Slavoj Zizek: Non-Knowledge, Self-Limitation, and Forgetting

The formula of true atheism is thus: divine knowing and existence are incompatible, God exists only insofar as He does not know […] His own inexistence. The moment God knows, He collapses into the abyss of inexistence.
– Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil


One might want to say that of Zizek himself, that throughout the Chapter Five on Being, Not-Knowing, Absolute Knowing, where he starts asking us:

What if only a God who does not see and know all, who cannot read my mind and needs my confession, a God who has to rely on a big Other outside Himself— what if only such a God can be said to exist? What if total knowledge entails inexistence and existence as such implies a certain non-knowledge? Such a paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism, for which things exist independently of our knowledge of them, and subjectivist idealism, for which things exist only insofar as they are known or perceived by a mind— things exist insofar as they are not known. (209)1

Sometimes Zizek sounds like an old gnostic musing on the imponderable strangeness of God, but his God is the Void, the unknowing subject that seems always to elude the central truth of its own inexistence. Zizek is not so much a Gnostic knower as he is a Anti-Gnostic Unknower; for it is in forgetting that we exist, not in our knowing. A doctrine of pure loss in love with its loss-as-loss underpins Zizek’s basic message. He’ll distribute plentiful examples from Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, Hegel, etc. circling once again the notion of the Subject-as-negativity or self-relating negativity (Void, lack, gap etc.).

This notion of ignorance, or “not knowing” is not of the Socratic kind:

He among you is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is really worth nothing at all. (Apology 23b, tr. Church, rev. Cumming) – That the wisest of you men is he who like Socrates has learned that with respect to wisdom, he is truly worthless. (tr. Tredennick) – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (tr. Jowett)

Socrates would tell us in one dialogue on discovering the ignorance of another that  “it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know“. (Apology 21d, tr. Tredennick) Against such Socratic irony Zizek will inform us that there is a key difference between this knowing and what, in a certain Socratic or mystical tradition, is called docta ignorantia: the latter refers to the subject’s knowing its own ignorance, while the ignorance registered by the subject of Absolute Knowing is that of the big Other itself (244). This ignorance is the gap or void or lack in our very knowing. Yet, it goes deeper than that, for it is this gap in our knowledge that saves us from utter annihilation. For as Zizek will state “The formula of true atheism is thus: divine knowing and existence are incompatible, God exists only insofar as He does not know (take note of, register) His own inexistence. The moment God knows, He collapses into the abyss of inexistence.” (243-244) He will explain that because of our finitude we are open to both closure and totality:

Therein lies the ultimate “coincidence of the opposites” in the Hegelian system: its closure is the very form (of appearance) of its openness. That is to say, the idea that Hegel simply closes his system with the mirage of total knowledge about everything there is to know, somehow bringing the entire universe to its completion, is completely wrong: what Hegel calls AK is his name for a radical experience of self-limitation, of what Lacan referred to as il n’y a pas de métalangage . We reach AK not when we “know it all,” but when we reach the point at which there is no longer any external point of reference by means of which we could relativize our own position— in AK, the very fact that no external limit is discernible, that we do not see the limits of our world, bears witness to our limitation, to our immersion in a world whose horizon we do not perceive. This is why the Hegelian totality is “non-All,” incomplete, self-relativization brought to an extreme, and at the same time always already completed, totalized— these two aspects are the two sides of the same coin.(243-244)

So knowledge comes by way of limitation and lack rather than in some hyper-knowing of everything. All of this goes back to his temporal notions of essence, which he will go into length in his discussion on Potentiality:

“Potentiality” is thus not simply the name for the essence of a thing as actualized in the multitude of empirical things of this genre (the Idea of a chair as a potentiality actualized in empirical chairs). The multitude of the actual properties of a thing is not simply reduced to the inner core of this thing’s “true reality”; what is more important is that it accentuates (profiles) the thing’s inner potential. When I call someone “my teacher,” I thereby outline the horizon of what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as “a chair,” I profile the way I intend to use it. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden, latently present, within it . In other words, potentiality appears “as such,” becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light (“ posits”) its potentials. In short, impartial observation gets caught up in the “bad infinity” of complex features, without being able to decide on the essentials, and the only way to arrive at true universality is by way of a reasoning that is sustained by a practical engagement.(p. 229).

