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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slavoj Zizek: The Subtle Art

Only Slavoj Zizek could compare Jane Austen to Hegel and get away with it. A smile comes to our lips, we want to laugh, and, yet, we wonder to ourselves: “How could he compare this dialectical monstrosity to this subtle ironist, this comic novelist of manners?” Yet, one realizes that is just the point, it was Austen’s inwardness, her subjective individuation, her consciousness of those subtle misrecognitions that slip between fault lines of conversation and observation, those subtle ironies that raise an eyebrow, cause a smirk, bring a quiet recognition of that true wit that is both her power and her art that aligns her with the master of dialectical persuasion.

It is Jane Austen who is perhaps the only counterpart to Hegel in literature: Pride and Prejudice is the literary Phenomenology of Spirit; Mansfield Park the Science of Logic and Emma the Encyclopedia… No wonder, then that we find in Pride and Prejudice the perfect case of this dialectic of truth arising from misrecognition. (66)1

What’s interesting in Zizek’s bringing together Hegel and Austen to discuss the subtle art of misrecognition is not that it neatly ties together the strands of his Hegelian argument, but that like any true didactic scholar he teaches us through the power of delight and elucidation rather than through abstract verbalism. This is why it is usually fun to read Zizek even if you disagree with him at time, he entertains and delights, instructs and illustrates without bludgeoning one with the truth of his argument. He is didactic and dialectical at the same time. There is a subtle rhythm to his method, repetitions of word and tone that intersperse the abstract truth of his argument with layers of empirical wit and illustrations from other authors to make his points.

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Deleuze: The Emptiness of Things

“All sensation is composed with the void in compositing itself with itself, and everything holds together on earth and in the air, and preserves the void, is preserved in the void by preserving itself.”

– Gilles Deleuze, What is Philosophy?

“Lucretius, whom you, oh Virgil, do not honor less than all of us, Lucretius, no less great than you, Virgil, although no greater, he was granted the comprehension of the law of reality, and the song into which he composed it came to be one of truth and beauty…”

– Hermann Broch, Death of Vergil

There are some limits beyond which thinking cannot reach, and if it does it cuts itself off from those primal concepts that tie it to the world; or, so goes the Sellarsian ‘myth of the given’. What is the compositional structure of the Void? What is time that its ‘fractures’ allow for thought and being to momentarily converge, splice, mangle, entwine indelibly, their filaments touching, entangled in a mesh of membranous surfaces, interpenetrating each others alternate domains of being and becoming in a dialectical dance of pure negativity? Deleuze in one of those sublime moments states:

“It is the empty form of time that introduces and constitutes Difference in thought; the difference on the basis of which thought thinks, as the difference between the indeterminate and determination. It is the empty form of time that distributes along both its sides an I that is fractured by the abstract line of time, and a passive self that has emerged from the groundlessness which it contemplates. It is the empty form of time that engenders thinking in thought, for thinking only thinks with difference, orbiting around this point of ungrounding.”

(Delezuze 1968: 354, 1994:276: tm)

Between the larval subject of habit and the individuated self of thinking the indeterminate differentiation of thought and thinking mesh in the fracture that splices in being into time’s multiplicities. Thought does not preexist thinking but emerges out of the intensive difference of those entanglements of differentiation of thinking itself. As Ray Brassier tells us it “is this act of ontological repetition that produces thinking as a ‘caesura’ in the order of time, which in turn introduces the fracture of time into thinking… The caesura establishes an order, a totality and a series of time” (182). 2 It is this subtle pause, the caesura, that throws time itself out of joint, that brings about the principle of non-identity, the fracture in identity as eternal return of difference. It is this principle of non-identity that overthrows the old Hegelian dialectic. No longer are we bound to the recursion of endless repetitions of the Same. Instead we live within the irreducible matrix of a multiplicity of times. How can time be multiple in itself and generate multiplicities while resisting any reduction to a space–time continuum? The original and foremost answer is that time must be a multiplicity of processes, where times are dimensions of one another according to asymmetrical syntheses. This is a time of resistance to settlement and to wholeness. It is a time forever inviting new, transformational and ephemeral constructions:

‘Thus ends the history of time: it undoes its physical or natural circles as too well-centered; it then forms a straight line, but one driven by its longueurs to reform an eternally decentered circle’ (DRf, 152–3).

