On Land, Zizek, and Speculative Realism: The Mediation of the Real

What’s always been interesting in the current battles between materialist, vitalist, and speculative realist philosophies is that they all seem to dispute where to begin: the dialectical materialists and vitalists begin with the pre-ontological and formless void, then turn toward an emergent ontology arising out of it; while SR starts at that point when substance or form has already emerged, battling over just what it is that form and substance are without ever appraising the pre-ontological (or as Harman likes to put it: it’s objects all the way down).

I seem to float between Zizek and Land. Land begins in the formless ocean of energy – the vitalist stream of process and becoming he sees in Nietzsche and Bataille a non-dialectical process that never enters into any form of static substance, ever. Zizek seems to oscillate between form (Substance/Subject) and formlessness (Void) never resting in either world, always moving like a desperate thought between the two. Where Land is non-dialectical, Zizek is dialectical. For me there is a parallax view between the two that has yet to be assayed.

Or as Zizek says of parallax view:

“The common definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stations, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or, to put it in Lacanese, the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze.” (http://www.lacan.com/zizparallax.htm)

In this sense it coincides with Nietzsche’s sense of Zarathustra’s statement that one must be wary of staring into the abyss lest “it stare back” (paraphrase). This sense of the object gazing back becomes in Graham Harman’s system the notion of when two objects gaze into each other a third object is formed in excess of the original objects, thereby forming something new that is neither one nor the other. In this sense they form a parallax view onto each other; or, as Harman would say “Every relation needs a mediator.” So that for Harman:

“My view is that this problem arises directly from Latour’s “flat ontology.” If all actors are equal, then you cannot avoid an infinite number of mediators between any two entities. Yet the solution provided by object-oriented philosophy is that there are two kinds of objects, not just one: there are real and sensual objects that mediate each other one at a time, much like the north and south poles of a magnet which alone can make contact, leading to a potentially endless chain of magnets. … As for “weird realism,” it denotes a kind of realism that is not simply a question of matching the contents of the mind with a real world outside the mind. My sort of realism is “weird” because it claims that the real is too real to be known, or too real to be accessed. I choose the word “weird” because of its desirable association with things that never fully appear insofar as they are not quite of this earth: Shakespeare’s “weird sisters,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “weird tales.”” (http://figureground.org/interview-with-graham-harman-2/)

So in this sense Harman when he says that “the real is too real to be known” he would take us back to Socrates; or, as Land says:

“By interpreting contact with the unknown as the deferral of judgment by the subject, translating the positivity of sacred confusion into the negativity of epistemic uncertainty, Socrates initiates the proper history of the West.”1

So in this sense it’s a battle whether one argues from and for an epistemic stance (Zizek) over the ‘ontic’ or reduction to some static known or physical substance, and rather opts for either a non-dialectical or dialectical parallax view onto the object that one relates to within the mediation. The problem that one must resolve is not that there is relation and mediation, but rather is this mediator conceptual or energetic? This seems to be the battle among current philosophies. We’ve discussed Zizek’s and Harman’s views, below are Brassier and Land.

Brassier opts for the concept as mediator. “…many philosophers follow Hegel in defining the ‘concrete’ as that which is relationally embedded, in contradistinction to the ‘abstract’, which is isolated or one-sided. In what follows, the terms ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ do not designate types of entity, such as the perceptible and the imperceptible or the material and immaterial. They are used to characterise the ways in which thinking relates to entities. As Hegel showed, what seems most concrete, particularity or sensible immediacy, is precisely what is most abstract, and what seems most abstract, universality or conceptual mediation, turns out to be most concrete.”  (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wandering-abstraction)

Land says: “Everything is mediated by elucidations, re-elucidations, elucidations of previous elucidations, conducted with meticulous courtesy…” or “mediation assumes a kind of quarantine, whereby the interaction of organism-specific id and exo-organismic reality can be monitored and negotiated, collapsing libidinal circuitry into a polarity of the psychic and the extrapsychic, inside and outside.”2

Both Brassier and Land speak in almost Zizekian terms of oscillating between inside/outside, Brassier more formally reverting to the ‘concrete universal’ of Hegelian abstraction; while Land, energetic as always, moving among Freud’s libidinal dialectic; yet, both are in the end agreeing on a dialectical vision of mediation so that even Land succumbs to Hegel whether he will or no. Strangely, so did Bataille, who also struggled with and against Hegelian dialectics. Only Zizek would emerge from this battle with a notion of the Void within the Void – a return to Democritus’s notions that matter is void (“empty, immaterial”).

