Zizek: Anti-realism and Retroactivity

The key philosophical implication of Hegelian retroactivity is that it undermines the reign of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: this principle only holds in the condition of linear causality where the sum of past causes determines a future event— retroactivity means that the set of (past, given) reasons is never complete and “sufficient,” since the past reasons are retroactively activated by what is, within the linear order, their effect.

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

Graham Harman’s first book Tool Being takes note of Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation saying:

The present book roughly accepts Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation, though without accepting the attitude of “deflationary realism” with which Zizek frames this concept. In the end, his problem will turn out to be that he restricts retroactive causation to a narrowly human realm, and orbits around the same unique gap between human and world that dominates most contemporary philosophy. But humans are not the only entities that encounter phantoms rather than things in themselves. I have argued that the as-structure also characterizes the strife between bananas and fruit flies, and even the collision of mindless rocks. In these cases too, objects do not encounter each other in direct presence, but only as a kind of caricature or objectification—the rock did exist beforehand, but never quite in the way in which the other rock objectifies it, which requires the perspective of this other rock.1

Is this truly what Zizek does? For Harman Zizek is an Idealist, while Zizek sees himself as a dialectical materialist. If both thinkers agree on the concept of retroactive causation, and, yet supposedly disagree on the way this is enframed within their respective philosophies, then who is right; or, is this misprisioning (Bloom) in itself a misreading of the very approach both philosophers take toward the priority of the future over the past?

Harman himself takes a jibe at Zizek’s restriction of retroactive causation to the “fantasy life of the human subject”, while he insists “that even inanimate objects display this sort of fantasy”. (ibid. p. 208) Is this true of Zizek? Should we look closer at what he is saying and doing? Is Harman misguided in his understanding of Zizek’s conceptual framing – as he puts it – as “deflationary realism”? What is a deflationary realist? Harman will start with a statement from Hubert Dreyfus’s commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time where it he states: ““Science has long claimed to discover the relations among the natural kinds of the universe that exist independently of our minds or ways of coping. Today, most philosophers adopt an antirealism that consists in rejecting this thesis.” Harman himself will go on to remark:

According to deflationary realism, the inseparability of reality and context means that there is no coherent way to talk about things in themselves apart from human practices. By the same token, it is said, there is also no way to talk about these practices apart from the things. Deflationary realism claims to loathe both extremes, and believes that it has settled into a necessary middle ground that “repudiates both metaphysical realism and transcendental idealism.” The alternative to realism and idealism is a focus on “ordinary practices” that makes no sweeping claims about the absolute status of the world. (ibid. 122-123)

Harman will continue in the next paragraph, saying:

In passing, I would like to say that deflationary realism occupies no middle ground whatsoever. To champion “ordinary practices” as the home terrain of philosophy is by no means to stay neutral in the debate between realism and its enemies. All the deflationary realist does is abandon the transcendental standpoint in favor of a holistic immersion (my italics) in the world in which perspective is king, and no result ever absolute. Fair enough. But by quarantining the cosmos within a network of human significance, deflationary realism weighs in quite decisively on the side of idealism. (my italics) (ibid. 123)

But is this true of Zizek? Is Zizek a sort of Nietzschean perspectivist? Let us look at what Zizek has to say of his form of dialectical materialism. First we start with Zizek’s concept of Nothing:

Dialectical materialism here goes a step further: even Nothing does not exist— if by “Nothing” we mean the primordial abyss in which all differences are obliterated. What, ultimately, “there is” is only the absolute Difference, the self-repelling Gap. In order to grasp the radical link between the subject and nothingness (the Void), one should be very precise in reading Hegel’s famous statement on substance and the subject: it is not enough to emphasize that the subject is not a positively existing self-identical entity, that it stands for the incompleteness of substance, for its inner antagonism and movement, for the Nothingness which thwarts the substance from within, destroying its unity, and thus dynamizes it— the notion best rendered by Hegel’s remark, apropos the “unrest” of substantial unity, that the Self is this very unrest (“ eben diese Unruhe ist das Selbst”). This notion of the subject still presupposes the substantial One as a starting point, even if this One is always already distorted, split, and so on. And it is this very presupposition that should be abandoned: at the beginning (even if it is a mythical one), there is no substantial One, but Nothingness itself; every One comes second, emerges through the self-relating of this Nothingness. In other words, Nothing as negation is not primarily the negation of something, of a positive entity, but the negation of itself.2

