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In Harman the object is split between a sensual (phenomenal) appendage and a real (noumenal) withdrawn core, etc.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.


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

  1. This battle is solved by an absolute partition. Seeing that the battle takes place by an orientation upon a True Object., the arena in which such substantial and process takes place . The significant issue thus removes the problem from an equivocation of Heidegger’s Being.

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    • That would be a nice trick, but no that’s not a solution: that’s to obfuscate the very terms into what Hegel said all along of the “identity of opposites”, which is what Zizek has been saying for years. Heidegger’s Dasein is as useless for this as any human term.

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      • I disagree. Harmans assertion of objects is based in an ‘accidental’ withholding of tjat by which he is able to make such a claim; Zizek witholding simply says theres nothing by which a witholding could take place. As if words hold a capacity to arrive at essential truths, such a battle takes place as a deception itself.


      • The question is how, concretely, we are to read this identity of opposites . The standard critical reading is satisfied with seeing in it the very model of how the Idea mediates or posits all its particular content, that is, as the extreme “idealist” affirmation of the primacy of the a priori over the a posteriori. What such a reading clearly misses is the opposite movement, the irreducible “umbilical cord” on account of which every a priori universality remains attached to (“ overdetermined” by) the a posteriori of a particular content. To put it somewhat bluntly: yes, the universal notional form imposes necessity upon the multitude of its contingent contents, but it does so in a way which itself remains marked by an irreducible stain of contingency —or, as Derrida would have put it, the frame itself is always also a part of the enframed content. The logic here is that of the Hegelian “oppositional determination” (gegensätzliche Bestimmung), in which the universal genus encounters itself among its particular and contingent species.

        Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10765-10772). Norton. Kindle Edition.


      • Yes. I think Zizek has the more ‘honest’ proposal. But is not this battle itself the identity? So then what is opposite to this identity must not be opposite nor another identical position: it is that of an absolute partition, the ‘side’ of which is dismissed from such necessary identity: being(s) as the constituency of reality does not address necessary truth, but only the contingent ‘part’ that misses and outright denies ‘difference’ by its assertion of pure multiple real-truth.


      • … The significant issue would be to describe how such positions are able to be proposed; that is, how Harman ‘means’, what this meaning suggests as a proposal of true objects, and how such a proposal is even able to have veracity. For Zizek also: how he is able to say that there is a nil subject. Since obviously Zizek is there not a nil thing, his proposal of a nil subject as an essential reduction (a true object) must be representative of likewise something withheld.


      • Where does Zizek show this? A quote perhaps… For Zizek there are three terms: 1) den – Democretian Less than nothing, 2) nothing, 3) something (the emergence of things in our universe). But even these things have no eternal essence, they are pure process – their essence is the end, a teleological process. A Hegelian ‘concrete universal’ , not a Platonic universal hiding behind the Real. For Zizek things are always in excess of their determinations: this is the point of the gap, void, etc. There is and always will be a paradox or ‘identity of opposites’ in the sense of an open ended agon at the heart of things.

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      • He talks of the nill subject in Parallax Gap. The essential feature of reality only rmerges as Zizek proposes inso much as there is indeed a one reality that all discourse is supposed and assumed to address, even if in its adressing it states i does not address all, for tjis then is also an acvounting as an absolute truth of real things, as a real thing itself. Of course Harman and Zizek overlap but it is because they are both oriented upon true objects, and thus withold something essential — which is to say, they do not speak of it due to what offense would occurr to their real identity, and not so much that real things have something witheld as an essetial feature of their truth, but only conventional, respectfull truth of their real objective identity.


