Zizek’s Return to Plato: The Idea as Appearance of Appearance

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What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes.

…a Platonic supra-sensible Idea is an imitation of imitation, appearance as appearance—something that appears on the surface of substantial reality.

– Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

In discussion Picasso’s A Woman Throwing a Stone he tells us it lends itself easily to a Platonic reading, saying, “the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure”.1

Zizek will see in this painting a radical revision of Plato’s essential insights, which Plato himself was unable to see:

the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. (ibid, KL 934-938)

 The point here is that Ideas are not part of another eternal order outside reality, opposed to the illusory world of appearance, but rather that Ideas are the appearance of appearance: forming the very core of appearance as appearance. Ideas are situated in Zizek as part of the notions first described by the Stoics in their concept of “incorporeals” and in Deleuze as “virtual entities”: Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. (ibid., KL 935) Zizek’s materialism reverses Plato’s notion that Ideas form some other world and that we must seek beyond the illusory word the truth behind appearances, and instead shows that it is in this very realm of appearance that Ideas are created and appear. Yet, we must not mistake Ideas as substantial entities, but rather as incorporeal and virtual, insubstantial.

As Zizek will state it the ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order , how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance. (ibid., KL 946-950)

As one thinks on this one must return to Zizek’s conception of the “gap”, which he equates with Freud’s concept of drives: the thesis of the present book is double: (1) there is a dimension missed by all four, that of a pre-transcendental gap/ rupture, the Freudian name for which is the drive; (2) this dimension designates the very core of modern subjectivity. (ibid., KL 358-359) Like many readers I had difficulty understanding what Zizek meant by his concept of “gap” for a long time. Zizek will read Hegel’s notion of the “Spirit as Bone” as the shock that happens between two people who become aware of each other as self-conscious beings for the first time. He’ll relate this with the notions that as a subject “I am by definition alone, a singularity opposed to the entire world of things, a punctuality to which all the world appears, and no amount of phenomenological description of how I am always already “together-with” others can cover up the scandal of another such singularity existing in the world” (ibid. KL 12386). This knowledge that another exists, this shock that I am not alone, that “the Other is thus not simply another subject with whom I share the intersubjective space of recognition, but a traumatic Thing” (ibid., KL 12403). This recognition scene and shock is what Freud will term the drive: the name for this excessive attachment to the objectal excess is the drive, which brings us to the key question: can Hegel think the drive? (ibid., KL 12413)

For Hegel Consciousness does not yet know that there is nothing behind the veil of appearances— nothing but what consciousness itself puts there. This feature captures the acephalous character of the drive: it is not “mine,” the subject’s, it is the very core of my being insisting “out there,” as a partial object which is not me. (ibid., Kl 12419) So against any Platonic reading of something behind the veil of appearance we have the Thing, the appearance of appearance. The void that oscillates between attachment and detachment, the movement that is an excess between two voids, that Zizek will following Democritus term 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. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being. 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. (ibid. KL 1539-1548)

From this we come to Freud by way of Hegel’s notion of Force. Zizek will ask: Is the drive a Force in its being-driven-back-into-itself? Does the rhythm of Force point towards the repetitive movement of the drive? Hegel’s Force is driven back into itself as the very power of annihilating the appearances in which it expresses itself; it is not yet the potentiality of virtual Power which retains its authority only as virtual, as the threat of its actualization. More precisely, the drive is not Power, but also not Force. It is a Force thwarted in its goal, finding its aim in repeating the very failure to reach its goal. The drive does not express itself, it stumbles upon an external element or obstacle; it does not pass from one to another of its manifestations or expressions, it gets stuck on one of them. It is not driven back to itself through overcoming or annihilating its expressions, but through not being able to do so. (KL 12433-12439)

In this the drive is stuck in repetition, oscillating between two voids: subject and object. “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?” – Describing the red line that cuts between two darknesses or voids on the cover of his book: 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 (ibid. KL 1549):

He will return to Freud’s concept of Drive reiterating that it is defined Trieb (drive) as a limit- concept situated between biology and psychology, or nature and culture— a natural force known only through its psychic representatives . But we should take a step further here and read Freud more radically: the drive is natural, but the natural thrown out of joint, distorted or deformed by culture; it is culture in its natural state. This is why the drive is a kind of imaginary focus, or meeting place, between psychoanalysis and cognitive brain sciences: the paradox of the self-propelling loop on which the entire Freudian edifice is based and which the brain sciences approach in metaphoric formulations, without being able to define it precisely. Due to this in-between status, the insistence of the drive is “immortal,” an “undead” striving that insists beyond life and death. (ibid., KL 12442-12448)

The point that Zizek makes is that there is no other place that the immortal undying drive is striving to reach beyond or into, no immortal separate realm of Heaven or Ideas, etc., but that the drive exists in the oscillations of appearance as appearance in this realm arising out of the nothing between two voids. He’ll use examples from physics, neurosciences (which in some ways resemble my friend Scott Bakker’s BBT theory, strangely), and others from many various philosophical and non-philosophical theories. That materialism resembles Idealism, and that Zizek insists we need to return to German Idealism to understand where materialism went wrong in its superficial fall into many of the fragmented philosophies of the twentieth-century is the subject of his book among other things. In process of rereading this work in light of his newest Absolute Recoil I’m beginning to see how Idealism and Materialism are tied to each other not as in a mirror reversal, but in a more subtle immanent form of the one tied to the pre-ontological notion of the void (Den) which is missing in all Idealisms from the time of Parmenides onward.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 932-934). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Living in the Gap: Zizek and the Event of Philosophy

“…the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.”

– Slavoj Zizek,  Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept

Isn’t this what we’re all seeking? Where is the thinker, poet, philosopher, scientist whose ‘ideas form the foundation’ of our world view? In philosophy at least there are none at the moment. In the last century you had Heidegger and Wittgenstein along with many other lesser luminaries from Whitehead to Deleuze but that is over and done, a part of that virtual past that sits there like a dead fish on the sand of some nihilistic ocean while the waves continue to crash. Zizek likes to tell us that there are only three key philosophers: Plato , Descartes and Hegel. :- 

Each of them enacted a clear break with the past: nothing remained the same after they entered the scene. Plato broke with pre-Socratic cosmology in search of the inner harmony of the universe, and introduced metaphysical idealism; Descartes broke with the medieval vision of reality as a meaningful hierarchic order and introduced two basic ingredients of philosophical modernity – the notion of infinite and meaningless mechanical material reality, and the principle of subjectivity (‘ I think therefore I am’) as the ultimate foundation of our knowledge; and Hegel broke with traditional metaphysics – idealist or materialist – and introduced the era of radical historicity in which all solid forms, social structures and principles are conceived as results of a contingent historical process.1

One could obviously disagree with Zizek’s descriptions as caricatures, but he would stipulate that these simplifications are heuristic devices to show forth his point that each of these philosophers redefined the field of philosophy and forever changed its coordinates, thereby changing our view onto all past thought and creating the defining terms and language within which we now speak and write. We seem to live in a moment between times, a gap between eras – a mysterious rupture has taken place, and we all know that the game of metaphysics, philosophy, the sciences, etc. is over; that the Enlightenment project has failed us miserably, that modernity has led us into an end game on this planet and we keep looking back over our shoulders at the past seeking in certain thinkers what will survive the great bankruptcy of our era.

The problem is that there may be nothing worth saving, not even the appearances; that what is past lives in a dead zone awaiting not its redemption (Benjamin), nor the apophrades of ancient Athens ( a time when the dead return ), nor some influx from the Platonic realm of eternal Ideas, etc. No. We live in that blank zone awaiting no savior or prophet of the new world, but rather in the moment of movement and rupture itself when all the cards are on the table and no one holds an ace in the hole, but rather the game itself is making up its own rules as it goes along rather like a Go match that moves around a Void rather than against an enemy as in Chess. We are the players of no part, between acts in the midst of a dress rehearsal for a play that has yet to be written but is always in revision. Parody? No. Much more a blindness in the eye rather than the full awareness that leads to total paranoia. To live in the gap is to enter into that Negative Capability that John Keats the English Poet once defined as:

Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.2

The key here is to remain in the gap, the mystery, the place of no-place without seeking meaning from some older frame of reference or philosophical stance that no longer holds or affirms the truth of our moment. This process of disturbance started with nihilism which defined the meaningless of our religious, scientific, and philosophical systems of thought and feeling. It spawned the two factions of Continental and Analytical thought in the last century that have all but run their course and been critiqued to death by the opposing anti-realist and realist proclivities of philosophers and scientists alike. Yet, there remains no defining replacement, no framework or linguistic tool (math, natural language, etc.) to stamp our era with a new view onto reality: Mind/World, etc..

When Zizek tells us that “…the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field” one realizes that this is just what is going on at the moment. We are seeking a language that will redefine the entire field of thought so that the sciences, philosophy, poetry, art, economics etc. suddenly congeal into a new moment of clarity and vision for our era. There can be no eternal truth, but there can be moments of clarity and vision for human action and thought.

We will know it when it comes. We will all realize the “ah ha”, that’s it: why didn’t I realize it, why didn’t I have the words for it? Maybe that is the truth of Plato, Descartes, Hegel: that they came at the endpoint of this moment, the rupture in the fabric of meaning; that they were the strange attractors around which everything in the contingent field of thought in their era suddenly found a new language, a new framework that retroactively revised the complete field of knowledge and the given, giving us something to accept or reject in their terms rather than the outmoded forms of thought of another time and era. Yet, in the process of forcing us to rethink our terms these philosophers redefined the frame of our thinking in such a way that a new circle and horizon came into focus revealing a way of seeing that had not been there before. They did not provide answers but rather provided us new tools and questions to continue our work of discovery and exploration of reality. For our work will never be done, never be final, and there will never be some resting place of thought and being beyond which we will finally say: “This is that!” No. We are the restless one’s never satisfied with easy answers, always seeking out that most difficult puzzles and unresolved difficulties and conundrums. But that is another tale.

What I like about Zizek is his honesty. He knows he is not a Plato, Descartes, or Hegel; that he is a transitional figure seeking out in the byways and marginal districts of thought those who might be pointing the way. Each of his books repeats the basic truth that he has no answers, only more questions, but that that is the key to our era: we need better questioners, those who will break the vessels of past thought and redefine the terms of our questions and provide us new tools to open up a new horizon of meaning. Over and over he presents layer upon layer of example that revolve around that central void of his own thought on the ‘Substance become Subject’ knowing that the ever-restless whirlwind of thought will never end. If it did there would be a final death of drive and time. Zizek seeks out the anomalies, the fragments that will not stick, that will not be explained in any system of thought; for it is in those anomalies that the void shines through, the void that we forever seem to pass over for some illusory truth.

Zizek is a revisionist through and through, a heretic of thought who gambles it all to break out of the prison we’ve created for ourselves. He knows he’s failed, yet he keeps telling us that we must “fail better”. Maybe that’s all we really have is our failures, yet in our failures we have certain moments that become springboards for further wars of thought. Isn’t this the gamble we must all make? Otherwise we fall away and die the death of philosophers who have accepted lesser thought, lesser terms…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 69). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
2. Keats, John (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277.

Zizek on Lacan & Karl Popper

For Lacan, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are the three fundamental dimensions in which a human being dwells. The Imaginary dimension is our direct lived experience of reality, but also of our dreams and nightmares – it is the domain of appearing, of how things appear to us. The Symbolic dimension is what Lacan calls the ‘big Other,’ the invisible order that structures our experience of reality, the complex network of rules and meanings which makes us see what we see the way we see it (and what we don’t see the way we don’t see it). The Real, however, is not simply external reality; it is rather, as Lacan put it, ‘impossible’: something which can neither be directly experienced nor symbolized – like a traumatic encounter of extreme violence which destabilizes our entire universe of meaning. As such, the Real can only be discerned in its traces, effects or aftershocks.

This triad is far from exclusively Lacanian – another version of it was proposed by Karl Popper (1902– 94) in his theory of the Third World (which is Popper’s name for the symbolic dimension or order).  Popper became aware that the usual classification of all phenomena into external material reality (from atoms to arms) and our inner psychic reality (of emotions, wishes, experiences) is not enough: ideas we talk about are not just passing thoughts in our minds, since these thoughts refer to something which remains the same while our thoughts pass away or change (when I think about 2 + 2 = 4 and my colleague thinks about it, we are thinking about the same thing, although our thoughts are materially different; when, in a conversation, a group of people talk about a triangle, they somehow talk about the same thing). Popper is, of course, not an Idealist: ideas do not exist independently of our minds, they are the result of our mental operations , but they are nonetheless not directly reducible to them – they possess a minimum of ideal objectivity. It is in order to capture this realm of ideal objects that Popper coined the term ‘Third World,’ and this Third World vaguely fits the Lacanian ‘big Other’. However, the word ‘order’ should not lead us astray here: Lacan’s symbolic order is not a fixed network of ideal categories or norms. The standard deconstructionist/ feminist reproach to the Lacanian theory targets its alleged implicit normative content: Lacan’s notion of the Name-of-the-Father, the agent of the symbolic Law which regulates sexual difference, allegedly introduces a norm which, even if it is never fully actualized, nonetheless imposes a standard on sexuality, somehow excluding those who occupy a marginal position (gays, transsexuals, etc.); furthermore, this norm is clearly historically conditioned, it is not a universal feature of being human, as Lacan allegedly claims. However, this reproach to Lacan relies on confusion apropos the word ‘order’ in the phrase ‘symbolic order’:

‘Order,’ in the legitimate sense of the term, designates nothing more than a specific domain: it does not indicate an order to be respected or obeyed, and even less an ideal to be conformed to or a harmony. The symbolic in Lacan’s sense says nothing but the essential disorder which emerges at the juncture of language and the sexual.

The Lacanian symbolic order is thus inherently inconsistent, antagonistic, flawed, ‘barred,’ an order of fictions whose authority is that of a fraud. It is on account of this inconsistency that, for Lacan, the three dimensions of Imaginary, Real and Symbolic are worlds intertwined like the famous Escher drawing ‘Waterfall,’ which shows a perpetually descending circuit of water. Our question here is: what type of event fits each of these dimensions? What is an imaginary event, a real event, a symbolic event? The question is so vast that we cannot deal with it in one stop – we have to change lines and make three connections from this stop.1

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 107-108). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

The Coming Neurosociety: Control, Brain, And Revolt

Slavoj Zizek mentions Ahmed El Hady’s article on Big Think:  Neurotechnology, Social Control and Revolution in his short work Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept in which DARPA at the behest of the U.S. Government is carrying on a well-funded R&D project based on three strands: narrative analysis; augmented cognition (along the lines of the Iron Man project, etc., to create soldiers with enhanced cognitive capacities); and autonomous robots (aiming to convert a large fraction of the military into a robotic one, which is easier to control , will decrease the economic burden of having military personnel, and will reduce losses in terms of soldiers’ lives).1

The first project Hady describes it DARPA’s narrative networks project seeks to detect potential security threats and to protect vulnerable people from being recruited by terrorists through analysis of people narratives in the context of national security. Yet, the obverse potential of actually using such knowledge to inculcate and control its own populace through these same narrative techniques in a form social engineering, shaping culture and social interactions through exclusionary systems of control and enactment, etc.

The second project AugCog or augmented cognition is based on the enhancement of military personnel, yet could potentially be used on citizens as well to promote “educational neuroscience by controlling the type of information that students receive, by identifying incompetent students and in the more extreme case indoctrinating and enhancing particular aspects of reality on the expenses of other” (ibid.) In one military study being conducted by DARPA through a grant of a $300,000 to a researcher from the University of Colorado at Boulder, to study neuroeconomic models on the way we move (our behavioral or bodily movement) changes when faced with threats they hope to ultimately produce optimal decisions in soldiers, while at the same time providing tactical information and decisional processes to be used against an enemy. As Ahmed states it: “This proposal is about decision making, we want to understand the decision making process,” Ahmed says. “So it stands to reason that if you can understand it, then you can manipulate it, whatever, whoever it is can be manipulated. So it’s not just about our troops, and our side. But it also means you can expand that to the other side as well,” she says. In the same article we learn that In 2009, the Air Force unveiled an effort to research bio-science to improve cognition and “degrade enemy performance” by manipulating the brain’s chemical pathways to “overwhelm enemy cognitive capabilities.”

Even as far back as the 1970’s José Manuel Rodríguez Delgado a controversial figure in neuroscience and professor of physiology at Yale University was acclaimed by “the New York Times Magazine in a cover story as the impassioned prophet of a new ‘psychocivilized society’ whose members would influence and alter their own mental functions”. 2 Delgado implanted radio equipped electrodes, which he termed ‘stimoceivers’, into the brains of several ‘fighting’ bulls and stood in a bullring with one bull at a time and attempted to control the actions of the bull by pressing buttons on a handheld transmitter. In one instance Delgado was able to stop a charging bull in its tracks only a few feet away from him by the press of a button. The New York Times published a front page story on the event, “calling it ‘the most spectacular demonstration ever performed of the deliberate modification of animal behavior through external control of the brain’” (see Dennis).

