Zizek and Harman: Strange Bedfellows


[I]t is not possible to clearly distinguish the inconsistencies of our notion of an object from the inconsistencies which are immanent to this object itself. The ‘thing itself’ is inconsistent, full of tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’.1
—Slavoj Zizek

The basic dualism in the world lies not between spirit and nature, or phenomenon and noumenon, but between things in their intimate reality and things as confronted by other things.2
—Graham Harman

The passage above brings me back to someone Zizek never mentions except in regards to Levi Paul Bryant (Democracy of Objects) and Timothy Morton (Hyperobjects) in his new book Disparities. Here is Harman on Objects:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. Given that objects never seem to enter into relations, what does enter into relations? If objects cannot affect one another directly, then perhaps they do so by means of qualities. The notion of free-floating qualities, stripped away from any underlying substance, is the central theme of a group of philosophers already termed the carnal phenomenologists. Following Husserl, they recognize that the objects aimed at by intentional acts never quite become visible. Nonetheless, we do not just float through a void, pointing sadly at the ineffable: we also live in the world as in a medium, enjoying juice and sunlight, suffering and dying from epidemics. We inhabit a sensual space in which, strictly speaking, objects cannot be present. Yet there are objects everywhere, like black holes or vacuums hidden from sight. By following the tension between these two moments of human perception, it may be possible to unlock the tensions found in the universe as a whole.(20)

In another place Harman will tell us that the notion of “tensions” is central: “We already know that Husserl departs radically from traditional realism, shutting out the existence of the natural world altogether and letting phenomena rule the cosmos. But even within this limited phenomenal sphere, we encounter a classical problem of philosophy that marks a central theme of the present book: the deep-seated tension between a single object and its manifold qualities.”(29)

This sense of the drama within an object, the tension between the real and sensual, the gap opened up that brings as Zizek says of it the full gamut of “tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’”. Strangely Zizek and Harman are gazing at the same thing from two opposing perspectives which seem oddly aligned in a perverse tension that one should not try to resolve, but rather hold onto and continue to keep hold of the gap between them while at the same time seeing in their diverse vision something akin to weird realism and materialism upon the same event.

Zizek prioritizes physics over biology and the neurosciences as a philosopher. For him the central motif of ontological dualism that is central to his dialectical materialism is derived by way of analogy to the quantum notion of decoherence:

to look at the precise ontological duality at work in decoherence, a duality totally foreign to classical metaphysical dualities (the sphere of Ideas in contrast to the ‘lower’ sphere of material objects, the sphere of actual life experience in contrast to the illusions it generates, etc.). Decoherence refers to the so-called collapse of the quantum field of oscillations, to the passage from quantum universe defined by the superposition of states (a superposition which forms a coherent multiplicity) to classic ‘realist’ universe composed of self-identical objects. In this passage, a radical simplification occurs: the coherent mulplicity of superposed states ‘decoheres’, one option is cut off from the continuum of others and posited as a single reality. (ibid. KL 1042)

This is where Zizek without realizing it comes close to Harman’s notion of withdrawal, applying the notion of subtractive act rather than Harman’s term ‘withdrawal’:

The paradox (for the metaphysical tradition) is here that our ordinary stable reality emerges as the result of the subtractive act (decoherence) out of the fluid quantum oscillations. (ibid. KL 1055)

In other words the objects in our universe come out of quantum flux by way of a separation that is at once a subtractive act and a withdrawal into singularities. So that our external universe is a fully deployed realm of objects withdrawn from each other, and yet as we learn there is a split within the objects themselves into real and sensual, invisible force and sensual appendage. What we perceive is the free-floating qualities used by the invisible forces of the objects much like dark matter and dark energy interact with the visible universe.

