Slavoj Žižek: The Vanishing Mediator Between the Symbolic and the Real

Why did human awareness or consciousness ever emerge to begin with, what were the evolutionary conditions that gave rise to it, what problems or obstacles, antagonisms did we as a species face that forced us into such a niche in the evolutionary scheme to evolve such a seemingly anti-natural and uncharacteristic mode of being-in-the-world? By this I mean unlike most of the other non-humans we share this planet with we have a certain ability to know: a self-reflecting system of second-order awareness that structures and  functions the modalities and capabilities of our brain, etc. that allow us to store and retrieve information, sense-data, memories and reflect upon these, make decisions based on past, present, or future modes of judgement, etc. How and why did all this come about? (And, in this post, I’ll not even begin to answer the question if all these non-human entities around us share such functionality or not. That would take me far outside the scope of this short post.)

Where to begin? The search for origins in the natural context is always a blend of science, fiction, and interpretation. Interpretation is implicitly hierarchical, and cannot proceed without a usurpation of authority. As one critic suggested contra Foucault that humans cannot conceive of interpretive power without the King. Meaning gets started by a catastrophe that is also a ruining and breaking creation; or else meaning gets started by a transference of a purely fictive earlier authority to a later representative; or else meaning gets started by an act of violence, textual or physical, in a family grouping.1 According to Bloom Freud would blend these three modes of meaning making, incorporating the theoretical formulations he’d discovered in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Hegel. For Bloom Freud was the inescapable speculative thinker of our age, and for him meaning gets started by catastrophes at our origins, by family passion and strife in our development; by transferring repressed earlier ambivalences onto later authority figures in our maturer educations, loves, and therapies. (Bloom, p. 44) But even more than Freud would be those who as Slavoj Žižek would have it “tarry with the Negative,” by which such philosophers as Hegel displaced the “god term” into the Negative of language, where the Negative rather than God performs the work in language as the pre-ontological demiurge of Plato, a malformed god who is not so much an inventor and creator as a tinkerer and craftsman, a carpenter of the universal degradation of our cosmic catastrophe.

Whether one accepts any of these rational mythologies or not, we are stuck with the notion that all interpretations of origins are part fact, part fiction, and that the models of origins we follow whether those of science like Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or those found in Max Black’s Models and Metaphors, or any of the previous examples one is stuck with the notion that all origins are artificial and retroactive interpretations that do violence to the lost object of anteriority. Even evolutionary theory is caught up in such games of origins, caught between a theory of deep time and gradualism; and the notions put forward by Niles Eldredge and Stephan Gould termed “punctuated equilibrium,” which in contrast to gradualisms generally smooth and continuous sense of evolution is seen as more rapid and punctuated by sudden catastrophic change and abrupt morphological transitions during evolution. I’ll not go into the arguments for or against such issues in evolutionary theory only to point out how it has influenced the thinking of Žižek’s thought on origins. In conversation with Daly  would say:

Žižek. What I am currently engaged with is the paradoxical idea that, from a strict evolutionary standpoint, consciousness is a kind of mistake—a malfunction of evolution—and that out of this mistake a miracle emerged. That is to say, consciousness developed as an unintended by-product that acquired a kind of second degree survivalist function. Basically, consciousness is not something which enables us to function better. On the contrary, I am more and more convinced that consciousness originates with something going terribly wrong—even at the most personal level. For example, when do we become aware of something, fully aware? Precisely at the point where something no longer functions properly or not in the expected way.

Daly. Consciousness comes about as a result of some Real encounter?

Žižek. Yes, consciousness is originally linked to this moment when “something is wrong,” or, to put it in Lacanian terms, an experience of the Real, of an impossible limit. Original awareness is impelled by a certain experience of failure and mortality—a kind of snag in the biological weave. And all the metaphysical dimensions concerning humanity, philosophical self-reflection, progress and so on emerge ultimately because of this basic traumatic fissure.2

In other words this is Žižek’s grand myth, a catastrophe creation in which consciousness emerges out of the natural due to some unforeseen event, a miracle (strangely religious hyperbole?), out of some catastrophic traumatic fissure in the natural order that force the human species to rapidly adapt and produce this new survival mechanism. Is there actually any scientific support for such an event? What do scientists have to say about the emergence of consciousness during the long course of evolutionary history, gradual or punctuated?

