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


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.

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