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