Slavoj Zizek: Apostle of the Void

Arnold Schoenberg’s … work was unbearably shattering, a key part of the modernist breakthrough— the only true artistic Event of the twentieth century (whatever it is, postmodernism is not an Event).

–  Zizek, Slavoj Absolute Recoil

I decided to reread John Barth’s classic postmodern essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”, where what is touted is not the decay of literature but its emergence as literary virtuosity. In this essay Barth will defend the work of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov as virtuosi, as confronting intellectual and artistic dead ends and employing them against themselves to create new human work.1 Barth will mention one of Borges fables in which Shakespeare is on his death-bed, and having already exhausted the possibilities of dramatic form in all its various guises, as well as having himself become in his life everyone and no one, he asks God to allow him to be one and himself. God in his almost ironic distaste answers Shakespeare from the whirlwind saying: “I, too, have been no one either.” Borges in his own subtle irony will deploy the fable of Proteus who has in all its infinite play “exhausted the guises of reality” and found that it, too, is nothing and no one. What we are left with is the dance of the Void: the production of reality is this very voidic play in all its infinite guises, a mask for what Zizek will term the gap: the void of subjectivity “that eludes … form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder”.1

This notion of negation and virtuosity comes to mind in my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s Interlude I in his new work, Absolute Recoil. Zizek in this small essay will take on the virtuosity of Arnold Schoenberg. I must admit reading this essay brought me back to my early love of music, art, literature, etc. Zizek is one of those creatures who cannibalizes everything, who seems on the surface to be a piranha of the arts and philosophy, gobbling everything in site; yet, to a purpose. Everything he does is calculated to teach. Reading Zizek is like sitting in a classroom where the professor having spent his whole life in a Borgesian library has engulfed its riches and has now the terrible duty to guide his wayward and almost imbecilic pupils through the first stages of this vast labyrinth of knowledge. Yet, this would be false, too. For there is a method in his madness. Everything Zizek does is to counter such strange relations of the Master/Epigoni mythos, and instead he speaks only to those few who have already earned the right to listen in on his monologues; for, in truth, Zizek’s books are dramatic monologues taking place between actors in his own mind that he allows others to listen in on. Robert Browning would have understood this.

I’m not being deprecatory here, just seeing what is going on in this “dialectical materialism” as praxis. He isn’t explaining dialectical materialism, instead he is enacting it in performative virtuosity of an exemplary movement between the various cultural and social actors, artifacts and artifices he takes up and deploys as examples.

In Schoenberg we witness the figure of an Event around which Zizek’s monologue on the void of the subject will endlessly dance. In his previous chapter he exposed most of Hegelian commentators standard readings and misunderstandings of the dialectic:

The beginning of Hegel’s logic as well as the beginning of his “logic of essence” which deals with the notion of reflection are just two, though crucial, examples that demonstrate how misleading, even outright wrong, is the standard notion of the dialectical process which begins with a positive entity, then negates it, and finally negates this negation itself, returning at a higher level to the positive starting point. Here we see a quite different logic: we begin with nothing, and it is only through the self-negation of nothing that something appears. (154)2

Here he describes the standard commentary on Hegelian dialectics that starts with a positivity, whereas for Zizek one must start instead with “nothing” and then work through “the self-negation of nothing” till something appears. “The only full case of absolute recoil, of a thing emerging through its very loss, is thus that of the subject itself, as the outcome of its own impossibility” (150). He’ll elaborate:

Absoluter Gegenstoss thus stands for the radical coincidence of opposites in which the action appears as its own counter-action, or, more precisely, in which the negative move (loss, withdrawal) itself generates what it “negates.”“What is found only comes to be through being left behind,” and its inversion (it is “only in the return itself” that what we return to emerges, like nations who constitute themselves by way of “returning to their lost roots”) are the two sides of what Hegel calls “absolute reflection”: a reflection which is no longer external to its object, presupposing it as given, but which, as it were, closes the loop and posits its own presupposition. To put it in Derridean terms, the condition of possibility is here radically and simultaneously the condition of impossibility: the very obstacle to the full assertion of our identity opens up the space for it.(148)