Neurotechnologies are set to change this with the rise of ‘nanobiochips’ and brain imaging and scanning technologies that will eventually lower the cost of neurological techniques and analysis as well as making the procedures efficient and profitable. Neurotechnologies, combined with wireless sensors, may possibly usher in a communications revolution greater than that caused by the arrival of the transistor and the microchip. Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO), writes that ‘When data from advanced biochips and brain imaging are combined they will accelerate the development of neurotechnology, the set of tools that can influence the human central nervous system, especially the brain’. Although neurotechnologies are likely to be put to therapeutic and medical uses, such as for improving emotional stability and mental clarity, they also open opportunities for intrusive strategies of control and manipulation.3

As Zizek will remind us the goal is to intervene into the actual brain of both enemy and citizen through neurobiological tools and technologies:

DARPA would like to revolutionize the study of narrative influence by extending it into the neurobiological domain. The standard narrative analysis thus takes an ominous turn: the goal is not to convince the potential terrorist through apt rhetoric or line of argument ( or even plain brainwashing), but to directly intervene in his brain to make him change his mind. Ideological struggle is no longer conducted through argument or propaganda, but by means of neurobiology , i.e., by way of regulating neuronal processes in our brain. Again, the catch is: who will decide what narratives are dangerous and, as such, deserve neurological correction? (Zizek, pp. 53-54)

As one critic who also mentions the modes of external or ubiquitous computing and electronic ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) and electromagnetic neurotechnologies: the mind has no firewall, and is thus vulnerable to viruses, Trojan horses, and spam. It is also vulnerable to hackers, cyber–terrorists, and state surveillance. Whilst this may sound a little too far out, they are reasonable questions to ask if technologies are racing ahead of us in order to better get into our heads.4

It’s as if technology is already living in that future and is seeking to bring us into its ubiquitous gaze to better control and shape our desires toward its own goals, not ours. Zizek mentions Lacan’s notion of ‘traversing the fantasy’ in the context of Heidegger’s concept of Gestell (“enframing”), which for Heidegger encompasses the ‘essence of technology’. Zizek will tell us that when Heidegger speaks about the ‘essence of technology,’ he has in mind something like the frame of a fundamental fantasy which , as a transparent background, structures the way we relate to reality. Gestell, Heidegger’s word for the essence of technology, is usually translated into English as ‘enframing’. At its most radical, technology does not designate a complex network of machines and activities, but the attitude towards reality which we assume when we are engaged in such activities: technology is the way reality discloses itself to us in contemporary times. The paradox of technology as the concluding moment of Western metaphysics is that it is a mode of enframing which poses a danger to enframing itself: the human being reduced to an object of technological manipulation is no longer properly human; it loses the very feature of being ecstatically open to reality. However , this danger also contains the potential for salvation: the moment we become aware and fully assume the fact that technology itself is, in its essence, a mode of enframing, we overcome it – this is Heidegger’s version of traversing the fantasy.(ibid. pp29-30)

In our age when the powers that control us seek to use neurotechnologies of both ubiquitous computing and augmentation to shape our desires and private lives how can we become aware of their dark enframing, thereby overcome it? Zizek says we need to traverse the fantasy of our social desires, seek out the gaps and discrepancies, the disjunctions and wounds that bind us to such dark worlds. Most of all it is to awaken from our dark dream of the future and exist in the moment to moment wounds of our lives, accept the fragility and openness of our existence toward that impossible future we are already living in. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 52). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
2. J. Horgan, 2005. “The forgotten era of brain chips,” Scientific American (October), and at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID
=1&articleID=000876CF-CC6F-1331-841D83414B7FFE9F0
.
3. see New Instruments of Surveillance and Social Control: Wireless Technologies which Target the Neuronal Functioning of the Brain Dr. Kingsley Dennis
4. T.L. Thomas, 1998. “The mind has no firewall,” Parameters (Spring), pp. 84–92, and at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/
Parameters/98spring/thomas.htm
,

Slavoj Zizek: Thought of the Day

At first approach, an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes . Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible?

[…]

Our first tentative definition of event as an effect which exceeds its causes thus brings us back to an inconsistent multiplicity: is an event a change in the way reality appears to us, or is it a shattering transformation of reality itself? Does philosophy reduce the autonomy of an event or can it account for this very autonomy? So again: is there a way to introduce some order into this conundrum? The obvious procedure would have been to classify events into species and sub-species – to distinguish between material and immaterial events, between artistic, scientific, political and intimate events, etc. However, such an approach ignores the basic feature of an event: the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme. The only appropriate solution is thus to approach events in an evental way – to pass from one to another notion of event by way of bringing out the pervading deadlocks of each, so that our journey is one through the transformations of universality itself, coming close – so I hope – to what Hegel called ‘concrete universality,’ a universality ‘which is not just the empty container of its particular content, but which engenders this content through the deployment of its immanent antagonisms, deadlocks and inconsistencies’.

– Slavoj Zizek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept

Pussy Riot: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

 What is a modest Pussy Riot obscene provocation in a church compared to the accusation against Pussy Riot, this gigantic obscene provocation of the state apparatus which mocks any notion of decent law and order?

– Slavoj Zizek

Michael Levin tell us he came to Harvard School of Government recently (09/16/2014 posted) to observe two young women from Russian: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria (Mosha) Alyokhina of Pussy Riot fame. Reading his blog post (HuffPost College: post) one is struck both by the naiveté of his critique, and its liberal progressive tendencies. He castigates them for not being liberal progressive protesters and upholding the typical critiques of power and dominion as laid down by the Western agendas. Instead they speak of the prisoner’s rights, immigration restrictions, the “brain drain” on Russian by the current regime, and a return of Christianity from its Stalinist Capital heirs to the actual people of Russia. In a last gaff, Levin throws out a limpid lambast at the two young women:

If you’re going to stand for something in today’s world, you have to declare a major. It doesn’t work to hoist the banner for every cause, no matter how noble, because you end up dissipating the energy that brought you — and your followers — to the spotlight to begin with. The last time a protest movement sought to be all-encompassing, it was Occupy, and we all know how that turned out. (here)

That Levin’s luke-warm jive of Occupy and the wrongheaded equation of it with Pussy Riot becomes clear as one reads the letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and SlavojIn it we become reacquainted with the act of political protest that landed them in the gulag system to begin with: Pussy Riot members in their red, blue, orange, yellow , and violet balaclavas entered the new Christian Cathedral in Moscow, took off their coats, revealing their brightly colored dresses and tights and proceeded to sing a “punk prayer” to the Queen Mother, Mary. The female maintenance staff started to panic and called security. One security guard hurried across, tackled a young woman holding a guitar and pulled her away. He returned to grab hold of a loudspeaker. Church employees attempted to intercept the other four. But they had already begun their twenty-verse “punk prayer,” whose refrain is “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin.”1

After two years Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were freed on December 23, 2013, when Putin released them two months early in order to open his Winter Olympics in Sochi. During her imprisonment she expressed her interest in meeting Slavoj Zizek after reading his book on “Violence”. As she describes her first year in the new gulag at Mordovia:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [PC-14] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.”2

Reading of her trials and tribulations within the new Russia one discovers just how brutal it’s become. Or is it that the old system never went away? As we discover one of the warden’s affirms that he is still a “Stalinist”:

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.”3

What struck me is a comparison with the brutalization in the American Penal System, which shows some of the same classic earmarks of inmate brutality and survival mechanisms. As she discovers over time the prison is enforced not by the wardens, but through a brutal regime of inmate terror and fear. The inmates enforce their own brutalization on each other when quotas and other issues come about. If one tries to stand up against the system, or tries to inform those outside the system about the atrocities of its lawlessness the very inmates turn against one another to the point of murder, torcher, and animalistic behavior. As she states it:

Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.4

 She provides example after example of atrocities purported upon inmates by other inmates to keep them in line, or the punishment of units, or even the whole prison: forcing inmates to live in the open under freezing conditions, starving them, forcing them to work sixteen hour days, forcing them to remain at their sewing machines unable to pee, enforced hazing and beatings at the hands of inmates to scared not to comply with their own leaders, etc. She speaks of a gypsy woman killed in a beating in a rival unit:

It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14.5

 When Nadya tells her lawyer of the conditions and the problems he puts in a formal complaint which turns against her intentions when the wardens learn of it and impose even harsher conditions on her entire prison forcing convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. The warden tells them: 

“You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers , especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day . Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”6

In the end she declared a hunger strike, saying:

I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.7

 Zizek in response to this courageous young woman will answer the call and begin a series of personal letters (that on both sides is carried on through translation and a restrictive lens of the overseers themselves – as the wardens read all letters, emails, etc. and impose their martial regulatory gaze upon them).

Zizek in his opening letter will greet Nadya, saying:

Against all postmodern cynics, you demonstrate that ethical-political engagement is needed more than ever. So please ignore enemies and false friends who pity you as punk provocateurs who deserve mere clemency. You are not helpless victims calling for sympathy and mercy, you are fighters calling for solidarity in struggle.8

Of course Zizek is showing forth his version of this old form stating in his Sublime Object of Ideology that cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to the cynical subversion of its ideological universality, while keeping the mask of it in place and allowing the imposition of its heritage to remain in place even as it castigates it on the surface. As he says:

This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality — the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. This cynicism is therefore a kind of perverted ‘negation of the negation’ of the official ideology: confronted with illegal enrichment, with robbery, the cynical reaction consists in saying that legal enrichment is a lot more effective and, moreover, protected by the law.9

One sees this in outgoing President Medvedev’s statement to the press:

“I wouldn’t have sent them to jail if I had been the judge. I simply don’t think that’s right because these girls had already served a prison sentence. And actually that should have been enough. The fact that one has been released is fortunate … but it’s not up to me, rather to the courts and their lawyers. They have the right to appeal, and I think they should and let the courts consider the case on it own merits.”10

On the surface he makes a moral plea, but underneath this stance of protest on the part of a system representative we see the cynical face of the new Russia imposing its harsh realities while at the same time telling us it is not right or moral, etc.

But Zizek will not stop there in his next letter he’ll tackle the liberal progressive critics for their attack on Pussy Riot for turning against Global Capitalism. He will then make his pointed attack plain, saying: “What makes Pussy Riot so disturbing for the liberal gaze is the way you reveal a hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.”

Zizek will take up the whole imposition of austerity across the Continent with its tendency to both destroy and dismantle the old social security systems and safety valves of the democratic processes, while allowing the elite and their banks to gain utter power over the populace through a sophistry of arguments that are at once moral seeming and in actuality Stalinist measures of total authoritarianism. He will go on saying that Pussy Riot symbolizes the truth, the spirit of our age in the Hegelian sense, embodying the critique that not only do the experts have no clue, but the ruling elite themselves are powerless to solve the world situation.

In her response to Zizek’s first letter she will reiterate her Nietzschean and youthful stance, saying, “we’re the children of Dionysus, floating by in a barrel, accepting nobody’s authority . We’re on the side of those who don’t offer final answers or transcendent truths. Our mission, rather, is the asking of questions (KL 407)”. Influenced by Heraclitus and Berdyaev Nadya will offer a vision of hope from the world of fire and transformation against aspects of Zizek’s more dialectical materialism. Berdyaev’s almost gnostic sense of a rebellion against the powers of the world in high places sings out of her letter. Of course Nikolai Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox propounded his own Christian oriented vision of earthly revolt. In the letter she will quote him: “Christianity itself is to me the embodiment of the revolt against the world and its laws and fashions.” (KL 417)

Against the notion of experts having the answers to the dilemmas of the world  she says: “Cultural competence and sensitivity to the Zeitgeist don’t come with a college diploma or live in an administrator’s briefcase. You need to know which way to point the map” (KL 441). Against experts she offers the “Dionysians, the unmediated ones, those drawn to what’s different and new, seeking movement and inspiration over dogmas and immutable statutes. The innocents, in other words, the speakers of truth. (KL 446)” Yet, she herself admits that she has no answers. The dilemmas between the experts and the innocents remains, and the only thing she hopes for is an almost salvatory vision of “Herod’s daughter” who may come, one bearing hope and truth, etc., saying those “who live their lives entirely within the gift economy, will always receive a miracle at the exact moment they need it” (KL 453).

In response to this letter Zizek will remember Trotsky’s dream of Lenin in which Lenin does not know that he is dead. For Zizek it has a two-fold meaning: on the one hand it aligns with the notion that we must slough off the old utopianism, let it die a final death; and, on the other, that what must remain alive in Leninism is not the utopian dream, but its Idea, what “Alain Badiou calls the “eternal Idea” of universal emancipation, the immortal striving for justice that no insult or catastrophe will manage to kill— Lenin lives wherever there are people who still fight for the same Idea.” (KL 478-480)

Zizek will argue that in our time it is the experts who have become the utopianists, who would keep things in stasis, bring the world under one rule, one law, one movement of power and logic: “Experts are by definition the servants of those in power: they don’t really THINK, they just apply their knowledge to problems defined by the powerful…” (KL 488) Zizek in a critique of her Nietzschean opposition of Dionysus/Apollo or Flux/Order invocation will remind her that it does not go enough, that what is needed is “not just to shake people out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very coordinates of social reality such that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying “Apollonian equilibrium.” (KL 508)”

He will launch into his latest critique of “late capitalism”, using Brian Massumi’s idea of affective capitalism saying:

It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety— because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay— as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value . It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.(KL 513)

Affective Economy as the mode of generating emotional investment in variety is at the heart of this new economy. The notion here is that one cannot subvert what has already internalized its own subversion as a permanent revolt, instead “late capitalism” defines itself now in normal terms of a carnivalized economy, “with its constant reversals, crises, and reinventions, such that it is now the critique of capitalism, from a “stable” ethical position, which increasingly appears as the exception” (KL 531).

Yet, Nadya in her response will agree that maybe their right, but that they forget the other side of the equation, the losers, the outcast and third-world slaves of this new economy:

…the logic of totalizing normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, and incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behavior is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule. No wonder authoritarian China has emerged as a world economic leader.(KL 565-569)

 She will take exception to Zizek’s “distrust of thinking that is posited within the frameworks of binary oppositions, and even insist on the use of such binaries as a heuristic— one that is situational and, when it must be, even burlesque” (KL 573). What is interesting next is that she will point out Zizek’s own male chauvinism, saying in response to his sympathy at her plight while he is in a privileged position of male power outside the situation: 

“Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ‘empirical deprivations.’ ” (KL 594)

Zizek will apologize for this flaw in his character: “my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched male chauvinism can be, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue” (KL 559).

In this letter he will contrast the two visions of Hardt/Negri – with their reliance on a Deleuzian/Guattari rhizomatic vision of “cognitive capitalism” as totally deterriolized and opening up a creativity that cannot be contained or mastered; against, Franco Berardi’s vision of doom and impotence, in which the only way out is to abandon the machine, the world of capitalism through small aggressive communities withdrawing from its system of economics. Zizek will comment:

Berardi, only withdrawal, passivity, and the abandonment of illusions can open up a new way: “Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope.” I, of course, do not follow him here, but I do share his skepticism about chaotic resistance. I am more and more convinced that what really matters is what happens the day after: can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but are also able to offer the prospect of a new order? (KL 649-653)

In her next letter Nadya will respond to Zizek’s male chauvinist apology, and its inherent inability to address the differences in regional exceptions to the capitalist agenda with a question: “what are the acceptable limits of tolerance? When does it cease to be tolerance and become instead collaborationism, conformism, even criminal complicity?” (KL 702) Here she questions the U.S.A.’s complicity in dealing with Russian and China and overlooking its internal atrocities against its citizens or former satellites.  Against the notion of global capitalism in Left critiques she offers instead that they “set aside their colonial Eurocentrism and consider global capitalism in its entirety, encompassing all regional variants” (KL 720).

Countering this attack on universalism Zizek will say yes, yes, by all means we must fight in the diversity, yet we must not forget the Hegelian notion of totality which does not mean some false notion of organic whole, but is instead to realize it as a “critical notion— to “locate a phenomenon in its totality” does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its distortions (“ symptoms,” antagonisms, inconsistencies) as its integral parts. In other words, the Hegelian totality is by definition “self-contradictory,” antagonistic, inconsistent: the “Whole” which is the “True” (Hegel: “das Ganze is das Wahre”) is the Whole plus its symptoms, the unintended consequences which betray its untruth. (KL 753-757)” His point being that in dialectical materialism as he sees it “the Whole is never truly whole: every notion of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the effort to include this excess, to account for it” (KL 759).

