axiom according to which the Spirit itself heals the wounds it inflicts on nature. (ibid., pp. 4-5)

In Part II he will deal with the Hegelian Absolute. First, it describes the thoroughly evental nature of the Absolute which is nothing but the process of its own becoming. It then confronts the enigma of Hegelian Absolute Knowing: how should we interpret this notion with regard to the basic dialectical paradox of the negative relationship between being and knowing, of a being which depends on not-knowing? Finally, it considers the intricacies of the Hegelian notion of God. (ibid., p. 5)

And, finally, in Part III he will venture into an Hegelian expedition exploring the obscure terrain beyond Hegel. It begins by deploying the different, contradictory even, versions of the Hegelian negation of negation. It then passes to the crucial dialectical reversal of “there is no relationship” into “there is a non-relationship”— the passage which corresponds to the Hegelian move from dialectical to properly speculative Reason. The book concludes with some hypotheses about the different levels of antagonism that are constitutive of any order of being, delineating the basic contours of a renewed Hegelian “dentology” (the ontology of den, of “less than nothing”). (ibid. 5)

Yet, he will begin by clearing a path toward his new adventure. He will define his form of dialectical materialism against all the other forms of Materialisms that seem to be part of the contemporary Continental scene:

Materialism appears today in four main versions: 1) reductionist “vulgar” materialism (cognitivism, neo-Darwinism); 2) the new wave of atheism which aggressively denounces religion (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.); 3) whatever remains of “discursive materialism” (Foucauldian analyses of discursive material practices); 4) Deleuzian “new materialism.” Consequently, we should not be afraid to look for true materialism in what cannot but appear as (a return to German) idealism —or, as Frank Ruda put it apropos Alain Badiou, true materialism is a “materialism without materialism” in which substantial “matter” disappears in a network of purely formal/ ideal relations. (ibid., p. 5)

What’s interesting to me is how he ties transhumanism, posthumanism, the NBIC and ICT technologies and sciences to Idealism:

Does not the biogenetic goal of reproducing humans scientifically through biogenetic procedures turn humanity into a self-made entity, thereby realizing Fichte’s speculative notion of a self-positing I? Today’s ultimate “infinite judgment” (coincidence of opposites) thus seems to be: absolute idealism is radical naturalist reductionism. …

…so-called [Russian] “bio-cosmism” enjoyed an extraordinary popularity— as a strange combination of vulgar materialism and Gnostic spirituality that formed the occult shadow-ideology, or obscene secret teaching, of Soviet Marxism. It is as if, today, “bio-cosmism” is reemerging in a new wave of “post-human” thought. (ibid., 6)

 In my earlier segements on Accelerationism I spoke of Benedict Singleton’s Accelerationist Cosmism of Nikolai Fedorov, which ties in much of the same territory. Yet, Zizek will put his own twist on this post-human turn telling us we should not reduce this “post-human” stance to the paradigmatically modern belief in the possibility of total technological domination over nature—what we are witnessing today is an exemplary dialectical reversal: the slogan of today’s “post-human” sciences is no longer domination but surprise (contingent, non-planned emergence). (ibid., p. 7) He’ll quote Jean-Pierre Dupuy who detects a weird reversal of the traditional Cartesian anthropocentric arrogance which grounded human technology, a reversal clearly discernible in today’s robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life and Artificial Intelligence research:

how are we to explain the fact that science became such a “risky” activity that, according to some top scientists, it poses today the principal threat to the survival of humanity? Some philosophers reply to this question by saying that Descartes ’ dream—“ to become master and possessor of nature”— has turned out bad, and that we should urgently return to the “mastery of mastery.” They understand nothing. They don’t see that the technology profiling itself at our horizon through the “convergence” of all disciplines aims precisely at non-mastery. The engineer of tomorrow will not be a sorcerer’s apprentice because of his negligence or ignorance, but by choice. He will “give” himself complex structures or organizations and will try to learn what they are capable of by exploring their functional properties— an ascending, bottom-up, approach. He will be an explorer and experimenter at least as much as an executor. The measure of his success will be more the extent to which his own creations will surprise him than the conformity of his realization to a list of pre-established tasks. (ibid., p. 7)