      • “The parallax view” (sorry; evidence of how long it’s been) I can’t find exact quotes (Zizek is soooo anecdotal, one almost has to wonder if he is really saying anything beyond a swirling of anecdotes. His theory draws from so many historical instances, when one reads “end times”, we can’t but ponder what end is occurring since this end or progression of end is strewn out over a hundred years, we have to ask then if all of ‘modern’ philosophy is really a constant and eternal reiteration of End.)
        And, Admitting it has been a while for Parallax view, I could be constrewing something he never actually stated. It is around the slash-S, and petite a, and such formations. I’m pretty sure he never says “nil subject” but rather talks about how an investigation into the subject yields a field of objects, such that we get to nothing, at the ‘center’ but a space of nil.

        But this is entirely and totally nonsense. Is he saying that the person who wrote Paralax View is not a person, a human being, and that really nothing wrote it such that there is not even a subject about what a parallax gap is? Of all his discursive maneuvers, he cannot describe himself out of the situation of nil such that his book might arise or has arisen, or never arises. Better: it is all nonsense, a position that must be said to arise from nothing, the void, but that it is seen by conventional reality as not having done so except as a discursive meaning which derives the contradiction just exhibited. And this is to say, that somehow he is seen to have said something significant about True Objects. As if what he is saying has anything to do with what he says, but that he said it. This is the issue of the void.

        Harman, in the other hand, sees how such arisen discourses have done so many times, in fact all through philosophical history, but for his situation, everywhere, such that Heidegger becomes significant, as Daseins. Thus, “objects” (the conflation of which connotes nil-subjects) are withheld, but for Harman, withheld in so much as he must not speak of what is occurring, but rather he must withhold the event that thereby allows him to speak what manifests as the world of reality: True Objects that have something withheld. He must withhold the truth for the sake of the sensual, that which ‘makes sense’, sincerely and vicariously, because what he is putting forth as a proposal of truth, he already knows is not true.

        Harman is thus rooted in deception, where Zizek is more honestly attempting to not withhold anything. Yet both are dealing with an identity that they cannot throw because of their investment in the real-true state of things. And this thus holds them up to a blind spot, since they must assert that the discourse they are using is dealing with all that may be true, but is really merely an ideological stage where they must withhold what is truly occurring.


      • Not sure why your harping on this? What’s the point? The battle I’m discussing has nothing to do with what your describing. I’m talking about the two differing and divergent views of reality I see in Zizek and Harman: this notion of the oppositional determinations between the dialectical materialist view and the object-oriented substantial formalism. Even Zizek and Harman agree on their differences. One need only read both men to see this.

        What your discussing is more along Badiou’s lines not Zizek and Harman. As Zizek says:

        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.

        Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 14182-14187). Norton. Kindle Edition.

        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.


      • Not sure where you get that idea: Zizek is definitely not a substantialist, rather a non-substantialist. He promotes gap and void, and the formless form; or structureless structure. He is the opposite of Harman. In page after page in Less than nothing and in Absolute Recoil he discusses this, along with even his early works. You seem to be reading all of this incorrectly.


      • No; I understand this situation. But i see the issue as much more profound: there is a confusion that is perpetuated in philosophy; there are philosophers of the Event, and philosophers that address the True Object. And the problem arises in the effort that tries to reconcile them. But the problem persists because both see (or at least purport them to observations that evidence their viewing as so) their experiences as real. So, in reality there is a facade seen as substantial and a facade that is seen as processual, as these are viewed to identify actual real-true things, actual True Objects to be addressed and found in their trueness.

        The discussion you bring up is real. But it Is capable of addressing only an incomplete issue, as the object of this issue is necessarily always partially withdrawn from the discussion. Hence, the partition of which I speak.


  2. I’m not as well read on these philosophical issues as I’d like to be but I wanted to throw out a suggestion: about the issue between substantialist and non-substantialist orientations, where does Deleuze’s notion of the virtual fit in here? I can’t quite develop the right words to explain but I feel as if the virtual gets around the issue because potentiality is a zone where both positive being and negative void overlap..


    • I can’t speak for D.E. but I would say that Deluze uses virtual as you seem to be getting at, as a sort of overlap, but again as another attempt to reconsile two distinct and irreducible situations. Virtual is a good idea for this situation for it appears to ride the boundary while admitting its irreducibility.


