Slavoj Zizek: The Figure of the Postmodern Magus

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When I began thinking of this essay I began rereading that hyperreader himself Slavoj Zizek not as a philosopher, but rather as a postmodern magus conjuring out of the figurations of concept and notion the dialectical patterns of his own hagiography. Reading and rereading from Zizek’s vast oeuvre, which to be honest would take a few years to read once – much less the cycle of close and careful rereading necessary for scholarship or comparison of the many Zizek’s that have cycled through various iterations, completions, and transformations. Each of his works is part of a vast autobiography of a philosopher whose only endless subject has been just that – the Subject.

There is no consistency throughout this prodigious oeuvre, and yet there is a guiding thread that has always pervaded its labyrinth: an Ariadne scarlet thread of the Subject which has led closer and closer to that fatal beast at the center: the Void. One might say that all the books have been a prismatic ensemble on this empty swirl of the Void and Nothingness at the core of the human: the Subject. Like a postmodern magus Zizek has conjured up figuration after figuration of this never restless core of the inhuman from a thousand and one perspectives, turning the conceptual universe of the philosophers, scientists, and scholars every which way to understand the endless possibilities that condition our world.

One of the best, or – should I say, most revealing works on Zizek is Daly’s Conversations with Zizek. Still worth a read to understand the self-image of Zizek onto his own past life as man and philosopher. To understand Zizek is first of all to place him in his homeland, Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in postwar Yugoslavia. It was here that Zizek in his late teens would decided to become a philosopher. After University he was not allowed to teach philosophy, so was forced for eleven years to teach Sociology. Amusingly Zizek will tell Daly that philosophy was not his first choice:

For me, as is clear from my writings, it was cinema. I started when I was already about 13 or 14; I even remember which movies absolutely fascinated me when I was young. I think two of them left a mark on me: Hitchcock’s Psycho and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.1

Zizek has written extensively on cinema throughout his career, one of the more interesting being Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan . . . But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, along with The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory among other myriad essays and asides strewn throughout his oeuvre in essays, articles, and various off the cuff remarks.       

Asked when he came to the point that he was a philosopher he tells Daly he understood the central point that “philosophy is not simply a kind of megalomaniac enterprise – you know, ‘let’s understand the. basic structure of the world’ – that philosophy is not that”. (29) Going on to describe his central insight, that in Heideggerian terms, he came to the basic question of the structure of the world is important, the “notion of the world is not simply the universe or everything that exists” (29). Rather, for Zizek, the ‘world’ is a certain historical category, and understanding what the world is means, in transcendental terms, understanding some pre-existing, at least historically, a priori structure which determines how we understand how the world is disclosed to us. “This for me is the crucial turn.” (29) So epistemology, or how we come to understand how the world is disclosed (or conditions or view onto that world) to us is more important to him than the actual ontological question of the ‘structure of the world’ per se. The point for Zizek is not to speak the truth of the universe, but rather to uncover the common conceptual presuppositions that guide our understanding of the universe, whether as scientists or philosophers, or – even common humanity. So that Kant became the model of the philosopher for Zizek, not that he was correct, but that he asked the simple question: ‘What is it that we have to presuppose is true by the mere fact that we are active as ethical agents?’ (30)

In fact, for Zizek Kant was the beginning of philosophy, rather than the culmination of a certain tradition for the simple reason that he was able to stipulate this epistemic perspective in a way that none of the philosophers before him could. With the transcendental turn (inward turn) “Kant opened up a space from which we can in retrospect read the entire canon of previous philosophy” (30). For Zizek the key is to read all previous pre-Kantian philosophy by way of the Transcendental Turn: the hermeneutical approach, rather than ontological (31).

His love/hate relation to Heidegger’s philosophy comes from the era in question, one in which almost all philosophers were influenced by the German thinker. As he tells us “I am more and more convinced that Heidegger, in spite of all the criticism which he deserves, is the philosopher who connects us in the sense that, in a way, almost every other orientation of any serious weight defines itself through some sort of critical relation or distance towards Heidegger.” (32) It’s this tension and critical evaluation of Heidegger that is key, rather than the man’s life (which Zizek and others repeatedly detest for his moral stance in relation to fascism). For Zizek many in the nineteenth century were anti-Hegelian, while many in the post-modern vision were anti-Platonists, and those that would come later became -as he, anti-Heideggereans. And, the way that many of these anit-Heideggerans would go was the notion of “Oh, yes, Heidegger was right about this, but he ‘didn’t go far enough’.” He mentions Derrida, the Marxists, Foucault, and others in this regard.

He admits that the linguistic barriers to International philosophy were prevalent in Slovenia, and yet they were all reading (Zizek and friends) the new work of Derrida (whom he would later turn away from), whose works became a revelation to him and his circle as a way to distance themselves from Heidegger’s influence. It was not until 1975/76 that Zizek and others in his circle would make the transition to Lacan we see in his work now. From 1968 thru 1975 he admits Lacan was incomprehensible to him. As he admits he was never a Marxist per se, although influenced by aspects of Althusser, for the simple reason that the hard-liner Marxists in his own country were dogmatists who were “ferociously opposed to French thought: structuralism, post-structuralism etc.” (35). Because of his interest in French thought the rulers of the educational systems in Slovenia would disallow Zizek from teaching. So he would spend several years unemployed and unemployable: “I was young, I had a child, I was unemployed and, to their credit, they were quite honest about the situation. They told me that in the present political situation it would be out of the question for me to become a teacher…” (35). So that for almost 10 years from 1969 (Graduation) to 1979 when he finally was given a post in sociology (“through my Heideggerian friends, I got a job at the Department of Sociology in the Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana”) he lived on the skids with the help of friends.

Yet, as he admits for him this difficult period of life was not to be expunged, but rather to be what it was for him an ‘opportunity’. Telling Daly that if he’d gotten a job earlier “I would now be a poor stupid unknown professor in Ljubljana, probably dabbling in a little bit of Derrida, a little bit of Heidegger, a little bit of Marxism and so on” (37). The point for him was that such a rough and tumble life was a ‘blessing in disguise’ (38). He was able to secure for a couple of years a position as Foreign liaison for Lacanian events, and came under the tutelage of Jacques-Alain Miller for whom Zizek says that it was Miller’s Lacan to which he is subservient: “I must say this quite openly that my Lacan is Miller’s Lacan. Prior to Miller I didn’t really understand Lacan, and this was for me a great time of education.” (38) In fact it was the study of one of Miller’s seminars that would be the most formative of Zizek’s life:

a whole semester we studied Kant with Sade, line by line, then we went on to ‘Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, and so on. Again, this really opened up Lacan to me. Without that, it would be something totally different probably. That was my big formative experience. (38)

The other formative event in Zizek’s life came with a return to Slovenia and working within the Communist system, realizing that at root it was based on cynicism, or – as he suggests, the acknowledgement of not being too serious about one’s ideology; and, in fact, realizing that for the top echelons in the Party a distancing from those who were too dogmatic, too serious as potential threats to the stability of the party, as verging on dissidence from within.  One might see this in American politics as well, of the almost carnival Hollywood aspect of politics as charade, as a Reality TV extravaganza with clowns and puppets on the stage (and, the biggest threat is to discover someone who is too serious! to the Established Rules of the Political Game).

For Zizek having been raised up under the old Stalinist guard and hard-liners he has been immersed in that universe of meaning for so long that the metaphors he falls back on are from that era. He told Daly he has tried to wean himself from it but that it is so pervasive in his psyche that he naturally falls back into the pit. “So, if anything, the transference is still going on, I am not yet over it. I fully admit it, but it is also my pleasure.”(40)

Zizek as Con Artist comes out in his anecdotal history of the Society of Theoretical Psychoanalysis that he, Alenka Zupancic, Mladen Dolar initiated to publish works. The Society itself does nothing. Once in a while students will come from foreign lands to visit and document the archives of the Society and Zizek will relate to them that there are none, that in Slovenia to publish one must do so through an institution, so the three of them had gone through the tedious task of gaining this from the bureaucracy of the Central Committee. He also admits that another part of his con was to lift stationary from various universities he’s traveled too outside his country so that if a student or colleague needed funding to travel outside to a conference or event he would use this stolen stationary to make up a fictional introduction to gain the funds for these various travel expenses etc.

So we faked it all, whatever was needed, all the data – and of course we always invented the colloquium. I mean, I simply said ‘on behalf of’ and I faked the name so that none of my friends would be offended if it all came out. At some point I remember once that there truly was a colloquium, but I said, no, this is not ethical and so I invented another one. I said I cannot stand writing the truth, it must be a lie. (42)

This sense of the Trickster is prevalent in Zizek, another aspect of his being a postmodern Magus who uses trickery and deceit to circumvent the regulated Reality systems of Tyranny and the State. “I am a workaholic: I do my work, but I have this terrible desire to fake things at this level; to fake institutional things. I think that everything to do with institutions should be faked. I don’t know what this is, I never analyse myself I hate the very idea of analysing myself.”(43) One could probably spend a long while uncovering the traces of the Trickster Gods in Zizek’s make-up, from Loki to Coyote this sense of overturning the powers that be, of a certain cunning reason that circumvents the reality protocols that make up the Symbolic Order of the Big Other etc. But, I too, will leave that for others.

Speaking of the Philosopher as philosopher Zizek believes there must be a Collective Project, but not a collective dialogue; instead, philosophy is a singular enterprise: “No, I think that with all radical, true philosophers, there is a moment of blindness, and that is the price you have to pay for it. I don’t believe in philosophy as a kind of interdisciplinary project – this is the ultimate nightmare. That’s not philosophy. We philosophers are madmen: we have a certain insight that we affirm again and again.”(45) I remember Graham Harman suggesting that all philosophers produce at most one great idea, which they reiterate under various guises and in myriad perspectives over and over in tedious repetition. For Zizek the  idea or concept is the “Subject” under its various guises and multifaceted thought forms. In this sense philosophy is not so much the pursuit of Wisdom, as it is a madness in love with its Idea. Usually philosophers when they castigate another philosopher its because their one idea does not mesh with the one that philosopher is fetishizing. Maybe all philosophers have a monocular vision concerning Ideas, especially their own. Speaking of his troika with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupancic and their friendship in an ongoing philosophical community: “We talk a lot, we discuss, but ultimately we are alone, and this works perfectly I think. We don’t take any workshops together. When we need to talk, we talk. There is an old romantic formula: the true company is only when you can share your solitude, or some such rubbish. And that’s how we function.” (46)

I can see this is leading me into a long post… I’ll continue this another day. For me Zizek is a touchstone of contemporary thought. I don’t always agree with him. Yet, many have tried to disparage him, take his provocative statements and twist them about against him, which seems to be dubious at best. Many speak of him second hand, or from disparaging and erroneous critiques of his work or statements by enemies. To me if you’re going to spend time developing a relation to a philosopher, especially one who has spent time milling about in the psychoanalytical world of Freud and Lacan, postmodernism, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, etc., then one should get to know that man behind the mask. This group of conversations may not reveal the real Zizek (is there such a thing?), but rather the refracted mirror image in its broken crystals. None of us is whole (All), we’re all mere fragments of time and memory, traces of events and non-events, scramblings of the noise and music of our age. Zizek is a part of the high-low cultural baggage of our age, a man who incarnates both its contradictions and its questions. I am not done with him. Emerson wrote a book, Representative Men. In my mind’s eye Zizek is one of those Representatives of our Age. There can be no correct view of the man or philosopher. As Harold Bloom once stated there can only ever be “interesting readings or misprisionings”. As a postmodern Magus Zizek conjures up the self-reflecting nothingness of the Subject/Self through all its mutant disguises and repetitively demonstrates the split or gap between it and that in a comedy of dialectical prose that belies the never-ending restlessness of his mind.


  1. Daly, Glyn; Zizek, Slavoj. Conversations with Zizek (Conversations) by Slavoj Zizek (2003-12-30) Polity.

Zizek and Harman: Strange Bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a final note we’ll let Zizek conclude:

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

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

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

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


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

Radical Idealism: The Extimate Core of Transcendental Materialism

When it comes down to it we’re all Idealists caught in the prison house of the symbolic order of culture: it determines the boundaries and limits of what is thinkable. The moment you use or enter language, math (matheme) or natural (linguistic) you are trapped in the iron cage of the play of signifiers in an infinite circle without exit or end: a psychotic universe of solipsistic self-lacerating sophistication. This is the core of the poststructuralist rational myth; or, the Anti-Realist stance par excellence. One can never break out of the cage and into the Real. In such a universe of meaning “thought and being” are One. Yet, does this mean we can do nothing? No. This is but the beginning of an exit strategy. For if the truth be told it is out of acknowledgement of our predicament that we can intensively pursue a new radicalization of the correlational circle of Idealism; push it to its extimate limits.