To embellish this argument he will take up the work of Arnold Schoenberg’s work Erwatung (Op. 17, composed 1909): 

Erwartung is a double Event, maximal and minimal. First, it was a turning point in the history of music: nothing remained the same after Erwartung, the coordinates of the entire musical landscape were transformed.(158)

In Chapter Two he took up the concept of Event in detail. He will contrast two variant readings of this concept of the Event, one in the work of Frank Ruda, the other in his friend Alain Badiou. Ruda will offer the notion that it all begins with the contingent and unpredictable event itself— an encounter between two people that both of them experience as a shattering provocation: their lives are thrown off the rails . The two have to react, and here comes the free decision: will they say yes to the event, assume it as their destiny, or will they ignore it? If the latter , life will go on as usual, but if they say yes to it, they constitute themselves as a subject, (re) organizing their entire life around the event— in short, out of fidelity to the event, they engage in the long and arduous work of love. (74) While for Badiou on the contrary, the subject is not the agent of a free choice, but the result of a positive free choice— a subject emerges after the choice of fidelity to an event, it is the agent which engages itself in the work of enforcing the consequences of an event. Furthermore, common sense tells us that free choice and forced choice are opposed and mutually exclusive, but for Badiou, a truly free choice is a forced one. (74)

The notion here is the idea of the subject either precedes the event (Ruda), or emerges in retroactive “fidelity to the event” that has already occurred: the notion of enforcing this fidelity to the event by working through its consequences in a moral way (“free choice is a forced one”). This will go back to one of Zizek’s leitmotif’s (“lack”):

This paradoxical reversal (of the common-sense logic which tells us that a positive entity has to precede its lack) defines the space of subjectivity from the Hegelian and Lacanian perspective: a “subject” is something that “is” its own lack, something that emerges out of its own impossibility, something that only persists as “barred.” (80)

 Zizek will of course give example after example in various contexts to guide the intractable pupil through his maze of simplicity; for in the end, it always harkens back to Den, Nothing, and the nothingness that gives us something, etc. The Gap as the nothingness around which we dance and play our ideas in endless combat, etc. It is this theme which will define World War I, which according to Zizek was a reactionary defense of the old world against modernism as defined in all those avant garde artists in literature— from Kafka to Joyce; in music— Schoenberg and Stravinsky; in painting— Picasso, Malevich, Kandinsky; psychoanalysis; relativity theory and quantum physics; the rise of Social Democracy …). This rupture— condensed in 1913, the annus mirabilis of the artistic vanguard— was so radical in its opening up of new spaces that, in our speculative historiography, it is tempting to claim that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 was, from the “spiritual” standpoint, a reaction to this Event. Or, to paraphrase Hegel, the horror of World War I was the price humanity had to pay for the immortal artistic revolution of the years just prior to the war. In other words, we must invert the pseudo-profound insight according to which Schoenberg et al. prefigured the horrors of twentieth-century war: what if the true Event was 1913? It is crucial to focus on this intermediate explosive moment, between the complacency of the late nineteenth century and the catastrophe of World War I— 1914 was not an awakening, but the forceful and violent return of a patriotic slumber destined to block the true awakening. The fact that the fascists and other patriots hated the vanguard entartete Kunst is not a marginal detail but a key feature of fascism. (157-159)

Against the rich Romantic traditions of tonal music Schoenberg would work through the beginnings of atonal and onward to what he would term a “pantonal” music, one that would enact for Zizek the example of Lacan’s misreading of Freud’s “Unconscious” as in alignment with such music as “an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with:

