Slavoj Zizek: The Figure of the Postmodern Magus

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When I began thinking of this essay I began rereading that hyperreader himself Slavoj Zizek not as a philosopher, but rather as a postmodern magus conjuring out of the figurations of concept and notion the dialectical patterns of his own hagiography. Reading and rereading from Zizek’s vast oeuvre, which to be honest would take a few years to read once – much less the cycle of close and careful rereading necessary for scholarship or comparison of the many Zizek’s that have cycled through various iterations, completions, and transformations. Each of his works is part of a vast autobiography of a philosopher whose only endless subject has been just that – the Subject.

There is no consistency throughout this prodigious oeuvre, and yet there is a guiding thread that has always pervaded its labyrinth: an Ariadne scarlet thread of the Subject which has led closer and closer to that fatal beast at the center: the Void. One might say that all the books have been a prismatic ensemble on this empty swirl of the Void and Nothingness at the core of the human: the Subject. Like a postmodern magus Zizek has conjured up figuration after figuration of this never restless core of the inhuman from a thousand and one perspectives, turning the conceptual universe of the philosophers, scientists, and scholars every which way to understand the endless possibilities that condition our world.

One of the best, or – should I say, most revealing works on Zizek is Daly’s Conversations with Zizek. Still worth a read to understand the self-image of Zizek onto his own past life as man and philosopher. To understand Zizek is first of all to place him in his homeland, Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in postwar Yugoslavia. It was here that Zizek in his late teens would decided to become a philosopher. After University he was not allowed to teach philosophy, so was forced for eleven years to teach Sociology. Amusingly Zizek will tell Daly that philosophy was not his first choice:

For me, as is clear from my writings, it was cinema. I started when I was already about 13 or 14; I even remember which movies absolutely fascinated me when I was young. I think two of them left a mark on me: Hitchcock’s Psycho and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.1

Zizek has written extensively on cinema throughout his career, one of the more interesting being Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan . . . But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, along with The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory among other myriad essays and asides strewn throughout his oeuvre in essays, articles, and various off the cuff remarks.       

Asked when he came to the point that he was a philosopher he tells Daly he understood the central point that “philosophy is not simply a kind of megalomaniac enterprise – you know, ‘let’s understand the. basic structure of the world’ – that philosophy is not that”. (29) Going on to describe his central insight, that in Heideggerian terms, he came to the basic question of the structure of the world is important, the “notion of the world is not simply the universe or everything that exists” (29). Rather, for Zizek, the ‘world’ is a certain historical category, and understanding what the world is means, in transcendental terms, understanding some pre-existing, at least historically, a priori structure which determines how we understand how the world is disclosed to us. “This for me is the crucial turn.” (29) So epistemology, or how we come to understand how the world is disclosed (or conditions or view onto that world) to us is more important to him than the actual ontological question of the ‘structure of the world’ per se. The point for Zizek is not to speak the truth of the universe, but rather to uncover the common conceptual presuppositions that guide our understanding of the universe, whether as scientists or philosophers, or – even common humanity. So that Kant became the model of the philosopher for Zizek, not that he was correct, but that he asked the simple question: ‘What is it that we have to presuppose is true by the mere fact that we are active as ethical agents?’ (30)

In fact, for Zizek Kant was the beginning of philosophy, rather than the culmination of a certain tradition for the simple reason that he was able to stipulate this epistemic perspective in a way that none of the philosophers before him could. With the transcendental turn (inward turn) “Kant opened up a space from which we can in retrospect read the entire canon of previous philosophy” (30). For Zizek the key is to read all previous pre-Kantian philosophy by way of the Transcendental Turn: the hermeneutical approach, rather than ontological (31).

His love/hate relation to Heidegger’s philosophy comes from the era in question, one in which almost all philosophers were influenced by the German thinker. As he tells us “I am more and more convinced that Heidegger, in spite of all the criticism which he deserves, is the philosopher who connects us in the sense that, in a way, almost every other orientation of any serious weight defines itself through some sort of critical relation or distance towards Heidegger.” (32) It’s this tension and critical evaluation of Heidegger that is key, rather than the man’s life (which Zizek and others repeatedly detest for his moral stance in relation to fascism). For Zizek many in the nineteenth century were anti-Hegelian, while many in the post-modern vision were anti-Platonists, and those that would come later became -as he, anti-Heideggereans. And, the way that many of these anit-Heideggerans would go was the notion of “Oh, yes, Heidegger was right about this, but he ‘didn’t go far enough’.” He mentions Derrida, the Marxists, Foucault, and others in this regard.