One is always borrowing from the future. Think of the Mobius strip that is folded back on itself in such a way that the inside/outside distinction vanishes. No matter how far one travels on this surface one will never reach beyond into some alternate world, one is always riding upon the surface of an unbounded curve around the extimate core of universe in and endless strange loop folded and refolded into itself: a paradox that appears irresolvable but by its very nature offers within its own insurmountable obstacle a way out. Think of a Mobius strip as social time: the temporal history of one’s life, or the history of Society, or even the Universe.

As Molly Anne Rothenberg describes extimate causality in The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change:

One can define each point on the band as here or there, but each point is excessive with respect to the determination of its “sidedness.” The Möbius band suggests a field in which both the paradoxical boundary of external causation and the infinite mutual implication of cause and effect of immanentism cease to be problematic. We can define points of contact that are not so discrete as to become uncoupled, thanks to the non-determination or excess embodied in the band. This excess alters the apparently rigid boundary between sides (or between cause and effect): non-determinate sidedness means that causes are not quarantined from their effects because the excess brings them into contiguity. At the same time, these points and their relations have a certain specifiability; they do not merge into one another as they do in the infinite flux of immanentism.1

She’ll describe the social field in which the subject is situated in terms of a non-orientable object, an excess within the temporal distortion that is both non-determinant and acts by way of an “operation we will call the formal negation” (Rothenberg, p. 32). As she remarks: “We can say, then, that each subject is a Möbius subject, a site of non-determinate “sidedness” or switchpoint, if you will, which lends to the social field its character as non-orientable object” (Rothenberg, p. 32). Because of this we can define “extimate causality, as the alternative to both external and immanent causation, produces the excess that links subject to social field” (Rothenberg, p. 32).

One imagines Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction as a paranoiac hermeneutics: an endless search for the missing signifier: the movement of an infinite play of subjects on a Mobius strip, each seeking the undecidable hole of meaning that will allow them to escape the prison house of the Symbolic Order. Or as Zizek will say of it we can think of the modern Leader who is obsessed by plots – “to rule is to interpret” is the perfect formula of Stalinism (Rothenberg, p. 31). But as Zizek will relate:

the fantasy of breaking out of the closed circle of representations and re-joining the pure outside of the innocent presence of the voice – a voice which is in excess of the self-mirroring prison-house of representations, that is, which needs no interpretation but merely enjoys its own exercise. What is missing here is the way this innocent externality of the voice is itself already reflexively marked by the mirror of interpretive representations. (Rothenberg, p. 32)

To radicalize Idealism is to discover that even though we are locked within the cage of correlationism unable to escape into the “Great Outdoors” of Being, we can nevertheless act, produce certain inevitable “unintended consequences” due to the very complexity of the symbolic network which is always overdetermined (paranoiac hermeneutics) by meaning; as well as, realizing that those very acts by their nature produce unintended consequences that “emerge from the very failure of the big Other, that is, from the way our act not only relies on the big Other, but also radically challenges and transforms it” (Rothenberg, Forward). The big Other being none other than this Symbolic Order within which the Subject is caught as if within a fly trap, glued to the surface of a Mobius strip, gliding through the temporal decay of entropic life, etc. But against this symbolic order as Zizek will emphasize the “awareness that the power of a proper act is to retroactively create its own conditions of possibility should not make us afraid to embrace what, prior to the act, appears as impossible” (ibid.).

Once we have seen that “[t]he opposition between idealistic and realistic philosophy is therefore without meaning,” we can develop a metaphysics critically rather than dogmatically. This dissolves the worry regarding how we can have access to the world from within the clutches of subjective thinking. To say that the Real is a product of thought is not to lapse into a Berkeleyan form of idealism wherein reality is simply created by the subject: “the Real is not some kind of primordial Being which is lost,” but rather “what we cannot get rid of, what always sticks on as the remainder of the symbolic operation.”2 Rather it is by this very operation that we have an indirect but methodologically secure entry point into the world by means of the inconsistencies that our notional apparatus generates in the freely determined self-generation of the universe of meaning, inconsistencies that unexpectedly let us develop an objective discourse. (Carew, p. 270)

It’s these inconsistences and failures in the symbolic order of meaning that give us an opening onto the Real. Radical Idealism by its very nature becomes contaminated, as it were, by a constitutive “outside” as soon as it tries to posit itself in its own self-determining freedom, so that it must constantly struggle with this outside. As Zizek states it:

There is a Real not because the Symbolic cannot grasp its external Real, but because the Symbolic cannot fully become itself. There is being (reality) because the symbolic system is inconsistent, flawed, for the Real is an impasse of formalization. This thesis must be given its full “idealist” weight: it is not only that reality is too rich, so that every formalization fails to grasp it, stumbles over it; the Real is nothing but an impasse of formalization—there is dense reality “out there” because of the inconsistencies and gaps in the symbolic order. (C, p. 271)

This is the extimate core that cannot be reduced to symbolic inscription or description: the excess that leaves us in the impossible, restless and struggling against the obstacle of the “Outside”. Set adrift upon the sea of linguistic traces knowing it has failed us utterly, yet knowing that it is this very failure that opens a door upon the Great Outdoors of Being. Ontological solipsism is only apparent, for materialism justifies itself in the cracks of a radical idealism: the very condition of possibility of discourse means that discourse is always more than itself, even if that means that its very possibility coincides with its impossibility. (Carew, p. 271) As Žižek correctly points out, “[t]he irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic tradition ends with Hegel, the ‘last philosopher,’ who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the Symbolic with no external support of its truth.” (Less Than Nothing, pp. 76-77)

What we learn from this is that rather than falling into naïve idealism the self-referential nature of thinking itself always already depends upon and is entangled with the world, thereby attesting that the split between knowledge in itself and for us exists not because we are separated from the world, but because we are  a part of it, included within its extimate core: “the very limitation of our knowing—its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character—bears witness to our inclusion in reality.” (Carew, p. 272) This in a nutshell is the extimate core of Transcendental Materialism (i.e., dialectical materialism in Zizek’s vein). In this respect, radical idealism (reflection, notional constructs, language as such) creates the space of reasons in virtue of which things can present themselves to us as they are in reality in itself. As Carew commenting on Zizek remarks,

Instead of merely separating us from the world, the reflexivity of the Ideal thereby allows objects to have meaning for us as something more than objects to be used by specialized biological or natural needs. We symbolize them, grant them a place in discourse, a discourse whose failures make it seem as if a world out there directly attacks our concepts and theoretical models when, in fact, we never exit discourse at all, for only its self-sustaining matrix can sustain phenomenal reality as a universe of meaning. (Carew, p. 272)

It’s this strange double nature of language and the Real as impossible, desutured as the are, forever cut off from each other that allows communication and manipulation between the two intelligibly through the reflective mediation of language itself which by its very inconsistencies, gaps, cracks, and failures opens us to what is incomplete in language and the Real. But we cannot sit back and relax here for the great work of the moment is to push the limits of radical idealism from within idealism (an epistemological sublation of the correlation). To do this we must also overcome it from the side of being by showing how the ambiguities of idealism are in fact a part of the world’s fundamental structure through an account of how being comes to appearance/thinking/phenomenalization (an ontological inscription of the correlation). (Carew, p. 273) The crack or gap in the Symbolic Order is also in the Real. It is only by way of the “vanishing mediator” of the Subject that the two realms meet and form a new relation and thereby produce the bridge between them not by filling this gap with fantasies but rather by “tarrying with the negative” in the very failure to bring closure to the gap between thought and being. By acknowledging that the Ideal and the Real are both inscribed within each other as open and incomplete that we begin to register the truth of the negative that brings thought and being into relation without closing them into identity. It is the very non-identity of thought and being within the Subject that is Transcendental Materialism unbounded and moving along the axis of that Mobius strip of infinity, oscillating between two voids.

Zizek’s Call for a Critical Metaphysics

Against any return to the pre-critical heritage of the Rationalists, or being stuck in the correlational circle of Kantian system and freedom, Zizek supports a move toward a critical metaphysics. As Carew outlines it:  a true speculative philosophy should comprehend both the Real in its pure non-correlationality (the nonhuman) and how correlation comes to pass in being (the human). Perhaps unexpectedly, the price we pay for this theoretical gain of re-inscribing humanity into nature, that is, the latter’s minimal anthropomorphization, is a simultaneous denaturalization of nature and a dehumanization of humanity. (Carew, p. 275)

Zizek’s move is to combine an idealist epistemology with a dynamic realist metaphysics in one single gesture of a post-finitude philosophy. The breakthrough in Kant was not so much his supposed Copernican Revolution as it was that in his philosophy for the first time “the subject loses its substantial stability or identity and is reduced to the pure  substanceless void of the self-rotating abyssal vortex called  “transcendental apperception.” (LTN, p. 631) It’s the discovery of the “void” not the Subject that is central. Neither fully ontological nor yet part of the symbolic register the Subject-as-Void and pure negativity linked to both the Todestrieb that destroys the homeostasis of nature and the Symbolic Order of Culture without it becoming second nature and overdetermining the gap at the heart of our subjectivity, it acts as Zizek’s “absent centre that, by protruding out of all ontological and symbolic structures, negatively ties them together in its very undecidability” (Carew, p. 276). Ultimately this relation between the ideal and real in the subject leads us to “see in what way two lacks overlap in this impossible object: the constitutive lack of the subject (what the subject has to lose in order to emerge as the subject of the signifier) and the lack in the Other itself (what has to be excluded from reality so that reality can appear).” (LTN, p. 642)

Any critical metaphysics must above all supply the ontological conditions of the possibility of its own status as a theory and the ideal conditions of possibility of its own intelligibility in one sweeping move, thus making the theory itself extremely self-referential in its structure. As Carew remarks, such a theory will display a complete systematic self-enclosure: it explains itself as a theory in both the real and ideal registers in such a manner that both depend upon and mutually ground one another in a self-articulating whole; it has succeeded at developing “a concept of the world or the Real which is capable of accounting for the replication of reality within itself.” (Carew, p. 278)


 

  1. Rothenberg, Molly Anne (2013-05-20). The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)

Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy… continued…

zizek-

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so that I can have a word with him?
Chuang Tzu (c.360 BC – c. 275 BC)

When I finished reading Adrian Johnston’s formidable rendition of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy in his Žižek’s Ontology A transcendental Materialism Theory of Subjectivity I kept thinking to myself: What is missing here? What is it that Johnston has left out? It seemed that something was missing in his elaboration of Žižek’s philosophical approach. What?

Humor. The performativity in Žižek’s humorous asides, drifts into the hyper-kinetic antics of our postmodern cultural world, of taking philosophy down from its heights in abstract academia and putting it to work in the streets where actual people live and work. Yet, Johnston is not unaware of this facet of his work, in fact the point for him is not to discount it or pretend it isn’t there but rather to realize that the only sort of “militant fidelity to Žižek involves the infidelity of apparent betrayal: ignoring the appetizing, titillating tidbits of his smorgasbord of examples and refusing to be seduced by the razzle-dazzle of his cultural exposes – sticking instead to the single-minded pursuit of the philosophical trajectory that runs like a continuous, bisecting diagonal line through the entire span of his writings.” (preface: xix)

Yet, isn’t it the humor, the laughter, the performing self within the very texture of his work and speeches that brings with it a form and vehicle of the truth that could not be stipulated in any other way? Johnston even quotes Žižek when he states: “I am convinced of my proper grasp of some Lacanian concept only when I can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture.” (ibid. xviii) Isn’t it the very humorous imbecility of Žižek’s method and approach that is lacking in Johnston? Isn’t this why we perceive his work as so serious and gloomy, full of sadness and melancholy rather than full of life and cheerfulness?