      • What’s so funny about all this is Deleuze’s virtual potential (pure time), zizek’s irreducible excess (the gap), and Harman’s withdrawn core to all objects (alluring essence) are all ideas that almost nearly converge into the samething. Each describes how apparent cohesive “identity” is always destabilized but they seem to view this same phenomenon from differing perspectives. Maybe zizek and Harman develop through the point of view of a subjective frame that opens itself up to otherness while Deleuze attempts to not express through an anthropogenic frame but from the point of view of otherness itself. Perhaps this why D&G almost seem to speak a strange unhuman language in many of their works?


      • Thanks for that! I think That is a good statement. It might actually get philosophy somewhere. For what does it mean if philosophers are merely using different terms to speak about the same thing. The multiplicity of clashing random philosophers ideas together in a sort of mash-up approach to finding interesting new configurations of terms, while affirming real identity and adding to conceptual capital, is getting a bit boring.


    • Levi R. Bryant, a Deleuzian scholar, and one of the more knowledgeable beings on such notions describes Deleuze’s two senses of the virtual in this post:

      What Levi is describing is the sense that in Deleuze the virtual is bound up with his notions of Time (virtual: Aion – actual: Chronos), and is the condition of the actual. Levi also interpellates his own difference from Deleuze adding: “I reject Deleuze’s thesis that there is something like an ontological memory or pure past, detached from any subjects, that inheres in all being, in favor of a materialist position that sees the present as perpetually reproducing itself or rather which discerns being as composed entirely of actuality.”

      It is this sense of the materialist as subject retroactively shaping or positing the past, rather than some fixed dead object separate (dualist) and bound to being. Zizek will bring this all into his metaphysics of the subject, which is best typified by this paragraph (from Less Than Nothing):

      “What this also means is that communism should no longer be conceived as the subjective (re) appropriation of the alienated substantial content— all versions of reconciliation as “subject swallows the substance” should be rejected. So, again, “reconciliation” is the full acceptance of the abyss of the de-substantialized process as the only actuality there is: the subject has no substantial actuality, it comes second, it emerges only through the process of separation , the overcoming of its presuppositions, and these presuppositions are also just a retroactive effect of the same process of their overcoming. The result is thus that there is, at both extremes of the process, a failure or negativity inscribed in the very heart of the entity we are dealing with. If the status of the subject is thoroughly “processual,” this means that it emerges only through the failure to fully actualize itself. This brings us again to one possible formal definition of the subject: a subject tries to articulate (“ express”) itself in a signifying chain, this articulation fails, and in and through this failure, the subject emerges: the subject is the failure of its signifying representation— which is why Lacan writes the subject of the signifier as $, as “barred.” In a love letter, the very failure of the writer to formulate his declaration in a clear and effective way, his vacillations, the letter’s fragmentary style, and so on, can in themselves be proof (perhaps the necessary and only reliable proof) that the love he professes is authentic— here, the very failure to deliver the message properly is the sign of its authenticity. If the message is delivered too smoothly, it will arouse the suspicion that it is part of a well-planned approach, or that the writer loves himself, the beauty of his writing, more than his love-object, that the latter is effectively reduced to a pretext for engaging in the narcissistically satisfying activity of writing.”

      In the above he explicitly states his position contra those like Harman (substantial formalist). Zizek posits only the base tenet of his well known cliché: “fail and fail better”. It’s all in the statement: “acceptance of the abyss of the de-substantialized process as the only actuality there is: the subject has no substantial actuality…” In this sense Levi, himself, is in full agreement with Zizek when he says: “I reject Deleuze’s thesis that there is something like an ontological memory or pure past, detached from any subjects, that inheres in all being, in favor of a materialist position that sees the present as perpetually reproducing itself or rather which discerns being as composed entirely of actuality.” Both agree that it is in the present that the subject retroactively (Zizek) – perpetually reproducing itself (Levi) composes this actuality as process not substantive or substantial being (dualist).

