Fichte and the Making of the Modern Self

So perhaps, before dismissing his philosophy as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance. To properly understand his passage to full idealism it is necessary to bear in mind how he radicalizes the primacy of practical reason, which had already been asserted by Kant.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

In many ways the dark horse within Zizek’s philosophical ‘night of the world’ is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher whose works rivaled Kant’s in obscurity and complexity. Schopenhauer would remark that Fichte “gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration”.1

Fichte’s confrontation with Kant would set his life’s task. We know that primary task of Fichte’s system of philosophy (the Wissenschaftslehre) is to reconcile freedom with necessity, or, more specifically, to explain how freely willing, morally responsible agents can at the same time be considered part of a world of causally conditioned material objects in space and time. Fichte’s strategy for answering this question—at least in his early writings, which are the ones upon which his historical reputation as a philosopher has (at least until recently) been grounded —was to begin simply with the ungrounded assertion of the subjective spontaneity and freedom (infinity) of the I and then to proceed to a transcendental derivation of objective necessity and limitation (finitude) as a condition necessary for the possibility of the former.2

Zizek devotes a great deal of time in his opus Less Than Nothing to a full (mis)reading of Fichte’s work telling us that what “Fichte failed to see was that, in the subject-object relationship, the subject is a negative entity, a pure self-relating negativity— which is why, in order not to “implode into itself,” it needs a minimum of objectal support. That is to say, although Fichte repeatedly emphasizes how the subject is not a thing but a self-relating process, a Tat-Handlung, he conceives of the subject in an all-too-positive way when he claims that the absolute I (subject) is all reality— the subject is, on the contrary, a hole in reality.” It’s out of Fichte that Zizek’s notions of the Subject as gap, crack, and the “something that is less than nothing” emerges. Fichte would develop the concept Anstoss, which has two primary meanings in German ( check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. (*see note below)

So that Zizek’s notion of the Subject as lack – or a negation of negation arises out of this confrontation of the self-recognition scene of the Self’s inability to re-present itself as substantial. Instead it is caught in a circle of it’s own self-relating negativity until it confronts a resistance both within and without that is not itself and discovers in itself the very truth of finitude. It is at this point Zizek will ask:

So why can the subject not simply be limited by the object? Not because the subject is absolute in the naïve sense of being the all-encompassing reality, but precisely because it is finite, caught in its self-relating loop and therefore unable to step out of itself and draw a line of delimitation between subjective and objective: every limit the subject draws is already “subjective.” (Zizek, KL 4179-4181)

We are already always bound within a circle of neglect, our knowledge already tied to the circle of our ignorance, never escaping the finite horizon of our own false infinity of consciousness. And, yet, something not us resists us from within and without, something that we come to know only as we delimit or posit a limit or cut or gap between us and this unknowable X. Or, as Zizek in my note below states it: “Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a [Lacan], to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.

Because we cannot find a third point outside ourselves from which to represent ourselves to ourselves, nor even represent the world in its objectivity that Fichte would rely on imagination rather than intellect as the only other option. As Zizek relates it we “can now see why representation needs to be supplemented by imagination proper: since the field of representations remains within the loop of the subject’s self-relating, it is by definition always inconsistent, full of lacunae, which the subject must somehow fill in to create a minimally consistent Whole of a world— and the function of imagination is precisely to fill in these gaps.” (Zizek, KL 4187) The admission here is that we rely on fictions rather than any actual factual knowledge of the world. Most of us get up each morning believing the world to be our common sense world of social activities never realizing that our shared vision of the world is an active dreamscape of illusion and self-deceptions based on just this kind of supplemented reality show of “filling in the gaps” of a world full of holes.

Yet, it is just here in this fantasy land of subjectivism that Fichte tries to escape out of the circle. As Zizek asks: “how does the relationship between subject and object become one of real opposition, that is, how does the external world become a real opposing force to the I? According to Fichte, this happens only when our mind adopts a practical stance towards the world.” (Zizek, KL 4237) A practical philosophy rather than theoretical:

In the theoretical-observational stance, it is easy to conceive of reality as a mere dream that unfolds in front of our eyes— but reality “hurts” and resists us once we start intervening in it and trying to change it. Here enters, of course, Fichte’s infamous “spurious infinity”: the practical Self can never totally overcome the resistance of the not-I, so “the self’s original practical constitution is a striving (Streben)”— ultimately the endless ethical striving to create a reality that would fully conform to the moral ideal. (Zizek, KL 4238)

Fichte’s notion of striving would be the first time the concept of drive (Trieb) was introduced in the sense that Freud would later incorporate it, and Lacan would only appropriate in Seminar XI as the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object. (Zizek, KL 4253) This very striving of the Subject-as-self in self-referential acquaintance was for Kant and his opponent Jacobi the very core of madness, and yet for Fichte the truth of this self-reflexive power of the self in it’s own acquaintance did not lead to madness but evasion:

There is thus no “objective” approach to self-consciousness (I): if we look at it from the outside, it disappears, dissolving into an objective psycho-physical process: The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and does not know what he wants. (Zizek, KL 4290)

Every approach to understanding of consciousness (hard problem) in the sciences (neurosciences) ends in this reduction to deterministic physical processes (a Spinozan materialism). The point being we cannot get outside the loop of our own neglect and ignorance. For Fichte this was no problem in fact it was the solution, we are nothing but this self-positing self-relating nothingness as process:

it is not just that the mind (I) relates to itself— the mind (I) is nothing but this process of self-relating. Therein lies the circle or loop Fichte talks about: the relating itself not only creates what it relates to, it also is what it relates to. (Zizek, KL 4308)

But this was just a first step for Fichte: “he discovered that the most elementary structure of self-consciousness— the I’s self-positing— is more complex than it initially appears, and displays a precise structure. Fichte’s starting point is that the Self is not a product of some pre-subjective activity that generates it— the Self comes immediately with the activity.” (Zizek, KL 4313) The point here is that this striving, this drive and the self-reflecting process arise together and are never separated or escape the circle of this process since both form an activity in unison. Already in 1795, Fichte employed the metaphor of the eye (das Auge): the Self is an activity into which an eye is inserted, an activity which sees itself and is only through seeing itself. His next step is to admit that “we cannot account for the duality of the activity and the eye in terms of one of them alone”: “Neither the eye nor the activity can provide this account. In this moment, the idea of a ground of the structure becomes indispensable.” (ibid.)

This is where it becomes tricky for Fichte and his project, for in the end he would fall into theology because of it: the notion of ground, how to posit the self as self-positing without some supporting objective Ground? I want go into all the commentary in Zizek’s rendition other than these notes from his book:

The Lacanian notion of le grand Autre (the big Other, vaguely corresponding to what Hegel called “objective spirit” or the “spiritual substance” of individual lives), triumphantly resolves this problem. The big Other is a totally subjectivized substance: not a Thing-in-itself, but a Substance which exists only insofar as it is continuously sustained by the work of “all and everyone.” Reproducing Fichte’s formula of the subject’s self-positing, the big Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only as permanently “posited” by subjects. (Zizek, KL 4405)

In other words we all live in a shared world of symbolic structures that we agree on and posit in our everyday practical lives as if they were objective truth. This is the big Other of Lacan-Zizek: this vast symbolic structure which is the ground of our shared experience and reality system. When it breaks down and begins to crack at the edges we perceive it as a threat to our mental stability. Our present world is in social psychosis because the shared systems that we choose to identify between Left and Right are breaking symmetry and the big Other of our grounded vision is falling apart and will not hold. Because of it we are at war with each other, a civil war of the psyche and mind struggling in-between a world dying and one being born out of the unraveling of this Ground.