Obviously one can take this support of quantum physics only so far by way of analogy, and both Harman on Zizek use it sparingly realizing the pitfalls of such a path or methodology of linking disparities. In fact both thinkers pit the disparities and tensions among thought forms, both linguistic/descriptive and matheme/symbolic in a struggle without end. As Zizek will state it:

In our standard metaphysical (and commonsense) tradition, the primal reality is firm actual objects which are then surrounded by the aura of virtual waves that emanate from them. With regard to the distinction between subjective and objective, actual real things exist ‘objectively’, while virtual oscillations arise from their subjective (mis)perception. What ‘objectively’ exists in the quantum universe is, on the contrary, only wave oscillations, and it is the subject’s interventions which transforms them into a single objective reality. In other words, what causes the decoherence of these oscillations, what constitutes objective reality, is the subjective gesture of a simplifying decision (measurement). (ibid. KL 1056)

In other words the difference that makes a difference is the determination of perception whether of Zizek’s Subject or Harman’s Object, both agreeing that what constitutes an interaction between two objects is the mediation in-between; or, what both will refer to as the ‘vanishing mediator’. The point being that objects never directly act on each other, but only through a medium. When we look out on the world what we see is the medium, the sensual world of qualities: light, sun, water, mist, fog, heat waves, clashing gongs of sensual reality. We never perceive the underlying structures and forces supporting the sensual war of elements around us. And, yet, the structure is not of the Classical Aristotelian kind either. Not some substantial realm of Ideas, etc. (in the Platonic sense). As Zizek states it:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute proto-reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The agency which registers the collapse of the wave function is not in any sense ‘creating’ the observed reality, it is registering an outcome which remains fully contingent. Furthermore, the whole point of quantum physics is that many things go on before registration: in this shadowy space, ‘normal’ laws of nature are continuously suspended – how? Imagine that you have to take a flight on day x to pick up a fortune the next day, but do not have the money to buy the ticket; but then you discover that the accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within twenty-four hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know it was not paid prior to departure. (KL 1061)

So in the above Zizek is stating that there is a brute dualism in our Universe that is imprinted on the very medium of our sensual objects of perception, and that such is registered through external processes that do not (as in Kant and anti-realists) construct or create the observed reality but rather register it retroactively while accepting the contingency of all events (i.e., they could have turned out otherwise).

What’s interesting and funny at the same time is Zizek comes close to Harman’s notion of Vicarious Causlity and the Occasionalist forerunners when he says:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): one can cheat insofar as the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The theological implications of this gap between the virtual proto-reality and the fully constituted one are of special interest. Insofar as ‘god’ is the agent who creates things by way of observing them, the quantum indeterminacy compels us to posit a god who is omnipotent, but not omniscient: ‘If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that He is not observing the small.’ (KL 1078)

Occasionalism  brought to the fore the problem of causality between things and operations or acts. Philosophers have long wondered about the nature of causality. Are there true causes at work in the world, and, if so, what makes them the causes they are? How do causes bring things about, and what kind of connection does a cause have to its effect? These questions took on another level of complexity when various religious and theological considerations were brought to bear on these issues. For instance, philosophers came to question how divine causal activity is to be understood, particularly, in relation to the natural causality of creatures. It is from this context, in which questions about the nature of causation intermixed with questions about the relation between divine and natural causality, that occasionalism emerged. Occasionalism attempts to address these questions by presenting as its core thesis the claim that God is the one and only true cause. In the words of the most famous occasionalist of the Western philosophical tradition, Nicolas Malebranche, “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; …the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes” (OCM II, 312 / Search 448) As the Stanford article relates:

A full-blown occasionalist, then, might be described as one who subscribes to the following two tenets: (1) the positive thesis that God is the only genuine cause; (2) the negative thesis that no creaturely cause is a genuine cause but at most an occasional cause. Not all philosophers who have been identified as occasionalists, however, were full-blown occasionalists in this sense, since some argued that only a limited subset of creatures lack causal powers, and thus affirmed the causal efficacy of other creatures. In addition to this issue of the scope of occasionalism, we will, in the following sections, examine how these core theses of occasionalism address the issues aforementioned and what arguments are presented in their favor. 3

Harman would secularize this notion and subtract divine intervention from the equation. Levi’s article on Larval Subjects is probably one of the best expositions of Graham’s notion of Vicarious Causation (pdf). Levi will tell us that there are three characteristics of this notion: it is vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered. By vicarious as Levi states it after Harman What he means by vicarious is that no entity directly interacts with or encounters another entity. As Graham writes, “I [speak] of vicarious causation. A vicar is the earthly representative of something that need not act in person. But the same must be true of causation itself” (48).  By asymmetrical Levi remarks “if it is true that objects only ever relate to sensual vicars and never directly with other real objects, then this no longer holds true. This for two reasons. First, because sensual objects only exist on the interior of a real object, when one real object affects another real object through the intermediary of a sensual vicar, it doesn’t follow that the affecting real object will be affected in its turn. Second, it does not follow that the affected object will be affected according to the nature of the affecting object. Harman writes, “…I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one” (50). What the object relates to is not the other real object, but rather the sensual object that exists in the interior of the affected object.” And,  Levi relates the third characteristic of vicarious causation is that it is buffered. As Harman writes, “[w]hat I mean is that things can be in contact with something else without being fully in contact with them, just as the philosopher loves wisdom without fully possessing it” (50 – 51).