The unconscious is neither the primordial nor the instinctual, and what it knows of the elemental is no more than the elements of the signifier … The intolerable scandal when Freudian sexuality was not yet holy was that it was so “intellectual.” It was in this respect that it showed itself to be the worthy stooge of all those terrorists whose plots were going to ruin society. (Lacan Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton 2006, pp. 434– 5.) (Zizek, 176)

 One could do no better to sum up this interlude than Zizek rendering his notion of a truly materialist formalism:

In a truly materialist formalism, one should thus invert the relationship between form and content, following Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of Hemingway in which he pointed out that Hemingway did not write short terse sentences in order to render the isolated heroic individuality of his heroes— form comes first, he invented the isolated heroic individuality to be able to write in a certain way. And the same goes for Schoenberg : he did not take the fateful step into atonality in order to express in music the extremes of morbid hysterical violence; he chose the topic of hysteria because it fitted atonal music.(169)

Instead of the expression of some substantial essence or inner kernel of things, one retroactively defines one’s forms against the fidelity to an event, discovering in those events the forms that will work through its masks. He will liken this to Freud’s dream work:

The paradox is that the dream-work is not merely a process of masking the dream’s “true message”: the dream’s true core, its unconscious wish, inscribes itself only through and in this very process of masking, so that the moment we retranslate the dream-content back into the dream-thought expressed in it we lose the “true motif force” of the dream— in short, it is the process of masking itself which inscribes into the dream its true secret. One should therefore invert the standard notion of an ever-deeper penetration to the core of the dream: it is not that we first move from the manifest dream-content to the first-level secret, the latent dream-thought, and then penetrate deeper, into the dream’s unconscious wish. This “deeper” wish is located in the very gap between the latent dream-thought and the manifest dream-content.(176)

So that in Erwartung it is the very gap between content and form is to be reflected back into the content itself, as an indication that the content is not all, that something was repressed/ excluded from it— this exclusion which establishes the form is itself the “primordial repression” (Ur-Verdrängung), and no matter how much we bring out all the repressed content, this primordial repression persists. In other words, what is repressed in a cheap melodrama (and then returns in the music) is simply the sentimental excess of its content, while what is repressed in Erwartung, its Unconscious , is not some determinate content but the void of subjectivity itself that eludes the musical form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder. (176)

1. John Barth. The Friday Book (John Hopkins University, 1984)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism. Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Absolute Recoil: Slavoj Zizek and the Foundations of Dialectical Materialism

I’m finally reading Slavoj Žižek‘s new work Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism, and already found he’s entered a shooting gallery.  The first thing one realizes is that the work is not about dialectical materialism it is rather an introduction to it as a didactic education in its practice/praxis:

The present book is an attempt to contribute to this task by way of proposing a new foundation for dialectical materialism . We should read the term “dialectics” in the Greek sense of dialektika (like semeiotika or politika): not as a universal notion, but as “dialectical [semiotic, political] matters,” as an inconsistent (non-All) mixture. Which is why this book contains chapters in—not on—dialectical materialism: dialectical materialism is not the book’s topic; it is, rather, practiced within these pages.1

Oh sure, there will be much theory, but that is not the point of the book, rather it is the practice of dialectical materialism as praxis not theory. The basic thematic of the book is based on a term from Hegel absoluter Gegenstoss, which Hegel uses only once, but at a crucial point in his logic of reflection, to designate the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss (Zizek, p. 1). He continues:

the present work endeavors to elevate the speculative notion of absolute recoil into a universal ontological principle. Its axiom is that dialectical materialism is the only true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity. All other forms of materialism, including the late Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter,” scientific naturalism , and neo-Deleuzian “New Materialism,” fail in this goal. The consequences of this axiom are systematically deployed in three steps: 1) the move from Kant’s transcendentalism to Hegel’s dialectics, that is, from transcendental “correlationism” (Quentin Meillassoux) to the thought of the Absolute; 2) dialectics proper: absolute reflection, coincidence of the opposites; 3) the Hegelian move beyond Hegel to the materialism of “less than nothing.” (ibid. 4)

 Zizek is not known for mincing words, no he intends on demolishing his critics with an iron fist; or, at least presenting his case as a form of carnival shooting gallery in which he discovers each pertinent target and begins slowly and methodically taking them down.