According to Zizek Fichte was unable to resolve the status of Ground because he does not have at his disposal a term which would designate an entity that is not-mental, that is asubjective, and yet at the same time is not a material “thing,” but purely ideal. This, however, is exactly what the Lacanian “big Other” is: it is definitely not-mental (Lacan repeatedly emphasizes that the status of the big Other is not psychological), it does not belong to the order of the subject’s experience; but it is also not the pre-symbolic material Real, a thing or process in reality independent of subjectivity— the status of the big Other is purely virtual, as an ideal structure of reference; that is, it exists only as the subject’s presupposition. (The big Other is thus close to what Karl Popper, in his late writings, designated as the Third World, neither objective reality nor subjective inner experience.) The Lacanian “big Other” also resolves the problem of the plurality of subjects: its role is precisely that of the Third, the very medium of the encounter between subjects. (Zizek, KL 4410)

Ultimately it’s this encounter and oppositional play of forces between subjects working within the shared symbolic field that produces our understanding of reality and ourselves. Without this conflict of forces as process in ongoing activity we would forever remain bound within an illusory world of self-positing negativity. It is only in the confrontation with what resists my own self-positing which awakens me from my dream into understanding of an other, and of myself as an othering.

*Note – “It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits for itself in order to stimulate its activity, so that by overcoming the obstacle it can assert its creative power (like the games the proverbial ascetic saint plays with himself, inventing increasingly perverse temptations in order to confirm his strength by successfully resisting them). If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.” (Zizek)

  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13
  2. Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 4132-4136). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Thought of the Day: The Limits of the Mind

At times philosophers are like magicians whose whole world of magic is bound within evasion and trickery, seeking to keep your mind occupied by the bells-and-whistles of distraction and stage props while the real work goes on elsewhere and in plain sight. The philosopher’s old enemy was the rhetorician, the Sophist, who could use the figures of intellect and speech to cover over the truth in a veil of pure illusion and make it seem by way of metaphor and rhetorical flourish the very thing itself. But the philosopher is himself caught in the trap of self-deception, believing that the very words he so uses under the scrutiny of careful persuasion and example have the power to awaken truth from its hiding places while all the time as Nietzsche reminds us: “Even great spirits have only their five-fingers’ breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”

Zizek’s Philosophy in a Nutshell


We can thus identify three positions [in philosophy]: metaphysical, transcendental, and “speculative.” In the first, reality is simply perceived as existing out there, and the task of philosophy is to analyze its basic structure. In the second, the philosopher investigates the subjective conditions of the possibility of objective reality, its transcendental genesis. In the third, subjectivity is re-inscribed into reality, but not simply reduced to a part of objective reality. While the subjective constitution of reality— the split that separates the subject from the In-itself— is fully admitted, this very split is transposed back into reality as its kenotic self-emptying (to use the Christian theological term). Appearance is not reduced to reality; rather the very process of appearance is conceived from the standpoint of reality, so that the question is not “How, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality?” but “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” (italics mine)

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 


For those who might have difficulty in this tri-philosophical breakdown it goes as follows: naïve-realism, idealism, dialectical materialism. Naïve realists or old school “democratic materialism” of the scientistic materialist sort defined as structuralist realism in which the mathematical structure of reality is both objective but not directly accessible. This is the age old metaphysical split between Subject-Object which has played out since Plato and his heirs and on through pre-Quantum scientific thought. Plato would separate the world into two: an eternal static realm of Ideas-Forms (although in his Parmenides he would begin to question this!), and our world – which he considered the realm of shadows and illusion (think of his Cave parable!). This two-world theory would survive in Plato’s heirs, the Neo-Platonists, and in the Catholic Church under many guises until Kant and his Idealist heirs. After Kant the two-world theory literalized in Platonic thought was internalized in the Mind-Nature divide as seen in both German and English Romantic philosophers and poets. All the debates surrounding the circle of correlationism fall into this as the thought-object pair. Idealism in its core Kantian mode seeks to understand how reality is created by the Mind, there being no objective structure or Real beyond the subjective genesis of it from the human perspective (anthropomorphism, etc.). The third mode is a dialectical reversal of the second, rather than asking how reality is shaped by the Mind, it asks: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to arise within the world to apprehend itself as itself to begin with. What Zizek has done is to reinscribe a non-human viewpoint into the mix wherein there is a before/after gap between appearance as pure appearance without consciousness and an after of appearance as appearance – knowing itself as appearance (i.e., consciousness). So that dialectical materialism unlike idealism is concerned not with the eternal circle of correlational thought of Subject/Object, but rather is concerned with the very reversal: what conditions were necessary to bring about this great gap, split, and cut the world to produce consciousness. Zizek would fold consciousness back into its origins, take up the stance of the Real. This double fold of consciousness into appearance has yet to be explained by any and all thinkers or even neuroscience. It was termed once the hard problem of consciousness. Those last two questions of Zizek are the scientific thinker coming to the fore: “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” This is the speculative mode proper. The grand tour from externalization on to internalization and then a great kenosis or emptying of Self-as-void and the Void-of-self into things begins with the latest works of Badiou and Zizek.

The point here is what were the conditions necessary to bring about consciousness – this split, cut, gap in appearance? Rather than explaining consciousness, it asks the harder question: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to begin with?  And the conditions necessary in reality to cause this separation necessary to allow awareness of appearance as appearance? In this since one must focus not on either side of the equation, but rather on the cut, gap, split itself. Most democratic materialism and idealism focus on one side or the other of the issue: either on objective reality, or on the Mind; while dialectical materialism focuses on neither, but rather on the cut or subtraction itself. What brought about this split, gap, cut, subtraction from appearance to begin with? The conditions necessary for this break in symmetry? How did this cut in the fabric of appearance come about? Traumatic events? What sequence of events were necessary to instigate such a rupture at the core of time and space as awareness? Is it common? Uncommon? Appearance aware of itself as appearance: is it an aberration or a commonplace in the universe? What Zizek does is to focus on this process of subtraction rather than on either side of the equation of Subject or Object, rather the all important concept or notion of the Void between them is the focal point around which Zizek’s philosophy hovers. Not just a void, but a subtraction from the Void. Those resistances to the Real that make us stumble in asking such questions.

American Grunge

It is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of our experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?

—Jaques Lacan

Of late I was re-reading Edmund Berger’s 2015 essay Grungy “Accelerationism” (here) which recounts a short underground history of a facet of the counter-culture from the Beats (Burroughs) to the late age of slack. Informative as always Edmund relates these tidbits from a forgotten world with elan and a cynical eye toward its positive and negative effects. As he’ll tell us certain focal points were developed by the rogue intelligentsia of the era best typified by the rebels and street nihilists of Semiotext(e), an elite underground mixture of avant-garde intellectuality – drifting in the wake of Americanization of French theory and thought of the era – after Foucault and Derrida, etc. As Edmund relates it this melange of hybrid thought from low and high cultural praxis embodied

what I’m referring to as grungy accelerationism. Instead of opting for a direct confrontation with the powers of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and the state (as Marxist-Leninism or communization theory might pose, in their own different routes), what was promoted instead was the construction of alternative, aesthetically experimental, DIY networks right in the midst of the ruins.

