Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy… continued…


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


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.),

Speculations IV: Adrian Johnston and the Axioms of Transcendental Materialism

“Any materialism worthy of the name must involve elements of both naturalism and empiricism.”

– Adrian Johnston, Points of Forced Freedom Eleven (More) Theses on Materialism

In a polemical tour de force Adrian Johnston condenses and codifies the elements of a philosophical materialism for the 21st Century. Adrian like others in the essays for Speculations IV returns to Kant, but for him this is not the exact correlationist litany we’ve seen in the others but more of an acknowledgement of Kant’s philosophical breadth and integrity in being the philosopher who put to rest the metaphysical claims of two thousand years of dialectical deadlocks: “The “Transcendental Dialectic” of the Critique of Pure Reason, revealing the precise contours of the dialectical deadlocks forever dooming in advance each and every classical metaphysics to futility, extracts its critical logics from the evidence furnished by two thousand years of philosophical history.”

I must say that I’m bias toward materialist perspectives and especially of late to both Johnston and Zizek with qualifications (more on that at another time), but will do my part to be – as in previous posts – the neutral observer (or as much as one can be) or close reader and commentator who offers hopefully an unbiased condensation of the original discourse. Being more of a poet and fictional writer and not a professional philosopher, I like many – perceive myself as just an average man thinking and trying to discover in current theory and practice some semblance of the problematique we are all facing in our world today. Trying to find a way forward out of the malaise of our current dysfunctional global (dis)civilization. Speculative Realism offers a multiplicity of perspectives in dealing with the domains of epistemic and ontological aspects of both our material and immaterial worlds, and while I may not agree with each and every perspective I agree that each will need to be confronted and rigorously answered if we are to find a way forward.

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Zizek on Kant and Hegel: the Grotesque, Macabre, and The Ugly

We have pointed out the characteristic trait, the fundamental difference that separates, in our view, modern art from ancient art, today’s form from dead form, or – to use vaguer but better accredited words – Romantic literature from classical literature… Not that it would be correct to say that comedy and the grotesque were absolutely unknown to the ancients: which would be impossible … But in modern thinking the grotesque plays an immense part. It is everywhere on the one hand it creates the deformed and the horrible, on the other the comic an the clownish … Beauty has only one type, ugliness has thousands… What we call ugly is a detail from a great whole that eludes us, and that harmonizes not so much with man alone but with all of creation. This is why ugliness constantly reveals new, but incomplete aspects of it.

– Victor Hugo, ‘Preface to Cromwell’ (1827)

“Kant, like a good compulsive neurotic … sets up the network of the conditions of possible experience in order to make sure that the actual experience of the real, the encounter with the Thing, will never take place, so that everything the subject will effectively encounter will be the already gentrified-domesticated reality of representations” (75).1 For Zizek Kant was an obsessional whose whole philosophical project was a great apotropaion: his discursive system is a labyrinth in which he hoped to entangle the vague horrors of the noumenon, ritual dependence and the ironic distancing from that dark heart of a traumatic encounter that he could ill afford to master. It is after Kant’s impossible withdrawal from the noumenal into a more refined realm of appearance and representation: his safety net against the dark horrors of the grotesque, macabre, and the ugly that Zizek speaks of “the monstrous noumenal Thing,” an abyss or vacuum threating to swallow up the subject that fails to maintain an appropriate degree of distance from it  ( Plague of Fantasies, 237).2

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Notes on Adrian Johnston’s – Zizek’s Ontology

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

– Immanuel Kant, Critique Of Pure Reason

Slavoj Zizek is the great inheritor of German Idealism. His transcendental and dialectical materialism must be seen as the inverse shadow world of Idealism’s indigestion. It is the very kernel of materialism that German Idealism from Kant to Hegel were never able to explain away, never able to overcome nor completely break free. As Adrian Johnston remarks it was Zizek’s reading of Fichte as a materialist – against the grain so to speak, that allowed him to recognize in the deadlocks and internal obstacles of every transcendental idealism a remainder that could not be digested by absolute knowing of a transcendental subjectivity. It was on this account, that “materialism is philosophically tenable solely as the spectral inverse  of idealism, accompanying it as the shadow cast by idealism’s insurmountable incompleteness” (49).1 This is why Zizek admits that his work is rooted in the idealist world, even if it betrays its idealist intent by exposing its inability to escape the very materialist Real that underpinned its inescapable subjectival epistemology:

My  work relies on the full acceptance of the notion of modern subjectivity elaborated by the great German Idealist from Kant to Hegel: for me, this tradition forms the unsurpassable horizon of our philosophical experience, and the core of my entire work is the endeavor to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German Idealism. (ibid, 14)

