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.),

Zizek on Lacan & Karl Popper

For Lacan, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are the three fundamental dimensions in which a human being dwells. The Imaginary dimension is our direct lived experience of reality, but also of our dreams and nightmares – it is the domain of appearing, of how things appear to us. The Symbolic dimension is what Lacan calls the ‘big Other,’ the invisible order that structures our experience of reality, the complex network of rules and meanings which makes us see what we see the way we see it (and what we don’t see the way we don’t see it). The Real, however, is not simply external reality; it is rather, as Lacan put it, ‘impossible’: something which can neither be directly experienced nor symbolized – like a traumatic encounter of extreme violence which destabilizes our entire universe of meaning. As such, the Real can only be discerned in its traces, effects or aftershocks.

This triad is far from exclusively Lacanian – another version of it was proposed by Karl Popper (1902– 94) in his theory of the Third World (which is Popper’s name for the symbolic dimension or order).  Popper became aware that the usual classification of all phenomena into external material reality (from atoms to arms) and our inner psychic reality (of emotions, wishes, experiences) is not enough: ideas we talk about are not just passing thoughts in our minds, since these thoughts refer to something which remains the same while our thoughts pass away or change (when I think about 2 + 2 = 4 and my colleague thinks about it, we are thinking about the same thing, although our thoughts are materially different; when, in a conversation, a group of people talk about a triangle, they somehow talk about the same thing). Popper is, of course, not an Idealist: ideas do not exist independently of our minds, they are the result of our mental operations , but they are nonetheless not directly reducible to them – they possess a minimum of ideal objectivity. It is in order to capture this realm of ideal objects that Popper coined the term ‘Third World,’ and this Third World vaguely fits the Lacanian ‘big Other’. However, the word ‘order’ should not lead us astray here: Lacan’s symbolic order is not a fixed network of ideal categories or norms. The standard deconstructionist/ feminist reproach to the Lacanian theory targets its alleged implicit normative content: Lacan’s notion of the Name-of-the-Father, the agent of the symbolic Law which regulates sexual difference, allegedly introduces a norm which, even if it is never fully actualized, nonetheless imposes a standard on sexuality, somehow excluding those who occupy a marginal position (gays, transsexuals, etc.); furthermore, this norm is clearly historically conditioned, it is not a universal feature of being human, as Lacan allegedly claims. However, this reproach to Lacan relies on confusion apropos the word ‘order’ in the phrase ‘symbolic order’:

‘Order,’ in the legitimate sense of the term, designates nothing more than a specific domain: it does not indicate an order to be respected or obeyed, and even less an ideal to be conformed to or a harmony. The symbolic in Lacan’s sense says nothing but the essential disorder which emerges at the juncture of language and the sexual.

The Lacanian symbolic order is thus inherently inconsistent, antagonistic, flawed, ‘barred,’ an order of fictions whose authority is that of a fraud. It is on account of this inconsistency that, for Lacan, the three dimensions of Imaginary, Real and Symbolic are worlds intertwined like the famous Escher drawing ‘Waterfall,’ which shows a perpetually descending circuit of water. Our question here is: what type of event fits each of these dimensions? What is an imaginary event, a real event, a symbolic event? The question is so vast that we cannot deal with it in one stop – we have to change lines and make three connections from this stop.1

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 107-108). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Beyond Representation: Plato, Deleuze and the Simulacra

Reason is the black widow in the cage of time. Spiderlike sufficient reason allows nothing to escape its dark power. Even the infinite cannot escape the grasp of this deadly creature, the venomous touch of reason kills everything within its purview, and like its dark precursor dissolves even the smallest elements into the acid bath of its formidable categories: identity, difference, doubling, and reflection. Representation is the disease of time, the cracked wand of a dead wizard whose power is dispersed among the broken vessels of light scattered to the four corners of the universe. Like ministers to a dead god our philosophers and scientists serve a Master illusionist, a sorcerer who has hoodwinked them all into believing in the power of the mind to capture reality in a box, when in truth the Real is the wilderness that can never be captured by thought.

The dialectic sought to push contradiction to its supreme limits, when in fact the filaments of this web thrown across this universe of doubt was itself made of the very essence of identity it sought to dispel, instead of truth we discovered in this net the capture of difference within the logic of identity that makes it the sufficient condition for difference to exist to begin with. In Hegel the game was rigged from the outset, the player and the played were bound to the curve of sufficient reason and clarity all along, and the touted power of this method was bound to a monocentric system of circular ratios that left no doubts to chance and necessity. Do not be fooled by those others who offer you the incompossibility of the world, either. Between compossibility and incompossibility there is no true connection or reversal, the former is not reducible to the identical, and the latter is not reducible to contradiction.1

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Slavoj Zizek: Two Lacan’s – Radical/Conservative

…those who err are precisely those cynics who dismiss the symbolic texture as a mere semblance and are blind to its efficacy, to the way the symbolic affects the Real, to the way we can intervene into the Real through the symbolic.