He admits that the linguistic barriers to International philosophy were prevalent in Slovenia, and yet they were all reading (Zizek and friends) the new work of Derrida (whom he would later turn away from), whose works became a revelation to him and his circle as a way to distance themselves from Heidegger’s influence. It was not until 1975/76 that Zizek and others in his circle would make the transition to Lacan we see in his work now. From 1968 thru 1975 he admits Lacan was incomprehensible to him. As he admits he was never a Marxist per se, although influenced by aspects of Althusser, for the simple reason that the hard-liner Marxists in his own country were dogmatists who were “ferociously opposed to French thought: structuralism, post-structuralism etc.” (35). Because of his interest in French thought the rulers of the educational systems in Slovenia would disallow Zizek from teaching. So he would spend several years unemployed and unemployable: “I was young, I had a child, I was unemployed and, to their credit, they were quite honest about the situation. They told me that in the present political situation it would be out of the question for me to become a teacher…” (35). So that for almost 10 years from 1969 (Graduation) to 1979 when he finally was given a post in sociology (“through my Heideggerian friends, I got a job at the Department of Sociology in the Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana”) he lived on the skids with the help of friends.

Yet, as he admits for him this difficult period of life was not to be expunged, but rather to be what it was for him an ‘opportunity’. Telling Daly that if he’d gotten a job earlier “I would now be a poor stupid unknown professor in Ljubljana, probably dabbling in a little bit of Derrida, a little bit of Heidegger, a little bit of Marxism and so on” (37). The point for him was that such a rough and tumble life was a ‘blessing in disguise’ (38). He was able to secure for a couple of years a position as Foreign liaison for Lacanian events, and came under the tutelage of Jacques-Alain Miller for whom Zizek says that it was Miller’s Lacan to which he is subservient: “I must say this quite openly that my Lacan is Miller’s Lacan. Prior to Miller I didn’t really understand Lacan, and this was for me a great time of education.” (38) In fact it was the study of one of Miller’s seminars that would be the most formative of Zizek’s life:

a whole semester we studied Kant with Sade, line by line, then we went on to ‘Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, and so on. Again, this really opened up Lacan to me. Without that, it would be something totally different probably. That was my big formative experience. (38)

The other formative event in Zizek’s life came with a return to Slovenia and working within the Communist system, realizing that at root it was based on cynicism, or – as he suggests, the acknowledgement of not being too serious about one’s ideology; and, in fact, realizing that for the top echelons in the Party a distancing from those who were too dogmatic, too serious as potential threats to the stability of the party, as verging on dissidence from within.  One might see this in American politics as well, of the almost carnival Hollywood aspect of politics as charade, as a Reality TV extravaganza with clowns and puppets on the stage (and, the biggest threat is to discover someone who is too serious! to the Established Rules of the Political Game).

For Zizek having been raised up under the old Stalinist guard and hard-liners he has been immersed in that universe of meaning for so long that the metaphors he falls back on are from that era. He told Daly he has tried to wean himself from it but that it is so pervasive in his psyche that he naturally falls back into the pit. “So, if anything, the transference is still going on, I am not yet over it. I fully admit it, but it is also my pleasure.”(40)

Zizek as Con Artist comes out in his anecdotal history of the Society of Theoretical Psychoanalysis that he, Alenka Zupancic, Mladen Dolar initiated to publish works. The Society itself does nothing. Once in a while students will come from foreign lands to visit and document the archives of the Society and Zizek will relate to them that there are none, that in Slovenia to publish one must do so through an institution, so the three of them had gone through the tedious task of gaining this from the bureaucracy of the Central Committee. He also admits that another part of his con was to lift stationary from various universities he’s traveled too outside his country so that if a student or colleague needed funding to travel outside to a conference or event he would use this stolen stationary to make up a fictional introduction to gain the funds for these various travel expenses etc.