The whole foundation of Kant’s epistemological framework and its centering on finitude as our inability to grasp reality is the very positive proof of the ontological conditions of reality itself. The truth be told it is Kant’s explicit stance within epistemology that demarcates and formulates finitude as ontologically constitutive. It is in this distanciation between epistemic knowing and ontological knowledge that Zizek ontologizes Hegel’s difference, his fundamental insight into the incompleteness of reality itself. As Johnston remarks it is Zizek’s reading of Hegel and a fully ontologized Kant that offers an “acceptance of the “not all” of finite incompleteness as more than just an epistemological limitation” (15). Johnston goes on the stipulate that Zizek’s use of the motif of the subject as “crack” as the foundation of the entire edifice of his ontology is itself derived from Kant’s transcendental turn (15).

Zizek according to Johnston takes up the precarious stance of situating the transcendental materialist as the kernel of the Fichte-Kant  transcendental subjectivity, as showing that this very subjectivity in its finitude discovers the nonassimilable foreign body of materiality in the core of subjectivity itself (19). This produces a tentative definition for Zizek’s materialism: “True materialism does not consist in the simple operation of reducing inner psychic experience to an effect of the processes taking place in ‘external reality’ – what one should do, in addition, is to isolate a ‘material’ traumatic kernel/remainder at the very heart of ‘psychic life’ itself” (20). Johnston finishes this particular inquiry with a series of questions:

Given Zizek’s combination of Kant and German Idealism with Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis, what specific sort of “materialism” does he have in mind as constituting the inner core of subjectivity? What is the nature of the “hard kernel” subsisting within the structure of the seemingly immaterial subject, whether this is Kant’s transcendental subject or Lacan’s subject of the signifier? Does Zizek content himself, like Fichte, with leaving this notion in a quite abstract state, as an entirely indeterminate, enigmatic je ne sais quoi provoking yet defying any sort of conceptual concretization? These queries are best answered by returning to focus upon Zizek’s Lacan-influenced appropriation of Kant (20).

1. Adrian Johnston. Zizek’s Ontology A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. (Northwestern University Press, 2008)

Further Adventures of Slavoj (The Rocketman) Zizek: How I entered the whirling abyss…

The violence of the Real is that it is the Gap through which we must pass if we are to travel to the far shores of reality. Yet, to do this we must have a guide, a sort of Hermes in reverse: instead of the winged creature that brings messages from the gods, we have Rocketman bearing gifts from the material worlds we all live in. And, where is his message to be found?

The Parallax View

“The ultimate ontological status of material being as a substance divided against itself-this ontology of a “barred Real” is developed through analyses of Zizek’s fashions of combining German idealism and psychoanalysis – is identified as the crucial precondition for transcendental subjectivity genetically arising out of an immanent plane of materiality.”

– Adrian Johnston, Zizek’s Ontology

For a history of this trace we term the “Real” we must return to Schelling who once asked “What, then, is ultimately the reality that inheres in our representations?” (Schelling 1994b, 69). Johnston in his revealing study of Slavoj Zizek’s Ontology tells us that shortly “after formulating this query, [Schelling] contrasts “the real” with “reality” ( die Wirklichkeit) , and indicates that the latter refers to experience as given to the subject (i.e., “reality” in the Kantian sense, as the realm of experiential objects) , while the former designates something more fundamental, a tangible, solid ontological foundation that remains resistant to being accounted for by any purely idealistic emphasis on the subject’s self-enclosure within the confines of reality as experience” (71).1

So already we discover that the ‘Real’ is something that defies description, that even a careful appraisal of its features cannot lock it down into some definable set of elements. If reality is what is given to the Subject as-experiential and the ‘Real’ is something that cannot be tied to either the given of experience for-us, but is something else, something that provides the bedrock, the very foundations of this ontological subjectivity but is not accessible to it, then how can we know what it is? Johnston mentions in a passing note that this distinction between the Real and reality is used by Lacan for a period of twenty-seven years without any reference to the influence of this prime precursor. A little anxiety of influence here? Johnston mentions that with Schelling we already have the first critique of Kant, and the first critique of the correlational circle:

“He [Schelling] insists that the very raising of an inquiry into what is “real” within the subject’s representations demands a striving “towards the real” (zum Realen) , that is to say, a struggle to step outside the closed circle of the finite, limited reality of consciousness” (71).