 Against the backdrop of global capitalism each country reacts in its own way, but the “general tendency of contemporary capitalism is towards further expansion of the reign of the market, combined with progressive enclosures of public space, sweeping cuts in public services, and a rising authoritarianism in the functioning of political power” (KL 781-783). The truth is that democracy in our time is failing everywhere not do to the economic system, but rather due to a failure to any longer believe in the elite experts and their monetary sponsors to actually fix things. Instead we are slowly waking up to the truth that without true leadership people follow not their desires but rather their animalistic habits. He will respond with his notions that instead we need a figure, a Master to call us out of our habits, engendering in us true desires for an emancipatory world. Yet, the temptation here is between the excess of the Master that leads to the false totalitarian world, or the one that inspires in people to take on the responsibility of living in a non-totalitarian world of conflict and negotiation.

Speaking of Nelson Mandela and his legacy as an example, he says:

We can also safely surmise that, on account of his undoubted moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life aware of how his very political triumph and elevation into a universal hero was itself the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is but a sign that he didn’t really disturb the global order of power— which certainly cannot be said of Pussy Riot. (KL 898-901).

In her next letter she admits she has finally been freed. She and her partners have also founded Zona Prava a new organization to promote and help prison inmates and to retrain the overseers (the wardens). She sees it as a commitment to those who have suffered in silence for too long, especially taking on the task of helping both her former inmates and all women in prison. She mentions the different uprisings in Russia (May 6th) and other issues and concerns surrounding the imprisonment of radicals, journalists, and all who speak the truth. Reading her one realizes that prison gave her a new opportunity and task, rather than closing off her mind it opened her eyes to a need, a new way to help locally her own people both politically and spiritually. One is reminded of activist Angela Davis in the States and her years of working for African-American rights in prisons and the issues surrounding this new form of apartheid within America, etc.  

In his final letter to Nadya on her freedom he will bring everything back to his point about the true idea of the universal: “it is absolutely crucial to insist on the universality of our struggle. The moment we forget that Pussy Riot and WikiLeaks are moments of the same global struggle, everything is lost, we have sold our soul to the devil” (KL 1074).

Reading the short book was well worth the effort. Not much new in Zizek’s repeat of central ideas he’s gone over in his recent Less Than Nothing and Absolute Recoil. What was more important was the meeting of two minds sharing their diverse feminine and masculine struggles in dialogue. This sense that we must begin talking again to each other rather than critiquing is important. Without a sense of dialogue, of communication the world loses value. In this sense the Kantian tradition of critique is dead on arrival. What is needed now is people conversing and struggling together in concert across the planet. Politics must be taken back into the streets, into the local spaces of one’s life and realized in personal ways and tasks (as in Nadya’s creation of a intervention into prison systems, etc.). For Zizek the struggle of the commons against the empire of global capitalism starts and ends with the human face of its actors who need the right push to awaken out of their capitalist sleep.

1. Zizek, Slavoj; Tolokonnikova, Nadezhda (2014-09-30). Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (Kindle Locations 50-54). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 173)
3. ibid. (KL 179)
4. ibid. (KL 198)
5. ibid. (KL 234)
6. ibid. (KL 294)
7. ibid. (KL 305)
8. ibid. (KL 325)
9. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 28-30.
10. (in Russian). Gazeta.ru. 2 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 July 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2013
11. ibid. (KL 350)

 

 

 

 

 

Question from a comment on Plato and the Horizon of Meaning

Jan Cavel asked:

On http://veraqivas.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/plato-is-not-platonism/ you comment „Platonism is the fact that one is always bound by his horizon of meaning”. Could you please expand this? Of course, the whole article is about this small excerpt, but I would really appreciate if you could find the time to take one or more hits at this „binding of one with his own meaning-horizon”. Thank you… 

The point being that we are bound to Plato’s horizon of meaning even if we oppose it. He set the terms of the debate, and no singular philosopher – not Descartes, not Kant, not Heidegger, etc. have yet to escape this circle of meaning or produce something new and outside its horizon. Can we think the other? Can we move outside or from within the labyrinth or navigate the multiplicities and produce something else: another ‘horizon of meaning’? Perhaps, not… or yes?

Long ago I remember my university philosophy mentor used to use the example: he’d draw a circle on the blackboard and place us in it, and then draw another circle just beyond it and place certain key thinkers in it. He would suggest that what these thinkers do is revise and remap the truths of the former circle retroactively and give them a larger stamp for the mind that allows us to think new ideas, thoughts that have shifted due to our technologies – accidents of that intersection between mind and its creations. It’s this strange anomaly at the intersection of technology and thought that new Ideas emerge in time and expands our original horizon of meaning. That notion stuck with me long ago and I’ve been studying the dialectical interactions of humans and technology in philosophers and other thinkers since that time. For me it is this dialectical interaction not of ideas in our mind, but of those processes we shape that in turn reshape us and open up possibilities for further exploration and creation.

Ideas are not the immortal engines of creation, but are rather the accidents of time: and arise at the intersection of humans and technology in a dialectical relationship that over time has become so ubiquitous we no longer see this process for what it is. Technology is not the artifact of eternal Ideas, and neither is it some objectified Idea in the mind, etc. Technology is this dialectical process in praxis, an ongoing temporal interaction and negotiation of reality rather than a trace run of our finitude. Technology is the way we navigate the world, a vehicle for exploring the farthest reaches of our own horizons of meaning. As we invent new forms of technologies they open up our horizons of meaning, and those circles revise the maps of the mind and offer greater possibilities.

Language itself is the most ubiquitous technology we’ve invented so far, and in turn it has shaped our cultures and civilizations beyond the base set of relations we needed to survive on this planet. It did not come full blown, but was a slowly modulated process of give and take as we used it to forge relations with reality and each other. Language is a technology. It was developed over time, and as many linguists agree it doesn’t last (i.e., all languages change and become obsolete or are transformed through temporal processes, etc.). Words are tools for negotiating reality. As our understanding changes so do the tools, and new words are grafted onto the structure of language to shape new ideas till they too die and are once again replaced by better tools, etc. But this is only an example, not the reduction to linguistic signs of the Linguistic Turn.

I simplified, obviously. I mean that one is always either a proponent, neutral, or an enemy of Plato’s realism of Ideas: whether they exist eternally beyond, within, or in nature: the central core of Idealism; or whether there might be something else to explain this.

Take for instance Slavoj Zizek’s use of this tradition out of the German Transcendental movement – what he terms ‘dialectical materialism’ does not oppose this notion of Ideas per se, but rather stipulates the obverse – that instead Immortal Ideas as efficient causation engines of reality, he tells us they are accidents of time, that they are mortal; they are not sources of efficient causation, but rather the endpoint in a process of imminent production (not Schelling’s productivity, Ideas or not essences: rather ideas emerge from the pre-ontological forces of two vacuums in flux, etc.): that they emerge in time and are succeeded by other ideas and die off and are replaced (the main drift is Ideas exist, but only in time not outside it in some eternal sphere of immortal splendor, etc.). Yet, even Zizek is bound by the horizon of meaning that Plato set two thousand years ago and works against this tradition of meaning of Ideas. Zizek takes his notions from Den of Democritus and aspects of modern String Theory and quantum flux, etc..

The Ontological Spectres: Substance or Den?

Democritus of Abdera “The Happy Philosopher”

“I am thinking, therefore I exist.” We’ve all heard of this statement in school, but for the most part no one mentions another paragraph both after and before this statement which is reiterated several times in Rene Descartes Discourse of Method, etc.:

Next I examined attentively what I was. I saw that while I could pretend that I had no body and that there was no world and no place for me to be in, I could not for all that pretend that I did not exist. I saw on the contrary that from the mere fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it followed quite evidently and certainly that I existed; whereas if I had merely ceased thinking, even if everything else I had ever imagined had been true, I should have had no reason to believe that I existed. From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist. Accordingly this ‘I’ – that is, the soul by which I am what I am – is entirely distinct from the body, and indeed is easier to know than the body, and would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist.1

The dualism is central and obvious, yet what is not is this notion of substance and essence (or nature), etc. The notion of thinking substance as equated with the “I” which is the “soul” or the “I am what I am” distinct from the body is very much a Platonic distinction that Plato himself would have nodded and welcomed.

I’m not saying anything new here, just taking notes again on this tradition of the Theory of Forms or substantial formalism that has seeped into almost every aspect of philosophy down the ages. One can see it played out very much in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. But what is substance that Descartes offers as the organizing power of the soul to shape that which “I am what I am” as he says so certainly in dogmatic fashion?

Again we should return to the ancients for a first hint of what substance is and how it came to be so insidiously integrated and ubiquitous within philosophical speculation as to almost become invisible and accepted without doubt. As with other things we can start with Aristotle as our test case. In his Metaphysic he will inform us that substance is that which persists through change. (Yet, we should beware of exactly what Aristotle mean by his Greek term “ousia”, which most scholars will agree does not mean the individual are particular thing, animate or inanimate, but is rather concerned with the notion of primary being (or fundamental entity, or basic thing).2) One needs to beware of the differing readings between the Categories and the Metaphysic in his view of substance, too. In the Categories he seems to have viewed substance as situated primarily in things or entities themselves, and that their essences were secondary. While in the Metaphysic he would take up Plato’s notions of Form and stipulate that it is forms that are primary beings not actual entities or things.

Moving from a concept of the concrete particular then back to an abstract universal is part of this transformation in Aristotle’s thinking. I’ll not go into the quandaries and misapplied logic and fallacies this led in his thinking. I’m more concerned with the notion of substance itself, rather than the detailed logic of his portrayal and the unfounded linguistic twists that would lead him into logical errors. This is all part of history for the scholar to tread in minute detail.

In Locke and Descartes we will find a minimal or bare form of substance theory. Locke will tell us (as quoted by Rosenkrantz):

Not imagining how these simple ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some substratum wherein they do subsist and from which they do result, which therefore we call substance.3

Descartes will tell us:

Substance. This term applies to every thing in which whatever we perceive immediately resides, as in a subject, or to every thing by means of which whatever we perceive exists…. The only idea we have of a substance itself, in the strict sense, is that it is the thing in which whatever we perceive…exists, either formally or eminently.4

We do not have immediate knowledge of substances, as I have noted elsewhere. We know them only by perceiving certain forms or attributes which must inhere in something if they are to exist; and we call the thing in which they inhere a “substance.”5

Both Locke and Descartes depend on this notion of indirect access to substance/substratum through their forms. This is the tradition of substantial formalism at the heart of my own questioning at the moment. Before one can critique this tradition one must truly understand it. I must admit to following the opposite traditions of Democritus and his followers up an to such as Slavoj Zizek’s ‘dialectical materialism’ based on Democritus’s notion of the non-substantial Void or Den, etc. This pitting of the Permenides vs. Democritus traditions is a viable pursuit and one I’m opting for in future works.  As Rosenkrantz tells us:

The great philosophers of the past, of course, were profoundly interested in the concept of an individual substance. Aristotle, for instance, believed that individual substances were the basic or primary existents, as did Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Berkeley. Kant went so far as to maintain that human beings cannot conceive of a reality devoid of substances. All of these philosophers (and many others) spent much time and effort trying to clarify the concept of an individual substance.(ibid. Preface)

Yet, the other tradition of Democritus and his followers get little attention except in dismissal and opposition. Not much being said of the Void, Nothingness, and the non-substantial pre-ontological levels, etc. Against Zeno a pupil of Parmenides, Democritus ( a student of Leucippus ) would offer contra the Eleatic absolute denial of non-being, the notion that non-being exists as emptiness: ‘what-is’ (to den) is the plenum of atoms, while ‘what-is-not’ (to meden) is the emptiness of void (kenon). Emptiness can explain natural phenomena and physical plurality; what-is-not is in existence spatially as the fundamental prerequisite of physical motion. As Zizek will tell it in his chapter on Parmenides in Less Than Nothing:

Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something.6

He continues saying

Predictably, the Eleatic Melissus, in his critique of Democritus, dismissed den with the scathing remark that “far from being a necessary existent, [it] is not even a word.” In a way, he is right: we need a non-word to designate something that, precisely, does not yet exist (as a thing)— den lies outside the scope of the unity of logos and being. 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. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being.(ibid. KL 1537-44)

 Therein lies the crux in our current dilemmas facing contemporary philosophy: substance or den? Being or nothing? Or both? How to proceed? I see no way around Democritus. One must confront this nothing that is. One realizes that Being arises out of ‘den’ nothing. Time, change, process, becoming, etc. motion: arise out of this emptiness that is.

1. Descartes, René (1985-05-20). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: 1 (Kindle Locations 2840-2846). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Rosenkrantz, ary S. (2002-02-07). Substance: Its Nature and Existence (Problems of Philosophy) (p. 193). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
3. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols, revised ed., ed. John Yolton (New York: Dutton, 1965), vol. 1, chap. 23, p. 245.
4. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 2:114.
5. ibid., p. 15
6. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1509-1512). Norton. Kindle Edition.

What is Platonism?

I take up once again this notion of my friend Virgilio A. Rivas over at Kafka’s Ruminations that I reduce Plato to Platonism. But what is Platonism? Our good universal index of the universal mindset of the internet: Wiki tells us: “The central concept of Platonism, a distinction essential to the Theory of Forms, is the distinction between the reality which is perceptible but unintelligible, and the reality which is imperceptible but intelligible.” As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is confusingly also called Platonic Idealism. This should not be confused with the subjective idealism (“immaterialsm”), as presented by philosophers such as George Berkeley: as Platonic abstractions are not spatial, temporal, or mental they are not compatible with the later Idealism’s emphasis on mental existence. Plato’s Forms include numbers and geometrical figures, making them a theory of mathematical realism; they also include the Form of the Good, making them in addition a theory of ethical realism. (see here).

Yet, Virgilio instead of speaking of this reduces the notion of Platonism, saying the greatest legacy of Platonism is the refusal of storytelling (see Plato is not Platonism). So for Virgilio its a battle between demythologizers and fabulists. Virgilio is interested in this conflict between philosophy and myth, reason and fabulation as central to this Platonist tradition. Tell the truth this is not what I’m describing at all. Plato himself I will agree is a fabulist. We never find Plato, except in rare instances, as a character in his own writings. Instead he hides behind the masks of his prime precursor Socrates among others, masking his own ideas and attributing them to his mentor instead. If anyone obfuscates and is a fabulist it is Plato, who uses myth, fable, story everywhere in his works to illustrate his philosophical notions, concepts, theories, etc.. Will we ever know if Socrates thought up all these notions? Will we ever know if Plato was like one of his Forms hiding in the mask of Socrates immanently? Probably not. What we have is the dialogues and his longer political and ethical tracts, etc., most of it based on discussion among dramatic characters who point to actual living beings but are in themselves Plato’s tropes and fictions: fabulations. We have his pupil Aristotle who circumspectly speaks of Plato and his ideas, of Plato’s earlier influences in Heraclitus and Socrates, etc. But this is part of the novelistic rendition or fabulist fictionalization of Plato after the fact, etc.

In fact, this is Virgilio’s whole point in describing Plato’s concept of chora:

In the Timaeus, the cosmos is created by fabulation which the chora demands as no reason can account for it. As characteristic of recollection, fabulation qualifies as the condition of possibility of creation. (here)

I want dispute this. In fact I never brought it up. This battle between Plato’s so called followers in Platonism can do what they like. Yet, Plato did define the terms of this whole tradition. This notion that fantasy gives rise to the possibility of creation, that Plato was a fabulator of possibility of what gives rise to the realm of the senses, rather than an empiricist coming to terms with what is through the senses, etc. is a part of all this I accept. No one can deny that.

Yet, Idealism grew out of many various philosophers from Parmenides, Plato, and Neo-Platonists onwards, which is a topic unto itself that I do not wish to pursue at the moment. I was not reducing Plato to this tradition, but showing how his concepts of eidos etc. do play into it, rather than reducing Plato to this tradition I was merely showing how his concepts have been used by the reception of this Theory of Forms. By its very nature we will probably never know who Plato, the man, was or is: he hid within his fabulations, his philosophical myths.

For Vergilio in the end will say: So what is Platonism? Our brief answer is: It is the being of us as animal rationale that demands we must secure ourselves against the temptation to indulge in chorology. But isn’t chorology the power of the false? And, of course he likens chorology to Quentin Meillassoux’s concepts of contingency, etc.:

We must not lose sight of Plato’s point that the chora as an errant cause is the whole essence of necessity itself, namely, pace Meillassoux, contingency. Here, contingency is the avenger for the irreducible.