This notion of working amidst the ruins of capital rather than within some academic and high-cultural mediatainment system seemed to have an effect on the bottom feeders of the dark street nihils of the age. For average citizens of the machine such antics went by the wayside and were lost among obsolesced realms of thought and culture. The last breath of such thought came in the way of hyperfictional works as Nick Land and associates would produce in the mid to late 90’s.

Two things would end all this sponge fest: the bubble-burst of Californian ideology in the wake of cyberculture meltdown in the fated economics of Internet start-ups, and Osama Ben Laden and crews burning of the Twin Towers. The splice and cut that would subtract worlds before and after swallowed any hope of a counter-cultural revolution in the wake of both political and economic break down and the collapse of the American Dream into Apocalyptic Nightmare.

Instead of acceleration, collapse and apathy would ensue and the forces of war, conservative, and traditional capitalist regulation of the masses, and the false worlds of hypermedia irrealism would create the Middle-East conflict and the hybrid market inflation and hyper speculation of profiteers on a scale that would eventually lead to the social and political collapse of 2007. Nothing would remain the same afterward. Instead we now live in another of those eras of authoritarian re-balancing in which acts of violence on both social and economic scales empower the powers-that-be attuning our minds to the ever-present stage mechanics of mass beliefs that would make Shakespeare laugh in pure cynical glee have come to the fore. Both the Left and Right play out their ancient ideological wars as if it meant something, all the while both sides are being pulled by the puppet strings of mediatainment experts under the cash cow eyes of the power brokers of profit.

Yet, one might say: “Hold on, what gives you the right to make such cynical judgements on our lives?” Look around, what do you see? Our supposed political and social underground has turned into a circus of cliche and less than adequate response to the state of the world’s affairs. Globe trotting gangs of philo-thought philosophers roam the stage spouting on anything and everything; and, yet, talk… always more talk and more talk that acts like a factory of stupidity producing imbeciles unable to change themselves or the world. Words and more words come from scholars, philosophers, essayists, comedians, etc., repeating the latest clown antics in Trumpsville U.S.A.. The moneyed left mediatainment networks keep our ire leveled at this puppet show while nothing is done in the real world to alleviate the real social and political issues, not to speak of other more environmental and global pressures. We seem to be in an era of Regressionism rather than Accelerationism, a time when nostalgia and dreams of a lost America loom in the minds and hearts of its citizenry. Truly Grunge has slacked its way into the abyss of stupidity rather than accelerating us into some new era of freedom.



Christ Without God: Post-Religious Atheism as Christian Materialism

It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective— the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.  But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

One of those subtle yet revelatory aspects of the whole tradition of Marxism is its inner spirit and alignment with a counter-gospel of redemption and salvation: that of the Proletariat of the World. All revolutionary philosophies have as the kernel of their emancipatory power the tension at the heart of Christianity. Slavoj Zizek had in as many books written a counter-thought to the accepted or Orthodoxy of Christian philosophy, theology, and revelation. In a poignant aside he tells us,

The standard reproach addressed to this project of “Christian materialism” is that it amounts to a “barred” belief: not being courageous enough to make the “leap of faith,” I retain the Christian form of religious engagement without its content. My reply is that this “emptying the form of its content” already takes place in Christianity itself, at its very core— the name of this emptying is kenosis: God dies and resurrects itself as the Holy Ghost, as the form of collective belief. It is a fetishistic mistake to search for the material support of this form (the resurrected Christ)— the Holy Ghost is the very collective of believers, what they are searching for outside of the collective is already there in the guise of the love that binds them.1

This strain within Zizek’s thought of a “Christian atheism” was challenged by his own ephebe, Adrian Johnston in a personal communique:

You and Badiou clearly, openly, and unambiguously are thoroughgoing atheists, thinkers insisting on the non-existence of any big Other, One-All, and so on. Moreover, both of you labor to reveal, in a non-reductive manner, the material basis/ genesis of “spiritual” phenomena. And, of course, you yourself vehemently insist on reading Christianity as the “religion of atheism.” But, from others’ texts I’ve read and conversations I’ve had these past few years, some people register you and Badiou as religious in the same fashion that audiences register Penn and Teller as magical: “I know full well that Badiou and Žižek are atheists, but nonetheless …”; “I know that Christianity is, as the religion of atheism, an immanent self-negation of religion, but nonetheless … (I continue to relate to it as religion, in a religious mode replete with all its established rituals, practices, etc.).” I guess one of the things I’m saying is that the tactic of employing Christianity as a tempting Trojan horse carrying within it the explosive potentials of an atheistic-materialist radical politics carries dangerous risks arising from this je sais bien, mais quand même reaction evident in those who latch onto you and Badiou as licensing, as displaying strains of phenomenology and its offshoots, a version of “post-secular” Continental philosophy. (ibid.)

Zizek’s counter to this religion without content notion goes as follows. He asks:

Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological— the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers. (ibid.)

A bold pronouncement if there ever was one from Zizek. It would take me a book to explicate the hidden threads lying within that passage. At the heart of it is the notion of the Big Other, which like my preamble from King James on the notion of the Comforter (Holy Ghost) spoken and written of in the Gospel of John we hear from Jesus himself that there is a “Spirit of truth” that will enter history (materialism) as the power at the heart of this collective project that is emancipation of world.

Christ the Man

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

In the above passage Christ is hanging on the death cross totally shriven of all thought and inner sustenance, becoming as we are: fully human, alone, without God. In this moment a humanist would say that God had died to God. The moment that the true and actual meaning of “freedom” is born in the world. For freedom is this knowledge of separation, of aloneness, of self-reliance in the midst of a world without any anchors, gods, or big Other to hear, understand, know one’s darkest inner pain and feelings. To be alone and utterly emptied is to know the truth of humanity in the universe. It was this utter isolation and abandonment in a cosmos without God that Jesus Christ experienced: the truth we all face each and every day if we were honest without ourselves.

I do not know but I suspect that Zizek like me was at one time an Orthodox believer who accepted all the truth handed down by the elders of some Church and its dogmas without questioning it until something happened. I’ve often gone back over what it was that moved toward a radical atheistic view of existence. There is no one moment, or thing, or event I can point to that would explain it. Rather it was a slow accumulation of little events and memories that pushed me over the edge into the no man’s land of atheism. This is neither the place nor do I have the time to relate all this sordid history of my own dark path into freedom and solitude, only to say that it came by way of a slow awakening to this deep seeded belief that we are alone and without recourse to any external authority, power, or big Other to hear us, save us, comfort us. We are alone. And this in itself comforts me now. It gives me hope. It allows me to realize that I must act responsible out of my own nothingness, my own abandonment, my inner core as a human among other humans and creatures in a cosmos bereft of external power and authority. What I do matters because I am unique and alone in a universe that knows not of me.