Zizek will go on to define dialectical materialism against scientific materialism in its present form:

It may appear that the basic defining feature of materialism is a common-sense trust in the reality of the external world— we do not live in the fancies of our imagination, caught up in its web, there is a rich and full-blooded world open to us out there. But this is the premise any serious form of dialectical materialism has to do away with: there is no “objective” reality, every reality is already transcendentally constituted. “Reality” is not the transcendent hard core that eludes our grasp, accessible to us only in a distorted perspectival approach; it is rather the very gap that separates different perspectival approaches. The “Real” is not the inaccessible X, it is the very cause or obstacle that distorts our view on reality, that prevents our direct access to it. The real difficulty is to think the subjective perspective as inscribed in “reality” itself.3 (my italics)

For Harman the key is the concept of essence – “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…” (ibid. pp. 214-215) He will go on to add:

But Zizek wants nothing to do with such a possibility, and makes an inference that is now quite widespread—because the thing itself can never appear, it is therefore meaningless to talk about its actually existing. This is a far cry from Kripke’s own conclusions, and one wishes for a more thorough justification of this slide from criticizing the ability of deeply hidden essence to appear in incarnated form to criticizing their very existence as anything other than phantasmatic projections. With this insufficiently grounded step, the safety of the linguistic turn in philosophy seems to be assured. The rigid designator is the point de capiton, the Lacanian “quilting point” that retroactively forms the Real in its own image. But Zizek makes a far stronger claim than this, asserting that “the rigid designator . . . is not a point of supreme density of Meaning, a kind of Guarantee which, by being itself excepted from the differential interplay of elements, would serve as a stable and fixed point of reference.”224 Which leads him to a disappointing conclusion:

On the contrary, it is the element which represents the agency of the signifier within the field of the signified. In itself 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.

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.” (ibid. p. 215)

This notion of “performativity” that he alludes to is expanded in Zizek’s later work Less Than Nothing in his discussion of the dialectics of necessity and contingency:

What, then, is the central insight of the Hegelian dialectics of necessity and contingency? Not only does Hegel (quite consistently with his premises) deduce the necessity of contingency— namely how the Idea necessarily externalizes itself (acquires reality) in phenomena which are genuinely contingent— he also (and this aspect is often neglected by many commentators) develops the opposite and theoretically much more interesting thesis, that of the contingency of necessity. That is to say, when Hegel describes the progress from “external” contingent appearance to “inner” necessary essence, the appearance’s “self-internalization” through self-reflection, he is not thereby describing the discovery of some pre-existing inner Essence, something that was already there (this, exactly, would have been a “reification” of the Essence), but a “performative” process of constructing (forming) that which is “discovered.” As Hegel himself puts it in his Logic, in the process of reflection, the very “return” to the lost or hidden Ground produces what it returns to. It is then not only inner necessity that is the unity of itself and contingency as its opposite, necessarily positing contingency as its moment; it is also contingency which is the encompassing unity of itself and its opposite, necessity; that is to say, the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process. 4 (my italics)

(To be fair to Harman, his reading of Zizek is based on two earlier works The Ticklish Subject, and the The Sublime Object of Ideology)

Harman rejects this notion of the “performative” process that constructs or forms that which is discovered as pure Idealism, while for Zizek the process of the dialectic is this that essence does not precede the process but is constituted by the very process of this retroactive movement between the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity. For Harman Essence does preexist this process, which is grounded in his basic Substantialist stance. As he will tell us in describing the evils of misrepresentations of substance theory:

The first evil is the traditional substance theory, which posits present-at-hand substances and reduces relational events to illusory nullities or “beings of reason.” The second evil is the currently more fashionable theory, the context-ontology of Rorty, Whitehead, Heidegger, and others. This theory reduces the dark reality of things to a present-at-hand profile by saying that they exist only for each other. This second theory is unable to explain: (a) how an object can ever change if it has no surplus beyond its current set of relations, and (b) why we should speak of “individual” objects at all, since they seem to be devoured by the network of relations. However barbaric an infinite regress may sound, it is a small price to pay for avoiding both theories of presence-at-hand, whether they speak in the name of substance or relation. (Tool-Being p. 171)

