Zizek on Quentin Meillassoux

Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. He relies here on Badiou, who also pointed out how Cantor’s great materialist breakthrough concerns the status of infinite numbers (and it was precisely because this breakthrough was materialist that it caused so much psychic trauma for Cantor, a devout Catholic): prior to Cantor, the Infinite was linked to the One, the conceptual form of God in religion and metaphysics; after Cantor, the Infinite enters the domain of the Multiple— it implies the actual existence of infinite multiplicities, as well as an infinite number of different infinities.

Zizek’s comments on the above  goes as follows:

Does, then, the choice between materialism and idealism concern the most basic scheme of the relationship between multiplicity and the One in the order of the signifier? Is the primordial fact that of the multiplicity of signifiers, which is then totalized through the subtraction of the One; or is the primordial fact that of the “barred One”— more precisely, that of the tension between the One and its empty place, of the “primordial repression” of the binary signifier, so that multiplicity emerges to fill in this emptiness, the lack of the binary signifier? Although it may appear that the first version is materialist and the second idealist, one should resist this easy temptation: from a truly materialist position, multiplicity is only possible against the background of the Void— it is only this which makes the multiplicity non-All. The (Deleuzian) “genesis” of the One out of primordial multiplicity, this prototype of “materialist” explanation of how the totalizing One arises, should therefore be rejected: no wonder that Deleuze is simultaneously the philosopher of the (vitalist) One.

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. In psychoanalytical terms, this is the gap between desire and drive, and here also, one should resist the temptation to give priority to one term and reduce the other to its structural effect. That is to say, one can conceive the rotary motion of the drive as a way to avoid the deadlock of desire: the primordial lack/ impossibility, the fact that the object of desire is always missed, is converted into a profit when the aim of libido is no longer to reach its object, but to repeatedly turn around it— satisfaction is generated by the very repeated failure of direct satisfaction. And one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp. In philosophical terms, this couple echoes (not the couple of Spinoza and Hegel, but) the couple of Spinoza and Kant: the Spinozan drive (not grounded in a lack) versus Kantian desire (to reach the noumenal Thing).

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

 

Zizek’s Philosophy in a Nutshell

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

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

Commentary:

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

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

The Void That Moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most true.3

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

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

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

So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. (ibid., Kindle Locations 1738-1746) [my italics]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Zizek Quote: Divide Between Materialism and Idealism

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

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

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