 Zizek will attack such luminaries as Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett for their supposed New Materialism, which he sees as a neo-vitalism; or, as Fredric Jameson will claim, that Deleuzianism is today the predominant form of idealism: as did Deleuze, New Materialism relies on the implicit equation: matter = life = stream of agential self-awareness— no wonder New Materialism is often characterized as “weak panpsychism” or “terrestrial animism.” (ibid., p. 8) Against this he will champion traditional forms of sciences, saying that what science distils as “objective reality” is becoming more and more an abstract formal structure relying on complex scientific and experimental work. Does this mean, however, that scientific “objective reality” is just a subjective abstraction ? Not at all, since it is here that one should mobilize the distinction between (experienced) reality and the Real. (ibid., 10) So that reality (empirical actual) will be pitted against the Real (abstract model or mathematical mappings, etc.). Ultimately he will tell us that the move that defines New Materialism should be opposed to the properly Hegelian dialectical-materialist overcoming of the transcendental dimension or the gap that separates subject from object: New Materialism covers up this gap, reinscribing subjective agency into natural reality as its immanent agential principle, while dialectical materialism transposes back into nature not subjectivity as such but the very gap that separates subjectivity from objective reality. (ibid., 12)

I’m going to stop here. The rest of his introduction will lay out arguments with Hegelians such as Robert Pippin and others who Zizek will point by point argue that these philosophers have all misprisioned or misread his ideas, notions, works, etc. As usual one will need to work through the dialectical reasoning of his specific arguments, return them to his previous works, tally the count of pros and cons, etc. Generally when reading Zizek one is overhearing a thinker think, listening in on a continuing monologue that he is having with himself rather than a discourse with a reader (think of Robert Browning). Zizek is our modern or postmodern or? – Hamlet always disagreeing even with himself, and surprising himself. Quoting others where their thoughts agree, disagree. Practicing dialectical materialism rather than discoursing on it.

In the final section of the Intro he will show the difference between true and false Masters, using Steve Jobs vs. Hitler or Stalin:

When asked how much research Apple undertakes into what its customers want, he [Steve Jobs] snapped back: “None. It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want … we figure out what we want.”  Note the surprising turn of this argumentation: after denying that customers know what they want, Jobs does not go on with the expected direct reversal “it is our task (the task of creative capitalists) to figure out what they want and then ‘show it to them’ on the market.” Instead, he says: “we figure out what we want”— this is how a true Master works: he does not try to guess what people want; he simply obeys his own desire and leaves it up to others to decide if they want to follow him. In other words , his power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it. Therein lies the difference between a true Master and, say, the fascist or Stalinist leader who pretends to know (better than the people themselves) what people really want (what is really good for them), and is then ready to enforce it on them even against their will. (ibid. 46)

Yet, he will ask: Why do we need Masters anyway? The obvious question to be raised here is: why does a subject need a Master to assume his or her freedom? Does not such an assumption amount to a kind of pragmatic paradox wherein the very form (a Master gives me freedom) undermines the content (my freedom)? Should we not rather follow the well-known motto of all emancipatory movements: freedom cannot be handed down to us by a benevolent master but has to be won through hard struggle? (ibid. 48)

Where he tells us that the Master’s “power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it” (ibid. 48), one should realize that this is what we should all do: regain our own power, freedom and fidelity to desire, and not compromise it by accepting false gifts and promises from the false Master’s of the global economy. And, the struggle? The struggle is to regain that very freedom from (the globalist agenda) and too our own desires for a life beyond all such global agendas of elites, masters, etc. The first step in this task according to Zizek is to understand the praxis of dialectical materialism.  

(note: I’ll come back to this work after I finish it and take notes and let it digest with a reading of some of his earlier and later works.)


1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 6-7). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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