He will lay out the territory to be mapped, telling us that in Part I he will perform a critical analysis of two representative nontranscendental materialist theories of subjectivity (Althusser, Badiou). The second chapter deals with the transcendental dimension and describes the move from the Kantian transcendental subject to the Hegelian subject as the “disparity” in the heart of Substance. The third chapter provides an extended commentary on Hegel’s basic axiom according to which the Spirit itself heals the wounds it inflicts on nature. (ibid., pp. 4-5)

In Part II he will deal with the Hegelian Absolute. First, it describes the thoroughly evental nature of the Absolute which is nothing but the process of its own becoming. It then confronts the enigma of Hegelian Absolute Knowing: how should we interpret this notion with regard to the basic dialectical paradox of the negative relationship between being and knowing, of a being which depends on not-knowing? Finally, it considers the intricacies of the Hegelian notion of God. (ibid., p. 5)

And, finally, in Part III he will venture into an Hegelian expedition exploring the obscure terrain beyond Hegel. It begins by deploying the different, contradictory even, versions of the Hegelian negation of negation. It then passes to the crucial dialectical reversal of “there is no relationship” into “there is a non-relationship”— the passage which corresponds to the Hegelian move from dialectical to properly speculative Reason. The book concludes with some hypotheses about the different levels of antagonism that are constitutive of any order of being, delineating the basic contours of a renewed Hegelian “dentology” (the ontology of den, of “less than nothing”). (ibid. 5)

Yet, he will begin by clearing a path toward his new adventure. He will define his form of dialectical materialism against all the other forms of Materialisms that seem to be part of the contemporary Continental scene:

Materialism appears today in four main versions: 1) reductionist “vulgar” materialism (cognitivism, neo-Darwinism); 2) the new wave of atheism which aggressively denounces religion (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.); 3) whatever remains of “discursive materialism” (Foucauldian analyses of discursive material practices); 4) Deleuzian “new materialism.” Consequently, we should not be afraid to look for true materialism in what cannot but appear as (a return to German) idealism —or, as Frank Ruda put it apropos Alain Badiou, true materialism is a “materialism without materialism” in which substantial “matter” disappears in a network of purely formal/ ideal relations. (ibid., p. 5)

What’s interesting to me is how he ties transhumanism, posthumanism, the NBIC and ICT technologies and sciences to Idealism:

Does not the biogenetic goal of reproducing humans scientifically through biogenetic procedures turn humanity into a self-made entity, thereby realizing Fichte’s speculative notion of a self-positing I? Today’s ultimate “infinite judgment” (coincidence of opposites) thus seems to be: absolute idealism is radical naturalist reductionism. …

…so-called [Russian] “bio-cosmism” enjoyed an extraordinary popularity— as a strange combination of vulgar materialism and Gnostic spirituality that formed the occult shadow-ideology, or obscene secret teaching, of Soviet Marxism. It is as if, today, “bio-cosmism” is reemerging in a new wave of “post-human” thought. (ibid., 6)

 In my earlier segements on Accelerationism I spoke of Benedict Singleton’s Accelerationist Cosmism of Nikolai Fedorov, which ties in much of the same territory. Yet, Zizek will put his own twist on this post-human turn telling us we should not reduce this “post-human” stance to the paradigmatically modern belief in the possibility of total technological domination over nature—what we are witnessing today is an exemplary dialectical reversal: the slogan of today’s “post-human” sciences is no longer domination but surprise (contingent, non-planned emergence). (ibid., p. 7) He’ll quote Jean-Pierre Dupuy who detects a weird reversal of the traditional Cartesian anthropocentric arrogance which grounded human technology, a reversal clearly discernible in today’s robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life and Artificial Intelligence research:

