Radical Idealism: The Extimate Core of Transcendental Materialism

When it comes down to it we’re all Idealists caught in the prison house of the symbolic order of culture: it determines the boundaries and limits of what is thinkable. The moment you use or enter language, math (matheme) or natural (linguistic) you are trapped in the iron cage of the play of signifiers in an infinite circle without exit or end: a psychotic universe of solipsistic self-lacerating sophistication. This is the core of the poststructuralist rational myth; or, the Anti-Realist stance par excellence. One can never break out of the cage and into the Real. In such a universe of meaning “thought and being” are One. Yet, does this mean we can do nothing? No. This is but the beginning of an exit strategy. For if the truth be told it is out of acknowledgement of our predicament that we can intensively pursue a new radicalization of the correlational circle of Idealism; push it to its extimate limits.

One is always borrowing from the future. Think of the Mobius strip that is folded back on itself in such a way that the inside/outside distinction vanishes. No matter how far one travels on this surface one will never reach beyond into some alternate world, one is always riding upon the surface of an unbounded curve around the extimate core of universe in and endless strange loop folded and refolded into itself: a paradox that appears irresolvable but by its very nature offers within its own insurmountable obstacle a way out. Think of a Mobius strip as social time: the temporal history of one’s life, or the history of Society, or even the Universe.

As Molly Anne Rothenberg describes extimate causality in The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change:

One can define each point on the band as here or there, but each point is excessive with respect to the determination of its “sidedness.” The Möbius band suggests a field in which both the paradoxical boundary of external causation and the infinite mutual implication of cause and effect of immanentism cease to be problematic. We can define points of contact that are not so discrete as to become uncoupled, thanks to the non-determination or excess embodied in the band. This excess alters the apparently rigid boundary between sides (or between cause and effect): non-determinate sidedness means that causes are not quarantined from their effects because the excess brings them into contiguity. At the same time, these points and their relations have a certain specifiability; they do not merge into one another as they do in the infinite flux of immanentism.1

She’ll describe the social field in which the subject is situated in terms of a non-orientable object, an excess within the temporal distortion that is both non-determinant and acts by way of an “operation we will call the formal negation” (Rothenberg, p. 32). As she remarks: “We can say, then, that each subject is a Möbius subject, a site of non-determinate “sidedness” or switchpoint, if you will, which lends to the social field its character as non-orientable object” (Rothenberg, p. 32). Because of this we can define “extimate causality, as the alternative to both external and immanent causation, produces the excess that links subject to social field” (Rothenberg, p. 32).

One imagines Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction as a paranoiac hermeneutics: an endless search for the missing signifier: the movement of an infinite play of subjects on a Mobius strip, each seeking the undecidable hole of meaning that will allow them to escape the prison house of the Symbolic Order. Or as Zizek will say of it we can think of the modern Leader who is obsessed by plots – “to rule is to interpret” is the perfect formula of Stalinism (Rothenberg, p. 31). But as Zizek will relate:

the fantasy of breaking out of the closed circle of representations and re-joining the pure outside of the innocent presence of the voice – a voice which is in excess of the self-mirroring prison-house of representations, that is, which needs no interpretation but merely enjoys its own exercise. What is missing here is the way this innocent externality of the voice is itself already reflexively marked by the mirror of interpretive representations. (Rothenberg, p. 32)

To radicalize Idealism is to discover that even though we are locked within the cage of correlationism unable to escape into the “Great Outdoors” of Being, we can nevertheless act, produce certain inevitable “unintended consequences” due to the very complexity of the symbolic network which is always overdetermined (paranoiac hermeneutics) by meaning; as well as, realizing that those very acts by their nature produce unintended consequences that “emerge from the very failure of the big Other, that is, from the way our act not only relies on the big Other, but also radically challenges and transforms it” (Rothenberg, Forward). The big Other being none other than this Symbolic Order within which the Subject is caught as if within a fly trap, glued to the surface of a Mobius strip, gliding through the temporal decay of entropic life, etc. But against this symbolic order as Zizek will emphasize the “awareness that the power of a proper act is to retroactively create its own conditions of possibility should not make us afraid to embrace what, prior to the act, appears as impossible” (ibid.).

Once we have seen that “[t]he opposition between idealistic and realistic philosophy is therefore without meaning,” we can develop a metaphysics critically rather than dogmatically. This dissolves the worry regarding how we can have access to the world from within the clutches of subjective thinking. To say that the Real is a product of thought is not to lapse into a Berkeleyan form of idealism wherein reality is simply created by the subject: “the Real is not some kind of primordial Being which is lost,” but rather “what we cannot get rid of, what always sticks on as the remainder of the symbolic operation.”2 Rather it is by this very operation that we have an indirect but methodologically secure entry point into the world by means of the inconsistencies that our notional apparatus generates in the freely determined self-generation of the universe of meaning, inconsistencies that unexpectedly let us develop an objective discourse. (Carew, p. 270)

It’s these inconsistences and failures in the symbolic order of meaning that give us an opening onto the Real. Radical Idealism by its very nature becomes contaminated, as it were, by a constitutive “outside” as soon as it tries to posit itself in its own self-determining freedom, so that it must constantly struggle with this outside. As Zizek states it:

There is a Real not because the Symbolic cannot grasp its external Real, but because the Symbolic cannot fully become itself. There is being (reality) because the symbolic system is inconsistent, flawed, for the Real is an impasse of formalization. This thesis must be given its full “idealist” weight: it is not only that reality is too rich, so that every formalization fails to grasp it, stumbles over it; the Real is nothing but an impasse of formalization—there is dense reality “out there” because of the inconsistencies and gaps in the symbolic order. (C, p. 271)

