For speculation which founded itself on the radical falsity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason would describe an absolute which would not constrain things to being thus rather than otherwise, but which would constrain them to being able not to be how they are.
Is this what we’ve been waiting for all along? The movement beyond the troubled circle of Being and becoming, of Time and its figural and literal tropes of disquieting lapses into finitude? The fragments of this lie all around us in such thinkers as Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, and so many others within this metamorphic thought of a non-thought, this disquisition of an anathema.
My friend Cengiz Erdem in his essay Postnihilistic Speculations on That Which Is Not: A Thought-World According to an Ontology of Non-Being charts such a history:
A speculative move in the way of mapping the cartography of an ontology of non-being, of that which yet to come, post-nihilism clears or excavates the old ground, thereby suspending the dominant presumptions, therefore rendering the void, non being, or the Real itself as the new ground on and out of which a new subject can emerge and present the paradoxical and contingent natures of Truth and Necessity, as well as the non-correlation of Being and Thought…
(addendum: Cengiz added a new post in concert with this… here.)
As I was reading this post of his I felt a deep underlying, almost religious tone in his voice; the power of the absolute filtering its banal surprise (maybe a non-God, non-All, rather than the mundane gods or God religion or the philosophers). Whatever the absolute may be, it seems to ride the edges, or borderlands of between thought and non-being rather than the metaphysical realms of Being. Though secular through and through the incorporation of the themes of eternity, time, mortality, immortality, etc. like those others who have influenced our thinking: Nietzsche, Badiou, Zizek, Laruelle, Henry, Deleuze, etc. – and, lest we forget, Freud (Lacan: lack?) with his mythology of drives, that endless war of eros and thanatos, life and death, love and war – comes through Erdem’s essay. What struck me above all is the underlying mythos and movement toward transcension, toward elsewhere, immortality, transcendence. Of course as he says, this is nothing new, and it is everywhere in our present transcendental field of speculation, as if between a totalistic closure upon metaphysics had brought with it – not a rational kernel, but rather an irrational kernel of ancient thought. For do we not hear that oldest of songsters, Orpheus, the Greek singer, theologian, poet, philosophical forbear out of whose roots Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle and their ancient antagonists Leucippas, Democritus, and Lucretius down to our day still wage a war over the body of a dead thought (God?).
Shall we follow Badiou or Zizek? Or Both?
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Thus says Francis of Assisi. Is this the movement of the event or act? This slow and methodical practice of failure after failure till the sudden surprise of success emerges as if from elsewhere, as if ex nihilo? A voluntarist notion? As if under the hood of things was some dynamic force ready to break through at any moment?
What of Badiou? For him the question of non-being is related to the question of “truth and subject”:
Moreover, it is both too soon and quite unproductive to say that the latter is a question of non-being. As suggested by the typology with which I began
this Introduction, the domain (which is not a domain but rather an
incision, or, as we shall see, a supplement) of what-is-not-being-qua-being
is organized around two afﬁliated and essentially new concepts, those of
truth and subject. (Being and Event, p. 15).
From the introduction to Being and Event Badiou would remind us that “my discourse is never epistemological, nor is it a philosophy of mathematics. If that were the case I would have discussed the great modern schools of epistemology (formalism, intuitionism, ﬁnitism, etc.). Mathematics is cited here to let its ontological essence become manifest. Just as the ontologies of Presence cite and comment upon the great poems of Holderlin, Trakl and Celan, and no-one ﬁnds matter for contestation in the poetic text being thus spread out and dissected, here one must allow me, without tipping the enterprise over
into epistemology (no more than that of Heidegger’s enterprise into a simple aesthetics), the right to cite and dissect the mathematical text. For what one expects from such an operation is less a knowledge of mathematics than a determination of the point at which the saying of being occurs, in a temporal excess over itself, as a truth—always artistic, scientiﬁc, political or amorous. (BE, p. 18).” One could say that following Parmenides that for Badiou “thought is being,” but with the added qualification that the thought he has in mind is the pure matheme: ontology = mathematics as supplemented by Cantorian Set Theoretic.