With Harman we come upon the notion of “vanishing mediator,” which strangely – due to his readings of Zizek would take an inverse relation to that philosopher’s use of the term. Whereas Zizek in The Ticklish Subject would bring to the fore is a thematization of the Subject as some kind of disjunctive “and”:

The key point is thus that the passage from “nature” to “culture” is not direct, that one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither nature nor culture—this In-between is silently presupposed in all evolutionary narratives. We are not idealists: this In-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on Homo sapiens, enabling them to form his supplementary virtual symbolic surroundings, but precisely something that, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos—the Freudian name for this In-between, of course, is the death drive. Speaking of this In-between, it is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose such a moment of human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal and simultaneously not a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized,” “derailed” nature which is not yet culture.3

Harman in his first work would discuss this notion, saying,

Zizek is perfectly right to point to the impossibility of correlating ontic choices to the ontological gap between presence and absence. It should also be clear that human existence never occupies the point of either pure immersion or pure awareness: “the ‘specifically human’ dimension is thus neither that of engaged agent caught in the finite life-world context, nor that of universal Reason exempted from the life-world, but the very discord, the ‘vanishing mediator’ between the two.” This ambivalent discord goes by many names in Heidegger, among them geworfener Entwurf, thrown projection. I have argued in this book that projection is no more primary than the thrownness, and hence, that the future has no real priority over the past.4

This brings into play another agreement between Land and Zizek over Harman. Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation, or against Harman – the notion that the future does have a priority over the past. Playfully Zizek in Absolute Recoil will tell it this way,

The book’s title refers to the expression absoluter Gegenstoss, which Hegel uses only once, but at a crucial point in his logic of reflection, to designate the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss. The most concise poetic formula of absolute recoil was provided by Shakespeare (no surprise here), in his uncanny Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, Scene 2):

O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt.5

Hegel uses the term “absolute recoil” in his explanation of the category of “ground/ reason (Grund),” where he resorts to one of his famous wordplays, connecting Grund (ground/ reason) and zu Grunde gehen (to fall apart, literally “to go to one’s ground”):

The reflected determination, in falling to the ground, acquires its true meaning, namely, to be within itself the absolute recoil upon itself, that is to say, the positedness that belongs to essence is only a sublated positedness, and conversely, only self-sublating positedness is the positedness of essence. Essence, in determining itself as ground, is determined as the non-determined; its determining is only the sublating of its being determined. Essence, in being determined thus as self-sublating, has not proceeded from another, but is, in its negativity, self-identical essence.6

In a final explication we quote from Zizek one last refrain:

To put it in traditional terms, the present work endeavors to elevate the speculative notion of absolute recoil into a universal ontological principle. Its axiom is that dialectical materialism is the only true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity. All other forms of materialism, including the late Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter,” scientific naturalism, and neo-Deleuzian “New Materialism,” fail in this goal. The consequences of this axiom are systematically deployed in three steps:

1) the move from Kant’s transcendentalism to Hegel’s dialectics, that is, from transcendental “correlationism” (Quentin Meillassoux) to the thought of the Absolute;
2) dialectics proper: absolute reflection, coincidence of the opposites;
3) the Hegelian move beyond Hegel to the materialism of “less than nothing.”7

Nick Land always an opponent to a certain type of dialectical thinking will harken back to Socrates to begin his attack, saying,

With Socrates, things are different. Philosophy becomes dialectical; which is to say justificatory, political, logical, plebeian. Truth is identified with irrefutability, evidentiality and educated belief, beginning its long subsidence into the forms of human credence, as if its acceptability were in any way a criterion.8

For Land Socratism is the mobilization of unknowing on behalf of knowing; subordinating irony to dialectic, confusion to judgments and the sacred to a subdued profanity.9

Land, favoring Maoist over Leninist/Stalinist Marxism and dialectics will offer an appraisal:

The Superiority of Far Eastern Marxism. Whilst Chinese materialist dialectic denegativizes itself in the direction of schizophrenizing systems dynamics, progressively dissipating top-down historical destination in the Tao-drenched Special Economic Zones, a re-Hegelianized ‘western marxism’ degenerates from the critique of political economy into a state-sympathizing monotheology of economics, siding with fascism against deregulation. The left subsides into nationalistic conservatism, asphyxiating its vestigial capacity for ‘hot’ speculative mutation in a morass of ‘cold’ depressive guilt-culture. (FN, KL  6110-6114).

Yet, in the end Land’s non-dialectical of base materialism begins in a rejection of physicalism or reductionary substantive formalist and scientific factuality:

A cosmological theory of desire emerges from the ashes of physicalism. This is to presuppose, of course, that idealism, spiritualism, dialectical materialism (shoddy idealism), and similar alternatives have been discarded in a preliminary and rigorously atheological gesture. Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is nothing but a scorch-mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.10

Land’s reading of Hegel unlike Zizek’s would see dialectical materialism as part of a redemptive system of saving the appearances, etc. as substantive formalism writ out in absolutist terms. Zizek’s Hegel is read through Lacan and vice versa as a non-substantive or immaterialist system wherein the Void or Less than nothing replaces substantive matter of physicalism. So that in some ways and by circuitous route both Land and Zizek are in agreement as to the dephysicalization of matter, but disagree over desire. Zizkek following Lacan sees in desire lack seeking the Object a; Land following Deleuze will see the unconscious as productive rather than lacking or needful, and will build an energetic or constructive notion of desire as desiring machines, as producer of desires.

In the end there will remain no reconciliation among these various philosophers, only open war and disparity.

  1. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3310-3311). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 4489-4491). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 39.
  4. Harman, Graham. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 206-207). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  5. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 1-2). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  6. ibid. (pp. 3-4)
  7. ibid.
  8. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3255-3257). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. ibid.
  10. Land, Nick. A Thirst for Annihilation. (p. 26)

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