Khora is a Greek term used by Plato: Khôra, a philosophical term described by Plato meaning a space, or place in space; the milieu in which Forms materialize. Vergilio mentions Martin Heidegger who refers to a “clearing” in which being happens or takes place. But others could be mentioned such as Julia Kristeva who deploys the term as part of her analysis of the difference between the semiotic and symbolic realms, in that Plato’s concept of “khora” is said to anticipate the emancipatory employment of semiotic activity as a way of evading the allegedly phallocentric character of symbolic activity (signification through language), which, following Jacques Lacan, is regarded as an inherently limiting and oppressive form of praxis. Julia Kristeva articulates the ‘chora’ in terms of a presignifying state: ‘Although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definitively posited: as a result, one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form.” She brings it into the Linguistic Turn program, etc.

The list could go on. Yet, in my two posts did I ever mention this? Did I even discuss this notion? No. Vergilio has supplemented my discussion of Plato’s Theory of Forms and the discussion of it in Idealism by way of Universals: abstract and concrete. But I was never concerned with this axiomatic notion of “clearing” etc. Not sure how discussing the Theory of Forms which is sitting there from Aristotle onwards is to discuss chora, which is another issue entirely. I’ll assume Vergilio can enlighten my ignorance with a pertinent discussion or comment?

Was Plato a Platonist: The Theory of Forms

My friend Virgilio A. Rivas over at Kafka’s Ruminations thinks I have reduced Plato to the tradition of Platonism, accusing him of being an Idealist. I was not the first, nor will I be the last to do so. It all hinges on Plato’s Theory of Forms. As Virgilio describes it:

The chief problem of reducing Plato to an idealist is the assumption rarely interrogated that Plato is Platonism. History should be our guide. Platonism is not Plato.

If anyone began the whole tradition of Platonism as Idealism it would have to be Plato’s prime pupil, Aristotle who described Plato in the first book of the Metaphysics  (Metaph. A6, 987a32–b10):

In his youth he [Plato] had become familiar first of all with Cratylus and with Heraclitean views to the effect that all perceptible things are always in flux, and there is no knowledge that relates to them. This is a position he later subscribed to in these terms. Socrates, on the other hand, engaged in discussion of ethics, and had nothing to say about the general system of nature. But he was intent on finding out what was universal in this field, and was the first to fix his thinking on definitions. Plato followed him in this, and subscribed to the position that definition relates to something else, and not to the perceptibles—on the kind of grounds indicated: he thought it impossible for there to be a common definition of any of the perceptibles, since they were always changing. Plato, then, called these kinds of realities “ideas,” and claimed that the perceptibles were something in addition to them, and were all spoken of in terms of them—what he said was that by virtue of participation, the many shared their names with the forms.1

This notion of imperceptible Universals (“ideas”, “Forms”: from Greek εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea)) as the organizing force of perceptibles is the central tenet of both forms of Idealism: the two-world theory based on abstract Universals, and the one-world or immanent theory based on Hegel’s “concrete universals”, etc. This notion that perceptibles (objects of the senses) were supplements to the “ideas” or properties and appendages of the ideas themselves is central to Aristotle’s conception of Plato’s theory of forms. This intermingling of form and property begins the whole battle of what I’ve termed substantial formalism and its traditions in Platonism.

But before we tease out the history of Platonism we need to understand first what Plato himself taught us in his own dialogues. I’ll admit that for me (not being a scholar of ancient Greek) a handicap, in that I usually depend heavily on both etymological understanding and the history of translations and transliterations of terms. To speak of Plato or Aristotle would be to have invested in an understanding of the terms they used, otherwise one is truly handicapped and not able to tease out the nuances of the linguistic signs that harbor specific flavors and colors (i.e., tropes of rhetoric, figures of thought or speech, etc.).

As we find even on Wiki the notion of form has a pre-history in its linguistic use (here):

The Greek concept of form precedes the attested language and is represented by a number of words mainly having to do with vision: the sight or appearance of a thing. The main words, εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea) come from the Indo-European root *weid-, “see”. Eidos (though not idea) is already attested in texts of the Homeric era, the earliest Greek literature. Equally ancient is μορφή (morphē), “shape”, from an obscure root. The φαινόμενα (phainomena), “appearances”, from φαίνω (phainō), “shine”, Indo-European *bhā-, was a synonym.

The point to be made here is that even for Plato there was a ready made concept floating in the language that he was able to appropriate and turn toward his theory of Universals (i.e., the notion of Forms has a history, and is not a neologism). Plato’s most explicit statement on the Theory of Forms (i.e., one finds in in many dialogues on Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc., but implicit rather than explicit) comes late in his Republic where he describes the Allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. 

What Plato hints at is that these prisoners because of their place in the cave, unknowing of the real world behind and above them will mistake appearance (φαινόμενα (phainomena), shadows) for reality. They will take the shadows on the wall of the cave for the real, never knowing that it is the ideas casting their shadows on the wall. All of this comes to Plato’s point that when we speak of things we are wrong, when I point to a dog, the dog I point to is a shadow of the real dog lodged somewhere behind and above me in the real world of Ideas or Forms. My concrete dog in front of me is an illusion of the senses according to Plato.

If the prisoners are released Plato tells us, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds he tells us. For Plato every appearance we perceive through the senses participates in these eternal Forms: what we see is a reflection of the Forms rather than their reality. Yet, we can never gain access to this eternal realm of ideas by way of the senses, but only through Reason and the arduous path of philosophy Plato tells us.

At the end of the Phaedo when Socrates confronts his friend Crito with the stark fact of his physical death, he reminds Crito that his corpse is not Socrates, that Socrates will continue on because his true Form is deathless:

I do not convince  Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me. I have been saying for some time and at some length that after I have drunk the poison I shall no longer be with you but will leave you to go and enjoy some good fortunes of the blessed, but it seems that I have said all this to him in vain in an attempt to reassure you and myself too. Give a pledge to Crito on my behalf, he said, the opposite pledge to that he gave the jury. He pledged that I would  stay; you must pledge that I will not stay after I die, but that I shall go away, so that Crito will bear it more easily when he sees my body being burned or buried and will not be angry on my behalf, as if I were suffering terribly, and so that he should not say at the funeral that he is laying out, or carrying out, or burying Socrates.2

The point Plato makes here is that the Idea, the real Socrates, the Idea that is concrete (here and now) is not the physical appearance of Socrates, but rather the idea that immanently organizes and orders his speech and thoughts is the real Socrates, not the dead corpse (physis) that Crito will bury or burn later on. Rather it is this very soul, the essence, the very real eidos and substance of Socrates that will soon be sitting at the banquet table of the gods making merry, etc.

One could provide example after example to illustrate the point of the Forms, but now I need to turn to its reception and use within what my friend Virgilio calls “Platonism”. For Platonism is this very reception of the terms of Plato and their use or abuse in the long shadow of Plato’s infestation across the centuries within other followers and detractors of Plato’s Ideas.

I’ll take this up in another post… I need a break and a moment to walk my old bones, being a “lover of the body” rather than a “lover of learning” I like to wander among the shadows. 🙂

1. Fine, Gail (2008-07-16). The Oxford Handbook of Plato (Oxford Handbooks) (p. 50). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 3129-3136). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The Phaedo: (Part Two) The Art of Recollection

…such is also the case if that theory is true that you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other than recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape. So according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal.

– Plato, The Pheado

Cebes friend, Simmias, will ask him to recount this strange truth so that he might remember the details more clearly. Cebes will continue telling Simmias that there is an old argument that if a person is interrogated correctly they will always give the right answer of their own accord. Why? Because as he states it “they could not do this if they did not possess the knowledge and the right explanation inside them”.1 This notion that we are born with all the knowledge we need, that knowledge is immanent to the mind continues from Socrates previous apology that everything comes out of its opposite: life out of death, and death out of life, etc. (as we saw in the previous post). As Iain Hamilton Grant (Idealist) will affirm in the excellent Idealism: A History of a Philosophy: this is a Platonism of “immanent law” or causal efficacy:

The world of change, birth and decay is not a world causally isolated from that of Ideas since, as the Phaedo, for instance, makes clear, the Idea has as its nature to be causal in respect to becoming.2

The main point of Grant and his cohorts is that against the two-worlds theory of Platonism espoused by most detractors of Idealism, based on a notion of the abstract universal, they will affirm instead a one-world Idealism based on Hegel’s notion of the “concrete universal”:

…or the whole determined by the particulars it generates and the differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization (ibid. p. 8).

As Socrates, Cebes, and Simmias discuss this strange anomaly of recollection of knowledge from previous lives one wonders why none of them asks the simple question: Why should knowledge come by way of recollection? Why not that the senses and our struggle with things around us provide this ability to gain knowledge not as recollection but as invention. But they never discuss this because for Plato the senses and the body are anathema to any form of acquiring knowledge, instead as Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) will say: “our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence” (KL 2350).

It is at this point that Plato’s Socrates will make his bid against Grant and company for a two-world Platonism:

If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. If these realities do not exist, then this argument is altogether futile. Is this the position, that there is an equal necessity for those realities to exist, and for our souls to exist before we were born? If the former do not exist, neither do the latter? (KL 2356-2360)

The point here is that these other realities exist independent of our physical world, and that everything we see in this physical realm is referred to that other reality as something that comes before and after our sojourn here in this realm. What’s interesting is that just at this point Plato realizes he’s just worked himself into a corner with no way out, and instead of resolving this dilemma he closes it off:

I do not think, Socrates, said Simmias, that there is any possible doubt that it is equally necessary for both to exist, and it is opportune that our argument comes to the conclusion that our soul exists before we are born, and equally so that reality of which you are now speaking. (KL 2360-2362)

So without proof other than the rhetoric of recollection he leaves it at that, as if no one will “doubt” his wonderful argument. As Plato’s Socrates will so eloquently put it in such dogmatic terms: “Nothing is so evident to me personally as that all such things must certainly exist, the Beautiful, the Good, and all those you mentioned just now. I also think that sufficient proof of this has been given.” (KL 2362-2364)

It’s at this juncture that things get tricky for Old Plato, for he will have Socrates juxtapose things of the senses against things of the mind comparing the former as things that always change, and the latter as things that never change but always stay in the same state:

These latter you could touch and see and perceive with the other senses, but those that always remain the same can be grasped only by the reasoning power of the mind? They are not seen but are invisible? (KL 2405-2406)

Then will come the question from Cebes: “Do you then want us to assume two kinds of existences, the visible and the invisible?” And, Socrates: “Let us assume this.” If this isn’t a two-world thesis, then what is? This division of visible/invisible or in Kantian terms phenomenal/noumenal cannot be more clear. But let’s listen further. At this point Socrates will initiate his famous body/soul dualism arguing that that the body is of the visible, while the soul of the invisible, etc., and that the body always changes, while the soul stays the same through all the bodily changes, etc.  Then the litany of tropes opposing the soul as master over the body: “the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble and never consistently the same.” (KL 2440-2441)

And again Socrates will tie this all back to his original theme of the undying immortal soul that leaves mortal death behind, and that philosophy is nothing if it is not a “training for death”:

if it is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself together by itself and always practiced this, which is no other than practising philosophy in the right way, in fact,  training to die easily. Or is this not training for death? (KL 2453-2455) A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.(KL 2456-2458)

Plato must have been happy with himself coming to this conclusion so succinctly. Finally the release from the disgusting bodily life he’d so hated for so long. Having his mentor spout a new credo of release: the purification of the mind from its entrapment in the illusory world, etc. I could imagine a self-satisfying smug smile on his face when he first read this work at the Academy, his students mesmerized by this wonderful news. And, yet, it wouldn’t have been so bad if Plato would’ve stopped there, but no he wants to get even with all those fierce sensualists and politicians, war-mongers, and physicalists and lovers of the body, placing them in the unenviable situation of becoming incarcerated ghosts wandering the graveyard of time forever:

We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthy and visible. Through it, such a soul has become heavy and is dragged back to the visible region in fear of the unseen and of Hades. It wanders, as we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen. (KL 2467-2470)

This notion of the impure dead ones, the ones not worthy of life with the gods in some divine realm of purity, but caught in the impure stasis of their impure acts, caged in the interminable realms between Hades and Life, only able to project images on the screen of reality seen by the living, etc. Plato was a sadist at heart. One can see why the early Church Fathers loved this sort of thing. And, again, he will make even a further distinction, that it is only the philosophers who have practiced Plato’s divine art that will enter into the glorious realms:

No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, no one but the lover of learning. It is for this reason, my friends Simmias and Cebes, that those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions, master them and do not surrender themselves to them… (KL 2487)

One can see why the Stoics and the Medieval Church so loved this philosopher of the divine against the sensual, etc. This hatred of the flesh and mortality would define philosophy of two-millennia, with those on one side or the other of the debate. No wonder Plato denied even mentioning Democritus, who was called the “happy philosopher” and diametrically opposed such notions of the immortal soul with his own belief in the mortal soul, which even Aristotle, Plato’s antagonistic pupil, would take up and champion.  

This is where we come upon Plato’s Socrates statement at its most Buddhistic, and I quote at length:

The lovers of learning know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned in and clinging to the body, and that it is forced to examine other things through it as through a cage and not by itself, and that it wallows in every kind of ignorance. Philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment is that it is due to desires, so that the prisoner himself is contributing to his own incarceration most  of all. As I say, the lovers of learning know that philosophy gets hold of their soul when it is in that state, then gently encourages it and tries to free it by showing them that investigation through the eyes is full of deceit, as is that through the ears and the other senses. Philosophy then persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses in so far as it is not compelled to use them and bids the soul to gather itself together by itself, to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands, and not to consider as true whatever it examines by other means, for this is different in different circumstances and is sensible and visible, whereas what the soul itself sees is intelligible and invisible. The soul of the true philosopher thinks that this deliverance must not be opposed and so keeps away from pleasures and desires and pains as far as he can; he reflects that violent pleasure or pain or passion does not cause merely such evils as one might expect, such as one suffers when one has been sick or extravagant  through desire, but the greatest and most extreme evil, though one does not reflect on this. (KL 2496-2507)

Again philosophy for Plato became this path of teaching the slow withdrawal from the world of the body and senses into the soul’s realm of pure truth, mind, reality, etc., along with his instigation of a normative vision of purification by way of denying bodily pleasures, desires, and pain, etc. The Philosopher as an ascetic creature of moderation and passionless existence based on the purity of contemplation. One wonders where Plato learned such dark dualisms and moralism’s, such hatred of the flesh and of life? Was he after all a student of Orpheus and the Orphics? A mystagogue in the guise of a philosopher: a teacher of death rather than life? Yes, for in this mid part of the dialogue we come to another closure in which Socrates will reiterate that the path of the lover of learning or philosopher as envisioned by Plato “achieves a calm from such emotions; it follows reason and ever stays with it contemplating the true, the divine, which is not the object of opinion. Nurtured by this, it believes that one should live in this manner as long [b] as one is alive and, after death, arrive at what is akin and of the same kind, and escape from human evils” (KL 2522-2524).

This is part two of three on the Phaedo…. (post one)

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2254-2256). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. Dunham, Grant, Watson editors. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)

The Phaedo: The Art of Dying

I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.

Plato, Phaedo

In my pursuit of tracing down the battles of philosophy between the Parmedian (Idealist) and Democretian (Materialist) traditions there is probably no better place to start than with Plato’s great manifesto on the Art of Dying: the Phaedo.

Plato found the body disgusting and a detriment to the pursuit of reality and truth. His hatred of the senses and the physical realm of bodily pleasure is well known. It is this long shadow of Plato’s conceptions of reality and truth that still haunt philosophy like an insidious worm that gnaws at its entrails. His belief in an immortal soul that could be slowly purified of the senses and raised to know the truth is at the heart of this so called Art of Dying:

“There is likely to be something such as a path to guide us out of our confusion, because as long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be the truth.”1

This notion that the truth will never be attained through the senses is at the core of Plato’s dialogue in the Phaedo, along with the ensuing notion that there is a true art of philosophy and that Plato himself can teach it through the imaginative figure of his fictional Socrates. He will place a high price on this acetic practice of attaining truth through purity and against the body and all its desires: “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, [e] we must escape from the body and observe things-in-themselves with the soul by itself.”2 (One wonders if the old Kant was looking at this passage when he forever closed the door on things-in-themselves”; the noumenal realm? Closing us off in finitude, limited to intuition and the curse of the body, etc.)