Yet, for Badiou as for Zizek there is the realm of the pre-ontological, the nothing of non-being from which being arises:
The Void: “—the mathematicians searched for a sign far from all their customary alphabets; neither a Greek, nor a Latin, nor a Gothic letter, but an old Scandinavian letter, ∅, emblem of the void, zero affected by the barring of sense. As if they were dully aware that in proclaiming that the void alone is—because it alone in-exists from the multiple, and because the Ideas of the multiple only live on the basis of what is subtracted from them—they were touching upon some sacred region, itself liminal to language; as if thus, rivalling the theologians for whom supreme being has been the proper name since long ago, yet opposing to the latter’s promise of the One, and of Presence, the irrevocability of un-presentation and the un-being of the one, the mathematicians had to shelter their own audacity behind the character of a forgotten language. (BE, p. 69).”1
What of Zizek?
The Materialist Void: “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.” (Less Than Nothing). The notion that the only thing that is real is the void itself (i.e., non-being rather than being).”
Concept of Den: “Obscurantist idealists like to vary the motif of “almost nothing”: a minimum of being which nonetheless bears witness to divinity (“ God is also present in the tiniest speck of dust …”). The materialist answer to this is the less than nothing. The first to propose this answer was Democritus, the father of Ancient Greek materialism (and also, incidentally, one of the first to formulate the principle of equality—“ Equality is everywhere noble,” as he put it). To express this “less than nothing,” Democritus took recourse to a wonderful neologism den (first coined by the sixth-century-BC poet Alcaeus), so the basic axiom of his ontology is: “Nothing is no less than Othing,” or, as the German translation goes, “Das Nichts existiert ebenso sehr wie das Ichts.” It is crucial to note how, contrary to the late Wittgensteinian thrust towards ordinary language, towards language as part of a life world, materialism begins by violating the rules of ordinary language, by thinking against language. (Since med’hen does not literally mean “nothing,” but rather “not-one”…Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something.”1
But what is this spectre of living death? Quentin Meillassoux will surmise that “God no longer exists.” Continuing:
This statement formulates a thesis which we will call the thesis of divine inexistence, an expression that must be understood in the twofold sense that permits its equivocity. Firstly, in an immediate fashion, the divine inexistence signifies the inexistence of the religious God, but also the metaphysical God, supposed actually existent as Creator or Principle of the world. But the divine inexistence also signifies the divine character of inexistence: in other words, the fact that what remains still in a virtual state in present reality harbours the possibility of a God still to come, become innocent of the disasters of the world, and in which one might anticipate the power to accord to spectres something other than their death.
Of course this is more about Hume and the problem of Sufficient Reason than about future gods or the resurrection of the dead: “The Humean problem, we must refute such an inference, from the contingency of laws to a frequent, even frenetic, disorder, whether of matter or of representation; we must establish that the manifest stability of laws does not demand that we maintain their necessity.” (CIV) So that for “speculation which founded itself on the radical falsity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason would describe an absolute which would not constrain things to being thus rather than otherwise, but which would constrain them to being able not to be how they are. We can therefore formulate the conclusion at which we wished to arrive at, namely that the existential resolution of the spectral dilemma passes by way of the speculative, but non-metaphysical, resolution of Hume’s problem. (CIV)”
If we remember Badiou of Logic of Worlds where we discover his concern over the difficulty “clearly recognized by Kant himself—of making negation appear. Truth be told, this question has haunted philosophy from its very origins. On the basis of the impossibility for negation to come into the light of appearing, Parmenides concluded that it was a mere ﬁction which thought had to turn away from. Plato takes his cue from an entirely opposite fact: there is an appearing of the negative, which is nothing other than the sophist, or the lie, or Gorgias himself, with his treatise on non-being. It is therefore necessary to posit a category capable of grasping the being-there of negation, and not only, as in the Parmenidean prohibition, the non-being-there of non-being. This may be called the ﬁrst transcendental inquiry in the history of thought, culminating with the introduction, in The Sophist, of the Idea of the Other. However, Plato still leaves in abeyance the Other’s proper mode of appearance. What I mean to say is that although he establishes that the Other allows us to think that non-being can appear, he says nothing about the way in which this appearance is effective. How does the Other, determined as a category, support the entry into appearing, not only of alterity (two different truths, for example), but of negation (the false and the true)? I can clearly see how the Other justiﬁes the thought that this does not appear in the same way as that. (Page 106).” 4
Therefore the enemy of Plato was always and forever Leucippas/Democritus as well as the Sophists who all defended the Void, non-being, the real of this impossible notion that non-being can appear. Once again we discern in Slavoj Zizek that sophistical stance in language, where “contrary to the late Wittgensteinian thrust towards ordinary language, towards language as part of a life world, materialism begins by violating the rules of ordinary language, by thinking against language.” (ibid.) Such a thinking against language, a counter-language other than the ordinary one, that pierces the veil, releasing non-being into that space of a non-space of language where the rules of logic and logos no longer hold sway, and the cage of that Principle of Sufficient Reason is set adrift from its moorings in necessity. Is this the opening into a new philosophy of non-being?