Does philosophy need to be serious and systematic to understood? Johnston seems to think so. Is he right? Or is Žižek’s very inability to produce such a systematic serious philosophy himself the very thing missing in Johnston’s portrayal of his work? Take  Žižek himself and his use of humor to explain a difficult Hegelian concept:

THE LOGIC OF THE HEGELIAN TRIAD can be perfectly rendered by the three versions of the relationship between sex and migraines. We begin with the classic scene: a man wants sex with his wife, and she replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine, I can’t do it now!” This starting position is then negated/ inverted with the rise of feminist liberation— it is the wife who now demands sex and the poor tired man who replies: “Sorry, darling, I have a terrible migraine …” In the concluding moment of the negation of negation that again inverts the entire logic, this time making the argument against into an argument for, the wife claims: “Darling, I have a terrible migraine, so let’s have some sex to refresh me!” And one can even imagine a rather depressive moment of radical negativity between the second and the third versions: the husband and the wife both have migraines and agree to just have a quiet cup of tea.1

In the above one sees the concept not in its abstract density and aloofness, disconnected from the actual workings of the world, but quite the contrary it enacts the concept in an earthy and fleshly way, a humorous bodily way that awakens in us the inner truth of the concept rather than its cold dark measure. Momus will tells us that “Žižek seems to have a brain very much suited to the recognition of particular situational shapes. Thinking about something in the real world, he suddenly recognizes that it has the same basic structure as an absurd situation in a joke he’s heard…” (ibid. p. 141)

He continues:

This technique gives us a refreshing sense of what we might call “the lightness of profundity.” We see the charming playfulness of the great masters of philosophy, and perhaps begin to recognize philosophy itself, at its highest, lightest level, as something akin to laughter and joking; “the smile of the gods.” Certain scenarios in the real world can be as absurd as jokes, self-evidently laughable, no matter how tragic they are. (idib. 141-142)

When Chuang Tzu tells us “The true man breathes with his heels.” Is this not one of those absurd statements that make us smile, but then think through the implications of just what he’s saying?  A joke creates an inconsistency and the audience automatically try to understand what the inconsistency means; if they are successful in solving this ‘cognitive riddle’ and they realize that the surprise was not dangerous, they laugh with relief. Otherwise, if the inconsistency is not resolved, there is no laugh, as Mack Sennett pointed out: “when the audience is confused, it doesn’t laugh.” This is one of the basic laws of a comedian, referred to “exactness”.

Writing on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Zizek notes that “what is really disturbing” is the “underlying belief in the liberating, anti-totalitarian force of laughter, of ironic distance.”  In other words, the emancipatory aspect of sarcasm, for Zizek, is disturbing because “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game.  The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally”(The Sublime Object of Ideology, 28).   On the other hand, taking ideology literally, and not laughing, is “tragic.”  In this scenario, Zizek seems to be in a double bind as laughter and sarcasm are too ideological for him.  Yet, on the other hand, he prefers laughter to taking ideology seriously. (see Zizek’s Comic Dilemma: Kynicism or Cynicism?)

As one commentator suggests “Žižek puts his two masters, Lacan and Hegel, to work on modern society: he is supremely gifted at showing how the internal contradictions of late capitalism make themselves ludicrously obvious – and funny…” (see Slavoj Žižek’s jokes are no laughing matter)

It’s this sense of humor and ludicrous obviousness that is missing in Johnston’s portrayal of Žižek. The stand-up comic Johnathan Winters once told an interviewer:

I’ve always believed this: You gotta take more chances. You gotta be a gambler in your material. You’re gonna get your hands spanked every now and then, but you’re also gonna get some, “Hey, I loved what the guy said. I wonder if he said that off the top of his head.”2

Isn’t this the effect one gets in listening or watching Žižek. Isn’t he a philosophical gambler whose humor breaks us out of our usual zombie like complacency and makes us wonder, and laugh, then think?

Alenka Zupancic in her work on Comedy, The Odd One In: On Comedy, will tell us this:

We are often told that comedy is possible only when the things we see on the stage do not truly concern us, and that the condition of comedy is our indifference and uninvolvement. As a conclusion to these reflections on repetition, I would suggest a different perspective: things that really concern us, things that concern the very kernel of our being, can be watched and performed formed only as comedy, as an impersonal play with the object. The impersonal in comedy is the subject itself. And the indifference is not the pathos-driven distancing at the very point when we are most affected/hurt, but is, rather, akin to that unaffectedness which is at stake in primary repression, insofar as primary repression is not the subject’s repression, but coincides with and determines the constitution of the subject. In other words, if the dead serious can be approached only in comedy, this is not because any other approach proach would be too terrifying and would crush us completely, destroy us, but because it would miss the crucial point. For what is at stake-that is to say, what this repetition repeats-is not a reduction duction of ourselves (and of all that we are) to a nonbeing, not the destruction of our being, but its emergence-its emergence outside meaning, yet inextricably from it. (KL 2025-2032)

Isn’t it this sense of the non-sense, the absurd seriousness of the truth situated outside meaning that in the gaps and cracks, the fissures and irruptions from nowhere reveal the truth? The face of humor is the repetition of the truth by way of farce and laughter. The smile at the foot of the ladder.

read the previous post…

1. Žižek, Slavoj; Mortensen, Audun; Momus (2014-02-21). Žižek’s Jokes: (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?) (p. 19). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ajaye, Franklyn (2001-09-01). Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy (p. 248). Silman-James Press. Kindle Edition.

Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy

RubensPeterPaul

Unlike many of our weeping philosophers of materialism today Democritus was known as the ‘laughing philosopher’, a man whose cheerfulness in the face of adversity remained the key to his philosophical outlook. We know little of his life. Yet, even Aristotle praised him as a sound philosopher whose basic principles were in accord with natural philosophy. No wonder Plato never mentioned him. Plato hated materialism, and the thought of a happy philosopher such as Democritus left him sad and full of envy. (Of course I’m just full of it! Jibe! Jibe!)

Why shouldn’t an atheistic philosophy bring cheerfulness rather than tears? I’ve been re-reading Adrian Johnston’s Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism again and discovered his basic formula for atheistic materialism:

The time has come to pronounce the true formula of atheistic materialism: there is just a weak nature, and nothing more. All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, and index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consists of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of the strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata.1

Add to this a further statement clarifying his acceptance of Lacanian cosmography of an atheistic materialism in which the primordial Real is itself born out of a catastrophic brokenness do to an immanent split from within: “this self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict-ridden groundless ground of materiality.” (ibid. p. 37) (Think of the One-All as the mask an atheist gives to God, the Prime Mover of the Philosophers, etc. Or, as the total system of Nature as God’s replacement: as in Spinoza’s Nature-as-Substance and Total, etc.)

Before I go into teasing out just what it is that Johnston is saying in the above passages (“weakness of nature… etc.) I wonder why it makes me want to weep, fall into a depression, reach for my shotgun and blow my brains to smithereens rather than laugh out loud and be cheerful. If I read it aright it seems that Johnston is telling us that we live in a universe at war with itself, a war without terminus. I’ll get back to this.

Diogenes Laërtius reading Theophrastus discovered one day that Heraclitus did not complete some of his works because of melancholia. He has been variously judged by ancient and modern commentators to be a material monist or a process philosopher; a scientific cosmologist, a metaphysician, or a mainly religious thinker; an empiricist, a rationalist, or a mystic; a conventional thinker or a revolutionary; a developer of logic or one who denied the law of non-contradiction; the first genuine philosopher or an anti-intellectual obscurantist. Some might consider Heraclitus the father of semiotics and a believer in the One-All:

Having harkened not to me but to the Word (Logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. (Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.))

Is Johnston a melancholic, a weeping philosopher? Obviously he is not an affirmer of the One-All but rather of the non-All – the incompleteness of the universe, rather an affirmer of its unity and he sees at the core of it a dissonance and disharmony. Why was Democritus the progenitor of atomistic materialism so cheerful, while Johnston’s credo is so full of strife and tears that one wishes to sit in the dark and gnash one’s teeth in utter abjection?

One key difference between this Lacan-Zizek-Johnston materialism and that of Democritus concerns the notion of the ‘gap’ (lack, split). Democritus the father of atomism (or, some say a continuer of Leucippus) formulated the notion that the universe was filled with these small ‘indivisible’ units. Atoms, from the Greek adjective atomos or atomon, ‘indivisible,’ are infinite in number and various in size and shape, and perfectly solid, with no internal gaps. They move about in an infinite void, repelling one another when they collide or combining into clusters by means of tiny hooks and barbs on their surfaces, which become entangled. The exact opposite is to be found in the Lacanian-Zizek-Johnston matrix: which begins with this split within things, a gap that breaks through the harmony of the universe and brings it into an asymmetrical dissonance. Of course modern physics and cosmology seems to derive the same picture of an asymmetry in the Universe that Lacan-Zizek-Johnston do. So why has materialism in two-thousand years turned from a harmonious happy view of the endless dance of atoms in the void to the opposing views of cracked and warring forces, asymmetrical and disharmonious? I’ll come back to this.

Now this notion of the atom and the void was revitalized by none other than Lacan himself. Zizek reminds us that Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un is the formula of the minimal libidinal fixation (on some One) constitutive of drive, as the moment of the emergence of drive from the pre-evental One-less multiplicity. As such, this One is a “sinthome,” a kind of “atom of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language and enjoyment, a unit of signs permeated with enjoyment (like a tic we compulsively repeat). Are such Ones not quanta of enjoyment, its smallest, most elementary packages?2

Zizek’s reading of the sinthome as an “atom of enjoyment” seems to be on first glance very close to Democritus’s universe of happy atoms dancing in the void. No wonder Democritus was so cheerful in his outlook. Instead of a broken, strife ridden, warring universe of split atoms always full of tension and explosive nastiness we have the opposite picture of a universe of joy or jouissance. Even Zizek will tell us in his reading of Armand Zaloszyc’s view of Plato’s Parmenides, that it aligns itself to a cheerful reading of the Lacanian “Y a d’l’Un” as the formula for the pure jouissance-One, that is, a jouissance not yet mediated by the Other, the symbolic order, not yet “departmentalized,” accountable. The missing link which legitimizes us in establishing a connection between this thesis of Lacan and the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides (which asserts the One totally external to Being, with no relation to or participation in Being) is provided by the Neoplatonist “mysticism” of Plotinus— recall that, for Lacan, the mystical ex-stasis is the paradigmatic example of the jouissance-One.3 Yet, Zizek will qualify this notion of the One, saying:

Insofar as, for Lacan, this One is (also) an “indivisible remainder” which makes the sexual relationship inexistent, one can understand how Y a d’l’Un is strictly correlative to il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: it is the very object-obstacle to it; it is not primarily the mystical all-encompassing One of the infamous “oceanic feeling” derided by Freud, but a “little piece of the Real,” the excremental remainder which disturbs the harmony of the Two.4

It is this notion of the excremental remainder that disturbs the harmony of things that will lead into the notion of Lacan’s jouissance. So what is jouissance? As Adrian Johnston will relate it this Lacanian concept is like Freud’s Todestrieb,  “beyond the pleasure principle”. The post-1920 Freud muses that all drives might be said to be death drives, meaning that each and every drive perhaps works, at least in certain respects at certain times, contrary to the pursuit of the pleasurable as balance, gratification, homeostasis, satisfaction, and so on. Along these same lines, the Lacanian drive extracts “enjoyment” from the thwartings and failures of desire; whereas the latter is oriented by the tantalizingly elusive telos of pleasure qua satisfaction, the former generates its jouissance-beyond-pleasure precisely through the inhibiting of desire itself. The many possible sadistic and masochistic implications of this side of the libidinal economy are not difficult to imagine.5 He will also describe this jouissance-beyond-pleasure as “that which is annihilating, inassimilable, overwhelming, traumatic, or unbearable. Similarly, jouissance, in this vein, is related to transgressive violations, the breaching of boundaries and breaking of barriers.” (ibid.) So in this sense jouissance is the principle of disharmony which brings about the very crack, gaps, breaks, and asymmetry in things. Should one stipulate and qualify it as the “principle of negativity” as such? That which brings about the very conditions for the emergence of the Hegelian Subject-as-Substance? Is our cheerfulness due to a crack in the universal fabric of time and space? A happy accident? Or a maladjustment in the universal harmony, a burp in the fabric of the timespace continuum? Are we nothing more than the fruit of an error, a dark cut in the fabric of things, the twisted fruit of a broken universe?

Are we reading a noir thriller…? Will this end badly?

———————

I’ll stop here today and take this thread up tomorrow…

1. Adrian Johnston. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism Volume One The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. (Northwestern University Press, 2013)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1489-1492). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1425-1430).
4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 1471-1475).
5. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Slavoj Zizek: The Question of Potentiality and Virtuality

virtual_universe

Throughout the corpus of his writings Zizek will return to one central or core theme: the Hegelian notion of “Substance as Subject”. I decided to gather a few entries as a way of getting a handle upon this thematic. Yet, this notion seems to be bound up with the difference between potentiality and virtuality, along with his concept of retroactive causation.

from Less Than Nothing

For we Hegelians, the crucial question here is this: where does Hegel stand with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? On a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? Is not the dialectical process the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? This mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates, however, the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.1

Here he begins with this question of the distinction between potentiality and virtuality. Before I take up the notion of “substance as subject” I think we should gain an better understanding of these two concepts or notions and how Zizek deploys them within his form of dialectical materialism. First, we take up Zizek’s distinction between idealism and materialism:

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. (Zizek, KL 5309)

These two perspectives upon Being as such brings us to the difference between potentiality and virtuality. Zizek himself will bring to the fore Quentin Meillasoux’s explication in After Finitude which states:

Meillassoux proposes a precise distinction between contingency and chance, linking it to the distinction between virtuality and potentiality: Potentialities are the non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law (whether aleatory or not). Chance is every actualization of a potentiality for which there is no univocal instance of determination on the basis of the initial given conditions. Therefore I will call contingency the property of an indexed set of cases (not of a case belonging to an indexed set) of not itself being a case of sets of cases; and virtuality the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles. (Zizek, KL 5337)

The difference between the two is that of the possible: potentialities are possible because they pre-exist the set of possible manifestations (i.e., think of the throw of dice: the determination of the outcome arises because there is delimited set of probable states –  a one in six chance of number six turning up, so when number six does actually turns up, a pre-existing possible is realized). While virtuality is defined retroactively as that which allows something new to emerge; a case is realized for which there was no place in the pre-existing set of possibles. The point of this distinction between potentiality and virtuality is made by Meillassoux himself:

The notion of virtuality permits us … to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent.2

What he is referring to is the Platonic world of Ideas as that order of potentials, and against this notion of a separate world of Ideas or potentials pre-existing their emergence in the temporal nexus of our world there is novelty instead. This novelty comes ex nihilo; the emergence is not of some potential that pre-exists time but rather emerges virtually in the moment of its advent as appearance. But if a virtuality does not pre-exist its advent how does it actually exist? Something more needs to be explained. Its as if a virtuality is a black hole, an impossible possible.

