The Impossible Subject: Semantic Apocalypse and the Naturalist

The subject is the frame/ form/ horizon of his world and part of the framed content (of the reality it observes), and the problem is that it cannot see or locate itself within its own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible.

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

Sometimes a truth is so simple that it goes without saying, and yet we say it as if we could actually bring together the virtual backdrop or stage machinery and the mind-consciousness aware only of the staged scene of the actual appearances before us. Much like those parodied cityscapes of Disney where the buildings are fake plasterboard art ensembles presented as the real thing. We will accept fake over real, illusion over actual, representation over substance every time. Street and stage magicians have known this for a long while: humans are easily duped. This separation of consciousness from its impossible other side is like the proverbial mobius strip upon which one traces the universe only to arrive back at the still point from which one started without knowing it. We all run this circuit of neglect (R. Scott Bakker) in which we’re trapped trying to apprehend the kernel of consciousness (Subject/Self/Awareness), thinking we can actually explain it as if it were an external object with a myriad of properties, when in fact it is – as Zizek would put it, the very frame/form/horizon and part of the framed content it would explain through observation. An impossible situation wouldn’t you say? Consciousness will never be explained because we will forever be blind to the frame within which we are all trapped. We will forever explain only our own ignorance of the impossible object. Why? Because we can never get out of the frame and see it from some Archimedean point of external advantage. So why continue to explore this impossible object?

In many ways what we as humans are experiencing in this age of social psychosis is what my friend R. Scott Bakker has harped on for years: the Semantic Apocalypse; or, as Zizek would put it the death of the Big Other. The horizon of human knowledge has returned to its beginning in absolute ignorance and failure. As Bakker puts it: “We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.” What Nietzsche spoke of a hundred years ago as nihilism is and the death of God is the wiping of the slate of knowing in the bath of this ignorance. Awakening to our failure is the first step in realizing that all our human learning is itself broken much like the fabled king Humpty-Dumpty whose fall into a thousand fragments could never be put back into place… ever.

The question is: What do we do now? If we are caught in the circle of our own ignorance and error, blind to the very truth of our world and ourselves, how to proceed? What next? For Scott it is simple humanity lacks “any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience”. So is this what we need a naturalistic theory of meaning or experience? Wouldn’t this be to fall into another loop of error? The term “naturalistic” is the key here. A trope covering over the whole gamut of scientific prejudice (harking back to Enlightenment pretensions!) that the world can be understood in terms of science. And as we know this term of science or Scientia as the etymologists will tell us:

mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, split” (source also of Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old English sceadan “to divide, separate”).

From late 14c. in English as “book-learning,” also “a particular branch of knowledge or of learning;” also “skillfulness, cleverness; craftiness.” From c. 1400 as “experiential knowledge;” also “a skill, handicraft; a trade.” From late 14c. as “collective human knowledge” (especially that gained by systematic observation, experiment, and reasoning). Modern (restricted) sense of “body of regular or methodical observations or propositions concerning a particular subject or speculation” is attested from 1725; in 17c.-18c. this concept commonly was called philosophy. Sense of “non-arts studies” is attested from 1670s.

So that it returns us to the collective enterprise of human learning and knowledge. And relies on certain metaphysical presuppositions and concepts that go without saying. This notion of to know, to cut, rend, cleave, divide, and separate out through skill, handicraft, theory, observation all contribute to this naturalist perspective. And, yet, it too is still within the horizon of human ignorance and belief for all Scott’s hearty promotion of his Blind Brain Theory. Just another fiction of the human mind seeking to stabilize and render the Real real. 

Of course my observations of Bakker’s notions are a caricature of his own well-thought out theory of meaning and experience and we hope that someday he will actually put it into book form for us to peruse. At the moment all we have is Three Pound Brain and the myriad of critical forays into such a work. What we are really saying is that we all fall into that error that we have the truth, as if truth was Truth in the big sense of some objective thing we could all come together and agree to agree upon, a consensus (as in the very sense of what scientists do all the time). But all this is a sort of working set of mind-tools, agreements, and – shall we say it, lies that help us get on with what we are all doing in our silos of ignorance and bliss. This is not to dispute or be in disagreement with this process, because as we all know it works, it produces not only theoretical and practical knowledge that in actuality gets the job done, but as in all things it allows us to share it in a communal silo of knowledge that others can immerse themselves in and produce further observations and knowledge. This is just the state of ignorance working with an impossible object: the universe of nature and mind.