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

Slavoj Zizek at the end of his discursive behemoth, Less Than Nothing, a convoluted yet brilliant divagation of the dialectic in all its ramifications enters the final stage, the stage of the political, the realm where the gap by which we as humans shall either produce something new or continue failing challenges us to think the gap of the political. Following Lacan as both radical and conservative, as a revolutionary that would push the ethics of symbolic realization and the ethics of confrontation bursting the bonds of the ego and pushing beyond the limits to the Real; and, then, in the last series of lectures, of a turn back from that abyss toward a more practical motion of psychoanalysis as a boat for the sick, a safety net in which  “One should not push an analysis too far. When the patient thinks he is happy to live, it is enough.”1 As Zizek puts it:

How far we are here from Antigone’s heroic attempt to attain the “pure desire” by entering the prohibited domain of ate! Psychoanalytic treatment is now no longer a radical transformation of subjectivity, but a local patching-up which does not even leave any long-term traces. (ibid)

It was this second Lacan, the conserver, the pale doctor of sick souls that would tempt his immediate keeper of the mantle, Jacques-Alain Miller, to accept the incurability of our subjectivity, to use it, to provide not a cure but a slow death between bodily jouissance and the acceptance of those semblances whose power marks the sacrifice of our lives limited finitude. Miller would provide a less than adequate critique of instrumental reason, a linkage between democratic culture and racism, a culture that used mathematical universalism and scientificity to demarcate the limits of reason and social hierarchies. The hegemony of science over language and positive knowledge, of its exclusionary practices and derogation of the humanities and other forms of knowledge would lead to a mode of universalism in which this passion became the end all for a culture of hedonistic enjoyment.

What this means is that a psychoanalyst occupies the position of an ironist who takes care not to intervene into the political field. He acts so that semblances remain at their places while making sure that the subjects under his care do not take them as real … (Kindle Locations 21584-21590).

The psychoanalyst no longer at the forefront of thought, becomes the ironist, and even the cynic of thought, he “doesn’t propose projects, he cannot propose them, he can only mock the projects of others, which limits the scope of his statements. The ironist has no great design, he waits for the other to speak first and then brings about his fall as fast as possible … Let us say this is political wisdom, nothing more”(ibid). With this we are lead to the defeat of the political, a Voltairean cynicism in which society is kept together only by semblances, “which means: there is no society without repression, without identification, and above all without routine. Routine is essential.” (ibid)

Such a world of routine and habit, repetition and abiding cynicism in which subjects know the truth of those semblances that hold them in thrall, but are unable to challenge their hegemonic power, allowing for only the hedonistic display of bodily jouissance as reprieve. Zizek tells us that only another alternative order, a new order of communism, one based on the idiosyncratic authenticity of a Utopia of misfits and oddballs, in which the constraints for uniformization and conformity have been removed, and human beings grow wild like plants in a state of nature … no longer fettered by the constraints of a now oppressive sociality, [they] blossom into the neurotics, compulsives, obsessives, paranoids and schizophrenics, whom our society considers sick but who, in a world of true freedom, may make up the flora and fauna of “human nature” itself.(Kindle Locations 21612-21615). In such a world ideology no longer resides primarily in taking seriously the network of symbolic semblances which encircle the hard core of jouissance; at a more fundamental level, ideology is the cynical dismissal of these semblances (Master Signifiers) as “mere semblances” with regard to the Real of jouissance (ibid).

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

A Short Note on Zizek

Reading and rereading parts of Slavoj Zizek’s Less than Nothing it came to me that the central figure within this work is not Hegel, but Lacan; and, its not Lacan as Lacan, but the repetition of Lacan as Hegel in Zizek. This strange misprisioning work continues Zizek’s long journey toward a political  emancipatory vision grounded in the gap, where reason and drive touch what is left of our fragile fractured being. What was once said of Lacan will be said of Zizek, that one will need to repeat his gestures, walk in his shoes, travel down those dark roads toward a world without Masters…

“The only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan.”

Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.1

The only way beyond Zizek is to meet him at the world’s crack…

1. Zizek, Slavoj  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 616-620). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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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