Plato through the mouth of his figural Socrates on his deathbed will promote this practice of purification as the only possible way to truth: “[a]nd does purification not turn out to be what we mentioned in our argument some time ago, namely, to separate the soul as far as possible from the body and accustom it to gather itself and collect itself out of [d] every part of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body?” This art of dying well is actually an apology for suicide, which is the point Socrates makes with his friends. The idea that it “is only those who practice philosophy in the right way, we say, who always most want to free the soul; and this release and separation of the soul from the body is the preoccupation of the philosophers?”4

The whole opening of the Phaedo is Socrates’s apology against resentment, against resenting dying and death; instead, for Socrates we should affirm death and dying as the ultimate goal of philosophy and wisdom: the purification of the mind in truth. Reading the Phaedo one gets the feeling that Plato is more of an Orphic Priest than a philosopher, and that his philosophy is not truly about understanding truth as it is a spiritual practice and path to purification and transcendence rather than philosophy as we’ve come to know it. Of course one can point to such books as Algis Uzdavinys’s Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism that affirm that as the central tenet of Plato’s program, etc., and that the Phaedo is the first manifesto of this new praxis: the Orphico-Pythagorean soteriological manifesto.5 As Uzdavinys reminds us, for Plato “the souls of pious philosophers (the knowers of Ideas, or Forms) are purified of the mortal body and thereby join the immortal gods” (76-77).

Plato’s Socrates will admit: “

Will then a true lover of wisdom, who has a similar hope and knows that he will never find it to any extent except in Hades, be resentful of dying and not gladly undertake the journey thither?6

At every point Plato will pit the “lover of wisdom” against the  “lover of the body” as if to have been born were itself the most heinous of crimes against the gods. Yet, this would also be false, because for Plato humans are and will remain slaves of the gods, subordinated to their hierarchical dictates.7 Against the lovers of body these lovers of wisdom will enact moderation, courage, and justice; and, most of all they will enact wisdom, which “itself is a kind of cleansing or purification”.8 Plato will even buy into the Orphic mythologies and their mystics, saying: “

It is likely that those who established the mystic rites for us were not inferior persons but were speaking in riddles long ago when they said that whoever arrives in the underworld uninitiated and unsanctified will wallow in the mire, whereas he who arrives there purified and initiated will dwell with the gods.9

 This opposition of the uninitiated and unsanctified “lovers of the body”, against the purified and initiated “lovers of wisdom” is central to his program attack on the Athenians of his day who killed or murdered Socrates. For the Phaedo above all things is a final tribute to his master, Socrates. A promissory note marking both goodbye and Plato’s own manifesto and stretching of his young wings toward his own projects.  

After the long defense and preamble of Socrates defending dying and death, initiation and the purification of the soul of the body his friend Cebes will tell him that it is all good and well but that most people will not get it, that most people will plainly disagree with Socrates and argue for the mortality of the soul along with the body rather than the immortal transcension of the soul into a realm of wisdom, saying, of the soul that

…after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone and is no longer anything anywhere.10

Socrates for his part will begin a discussion on causality (i.e., whence the emergence of humans, animals, plants, etc. in the world?) Everything that is or comes to be must come out of it’s opposite will be his starting point in the discussion. Old Socrates once again is shown to be a master of rhetoric and dialectic in these passages, as if he’d finally succumbed to the art of the Sophist and Dialectician, leading poor Cebes through a gallery of objects that arise out of their opposite, and coming to a final resolution of life arising out of death and vice versa:

What comes to be from being alive? Being dead.
And what comes to be from being dead?
One must agree that it is being alive.
Then, Cebes, living creatures and things come to be from the dead?11

Poor Cebes seems so befuddled at this point that his question seems more tentative as if he were in a state of utter confusion and was unsure if he had just been tricked by Socrates or not. Socrates, ever the rhetorician, outdoes all Sophists everywhere with his dialectical tricks. Yet, one wonders why he did not win his freedom from the Athenian judges? Or did he? Maybe the truth is that Plato’s Socrates always did want to be free in the Plato’s philosophical sense: of his own purification of the body and mind by way of death, etc. At least this is what Plato imagines for us. The actual Socrates of the body is gone beyond that strange shadow world forever. What remains is the fictions of Plato and others figural plays of rhetoric, pages filled with this mind that floats through time on the mind’s of those who have battled with such things: the philosophers.

In my next post I’ll take up the Phaedo again demarcating Plato’s emerging Theory of substantial forms or Ideas, etc.

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2096-2098). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2104-2105).
3. ibid. (KL 2118-2120).
4. ibid. (KL 2123-2124).
5. Algis Uzdavinys. Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism. (Matheson Trust, 2011)
6. ibid. (KL 2134-2135).
7. ibid. (KL 2139)
8. ibid. (KL 2163-2164)
9. ibid. (KL 2164-2166).
10. ibid. (KL 2174-2176).
11. ibid. (KL 2219-2222).

Slavoj Zizek: The Stain of the Real

This, then, should be the Lacanian answer to correlationism: while transcendental correlationism can think the intervention of the Master-Signifier as constitutive of reality, it misses this other inverted correlation between the Master-Signifier and the objet a; that is, it cannot think the stain of the Real which de-centers the subject from within.

– Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

One has to begin with the truth that Zizek begins and ends with this dialogue between Lacan and Hegel. The oscillation between the two does not give you some total knowledge of Zizek, instead one must stay with the gap between the two, discover in the failures and gaps in both thinkers the truth around which Zizek’s mind circles: the theory of the subject.

If you’ve read Zizek enough you realize just how repetitive and boring all his twists and turns around the Void can be at times. Yet, it is this very repetitiveness that gives us the greatest insights not only into his project but into the very kernel of our own failures to become subjects (or thinkers, etc.). In his Less Than Nothing there is a chapter on the younger protégé of Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux which discusses his notions on correlationism. Zizek will carefully trace the arguments put forward by speculative realists for the independence of reality and the failure of the Kantian heritage to provide a way of overcoming this mind/world correlation in Meillassoux’s pursuit of the arche-fossil trace; or, the notion that the fossils left by dinosaur’s millions of years ago are part of the facticity that escapes the mind/world correlate of Kant’s supposed Copernican-Revolution. Yet, as Zizek will argue, what does all this amount too? As he will comment:

So, to repeat Meillassoux’s fossil question in the most direct way: is a dinosaur fossil proof that dinosaurs existed on Earth independently of any human observer, whether empirical or transcendental? If we can imagine transposing ourselves into the pre-historical past, would we encounter dinosaurs the way we reconstruct them today? Before rushing to an answer, we should remember how relative “external reality” is with regard to our point of view, which does not mean that we “created” it, but that out of the infinite complexity of the Real-in-itself a part or slice of reality was selected as correlative to our perceptual apparatus. So we cannot ever escape the circle: the reality of a fossil is “objective” insofar as it is observed from our standpoint, in the same way that a rainbow “objectively exists” from our standpoint— what “objectively exists ” is the entire field of interaction between subject and object as part of the Real.1

The point being for Zizek is that what the anti-correlationist speculative realists miss is not that we are caught in this mind/world, subject/object correlation, but that the “subject and object” are always already included in the Real. But what is the Real? Zizek in as many books as one might want to plow through on Lacan has described the Real from a multitude of perspectives. So I’ll take it from one of his latest works on Lacan and Hegel, The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan:

“Real” in the Lacanian sense: the construction of a point that does not actually exist (a monster unrelated to Hegel himself ) but that, nonetheless, must be presupposed in order to legitimate our position through negative reference to the other, by distancing ourselves.1

Of course what he is conveying here is that Continental philosophers for as long as the Anti-Realist traditions have appealed their case have seen in Hegel (not the man, but the figural representative of Absolute Knowledge) a monstrous negation, an alien other against which their projects are a sustained reaction and defense. Zizek himself will ask: “Where does this terror that grips the post-Hegelians in the face of the monster of Absolute Knowledge come from? What is concealed in the fascinating presence of this phantasmic construction? A hole, an empty space.”2 One might say a lack, a gap, a void. He will add his usual nod to the self-relating nothingness that has become on of his standard clichés for the Real, saying we could see this “against the background of the Lacanian problematic of the lack in the Other, the traumatic emptiness around which the signifying process articulates itself“.3

Zizek will argue as well that what most detractors and defenders alike of Lacan will miss in their false understanding of Lacan’s relation to Hegel is not that he was bound to Hegel’s logo-phallocentrism, etc., but rather than in his later writings he will bring out a “Hegel of the logic of the “signifier,” of a self-referential process articulated as the repeated positivation of a central Void”.4 So that for Zizek we must develop a dialogical reading of Lacan/Hegel if we would truly understand the oscillation that is captured not between subject/object but in the Real (i.e., “it is impossible to develop a positive line of thinking without including the theses that are opposed to it”.5)

What’s interesting in this approach is that he will read Lacan against the grain, reading what is implicit rather than explicit in Lacan’s own discourse (i.e., against any explicit references in Lacan’s writings of Hegel, which for Zizek were already seen through the explicit lens of Lacan’s teachers Kojeve and Hippolyte, he will see in Lacan what Lacan himself did not see and was unaware).

Three factors will come into play for Zizek in this reading of Hegel in Lacan: 1) the return to Kant in contemporary philosophy; 2) the revitalization of Marx; and, 3) the inclusion of analytical strains of philosophy in current thinking (Kripke’s anti-descriptivism, etc.).

So far I’ve been enjoying this new work which like anything by Zizek brings with it another perspective upon old themes. I’ll add notes to this from time to time….

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 14609-14616). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 178-180)
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 181-182)
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 203-204)
5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 207-208

Zizek on Lacan’s Object a

[T]he Lacanian objet a whose status is that of an anamorphosis: a part of a picture which, when the picture is viewed in a direct frontal way, appears as a meaningless stain, but which acquires the contours of a known object when we change our position and look at the picture from the side. Lacan’s point is even more radical: the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void— it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways. One of the most beautiful cases in literature occurs when, in Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act 2, Scene 2), Bushy tries to comfort the Queen, worried about the unfortunate King on a military campaign:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not.

This is the objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself “nothing but confusion,” and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears— as such, as a mere “shadow of what it is not.” As such, the objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire.1

The objet a is as such primarily not the lost object of the subject, what the subject lacks, but that which the Other itself lacks, that which subtracts itself from the Other. In an homologous way, den is the result of a double negation, the negation of 1 which results in zero plus the subtraction from zero which results in den. It is, however, crucial not to stop here: we should also invert this operation, otherwise we get stuck in a kind of theology of the symbolic which appears from nowhere: the symbolic alienation is not the beginning, something has to be there before, the remainder— den—must be already a starting point, as it is for Democritus for whom den is the name of the indivisible atom. (396)

In what precise sense is the atom indivisible? Gilbert Ryle once played with the idea that the only way to bring to an end the Zeno-like interminable division of an entity into smaller and smaller parts would be to reach the point of the “last division,” the point at which One no longer divides into two positive parts, but into a part and nothingness . Therein resides the paradox of the atom: it cannot be divided (into two somethings ) because it is the something of the last division between something and nothing. Hegel saw this clearly: atoms are not Ones floating in the empty space-void, negativity is immanent to them, in their very core— is this nonsense ? It is if we conceive the atom as more than nothing and less than One ; it is not if we make the atom less than nothing, not something between 0 and 1— something has to be added to the atom not to make it One but to make it Nothing. (397)

This zero-level of den is, however, not simply previous to the One— Lacan differs here from Deleuze as well as from Badiou, all three deploying different versions of the relationship between multiplicity and the One. For Badiou, the primary fact is the multiplicity of multiplicities and the One comes after, through counting-as-One; for Deleuze, the productive-immanent One of the Life flux immanently generates multiplicity; for Lacan, multiplicity emerges against the background of minus One— in short, the absence/ failure of One is immanent to multiplicity, it is its determining absence, i.e., there is multiplicity because the One is barred by its immanent impossibility. Or, to put it in more speculative Hegelian terms: the One arises as the effect of its own impossibility (like the subject which is the result of its own failure to become a subject).(397)

… The primordial state is thus not a simple innumerable and inconsistent multiplicity, but a multiplicity with/ out One, marked by an immanent obstacle which prevents it becoming One. One lacks, it is “one less,” and this lack is in itself a positive fact, it triggers repetition /drive. It is precisely because the One is lacking that the ics multiplicity appears to itself, re-presents itself.(397)

Lacan defines objets a as objects which “cannot be grasped in the mirror” since— like vampires— they “ have no specular image.” 22 But what if they are the exact opposite, the virtual organ visible only in the mirror, as in the horror movies where I see something in the mirror that is not there in reality? Such a paradoxical object standing for the very absence of an object cannot be deployed only at the level of content (a system of signs or objects)— one has to include the subject. (402-403)

The objet a is the point at which the subject encounters itself, its own impossible objectal counterpoint, among objects—“ impossible” means here that a is the obverse of the subject, they can never encounter each other in a direct opposition or mirroring, i.e., there is no relationship between $ and a, they are like the two sides of the same spot on a Möbius band. What this means is that the objet a stands for the “object as such,” the frame of a variable; it is in this sense (Lacan’s version of) the transcendental object, a mark of the “pure” faculty of desire: it has no substantial consistency of its own, it is just a spectral materialization of a certain cut or inadequacy— or, as Lacan put it concisely: “The object a is a cut” (“l’objet a est une coupure”). (403)

…the objet a is not the inaccessible ideal object to which no empirical object is adequate—“the object a is this inadequacy itself.”  In this sense, the objet a is “the presupposed void in a demand,”  the void that sustains the experience of “this is never that”: the universal (“object as such”) comes to exists as a pure gap. (404)

The position of Wisdom is that the Void brings ultimate peace, a state in which all differences are obliterated; the position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void. (415)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 392). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Deleuze & Lacan: On Two Versions of Substance: Retroactive Causation

This retroactivity, the idea that a thing is nothing but its own deviation or excess, can be read in two ways, Deleuzian and Lacanian. In the Deleuzian reading of Spinoza, Substance is nothing but the constant process of “falling” (into its determinate, particular modes); everything there is is a fall (if we are permitted to read the famous proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist —more literally than he meant it, discerning in der Fall also the meaning “fall”). There is no Substance which falls, curves, interrupts the flow, etc.; Substance simply is the infinitely productive capacity of such falls, they are its only reality. On such a reading of Spinoza, Substance and the clinamen (the curvature of the Substance which generates determinate entities) directly coincide; in this ultimate speculative identity, Substance is nothing but the process of its own “fall,” the negativity that pushes it towards productive determination. The difference between Spinoza and Hegel is crucial here: while for Spinoza Substance remains a stable and peaceful immanent frame of the incessant movement of its modes, a frame that can be envisaged in a blissful intuition, for Hegel, the Substance that engenders its modes is in itself antagonistic, “barred,” marked by an irreducible inner tension— it is this immanent “contradiction” that pushes the Substance towards the continuous generation of its particular modes. In short, the move from Spinoza to Hegel is the move from S to $, from Substance to Subject.

Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 386-387). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Marx and the Techno-Capitalist Enterprise

The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the worker himself.

– Karl  Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1

Marx saw the coming takeover of the human by the machine, the slow erasure of the human from the capitalist system. Capital does not need humans is what Marx saw.

The self-valorization of capital by means of the machine is related directly to the number of workers whose conditions of existence have been destroyed by it. The whole system of capitalist production is based on the worker’s sale of his labour-power as a commodity. The division of labour develops this labour-power in a one-sided way, by reducing it to the highly particularized skill of handling a special tool. When it becomes the job of the machine to handle this tool, the use-value of the worker’s labour-power vanishes, and with it its exchange-value. The worker becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. The section of the working class thus rendered superfluous by machinery…1

Growing up in small town America I saw first hand the slow expulsion of farmers from the 50’s ownward by the big Food Cartels from the lands: the overproduction of food crops surplus to be used to manufacture bio-fuels etc. as false markets rather than feed the world, etc. Most of these small towns are ghost towns now, and the small farmers are gone.

Same could be said of the Industrial Complexes. Detroit and other automobile cities gutted with new complexes housing machines that make machines taking over from humans. In our time even the knowledge workers are slowly eroding before the prospects of AGI systems and ICT technologies that will have little need of analysts for business, etc. Marx was the first theorist of this accelerated technological takeover:

Where the transition is rapid, the effect is acute and is felt by great masses of people. World history offers no spectacle more frightful than the gradual extinction of the English hand-loom weavers; this tragedy dragged on for decades, finally coming to an end in 1838. Many of the weavers died of starvation, many vegetated with their families for a long period…

In India, on the other hand, the English cotton machinery produced an acute effect. The Governor General reported as follows in 1834–5: ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’ Of course, in turning the weavers out of this ‘temporal’ world, the machinery caused them a ‘temporary inconvenience’.* But in any case, since machinery is continually seizing on new fields of production, its ‘temporary’ effect is really permanent. Hence the character of independence from and estrangement towards the worker, which the capitalist mode of production gives to the conditions of labour and the product of labour, develops into a complete and total antagonism with the advent of machinery.2

Marx was still in the midst of this process. We sit at the mid-point of the process. Many envision the end-point as a world where humans have either transcended (posthuman) and merged with their machines; or, through enhancements (transhuman) still try to compete. But what of the rest of the planet? Are we fighting a losing battle? Is this accelerated world of global capital have its own agenda beyond the human? Are we being slowly excluded from our own creations? Is the future of the human species one of termination or enslavement within the machine-spheres of the coming Infospheric hives (Floridi)? Marx is fairly explicit in this:

…when analysing the production of relative surplus-value, that within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate [entfremden] from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.3

This process still goes on in most of the third-world, and even the workers in such first-world countries as my own America this holds true. I think of such behemoths as Wal-Mart where one can find law suits stretching back from its emergence. (here, here). But one could speak of almost every corporate enclave in the world today with much the same movement. Nothing new here.