Zizek himself will revert to Deleuze telling us that the solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat. (Zizek, KL 8041) Is it? Is this what Deleuze is saying? To clarify this we need to understand how Zizek uses the symbolic. The starting place with Zizek is always Lacan. So when Zizek tells us that for Lacan the imaginary relates to the seen, while the symbolic as it were redoubles the image, shifting the focus onto what cannot be seen, onto what the image that we see obfuscates or blinds us to. Lacan spells out very precisely the implications of this redoubling: it is not only that, with the symbolic, the imaginary turns into the appearance concealing a hidden reality— the appearance the symbolic generates is that of appearance itself, namely the appearance that there is a hidden reality beneath the visible appearance. The precise name for this appearance of something that has no existence in itself, that exists only in its effects and thus only appears to appear, is virtuality— the virtual is the invisible X, the void whose contours can only be reconstructed from its effects, like a magnetic pole which only exists inasmuch as it attracts the small metal pieces that gather around it. (Zizek, KL 15529)

This sounds very familiar. One might think of the notion of an attractor in dynamical systems theory. This notion of an attractor was first developed as a way of explaining a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system (see wiki). For Zizek we never have direct access to this virtual attractor, but know it indirectly by its effects (i.e., retroactive causation). As Zizek will explicate a purely spatial definition which immobilizes its object produces a non-actual abstraction, not a full reality; the unfinished (ontologically incomplete) character of reality which compels us to include the virtuality of teleiosis (from Greek: the event which verifies the promise)  in the definition of an object is thus not its limitation, but a positive condition of its actual existence.(Zizek, KL 20402) So that in this sense the virtual is what actuality tends toward rather than being what it actualizes; rather than the pre-existing potential that is fulfilled, the virtual is the attractor toward which actuality moves. Virtuality is the condition for Being as such.

This leads us to negation …

more later…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5392-5402). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality,” Collapse: Philosophic Research and Development 2 (2007), pp. 71– 2.

Thoughts… on Zizek: The Unbearable Darkness of the Real

644488-slavoj_zizek

Wanted to get this down for future reference… obviously my repetition of Zizek is part of an ongoing book on dialectical materialism. Zizek awakened me to another way of seeing the issues and problems we are facing. His confrontation with the German Idealist traditions with his Lacanian lens interests me both philosophically and personally. His notion of ‘Christian materialism’ haunts me to no end, having escaped the world of Bible-Belt Southern Baptist belief systems I know very well that they still live in the hinterlands of my psyche like troglodytes of some impossible pre-history of my Self. The Self or subject does not pre-exist the very structure of our self-relating negativity, but is a retroactive construction, a narrative among narratives: a lie we all hold on to and cherish. Even as I proclaim a form of atheism, the world of religion haunts my thought like a bad dream. One never truly leaves one’s dark heritage, one can only live through the traumas of its broken world, the pain and effects, the scars and traces of its horrors. Zizek is one of the few philosophers to confront this heritage from a Continental perspective that rings true.

Zizek’s notion of retroactive reconstruction (causation) is about the effects of this Symbolic Order and its impositions, the way it tries to interpose its own narrative and control systems within the gap to shape the very texture of the life-world, thereby hoping to stave off the actual effects of the gap itself and its repercussions. The truth is found in the brokenness, the obstacles, the things that will not fit into the life-world representations or narratives we love to cling too. We love to believe in something rather than nothing. Even nihilists who try to live without any firm grounding or meaning grasp onto such frameworks as the sciences offer to give them a foothold onto the impossible truth, to fill the gap with scientific narratives of truth; this, too, is ideology, part of the symbolic Order or big Other’s game of Truth.

The thing about Zizek is that one does not read him, one deploys him; that is, one enacts the very dialectical materialist movement that his concepts conceive. Dialectical materialism is based on this oscillation between antinomies, between competing registrars of thinking and being without choosing one side or the other, but rather than trying to reconcile their differences or sublating them into some higher synthesis (Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel), he chooses to keep them in a parallax gap from which to discover new truths and concepts, problems and questions. There can be no final truth, no absolute answer, no place in which thought will find its final resting place. We live in an open universe where thought’s limit is the unknown – what Ray Brassier once termed the ‘unbounded nihil’: this is the missing piece, the gap that will not go away and cannot be filled. We can only oscillate between its competing poles and antinomies, conflicts and unresolved dilemmas. Yet, in this very process we come to understand both ourselves and the unbearable darkness of the Real.

The Real in the guise of primordial flesh, the palpitation of the life substance as the Thing itself, in its disgusting dimension as a cancerous outgrowth; and, the Real of writing… The difference hinges on the different starting point: if we start with the imaginary, we get the Real in its imaginary dimension, as a horrifying primordial image that cancels the imagery itself; if we start with the symbolic, we get the signifier itself transformed into the Real of a meaningless letter or formula. These two figures are the two opposite aspects of the Real: the abyss of the primordial Life-Thing and the meaningless letter or formula (as in the Real of the modern science).1

The key is to hold these two aspects of the one Real in our vision without trying to reconcile their antinomic difference, to realize in the very oscillations between these two aspects of the Real the truth of our lives.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 11013-11021). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Order of the Real

What this means, in effect, is that there is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real.

– Slavoj  Zizek,(2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Reading Zizek is like floating around in a vacuum of endless repetitions that seem to never find a resting place. I sometimes shift from Zizek to Wallace Stevens to remind myself that “the imperfect is our paradise” (from The Poems of our Climate):

I
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

II
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

III
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

The last stanza exemplifies the work of Slavoj Zizek who admits that words alone are uncertain good – not as in William Butler Yeats.  When Zizek introduces his concept of the Gap we should understand that it is not what we might think it is: a Void between us (For-itself) and the proverbial Thing-in-itself. Which is the Idealist prognosis and Kant and his tradition as received in most academic scholarship of the last two hundred years. A move Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude has marked by the appellation of correlationism, etc. No. For Zizek the Gap is the Real, the screen that distorts all our views onto reality.

…the Real is a gap in the order of Being (reality) and a gap in the symbolic order? The reason there is no contradiction is that “reality” is transcendentally constituted by the symbolic order, so that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein). In the common transcendental view, there is some kind of Real-in-itself (like the Kantian Ding an sich) which is then formed or “constituted” into reality by the subject; due to the subject’s finitude, we cannot totalize reality, reality is irreducibly inconsistent, “antinomic,” and so forth— we cannot gain access to the Real, which remains transcendent. The gap or inconsistency thus concerns only our symbolically constituted reality, not the Real in itself.1

So the gap concerns not the Real as it is in itself, but with our symbolic order of  that  constitutes our view onto reality. Yet, against any Idealist reading of this, of the notion of the subject’s performativity and/or creativity (““symbolic construction of reality”), Zizek will rather expose another truth of the ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. (ibid. KL 21401)

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself.

– Slavoj Zizek,  (Kindle Locations 21410-21414).

For Zizek all ontologies are limited because they do not account for what is left out in their descriptions: the Real itself. And, yet, for Zizek this is as it should be:

Desexualized modern ontology attempts to describe a flat, neutral (neutered) order of being (the anonymous multiplicity of subatomic particles or forces), but in order to do so, it has to ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology. Every field of ontology, even at its most radical (like the mathematical ontology of Badiou), has to subtract the impossible/ Real (the curved space of sexuation) from the order of being. (KL 21446-21449)

I want go into the full argument of the “limits of sexuation” which concerns Zizek’s reading of Lacan. Instead I want to focus on the kernel of Zizek’s problems. Zizek’s philosophy stands or falls on his theory of the Subject. Yet, when he uses this term he is not speaking of individual subjects or human subjectivity, rather his theory defines the relations among his various concepts of the Gap and Real. It’s because of this concept that many philosophers reduce Zizek to an old school Idealist, rather than what he is – a dialectical materialist. But Zizek himself is not a clear and precise thinker, but is rather a man stumbling from example to example, analogy to analogy, seeking metaphors, hyperboles, metonyms that might actually help him define that which he knows can never be put into language. So maybe we should read Zizek against himself, maybe read him through his very failures to say what he means.

Take for instance the Thing-in-itself:

What, then, is the “Thing-in-itself” from a dialectical-materialist standpoint? The best way to answer this question is, again, to oppose dialectical materialism to Buddhism: in Buddhism, the In-itself is the void, nothing, and ordinary reality is a play of appearances. The question ultimately unanswered here is how we get from nothing to something. How do illusory appearances arise out of the void? The dialectical-materialist answer is: only if this something is less than nothing, the pre-ontological proto-reality of den. From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.(ibid. KL  21362-21368)

His use of Buddhism has nothing to do with the actual practices of Buddhism, but rather with his own reception of certain concepts he has aligned with his own philosophical approach as counters and tools against which to measure his own thoughts. The kernel of the problem is situated in the sentence “From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.” But what brought this immanent relation of a subject into constituting “objective reality” to begin with? Why was there a need to objectify the world? And is this universal subject which before all individual or concrete universal subjects (humans, etc.) something that preexists objective reality? Or is it immanent to the very process that is our universe to begin with? The problem is one of essence: is this subject some substantial agent preexisting our objective reality, that in fact constitutes it? Or is their another reading of what this subject is, a non-substantialist view onto its very status as subject?

Over and over Zizek assures us that his enemy is all forms of substantive philosophy. He is no Spinoza of the jet-set postmodern variety. Speaking of actual selves Zizek will tell us that the self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being. Consequently, in the process of Buddhist Enlightenment, we do not quit this terrestrial world for another truer reality— we just accept its non-substantial, fleeting, illusory character; we embrace the process of “going to pieces without falling apart.” (ibid. KL 3121-3125)

Against Plato’s notion of an eternal realm of Ideas, a truer world beyond or behind this illusory one Zizek affirms that instead their is only the insubstantial truth of the Void. Yet, what is this void? How are we to understand it? For him it all comes back to Democritus’s Void: he endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. (ibid. KL 293-296)

What we cannot accept is this vastation, this emptiness, so instead as humans strive to fill the void with something rather than accept the voidness at the heart of reality. Yet, this emptiness is not what you think it is. In this emptiness that is nothing something exists. Zizek will analogize using modern physics notion of the Higgs Field as an example:

 There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy— in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.” (ibid. KL 306)

Behind the façade of Zizek’s confrontation with the tradition of Hegel and Lacan is the central core of his political vision of radical emancipation. Reading him essay by essay one realizes that for Zizek the greatest confrontation in philosophy is not to understand reality, but rather the illusions that sustain our symbolic order. As he states it succinctly (after Kant):

The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“ true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.” (ibid. KL 435)

So that Zizek’s insistence that we need the anti-philosophy of Lacan is the obverse to such philosophical quests. Agreeing with Badiou for whom Lacan was the condition of philosophy in our time, Zizek will tell us that we must work through Lacan rather than bypassing him:

My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”  Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”— and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: 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. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination— or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one. The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan. (ibid. KL 608-628)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21387-21392). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: Quote of the Day!

Testa_di_Medusa

It was Schopenhauer who claimed that music brings us into contact with the Ding an sich: it renders directly the drive of the life substance that words can only signify. For that reason, music “seizes” the subject in the Real of his or her being, by-passing the detour of meaning: in music, we hear what we cannot see, the vibrating life force beneath the flow of Vorstellungen. But what happens when this flux of life substance is itself suspended, discontinued? At this point, an image emerges, an image that stands for absolute death, for death beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, corruption and generation. Far more horrifying than to see with our ears— to hear the vibrating life substance beyond visual representation, this blind spot in the field of the visible— is to hear with our eyes, to see the absolute silence that marks the suspension of life, as in Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: is not the scream of the Medusa by definition silent, “stuck in the throat,” and does not this painting provide an image of the moment at which the voice fails?