Years ago I remember reading Julian Jaynes book (now dated) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind where he surmised that about 3000 years ago, all of humankind basically heard voices. The voices were actually coming from the other side of the brain, but because the two hemispheres were not in communication the way they are now for most of us, the voices seemed to be coming from outside. The seemed, in fact, to be coming from God or the gods. Such a notion seems like pure science fictional fantasy today, when our more advanced theories presented in neurosciences. Yet, Jaynes’s notion of a cultural rather than a physiological development of consciousness, and that this cultural acquisition either led to, or was prompted by, a deterioration in the previously prevailing human mental configuration which, in a nutshell, involved hallucinating gods out of the effigies of fallen leaders and was, more or less, schizophrenic in nature seems strangely uncanny set against such philosophical works as Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia and A Thousand Plateaus, along with Žižek’s on speculations throughout his exploratory researches scattered across his entire oeuvre.

Others such as Merlin Donald in his work Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (dated now) proposed there were three radical transitions in the emergence of consciousness. During the first, our bipedal but still apelike ancestors acquired “mimetic” skill – the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts – which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition – to “mythic” culture – coincided with the development of spoken language. This cognitive advance allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization. According to Donald, we are symbol-using creatures, more complex than any that went before us, and we may not yet have witnessed the final modular arrangement of the human mind. There have been other attempts to create an evolutionary history of human cognition, but they have usually emphasized either cultural artifacts or functional anatomy (such as the vocal tract or the enlarged brain). In contrast, Donald’s theory emphasizes cognition as the mediator between brain and culture. “Origins of the Modern Mind” suggest new areas of inquiry to specialists in cognitive fields from neurobiology to linguistics.

What Donald presents is the not just the history of the emergence of consciousness, but another more subtle history of representation and the externalization of culture, information, and meaning into the external systems of our Symbolic Culture. All the external memory systems from the early clay bricks for taxation, to our architectural, and sculptured artifacts, temples, icons of religious and social signification and cultural memory; our rituals, mimetic and tribal dances, religious and social practices were all ways of carrying forward the external knowledge systems of the tribal mind through time. Carriers of meaning in which the shaman, priest, and now secular scientists become the experts or specialized mediators with between culture and nature, devising, exploring, interpreting, and formulating the worldviews upon which we stabilize cultural and civilization.

When Donald observed the notion of the cogito as mediator I remembered the reference in Žižek of the cogito as the “vanishing mediator” between the Symbolic and the Real:

We cannot pass directly from nature to culture. Something goes terribly wrong in nature: nature produces an unnatural monstrosity and I claim that it is in order to cope with, to domesticate, this monstrosity that we symbolize. Taking Freud’s fort/da as a model: something is primordially broken (the absence of the mother and so on) and symbolization functions as a way of living with that kind of trauma. In short, the ontological necessity of “madness” resides in the fact that it is not possible to pass directly from the “animal soul” immersed in its natural life-world to “normal” subjectivity dwelling in its symbolic universe—the vanishing mediator between the two is the “mad” gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the space for its symbolic reconstitution.3

I mean for Slavoj Žižek we are caught and absorbed into the Symbolic Order early on in childhood, a solipsistic withdrawal into an interior world of madness. All those socio-cultural signs and meaning, linguistic traces, symbols, icons, language act invade us like word viruses (Burroughs) infesting our brain and physical systems, bringing about that strange and lethal separation and “vanishing mediator” between the brain and the Real – the Subject as Substance: the impasses obstructing the self-grounding  idealization of the world demonstrate that, although we are forever stuck within ideality, we are not simply prisoners of the completely solipsistic sphere of the self-referential, masturbatory play of thought within thought and that a metaphysics of the Real, an account of the noumenal, appears to be theoretically possible. (OC, p. 81) In which as Carew’s remarks:

The inassimilable kernel of the Real within our notional, symbolic code points to the paradoxical negative coinciding of inside with outside, the Real and the Ideal, within thinking: the cracks of ideality cast an abyssal shadow that opens up onto the materiality of being, albeit only as refracted through the impossibilities of the Ideal, in such a way that tarrying with the latter offers a way to develop idealism into a science of the Real. (OC, p. 81)2 So that the question in dialectical terms becomes for Zizek: “What is the Symbolic’s relation to the pre-symbolic  Real?” As Carew will state it:

The Real sans fissure and the noumenon represent a compensation for the impossibility of an intimate experience of the Real within the Symbolic by claiming that, outside the reach of this synthetic (re)constitution of reality, it can still be said to persist in a state lacking contradiction and antagonism. It safeguards us from the realization that the Real itself is morcelé: it does not merely get itself into traps, producing monsters that disrupt the flow of knowledge in the Real by making the latter howl under ontological pain… (OC, p. 93)

In a previous essay Hyper-Chaos, Thermospasm and Aion: On the Temporal Philosophies of Meillassoux, Land and Deleuze we come to know the Real as Time’s Kingdom, the pre-ontological time of hyper-Chaos (Meillassoux), Thermospasm (Land), and Aion (Deleuze):

“Time is not governed by physical laws because it is the laws itself that are governed by mad Time.”.– Quentin Meillassoux