What the Semantic Apocalypse truly entails is the collapse of a two-thousand year project of humanism. The pretensions that all our accumulated knowledge would produce some stable and unified worldview from which we could then create a utopian society based on science and knowledge as stable and unchanging. In humanism humans became the be-all end-all of this project, gods in their own right sitting atop the palace of creation as masters and rulers of the universe etc., as if we were the pinnacle of creation rather than just another creature born in ignorance and error. Humanism made humans exceptional. This exceptionalism in life, ethics, religion, thought put humans at the center of a grand narrative in which everything in the universe revolved around humanities project. All our politics, ethics, and practical systems could then align themselves to this Theory-of-everything, etc. The Truth would have been explained once and for all. It’s this dream that is falling apart because the object it sought to explain: mind and universe are not complete objective things we could place into our systems of knowledge, but rather are impossible objects that are both incomplete (processual and changing) and unstable, without ground or objective correlates. The objects we sought to explain were always and already lost, escaping our pretensions of science and humanistic learning.

This is not to belittle the humanism of our forefathers, nor to castigate the dream of philosophy. Rather what we have to admit is that we are still locked in this dream without a way out, there being no point beyond the horizon of our own ignorance and learning, no advantageous spot outside the system. Because the mind and universe encompass and form the frame/form/horizon of all we are and know, our ignorance is our knowledge. What to do? What we have always done: move the furniture around, discover new ways to talk/speak the old problems and discover variants on the ignorance and errors of our ancestors. Much like Herman Hesse’s excellent anti-Utopian book on the utopian society of the Glass Bead Game.

Of course such a society of scholars, scientists, philosophers, specialists, historians, literary writers, etc. is all hypothetical. All living in harmony seeking universal knowledge, playing their symbolic game within a utopian world separated from the common run-of-the-mill life of the ordinary citizens who live in misery and decay while these men and women of the elite, the crème-de-la-crème live out their lives in a secular existence based on those religious monastic systems of yesteryear. All this is a parody of past hopes and dreams. Hesse’s is as much about the semantic apocalypse as any other great tale, all rendered as if he were in fact promoting it rather than critiquing its fantasy. Hesse was shrewd in this regard and had in letters to Thomas Mann who praised this work iterated as much that is was a pure parody of such pretentious ideology in both Christian and Secular humanistic goals and systems which he’d studied for most of his adult life and abandoned.

Zizek in his rehabilitation of Hegel not as absolute idealist but rather as dialectical materialist (or rather how Zizek misprisions Hegel into a new more interesting distortion) reminds us:

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject’s objectivizing himself: the subject is singular and the universal frame of “his world,” for every content he perceives is “his own”; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) in the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].”1

We’ve all gone mad now. Is there a way out?

Maybe the truth is that madness is always a possibility, a pre-supposition of the human rather to be overcome continually. Or, as Zizek quoting Hegel suggests:

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as “normal” subjects, which means that “normality” can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel puts it a couple of pages later, “insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition.” (ibid.)

To put it is Bakker’s terms we only ever have our blindness – our ignorance and medial neglect to work with, we are immersed in it, it is the field of force within which we are trapped. Zizek’s big Other… the realm of collective and shared knowledge, learning, symbolic power and domination we have so willingly objectified in the sciences, culture, politics, etc. We’ve all agreed to pretend to pretend this realm is universal and not to be impugned: it has become invisible to us as fiction, and has taken on the contours of Truth and Habit. So that in Scott’s terms any future theory of meaning will be presented in naturalistic terms because this is the invisible frame of our current worldview.

In conclusion I quote or mis-quote Zizek rendering the definition of a madman “as a subject unable to participate in this logic of “sincere lies””. Maybe this is our truth today, that we are all at heart part and partial of the private and social madness of our psychotic age, unable to participate in the logic of sincere lies and get on with the business of living together on a planet within which we are all ignorant, blind, and immersed in our own fallible truths. Or, as Hegel would put it in a grandiloquent passage:

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity— an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him— or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here— pure self— in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head— there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye— into a night that becomes awful.2


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8052-8059). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. G. W. F. Hegel, “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” in Frühe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, Albany: SUNY Press 1985, pp. 7– 8.