Ultimately for Marx Capitalism was itself a productive machine that “reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour-power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternating rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.”4

The point here is that we’ve already been captured by capital, we are all now prisoners of this system of exploitation that pervades the planet invisibly through this magic act of the oscillation between masters that are both inhuman and hold us in bondage.

1. Marx, Karl (2004-02-05). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics) (Kindle Locations 8036-8041). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
2. (ibid. Kindle Locations 8047-8049).
3. (ibid.  Kindle Locations 11470-11476).
4. ibid.  Kindle Locations 10386-10394).

The Battle Lines between Parmenides and Democritus: Harman & Zizek

The key question, therefore, is: how does this shattering experience of anxiety, which extraneates Dasein to its immersion in its contingent way of life, relate to the experience of the “night of the world,” of the point of madness, of radical contraction, of self-withdrawal, as the founding gesture of subjectivity? How does the Heideggerian being-towards-death relate to the Freudian death drive? In contrast to some attempts to identify them (found in Lacan’s work of the early 1950’s), one should insist on their radical incompatibility: “death drive” designates . . . the “immortal” insistence of drive that precedes the ontological disclosure of Being, whose finitude confronts a human being in the experience of “being-towards-death.” (The Ticklish Subject, 65-66)

In response to the above passage Harman will tell us that “Zizek is right to distinguish the two positions, and wrong only in which of the two he chooses to defend. The idea that the human subject has a special capacity for self-withdrawal and retroactive phantasmatic positing of the world comes from an artificially limited sense of the as-structure (in this respect, Zizek falls into the same boat as the orthodox Heideggerians he so delightfully teases). Mistaking the gap between reality and appearance for the narrower gap between world and human, he exaggerates the status of human retroaction. Instead of being just one sort of projection among others, human fantasy is held to undercut any truly independent existence of the Real; as a result, Heidegger looks naive for thinking that Angst discloses being in its reality.”1

What was more interesting to me is that Harman bypasses the second part of Zizek’s statement on Freud and drives, etc. The radical incompatibility of Heidegger’s being-toward-death with Freud’s death-drive. Once again Zizek is swerving back to the realm of pre-ontological drives, will, etc., while for Harman this is of no concern since for him objects are always already fully deployed in a flat ontology of layered Being. He passes the pre-ontological in silence. His only concern is with Zizek’s seeming reduction of everything to the human subject. But is Zizek talking about the human subject when he relates his theory of the subject? I think Zizek’s framework is always centered or decentered within a pre-ontological vision rather than worried about the phenomenal human world at all.

Harman will see only a Zizek as Idealist stating flatly:

Zizek is an idealist indeed. But this idealism, which Dreyfus termed “deflationary realism,” has become the dominant philosophical horizon of our time. By defining the human subject as a retrovirus, Zizek shatters the spell of typical hermeneutic and deconstructive theories of the tedious play of presence and absence. But by placing the outer world in the suspension of epokhe, or of Lacanian fantasy, he reduces the many trillions of other retroviruses to a state of phantasmatic nullity. Thus, from the standpoint of the present book, Zizek is both a great hero and a great opponent.(212)

But Zizek is not Husseralian phenomenologist placing the outer world in brackets or suspension of epoche.  Without addressing Zizek’s pre-ontological vision of drives and void Harman seems to present a parody of Zizek rather than the philosopher of the gap. In fact Harman seems to offer in his essentialist or substantive position a stance that will oppose Zizek in the ontic and ontological, but will leave off questioning Zizek’s underlying materialist perspective altogether. As Harman will offer discussing Zizek’s confrontation of politics and Kripke/Laclau, etc. on Kripke’s use of “rigid designators“:

It could be said with equal justice that all of these political terms are rigid designators referring to an underlying reality that manifests itself only imperfectly in various cases, and even manifests imperfectly in any of the definitions that might be given of democracy, Marxism, and the like. While denying that essences can ever become perfectly present in the world, such a theory would still claim that they exist. In fact, this is the standpoint of the present book, and it is much closer to the position of Kripke than Laclau’s theory will ever be. (ibid. 214-215)

Ultimately this will lead to Harman’s pointed opposition and confrontation, making explicit his profound disagreement with Zizek. He will quote Zizek who has just described the rigid designator as “the point de capiton, the Lacanian “quilting point” that retroactively forms the Real in its own image” (215), and comes to the conclusion that it is “nothing but a “pure difference”: its role is purely structural, its nature is purely performative; in short, it is a “signifier without the signified.”

– The crucial step in the analysis of an ideological edifice is thus to detect, behind the dazzling splendour of the element which holds it together (“God,” “country,”“party,”“class” . . .) this self-referential, tautological, performative operation.(215)”

Harman in his opposition to this performativity of the self-relating nothingness of Zizek will tell us:

No passage could stand in greater opposition to the spirit of the present book, which champions the underground execution of objects in opposition to the “performativity” that deploys them in contexts and networks, and which deeply regrets the notion that signification could be “self-referential.”(215)

He will conclude disagreeing with Zizek’s appropriation of the Derridean term spectrality to designate his pre-ontological realm of objects as spectres:

But the object is a retrovirus, not a specter. No mere phantasm haunting the gap between the subject and its unfulfillable desire, the object fills the world with force, color, music, and electrical charges; it summons and cajoles its neighbors, or crushes them into splinters. Instead of continuing to embrace the hip “specter” of realism, contemporary philosophy should begin funneling arms and humanitarian aid toward some sort of guerilla realism—a fresh insurgency on behalf of objects themselves.(216)

So Harman seems like Don Quijote de la Mancha ( I do not mean this as derogatory, either!) tilting his objects against Zizek’s phantasmatic windmills of spectrality. Yet, Zizek as if in counter-point in his latest book Absolute Recoil will reiterate his basic themes:

there is the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, in their rotary motion, with their undifferentiated pulsating ; and the Beginning occurs when the Word is pronounced which represses, rejects into the eternal Past, this self -enclosed circuit of drives. In short, at the Beginning proper stands a Resolution , an act of Decision which, by differentiating between past and present, resolves the preceding unbearable tension of the rotary motion of drives. The true Beginning is the passage from the “closed” rotary motion to “open” progress, from drive to desire —or, in Lacanian terms, from the Real to the symbolic.2

He will go on to the Wars between the two perspectives he sees as oscillating throughout philosophical history:

It is not only with Plato that metaphysics and idealism emerge: the battle between idealism and materialism was already being fought out in pre-Socratic thought, as best exemplified by the opposition between Parmenides and Democritus. Parmenides stands for what Meillassoux would call ur-correlationism: being and thinking (logos) are correlated as the same; furthermore, only being exists, while non-being does not exist. For Democritus, on the contrary, non-being exists no less than being, it is inherent to being as its original split. Heidegger was thus right, although in the wrong sense: yes, pre -Socratic thought was pre-metaphysical, but not that of Parmenides, only the line that begins with Democritus. The history of philosophy is this struggle of the two lines, the Parmenidean versus the Democritean.3

We have in Iain Hamilton Grant’s (and associates) Idealism: The History of a Philosopy a work that traces its lineage and major themes, but for Materialism and the Democritean worldview we only have F.A. Lange’s outmoded works on the subject. We need an update to this history to tease out the oppositional confrontation between the Parmenidean and Democritean visions of philosophy and approaches. Are Harman and Zizek the Parmenides and Democritus of our age? Is this an inflated fantasy? Can they be figural tropes of these divergent philosophical stances, and yet be unique and differential agents in their own right? These are things I ponder…

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 211-212). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 384). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 385). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Further thoughts on Slavoj Zizek and Jorie Graham

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed would ask me about my comments on Jorie Graham:

“If I understand your perspective correctly, it is that Graham is using this poem, to deconstruct the notion of unmediated consciousness, Beckett’s rejection of the ego as a stable entity, but the necessity of using the language of the self in order to dispel the self.”

I think for Graham the very act of “knowing” is an event in the life of the subject, yet the subject does not pre-exist this knowing – it is a blank, a void, an interminable process and ongoing project that cannot be separated out like we would study a sculpture on a table: this knowing is “kairos” as happening or opportune moment: the event as processual intervention, the subject-as-process in the history in its own making; yet, it is a making without telos, open ended and continuous program set against the Void. The paradox is that the subject is not some substantial entity, but this never ending de-substantialized positing within the nexus of signifiers: the process of the world in the act of constituting itself. As Zizek would have it: the self-relating nothingness that posits something, yet can never be reconciled to it. Subject always in excess of that which would describe or capture it, put it in its place, reduce it to some perfect little conceptual framework or set of mathematical algorithms. The subject eludes the nets of being in the flow that constitutes Being. But be careful this is not a dualism: there is no substance, neither Aristotelian or Object-Oriented – we’re talking the de-substantialized reality of the Void.

As Zizek will demonstrate that while Hegel begins with the poorest notion of being (which, in its abstraction, its lack of determinations, equals nothing), Schelling’s “negative philosophy” (which remains part of his system, but supplemented by “positive” philosophy) also begins with the affirmation of a negation, of a void, but this void is the affirmative force of the will’s desire: “all beginning lies in an absence; the deepest potency, which holds fast to everything, is non-being and its hunger for being.”1 He will go on to say:

Schelling’s answer in Freiheitschrift is literally Ground itself: human freedom is rendered possible by the distinction, in God itself , between the existing God and its own Ground, what in God is not yet fully God. This accounts for Schelling’s uniqueness, also with regard to Hölderlin’s “On Judgment and Being”: like the late Fichte (although in a totally different mode, of course), Schelling arrives at the trans-subjective Ground of subjective freedom, but for Hölderlin (and Fichte), this trans-subjective order of Being (or divine Life) is fully One, pre-reflective, indivisible, not even self-identical (because self-identity already involves a formal distance of a term from itself)— it was only Schelling who introduced a radical gap, instability, discord, into this very pre-subjective/ pre-reflexive Ground. In his most daring speculative attempt in Weltalter, Schelling tries to reconstruct (to “narrate”) in this way the very rise of logos, of articulated discourse, out of the pre-logical Ground: logos is an attempt to resolve the debilitating deadlock of this Ground. This is why the two true highpoints of German Idealism 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. (ibid. KL 495)

Right there Zizek affirms his relation to even Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s legacy in German Idealism of “affirmative force of the will’s desire”. Is Zizek affirming a form of vitalism here? Is he showing that even Schelling and Hegel are rooted in a philosophy of the “will’s desire”? What is this “will’s desire” that he seems to drift past so blindly? Yet, he wanders on by affirming the movement of the Lacanian worldview of lack he sees in Schelling’s statement that “all beginning lies in an absence; the deepest potency, which holds fast to everything, is non-being and its hunger for being.” This self-reflecting nothingness that craves and hungers for being, but never quite attains it. Is this his argument with Deleuze who was a vitalist and rejected Lacanian “lack”?

Is Slavoj secretly a German Romantic poet, a sublime poet of the dark hunger at the heart of our universe? Would Shelley author of The Triumph of Life recognize Slavoj as a kindred spirit? Sometimes as I read Zizek its as if he is a actually a throwback to the 19th Century, a philosopher-poet who still harbors the subjectivity of the German and English Romantic’s. He never speaks of the English Romantics, but does mention in passing such as Holderlein and other German Romantics. What he has done is an update to German Romantic Idealism qua materialist discourse: provided an inverse relation to this whole tradition. Has he succeeded? Is he full of contradictions? Of course he is… any ongoing processual thinker is always at odds with himself: in fact, the processual thinker is at heart an agonist in striving for the foremost place in thought (in the old Greek sense). Slavoj is striving for political, social, and philosophical transformation through each of his works.

I was schooled under the old criticism of “close reading” (being age 62 now!), and with texts like Zizek’s ( a prolific thinker, pop-culturist, philosopher, etc.) one has to step lightly as Nietzsche once affirmed and seek out the blind spots (DeMann: Blindness and Insight) in the rhetoric (ironic deconstruction, etc.) to grasp the moment’s when Zizek himself fails his own rhetoric and in the process becomes the figure we know as “Zizek”. He is a multiplicity in excess of himself, an ongoing project or self-relating nothingness. One cannot reduce Zizek to some conceptual universe of thought, he will escape your net every time. That’s why so many people turn or swerve away from tackling him: because he is a Zen like paradox even to himself. He oscillates between the poles, modulates the various philosophical, cultural, and social threads that wander through his brain. He will be the first to admit his is a muddle. Yet, even in the midst of this he holds to the “gap” as the central core around which his thoughts fly. There is this nervous energy and charisma about the man physically and figurally in his writings and speech.

I have not met or even been present at one of his State side visits. I have to do this someday. Yet, in our age we have youtube.com where one can enjoy others who have cinematized Zizek for us: lectures, off the cuff interviews, etc. Either way one must confront Zizek in terms of his own philosophical project. One cannot read or misread him through the lens of other philosophical frameworks, otherwise one is reading only those philosophers masked as Zizek. When Zizek discusses Hegel he is discussing Zizek in Hegel, same for Lacan. These are figures of philosophical thought that best typify the actual thoughts of Zizek himself. Anyone familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his notion that we find in others our own sublimely rejected thoughts: as if the other was saying what we had thought all along. This is what we discover Zizek doing in Hegel and Lacan: discovering his own rejected (repressed, forgotten) thought.

This is one of the reasons I’ve had qualms with the recent literature on speculative realism: think of the new books out – (Peter Gratton: Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects; Steven Shapiro: The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism; Tom Sparrow: The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism; Peter Wolfendale: Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Emperor’s New Clothes, etc.). Each of these tackles something they posit as “speculative realism” a term fairly widely rejected by most of the original philosophers who espoused the original lecture series that introduced Quentin Meillossoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Only Harman still accepts for the most part this umbrella term. Yet, now it has stuck, and seems to be granted an authentic claim on the philosophical horizon. So one cannot turn a blind eye to it any longer. Once must confront these philosophers and do it on their own terms.

Philosophy like anything else is unique, there is no stable end to the process. Philosophy is interminable and ongoing, a part of the Zizekian self-relating nothingness “hungering for being”. Each philosopher is an eye of this task, a capable figure (to use Harold Bloom’s trope) registering the battles and wars of philosophy in vying with the sciences and other forms of thought for the top prize of grasping both our place in the universe, and the universe itself. In our time the de-centering of the circle from the human (anthropomism) to the universe is on the rise. This shift or oscillation of the poles seems to come about when deadlocks arise. The traditions of modern and postmodern philosophy had taken the internal turn of structure, deconstruction, linguistic turn to the end point where in good old I Ching fashion it was turned the screw and spiraled up into the next pole toward as Meillassoux deftly says: “the Great Outdoors”. There is nothing new in this process, it does have a history and we can see this oscillation between subject and object, internal/external, substantive vs. de-substantialized formalism, etc. in philosophy across its whole history. Zizek will reduce it to the transcendental vs. ontologoical/ontic approaches of philosophy. One could as well find other tropes. It’s all part of the ongoing human dilemma of discovering why this creature, this animal on a glowing ball of life suddenly began reflecting on its self and the world. Philosophy is about seeking wisdom in that fact, not finding some end point to sit in and bask before the sun. We will always be restless and nervous before this interminable questioning something we are: but can never seem to describe are capture in our conceptual bric-a-brac of thought. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 483-486). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Battle in Philosophy: Time, Substance, and the Void – Slavoj Zizek vs. Graham Harman

In my pursuit to understand poetry and philosophy in our time I’ve found that “time” is the key: there is a great battle that has up till now been perpetrated under the auspices of subtantialist versus process philosophers – as in the recent battle over Graham Harman and Object Oriented Philosophy (a reversion to a substantive formalism, although non-Aristotelian in intent), and the Process philosophers who seem to come out of Whitehead and others. Part of the wars of speculative realism…

In Harman the object is split between a sensual (phenomenal) appendage and a real (noumenal) withdrawn core, etc. For him this real can never be described, or even known directly, but must be teased out or allured from its “volcanic” hiding place, etc. While for those like Zizek there is nothing there, even less than nothing: a void that is the negation of negation: a self-reflecting nothingness. No core, no substance, no big Other.