“The thermospasm is reality as undiluted chaos. It is where we all
came from.”
– Nick Land

“Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out into a straight line.” – Gilles Deleuze

As Zizek will say it: “The Real – the over-abundant obscene-morbid vitality of the primordial…,” the Virtual as against the Actual: So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. ( Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1738-1746). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

So why mention all this? For the simple reason that our brains are the complex physical system within us that over the course of evolutionary time, by way of empirical trial and error developed filters and defenses against the Real Virtuality of this pre-ontological soup within which we live. All these forms/Ideas/objects/things/entities, etc. we take to real or reality or actually the transforms or translated representations from within the Symbolic Order or artificial systems of signification by which we navigate the sea of hyper-chaos, thermospasm, or Aion around us. The long road to reason or consciousness – the two seemingly bound to each other as figure/ground, is this struggle within the virtuality of the ‘Night of the World’ (Hegel). Yet, we take this Symbolic Order of signs, meaning, and the actuality at face value to be everything – the end-all, be-all of our world, and assume wrongly that through philosophy and the sciences we can reduce this phenomenal realm of sense-data and translated information we receive from the brain as complete, when in fact it is but the tip of the ice-berg. What we think we know is but a miniscule representation, an abstraction out of and into the reductions of our translated neural filters. Or, as Scott Bakker (see here) irreverently tells us we are “blind to the fact of our being blind,” and what we think we know is but the ignorance of our lack of real knowledge. Cut off in a false world of semblances we live like children in Plato’s Cave, but with a difference: the Virtual is not some separate realm outside our ontological catastrophe, but the very Real of our immediate ontological world in which we live and die. As Scott would tell it our consciousness is based more on information loss and depletion, medial neglect than on real knowledge. As Scott will suggest is that we need a “theory of the appearance of consciousness”:

If consciousness as it appears is fundamentally deceptive, we are faced with the troubling possibility that we quite simply will not recognize the consciousness that science explains. It could be the case that the ‘facts of our deception’ will simply fall out of any correct theory of consciousness. But it could also be the case that a supplementary theory is required— a theory of the appearance of consciousness.3

According to Merlin Donald our evolutionary cousins, the apes, have brains which enable them to represent to themselves and remember “episodes” or events, something which their evolutionary predecessors either do not have or have only in a limited form. Homo erectus, the evolutionary link between us and the apes, extended this ability to perceive events, into “mimesis”, a capacity to reproduce events they have perceived by use of their own body. Donald shows how this ability, which involves no modifications of the body and relatively modest changes in the brain, allows for the voluntary representation and communication of events of the past and emotions not actually felt concerning things not actually present, a foundation for the later development of symbolic action. Homo erectus dominated the hominid world for a million years, adapting themselves to this “mimetic” culture. According to Donald, mimetic representation remains with us as a vestige of our homo erectus ancestry, as a fully functioning, underlying mode of representation and intelligence. Homo sapiens in turn developed this ability into speech, with a radical adaption which occurred about 500,000 years ago. According to Donald, homo sapiens had a “mythic” culture hinged around the ability to tell stories, and this ability provided a means to make sense of the world and create a shared understanding of the world. This mythic culture survives to this day, constituting a crucial mode of understanding the world.

Yet, beyond this is the encyclopedia of culture, our Symbolic Order of externalized data that captures, absorbs, and transform endlessly the information gathered by the various knowledge workers around the world and filters it into the collective intelligence system of the web. Are we seeing in our time a new evolutionary punctuation, the rapid evolution of a new form of consciousness, one that will no longer be bound strictly to the human system and computational/functional nexus of organic relations? Are humans in other words going to be displaced as the carriers of consciousness and awareness, the mediators of knowledge and data? As philosophy struggles to attain its place in the sun, and the sciences more and more displace the remaining enclaves of the older humanities what awaits us in the next few hundred years? With the rise of machinic intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and biotech genetics are humans even relevant in the equation? Is consciousness and the cogito about to abandon ship and become externalized into the very systems of data glut of our Symbolic Order? Will a new life-form emerge more adept at memory and retrieval, intelligence, and knowledge acquisition than the human, an artificial life-form or intelligence capable of far surpassing human mentation and thereby attain a more refined and elegant solution to certain evolutionary dilemmas? Are humans themselves becoming the vanishing mediator between the natural and artificial divide, gap, and crack in time, hyper-Chaos, thermospasm in which machinic life-forms begin to take over and bootstrap themselves into evolution and consciousness?

  1. Bloom, Harold. Agon. (Oxford, 1982)
  2. Žižek and Daly, Conversations with Žižek, p. 59. (Polity, 2013)
  3. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)
  4. R. Scott Bakker. The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness.

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