So we faked it all, whatever was needed, all the data – and of course we always invented the colloquium. I mean, I simply said ‘on behalf of’ and I faked the name so that none of my friends would be offended if it all came out. At some point I remember once that there truly was a colloquium, but I said, no, this is not ethical and so I invented another one. I said I cannot stand writing the truth, it must be a lie. (42)

This sense of the Trickster is prevalent in Zizek, another aspect of his being a postmodern Magus who uses trickery and deceit to circumvent the regulated Reality systems of Tyranny and the State. “I am a workaholic: I do my work, but I have this terrible desire to fake things at this level; to fake institutional things. I think that everything to do with institutions should be faked. I don’t know what this is, I never analyse myself I hate the very idea of analysing myself.”(43) One could probably spend a long while uncovering the traces of the Trickster Gods in Zizek’s make-up, from Loki to Coyote this sense of overturning the powers that be, of a certain cunning reason that circumvents the reality protocols that make up the Symbolic Order of the Big Other etc. But, I too, will leave that for others.

Speaking of the Philosopher as philosopher Zizek believes there must be a Collective Project, but not a collective dialogue; instead, philosophy is a singular enterprise: “No, I think that with all radical, true philosophers, there is a moment of blindness, and that is the price you have to pay for it. I don’t believe in philosophy as a kind of interdisciplinary project – this is the ultimate nightmare. That’s not philosophy. We philosophers are madmen: we have a certain insight that we affirm again and again.”(45) I remember Graham Harman suggesting that all philosophers produce at most one great idea, which they reiterate under various guises and in myriad perspectives over and over in tedious repetition. For Zizek the  idea or concept is the “Subject” under its various guises and multifaceted thought forms. In this sense philosophy is not so much the pursuit of Wisdom, as it is a madness in love with its Idea. Usually philosophers when they castigate another philosopher its because their one idea does not mesh with the one that philosopher is fetishizing. Maybe all philosophers have a monocular vision concerning Ideas, especially their own. Speaking of his troika with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupancic and their friendship in an ongoing philosophical community: “We talk a lot, we discuss, but ultimately we are alone, and this works perfectly I think. We don’t take any workshops together. When we need to talk, we talk. There is an old romantic formula: the true company is only when you can share your solitude, or some such rubbish. And that’s how we function.” (46)

I can see this is leading me into a long post… I’ll continue this another day. For me Zizek is a touchstone of contemporary thought. I don’t always agree with him. Yet, many have tried to disparage him, take his provocative statements and twist them about against him, which seems to be dubious at best. Many speak of him second hand, or from disparaging and erroneous critiques of his work or statements by enemies. To me if you’re going to spend time developing a relation to a philosopher, especially one who has spent time milling about in the psychoanalytical world of Freud and Lacan, postmodernism, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, etc., then one should get to know that man behind the mask. This group of conversations may not reveal the real Zizek (is there such a thing?), but rather the refracted mirror image in its broken crystals. None of us is whole (All), we’re all mere fragments of time and memory, traces of events and non-events, scramblings of the noise and music of our age. Zizek is a part of the high-low cultural baggage of our age, a man who incarnates both its contradictions and its questions. I am not done with him. Emerson wrote a book, Representative Men. In my mind’s eye Zizek is one of those Representatives of our Age. There can be no correct view of the man or philosopher. As Harold Bloom once stated there can only ever be “interesting readings or misprisionings”. As a postmodern Magus Zizek conjures up the self-reflecting nothingness of the Subject/Self through all its mutant disguises and repetitively demonstrates the split or gap between it and that in a comedy of dialectical prose that belies the never-ending restlessness of his mind.


  1. Daly, Glyn; Zizek, Slavoj. Conversations with Zizek (Conversations) by Slavoj Zizek (2003-12-30) Polity.

Zizek and Harman: Strange Bedfellows

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[I]t is not possible to clearly distinguish the inconsistencies of our notion of an object from the inconsistencies which are immanent to this object itself. The ‘thing itself’ is inconsistent, full of tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’.1
—Slavoj Zizek

The basic dualism in the world lies not between spirit and nature, or phenomenon and noumenon, but between things in their intimate reality and things as confronted by other things.2
—Graham Harman