Graham Harman will tells us that at the heart of our era there lurks a philosophical dogma, an idealism purporting to mask itself under the rubric of deflationary realism. Under the banner of deflationary realism he will align deconstruction (Jaques Derrida), Lacanian/Hegelian dialectics (Slavoj Zizek), and every dialectical philosophy “which tries to undercut any subterranean power of the things by calling this power an “essence,” then claiming that essence is a naive abstraction unless it finds its proper place in the drama of human knowledge about the world.”1 The point he makes is that at the center of this view of the world is the notion of singular gap between the human and its world. (p. 123) For Harman Zizek is an anti-realist par excellence:

The Ticklish Subject (1999). The second, taken from The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), is a revealing assessment of the Kripkean theory of reference that displays Zizek’s anti-realism in all its glory and all its bias. (Tool-Being, p. 205)

As one reads Harman’s works which on the surface seem a revisionary turn in phenomenological thinking and philosophy – especially as to its central reading of Heidegger’s concept of readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), which “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness” (ibid. 1). This notion of a non-utilitarian realism beyond the human with its attendant swerve from the linguistic turn, dialectical materialism, and the naturalism of scientific physicalism and scientisms sets the tone: an enframing of the withdrawal of objects from the human/world bifurcation or gap ontology of deflationary realism, and a decentering of the anthropocentric world-view that pervades humanistic philosophy and literature, art and aesthetics offers the base approach of Harman’s philosophical outlay.

His reading of Zizek teases out the concern with Time (future) over past, etc.:

By cementing the priority of the future at this early stage, Zizek is setting the table for his doctrine of retroactive causation, in which the Real is not a “real world” outside of the human sphere, but the very gap between appearance and the non-appearing that is first posited by the fantasy of the human subject. As he puts it: “Daily habitat and excess are not simply opposed: the habitat itself is ‘chosen’ in an ‘excessive’ gesture of groundless decision.” Or in even clearer terms: “one can never reach a ‘pure’ context prior to a decision; every context is ‘always-already’ retroactively constituted by a decision.” Not only do my perspectives and projections affect how the context is seen, but the context is created by the very act of decision. (Tool-Being, p. 207)

Objects for Harman are first of all entities as formal cause, as well as the converse notion that “every set of relations is also an entity” (p. 260). Harman will argue against all naïve materialisms and naturalisms, saying: “

What separates this model from all materialism is that I am not pampering one level of reality (that of infinitesimal particles) at the expense of all others. What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside of forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is “materialism,” then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter.(p. 293)

This notion that there is no physical matter, but that everything from the smallest quantum events to the largest structures in the universe are forms within forms: structured entities immersed in relations and the engines of reality. Yet, these very entities can unplug from these relations and enter into new and different engagements. The point here takes up the notion of intervention and the revisionary process of entities in their actual ongoing movements across the tiers or levels of reality. As he will tell it instead of materialism, this is perhaps a new sort of “formalism,” one that sides with Francis Bacon “who lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous.” (p. 293).

He will make explicit use of Zizek’s notion of “retroactive causation” in Tool-Being “without accepting the attitude of “deflationary realism” with which Zizek frames this concept.” The problem Harman has with Zizek’s term is that he restricts it “to a narrowly human realm, and orbits around the same unique gap between human and world that dominates most contemporary philosophy.” Which speculative realists such as Harman argue is to bound within the correlationist circle (Meillassoux) of mind/world dualism at the heart of the anti-realist world-view, etc. (Harman 207-208)

Anyone who has read the early works of Harman finds Zizek everywhere in the pages. Harman fights with Zizek from the opposite end, holding to an new or revised substantial formalism. Zizek starts with lack (Void, Gap, Den: Democritus) at the heart of things, while for Harman there is no lack – everything is fully deployed in an almost copy of the Platonic notion of time as vessel (our universe on a flat plane with multilevel tiers or scales). Zizek sticks with the whirlwind of nothings that Democritus termed “Den”: his less than nothing that gives birth to nothing and from there our universe ( a quantum theory of subjectivity as process and emergence out of the void). This is the basic battle between opposing conceptual frameworks of reality.

Harman will openly tell us he likes Zizek, yet he totally disagrees with almost everything he’s written, saying of one of Zizek’s key concepts: “

Among the most central of these ideas is Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation—a theme in one respect very close to the present book, and in another respect diametrically opposed. (p. 205)

He will tell us that Zizek’s retroactive causation brings with it the notion that the Real is not a “real world” outside of the human sphere, but the very gap between appearance and the non-appearing that is first posited by the fantasy of the human subject.(p. 207) Even a cursory reading of Zizek’s latest two magnum opus’s will attest to this continued drift (see Less Than Nothing, and Absolute Recoil). Zizek against all substantial formalisms will tell us:

This last claim should be qualified, or, rather, corrected: what is retroactively called into existence is not the “hitherto formless matter” but, precisely, matter which was well articulated before the rise of the new, and whose contours were only blurred, or became invisible , from the horizon of the new historical form— with the rise of the new form, the previous form is (mis) perceived as “hitherto formless matter,” that is, the “formlessness” itself is a retroactive effect , a violent erasure of the previous form. If one misses the retroactivity of such positing of presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch . This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicted.”3

Yet, in accepting this notion of retroactive causation the only difference he makes (if one can call it a “difference”) is his disagreement as to whether it should be restricted to the “fantasy life of human subjects”, or much rather displaced to include “inanimate objects” that also display this sort of fantasy life:

Whereas Zizek apparently wants to restrict retroactive causation to the fantasy life of human subjects, I have insisted that even inanimate objects display this sort of fantasy.(Harman, 208)

The point Zizek makes is that in a dialectical process, the thing becomes “what it always already was”; that is, the “eternal essence” (or, rather, concept) of a thing is not given in advance, it emerges, forms itself in an open contingent process— the eternally past essence is a retroactive result of the dialectical process. This retroactivity is what Kant was not able to think , and Hegel himself had to work long and hard to conceptualize it. Here is how the early Hegel, still struggling to differentiate himself from the legacy of the other German Idealists, qualifies Kant’s great philosophical breakthrough: in the Kantian transcendental synthesis, “the determinateness of form is nothing but the identity of opposites”.(ibid., Zizek: Less Than Nothing)

As you can see at the heart of the conflict between Harman and Zizek is a notion of causation, a view of time and the implication of time’s determinations in reality. For Zizek the concept or essence does not precede its history or processual movement in time, but is rather a creation of its contingent interactions in the dialectical process of this time itself. For Harman the “essence” is that core depth of every entity. In his discussion of Zubiri on essence he will tell us: “

Zubiri allows common sense to pull off a bloodless coup d’état at the precise moment when he had begun to open our eyes to a zone of incomparable strangeness—- that of the essence withdrawn from all relation, even from brute causal relation (as overlooked by Heidegger, Levinas, and Whitehead alike).(p. 258)

His beef with Zizek on retroactive causation is over its alignment with anthorpmism and anti-realist stance:

Retroactive causation is a global ontological structure, and not a narrowly psychoanalytic one. Whatever distinguishes human beings from animals and rocks cannot be found in this structure alone.  Given that retroactive cause occurs on every layer of reality, there is nothing ontologically special about human retroaction, meaning that Zizek’s noncommittal distance from the question of realism is untenable.(Harman, 208)

This is a core notion of Harman’s that real objects (essences) can withdraw from all relations, that retroactive cause occurs in objects, things, events just as it does in humans. As he will tell us further on “It is not only the case that every entity has a deeper essence—rather, every essence has a deeper essence as well” (p. 258). Realizing this leads to an infinite regress Harman will instead term it an “indefinite regress, and move on to other problems that arise from the emerging concept of substance” (p. 259). Succinctly Harman’s position is stated as follows:

I have offered the model of reality as a reversal between tool and broken tool, with the tool-being receding not just behind human awareness, but behind all relation whatsoever. This duality has been crossed by another opposition of equal power: the difference between the specific quality of a thing and its systematic union. Furthermore, the world is not split up evenly with a nation of pure tool-being on one side and a land of sheer relations on the other—every point in the cosmos is both a concealed reality and one that enters into explicit contact with others. Finally, in the strict sense, there is no such thing as a sheer “relation”; every relation turns out to be an entity in its own right. As a result, there is no cleared transcendent space that gains a distance from entities to reveal them “as” what they are. There is no exit from the density of being, no way to stand outside the brutal play of forces and vacuum-packed entities that crowd the world.(pp. 288-289). 

In the above tool-being and the concept of “essence” are interchangeable. So for Harman the essence of real objects precedes its sensual appendages, and in fact for him withdraws not only from human awareness but from all relation whatsoever. But what is this agency that withdraws? It’s as if Harman has sided at least figuraly with the vitalists, as if objects had the power to make decisions, that they could intervene in the world, withdraw from relations as they see fit. But is this true? Can rocks remove themselves from their precarious life on the edge of a cliff ready to topple? I exaggerate. My problem comes down to “awareness” and “consciousness”: what makes a decision? Does a rock or any other inanimate object have the powers to make decisions? How so? The whole of Harman’s metaphysics hinges on this shift from the human to the inanimate without a complete and thorough, detailed explanation of this process by which inanimate things make decisions (i.e., how they can withdraw from relations, unplug their inanimate being form the things around them). Of course he’ll talk of indirect relations and that we should not confuse literal phenomenalism with the abstract notions of which he is speaking. He’ll pointedly state of Zizek: “There is a surplus of the world beyond our projection of it; the world is not just a pure signifier representing a void, but is that which always withdraws from signification. The same fate awaits all objects in the cosmos” (Tool-Being, 209). But is this a parody of Zizek or a clear reading? Harman sees Zizek as not escaping Idealism, but rather bound to its horizon of meaning, encapsulated within its net of Ideas on the subject, etc.

Harman will read Zizek and his return to Hegel through Lacan’s eyes as “a subject not “immersed in its life-world,” but one able to create a fissure in being and retroactively posit its own context” (Harman, 210). Harman will only add the juncture that Zizek does not go far enough and posit that what goes for humans also goes for all other objects, animate and inanimate, in the world.

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.

– Slavoj Zizek

(Badiou and Zizek from a materialist perspective also opt for a event based, non-substantive notion of time, a time of rupture and newness: an event.

Zizek recounting an Agatha Christie Jane Marple mystery in which a woman sees a murder on another passing train in which the police find no evidence, and only Mrs. Marple believes her and follows up: 

This is an event at its purest and most minimal : something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation.

It is a manifestation of a circular structure in which the evental effect retroactively determines its causes or reasons.1

As Zizek further qualifies  an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes. Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible? (Zizek, 5)

Zizek will see this as two approaches or opposing views of reality: the transcendental and the ontological or ontic. The first concerns the universal structure of how reality appears to us. Which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing? ‘Transcendental’ is the philosopher’s technical term for such a frame, which defines the co-ordinates of reality – for example, the transcendental approach makes us aware that, for a scientific naturalist, only spatio-temporal material phenomena regulated by natural laws really exist, while for a premodern traditionalist, spirits and meanings are also part of reality, not only our human projections. The ontic approach, on the other hand, is concerned with reality itself, in its emergence and deployment: how did the universe come to be? Does it have a beginning and an end? What is our place in it?(Zizek, 5-6)

For Zizek the universe can never be reduced to its determinations, there is only an open ended strife at the heart of existence:

There is time, there is development, precisely because opposites cannot directly coincide. Therein resides already the lesson of the very beginning of the Logic: how do we pass from the first identity of opposites, Being and Nothing, to Becoming (which then stabilizes itself in Something[ s])? If Being and Nothing are identical, if they overlap, why move forward at all? Precisely because Being and Nothing are not directly identical: Being is a form, the first formal-notional determination, whose only content is Nothing; the couple Being/ Nothing forms the highest contradiction which is impossible, and to resolve this impossibility, this deadlock, one passes into Becoming, into oscillation between the two poles.

In the above Zizek agrees with Harman in the sense that ‘Being’ is form, yet for Zizek it is not a substantial form but rather a formless form. No essence preceding things, not hidden core behind the veil within which the essence can withdraw. Instead there is the conflict of becoming and process to which essence is the end not the beginning. So for Zizek there is war and strife in the heart of the universe and nothing else. This very oscillation between Being and Nothingness will never be resolved until the final death throws of the universe. Until then we have eternal war of being and nothingness: working in oscillation with becoming… this is time.

I’ve begun a long arduous process of tracing down this ancient battle between substantial formalists (object oriented) and non-substantive event (process) based philosophers, and have begun organizing a philosophical work around the great theme of Time that will tease out the current climate of Continental thought against this background.

In some ways I want to take up Zizek’s philosophical materialism of non-substantial self-relating nothingness vs. Harman’s substantial formalism where they intersect in the notions of Time and Causality. We’ve seen work on both of these philosophers, but have yet to see the drama they are enacting from the two world perspectives of transcendental vs. ontology and ontic, substance vs. void or gap. I think this would be a worthwhile battle to bring to light what is laying there in fragments.

Stay tuned.

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 1). Open Court. Kindle Edition
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 4). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 6322-6330). Norton. Kindle Edition.

 

Notes on a the Poem Covenant by Jorie Graham

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed always has interesting things to say on literature, art, and other fascinating worlds. Came across a post on Jorie Graham’s poetry worth reading. Yet, for him a poem he favors registers as a Beckettian notion of “insufficiency of self” and the lack of expressivity at the heart of her core questioning. Here is the fragment:

Covenant in Never:

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
passing now.
So as to leave what behind?
. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:
. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
ever
get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

Strange, I come out of reading those fragments from Graham with a difference than your “insufficiency of selfhood”. She’s not concerned with expression or its lack at all. In the poem she is onto the epistemic divide of me, know, it. She’s questioning the notion of substantive form, whether there is anything of substance in “me” or “it”, while the third term “know” dangles between the two, wavering like a white flag in the midst of a battle.

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me

passing now.

The very use of memerisation, to be enthralled to the still point of time, knowing that it is in some sense a ‘self’ “me here, the me passing”, and to acknowledge that that instant is fleeing, always fleeing. This invokes both a sense of being stuck in time, yet knowing that the body that houses the self has moved on, and that the mind that “knows” is retroactively searching not that actual moment but its memoriam, its fleeting traces in memory. Which brings us to:

So as to leave what behind?

Is there every anything that remains? Any substantive trace element registered in time? Does time exist eternally: is each instant like Whitehead cut off from before and after in its own eternal now. Do we go with McTaggart and say “time doesn’t exist”, or as in F.H. Bradley: “Time, like space, has most evidently proved not to be real, but a contradictory appearance….The problem of change defies solution.” A paradox that will never be resolved?

Or Plato: “Time is the moving image of eternity immobile” A time that is both substantive and holds all things in an vessel (form) that nothing escapes: like wandering a gallery of fine art works that seem to repeat every instant of time as one walks along the marble floors?

Or Aristotle: “time is the measure of change”? A mathematical time of change laid out on a flat plane between now and past and future?

Or Descartes notion of res extensa: that a material body has the property of spatial extension but no inherent capacity for temporal endurance, and that God by his continual action sustains (or re-creates) the body at each successive instant. Time is a kind of sustenance or re-creation (“Third Meditation” in Meditations on First Philosophy). Harkening back to Malbranche and the Occasionalists? Is time substantive? Is it like a clay where we deposit memories, emotions, etc.?

Or do we follow Leibniz who offered time as event (those like Badiou and Zizek following), a time that is relational and non-substantive?

Or Kant for whom time is a lens (form) in the mind that forces us to apprehend phenomena in an ordered sequence (birth of the arrow of time notion)?

And, that doesn’t even bring in physical and scientific notions…

Which all leads to:

. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:

But what is it that comes so close? Noumenon? Phenomena? Substance? Formless void? What is knowing that it cannot “know” this thing that “comes so close”? And, of course she implies as Anthony surmises a lack, an insufficiency in the self that cannot know. That  it is not a substance that one can hold, it is non-substantive and is always changing or in metamorphosis. She seems to side with Leibniz and those after that time is a relation, but a relation to what: me, knowing, or it? Event (rupture, movement, change) or vessel (duration, immobile, stasis)?

Which leads on to her movement into Pater and Wilde:

. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot

ever

get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”


This is definitely a Paterian expansion of the instant as in The Renaissance: “For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” Which instead of Leibniz brings us back to Plato for whom time was a vessel that held all things. But of course she ends in the irony of the paradox: “what holds the “know”? And, of course, the answer: nothing, nothing at all. For knowing is an event itself, what the Greeks termed kairos, which for Heidegger among others was this movement between Chronos and Kairos of continuity and order: there is the kairos of ‘initiating’ (anfängliche) time, the action-oriented moment of vision (Augenblick) that irrupts into temporal constitution and inspires our expectations and decisions anew. This is the notion of Event that Althusser, Badiou, and Zizek follow in their praxis of rupture and time, etc.