how are we to explain the fact that science became such a “risky” activity that, according to some top scientists, it poses today the principal threat to the survival of humanity? Some philosophers reply to this question by saying that Descartes ’ dream—“ to become master and possessor of nature”— has turned out bad, and that we should urgently return to the “mastery of mastery.” They understand nothing. They don’t see that the technology profiling itself at our horizon through the “convergence” of all disciplines aims precisely at non-mastery. The engineer of tomorrow will not be a sorcerer’s apprentice because of his negligence or ignorance, but by choice. He will “give” himself complex structures or organizations and will try to learn what they are capable of by exploring their functional properties— an ascending, bottom-up, approach. He will be an explorer and experimenter at least as much as an executor. The measure of his success will be more the extent to which his own creations will surprise him than the conformity of his realization to a list of pre-established tasks. (ibid., p. 7)

 Zizek will attack such luminaries as Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett for their supposed New Materialism, which he sees as a neo-vitalism; or, as Fredric Jameson will claim, that Deleuzianism is today the predominant form of idealism: as did Deleuze, New Materialism relies on the implicit equation: matter = life = stream of agential self-awareness— no wonder New Materialism is often characterized as “weak panpsychism” or “terrestrial animism.” (ibid., p. 8) Against this he will champion traditional forms of sciences, saying that what science distils as “objective reality” is becoming more and more an abstract formal structure relying on complex scientific and experimental work. Does this mean, however, that scientific “objective reality” is just a subjective abstraction ? Not at all, since it is here that one should mobilize the distinction between (experienced) reality and the Real. (ibid., 10) So that reality (empirical actual) will be pitted against the Real (abstract model or mathematical mappings, etc.). Ultimately he will tell us that the move that defines New Materialism should be opposed to the properly Hegelian dialectical-materialist overcoming of the transcendental dimension or the gap that separates subject from object: New Materialism covers up this gap, reinscribing subjective agency into natural reality as its immanent agential principle, while dialectical materialism transposes back into nature not subjectivity as such but the very gap that separates subjectivity from objective reality. (ibid., 12)

I’m going to stop here. The rest of his introduction will lay out arguments with Hegelians such as Robert Pippin and others who Zizek will point by point argue that these philosophers have all misprisioned or misread his ideas, notions, works, etc. As usual one will need to work through the dialectical reasoning of his specific arguments, return them to his previous works, tally the count of pros and cons, etc. Generally when reading Zizek one is overhearing a thinker think, listening in on a continuing monologue that he is having with himself rather than a discourse with a reader (think of Robert Browning). Zizek is our modern or postmodern or? – Hamlet always disagreeing even with himself, and surprising himself. Quoting others where their thoughts agree, disagree. Practicing dialectical materialism rather than discoursing on it.

In the final section of the Intro he will show the difference between true and false Masters, using Steve Jobs vs. Hitler or Stalin:

When asked how much research Apple undertakes into what its customers want, he [Steve Jobs] snapped back: “None. It’s not the customers’ job to know what they want … we figure out what we want.”  Note the surprising turn of this argumentation: after denying that customers know what they want, Jobs does not go on with the expected direct reversal “it is our task (the task of creative capitalists) to figure out what they want and then ‘show it to them’ on the market.” Instead, he says: “we figure out what we want”— this is how a true Master works: he does not try to guess what people want; he simply obeys his own desire and leaves it up to others to decide if they want to follow him. In other words , his power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it. Therein lies the difference between a true Master and, say, the fascist or Stalinist leader who pretends to know (better than the people themselves) what people really want (what is really good for them), and is then ready to enforce it on them even against their will. (ibid. 46)