      In fact it was over this difference of virtual and actual that Harman and Levi diverged, Levi returning to his roots in Deleuze would reaffirm this notion of the virtual and would make explicit and in more detail in his second work on the Democracy of Objects, etc.

      Think of Zizek in such statements as this: “The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.” This big Other should not be reduced to an anonymous symbolic field— there are many interesting cases where an individual stands for the big Other.” (Less than Nothing KL 2272)

      For Zizek as stated in the essay above the paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality. And his added supplement of Hegel’s positing, etc. Harman as stated previously disagrees with this Lacanian/Hegelian dialectical twist. Harman rejects this notion of a de-substantialized processual universe of being retroactively composed by the subject in an ongoing loop, etc.

      One could pull out a thousand and one examples to show how Zizek and Harman or at the opposite ends of the spectrum in current philosophical theory and praxis. Yet, Harman chose Zizek for this very reason. That has been my point all along. Harman sees in Zizek his opposition, and has read against Zizek in his own work (as stated Zizek pervades Tool-Being as an undercurrent). There can be no reconciliation between the two philosopher’s as philosopher (even though they may be amiable as humans). The mask the two poles of our current dilemma in philosophy: Harman takes the substantialist position, while Zizek the processual position. Not sure how else to put it. Deleuze is a processualist. Yet, his vitalism or stance on Life goes to far. Zizek will reject this in Deleuze: as he rejects Deleuze’s heirs: Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad, Manuel DeLanda, etc.

      Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 6017-6030). Norton. Kindle Edition.

      Levi’s post:


      • Ok, I read Levi’s post and completely agree with the critique against pure virtuality. If potentiality is taken to its purest dimension, stripped of all actualisation, it becomes simply a stagnant region that only serves as a reductionist foundation? I usually tend to bias toward Deleuze’s late career where this issue seems to be dropped. Funny how I’m also more excited over zizek’s most recent writings compared to his earlier work.


      • Why? Zizek’s early work all ready says much the same: think o The Ticklish Subject. I mean Zizek has been fairly consistent his entire career. His whole philosophy is based around one major concept: the Gap, Void, Self-relalting nothingness, lack etc. This is his major insight and program. As in this statement:

        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)

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


    • In either case, Zizek and Harman — what is it for Zizek to say that the subject is really a continual process? Or for Harman to say there are only Objects (Daseins, really)? The subject as a failure, and the subject as completely not a subject?

      Zizek in his manner is speaking of a situation through a situation, and this situation is exactly the inability to communicate the ‘trueness’ of the situation (do I hear Layotard?). Harman takes this situation as a given situation and describes the repercussions: objects are withdrawn. The difference between these authors is entirely dependent upon whether the terms themselves are taken as indications of an (potentially) True Thing of the universe.

      Zizek is describing his situation; Harman is describing his (Harman’s) situation vicariously through the indication of the inability for communication already voiced by the authors he sees as before him. Zizek has no ‘before’, but the ‘before’ of Harman is required for Harman to be able to posit the situation of withdrawn objects interacting sincerely and vicariously.

      Deluze, himself in the state where what he believes (Zizek) is indeed an integral part of reality must be involved in negotiating the terms of (true) reality through a subjective corespondent, but as yet undisclosed and until now (then) withheld or hidden, truth, so that together the meeting of such ‘distinctive worlds’ become ‘virtual’.

      To say that an author is being, or is of a ‘processual’ versus ‘substantial’ position, is placing meaning in the realm of an object versus an object, as if to suggest that combining these objects, or comparing them, might find us a more true object. And this get us nowhere. It gets is the case that is never made, eternally.

      What are we after in philosophy? More distinction? More identities? What are we doing?