Instead Harman in his discussion of the present-at-hand tool-being (Heidegger) will opt for a return to a theory of substantial forms:

Tool-beings turn out to be a strange variant of traditional substances, though they are as irreducible to physical particles as they are to the traces they leave in human perception. They are substances that exceed every relation into which they might enter, without being ultimate pieces of tiny matter.(p. 2)

Central to this is his observation that Heidegger’s whole career is based on identifying and attacking the notion that reality is something present-at-hand:

The goal of Martin Heidegger’s career was to identify and to attack the notion of reality as something present-at-hand. And although his proposed alternative to Vorhandenheit remains underdeveloped in his writings, it is in no way vague —that which first resists any reduction to presence is tool-being, performing its dynamic effect amidst the cosmos, always partly withdrawn from anything that might be said about it. (ibd. p. 16)

Of course the German: vorhanden; Vorhandenheit “presence-at-hand” one observes with the concept of present-at-hand one has (in contrast to “ready-to-hand”) an attitude like that of a scientist or theorist, of merely looking at or observing something. In seeing an entity as present-at-hand, the beholder is concerned only with the bare facts of a thing or a concept, as they are present and in order to theorize about it. This way of seeing is disinterested in the concern it may hold for Dasein, its history or usefulness. This attitude is often described as existing in neutral space without any particular mood or subjectivity. However, for Heidegger, it is not completely disinterested or neutral. It has a mood, and is part of the metaphysics-of-presence that tends to level all things down. Through his writings, Heidegger sets out to accomplish the Destruktion of this metaphysics of presence.

The point is that presence-at-hand is not the way things in the world are usually encountered, and it is only revealed as a deficient or secondary mode, e.g., when a hammer breaks it loses its usefulness and appears as merely there, present-at-hand. When a thing is revealed as present-at-hand, it stands apart from any useful set of equipment but soon loses this mode of being present-at-hand and becomes something, for example, that which must be repaired or replaced.

This idea that things become visible only when they become obstacles, or break down, else become a hindrance and resist our endeavors is at the heart of this movement. The whole point of this exercise is that for Heidegger the opposing movement to present-at-hand is ready-to-hand. Harman will tell us that objects “work their magic upon reality without entering our awareness. Equipment is forever in action, constructing in each moment the sustaining habitat where our explicit awareness is on the move.” (ibid. p. 18) In further explication he will say that “inanimate objects are not just manipulable clods of matter, not philosophical dead weight best left to “positive science.” Instead, they are more like undiscovered planets, stony or gaseous worlds which ontology is now obliged to colonize with a full array of probes and seismic instruments—most of them not yet invented.” (p. 19) So is Harman reversing course and in agreement with Zizek that there is a constructive aspect to our understanding of objects (things) as constructed entities which can only be accessed through certain instruments not yet invented? If for Harman what we perceive (or what objects themselves in their own relations beyond the human) is the form of the object rather than the object as itself is in-itself is this not comparable to Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation? It all hinges on what we mean by “discovery”. What does Harman mean by this term: are we uncovering some essence within the object or its form? What does Harman have to say about the essence of objects or its appearance as object?

Zizek himself will argue in Less Than Nothing that “we cannot gain full neutral access to reality because we are part of it. The epistemological distortion of our access to reality is the result of our inclusion in it, not of our distance from it. The objet a is the splinter in the eye which distorts our clear perception of reality, and the agent of this distortion is desire (recall that the objet a is the object-cause of desire). This brings us to the unique “short-circuit between epistemology and ontology”: the very epistemological failure (to reach reality) is an indication and effect of our being part of reality, of our inclusion within it.” (LTN, KL 14584-14589)

Does this make Zizek an anti-realist? Or, rather does he not accept the fact of limits, of finitude, of our fractured inability to know an object not because it withdraws from us, but rather that we are a part of the world: an impossibility of ever finding an Archimedean point outside this closed circle from which to describe reality or know it as it is? As Zizek will state it: “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.” LTN, KL 14606)

So it is the Subject which is already stained by the very withdrawal from reality, the mark of the de-centering that has stained it and shapes its very constitution of reality. Reality is incomplete because we are incomplete, open and changing because we, too, are part of that process which is always shifting in the sands.

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.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 207-208). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8716-8726). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 20232-20238).
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 10717-10727).