Yet, he will ask: Why do we need Masters anyway? The obvious question to be raised here is: why does a subject need a Master to assume his or her freedom? Does not such an assumption amount to a kind of pragmatic paradox wherein the very form (a Master gives me freedom) undermines the content (my freedom)? Should we not rather follow the well-known motto of all emancipatory movements: freedom cannot be handed down to us by a benevolent master but has to be won through hard struggle? (ibid. 48)

Where he tells us that the Master’s “power stems from his fidelity to his desire, from refusing to compromise on it” (ibid. 48), one should realize that this is what we should all do: regain our own power, freedom and fidelity to desire, and not compromise it by accepting false gifts and promises from the false Master’s of the global economy. And, the struggle? The struggle is to regain that very freedom from (the globalist agenda) and too our own desires for a life beyond all such global agendas of elites, masters, etc. The first step in this task according to Zizek is to understand the praxis of dialectical materialism.  

(note: I’ll come back to this work after I finish it and take notes and let it digest with a reading of some of his earlier and later works.)


1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 6-7). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Obscene Machine – Quote of the Day!

The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” to mask the Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, “do something”; academics participate in meaningless “debates,” and so forth, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer even a “critical” participation, a dialogue, to silence-just to engage us in a “dialogue,” to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.

The anxious expectation that nothing will happen, that capitalism will go on indefinitely, the desperate demand to do something, to revolutionize capitalism, is a fake. The will to revolutionary change emerges as an urge, as an “I cannot do otherwise,” or it is worthless. In the terms of Bernard Williams’s distinction between ought and must,’ an authentic revolution is by definition performed as a Must-it is not something we “ought to do,” as an ideal for which we are striving, but something we cannot but do, since we cannot do otherwise. This is why today’s Leftist worry that revolution will not occur, that global capitalism will just go on indefinitely, is false insofar as it turns revolution into a moral obligation, into something we ought to do while we fight the inertia of the capitalist present.

The deadlock of “resistance” brings us back to the topic of parallax: all is needed is a slight shift in our perspective, and all the activity of “resistance,” of bombarding those in power with impossible “subversive” (ecological, feminist, antiracist, anti-globalist …) demands, looks like an internal process of feeding the machine of power, providing the material to keep it in motion. The logic of this shift should be universalized: the split between the public Law and its obscene superego supplement confronts us with the very core of the politico-ideological parallax: the public Law and its superego supplement are not two different parts of the legal edifice, they are one and the same “content”-with a slight shift in perspective, the dignified and impersonal Law looks like an obscene machine of jouissance. Another slight shift, and the legal regulations prescribing our duties and guaranteeing our rights look like the expression of a ruthless power whose message to us, its subjects, is: “I can do whatever I want with you!” Kafka, of course, was the inimitable master of this parallax shift with regard to the edifice of legal power: “Kafka” is not so much a unique style of writing as a weird innocent new gaze upon the edifice of the Law which practices a parallax shift of perceiving a gigantic machinery of obscene jouissance in what previously looked like a dignified edifice of the legal Order.

see kafka

1. Slavoj Zizek. The Parallax View (Short Circuits) (Kindle Locations 5755-5759). Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: On the Communist Idea

I call an ‘Idea’ an abstract totalization of the three basic elements: a truth procedure, a belonging to history, and an individual subjectivation. … an Idea is the subjectivation of an interplay between the singularity of a truth procedure and a representation of History.

– Alain Badiou, The Idea of Communism

‘Begin from the beginning…’, remarks Slavoj Zizek; yet, adds, “descend to the starting point, but with a difference.” (210)1

Those who sit on the fence will be torn to shreds by their own indecisiveness. Today we have a choice to make: What kind of future do you want? Communist or socialist? This is the question Slavoj Zizek repeats with gusto and a polemical fervor that offers no third alternative. “The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms powerful enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?”1 At the moment there are only four such antagonisms at play in the world today according to Zizek: first the threat of ecological catastrophe; second, the inappropriateness of the notion of private property for so-called ‘intellectual property’; third, the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, finally, new forms of apartheid, new Walls and Slums around the world.(214)

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