As Zizek says in another passage of import,

Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a( nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief and thus have no need for any figure of the Other to guarantee that belief; to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-même. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of its inexistence. (ibid., Kindle Locations 2866-2870)

One cannot emphasize how much empowerment there is in this acceptance of God’s inexistence. This acceptance that we are free and without bond or chains to any Law or Power. To be alone with the alone, to know that one has no support, no external authority whether of God, State, or parent to hold one up, comfort one, or hear one’s cries of desperation in the lonely nights gives one the greatest comfort of all. Knowing that we must find within ourselves the sustaining courage to be, to exist in a world bereft of any big Other is to know for the first time that one is on equal footing with all other creatures in this universe. This is the only true democracy of objects, to be free and withdrawn from all so that one can then enter into relations out of that solitude and freedom. Knowing one’s shared knowledge is bound within the network of illusions and neglect that is our lot as humans. All revolutionary thought starts from this inner core of solitude and freedom.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 2785-2790). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Big Other: Positing the Presuppositions

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.”

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

The Void That Moves

—“Then if we were to say, to sum up, ‘if one is not, nothing is,’ wouldn’t we speak correctly?” —“Absolutely.”

—Plato, Parmenides (Translated: Mary Louis Gill and Paul Ryan)

We don’t know much about Democritus, the father of materialism, beyond a few anecdotal reports passed down to us from Aristotle and the lists of lost works reported by Diogenes Laertius. Aristotle wrote a monograph on Democritus, of which only a few passages quoted in other sources have survived. Democritus seems to have taken over and systematized the views of Leucippus, of whom little is known. Although it is possible to distinguish some contributions as those of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer either to both figures, or to Democritus alone; the developed atomist system is often regarded as essentially Democritus’.1

It’s the view of Democritus’s natural philosophy of atomism that has for the most part guided our knowledge of materialism for millennium. Yet, it is this reception of Democritus as an atomist that is challenged within Slavoj Zizek’s Magnum Opus Less Than Nothing. In his first chapter Zizek spends an inexorable amount of time parsing the work of Plato’s Parmenides. Of course the point here is the age old battle between Idealism and Materialism which have warred through the generations over the notions of change and the real.

Berryman in his article on the Stanford site relates the standard view onto this ancient battle:

Ancient sources describe atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge offered by Parmenides. Despite occasional challenges, this is how its motivation is generally interpreted by mainstream scholars today. Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are often thought to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes. (ibid.)

After the final quote above from the Parmenides in my epigraph Zizek will quote the last lines:

Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Most true.3

Zizek will add: “Is this not the most succinct, minimal definition of dialectical materialism? If there is no One, just multiplicities of multiplicities, then the ultimate reality is the Void itself; all determinate things “are and are not.”” (ibid.) To answer that Zizek explains that it all depends on what we “mean by zero, nothing, or the void”. He goes on to explicate (and I quote at length):

First, there are two zeroes, the zero of measure (like a zero degree, the point of reference chosen to establish a quantitative difference, which is arbitrary— for measuring temperature, Celsius and Fahrenheit posit a different zero) and zero as the neutral element, like 0 in addition and subtraction: whichever number we add 0 to or subtract 0 from, this number remains the same. This, perhaps, offers one approach to the “analyst’s neutrality”: the analyst is just there as an inert objet a, s/ he does not actively intervene. However, we should add to this neutrality of 0 the opposite case of multiplication wherein 0 is, on the contrary, the absorbing element: whichever number we multiply with 0, the result is 0.  …

This distinction between the neutral/ absorbing zero and the zero of measure is not to be confused with another distinction which also relates to the psychoanalytic practice: the distinction between nothing and the void. Nothing is localized, like when we say “there is nothing here,” while the void is a dimension without limits. 

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. (ibid., Kindle Locations 1738-1746) [my italics]

Better and more succinct is Levi R. Bryant’s explication of Deleuze’s notion of the ‘Virtual‘ in his book The Democracy of Objects: “No one has explored this anterior side of substance—in the transcendental, not the temporal, sense—more profoundly than Gilles Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze names this dimension of substance that is formatted or structured without possessing qualities the virtual. Here the virtual is not to be confused with virtual reality. The latter is generally treated as a simulacrum of reality, as a sort of false or computer generated reality. By contrast, the virtual is entirely real without, for all that, being actual. The term “virtuality” comes from the Latin virtus, which has connotations of potency and efficacy. As such, the virtual, as virtus, refers to powers and capacities belonging to an entity. And in order for an entity to have powers or capacities, it must actually exist. In this connection, while the virtual refers to potentiality, it would be a mistake to conflate this potentiality with the concept of a potential object. A potential object is an object that does not exist but which could come to exist. By contrast, the virtual is strictly a part of a real and existing object. The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations.”3

This notion of the virtual as displaying powers and capacities (Bryant), as well as “being known for its real effects and consequences” (Zizek). So here we begin to see an outline of dialectical materialism in its equation of Void > Real > Virtual in which Ideas or immaterial powers and capacities effect change and consequences upon our world. As one reads through Zizek we begin to realize that the Void is the energetic and volcanic underbelly of existence, that in its virtuality it produces the very fabric of the space-time continuum of our universe. And, of course, Zizek promotes such analogies between modern quantum physics with its Higg’s fields and these philosophical concepts. Seeing in the mathematical fictions of physicists and the conceptual fictions of the philosophers a corollary. Being does not exist in its own right but is rather a subtraction from the Void much as are all those small particles that come into and out of existence from the void of the quantum realms.

Zizek’s return to Plato and Hegel is not as Idealist, but rather as correcting what they in themselves got wrong. For Zizek Ideas do not exist in some other permanent realm Outside, but rather are always already within the very fabric of things: a gap or crack within objects themselves that allows this passage between or in-between those powers and capacities to be mediated and translated – distorted into our world of actuality. As Zizek will argue in another passage, comparing the ancient Buddhist notion of nirvana against Freud’s notion of death-drive, saying,

So does the paradox of the Higgs field not also prefigure the mystery of symbolic castration in psychoanalysis? What Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—“ incestuous”— object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and of meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity.  (ibid., Kindle Locations 3166-3170).

This sense of restlessness at the heart of things, this movement that never ends, never finds resolution of its tensions, but forever oscillates between diametric poles producing all we know and are. Not some New Age mysticism but a very powerful materialist understanding of the universe in its continuous creativity. Closer to Heraclitus’s “War is the Father of All,” than to some mystic eyed nirvana of absolute peace. Ours is a world of continuous strife and tension, and creativity comes in opposition rather than some release of tension. Ours is the realm of death and the drive.

The Freudian answer is the drive: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive. (ibid., Kindle Locations 3147-3152)

Whether Zizek understands actual Buddhism is besides the point, the conclusion to draw from this is this difference that makes a difference in our world. Life is itself a part of this death-drive, complicit in its warring strife and existence. The very motion of our being is moved by the turning wheel of death-in-Life: Galileo’s eppur si muove? (“But nonetheless, it continues to move!”)

Whereas Plato sought some absolute still point outside our realm of illusory appearances, so stable and unchanging eternal realm of Ideas, etc., Zizek sees our realm as itself the site of endless conflict and change wherein Ideas become the powers and capacities complicit in the movement of the world.