Of course Zizek saw this, saying,
In order to discern the emancipatory potential of Plato’s thought, it must be placed against the background of the sophist revolution. In breaking with the “closed” mythic universe, the Ancient Greek sophists like the ill-famed Gorgias asserted and played upon the self-referential abyss of language, which turns in its circle, lacking any external support. Plato’s main task was to deal with this predicament which he experienced as a true horror vacui: aware that there could be no return to mythic closure, he tried to control the damage by re-anchoring language in the meta-physical reality of Ideas. (LTN, KL 1077)
Again he will point out that it is Plato’s dialogue the Sophist that sets forth his notions of non-being, “trying to outline a third way between two opposite extremes: Parmenides’s assertion of the unconditional One and Gorgias’s sophistic playing with the multiplicity of non-being. Plato classifies sophistry as the appearance-making art: imitating true wisdom, sophists produce appearances that deceive; in their empty ratiocinations and search for rhetorical effects, they obviously talk about something that does not exist. But how can one talk about non-being, making it appear as something that is? To answer this question, Plato is compelled to counter Parmenides’s thesis that “it is impossible that things that are not are”: things which are not (but only appear to be) also somehow are— how? Plato defines Not-Being not as the opposite of Being (i.e., not as excluded from the domain of Being), but as a Difference within the domain of Being: negative predication indicates something different from the predicate (when I say “this is not black,” I thereby imply that it is a color other than black). Plato’s basic strategy is thus to relativize non-being, that is, to treat it not as an absolute negation of being but as a relational negation of a predicate. This is how the sophist brings about a (relative) non-being and thus produces a false appearance: not by talking about absolute Nothing, but by attributing false predicates to entities.” (LTN, KL 1094-1104)
So that for Plato non-being is absorbed into the house of Being and thereby tamed. Zizek will even admit that we discover in “dialectical materialism” this ancient lineage of sophistics: “Surprisingly, we find the same progressive differentiation at the opposite end of the history of Western philosophy, in the twentieth-century sophistics called “dialectical materialism.” (LTN, KL 1794)” So that for Zizek following his mentor, Lacan it becomes neither one or the other:
This is why the Hegelian-Lacanian position is neither that of Plato nor that of his sophist opponents: against Plato, it asserts that we not only can talk about things that we do not understand or think, but that ultimately we talk only about them, about fictions; while against the sophists it asserts that this in no way devalues truth, since, as Lacan put it, truth has the structure of a fiction. (LTN, 1916)
Of course this bespeaks of that magician of language and rhetoric, Nietzsche, for whom truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”.5 For Nietzsche truth is the Naked Emperor whose only authority is our blind allegiance.