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Slavoj Zizek: Rocketman Lives; or, How I discovered the Transcendental Materialist

“Nature did not become ontologically indeterminate with the rise of quantum physics; the discovery of the “principle of uncertainty” means that it always was like that, and no matter how strongly “historically mediated” these scientific discoveries are, they refer to some reality external to the historical process. …The difficult problem is how to think the relationship between scientific knowledge and historical truth if neither of them can be reduced to the other.”

– Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing

In my further explorations of the strange and alien worlds of Slavoj Zizek I come upon a new organism: the “transcendental materialist”, who – according to Zizek, was first discovered by none other than Adrian Johnston. This alien creature believes that all of reality is transcendentally constituted, “correlative” to a subjective position, and, to push this through to the end, the way out of this “correlationist” circle is not to try to directly reach the In-itself, but to inscribe this transcendental correlation into the Thing itself.”1

Subjectivity is everywhere! Ah, but the catch is this: not the correlation itself is inscribed, no… it is the “transcendental correlation” that is now inscribed. But exactly what is the difference? What is this transcendental correlation? And, how does it magically get inscribed from the for-itself to an in-itself? Oh, not to worry, it’s a simple process says Zizek: the path to the “In-itself leads through the subjective gap, since the gap between For-us and In-itself is immanent to the In-itself: appearance is itself “objective,” therein resides the truth of the realist problem of “How can we pass from appearance For-us to reality In-itself?”(ibid. Kindle Locations 20230-20231)

See how simple that is… Rocketman is so clear and precise, one wonders why anyone could have doubted the precision of such a masterful diagnosis. Oh, but there is a catch: How is this gap breached? Do we suddenly enter the gap through some wormhole in the Real like psychonauts shooting the gap between thought and being? What sleight-of-hand practitioner will teach us this new trick?

Where is Alice when you need her? Oh, no problem, I have the Mad Hatter as my guide… let us enter the gap, my friends!

It may appear that the basic defining feature of materialism is a common-sense trust in the reality of the external world— we do not live in the fancies of our imagination, caught up in its web, there is a rich and full-blooded world open to us out there. But this is the premise any serious form of dialectical materialism has to do away with: there is no “objective” reality, every reality is already transcendentally constituted. “Reality” is not the transcendent hard core that eludes our grasp, accessible to us only in a distorted perspectival approach; it is rather the very gap that separates different perspectival approaches. The “Real” is not the inaccessible X, it is the very cause or obstacle that distorts our view on reality, that prevents our direct access to it. The real difficulty is to think the subjective perspective as inscribed in “reality” itself. (Kindle Locations 20232-20238

Let the Wars of the Real begin! Listen to Rocketman once more as we repeat the chorus of this refrain:

The “Real” is not the inaccessible X, it is the very cause or obstacle that distorts our view on reality, that prevents our direct access to it. The real difficulty is to think the subjective perspective as inscribed in “reality” itself.

To understand how to overcome the “Real” we need to get a good handle on just what it is… as the old saying goes: Know thy enemy! In our next Adventures of Rocketman we will trace the history of this strange notion, and ask the question: What is the “Real”, and why does it distort reality?


1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism ). Norton. Kindle Edition. (Kindle Locations 20227-20230)

Adrian Johnston: On Hume’s Revenge; or, Meillassoux’s Virtual God?

“For Zizek …the true subject is nothing other than this nothingness itself, this void, absence, or “empty spot” remaining after the innerworldly visages of the ego have been stripped away.”
– Adrian Johnston

“Let us say in passing that since (philosophical) remedies are often worse than the malady, our age, in order to be cured of the Plato sickness, has swallowed such doses of a relativist, vaguely skeptical, lightly spiritualist and insipidly moralist medicine, that it is in the process of gently dying, in the small bed of its supposed democratic comfort.”

     – Alain Badiou

Adrian Johnston in his essay Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux? for the Speculative Turn tells us that a new enemy has appeared in our midst, one that through insipid and devious means is working not from the outside but deep within the inside of the materialist camp where at the intersection of European and Continental theory a monstrous creature has slipped in bringing with it “the enduring validity and indispensability of theological frameworks” (92). [1]

The grotesqueness of this state of affairs leads him to spume: “Marx and Engels must be rolling around in their graves. Despite the virulent theoretical and practical campaigns against religion carried out under the guidance of Marxist historical and dialectical materialisms, Marx’s ostensible heirs in Continental philosophy generally seem to be tolerantly treating the theologically inclined mingling amongst them as non-antagonistic rather than antagonistic others…” (93). Johnston even attacks the later Badiou for his “specious sort of ‘materialism’ suffused with metaphysical realism” and for being hostile to the empirical sciences, while appropriating fragments of Christian traditions into his works “with little to no significant modification” (93).

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