As Zizek in his comic stance on occasionalism and vicarious causation from his atheist reasoning tells it:

The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before its environs ‘take note’ of the discrepancy) is a way to cheat god himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: god himself doesn’t control the quantum processes, therein resides the atheist lesson of quantum physics. Einstein was right with his famous claim ‘God doesn’t cheat’ – what he forgot to add is that god himself can be cheated. Insofar as the materialist thesis is that ‘God is unconscious’ (God doesn’t know), quantum physics effectively is materialist: there are microprocesses (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system. And insofar as God is one of the names of the big Other, we can see in what sense one cannot simply get rid of god (big Other) and develop an ontology without big Other: god is an illusion, but a necessary one. (KL 1084)

Strangely this aligns with R. Scott Bakker’s notion of Blind Brain Theory but on a Cosmic Scale of lunacy. The notion that this Big Other, the God or Symbolic Order is Blind to his/its own machinations and processes (disturbingly similar to the Blind God of the Gnostics, too.). But as Zizek will point out God is but a name for our objective Symbolic Order (Big Other).

On a final note we’ll let Zizek conclude:

The theory of decoherence is an attempt to explain the collapse of a wave function, that is, the passage from the netherworld of quantum oscillations to our ordinary reality, in an immanent way. The role of external observer in the theory of decoherence is therefore ambiguous, and therein resides its strength. Its basic claim is that decoherence (collapse of the wave oscillations) occurs only at the ‘higher’ macroscopic level, being registered by an observer – at the quantum level, nothing changes, coherence remains. This, however, in no way implies that we have to presuppose an external observer in whose eyes (in whose registering mechanism) decoherence occurs. One is almost tempted to claim that theorists of decoherence apply a new version of the old dialectical-materialist law of the passage of quantity into a new quality: when quantum interaction reaches a certain quantity, wave function collapses since the object in a way begins to ‘observe itself.’ Therein resides the strength of decoherence theory: it endeavours to articulate the purely immanent way a quantum process engenders the mechanism of its ‘observation’ (registration). Does it succeed? It is up to the science itself to provide an answer. (KL 1090)

It’s in this gap between wave and particle, coherence and decoherence that the oscillating tensions of Zizek’s and Harman’s philosophies touch base, collide and make contact. The duality between the symmetrical quantum level of pre-ontological chaos, and the asymmetrical realm of sensual appearance. And, as Harman will remark (relating to the epigraph I used at the beginning):

With this single conceptual step, metaphysics is freed from its recent pariah status in philosophy—supplanting all phenomenologies, hermeneutic circles, textual disseminations, linguistic turns, and other philosophies of access, and thereby regaining something of its former status as queen of the sciences. There is no question here of reviving the old style of metaphysics of presence criticized so vehemently by Heidegger, Derrida, and their various heirs. After all, the implication of the tool-analysis is that objects never become present—not even by means of some sort of gradual, asymptotic approach. All that really needs to be abandoned in the Heideggerian position is his unspoken assumption that the gap between Dasein and the world is the sole philosophically significant rift, the single chasm across which all of the problems of philosophy unfold. This assumption stems most directly from Husserl’s rejection of all naturalism, but is ultimately grounded in the Copernican Revolution of Kant. However, if we push the tool-analysis to its limit, we actually find that all relations in the cosmos, whether it be the perceptual clearing between humans and world, the corrosive effect of acid on limestone, or a slap-fight between orangutans in Borneo, are on precisely the same philosophical footing. (74-75)

In this sense both Zizek and Harman are moving philosophy back into the ‘things-themselves’, where everything is on the same footing and no one stance or observer (Big Other/Master Signifier) reigns.

  1. Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (Kindle Locations 998-1000). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  3. Lee, Sukjae, “Occasionalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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