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

Slovoj Zizek: The Parallax Shift

object

…the gap that separates the knowing subject from the known object is inherent to the object itself, my knowing a thing is part of a process internal to the thing, which is why the standard epistemological problem should be turned around: not “How is my knowledge of the thing possible?” but “How is it that knowledge appears within the thing as a mode of the thing’s relating to itself?”

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

Our alienation from an object is the Object’s self-alienation. When we lose the object, it is not only that the Object abandons us, the Object abandons itself. Is this sheer non-sense? Have I suddenly plunged into a realm where things begin to think through me, rather than me thinking about things? Do things awaken in my mind of their own accord? Are things constituted by our mind or is the opposite true, that our mind is constituted by things. We know that the typical transcendental idealist ploy is to reflexively regress from the object to its subjective conditions of possibility. As Zizek will remind us even the philosophy of the “linguistic turn” remains at this transcendental level, addressing the transcendental dimension of language— that is, how the horizon of possible meaning sustained by language in which we dwell functions as the transcendental condition of possibility for all our experience of reality.1 He will add:

Here, then, “the signified falls into the signifier,” for the signified is an effect of the signifier, it is accounted for in the terms of the symbolic order as its transcendentally constitutive condition.  What dialectical reflection adds to this is another reflexive twist which grounds the very subjective-transcendental site of enunciation in the “self-movement” of the Thing itself: here, “the signifier falls into the signified,” the act of enunciation falls into the enunciated, the sign of the thing falls into the Thing itself. (ibid. see notes*)

In dialectical materialism Zizek will tell us that the “primordial” difference is not between things themselves, also not between things and their signs, but between the thing and the void of an invisible screen which distorts our perception of the thing so that we do not take the thing for itself. The movement from things to their signs is not that of a replacement of the thing by its sign, but that of the thing itself becoming the sign of— not another thing, but— itself, the void at its very core. (LTN, KL 123-12303)

What if we suddenly see between the object and the void the truth in the Möbius band: the property of being non-orientable. Zizek will define this as an example of the parallax shift, which refers to the apparent motion of an object when it is seen from different perspectives. Žižek, referring to Hegel tells us that the dialectic does not overcome the Kantian division of antinomies, but rather asserts them as such. The Hegelian synthesis, in other words, is the recognition of the insurmountable gap between two positions. This synthesis can only be achieved through a parallax shift.

…more on this in my next post…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 12220-12237). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Notes* : When asked to explain the meaning of a term X to someone who, while more or less fluent in our language, does not know this specific term, we invariably respond with a potentially endless series of synonyms, paraphrases, or descriptions of situations in which the use of the term would be appropriate. In this way, through the very failure of our endeavor, we circumscribe an empty place, the place of the right word— precisely the word we are trying to explain. So at some point, after our paraphrases fail, all we can do is to conclude in exasperation: “In short, it is X!” Far from functioning as a simple admission of failure, however, this can effectively generate an insight— if, that is, through our failed paraphrases we have successfully circumscribed the place of the term to be explained. At this point, as Lacan would have put it, “the signifier falls into the signified,” the term becomes part of its own definition. It is a little bit like listening to old mono recordings: the very crackling sounds that filter and disturb the pure reproduction of the human voice generate an effect of authenticity, the impression that we are listening to (what was once) a real person singing, while the very perfection of modern recordings, with their stereo and other effects, strangely de-realize what we hear. (LTN, KL 12220-12237)

Blindness

The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are. – Slavoj Zizek

I’m back! What more can be said. Just about everything. Sometimes one needs to step back, take a long look, run the gamut, descend or ascend the mountains of one’s vacuity; discover in the hidden recesses of one’s blindness certain insights, weave a new chapter in life’s dark ecologies of the mind.

Most of us live in “What if…?” worlds, moment by moment struggling to make sense of the perplexity of life and ourselves. We want answers. We fall into sink holes of oblivion through drugs, drink, entertainment; art, literature, and… yes, should I say it: philosophical peregrinations. My friend R. Scott Bakker tells us that “The strategy I employ in my fantasy novels is to implicate the reader, to tweak their moral pieties, and then to jam them the best I can.” (see Hugo’s Weaving) This notion of implicating the reader in his own blind man’s bluff, allowing him to become a willing participant in the darkest conceits, dip his fingers in the blood of the truth that is the base measure of our human desires leads into an unexpected event. It allows the reader to discover the truth hiding in her own animalistic desires and drives, the blindness that hides the void of one’s being: the truth that there is no self preceding the struggles of life, that the self is not discovered behind the curtain of awareness, but is a fabrication of our dialectical involvement in our failures and inadequacies.

Plato woke up from his complacency long ago when the great rhetoricians of Greece – the Sophists, spouted the truth that we are nothing but fictions, our lives a tissue of words, that we live in a closed circle of signs that never escape themselves, never reach beyond themselves into some eternal realm beyond appearances. Yet, Plato in his struggle against the Sophists became mired in a struggle to create a greater fiction, the notion of an eternal Order behind appearances that sustains and gives meaning to life and thought.

As Zizek is fond of repeating: there is no Big Other (Lacan), no boogie man beyond the stars controlling our destiny, no structure or cultural Order imposing the truth upon us, no ideology ruling our lives: we are free… and it is our freedom that enslaves us to our foolish ends. We are terrified of our Freedom, our nakedness before the terrible truth of the universe and our finitude. We would rather bury ourselves in a sea of unknowing than accept the truth of our incompleteness, our openness to an incomplete universe, our freedom as freedom. So we create vast and intricate fictions to enclose ourselves within through the power of words, enslave ourselves to belief systems and ideologies that trap us in a blind man’s game of give and take.

One of my favorite novels is by the Portuguese writer, José Saramago, who at the end of his novel Blindness allows the Doctor to reflect on the small village’s predicament:

Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

Saramago, José (2013-08-23). Blindness (p. 326). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Is this not the predicament of humanity? Are we not the Blind ones who can see, but do not see?

Zizek’s Return to Plato: The Idea as Appearance of Appearance

pobeb241_young_girl_throwing_rock

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.

…a Platonic supra-sensible Idea is an imitation of imitation, appearance as appearance—something that appears on the surface of substantial reality.

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

In discussion Picasso’s A Woman Throwing a Stone he tells us it lends itself easily to a Platonic reading, saying, “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”.1

Zizek will see in this painting a radical revision of Plato’s essential insights, which Plato himself was unable to see:

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. (ibid, KL 934-938)

 The point here is that Ideas are not part of another eternal order outside reality, opposed to the illusory world of appearance, but rather that Ideas are the appearance of appearance: forming the very core of appearance as appearance. Ideas are situated in Zizek as part of the notions first described by the Stoics in their concept of “incorporeals” and in Deleuze as “virtual entities”: Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. (ibid., KL 935) Zizek’s materialism reverses Plato’s notion that Ideas form some other world and that we must seek beyond the illusory word the truth behind appearances, and instead shows that it is in this very realm of appearance that Ideas are created and appear. Yet, we must not mistake Ideas as substantial entities, but rather as incorporeal and virtual, insubstantial.

As Zizek will state it 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. (ibid., KL 946-950)

As one thinks on this one must return to Zizek’s conception of the “gap”, which he equates with Freud’s concept of drives: the thesis of the present book is double: (1) there is a dimension missed by all four, that of a pre-transcendental gap/ rupture, the Freudian name for which is the drive; (2) this dimension designates the very core of modern subjectivity. (ibid., KL 358-359) Like many readers I had difficulty understanding what Zizek meant by his concept of “gap” for a long time. Zizek will read Hegel’s notion of the “Spirit as Bone” as the shock that happens between two people who become aware of each other as self-conscious beings for the first time. He’ll relate this with the notions that as a subject “I am by definition alone, a singularity opposed to the entire world of things, a punctuality to which all the world appears, and no amount of phenomenological description of how I am always already “together-with” others can cover up the scandal of another such singularity existing in the world” (ibid. KL 12386). This knowledge that another exists, this shock that I am not alone, that “the Other is thus not simply another subject with whom I share the intersubjective space of recognition, but a traumatic Thing” (ibid., KL 12403). This recognition scene and shock is what Freud will term the drive: the name for this excessive attachment to the objectal excess is the drive, which brings us to the key question: can Hegel think the drive? (ibid., KL 12413)

For Hegel Consciousness does not yet know that there is nothing behind the veil of appearances— nothing but what consciousness itself puts there. This feature captures the acephalous character of the drive: it is not “mine,” the subject’s, it is the very core of my being insisting “out there,” as a partial object which is not me. (ibid., Kl 12419) So against any Platonic reading of something behind the veil of appearance we have the Thing, the appearance of appearance. The void that oscillates between attachment and detachment, the movement that is an excess between two voids, that Zizek will following Democritus term Den.

Democritean atomism is thus the first materialist answer to Eleatic idealism: Eleatics argue from the logical impossibility of the void to the impossibility of motion; Democritean atomists seem to reason in reverse, deducing from the fact that motion exists the necessity that the void (empty space) exists. 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. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being. In order to get from nothing to something, we do not have to add something to the void; on the contrary, we have to subtract, take away, something from nothing. Nothing and othing are thus not simply the same: “Nothing” is the generative void out of which othings, primordially contracted pre-ontological entities, emerge— at this level, nothing is more than othing , negative is more than positive. Once we enter the ontologically fully constituted reality, however, the relationship is reversed: something is more than nothing, in other words, nothing is purely negative, a privation of something. (ibid. KL 1539-1548)

From this we come to Freud by way of Hegel’s notion of Force. Zizek will ask: Is the drive a Force in its being-driven-back-into-itself? Does the rhythm of Force point towards the repetitive movement of the drive? Hegel’s Force is driven back into itself as the very power of annihilating the appearances in which it expresses itself; it is not yet the potentiality of virtual Power which retains its authority only as virtual, as the threat of its actualization. More precisely, the drive is not Power, but also not Force. It is a Force thwarted in its goal, finding its aim in repeating the very failure to reach its goal. The drive does not express itself, it stumbles upon an external element or obstacle; it does not pass from one to another of its manifestations or expressions, it gets stuck on one of them. It is not driven back to itself through overcoming or annihilating its expressions, but through not being able to do so. (KL 12433-12439)

In this the drive is stuck in repetition, oscillating between two voids: subject and object. “Does this image not supply the minimal coordinates of the subject-object axis, the truly primordial axis of evil: the red line which cuts through the darkness is the subject, and the body its object?” – Describing the red line that cuts between two darknesses or voids on the cover of his book: this, perhaps , is how one can imagine the zero-level of creation: a red dividing line cuts through the thick darkness of the void, and on this line, a fuzzy something appears, the object-cause of desire— perhaps, for some, a woman’s naked body (ibid. KL 1549):

He will return to Freud’s concept of Drive reiterating that it is defined Trieb (drive) as a limit- concept situated between biology and psychology, or nature and culture— a natural force known only through its psychic representatives . But we should take a step further here and read Freud more radically: the drive is natural, but the natural thrown out of joint, distorted or deformed by culture; it is culture in its natural state. This is why the drive is a kind of imaginary focus, or meeting place, between psychoanalysis and cognitive brain sciences: the paradox of the self-propelling loop on which the entire Freudian edifice is based and which the brain sciences approach in metaphoric formulations, without being able to define it precisely. Due to this in-between status, the insistence of the drive is “immortal,” an “undead” striving that insists beyond life and death. (ibid., KL 12442-12448)

The point that Zizek makes is that there is no other place that the immortal undying drive is striving to reach beyond or into, no immortal separate realm of Heaven or Ideas, etc., but that the drive exists in the oscillations of appearance as appearance in this realm arising out of the nothing between two voids. He’ll use examples from physics, neurosciences (which in some ways resemble my friend Scott Bakker’s BBT theory, strangely), and others from many various philosophical and non-philosophical theories. That materialism resembles Idealism, and that Zizek insists we need to return to German Idealism to understand where materialism went wrong in its superficial fall into many of the fragmented philosophies of the twentieth-century is the subject of his book among other things. In process of rereading this work in light of his newest Absolute Recoil I’m beginning to see how Idealism and Materialism are tied to each other not as in a mirror reversal, but in a more subtle immanent form of the one tied to the pre-ontological notion of the void (Den) which is missing in all Idealisms from the time of Parmenides onward.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 932-934). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Lacan & Karl Popper

For Lacan, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are the three fundamental dimensions in which a human being dwells. The Imaginary dimension is our direct lived experience of reality, but also of our dreams and nightmares – it is the domain of appearing, of how things appear to us. The Symbolic dimension is what Lacan calls the ‘big Other,’ the invisible order that structures our experience of reality, the complex network of rules and meanings which makes us see what we see the way we see it (and what we don’t see the way we don’t see it). The Real, however, is not simply external reality; it is rather, as Lacan put it, ‘impossible’: something which can neither be directly experienced nor symbolized – like a traumatic encounter of extreme violence which destabilizes our entire universe of meaning. As such, the Real can only be discerned in its traces, effects or aftershocks.