But the structure of the resulting dialectic is very different from the Hegelian one. At the beginning, in this new dialectic, there is non-identity—at the end, open unfinished totality. In between, irreducible material structure and heteronomy, deep negativity and emergent spatio-temporality. Deleuze was on to something great. In its most general sense, this dialectic has come to signify more or less intricate process of conceptual or social (and sometimes even natural) conflict, interconnection and change, in which the generation, interpenetration and clash of oppositions, leading to their transcendence in a fuller or more adequate mode of thought or form of life (or being), plays a key role. But, as we shall see, dialectical processes and configurations are not always sublatory (i.e. supersessive), let alone preservative. Nor are they necessarily characterized by opposition or antagonism, rather than mere connection, separation or juxtaposition. Nor, finally, are they invariably, or even typically, triadic in form. To what may such processes, to the extent that they occur, be applied? Obviously to being, in which case we may talk about ontological dialectics, or dialectical ontologies which may operate at different levels.

“Alas, he knew this language, this twilight speech of literature and philosophy, the language of the benumbed, unborn word, dead before it was born; it had once been familiar to him also, and certainly he had believed then in what it expressed, believed or thought that he believed; now, however, it sounded alien, almost incomprehensible.”

– Hermann Broch, Death of Virgil

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Subjectivity and Void

“In a determinate Notion, universality and particularity immediately coexist; that is, the notion’s universality immediately “passes” into its particular determination. The problem here is not how to reconcile or “synthesize” the opposites (the universal and the particular aspects of a Notion), but, on the contrary, how to pull them apart, how to separate universality from its “otherness,” from its particular determinations. The absolute contradiction between universality and particularity can only be resolved, their immediate overlapping can only be mediated, when the Notion’s universality is asserted or posited (or appears) as such, in opposition to its otherness, to every particular determination. In such a move, the Notion returns “out of its determinateness into itself,” it reinstates itself “as self-identical, but in the determination of absolute negativity”— absolutely negating all and every positive content, all and every particular determination. The pure I (the Cartesian cogito, or Kantian transcendental apperception) is just such an absolute negation of all determinate content: it is the void of radical abstraction from all determinations, the form of “I think” emptied of all determinate thoughts. What happens here is what Hegel himself refers to as a “miracle”: this pure universality emptied of all content is simultaneously the pure singularity of the “I”; it refers to myself as the unique evanescent point which excludes all others, which cannot be replaced by any others— my self is, by definition, only me and nothing else. The I is, in this sense, the coincidence of pure universality with pure singularity, of radical abstraction with absolute singularity.  And this is also what Hegel aims at when he says that in “I” the Notion as such comes to exist: the universal Notion exists in the form of the I in which absolute singularity (it is me, only me) overlaps with radical abstraction (as pure I, I am totally indistinguishable from all other I’s).  In Paragraphs 1343 and 1344 of the Science of Logic, he then adds the “bad news” that accompanies the “good news” of the Notion’s return-to-itself from its otherness: “Individuality is not only the return of the Notion into itself; but immediately its loss”; that is, in the guise of an individual I, the Notion not only returns to itself (to its radical universality), freeing itself from the otherness of all particular determinations; it simultaneously emerges as an actually existing “this,” a contingent empirical individual immediately aware of itself, a “being-for-self”:

Through individuality, where the Notion is internal to itself, it becomes external to itself and enters into actuality … The individual, therefore, as self-related negativity, is immediate identity of the negative with itself; it is a being-for-self. Or it is the abstraction that determines the Notion, according to its ideal moment of being, as an immediate. In this way, the individual is a qualitative one or this. [Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, p. 621]

We find here already the allegedly “illegitimate” move from notional determinations to actual existence whose best-known version occurs at the end of the Logic, when the Idea releases itself into Nature as its externality. Let us avoid the standard idealist misunderstanding: of course, this speculative move does not “create” the flesh-and-blood individual, but it “creates” the “I,” the self-relating empty point of reference that the individual experiences as “itself,” as the void at the core of its being.”

       – Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. (Verso; 1 edition (May 22, 2012)

Slavoj Zizek: Living in the End Times

“Black will always have something melancholy in it…”
– Edmund Burke

“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”
– Slavoj Zizek

Welcome to the Apocalypse. Is the global capitalist system reaching an apocalyptic zero-point? Are the new riders of the purple sage, the four horseman of a new apocalypse rising in our midst, and if so who are they? Slavoj Zizek in his latest work Living in the End Times tells us they are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the bio-genetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (intellectual property rights, resource wars over food, water, and materials), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions. [1]

Are we living in fetishistic disavowal of the ultimate threat, that of some rogue nation rising up out of the hinterlands of unreason with a new mass weapon of destruction? He tells us this is already happening and no amount of pre-emptive strikes by the US and its allies to stop each new threat will succeed because they rely on an erroneous fantasmatic vision. (xi) We are all living under the sign of doom, a terminal condition that has no cure.

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