Just before the passage on potentiality above Zizek was speaking of the difference between the older classical notions of “essence” and the Heideggerian notion of “essencing”, which brings with it a temporal reversal: a notion in which essence does not preceded being, but is instead a creation and movement of language in its pragmatic engagement with reality through the techniques of profiling:

This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language, hinging on a shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence inhabits this “essencing” ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.1

 And this notion of a “partial color” casting its light across the Whole is the form of the trope: the part-for-Whole notion of synecdoche as a subset of metonymy, etc. But what’s interesting is the temporal dimension of essencing: allowing language itself to be the creative agent giving this pragmatic dimension to profiling and the negotiations with reality. Whether he will or want Zizek is still bound to the human(istic) universe of the old Kantian world of deonotological norm building, etc.:

Hegel’s formulation is very precise here: the reduction to the signifying “unary feature” contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (Idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.(229)

Yet, in Heidegger he will find the notion of a dessentialized essence:

It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature apropos language when, in his reading of “essence or Wesen” as a verb (“ essencing”), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence. Traditionally, “essence” refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, “essence” is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language, the “house of being.” His expression “Wesen der Sprache” does not mean “the essence of language,” but the “essencing,” the making of essences that is the work of language, (228-229)

language bringing things into their essence, language “moving us” so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are … We share an originary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we “listen to language,” when we “let it say its saying to us.” (He quotes this from Mark Wrathall, How to Read Heidegger, London: Granta 2005, pp. 94– 5.)

 All this will lead back to Zizek’s confrontation with dialectical analysis:

What is a dialectical analysis of, say, a past event , of a revolutionary break? Does it really amount to identifying the underlying necessity that regulated the apparent confusion of prior events? What if the opposite is true, and the dialectical analysis reinserts possibility back into the necessary past? There is something of an unpredictable miraculous emergence in every turn from “negation” to “negation of negation,” in every rise of a new Order out of the chaos of disintegration— which is why dialectical analysis is for Hegel always the analysis of past events.  No deduction will bring us from chaos to order, and locating this moment of the magic turn, this unpredictable reversal of chaos into Order, is the true aim of dialectical analysis. (234-235)

In other words is there an essence underlying reality: is Plato right? Or is it that language creates this movement of a temporal Idea, the emergence of an Idea out of the event which is the event’s circumference and horizon, it’s potential realized as negotiation? As an example he will relate that the aim of the analysis of the French Revolution is not to unearth the “historical necessity” of the passage from 1789 to the Jacobin Terror and then to Thermidor and Empire, but to reconstruct this succession as a series of (to use this anachronistic term) existential decisions made by agents who, caught in the whirlpool of action, had to invent a way out of the deadlock (in the same way that Lacan reconceptualizes the succession of oral, anal, and phallic phases as a series of dialectical reversals).(235) Again it is this need to “invent” or create out of the perplexity of our temporal moment through pragmatic insertion of decisions that brings about retroactively this notion of historical necessity, not as if it existed as substance, but rather as something invented and immaterial material: an Idea, a temporal Idea that will then drive forward the event as its temporal limit and horizon.

This will lead to his discussion of structure: The question nonetheless remains: how are we to think the structure so that the subject emerges from it? Lacan’s answer is: as an inconsistent, non-All, symbolic structure articulated around a constitutive void/ impossibility. More precisely, the subject emerges through the structure’s own reflective self-relating which inscribes into the structure itself its constitutive lack— this inscription within the structure of what is constitutively excluded from it is “the signifier which represents the subject for other signifiers.” (240)

Here it sounds as if lack is not something that pre-exists structure, but is the emergence of the Subject in the very act of inserting lack into the structure through the self-reflective act. It is here that he will tell us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the first drama of modern subjectivity: the subject is in itself “thwarted,” the paradoxical result of its own failure-to-be— or, in the simplified terms of the loop of symbolic representation: the subject endeavors to represent itself adequately, this representation fails, and the subject is the result of this failure.(241)

One of the key points is that subjectivity escapes in the failures, in the moments that cannot be captured by the systems of signification, trapped in Reason’s world of abstractions: it’s this intractable excess that cannot be given significance, controlled, or brought into the cage of signifiers that is the subject beyond all representation. But this is a subject inventing itself moment by moment, rather than some eternal signifier wandering the horizons of linguistic heaven.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 229). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

9 thoughts on “Slavoj Zizek: Non-Knowledge, Self-Limitation, and Forgetting

  1. This is great. Just finished making the trad T’giving tiramisu and about to head up the road to the in-laws so I’ve neither read nor thought about this post as carefully as it merits. Instead I’ll give you my free associations while reading it, as if I were reclining on the analyst’s couch…

    Our daughter’s first spoken word was “da” — that’s me. It seems apropos that she would enter into the production of symbolic language by pronouncing the name of the father. It’s hard to picture myself as master signifier or big other or lawgiver or castrator from the Real; more of a void.