  1. Berryman, Sylvia, “Democritus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  2. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1705-1708). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  3. Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. University of Michigan Library (October 31, 2011) [italics mine]


Zizek Quote: Divide Between Materialism and Idealism

The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness / the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void / nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e., there is an indistinction of being and the void.

—Slavoj  Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Zizek’s Return To Plato As Materialist?

Another quote from Zizek’s Less Than Nothing I’ve been rereading carefully over the past few months:

This “truth of Plato” received its clearest formulation in one of the great anti-Platonic works, Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, where Deleuze begins by “inverting” Plato’s dualism of eternal Ideas and their imitations in sensuous reality into the dualism of substantial (material) bodies and the pure impassive surface of Sense, the flux of Becoming which is to be located on the very borderline of Being and non-Being. Senses are surfaces which do not exist, but merely subsist: “They are not things or facts, but events. We cannot say that they exist, but rather that they subsist or inhere (having this minimum of being which is appropriate to that which is not a thing, a nonexisting entity).”  The Stoics, who developed this notion of “incorporeals,”

were the first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion. For if bodies with their states, qualities, and quantities, assume all the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of the Idea are relegated to the other side, that is to this impassive extra-Being which is sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things: the ideational or the incorporeal can no longer be anything other than an “effect.”

This dualism is the “materialist truth” of the dualism of Ideas and material things, and it is against this background that one should envisage a return to Plato. Let us take an unexpected example: A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form— the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate— the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” One should thus fully accept that spatio-temporal material reality is “all there is,” that there is no other “more true” reality: the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order, how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

In this sense Zizek is returning to Plato and revising his misunderstandings of the notion of matter/form. For Zizek as always this realm we are living and participating in is always already the eternal order of energetic matter informed by the appearance of appearance of Ideas that circulate. There being no two-world theory as has been brought down since time immemorial by all those false idealists. Zizek’s materialism is Idealism manifest not as a two-world theory but as a One-All in which the division of Idea/Matter are always here now, there being no separate realm of Eternal Ideas beyond appearance. Only this universe seen as the eternal stage of struggle of Idea and Form as appearance as appearance.

So against false materialism of the dogmatic scientists of the old atomist school Zizek opts for the changed state of the hard sciences of modern physics an a two Void theoretic of a positive void informed by ‘less than nothing’ which produces the eternal spring of appearance as appearance manifest as our Universe.

Fate and Modern Art: We Are Alone with the Alone

This brings us again to the fate of modern art. Schoenberg still hoped that somewhere there would be at least one listener who would truly understand his atonal music. It was only his greatest pupil, Anton Webern, who accepted the fact that there is no listener, no big Other to receive the work and properly recognize its value. In literature, James Joyce still counted on future generations of literary critics as his ideal public, claiming that he wrote Finnegans Wake to keep them occupied for the next 400 years. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we, writers and readers, have to accept that we are alone, reading and writing at our own risk, with no guarantee from the big Other. (It was Beckett who drew this conclusion in his break with Joyce.)

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

The Cognitive Break: Breaking Free of Matryoshka’s Dilemma


Poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways. In most cases the author is not the right authority to decide on where the reader ceases to understand and the misunderstanding begins. Many an author has found readers to whom his work seemed more lucid than it was to himself. Moreover, misunderstandings may be fruitful under certain circumstances.

—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf: A Novel

I believe the above sums up my own unique situation as a scribbler, for to be honest that’s what I am for the most part. An ‘author’ seems a little too dignified for what I’m doing, but then again what is it I am doing? Not being a professional philosopher or scientist or… even a poet of repute, I’ve spent my life digesting and tuning and digging into the vast storehouse of human learning and libraries seeking an answer to the usual and fundamental problems of existence: my own existence in this vast and wondrous universe.

As I read others I realize we’re all in the same boat pegging away at this strange bit of dust that suddenly became self-aware somewhere along the way: humanity. Oh, there is plenty of theories as to why we as humans suddenly evolved into thinking beings; some based on deep religious beliefs, others from an utterly atheistic perspective. Somewhere along the way a group of men in Athens and surrounding satellite cities and villages began to think differently about thinking, asked questions that seemed to ring true, to codify and compress the base common lot into an amalgam of thought that over the centuries became a sort of living Book of Wisdom. Not some literal book, mind you; but, rather, an unwritten set of sayings from various men (Pre-Socratics) that were passed around from generation to generation until a canon of accepted thought began to rule. A stabilized way of thinking arose, a dialectical give and take, a dialogue among various confrontational voices emerged discussing this and that at the central hub of Athens: the Agora. It was here that a man named Socrates began asking questions of citizens about their sundry knowledge of life, work, happiness, etc.

In many ways we’ll never come to know who the man Socrates was in flesh and blood, instead we have the testimonies of both his detractors and his ephebe’s (i.e., students, followers, pupils, etc.). He is portrayed in these various works either as a dangerous man deserving punishment or as a law-abiding and helpful citizen worthy of praise for his unblemished character.1 Many of us probably began reading Plato’s Apology in high-school or college, it being a sort of introduction to that world of philosophy in its most vivid recounting of Socrates’s trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. What is it he did that was so terrible that in the end he was forced to commit suicide drinking a cup of hemlock? He was a man who presented himself as a humble creature whose base premise was to be the man who knew nothing, nothing at all. And, yet, he believed that others might know something more and be able to teach him what they knew. So he began asking questions of those who seemed to know something about life, thought, etc. And for this he was judged corrupt because many of the young men of Athens seemed to follow a man who knew nothing?

Ah, Socrates was a little sly old goat, wasn’t he? Shall we play Devil’s advocate and wonder why this ugly old man wondering the streets of Athens asking his questions irritated so man men in authority. We know the answer: men of power do not like being shown just how stupid they are, how little they know about what they supposedly know; and, most of all, that what they know they cannot even discuss with any equitable saving of face. Men of power do not like being found out as naïve and foolish believers in their own knowledge of nature and people. It was this unbinding of thought, this dialectical tearing of the veil of pretentious power at the heart of Athens presumed great men that brought Socrates to the end game of judgement.

The corruption that Socrates had brought to the youth of Athens was thought and thinking itself, a new way of thinking: the dialectic, a negative form of thinking that would whittle away at a person’s knowledge till nothing was left but ignorance and doubt. And men of power cannot act on ignorance and doubt, they must know that their actions are based on some solid knowledge or it is just a fool’s errand. Kant in a perspicuous passage in the Critique of Reason comes to much the same conclusions:

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.2

In this sense we are aware only of what we are given, and for the most this giveness is based on ignorance and neglect rather than actual knowledge. Humans cannot grasp all the data thrown at them by the universe, so we have over the millennia become selective, appropriating, filtering, and fictionalizing aspects of the world in manageable bytes under the rubric of thought which was later codified by philosophers and sophists (Rhetoricians) alike. What we know of the world is not the ‘world’, but rather a nice fairy tale of our own survival fictions that have helped us accrue millennia of illusory errors about both ourselves and our universe. Kant began codifying the errors of past philosophers much as Socrates in his dialectic began questioning the ignorance of men who thought they knew in fact what they didn’t know at all. Kant would come up against the antinomies of existence in thought and reality. For Kant the antinomies were contradictions which he believed follow necessarily from our attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. What he’d term the noumenal realm which was not directly accessible to the mind, but was always already covered over by the filters and mechanisms of the mind’s own internal workings.