Zizek will throw up his hands and ask if Badiou’s desperate struggle against postmodernist-deconstructionist “sophists,” and his heroic Platonic insistence on Truth as independent of historical language games, amounts to an empty gesture with no foundation? (LTN, 1925) He’ll answer against those false sophists, the deconstructionists, saying,
Badiou can nonetheless be defended here: the opposition between Truth and doxa occurs within the “undecidable” self-referential field of language, so when Badiou emphasizes the undecidability of a Truth-Event, his conception is radically different from the standard deconstructionist notion of undecidability. (LTN, KL 1927)
So there seems to be two camps in the sophistical world, a false and correct one. “Sophists are the irreducible “vanishing mediators” between mythos and logos, between the traditional mythic universe and philosophical rationality, and, as such, they are a permanent threat to philosophy.” (LTN, KL 1950)
But why? Zizek tells us the sophists broke down the mythic unity of words and things, playfully insisting on the gap that separates words from things; and philosophy proper can only be understood as a reaction to this, as an attempt to close the gap the sophists opened up, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos but under the new conditions of rationality. This is where one should locate Plato: he first tried to provide this foundation with his teaching on Ideas, and when, in Parmenides, he was forced to admit the fragility of that foundation, he engaged in a long struggle to re-establish a clear line of separation between sophistics and truth. (LTN, KL 1953)
So the battle is between the opening up of the gap, or its closure. With the Sophists on the side of the gap, and Plato on closing it down within philosophy and bring “logos and being” back together. But as in all thing irony wins out:
The irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic temptation ends with Hegel, the “last philosopher,” who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the symbolic with no external support of its truth. For Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process— the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction,” the inner (in) consistency of the discursive process, the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation. (LTN, KL 1958)
For Zizek Plato went wrong with his notion of Ideas, saying,
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. 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. (LTN, KL 937)
So by circuitous route we return to non-being in appearance, or the appearing of non-being, which as Zizek will conclude is to answer the question: “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” And, the answer “is thus that there is only Nothing, and all processes take place “from Nothing through Nothing to Nothing.” However, this nothing is not the Oriental or mystical Void of eternal peace, but the nothingness of a pure gap (antagonism, tension, “contradiction”), the pure form of dislocation ontologically preceding any dislocated content. (LTN, KL 980)”
Here, just here, in the philosophy of the gap, crack, cut in being, non-being appears as appearance – the antagonistic, intensive, contradictory Real. Let us admit that as Zizek will have it the symbolic universe of meaning is not a high point of evolutionary achievement, but rather a mistake, the outcome of something having gone horribly wrong in the order of things and to which it is only a defense mechanism.6
As Zizek will confirm of Meillassoux’s notion of the “correlational circle” of thought and being: Meillassoux in his rejection of transcendental correlationism (the claim that in order to think reality, there must already be a subject to whom this reality appears), Meillassoux remains trapped within the confines of the Kantian-transcendental opposition between reality the way it appears to us and the transcendent beyond of reality-in-itself, independently of us. In a Lenin-like manner (the Lenin of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism), he then asserts that we can access and think reality in itself. But something is lost in this very field of the transcendental dilemma, something which concerns the very core of the Freudian discovery (or the way this discovery was formulated by Lacan): the inherent twist/ curvature that is constitutive of the subject itself. In other words, what Lacan asserts is precisely the irreducible (constitutive) discord, or non-correlation, between subject and reality: in order for the subject to emerge, the impossible object-that-is-subject must be excluded from reality, since it is this very exclusion which opens up the space for the subject. The problem is not to think the Real outside of transcendental correlation, independently of the subject; the problem is to think the Real inside the subject, the hard core of the Real in the very heart of the subject, its ex-timate center. (LTN, KL 14527-36)
And, above all, don’t confuse this with obscurantism and flaky mysticism…
Even Freud’s concept “Todestrieb”, the “death drive” in his famous essay “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle”) of 1920, which was incorporated into Lacan’s forms that Zizek follows and explicates. If Freud’s death drive stands here philosophically between negation (Schopenhauer) and affirmation (Nietzsche) of the will, Slavoj Žižek insists that we should not confuse the death drive with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension. As his Parallax View states, the death drive is, on the contrary, “the very opposite of dying – a name for the ‘undead’ eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain.” In Žižek’s Lacanian reading, the (death) drive represents a ‘diabolic’ dimension of human beings in opposition to a desire for the lost object that would overcome all differences and tensions. Its articulation as a philosophical concept is certain to lead us also to a deeper understanding of the concept of tension: “[f]or a true dialectician, the ultimate mystery is not ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ but ‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’: how is it that, the more we analyze reality, the more we find a void?” (Zizek)