    Our daughter’s second spoken word was “green”: not a noun but an adjective; not an object but a property. Was this an abstraction shared across diverse objects like grass, tree leaves, one of her shirts? I think it was more a characteristic of surfaces, which per research are more primary building blocks of visual perception than are objects. She turned into an excellent visual artist, so I suppose that second word should have alerted us to her potential.

    Our cat runs away from anyone whoenters our house other than the family members. Our daughter is away at college. When she returns for holidays the cat doesn’t flee; he stays put, just as he does when my wife or I enter the house. So the cat has an awareness of our daughter’s permanent place in the local ecology. No name assigned, no essence ascribed; just immediately recognizable by appearance, sound, movement, smell.

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    • I’ve come to suspect that it is not “awareness” or conscious self-reflection in the cat, but rather certain functional sub-processes of memory and adaptation below the surface that make decisions. The reason I say this is that our cat long ago (she is now 11) was accidentally hit by a baseball from neighbors kids from a batted ball in our back yard, etc. She took a long while to heal. During that process my wife used to pet her and coddle her to coax her back into eating actual cat food. It worked too good: now she has to have us pet her every time while she is eating or she want eat. Pavlov’s law? Or is this some other internal mechanism of the brain that was latched onto? Either way she now has that memory and association with food and petting that was reinforced over time. I suspect the same with people in your cat’s proximity: memory and adaptation rather than actually being aware in the sense of self-reflective consciousness in our sense of first-person singular. She may be aware, but she is not aware of being aware: the brain is. Tough one to accept but it’s the truth we should realize want go away silently.

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    • Agreed. Our 9-month-old daughter’s recognition of me wasn’t much more intellectually complex than our adult cat’s recognition of me, even though she could call me by name while the cat cannot. She didn’t have much more self-awareness of being aware either: kids typically start talking several months before they can recognize themselves in a mirror. Even if humans have unique abilities to categorize abstractly with language, there’s more continuity than discontinuity across species.

      Interesting about your cat’s insistence on being petted before eating. Our cat seems to have a preference for the petting before eating too, likely a habitual carryover from kittenhood. Though once the food bowl hits the floor he won’t wait more than a couple of seconds for a pat before he gets to chowing down. Speaking of chowing down, the tiramisu was very good.

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  2. “One of the key points is that subjectivity escapes in the failures, in the moments that cannot be captured by the systems of signification, trapped in Reason’s world of abstractions: it’s this intractable excess that cannot be given significance, controlled, or brought into the cage of signifiers that is the subject beyond all representation. But this is a subject inventing itself moment by moment, rather than some eternal signifier wandering the horizons of linguistic heaven.”

    Very nicely put.

    So the reader has a choice: interpret the inability of experience/cognition to experience/cognize the constitutive basis of experience/cognition in terms of some extraordinary subjectivity generating ontological rupture or in terms of good old-fashioned neglect, which is to say, just another incapacity, a side effect of the way a certain subset of natural systems, the human, can only cognize themselves post facto via low-dimensional (‘intentional’) cartoons.

    In terms of magical thinking, what recommends a ‘subject inventing itself moment by moment’ over an ‘eternal signifier wandering the horizons of linguistic heaven’? Perhaps its time to say pox to both houses.

    More generally this seems to be precisely the same ‘gap-subjectivity’ thesis he offers in Parallax View. Is there something I’m missing here? Or is he working his way toward some new insight?

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    • No. Zizek is a one man band doing the same jazz routine around the Void till he dies. I think this is his one basic notion and he keeps reiterating it through a thousand variations on the theme gambit. Nothing new. I think he’s at the stage in life that he has begun revising earlier or younger Zizek now. I sometimes wonder why he never read Harold Bloom on influence: Zizek’s only influence is his earlier selves: each one a failure, so as he says: “Try better, fail better.”

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      • S.C Hickman,

        I was wondering what your opinion on the ‘one man band doing the same jazz routine around the Void’ is seven years later? There’s been a considerable resurgence of interest around Zizek’s project in the last few years, especially the later works (Parralax View, Less Than Nothing, Absolute Recoil, Sex and the Failed Absolute) which I’m curious to hear what you think of in general.

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      • If anything his counter-Hegel forces people to rethink Hegel for our time. Zizek turns all the tables on mainstream Hegelian thought, as he does with Lacan. The orthodoxy obviously hate his stance on both Hegel and Lacan. I’ve always enjoyed his questioning. He’s not the best thinker out there but he does force you to rethink your own positions. That’s what he’s best at. All these lesser cultural books and pop-philosophy are just to keep him afloat economically. Sometimes I wish he’d just stop, but let’s face it his a neurotic devil and will keep churning out works till he dies. He’s driven as many of us are by a daemon taskmaster that want let him do otherwise…

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