      If Harman rejects a processual position, it is because he must in order to justify himself as not in process, that is, he must say that there is substance because his view is that the communication of the subject has been shown impossible, and so to make a viable claim for conceptual capital he must deny his very situation for the sake of the investment in the state of reality: he must propose a system, a truth about the actual state of reality being object, where objects now may communicate, if vicariously upon accidental elements. What is withdrawn of his Object is exactly the situation of the processual subject. But this does nothing about the fact that Harman is there posing things because discourse is not a determinant of what is true, but only what is real. If Harman is half the philosopher he is supposed, then he must see this situation and thus be denying it for the purpose of staking a claim for his identity, not for any truth, but exactly for his own stake in capitalistic agency. He must posit the essential truth of objects, of identity. OOO.

      But this is not to argue process, but more to argue that the terms of position indicate a categorical error, that this error, the denial or avoidance of this error, is part of the method by which such positions may be said to indicate actual True things — as if these objects are not withholding anything.


      • I have to admit I don’t recognize anything you’re saying. Neither of these philosopher’s utilizes the term ‘situation’ as you imply. You’re whole reading makes no sense to me. I’m not sure where you’re coming from, Landek. Your terminology is foreign to current philosophical discourse so I can’t be sure of your actual implications.

        You say: “To say that an author is being, or is of a ‘processual’ versus ‘substantial’ position, is placing meaning in the realm of an object versus an object, as if to suggest that combining these objects, or comparing them, might find us a more true object. And this get us nowhere. It gets is the case that is never made, eternally.”

        This is a blatant misreading of what I’ve said. There is no combining of objects… no more true object. There is no ‘placement of meaning in object’ etc. Where are you coming from? The point of conflict in Harman/Zizek comes not in some sense of process vs. substantial, but rather as a conflict of “essence”: what comes first the chicken or the egg. As Zizek states “The object-in-itself (photon, atom) is here not negated/ mediated, it emerges as the (retroactive) result of its mediation”… this is what he means by self-relating nothingness, the dance around the void, etc. Retroactive Causation et. al… out of Democritus and Epicurus none the less:

        According to philosophical common sense, with his notion of the clinamen, Epicurus radicalized Democritus: in Democritus, atoms are Ones floating in empty space, while the Epicurean notion of the clinamen is the first philosophical model of the idea that an entity only is insofar as it “comes too late” with regard to itself, to its own identity : it is not that there are first atoms, which then deviate from their straight path (or not)— atoms are nothing but their clinamen. There is no substantial “something” prior to the clinamen that gets caught up in it; this “something” which deviates is created, emerges, through the clinamen itself. The clinamen is thus like the photon with no mass: we imagine an ordinary particle (if there is such a thing) as an object with mass, such that when its movement is accelerated its mass grows; a photon, however, has no mass in itself, its entire mass is the result of its acceleration. The paradox here is the paradox of a thing which is always (and nothing but) an excess with regard to itself: in its “normal” state, it is nothing. This brings us back to Lacan’s notion of the objet a as surplus-enjoyment: there is no “basic enjoyment” to which one adds surplus-enjoyment; enjoyment is always a surplus, in excess. The object-in-itself (photon, atom) is here not negated/ mediated, it emerges as the (retroactive) result of its mediation.

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

        I’m not sure how to make this more explicit: for Zizek there is no essence, no universal behind the curtain, no substantial ‘something’ prior to its emergence in the Real, etc. Essence, clinamen (swereve, process of difference) all come after, emerge in this oscillation between the poles of drive / nothing, void, lack, the hunger for being… etc. As he enjoins there is nothing, even less than nothing, etc. Democritus’s ‘den’…

        For Harman on the other hand there is form, substantial form, an essence: but not an Aristotelian conception of essence, but rather the inclusion of a vicarious causation of a quadruple object split between the real / sensual and its relations, etc.

        You are making things seem other than what these men are saying, Landek. One has to be clear about what they are themselves saying in there own words. You have not clarified the terms but muddled them (at least to me), but seem bent of translating their terms into your own and it isn’t working, or at least it isn’t working for me.