This internal turn toward the mind rather than as in most previous philosophy would bring about a break in philosophical speculation that has led us to the current malaise in philosophy and the triumph of the brain sciences. For in our own moment the game of understanding why the mind works the way it does had shifted from mere speculative philosophy to the hard nosed sciences of the brain for answers. My friend Scott Bakker over at Three Pound Brain has been reiterating this fact for some time. In his latest article on Wilfrid Sellar’s thesis of the manifest and scientific images of man he puts his finger on the prime issue: “It generates the problems it does (for example, in Brassier or Dennett) because it inherits the very cognitive limitations it purports to explain.” (see Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man) The point here is that the mind-tools we have available to describe or even question consciousness are themselves biased, error prone, and most of all always already part of the problem it purports to solve: explaining consciousness with tools of the mind that do not and will never have direct access to the Mind. It’s this circular cave of shadows within which we are all shared ignoramuses when it comes to thinking about consciousness. We hem, we haw, we purport this and that theoretical idea all based on our inherited errors.

Sellar’s Scott tells us divided the images of man into pre-conceptual (original image), conceptual (manifest image), and scientific images ( post-conceptual? concrete?). Yet, it was from the beginning a war against reality-in-itself that humans developed instead a personalized environment in which they could give birth, raise children, educate one another, and perform the various tribal ceremonies of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death. Or, as Scott puts it: “The original framework, Sellars tells us, conceptualizes all objects as ways of being persons—it personalizes its environments. The manifest image, then, can be seen as “the modification of an image in which all the objects are capable of the full range of personal activity”.” The animate universe was a realm filled with mind and persons, a vital realm of ghosts, spirits, and mythic creatures. A nightmare world of dangers against which humans developed mind-tools for survival, and only survival and propagation were the central features of this original pre-conceptual tool-bag of fictions.

Out of this pre-conceptual tool-bag arose what we now know as the philosophical image or ‘manifest image’, as Scott explains,

This new image of man, Sellars claims, is “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world”. As such, the manifest image is the image interrogated by the philosophical tradition, which given the limited correlational and categorial resources available to it, remained blind to the communicative—social—conditions of conceptual frameworks, and so, the manifest image of man. Apprehending this would require the scientific image, the conceptual complex “derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction,” yet still turning on the conceptual resources of the manifest image.3

What we see here is nothing new, but rather a series of mental leaps or refinements, tiers or levels of reality baking that each turns toward the previous images as if from the outside. But have we ever truly left the pre-conceptual level at all? It’s like the blind leading the blind, turning over and over the mind-tools inherited from the previous image as if this would suddenly produce some advantage. But has it? Or we still as ignorant as those early cave dwellers who blew paint on the walls in southern France? As Bakker reiterates:

Things begin, for Sellars, in the original image, our prehistorical self-understanding. The manifest image consists in the ‘correlational and categorial refinement’ of this self-understanding. And the scientific image consists in everything discovered about man beyond the limits of correlational and categorial refinement (while relying on these refinements all the same). The manifest image, in other words, is an attenuation of the original image, whereas the scientific image is an addition to the manifest image (that problematizes the manifest image). Importantly, all three are understood as kinds of ‘conceptual frameworks’ (though he sometime refers to the original image as ‘preconceptual.’

This reminded me of those Matryoshka dolls one sees in the specialty stores from Russia: a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. Maybe our conceptual and pre-conceptual frameworks are like these dolls hidden within each other, a nested series of internal mind-worlds that have a tentative cross-pollination in-between zones that still reverberate in us even now. The point here is that the more you look inward toward the mind the smaller and smaller it becomes; a sort of infinite regress of thought which we will never fully understand or uncover. The nested worlds of mind are infinite. Bad analogy? Of course, but as we struggle to understand ourselves we all, manifest and scientific frameworks, both, come up against the black hole of our ignorance much like Socrates in questioning the knowledge of all those powerful Athenian gentlemen.

Is there a way out of this quagmire or are we forever condemned to repeat each others errors no matter how refined we become adding new dolls to the nested loop (i.e., constructing new frameworks even more sophisticated than our current scientific image)? For Scott the answer to that question turns on an ecological framework, and by that he means that our ancestral pool of inherited mind-tools were fitted to our natural environments. Slowly but surely we’ve begun severing this relation over the past few millennia constructing more and more unnatural or artificial environments. As Scott puts it his story and postscript to Crash Space:

Reverse engineering brains is a prelude to engineering brains, plain and simple. Since we are our brains, and since we all want to be better than what we are, a great many of us celebrate the eventuality. The problem is that we happen to be a certain biological solution to an indeterminate range of ancestral environments, an adventitious bundle of fixes to the kinds of problems that selected our forebears. This means that we are designed to take as much of our environment for granted as possible—to neglect. This means that human cognition, like animal cognition more generally, is profoundly ecological. And this suggests that the efficacy of human cognition depends on its environments.

What Scott is saying is what many evolutionists have said for a while: we are attentive only to those things in the environment that help us survive and propagate, everything else about reality we pass over or neglect realizing it is just too much – an excess that we put in relief, blindly focusing only on what matters to us, what is personal.

Yet, in our time we’ve severed the links to our natural for an artificial environment, a built environment —one might say, designer environment. We’ve displaced our ancestral cognitive ecologies from the natural to the artificial, neglecting the former for the changed world of natural for machinic being. “We neglect all those things our ancestors had no need to know on the road to becoming us.” says Scott. And, then goes on to say,

Herein lies the ecological rub. The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.

In this sense our entire planetary civilization has become unhinged. We are all tittering on the edge of a psychotic break, and many already show the signs of such madness. One only needs to watch the nightly news (a biased world of psychosis if there ever was one) to see the mass murders, the wars, the political and religious tom foolery that reaches the highest levels of our media frenzy. Day by day we are so attached to our artificial environments: our electronic gadgets, our online personalities, and fake echo chambers that we neglect our lives, our children, our natural physical lives. And, then we wake up and realize just how inadequate our knowledge of the world and ourselves is, we realize that this artificial world and the natural do not coalesce and we are lost amid the dark recesses of our own ignorance.

Yet, in our economic and worldly realm we continue to act of this ancestral pool of neglect, piling up more and more feats of artificial mandates. As Scott says: “And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the
effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved  such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering  ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well  could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other  ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.”

In other words our so called progressive society of improvement since the Enlightenment has in its ‘disenchantment’ of the world (which is really just another way of saying: our severing of the links to the natural context and displacement into a modern artificial built world of thought and life) brought us to the brink of mental implosion and destruction: a crash space of global proportions. Does all this sound apocalyptic? Sure it does, but in some ways it helps us understand the many strange psychotic breaks daily reported in the news. Humans who are still nested within nests of images that were and are still tied to our ancestral pool of mind-tools are no longer involved in those ancient worlds of natural survival and propagation. This break from the environment to the artificial has accelerated over the past two centuries to the point of complete severance.

