Slavoj Zizek: The Order of the Real

What this means, in effect, is that there is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real.

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

Reading Zizek is like floating around in a vacuum of endless repetitions that seem to never find a resting place. I sometimes shift from Zizek to Wallace Stevens to remind myself that “the imperfect is our paradise” (from The Poems of our Climate):

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

– Wallace Stevens

The last stanza exemplifies the work of Slavoj Zizek who admits that words alone are uncertain good – not as in William Butler Yeats.  When Zizek introduces his concept of the Gap we should understand that it is not what we might think it is: a Void between us (For-itself) and the proverbial Thing-in-itself. Which is the Idealist prognosis and Kant and his tradition as received in most academic scholarship of the last two hundred years. A move Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude has marked by the appellation of correlationism, etc. No. For Zizek the Gap is the Real, the screen that distorts all our views onto reality.

…the Real is a gap in the order of Being (reality) and a gap in the symbolic order? The reason there is no contradiction is that “reality” is transcendentally constituted by the symbolic order, so that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein). In the common transcendental view, there is some kind of Real-in-itself (like the Kantian Ding an sich) which is then formed or “constituted” into reality by the subject; due to the subject’s finitude, we cannot totalize reality, reality is irreducibly inconsistent, “antinomic,” and so forth— we cannot gain access to the Real, which remains transcendent. The gap or inconsistency thus concerns only our symbolically constituted reality, not the Real in itself.1

So the gap concerns not the Real as it is in itself, but with our symbolic order of  that  constitutes our view onto reality. Yet, against any Idealist reading of this, of the notion of the subject’s performativity and/or creativity (““symbolic construction of reality”), Zizek will rather expose another truth of the ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. (ibid. KL 21401)

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself.

– Slavoj Zizek,  (Kindle Locations 21410-21414).

For Zizek all ontologies are limited because they do not account for what is left out in their descriptions: the Real itself. And, yet, for Zizek this is as it should be:

Desexualized modern ontology attempts to describe a flat, neutral (neutered) order of being (the anonymous multiplicity of subatomic particles or forces), but in order to do so, it has to ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology. Every field of ontology, even at its most radical (like the mathematical ontology of Badiou), has to subtract the impossible/ Real (the curved space of sexuation) from the order of being. (KL 21446-21449)

I want go into the full argument of the “limits of sexuation” which concerns Zizek’s reading of Lacan. Instead I want to focus on the kernel of Zizek’s problems. Zizek’s philosophy stands or falls on his theory of the Subject. Yet, when he uses this term he is not speaking of individual subjects or human subjectivity, rather his theory defines the relations among his various concepts of the Gap and Real. It’s because of this concept that many philosophers reduce Zizek to an old school Idealist, rather than what he is – a dialectical materialist. But Zizek himself is not a clear and precise thinker, but is rather a man stumbling from example to example, analogy to analogy, seeking metaphors, hyperboles, metonyms that might actually help him define that which he knows can never be put into language. So maybe we should read Zizek against himself, maybe read him through his very failures to say what he means.

Take for instance the Thing-in-itself:

What, then, is the “Thing-in-itself” from a dialectical-materialist standpoint? The best way to answer this question is, again, to oppose dialectical materialism to Buddhism: in Buddhism, the In-itself is the void, nothing, and ordinary reality is a play of appearances. The question ultimately unanswered here is how we get from nothing to something. How do illusory appearances arise out of the void? The dialectical-materialist answer is: only if this something is less than nothing, the pre-ontological proto-reality of den. From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.(ibid. KL  21362-21368)

His use of Buddhism has nothing to do with the actual practices of Buddhism, but rather with his own reception of certain concepts he has aligned with his own philosophical approach as counters and tools against which to measure his own thoughts. The kernel of the problem is situated in the sentence “From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.” But what brought this immanent relation of a subject into constituting “objective reality” to begin with? Why was there a need to objectify the world? And is this universal subject which before all individual or concrete universal subjects (humans, etc.) something that preexists objective reality? Or is it immanent to the very process that is our universe to begin with? The problem is one of essence: is this subject some substantial agent preexisting our objective reality, that in fact constitutes it? Or is their another reading of what this subject is, a non-substantialist view onto its very status as subject?

Over and over Zizek assures us that his enemy is all forms of substantive philosophy. He is no Spinoza of the jet-set postmodern variety. Speaking of actual selves Zizek will tell us that the self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being. Consequently, in the process of Buddhist Enlightenment, we do not quit this terrestrial world for another truer reality— we just accept its non-substantial, fleeting, illusory character; we embrace the process of “going to pieces without falling apart.” (ibid. KL 3121-3125)

Against Plato’s notion of an eternal realm of Ideas, a truer world beyond or behind this illusory one Zizek affirms that instead their is only the insubstantial truth of the Void. Yet, what is this void? How are we to understand it? For him it all comes back to Democritus’s Void: he endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. (ibid. KL 293-296)

What we cannot accept is this vastation, this emptiness, so instead as humans strive to fill the void with something rather than accept the voidness at the heart of reality. Yet, this emptiness is not what you think it is. In this emptiness that is nothing something exists. Zizek will analogize using modern physics notion of the Higgs Field as an example:

 There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy— in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.” (ibid. KL 306)

Behind the façade of Zizek’s confrontation with the tradition of Hegel and Lacan is the central core of his political vision of radical emancipation. Reading him essay by essay one realizes that for Zizek the greatest confrontation in philosophy is not to understand reality, but rather the illusions that sustain our symbolic order. As he states it succinctly (after Kant):

The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“ true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.” (ibid. KL 435)

So that Zizek’s insistence that we need the anti-philosophy of Lacan is the obverse to such philosophical quests. Agreeing with Badiou for whom Lacan was the condition of philosophy in our time, Zizek will tell us that we must work through Lacan rather than bypassing him:

My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”  Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”— and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination— or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one. The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan. (ibid. KL 608-628)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21387-21392). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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