This triad is far from exclusively Lacanian – another version of it was proposed by Karl Popper (1902– 94) in his theory of the Third World (which is Popper’s name for the symbolic dimension or order).  Popper became aware that the usual classification of all phenomena into external material reality (from atoms to arms) and our inner psychic reality (of emotions, wishes, experiences) is not enough: ideas we talk about are not just passing thoughts in our minds, since these thoughts refer to something which remains the same while our thoughts pass away or change (when I think about 2 + 2 = 4 and my colleague thinks about it, we are thinking about the same thing, although our thoughts are materially different; when, in a conversation, a group of people talk about a triangle, they somehow talk about the same thing). Popper is, of course, not an Idealist: ideas do not exist independently of our minds, they are the result of our mental operations , but they are nonetheless not directly reducible to them – they possess a minimum of ideal objectivity. It is in order to capture this realm of ideal objects that Popper coined the term ‘Third World,’ and this Third World vaguely fits the Lacanian ‘big Other’. However, the word ‘order’ should not lead us astray here: Lacan’s symbolic order is not a fixed network of ideal categories or norms. The standard deconstructionist/ feminist reproach to the Lacanian theory targets its alleged implicit normative content: Lacan’s notion of the Name-of-the-Father, the agent of the symbolic Law which regulates sexual difference, allegedly introduces a norm which, even if it is never fully actualized, nonetheless imposes a standard on sexuality, somehow excluding those who occupy a marginal position (gays, transsexuals, etc.); furthermore, this norm is clearly historically conditioned, it is not a universal feature of being human, as Lacan allegedly claims. However, this reproach to Lacan relies on confusion apropos the word ‘order’ in the phrase ‘symbolic order’:

‘Order,’ in the legitimate sense of the term, designates nothing more than a specific domain: it does not indicate an order to be respected or obeyed, and even less an ideal to be conformed to or a harmony. The symbolic in Lacan’s sense says nothing but the essential disorder which emerges at the juncture of language and the sexual.

The Lacanian symbolic order is thus inherently inconsistent, antagonistic, flawed, ‘barred,’ an order of fictions whose authority is that of a fraud. It is on account of this inconsistency that, for Lacan, the three dimensions of Imaginary, Real and Symbolic are worlds intertwined like the famous Escher drawing ‘Waterfall,’ which shows a perpetually descending circuit of water. Our question here is: what type of event fits each of these dimensions? What is an imaginary event, a real event, a symbolic event? The question is so vast that we cannot deal with it in one stop – we have to change lines and make three connections from this stop.1

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 107-108). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: Thought of the Day

At first approach, an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes . Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible?

[…]

Our first tentative definition of event as an effect which exceeds its causes thus brings us back to an inconsistent multiplicity: is an event a change in the way reality appears to us, or is it a shattering transformation of reality itself? Does philosophy reduce the autonomy of an event or can it account for this very autonomy? So again: is there a way to introduce some order into this conundrum? The obvious procedure would have been to classify events into species and sub-species – to distinguish between material and immaterial events, between artistic, scientific, political and intimate events, etc. However, such an approach ignores the basic feature of an event: the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme. The only appropriate solution is thus to approach events in an evental way – to pass from one to another notion of event by way of bringing out the pervading deadlocks of each, so that our journey is one through the transformations of universality itself, coming close – so I hope – to what Hegel called ‘concrete universality,’ a universality ‘which is not just the empty container of its particular content, but which engenders this content through the deployment of its immanent antagonisms, deadlocks and inconsistencies’.

– Slavoj Zizek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept

Pussy Riot: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

 What is a modest Pussy Riot obscene provocation in a church compared to the accusation against Pussy Riot, this gigantic obscene provocation of the state apparatus which mocks any notion of decent law and order?

– Slavoj Zizek

Michael Levin tell us he came to Harvard School of Government recently (09/16/2014 posted) to observe two young women from Russian: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria (Mosha) Alyokhina of Pussy Riot fame. Reading his blog post (HuffPost College: post) one is struck both by the naiveté of his critique, and its liberal progressive tendencies. He castigates them for not being liberal progressive protesters and upholding the typical critiques of power and dominion as laid down by the Western agendas. Instead they speak of the prisoner’s rights, immigration restrictions, the “brain drain” on Russian by the current regime, and a return of Christianity from its Stalinist Capital heirs to the actual people of Russia. In a last gaff, Levin throws out a limpid lambast at the two young women:

If you’re going to stand for something in today’s world, you have to declare a major. It doesn’t work to hoist the banner for every cause, no matter how noble, because you end up dissipating the energy that brought you — and your followers — to the spotlight to begin with. The last time a protest movement sought to be all-encompassing, it was Occupy, and we all know how that turned out. (here)

That Levin’s luke-warm jive of Occupy and the wrongheaded equation of it with Pussy Riot becomes clear as one reads the letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and SlavojIn it we become reacquainted with the act of political protest that landed them in the gulag system to begin with: Pussy Riot members in their red, blue, orange, yellow , and violet balaclavas entered the new Christian Cathedral in Moscow, took off their coats, revealing their brightly colored dresses and tights and proceeded to sing a “punk prayer” to the Queen Mother, Mary. The female maintenance staff started to panic and called security. One security guard hurried across, tackled a young woman holding a guitar and pulled her away. He returned to grab hold of a loudspeaker. Church employees attempted to intercept the other four. But they had already begun their twenty-verse “punk prayer,” whose refrain is “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin.”1

After two years Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were freed on December 23, 2013, when Putin released them two months early in order to open his Winter Olympics in Sochi. During her imprisonment she expressed her interest in meeting Slavoj Zizek after reading his book on “Violence”. As she describes her first year in the new gulag at Mordovia:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [PC-14] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.”2

Reading of her trials and tribulations within the new Russia one discovers just how brutal it’s become. Or is it that the old system never went away? As we discover one of the warden’s affirms that he is still a “Stalinist”:

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.”3

What struck me is a comparison with the brutalization in the American Penal System, which shows some of the same classic earmarks of inmate brutality and survival mechanisms. As she discovers over time the prison is enforced not by the wardens, but through a brutal regime of inmate terror and fear. The inmates enforce their own brutalization on each other when quotas and other issues come about. If one tries to stand up against the system, or tries to inform those outside the system about the atrocities of its lawlessness the very inmates turn against one another to the point of murder, torcher, and animalistic behavior. As she states it:

Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.4

 She provides example after example of atrocities purported upon inmates by other inmates to keep them in line, or the punishment of units, or even the whole prison: forcing inmates to live in the open under freezing conditions, starving them, forcing them to work sixteen hour days, forcing them to remain at their sewing machines unable to pee, enforced hazing and beatings at the hands of inmates to scared not to comply with their own leaders, etc. She speaks of a gypsy woman killed in a beating in a rival unit:

It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14.5

 When Nadya tells her lawyer of the conditions and the problems he puts in a formal complaint which turns against her intentions when the wardens learn of it and impose even harsher conditions on her entire prison forcing convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. The warden tells them: 

“You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers , especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day . Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”6

In the end she declared a hunger strike, saying:

I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.7

 Zizek in response to this courageous young woman will answer the call and begin a series of personal letters (that on both sides is carried on through translation and a restrictive lens of the overseers themselves – as the wardens read all letters, emails, etc. and impose their martial regulatory gaze upon them).

Zizek in his opening letter will greet Nadya, saying:

Against all postmodern cynics, you demonstrate that ethical-political engagement is needed more than ever. So please ignore enemies and false friends who pity you as punk provocateurs who deserve mere clemency. You are not helpless victims calling for sympathy and mercy, you are fighters calling for solidarity in struggle.8

Of course Zizek is showing forth his version of this old form stating in his Sublime Object of Ideology that cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to the cynical subversion of its ideological universality, while keeping the mask of it in place and allowing the imposition of its heritage to remain in place even as it castigates it on the surface. As he says:

This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality — the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. This cynicism is therefore a kind of perverted ‘negation of the negation’ of the official ideology: confronted with illegal enrichment, with robbery, the cynical reaction consists in saying that legal enrichment is a lot more effective and, moreover, protected by the law.9

One sees this in outgoing President Medvedev’s statement to the press:

“I wouldn’t have sent them to jail if I had been the judge. I simply don’t think that’s right because these girls had already served a prison sentence. And actually that should have been enough. The fact that one has been released is fortunate … but it’s not up to me, rather to the courts and their lawyers. They have the right to appeal, and I think they should and let the courts consider the case on it own merits.”10

On the surface he makes a moral plea, but underneath this stance of protest on the part of a system representative we see the cynical face of the new Russia imposing its harsh realities while at the same time telling us it is not right or moral, etc.

But Zizek will not stop there in his next letter he’ll tackle the liberal progressive critics for their attack on Pussy Riot for turning against Global Capitalism. He will then make his pointed attack plain, saying: “What makes Pussy Riot so disturbing for the liberal gaze is the way you reveal a hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.”

Zizek will take up the whole imposition of austerity across the Continent with its tendency to both destroy and dismantle the old social security systems and safety valves of the democratic processes, while allowing the elite and their banks to gain utter power over the populace through a sophistry of arguments that are at once moral seeming and in actuality Stalinist measures of total authoritarianism. He will go on saying that Pussy Riot symbolizes the truth, the spirit of our age in the Hegelian sense, embodying the critique that not only do the experts have no clue, but the ruling elite themselves are powerless to solve the world situation.

In her response to Zizek’s first letter she will reiterate her Nietzschean and youthful stance, saying, “we’re the children of Dionysus, floating by in a barrel, accepting nobody’s authority . We’re on the side of those who don’t offer final answers or transcendent truths. Our mission, rather, is the asking of questions (KL 407)”. Influenced by Heraclitus and Berdyaev Nadya will offer a vision of hope from the world of fire and transformation against aspects of Zizek’s more dialectical materialism. Berdyaev’s almost gnostic sense of a rebellion against the powers of the world in high places sings out of her letter. Of course Nikolai Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox propounded his own Christian oriented vision of earthly revolt. In the letter she will quote him: “Christianity itself is to me the embodiment of the revolt against the world and its laws and fashions.” (KL 417)

Against the notion of experts having the answers to the dilemmas of the world  she says: “Cultural competence and sensitivity to the Zeitgeist don’t come with a college diploma or live in an administrator’s briefcase. You need to know which way to point the map” (KL 441). Against experts she offers the “Dionysians, the unmediated ones, those drawn to what’s different and new, seeking movement and inspiration over dogmas and immutable statutes. The innocents, in other words, the speakers of truth. (KL 446)” Yet, she herself admits that she has no answers. The dilemmas between the experts and the innocents remains, and the only thing she hopes for is an almost salvatory vision of “Herod’s daughter” who may come, one bearing hope and truth, etc., saying those “who live their lives entirely within the gift economy, will always receive a miracle at the exact moment they need it” (KL 453).

In response to this letter Zizek will remember Trotsky’s dream of Lenin in which Lenin does not know that he is dead. For Zizek it has a two-fold meaning: on the one hand it aligns with the notion that we must slough off the old utopianism, let it die a final death; and, on the other, that what must remain alive in Leninism is not the utopian dream, but its Idea, what “Alain Badiou calls the “eternal Idea” of universal emancipation, the immortal striving for justice that no insult or catastrophe will manage to kill— Lenin lives wherever there are people who still fight for the same Idea.” (KL 478-480)

Zizek will argue that in our time it is the experts who have become the utopianists, who would keep things in stasis, bring the world under one rule, one law, one movement of power and logic: “Experts are by definition the servants of those in power: they don’t really THINK, they just apply their knowledge to problems defined by the powerful…” (KL 488) Zizek in a critique of her Nietzschean opposition of Dionysus/Apollo or Flux/Order invocation will remind her that it does not go enough, that what is needed is “not just to shake people out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very coordinates of social reality such that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying “Apollonian equilibrium.” (KL 508)”

He will launch into his latest critique of “late capitalism”, using Brian Massumi’s idea of affective capitalism saying:

It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety— because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay— as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value . It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.(KL 513)

Affective Economy as the mode of generating emotional investment in variety is at the heart of this new economy. The notion here is that one cannot subvert what has already internalized its own subversion as a permanent revolt, instead “late capitalism” defines itself now in normal terms of a carnivalized economy, “with its constant reversals, crises, and reinventions, such that it is now the critique of capitalism, from a “stable” ethical position, which increasingly appears as the exception” (KL 531).