Can a whole civilization go psychotic? Scott ends on an apocalyptic note: “Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more
we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.” This sense that the mind-tools of our ancestral nesting image, our philosophical manifest image, and – even our “scientific image” are not up to the task of guiding us through this process. We are all in the dark now, together.

As for Sellars’s approach Scott in his end piece brings to the fore the Idealism of its conceptual framework and how this reliance on conceptuality has led Sellars and his followers into blind alleys of just reiterating the same old games of the ‘given’ that have clouded modern philosophy ever since Kant. As he says, summing up,

The issue of information availability, for him (Sellars), is always conceptual, which is to say, always heuristically conditioned, which is to say, always bound to systematically distort what is the case. Where the enabling dimension of cognition belongs to the deep environments on a cognitive ecological account, it belongs to communities on Sellars’ inferentialist account. As result, he has no clear way of seeing how the increasingly technologically mediated accumulation of ancestrally unavailable information drives the development of human self-understanding.

Scott’s turn from the Idealism of ‘conceptuality’ to the cognitive ecological turn in heuristics based as it is on technological mediation rather than the mind-tools of philosophical speculation shifts the ground toward a more specific task: rather than explaining consciousness with the outworn tools of ancestral voices we should maybe begin to explore this new found world of technological mediation and push it further, accelerate its force into avenues unfounded in all past speculative thought. Maybe we will find our way out of the Matryoshka dolls of our nested images and into a new form of cognitive ecological understanding of ourselves, but it want be by way of the previous nestings and our ancestral reliance of less and less environmental cues; instead we may be entering a totally artificial era of technological mediation based on merging more and more with our artificial environments. Instead of the Age of Disenchantment maybe ours is instead the Age of Breaking the Vessel or Matryoshka doll altogether. Forget the ancestral pool, forget Sellars, forget all the previous speculations of the philosophers and turn instead to a more materialist technological mediation based on specificity rather than conceptuality.

When I think of the great psychosis of our time, of whole societies entering into madness, I feel the pain of millions of lost creatures each struggling in his lonely cell trying to make sense of a world that no longer coincides with the knowledge and belief systems we were handed by our ancestors. We’ve been utterly riven of our relations to the past, broken into a thousands shreds the feelings and thoughts of our ancestors who roamed the great savannahs, jungles, deserts of the world. Tossed into a machinic age of artificial brains, political and social mayhem, and a war torn and famine stricken planet tottering on the edge of apocalypse one wonders if there is an answer to the problems we as a species face. Will we survive or go down in oblivion? Shall we discover something in ourselves strong enough to fight our way clear of these transitional moments of chaos and enter a new realm of possibility or not?

  1. Luis E. Navia. Socrates: A Life Examined (p. 93). Kindle Edition.
  2. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 7.
  3. Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. (see online pdf).

The Crack in the World: Zizek, Idealism, and the Politics of Emancipation


Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

What if the problem were as simple as that: it is not our minds that are cracked, but the world itself. What if reality were unfinished, bits and pieces of a lavish stage set that was never completed but left in disarray. What if our universe is a failed project with massive holes and cracks everywhere? We assume there is a way of describing the universe as if it existed in some perfect assemblage or flow of processes that have been ongoing for billions of years, and if we can only describe these forces and trace them to their origin or even pre-ontological beginnings just beyond the Big Bang we will be able to put the puzzle together, create what the hard-nosed physicists once dreamed of as a theory-of-everything. A tidy little formula something like Einstein’s E = MC2. But all we find in things are cracks and holes, missing information and an endless dive into the hinterlands of quantum data that leads us to an end game of forces just beyond our current instrumentations.

Why does reality fail to coincide with our Minds apprehension of it? Why is it so slippery and illusive? For a few hundred years we’ve collected more and more data about the universe and ourselves to the point we can no longer digest all this superfluous and encyclopedic data, but have built machines and algorithms to carry on that task of number crunching and data smashing for us. But what does that get us? More data? More and more analysis? And, for what? What if some brilliant scientist were to eureka pop up with the formula to describe all of reality, what then? What if the reality he is describing is a fictional one rather than the messy realm of facts before us? Most of physics is based on math, and assumes math is the pure language of the universe. But is it?  What if instead of some tidy little mathematical formula that could lock down the universe in a stable and complete, whole description were a fool’s errand? What if instead we found that the point of a materialist dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart.1 What if there is no such objective reality, no real world, that the world in-itself doesn’t exist; or, at least in any known common sense form. And that all our careful logic, philosophy, mathematics, physics, etc. were chasing a false herring.

For Zizek the great return of Idealism in our time under the changing light of a new dialectical materialism holds forth a different solution. For him the return of the Gang of Four as he calls Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel is central to any new solution to the problems we face in our time in both politics and the sciences. Agreeing with Badiou he will categorize these thinkers under the four conditions of philosophy, saying,

Kant relates to (Newtonian) science, his basic question being what kind of philosophy is adequate to the Newtonian breakthrough; Fichte relates to politics, to the event that is the French Revolution; Schelling relates to (Romantic) art and explicitly subordinates philosophy to art as the highest approach to the Absolute; and Hegel, finally, relates to love; his underlying problem is, from the very beginning of his thought, that of love.  (ibid. KL 399)

Do we think of philosophers in this way? As creatures who question the adequacy of thought to the sciences of the day, to the politics, to the artistic impulses in culture and society, to the dark zones of sex and love? Are these truly the conditions of philosophy, the ground out of which they traverse the world in our time? Science, politics, art, and love?

With Kant something happened, a break with the whole tradition of philosophy up to that moment from Plato and Aristotle onward. Up until Kant the sciences and thought had been part of natural philosophy and there had been no separation between them. Philosophy had during all these long centuries been a general science of Being as such, as a description of the universal structure of our entire reality, with no qualitative difference from particular sciences. (ibid. (KL 405) Up to Kant the philosophers mistrusted the senses, believed that what appeared to us in appearance was illusory and not to be trusted but that we needed to transcend mere appearance and discover what lie just beyond in Ideas (Plato) or “objective reality” (Sciences). With Kant the question became something altogether different, what he sought was not dismiss appearances as illusory but rather to discern the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do? (ibid. KL 418)

If all previous philosophers believed their task was to describe the world beyond mere appearance: the noumenal world of real objects, the realm of metaphysics; then, for Kant, it was instead to critique this whole metaphysical approach as itself prone to error and failure. As Zizek puts it Kant’s motivation is a critique of all possible metaphysics. Kant’s endeavor thus comes afterwards: in order for there to be a critique of metaphysics, there first has to be an original metaphysics; in order to denounce the metaphysical “transcendental illusion,” this illusion must first exist. In this precise sense, Kant was “the inventor of the philosophical history of philosophy” : there are necessary stages in the development of philosophy, that is, one cannot directly get at truth, one cannot begin with it, philosophy necessarily began with metaphysical illusions. (ibid. 431)

Zizek in his usual diabolical twist will conclude that for Kant the task of philosophy was not just to uncover all the pre-critical metaphysical errors but to protect religion from the current corrosion of just such a metaphysical system of error. And, yet, as Zizek tells it  “What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it? What if this critical game radically changes the nature of religion, so that Kant effectively did undermine what it was his goal to protect? Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right?” (ibid. KL 455-458)

The greatest problem of those after Kant became the central question as Zizek sees it of “how to think the Ground of Freedom, a trans-subjective Ground of subjectivity which not only does not constrain human freedom but literally grounds it?” (ibid.  494) Schelling unlike Fichte and the German Romantic poet, Holderlin, would seek instead of some pre-reflective One-All in which the ground of Being was One a completely different form of ground: one in which the Ground was neither One nor unified but rather was radically unstable and at discord with itself. Out of this radical gap or crack in the ground of Being arose Logos. Without this struggle at the heart of Being, a war within itself nothing resembling our universe would ever have arisen in the first place. This antinomian and conflictual notion of Being rather than the unified and seamless One of the ancient philosophers gave modern thought its first apprehension of the Real.