      • What is essense? Or rather, what is it to be able to identify as essense? It is to say no just that it is true, but that its trueness is beyond question: it is true. If something is essentialky true then it is a True Object. If there is no essence, then what is true of there being no essense is the truth of there being no essence. This is what Zizek points to. Harman rejects this contradiction, and says that the contradiction is itself as essential condition by which objects exist essentially.


      • What? Essence isn’t about truth… have you read Aristotle? Harman? Zizek? In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingency, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι,literally meaning “the what it was to be” and corresponding to the scholastic term quiddity) or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti (τὸ τί ἐστι, literally meaning “the what it is” and corresponding to the scholastic term haecceity) for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for his Latin translators that they coined the word essentia (English “essence”) to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition…

        Harman on the other hand starts not with Aristotle’s sense of essence, but rather with Heidegger’s:

        Dasein is the entity whose “essence” is that it exists. In this respect, it is the pure enactment of its “there,” undercutting any present-at-hand determination that might be offered of it. But we have seen repeatedly that this is the basic feature of equipment as well. In this first sense, then—every entity is Dasein! For an entity to be its there, it does not also need to see it. Inanimate tools are every bit as irreducible to their Vorhandenheit as humans, meaning that in this first sense, bolts of silk and xylophones turn out to be Dasein every bit as much as people are. (2) In a second sense, Dasein is defined as the entity concerned with its own being, the entity that has an understanding of being. This more usual definition of Dasein obviously has a far more restricted scope. Ignoring for now the thorny problem of animals, it does seem to refer to human beings alone.

        Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 41). Open Court. Kindle Edition.


      • Is not the statement “essense isnt about truth” a proposal that suggests its ability to convey an absolutly true thing or aspect of reality?


      • What is it then; are you saying that statement is false? Are you delibrately putting forth an idea as an example of its own contradiction? You should have promted me.


      • In fact, there is no absolute truth or absolutely truth thing or aspect of reality: that is a Platonic conception that I am as a materialist completely and diametrically opposed too. Truth emerges in becoming… it isn’t some Platonic Idea whose time has come… it is a struggle in history and the strife of humans with reality.

        Liked by 1 person

      • But if the truth is perpetualky becomming it sounds alot like Miellassoux. Where any moment the becomming could suddenly become not true.


      • lol Landzek I know very well what I’m saying. I want be smug, but this conversation is going nowhere so for the moment it seem mute.

        I’ve tried to answer you, tried to show what the two philosophers are saying in their own words. But for whatever reason you seem bent of arguing not actually discussing their words. So for me this conversation and thread is over. Sorry. I’m not into continuing this line of thought…


      • Yes, and he says what I have said: “Yes, I really do like Žižek, despite our near-total disagreement on pretty much everything.”

        Harman knows very well that Zizek is his opposite… that Zizek is a non-substantialist… and, for Harman, Zizke is an anti-realist.

        So I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove?


      • If I could see that you were actually engaging in actual conversation on the two philosophers instead of bashing me about them and misreading what their saying… might have been different. But I have yet to see that you even understand the two differing philosophers. Take it for what it’s worth. I’ve read both men thoroughly, and have begun to confront aspects of their work in my own work. But I learned long ago not to make up my own vocabulary and twist others thoughts out of context. Hopefully you’ll learn to read others through their eyes first before you transform their terms into your own.


      • That may be the case. But maybe not. There is nothing I’ve read or watched or listened to of Zizek that does not confirm what meaning I have gained of him, though I continue reading in the effort to prove to myself that the meaning I have is incorrect. Same with Harman. Every time I pick up another of their writings, it proves to me the meaning I understand, though I try to look again to see where I may be mistaken. I would be so helpful if I could engage with Zizek or Harman themselves, but I fear that will not happen. So in a way, I am stuck in the meaning they constantly reiterate to me.

        But I yearn for the day I am proven wrong.

        I hear what you say, and I get a lot from it, but I think there is a more significant issue to be addressed. And btw, both Harman and Zizek tell of it. Perhaps words fail me at this point.

        Until later! Thx


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