This is the extimate core that cannot be reduced to symbolic inscription or description: the excess that leaves us in the impossible, restless and struggling against the obstacle of the “Outside”. Set adrift upon the sea of linguistic traces knowing it has failed us utterly, yet knowing that it is this very failure that opens a door upon the Great Outdoors of Being. Ontological solipsism is only apparent, for materialism justifies itself in the cracks of a radical idealism: the very condition of possibility of discourse means that discourse is always more than itself, even if that means that its very possibility coincides with its impossibility. (Carew, p. 271) As Žižek correctly points out, “[t]he irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic tradition 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.” (Less Than Nothing, pp. 76-77)

What we learn from this is that rather than falling into naïve idealism the self-referential nature of thinking itself always already depends upon and is entangled with the world, thereby attesting that the split between knowledge in itself and for us exists not because we are separated from the world, but because we are  a part of it, included within its extimate core: “the very limitation of our knowing—its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character—bears witness to our inclusion in reality.” (Carew, p. 272) This in a nutshell is the extimate core of Transcendental Materialism (i.e., dialectical materialism in Zizek’s vein). In this respect, radical idealism (reflection, notional constructs, language as such) creates the space of reasons in virtue of which things can present themselves to us as they are in reality in itself. As Carew commenting on Zizek remarks,

Instead of merely separating us from the world, the reflexivity of the Ideal thereby allows objects to have meaning for us as something more than objects to be used by specialized biological or natural needs. We symbolize them, grant them a place in discourse, a discourse whose failures make it seem as if a world out there directly attacks our concepts and theoretical models when, in fact, we never exit discourse at all, for only its self-sustaining matrix can sustain phenomenal reality as a universe of meaning. (Carew, p. 272)

It’s this strange double nature of language and the Real as impossible, desutured as the are, forever cut off from each other that allows communication and manipulation between the two intelligibly through the reflective mediation of language itself which by its very inconsistencies, gaps, cracks, and failures opens us to what is incomplete in language and the Real. But we cannot sit back and relax here for the great work of the moment is to push the limits of radical idealism from within idealism (an epistemological sublation of the correlation). To do this we must also overcome it from the side of being by showing how the ambiguities of idealism are in fact a part of the world’s fundamental structure through an account of how being comes to appearance/thinking/phenomenalization (an ontological inscription of the correlation). (Carew, p. 273) The crack or gap in the Symbolic Order is also in the Real. It is only by way of the “vanishing mediator” of the Subject that the two realms meet and form a new relation and thereby produce the bridge between them not by filling this gap with fantasies but rather by “tarrying with the negative” in the very failure to bring closure to the gap between thought and being. By acknowledging that the Ideal and the Real are both inscribed within each other as open and incomplete that we begin to register the truth of the negative that brings thought and being into relation without closing them into identity. It is the very non-identity of thought and being within the Subject that is Transcendental Materialism unbounded and moving along the axis of that Mobius strip of infinity, oscillating between two voids.

Zizek’s Call for a Critical Metaphysics

Against any return to the pre-critical heritage of the Rationalists, or being stuck in the correlational circle of Kantian system and freedom, Zizek supports a move toward a critical metaphysics. As Carew outlines it:  a true speculative philosophy should comprehend both the Real in its pure non-correlationality (the nonhuman) and how correlation comes to pass in being (the human). Perhaps unexpectedly, the price we pay for this theoretical gain of re-inscribing humanity into nature, that is, the latter’s minimal anthropomorphization, is a simultaneous denaturalization of nature and a dehumanization of humanity. (Carew, p. 275)

Zizek’s move is to combine an idealist epistemology with a dynamic realist metaphysics in one single gesture of a post-finitude philosophy. The breakthrough in Kant was not so much his supposed Copernican Revolution as it was that in his philosophy for the first time “the subject loses its substantial stability or identity and is reduced to the pure  substanceless void of the self-rotating abyssal vortex called  “transcendental apperception.” (LTN, p. 631) It’s the discovery of the “void” not the Subject that is central. Neither fully ontological nor yet part of the symbolic register the Subject-as-Void and pure negativity linked to both the Todestrieb that destroys the homeostasis of nature and the Symbolic Order of Culture without it becoming second nature and overdetermining the gap at the heart of our subjectivity, it acts as Zizek’s “absent centre that, by protruding out of all ontological and symbolic structures, negatively ties them together in its very undecidability” (Carew, p. 276). Ultimately this relation between the ideal and real in the subject leads us to “see in what way two lacks overlap in this impossible object: the constitutive lack of the subject (what the subject has to lose in order to emerge as the subject of the signifier) and the lack in the Other itself (what has to be excluded from reality so that reality can appear).” (LTN, p. 642)

Any critical metaphysics must above all supply the ontological conditions of the possibility of its own status as a theory and the ideal conditions of possibility of its own intelligibility in one sweeping move, thus making the theory itself extremely self-referential in its structure. As Carew remarks, such a theory will display a complete systematic self-enclosure: it explains itself as a theory in both the real and ideal registers in such a manner that both depend upon and mutually ground one another in a self-articulating whole; it has succeeded at developing “a concept of the world or the Real which is capable of accounting for the replication of reality within itself.” (Carew, p. 278)


  1. Rothenberg, Molly Anne (2013-05-20). The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)

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