Yet, the paradoxical: what holds the “know” implies the question: God or Self? Or, since she uses the word “holds”, this implies her acceptance of Plato, that time is a vessel that holds all things: even the movement and change of eternity in substantive stasis. Is there a substantive form behind all things that holds what remains or not? Or is – as in Zizek, nothing behind the curtain, no big Other, no substance at all. Only the vastation of the great emptiness: the Void.

 

Hopefully this sheds some light on the poem from a different perspective.

Ubiquity: Racism, Ideology, and Governance

…freedom is a process of becoming, of being able to see and understand difference within unity, and resisting the tendency to reproduce the hierarchies embedded in the world we want to change.

– Angela Y. Davis,   The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues

Thinking through Jehu’s recent post and my own intervention and response I had to go back into my own life and take a hard look at the world I grew up in during the 50’s of the last century in the oil fields of Odessa, Texas. One admits that it was an insular world, a world isolated in its backward cultural frames of working class and rich. It even played itself out in the bifurcation between two cities: Midland and Odessa. Midland became the world of finance, oil, corporations and the elite who controlled the world of money and oil in the region. While Odessa was the segregated apartheid of White’s and African-American (and, even, Hispanic) workers. In Odessa there was this further separation with the term of “Black Town” for a section of the city where African-Americans lived, etc. As a child of course I was oblivious of this ubiquitous culture of religion, ideology, and secularist governance that was slowly inculcated and brought to bare upon my growing mind through all types of linguistic and semiological systems of control (“slurs, racial epithets, cuss terms, etc.; restrooms for Whites and African-Americans; unwritten code of restaurants disallowing African-Americans, etc.). We were governed by an invisible network of ideological thought, norms, and sheer invisible world semiological and tainted signs that bound both the oppressed and the oppressor in a set of ubiquitous relations. And for the most part we were bound by this code of silence and custom, unaware (or if we were aware were fearful of expulsion and ostracization, etc.). 

Zizek is not so much a theoretician of the obvious as he is a force that keeps returning us to those ubiquitous control systems (ideologies) that pervade our world and inform all our decision making processes. In his recent book he makes the point that language itself is one of those ubiquitous systems of control that have been used both for freedom and oppression. Speaking of India, where the oldest form of exclusion and oppression in the world that marked a racist ideology (the untouchables, etc.) Zizek says:

According to some Indian cultural theorists, the fact that they are compelled to use the English language is a form of cultural colonialism that suppresses their true identity: “Since we have to speak in an imposed foreign language to express our innermost identity, does this not put us in a position of radical alienation, so that even our resistance to colonization has to be formulated in the language of the colonizer?” The answer to this is: yes— but this imposition of a foreign language itself created the very X which is “oppressed” by it; that is, what is oppressed is not the actual pre-colonial India, but the authentic dream of a new universalistic and democratic India.1

What he’s getting at is the language itself became a tool in the hands of the white Anglo-Saxon minority regimes that allowed them to impose new terms of governance on the population, colonizing not only their lands but their minds, infecting them with the linguistic rules and norms that pervade the English language so ubiquitously. Many linguist admit that language guides and shapes our view of life, a lens that standardizes perception for good or ill. As Edward Sapir said: “The complete vocabulary of a language may indeed be looked upon as a complex inventory of all the ideas, interests, and occupations that take up the attention of a community.” ( need citation: have in notes) Which brings us to the Dalits (the “untouchables”):

It is crucial to note that this role of the English language was clearly perceived by many intellectuals among the Dalits (the “untouchables”): a large number of Dalits welcomed the English language and indeed even the colonial encounter. For Ambedkar (the main political figure of the Dalits) and his legatees, British colonialism— at least incidentally— created the conditions for the so-called rule of law and the formal equality of all Indians. Prior to this, Indians had only caste laws, which gave the Dalits many duties and almost no rights.(Zizek, 132)

One could spend years studying racism in the linguistic governance of peoples across the globe from both those who saw this colonization of their minds as either oppression or (like the Dalits) liberation (from an even worse linguistic and cultural imposition).

One of the key messages that Zizek tries to get across in this new work is that as the Secular Order falls apart and disintegrates, along with its old linguistic ties to the past, its mores, customs, laws, etc. the powers that be are encouraging it, even seeking to accelerate this process of decay and corruption of the human into the inhuman. They know that if they can destroy our ties to the past, our mores and customs, our mental and physical habits that have bound us for hundreds if not thousands of years, then they can modulate us, create a new order of the ages, etc. Yet, one must be cautious here, because unlike conspiracy theory which believes in some Big Other behind the events of world history we must side with Zizek, Badiou, Lacan and realize there is nothing and no one behind the curtain, no Wizard of Oz sitting there guiding things along the way (no corporate initiative, no governing body, or elite group, etc.). Language is not some big Other shaping us in the Foucaultian or postmodern sense. Linguistic systems inhabit a realm of rhetoric shaped over countless years of political strife and have emerged in and with this strife. Languages die or emerge. They become, and change. Some like English enjoy wider cultural horizons and impose a sort of ubiquitous appearance of being natural, but are rather political tools of social governance at its most sovereign. 

It’s the old notion of the mirror. I remember my child gazing at herself for the first time in the full-length mirror in our old house. At first she seemed to talk to this image as if it were another person, then something changed and she tried to touch the creature in the mirror and it frightened her at first. Then she began to look around as if myself or my wife could help her, then she turned back to the image that seemed to follow her every move and began laughing delightedly. But then something turned darker, the double in the other world, the mirror world seemed to become more real, take on another life. She suddenly backed away and began crying, anxiously staring at the object in the mirror. I’ve often wondered if at that moment she realized that the object, the thing, the creature in the mirror was none other than her self. Was this the moment of the true emergence of subjectivity in my daughter? I wonder if in her young mind she suddenly saw herself for the first time as an object, a body, as something else: knowing herself not as a “who” but as a “what” (an object).

Zizek in one of his interminable anecdotes will tell us of a woman going missing in a volcano, only to be revealed as never being missed in the first place; that, in fact through a faulty description she joined her own search party (having previously change clothes at a food stop, others didn’t realize it and mistook her as missing). She will realize afterword that she was the one they were looking for all along. The  point he makes, much like my mirror scenario:

The source of the weird fascination of this story is that it echoes and simultaneously mocks the New Age spiritualist topic of self-loss, of someone losing contact with the intimate core of their being and then desperately trying to discover “who they really are”— this is precisely the temptation to which one should not succumb. It is much more productive to formulate the problem in terms of the tension between signifying representation and identity: insofar as signifying representations designate our properties, what a subject “is like,” the question is that of the old Marx brothers’ paradox: do I look like myself? In other words, not “who” but “what” (for an object) am I?(286)

The temptation is to suppose our self, our subjectivity exists somewhere deep within the core of our being, some substantive kernel of being; but, in truth, we emerge in that no man’s zone between representation and identity: the self in the mirror and our knowledge of that fact.

Something that Jehu pointed out in his post was the notion that for the consciousness of the American white worker, the black worker is not human nor entitled to be treated as human. Ferguson is not a historical accident, but the result of a long history of development of the American working class: Even today, if you want an issue to be ignored, all you have to show is that it mainly affects the black working class. This is all within the orthodox Marxist framework, yet the trick is the exclusionary tactic of the African-American’s being treated as “not human”. This notion that the Whites represent what is human, and that the African-American is not white therefore is not human is tautological at best. Yet, the drift is the same as in India with the Delits (“the untouchables”) who are in many ways totally invisible to the vast majority of Indians in their midst. Isn’t this the point of Ralph Ellison’s great American classic novel The Invisible Man. Being excluded because of the ideological veil of custom and mores, living in a white world where one is not only not human but invisible?

Jehu in his post will tell us that there “is no accident at all in the history of the class struggle in the US: white labor has from the first used black labor as sacrificial pawns to absorb the impact of capitalist development. The white worker has done this knowing full well the consequence of his action for the black worker and with no guilt. … Thus, in the consciousness of the American white worker, the black worker is not human nor entitled to be treated as human.”

This notion of human / non-human as an exclusionary tactic is at the center of much discourse these days. That Jehu raises it as a racial issue brings it home. But what to do? Zizek sees in such notions the grasping for a universal, as if the white man held some universal substance known as human nature that other races did not have: some real kernel or substance at the core of being that others were excluded from: a general appeal to a shared humanity can cover up any particular horror; it holds as well for the victim as for his or her executioner (Zizek, 314). Yet, the truth should be opposite there is neither human nor inhuman (non-human); rather, the truth is that there is uniqueness – a uniqueness that know one is willing to admit or accept. What is being excluded is not one’s human(ess), but one’s uniqueness. As Zizek will say: “It should not have been “You should accept us because, in spite of our differences, we are all human!” but “You should accept us because of what we are in our uniqueness!” (314)”

When I listen to Angela Davis say:

What would be the purpose of uniting the entire black community? How would one possibly bring people together across all the complicated lines of politics and class? It would be futile to try to create a single black community today. But it does make sense, I said, “to think about organizing communities, organizing communities not simply around their blackness, but primarily around political goals. Political struggle has never been so much a question about how it is identified or chooses to identify as it has been a question of how one thinks race, gender, class, sexuality affect the way human relations are constructed in the world.”2

This notion that we are nothing but social construction tool-sets, ready made toys of the divergent networks of social relations has been at the heart of postmodern thought for years. Foucault is probably the best known theoretician of this world. I know longer buy into this view of things, and I think Foucault himself saw this as an aberration of his core ideas as well. Even in his Lectures: The Birth of Biopolitics he saw sovereignty and the “art of governance” at the heart of social relations. Governance as a “art” against any notions of universal claims:

Historicism starts from the universal and, as it were, puts it through the grinder of history. My problem is the opposite. I start from the theoretical and methodological decision that consists in saying: Let’s suppose that universals do not exist. (3)

In other words not Platonic eternal order of universals, instead we see applied a “decision” that starts not with some Platonic notion of universals to be applied to history, but rather the beginnings of a notion of events emerging out of history as becoming. This hits at Zizek’s statement notion of the radical asymmetry of class struggle:

 …the aim of the proletariat is not simply to negate (in whatever way) its enemy, the capitalists, but to negate (abolish) itself as a class. This is why we are dealing here with a “third way” (neither proletarian nor capitalist) which is not excluded, but also with a suspension of the principle of contradiction (it is the proletariat itself which strives to abolish itself, its condition).3

 In this way the path for African-Americans is not to negate its enemy, the white-supremacist capitalists, but to abolish the conditions that enforce such relations to begin with. As long as it sees white-supremacy as the Big Other, as the God that has excluded them from the world in invisibility or non-humanity it will play into the hands of the ideological machine. Rather it must find that “third way”:

What we should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy’s turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us— everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror,” ominous and threatening as it should be.(ibid. KL 22431)

Maybe it is time for the terror of Silence. But this silence speaks louder than words can tell. This is the Night of the World. The moment of the truly New emerging in our midst.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 132). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Davis, Angela Y. (2012-08-14). The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights Open Media) (pp. 118-120). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 22508-22511). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Freud’s Prosthetic God

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you. And without feet I can make my way to you, without a mouth I can swear your name.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Freud looked on technology and saw what was coming: the prosthetic God. Humans enfolded in the myth and illusions of Nietzsche’s self-overcoming man: becoming other, becoming machinic, enhanced; merging with his supplements, his technological appendages, shaping and shaped in their likeness bringing both transhuman and posthuman unhappiness and misery in pursuit of immortal godhood:

Long ago [man] formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. Only, it is true, in the fashion in which ideals are usually attained according to the general judgment of humanity: not completely, in some respects not at all, in others only half way. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times … Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great achievements in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.1

Slavoj Zizek commenting on this passage would add the Lacanian twist. “In his Ethics seminar, Lacan invokes the “point of the apocalypse,” the impossible saturation of the symbolic by the Real of jouissance, the full immersion into massive jouissance. When, in a Heideggerian way, he asks “Have we crossed the line … in the world in which we live?,”  he refers to the fact that “ the possibility of the death of the Symbolic has become a tangible reality.”  Lacan himself invokes the threat of an atomic holocaust; today, however, we are in a position to offer other versions of this death of the symbolic, principal among them the full scientific naturalization of the human mind. The apocalyptic process will reach its zero point when prostheses no longer merely supplement the human body but in a way supplant it, leaving behind the notion of the human being as a worker whose know-how enables him to use prosthetic instruments.”2

This notion of the zero point of humanity, the vanishing point beyond which one will not know what is human or not, but will cross the Rubicon of animate/inanimate becoming: producing in the process the erasure of the human in the inhuman.  The point that Zizek makes is that in this transition to prosthetic implementation or enhancement through technology, medicine, nanotech, etc. we will become unknowing of the line between the human and machinic, it will become ubiquitous and invisible:

While in principle this may be true, the problem is that when the prosthesis is no longer experienced as such, but becomes invisible, part of our immediate-organic experience, those who technologically control the prosthesis effectively control us at the very heart of our self-experience. (279)

My friend R. Scott Bakker will align this naturalization of humanity into either hybridity or machine-life as the ‘Semantic Apocalypse’. A cultural and socialization process that began with the breakdown in universal values: Kant’s moment of doubt when the notion of finitude and intuition emerged. The notion of eternal truths suddenly dies and spawns history, the dark truth that ‘truth itself is time-bound’, a cultural artifact that we have as Nietzsche once taught “all agreed upon”.

For Zizek this whole breakdown allowed the sciences to fantasize and bring into the world things that were not found in nature, that allowed a process to begin shaping itself without us:

Science and technology today no longer aim only at understanding and reproducing natural processes, but also at generating new forms of life that will surprise us. The goal is not just to dominate nature (the way it is), but to generate something new, greater, stronger than ordinary nature, including ourselves— exemplary is here the obsession with artificial intelligence, which aims at producing a brain stronger than the human brain. The dream that sustains the scientific-technological endeavor is to trigger a process with no return, a process that will exponentially reproduce itself all on its own. The notion of “second nature” is therefore today more pertinent than ever, in both its main meanings.(279)

One must remember that underpinning the notion of “second nature” is the old Christian or even monotheistic/gnostic notion of becoming the ‘being of Light’, etc. One could provide thousands of examples from the World’s religions of this transcension of the natural. From East to West various notions of becoming other than we are, of transcending our nature, etc. has been the goal of moral and religious engines for thousands of years. This movement from religion to the religion of science is one and the same: these new NBIC sciences are sponsored by a new secular religion seeking immortality. Yet, many fear this and realize it is once again the dream not of the common man, but of the elites seeking to gain a new dominion over nature, etc. At the bottom of this fear lies the fear that sex, a natural process that has up to now guided natural evolution is being replaced by what Lacan termed the lamella:

This fear also has a clear libidinal dimension: it is the fear of the asexual reproduction of Life, the fear of a life that is indestructible, constantly expanding, reproducing itself through self-division— in short, the fear of that mythic creature Lacan called lamella (which can be loosely translated as “manlet,” a condensation of “man” and “omelet”), the libido as an organ, an inhuman-human organ without a body, the mythical pre-subjective “undead” life-substance.(280)

Zizek will remind us that Lacan’s term for these objects that have become invisible, ubiquitous in our midst, objects that are merging with us are becoming the surround of our inforworlds are “lathouses”:

The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. Since you seem to find that amusing, I am going to show you how it is written. Notice that I could have called it lathousies. That would have gone better with ousia, it is open to all sorts of ambiguity … And for the tiny little a-objects that you are going to encounter when you leave, on the pavement at every street corner, behind every shop window, in the superabundance of these objects designed to cause your desire in so far as it is now science that governs it, think of them as lathouses. I notice a bit late since I invented it not too long ago that it rhymes with ventouse [windy]. (Zizek quoting Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 162.)

Of course Zizek will take on the political interpellation of this, saying that as such, lathouse is to be opposed to symptom (in the precise Freudian sense of the term): lathouse is knowledge embodied (in a new “unnatural” object). We can see why, apropos lathouses, we have to include capitalism— we are dealing here with a whole chain of surpluses: scientific technology with its surplus-knowledge (a knowledge beyond mere connaissance of already existing reality, a knowledge which gets embodied in new objects); capitalist surplus-value (the commodification of this surplus-knowledge in the proliferation of gadgets); and, last but not least, surplus-enjoyment (gadgets as forms of the objet a), which accounts for the libidinal economy of the hold of lathouses over us.(282)

 

1. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, New York: Norton 1961, p. 39.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 277-278). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.