For Fichte and the German Romantic poets the only reconciliation between Mind and its Ground/Absolute/God etc. was not some mystical unification but rather “a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles” (ibid. KL 535). Zizek will mention Friedrich Schlegel, who on the contrary of Holderlin, sought to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry— a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness. (ibid. KL 545) In many ways the modernist poet Wallace Stevens was of this ironic form:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

—Wallace Stevens, Poems of our Climate

One of the keys to Zizek is this notion that our inability to reconcile our notions of reality with reality is not in us but in the Real itself; in other words, the crack and gap is in things not us, and our inability to understand and describe this external realm of the noumenal is because it has failed in itself to be describable. There is a crack in things that divides it not from us but from itself. One could put it this way: God is at war with himself, or the Absolute is self-divided. It’s this failure of physics to describe the underlying processes that in fact show it to be in touch with the truth. At the point we touch base with the Real we discover the crack in the world, the flaws and stubborn sounds, the imperfect failure of Being to be. As Zizek states it “the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth)” (ibid. KL 588).

As he was writing Less Than Nothing Zizek informs us that over “the last decade, the theoretical work of the Party Troika to which I belong (along with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič) had the axis of Hegel-Lacan as its “undeconstructible” point of reference: whatever we were doing, the underlying axiom was that reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa) was our unsurpassable horizon” (ibid. KL 602). Yet, after this long reading and involvement in the thought of both Hegel-Lacan and Lacan-Hegel Zizek began seeing the underlying flaws in both men and their thought:

…with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock— in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots …), all of which failed. (ibid. KL 604-607)

The point here is that one cannot bypass either Hegel or Lacan but must go through them and beyond them. Again Zizek: “Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.” (ibid. KL 616)

But how is this possible? It is to this that Zizek’s thousand page monstrosity is an opening.

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 393-394). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Order of Illusion

“Today the negation of the real has penetrated inside things themselves, so much so that it is no longer the privilege of just philosophers but an axiom that belongs to all. What has happened is that the negation of reality has now been incorporated into ‘reality’ itself. In short, what we have now is a principle of non-reality based on ‘reality’—a principle of ‘hyper-reality’ as I call it. The mutation is interesting, since it implies nothing other than the end of philosophy. The philosophical principle of the negation of reality has now pervaded everyday ‘reality’ itself.”

—Baudrillard, Live Interviews

For centuries the philosophers sought in a purely rational principal of the mind a solution to the irrationality and illusory appearance of the world. Descartes would posit doubt against the real. For him the real was the work of a demon who was always misleading the philosophers into error and failure. For him this doubt comes from the subject—as subject of knowledge, as subject of discourse. Whether Descartes in fact succeeds in making the subject constitute itself, in its reality, in relation to a diabolical world which is full of superstitions and hallucinations and so on is a controversial matter. But the fact remains that Cartesian doubt is based on the promise of a world which can be confirmed only in terms of its own reality: there is doubt on the one hand and there is reality on the other hand; and there is the conflict between the two, which Descartes tries to resolve.

Thus out of this milieux was born the ideas of the Enlightenment and the irreconcilable modes of thought that would eventually become Idealism and Materialism. The one posited the power of the Mind over the universe of illusion, the other would seek in the resistances to the Mind the answering call of the Real. Neither project succeeded during the age of Kant to Hegel, and ever since philosophy has turned inward toward analyzing either the linguistic basis of the Real or turned toward the sciences and suborned its thoughts in refining the conceptual tools that scientists in both Hard (Physics) and Soft (Life Sciences) use to convey their bag of mind-tools.

Yet, both were still in agreement that there was a objective reality out there – they just disagree on how best to describe it and reconcile our minds to it. The realm of physics lead us to a world of pure play: a realm of forces at the ultimate base of the real that could never be accessed directly but known only from their effects on forces we could detect, etc. Such hard sciences begin with fictional and hypothetical entities of mathematical theorems and try to build and engineer giant machines to test such theoretical ideas and concepts. While the Life sciences seeks in the strange realm of the everyday to understand the basis of life in the universe, etc. Using evolutionary tools to work backwards into time to understand how this system of Nature came about. Both agree upon one thing: that the mind divorced from the objective world was something that we needed – the so-called dis-enchantment of the world (or Enlightenment) which forever severed our naïve realist pretensions of a direct access to the Real.

Nietzsche was the first great philosopher of this disillusionment, a man who saw in himself and his mentor Richard Wagner a dead world of nostalgia for the Real. He would term it nihilism: the break of mind/nature into two irreconcilable realms with no mediator between. At that point language began to break down and the sign and its referent came to the fore. For if human meaning which was produced by this connection between a sign and its referent were severed then reality had no meaning and everything was possible. We were in a realm of pure illusion in which the rules that had guided humans and their moralities based as they were on objective standards and criterion were now dissolved. In this sense Nietzsche’s “God is Dead!” was neither an atheists credo nor the ravings of a lunatic, but rather the notion that all our human meanings including the cherished notions of gods was defunct, void, caput. We had killed god with our own disenchanted enlightenment beyond redemption, and with it we had destroyed all hope of reconciling human thought with some stable objective world.

Baudrillard in his usual candor makes a point about the role of art in our moment when he says:

We must remember this: the aim of art was once precisely to posit the power of illusion against reality. There was a time when art was trying to make reality play a game which was different to the game that art itself was playing. In other words, there was a time indeed when art was always trying to force reality to play the game along different rules, when it was always trying to seduce the reality of things. But today this is no longer the great game that art is playing. All the art forms are now playing the game at the level of the simulation of reality—and whether the particular art form be painting or architecture makes no difference whatsoever. 1

When we look around we find our world is accelerating into madness, pure illusion. Politics is playing out an end game that seems more puppet show than reality, our leaders tending toward the strange and irreconcilable rather than power and stability. The extremes of our societies are pure simulation echo chambers filled with opposing forces of inertia and death rather than black holes that might yet produce energetic and intelligent responses to the accelerating effects of illusion and simulation. Instead of thought we get the repetition of media images that repeat the non-reality of our world continuously. Maybe in the end we’ve all become artists now: and the only game in town is the ‘art of playing’. But what are we playing at? Nietzsche of course said the Last Man would accelerate his own demise, that self-destruction was the last game to be played out. And, most of all, he believed we should give it a push, accelerate its already depleted energy until something new emerged from its embers. Like the Phoenix in its self-immolation will we ignite the self-renewing flames of light and life or just burn out into a dark and fathomless abyss.

  1. Gane, Mike. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Routledge (March 28, 1993)