Yet, Nadya in her response will agree that maybe their right, but that they forget the other side of the equation, the losers, the outcast and third-world slaves of this new economy:

…the logic of totalizing normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, and incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behavior is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule. No wonder authoritarian China has emerged as a world economic leader.(KL 565-569)

 She will take exception to Zizek’s “distrust of thinking that is posited within the frameworks of binary oppositions, and even insist on the use of such binaries as a heuristic— one that is situational and, when it must be, even burlesque” (KL 573). What is interesting next is that she will point out Zizek’s own male chauvinism, saying in response to his sympathy at her plight while he is in a privileged position of male power outside the situation: 

“Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ‘empirical deprivations.’ ” (KL 594)

Zizek will apologize for this flaw in his character: “my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched male chauvinism can be, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue” (KL 559).

In this letter he will contrast the two visions of Hardt/Negri – with their reliance on a Deleuzian/Guattari rhizomatic vision of “cognitive capitalism” as totally deterriolized and opening up a creativity that cannot be contained or mastered; against, Franco Berardi’s vision of doom and impotence, in which the only way out is to abandon the machine, the world of capitalism through small aggressive communities withdrawing from its system of economics. Zizek will comment:

Berardi, only withdrawal, passivity, and the abandonment of illusions can open up a new way: “Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope.” I, of course, do not follow him here, but I do share his skepticism about chaotic resistance. I am more and more convinced that what really matters is what happens the day after: can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but are also able to offer the prospect of a new order? (KL 649-653)

In her next letter Nadya will respond to Zizek’s male chauvinist apology, and its inherent inability to address the differences in regional exceptions to the capitalist agenda with a question: “what are the acceptable limits of tolerance? When does it cease to be tolerance and become instead collaborationism, conformism, even criminal complicity?” (KL 702) Here she questions the U.S.A.’s complicity in dealing with Russian and China and overlooking its internal atrocities against its citizens or former satellites.  Against the notion of global capitalism in Left critiques she offers instead that they “set aside their colonial Eurocentrism and consider global capitalism in its entirety, encompassing all regional variants” (KL 720).

Countering this attack on universalism Zizek will say yes, yes, by all means we must fight in the diversity, yet we must not forget the Hegelian notion of totality which does not mean some false notion of organic whole, but is instead to realize it as a “critical notion— to “locate a phenomenon in its totality” does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its distortions (“ symptoms,” antagonisms, inconsistencies) as its integral parts. In other words, the Hegelian totality is by definition “self-contradictory,” antagonistic, inconsistent: the “Whole” which is the “True” (Hegel: “das Ganze is das Wahre”) is the Whole plus its symptoms, the unintended consequences which betray its untruth. (KL 753-757)” His point being that in dialectical materialism as he sees it “the Whole is never truly whole: every notion of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the effort to include this excess, to account for it” (KL 759).

 Against the backdrop of global capitalism each country reacts in its own way, but the “general tendency of contemporary capitalism is towards further expansion of the reign of the market, combined with progressive enclosures of public space, sweeping cuts in public services, and a rising authoritarianism in the functioning of political power” (KL 781-783). The truth is that democracy in our time is failing everywhere not do to the economic system, but rather due to a failure to any longer believe in the elite experts and their monetary sponsors to actually fix things. Instead we are slowly waking up to the truth that without true leadership people follow not their desires but rather their animalistic habits. He will respond with his notions that instead we need a figure, a Master to call us out of our habits, engendering in us true desires for an emancipatory world. Yet, the temptation here is between the excess of the Master that leads to the false totalitarian world, or the one that inspires in people to take on the responsibility of living in a non-totalitarian world of conflict and negotiation.

Speaking of Nelson Mandela and his legacy as an example, he says:

We can also safely surmise that, on account of his undoubted moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life aware of how his very political triumph and elevation into a universal hero was itself the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is but a sign that he didn’t really disturb the global order of power— which certainly cannot be said of Pussy Riot. (KL 898-901).

In her next letter she admits she has finally been freed. She and her partners have also founded Zona Prava a new organization to promote and help prison inmates and to retrain the overseers (the wardens). She sees it as a commitment to those who have suffered in silence for too long, especially taking on the task of helping both her former inmates and all women in prison. She mentions the different uprisings in Russia (May 6th) and other issues and concerns surrounding the imprisonment of radicals, journalists, and all who speak the truth. Reading her one realizes that prison gave her a new opportunity and task, rather than closing off her mind it opened her eyes to a need, a new way to help locally her own people both politically and spiritually. One is reminded of activist Angela Davis in the States and her years of working for African-American rights in prisons and the issues surrounding this new form of apartheid within America, etc.  

In his final letter to Nadya on her freedom he will bring everything back to his point about the true idea of the universal: “it is absolutely crucial to insist on the universality of our struggle. The moment we forget that Pussy Riot and WikiLeaks are moments of the same global struggle, everything is lost, we have sold our soul to the devil” (KL 1074).

Reading the short book was well worth the effort. Not much new in Zizek’s repeat of central ideas he’s gone over in his recent Less Than Nothing and Absolute Recoil. What was more important was the meeting of two minds sharing their diverse feminine and masculine struggles in dialogue. This sense that we must begin talking again to each other rather than critiquing is important. Without a sense of dialogue, of communication the world loses value. In this sense the Kantian tradition of critique is dead on arrival. What is needed now is people conversing and struggling together in concert across the planet. Politics must be taken back into the streets, into the local spaces of one’s life and realized in personal ways and tasks (as in Nadya’s creation of a intervention into prison systems, etc.). For Zizek the struggle of the commons against the empire of global capitalism starts and ends with the human face of its actors who need the right push to awaken out of their capitalist sleep.

1. Zizek, Slavoj; Tolokonnikova, Nadezhda (2014-09-30). Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (Kindle Locations 50-54). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 173)
3. ibid. (KL 179)
4. ibid. (KL 198)
5. ibid. (KL 234)
6. ibid. (KL 294)
7. ibid. (KL 305)
8. ibid. (KL 325)
9. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 28-30.
10. (in Russian). Gazeta.ru. 2 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 July 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2013
11. ibid. (KL 350)

 

 

 

 

 

Question from a comment on Plato and the Horizon of Meaning

Jan Cavel asked:

On http://veraqivas.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/plato-is-not-platonism/ you comment „Platonism is the fact that one is always bound by his horizon of meaning”. Could you please expand this? Of course, the whole article is about this small excerpt, but I would really appreciate if you could find the time to take one or more hits at this „binding of one with his own meaning-horizon”. Thank you… 

The point being that we are bound to Plato’s horizon of meaning even if we oppose it. He set the terms of the debate, and no singular philosopher – not Descartes, not Kant, not Heidegger, etc. have yet to escape this circle of meaning or produce something new and outside its horizon. Can we think the other? Can we move outside or from within the labyrinth or navigate the multiplicities and produce something else: another ‘horizon of meaning’? Perhaps, not… or yes?

Long ago I remember my university philosophy mentor used to use the example: he’d draw a circle on the blackboard and place us in it, and then draw another circle just beyond it and place certain key thinkers in it. He would suggest that what these thinkers do is revise and remap the truths of the former circle retroactively and give them a larger stamp for the mind that allows us to think new ideas, thoughts that have shifted due to our technologies – accidents of that intersection between mind and its creations. It’s this strange anomaly at the intersection of technology and thought that new Ideas emerge in time and expands our original horizon of meaning. That notion stuck with me long ago and I’ve been studying the dialectical interactions of humans and technology in philosophers and other thinkers since that time. For me it is this dialectical interaction not of ideas in our mind, but of those processes we shape that in turn reshape us and open up possibilities for further exploration and creation.

Ideas are not the immortal engines of creation, but are rather the accidents of time: and arise at the intersection of humans and technology in a dialectical relationship that over time has become so ubiquitous we no longer see this process for what it is. Technology is not the artifact of eternal Ideas, and neither is it some objectified Idea in the mind, etc. Technology is this dialectical process in praxis, an ongoing temporal interaction and negotiation of reality rather than a trace run of our finitude. Technology is the way we navigate the world, a vehicle for exploring the farthest reaches of our own horizons of meaning. As we invent new forms of technologies they open up our horizons of meaning, and those circles revise the maps of the mind and offer greater possibilities.

Language itself is the most ubiquitous technology we’ve invented so far, and in turn it has shaped our cultures and civilizations beyond the base set of relations we needed to survive on this planet. It did not come full blown, but was a slowly modulated process of give and take as we used it to forge relations with reality and each other. Language is a technology. It was developed over time, and as many linguists agree it doesn’t last (i.e., all languages change and become obsolete or are transformed through temporal processes, etc.). Words are tools for negotiating reality. As our understanding changes so do the tools, and new words are grafted onto the structure of language to shape new ideas till they too die and are once again replaced by better tools, etc. But this is only an example, not the reduction to linguistic signs of the Linguistic Turn.

I simplified, obviously. I mean that one is always either a proponent, neutral, or an enemy of Plato’s realism of Ideas: whether they exist eternally beyond, within, or in nature: the central core of Idealism; or whether there might be something else to explain this.

Take for instance Slavoj Zizek’s use of this tradition out of the German Transcendental movement – what he terms ‘dialectical materialism’ does not oppose this notion of Ideas per se, but rather stipulates the obverse – that instead Immortal Ideas as efficient causation engines of reality, he tells us they are accidents of time, that they are mortal; they are not sources of efficient causation, but rather the endpoint in a process of imminent production (not Schelling’s productivity, Ideas or not essences: rather ideas emerge from the pre-ontological forces of two vacuums in flux, etc.): that they emerge in time and are succeeded by other ideas and die off and are replaced (the main drift is Ideas exist, but only in time not outside it in some eternal sphere of immortal splendor, etc.). Yet, even Zizek is bound by the horizon of meaning that Plato set two thousand years ago and works against this tradition of meaning of Ideas. Zizek takes his notions from Den of Democritus and aspects of modern String Theory and quantum flux, etc..

Slavoj Zizek: On Hegel’s Identity of Opposites

The same goes for crime and the law, for the passage from crime as the distortion (negation) of the law to crime as sustaining the law itself, that is, to the idea of the law itself as universalized crime. One should note that, in this notion of the negation of negation, the encompassing unity of the two opposed terms is the “lowest,” “transgressive,” one: it is not crime which is a moment of law’s self-mediation (or theft which is a moment of property’s self-mediation); the opposition of crime and law is inherent to crime, law is a subspecies of crime, crime’s self-relating negation (in the same way that property is theft’s self-relating negation).

A Habermasian “normative” approach imposes itself here immediately: how can we talk about crime if we do not have a prior notion of a legal order violated by the criminal transgression? In other words, is not the notion of law as universalized/ self-negated crime ultimately self-destructive ? But this is precisely what a properly dialectical approach rejects: what is before transgression is just a neutral state of things, neither good nor bad (neither property nor theft, neither law nor crime); the balance of this state is then violated, and the positive norm (law, property) arises as a secondary move, an attempt to counteract and contain the transgression. In Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Havana Bay, set in Cuba , a visiting American gets caught up in a high nomenklatura plot against Fidel Castro, but then discovers that the plot was organized by Castro himself. 30 Castro is well aware of the growing discontent with his rule even in the top circle of functionaries around him, so every couple of years his most trusted agent starts to organize a plot to overthrow him in order to entrap the discontented functionaries; just before the plot is supposed to be enacted, they are all arrested and liquidated. Why does Castro do this? He knows that the discontent will eventually culminate in a plot to depose him, so he organizes the plot himself to flush out potential plotters and eliminate them. What if we imagine God doing something similar? In order to prevent a rebellion against His rule by His creatures, He Himself— masked as the Devil— sets a rebellion in motion so that He can control it and crush it. But is this mode of the “coincidence of the opposites” radical enough? No, for a very precise reason: because Castro-God functions as the unity of himself (his regime) and his opposite (his political opponents), basically playing a game with himself. One has to imagine the same process under the domination of the opposite pole, as in the kind of paranoiac scenario often used in popular literature and films. For example: when the internet becomes infected by a series of dangerous viruses, a big digital company saves the day by creating the ultimate anti-virus program. The twist, however, is that this same company had manufactured the dangerous viruses in the first place— and the program designed to fight them is itself the virus that enables the company to control the entire network. Here we have a more accurate narrative version of the Hegelian identity of opposites.

