“…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.