With “Todestrieb”, or the “death drive” Schopenhauer’s notion of Will-to-Life is a pale need to survive, and Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power the need to dominate and master. The death drive is the repetition of difference (Deleuze). This is what Lacan is aiming at when he emphasizes the difference between the Freudian death drive and the so-called “nirvana principle” according to which every life system tends towards the lowest level of tension, ultimately towards death. To put it in terms of the Higgs field in quantum physics, “nothingness” (the void, being deprived of all substance) and the lowest level of energy paradoxically no longer coincide; at the lowest level of tension, or in the void, the dissolution of all order, it is “cheaper” (it costs the system less energy) to persist in “something” than to dwell in “nothing.” It is this distance that sustains the death drive (namely, the drive as such, since “every drive is virtually a death drive”). Far from being the same as the nirvana principle (the striving towards the dissolution of all tension, the longing for a return to original nothingness), the death drive is the tension which persists and insists beyond and against the nirvana principle. In other words, far from being opposed to the pleasure principle, the nirvana principle is its highest and most radical expression. In this precise sense, the death drive stands for its exact opposite, for the dimension of the “undead,” of a spectral life which insists beyond (biological) death. So does the paradox of the Higgs field not also prefigure the mystery of symbolic castration in psychoanalysis? What Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—“ incestuous”— object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and of meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity. (LTN: KL 3157)
Harold Bloom, an old gnostic fabulist – if there ever was one, once described our universe as a Cosmic Disaster Zone, that the moment of creation was a catastrophe from which we’ve never recovered. For Zizek this catastrophe is an ontological fable of our brokenness, all the up and down. We exist in a realm of pure antagonistic chaos, caught between the mesh of a Lacanian Borromean knot of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real; and all our systems of finitude are but the apotropaic charms of the Human Security System (Land), our ideological and fictional safety net we’ve constructed around us, a flimsy film against the monstrous truth: a system that seeks to stave off and defend us from the incursion of the Abyss of the Real. To ‘traverse the fantasy’ is to become like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost a navigator of the Abyss. Call it madness, call it Chaos and old Night, call it what you will: the bottom line is that the open wound and trauma of this catastrophe is what drives us onward, our creative and inventive power we so lamely term the human condition hides the inhuman core of our non-being. The spur to our creativity is this very death-drive, both our glory and our sorrow.
Futher notes and questions:
– In a footnote Zizek brings out the political ramifications of this divide between the Sophists and Plato: “The opposition between the sophists and Plato is also linked to the opposition between democracy and corporate organic order: the sophists are clearly democratic, teaching the art of seducing and convincing the crowd, while Plato outlines a hierarchic corporate order in which every individual has his or her proper place, allowing for no position of singular universality.” (LTN, KL 22749)
– Another thing is this disquieting acknowledgement that the vacuous objects, the real object of which Graham Harman has staked his claim may be after all the obverse of the non-being of the subject, that after all what appears within the sensuous field of qualia and phenomenality is this volcanic core of the void, the non-being in the appearance. That Harman’s working against phenomenology from within its horizon is from the opposite side of philosophy and speculation speaking of non-being as the abstraction of the Object. We must look into this… Is the real object none other than that which we have no direct access too? The unphenomenal core of the phenomenal appearance, the void or vacuous non-being hidden in the net of a sophistic language against language, alluring and lured onward by that need to make what cannot appear enter the visible darkness of appearance? That in the end the difference between Zizek and Harman is this displacement from Subject to Object, of object-object relations or non-relation? That the split or gap is not of the mind/world, but of non-being and being? So that all objects fall within this great antagonistic and contradictory divide or split between being and non-being?
- Badiou, Alain. Being and Event (Continuum 2005)
- Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1493-1502). Norton. Kindle Edition.
- Meillassoux, Quentin. Collapse IV: Concept Horror (Urbonomic, 2008)
- Badiou, Alain. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II. (Bloomsbury Academic (April 11, 2013)
- Walter Kaufmann’s translation, appearing in The Portable Nietzsche, 1976 edition. Viking Press.
- Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe. (Open Humanities, 2014)