Slavoj Žižek has always been a thorn in my side. Why? Between his being on the one hand a sort of modern Pied Piper leading the young astray – a sort of Slovenian Socrates awakening the young to the wisdom not of Greece but of Hegel and Lacan. But what is this strange wisdom he would bestow on us? Dialectical Materialism? What beast is this that comes our way? Never shy about his stance he tells us dialectical materialism is the only “true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity.”1 Agon Hamza offers us a working definition of Žižek’s core philosophy, saying: “dialectical materialism concerns the most radical attempt to ground subjectivity qua subjectivity into objectivity—not merely to find the hidden “objective reality” of thought, but he uses Lacan and Hegel to ground subjectivity in its negative character in the real”.2
Whoa… not so fast, you say! What is this grounding of “subjectivity qua subjectivity,” and – even more, what is this hidden “objective reality” of thought, and why return to Hegel or Lacan – and, most of all, why ground subjectivity in its – what? – “negative character in the real”. What is this “Real,” you ask? Like most commentary on Žižek, and even in Žižek’s own commentaries, none of this is made easy or explicit except in long and tedious passages which seem to fold and unfold and refold in infinite circular patterns like a some Ouroboros eating its own tail or an opening of a mysterious portal into the impossible? One seeks clarification and is given instead obfuscation and a litany of concepts that must be traced back through the various sources both primary and secondary until in the end one is left with a conundrum rather than a solution to one’s query. But then again maybe its this sense that there are no easy solutions, no pat answers to the difficulties of dialectical materialism. Instead there are questions and more questions. But, then again, hasn’t this been obvious from the beginning, hasn’t Žižek himself said repeatedly that he has no answers, only more questions?
Žižek admits it, the “dialectic is an inconsistent mess… (first phase) which is negated and, through negation, the Origin is projected or posited backwards, so that a tension is created between the present and the lost Origin (second phase). In the third phase, the Origin is perceived as inaccessible, relativized—we are in external reflection, that is, our reflection is external to the posited Origin which is experienced as a transcendent presupposition. In the fourth phase of absolute reflection, our external reflexive movement is transposed back into the Origin itself, as its own self-withdrawal or decentering.”3 This is Žižek’s rendition of Hegel’s absolute recoil, taking Hegel’s four phases of reflection – positioning reflection, external reflection, determining reflection, and – adding a fourth, absolute reflection. One could get lost among these recoiling effects. Why should anything be so convoluted?
Hamsa tells us it’s because “there is no lost origin, but the origin itself is constituted through the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost” (165). Hamsa will use an example from his own homeland and the conflicts between Albanians and Serbs in Kosavo and Serbia, saying the tensions go back all the way to the Kosovo Battle of 1448. Thus, the origin of the Serb presence in Kosovo is the battle—battle as a mess, projected retroactively as an origin, then perceived as inaccessible (the liberation of Kosovo in 1999). The Serbian identity (especially in its “revival” during the late 1980s and 1990s) is experienced or determined based on this “precious loss.” The point is that there is no lost origin, but the origin itself is constituted through the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost. Here comes the infamous attribution to the myths in the Balkans: myths are employed not as a result of (direct) belief in them, but to constitute the “lost origin.” (165)
Here in the U.S.A. one would not need to look far for such tensions in recent events. Think of the many Civil War memorials and flag issues across southern states in recent years that have been contested and removed. One can as well see in Black Lives Matters this tension with a “lost origins” in the need for reparations against ancestral enslavement from a “lost origins” in Africa and displacement/enslavement in southern plantations, etc. This constitution of a “lost origin” becomes in our time a political tactic to enliven and bring about change: “the idea of this loss and desperate attempts to return to that which has been lost”. One remembers Lacan’s use of the object petit a – or, lost object. In Žižek’s world Subjects, to the extent that they are civilized, are “cut” from the primal object of their desire. Instead, they are forced by social Law to pursue this special, lost Thing in Žižek’s technical term, the “objet petit a” by observing their societies’ linguistically mediated conventions, deferring satisfaction, and accepting sexual and generational difference. Subjects’ “fundamental fantasies,” according to Lacan, are unconscious structures which allow them to accept the traumatic loss involved in this founding sacrifice. They turn around a narrative about the lost object, and how it was lost. So that in the Black Lives Movement it is Freedom and Independence, Equality and Social Justice that were lost and around which their movement is constituted because the founding sacrifice was the very loss of this freedom at the hands of slave traders who sold them in Africa to plantation owners in the Southern states in pre-Civil War times. Of course, there is more to this than this simplified version, but this is the gist.
As Hamsa says, based on this understanding of dialectic, Žižek is able to define the event, which ultimately “is the Fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion.” The notion that one defines a mythic origin, a myth of primordial loss based on a fall into time, history, and corruption from some paradisial realm of freedom, etc., all this is just a “retroactive illusion” a myth one uses to condition struggles in the present. Or, as Hamsa puts it the “dialectical process determines or rather constitutes its own presuppositions or its own past. To put this in a form of a proposition: a dialectical process retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility.” (166) Which is to say we need our fictions, our fantasies – as narratives of possibility to condition change in the present.
One of the difficulties in Hegel has always been teleology, this sense of a reactionary politics of reunification of thought and being, of a politics of absolutism, etc. Against such a notion Hamsa tells us that Žižek’s thinking brings together psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy, and Marx’s critique of political economy (172). In this way dialectical analysis of history ‘rewrites the past’ and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one.” This retroactive delegitmization “makes ‘vanishing mediators’ of past phenomena: although a past phenomenon can be a necessary moment in the emergence of a new form, its role becomes invisible once the New has arrived.” (173) So that current thinking in communist ideas is a process of delegitimizing the whole Lenin-Stalin-Mao tradition even as a reflection of its pre-cursor (Marx’s thought, etc.) conditions the possibility of a new beginning. Or, as Hamsa summarizes:
This is where we should look for the liberation potential of the wound. The Fall is something which creates the good out of its own fall, which means that there is not a situation or level in which the goodness resides and from which we fall. In this sense, the new incarnation of the idea of communism will have to let go of the previous century socialist experiments and cease to consider that phantom as that of something that happened but was “hurt” or wounded by Stalinism. Rather, as the loss that was never positive, it only appeared as a lost democratic tool after it was lost. (173).
Ultimately our task Hamsa reiterates is to operate a withdrawal which itself constitutes the opening or wound or gap, exposing in this process a new field of experimentations of, what Marx used to call, “possible communism.” (173)
- Žižek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 4). Verso (October 7, 2014)
- Agon Hamza/ Frank Ruda. Slavoj Zizek and Dialectical Materialism. (Page 164). Palgrave Macmillan (November 4, 2015)
- Žižek, Absolute Recoil, p. 149.