V for Vendetta deploys a political version of this same identity. The film takes place in the near future when Britain is ruled by a totalitarian party called Norsefire; the film’s main protagonists are a masked vigilante known as “V” and Adam Sutler, the country’s leader. Although V for Vendetta was praised (by none other than Toni Negri, among others) and, even more so, criticized for its “radical”— pro-terrorist, even— stance, it does not have the courage of its convictions: in particular, it shrinks from drawing the consequences of the parallels between V and Sutler. 31 The Norsefire party , we learn, is the instigator of the terrorism it is fighting against—but what about the further identity of Sutler and V? We never see either of their faces in the flesh (except the scared Sutler at the very end, when he is about to die): we see Sutler only on TV screens, and V is a specialist in manipulating the screen. Furthermore , V’s dead body is placed on a train with explosives, in a kind of Viking funeral strangely evoking the name of the ruling party: Norsefire. So when Evey— the young girl (played by Natalie Portman) who joins V— is imprisoned and tortured by V in order to learn to overcome her fear and be free, does this not parallel what Sutler does to the entire British population, terrorizing them so that they rebel? Since the model for V is Guy Fawkes (he wears a Guy mask), it is all the more strange that the film refuses to draw the obvious Chestertonian lesson of its own plot: that of the ultimate identity of V and Sutler. (There is a brief hint in this direction in the middle of the film, but it remains unexploited.) In other words, the missing scene in the film is the one in which, when Evey removes the mask from the dying V, we see Sutler’s face. How would we have to read this identity? Not in the sense of a totalitarian power manipulating its own opposition, playing a game with itself by creating its enemy and then destroying it, but in the opposite sense: in the unity of Sutler and V, V is the universal encompassing moment that contains both itself and Sutler as its two moments. Applying this logic to God himself, we are compelled to endorse the most radical reading of the Book of Job proposed in the 1930s by the Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zapffe, who accentuated Job’s “boundless perplexity” when God himself finally appears to him.

Expecting a sacred and pure God whose intellect is infinitely superior to ours, Job finds himself confronted with a world ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave-dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture …

What is new for Job is not God’s greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance … what is new is the qualitative baseness. In other words, God— the God of the Real— is like the Lady in courtly love, He is das Ding, a capricious cruel master who simply has no sense of universal justice . God-the-Father thus quite literally does not know what He is doing, and Christ is the one who does know, but is reduced to an impotent compassionate observer, addressing his father with “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?”— burning together with all the victims of the father’s rage. Only by falling into His own creation and wandering around in it as an impassive observer can God perceive the horror of His creation and the fact that He, the highest Law-giver, is Himself the supreme Criminal. Since God-the-Demiurge is not so much evil as a stupid brute lacking all moral sensitivity, we should forgive Him because He does not know what He is doing. In the standard onto-theological vision, only the demiurge elevated above reality sees the entire picture, while the particular agents caught up in their struggles have only partial misleading insights. At the core of Christianity, we find a different vision— the demiurge is a brute, unaware of the horror he has created, and only when he enters his own creation and experiences it from within, as its inhabitant, can he see the nightmare he has fathered.

Slavoj  Zizek, (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 269-271).

Slavoj Zizek: Non-Knowledge, Self-Limitation, and Forgetting

The formula of true atheism is thus: divine knowing and existence are incompatible, God exists only insofar as He does not know […] His own inexistence. The moment God knows, He collapses into the abyss of inexistence.
– Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil


One might want to say that of Zizek himself, that throughout the Chapter Five on Being, Not-Knowing, Absolute Knowing, where he starts asking us:

What if only a God who does not see and know all, who cannot read my mind and needs my confession, a God who has to rely on a big Other outside Himself— what if only such a God can be said to exist? What if total knowledge entails inexistence and existence as such implies a certain non-knowledge? Such a paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism, for which things exist independently of our knowledge of them, and subjectivist idealism, for which things exist only insofar as they are known or perceived by a mind— things exist insofar as they are not known. (209)1

Sometimes Zizek sounds like an old gnostic musing on the imponderable strangeness of God, but his God is the Void, the unknowing subject that seems always to elude the central truth of its own inexistence. Zizek is not so much a Gnostic knower as he is a Anti-Gnostic Unknower; for it is in forgetting that we exist, not in our knowing. A doctrine of pure loss in love with its loss-as-loss underpins Zizek’s basic message. He’ll distribute plentiful examples from Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, Hegel, etc. circling once again the notion of the Subject-as-negativity or self-relating negativity (Void, lack, gap etc.).

This notion of ignorance, or “not knowing” is not of the Socratic kind:

He among you is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is really worth nothing at all. (Apology 23b, tr. Church, rev. Cumming) – That the wisest of you men is he who like Socrates has learned that with respect to wisdom, he is truly worthless. (tr. Tredennick) – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (tr. Jowett)

Socrates would tell us in one dialogue on discovering the ignorance of another that  “it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know“. (Apology 21d, tr. Tredennick) Against such Socratic irony Zizek will inform us that there is a key difference between this knowing and what, in a certain Socratic or mystical tradition, is called docta ignorantia: the latter refers to the subject’s knowing its own ignorance, while the ignorance registered by the subject of Absolute Knowing is that of the big Other itself (244). This ignorance is the gap or void or lack in our very knowing. Yet, it goes deeper than that, for it is this gap in our knowledge that saves us from utter annihilation. For as Zizek will state “The formula of true atheism is thus: divine knowing and existence are incompatible, God exists only insofar as He does not know (take note of, register) His own inexistence. The moment God knows, He collapses into the abyss of inexistence.” (243-244) He will explain that because of our finitude we are open to both closure and totality:

Therein lies the ultimate “coincidence of the opposites” in the Hegelian system: its closure is the very form (of appearance) of its openness. That is to say, the idea that Hegel simply closes his system with the mirage of total knowledge about everything there is to know, somehow bringing the entire universe to its completion, is completely wrong: what Hegel calls AK is his name for a radical experience of self-limitation, of what Lacan referred to as il n’y a pas de métalangage . We reach AK not when we “know it all,” but when we reach the point at which there is no longer any external point of reference by means of which we could relativize our own position— in AK, the very fact that no external limit is discernible, that we do not see the limits of our world, bears witness to our limitation, to our immersion in a world whose horizon we do not perceive. This is why the Hegelian totality is “non-All,” incomplete, self-relativization brought to an extreme, and at the same time always already completed, totalized— these two aspects are the two sides of the same coin.(243-244)

So knowledge comes by way of limitation and lack rather than in some hyper-knowing of everything. All of this goes back to his temporal notions of essence, which he will go into length in his discussion on Potentiality:

“Potentiality” is thus not simply the name for the essence of a thing as actualized in the multitude of empirical things of this genre (the Idea of a chair as a potentiality actualized in empirical chairs). The multitude of the actual properties of a thing is not simply reduced to the inner core of this thing’s “true reality”; what is more important is that it accentuates (profiles) the thing’s inner potential. When I call someone “my teacher,” I thereby outline the horizon of what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as “a chair,” I profile the way I intend to use it. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden, latently present, within it . In other words, potentiality appears “as such,” becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light (“ posits”) its potentials. In short, impartial observation gets caught up in the “bad infinity” of complex features, without being able to decide on the essentials, and the only way to arrive at true universality is by way of a reasoning that is sustained by a practical engagement.(p. 229).

Just before the passage on potentiality above Zizek was speaking of the difference between the older classical notions of “essence” and the Heideggerian notion of “essencing”, which brings with it a temporal reversal: a notion in which essence does not preceded being, but is instead a creation and movement of language in its pragmatic engagement with reality through the techniques of profiling:

This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language, hinging on a shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence inhabits this “essencing” ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.1

 And this notion of a “partial color” casting its light across the Whole is the form of the trope: the part-for-Whole notion of synecdoche as a subset of metonymy, etc. But what’s interesting is the temporal dimension of essencing: allowing language itself to be the creative agent giving this pragmatic dimension to profiling and the negotiations with reality. Whether he will or want Zizek is still bound to the human(istic) universe of the old Kantian world of deonotological norm building, etc.:

Hegel’s formulation is very precise here: the reduction to the signifying “unary feature” contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (Idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.(229)

Yet, in Heidegger he will find the notion of a dessentialized essence:

It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature apropos language when, in his reading of “essence or Wesen” as a verb (“ essencing”), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence. Traditionally, “essence” refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, “essence” is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language, the “house of being.” His expression “Wesen der Sprache” does not mean “the essence of language,” but the “essencing,” the making of essences that is the work of language, (228-229)

language bringing things into their essence, language “moving us” so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are … We share an originary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we “listen to language,” when we “let it say its saying to us.” (He quotes this from Mark Wrathall, How to Read Heidegger, London: Granta 2005, pp. 94– 5.)

 All this will lead back to Zizek’s confrontation with dialectical analysis:

What is a dialectical analysis of, say, a past event , of a revolutionary break? Does it really amount to identifying the underlying necessity that regulated the apparent confusion of prior events? What if the opposite is true, and the dialectical analysis reinserts possibility back into the necessary past? There is something of an unpredictable miraculous emergence in every turn from “negation” to “negation of negation,” in every rise of a new Order out of the chaos of disintegration— which is why dialectical analysis is for Hegel always the analysis of past events.  No deduction will bring us from chaos to order, and locating this moment of the magic turn, this unpredictable reversal of chaos into Order, is the true aim of dialectical analysis. (234-235)

In other words is there an essence underlying reality: is Plato right? Or is it that language creates this movement of a temporal Idea, the emergence of an Idea out of the event which is the event’s circumference and horizon, it’s potential realized as negotiation? As an example he will relate that the aim of the analysis of the French Revolution is not to unearth the “historical necessity” of the passage from 1789 to the Jacobin Terror and then to Thermidor and Empire, but to reconstruct this succession as a series of (to use this anachronistic term) existential decisions made by agents who, caught in the whirlpool of action, had to invent a way out of the deadlock (in the same way that Lacan reconceptualizes the succession of oral, anal, and phallic phases as a series of dialectical reversals).(235) Again it is this need to “invent” or create out of the perplexity of our temporal moment through pragmatic insertion of decisions that brings about retroactively this notion of historical necessity, not as if it existed as substance, but rather as something invented and immaterial material: an Idea, a temporal Idea that will then drive forward the event as its temporal limit and horizon.

This will lead to his discussion of structure: The question nonetheless remains: how are we to think the structure so that the subject emerges from it? Lacan’s answer is: as an inconsistent, non-All, symbolic structure articulated around a constitutive void/ impossibility. More precisely, the subject emerges through the structure’s own reflective self-relating which inscribes into the structure itself its constitutive lack— this inscription within the structure of what is constitutively excluded from it is “the signifier which represents the subject for other signifiers.” (240)

Here it sounds as if lack is not something that pre-exists structure, but is the emergence of the Subject in the very act of inserting lack into the structure through the self-reflective act. It is here that he will tell us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the first drama of modern subjectivity: the subject is in itself “thwarted,” the paradoxical result of its own failure-to-be— or, in the simplified terms of the loop of symbolic representation: the subject endeavors to represent itself adequately, this representation fails, and the subject is the result of this failure.(241)

One of the key points is that subjectivity escapes in the failures, in the moments that cannot be captured by the systems of signification, trapped in Reason’s world of abstractions: it’s this intractable excess that cannot be given significance, controlled, or brought into the cage of signifiers that is the subject beyond all representation. But this is a subject inventing itself moment by moment, rather than some eternal signifier wandering the horizons of linguistic heaven.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 229). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Quote of the Day: Slavoj Zizek on Radical Negativity

“So what name should we give to this radical negativity that forms the silent background of the drives? Should we simply distinguish between drives stuck on partial objects, drives whose repetitive circular movement generates satisfaction, and the “pure” death drive, the impossible “total” will to (self-) destruction, the ecstatic self-annihilation in which the subject rejoins the fullness of the maternal Thing? What makes this distinction problematic is that it retranslates the death drive into the terms of desire and its lost object: it is in desire that the positive object is a metonymic stand-in for the void of the impossible Thing; it is in desire that the aspiration to fullness is transferred to partial objects— this is what Lacan called the metonymy of desire. Here it is crucial not to confuse desire and drive: the drive is not an infinite longing for the Thing which becomes fixated on a partial object— the “drive” is this fixation itself in which resides the “death” dimension of every drive. The drive is not a universal thrust towards the incestuous Thing, which finds itself halted or held back, it is this brake itself, a brake on instinct. Its basic movement is not that of transcending all particular objects towards the void of the Thing, but that of our libido getting “stuck” on a particular object, condemned to circle around it forever. The concept of the “pure death drive” is thus ultimately a pseudo-concept: an attempt to think the beyond of drives within the horizon of the drives. Rather than defining the void of negativity around which the drives circulate as the “pure” death drive, it would be more appropriate to posit a negativity/ impossibility that precedes the very distinction between drive and desire, and to conceive of the drive and desire as the two modes of coping with this ontological impasse.”

– Slavoj Zizek, Absolute Recoil