The passage above brings me back to someone Zizek never mentions except in regards to Levi Paul Bryant (Democracy of Objects) and Timothy Morton (Hyperobjects) in his new book Disparities. Here is Harman on Objects:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. Given that objects never seem to enter into relations, what does enter into relations? If objects cannot affect one another directly, then perhaps they do so by means of qualities. The notion of free-floating qualities, stripped away from any underlying substance, is the central theme of a group of philosophers already termed the carnal phenomenologists. Following Husserl, they recognize that the objects aimed at by intentional acts never quite become visible. Nonetheless, we do not just float through a void, pointing sadly at the ineffable: we also live in the world as in a medium, enjoying juice and sunlight, suffering and dying from epidemics. We inhabit a sensual space in which, strictly speaking, objects cannot be present. Yet there are objects everywhere, like black holes or vacuums hidden from sight. By following the tension between these two moments of human perception, it may be possible to unlock the tensions found in the universe as a whole.(20)

In another place Harman will tell us that the notion of “tensions” is central: “We already know that Husserl departs radically from traditional realism, shutting out the existence of the natural world altogether and letting phenomena rule the cosmos. But even within this limited phenomenal sphere, we encounter a classical problem of philosophy that marks a central theme of the present book: the deep-seated tension between a single object and its manifold qualities.”(29)

This sense of the drama within an object, the tension between the real and sensual, the gap opened up that brings as Zizek says of it the full gamut of “tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’”. Strangely Zizek and Harman are gazing at the same thing from two opposing perspectives which seem oddly aligned in a perverse tension that one should not try to resolve, but rather hold onto and continue to keep hold of the gap between them while at the same time seeing in their diverse vision something akin to weird realism and materialism upon the same event.

Zizek prioritizes physics over biology and the neurosciences as a philosopher. For him the central motif of ontological dualism that is central to his dialectical materialism is derived by way of analogy to the quantum notion of decoherence:

to look at the precise ontological duality at work in decoherence, a duality totally foreign to classical metaphysical dualities (the sphere of Ideas in contrast to the ‘lower’ sphere of material objects, the sphere of actual life experience in contrast to the illusions it generates, etc.). Decoherence refers to the so-called collapse of the quantum field of oscillations, to the passage from quantum universe defined by the superposition of states (a superposition which forms a coherent multiplicity) to classic ‘realist’ universe composed of self-identical objects. In this passage, a radical simplification occurs: the coherent mulplicity of superposed states ‘decoheres’, one option is cut off from the continuum of others and posited as a single reality. (ibid. KL 1042)

This is where Zizek without realizing it comes close to Harman’s notion of withdrawal, applying the notion of subtractive act rather than Harman’s term ‘withdrawal’:

The paradox (for the metaphysical tradition) is here that our ordinary stable reality emerges as the result of the subtractive act (decoherence) out of the fluid quantum oscillations. (ibid. KL 1055)

In other words the objects in our universe come out of quantum flux by way of a separation that is at once a subtractive act and a withdrawal into singularities. So that our external universe is a fully deployed realm of objects withdrawn from each other, and yet as we learn there is a split within the objects themselves into real and sensual, invisible force and sensual appendage. What we perceive is the free-floating qualities used by the invisible forces of the objects much like dark matter and dark energy interact with the visible universe.

Obviously one can take this support of quantum physics only so far by way of analogy, and both Harman on Zizek use it sparingly realizing the pitfalls of such a path or methodology of linking disparities. In fact both thinkers pit the disparities and tensions among thought forms, both linguistic/descriptive and matheme/symbolic in a struggle without end. As Zizek will state it:

In our standard metaphysical (and commonsense) tradition, the primal reality is firm actual objects which are then surrounded by the aura of virtual waves that emanate from them. With regard to the distinction between subjective and objective, actual real things exist ‘objectively’, while virtual oscillations arise from their subjective (mis)perception. What ‘objectively’ exists in the quantum universe is, on the contrary, only wave oscillations, and it is the subject’s interventions which transforms them into a single objective reality. In other words, what causes the decoherence of these oscillations, what constitutes objective reality, is the subjective gesture of a simplifying decision (measurement). (ibid. KL 1056)

In other words the difference that makes a difference is the determination of perception whether of Zizek’s Subject or Harman’s Object, both agreeing that what constitutes an interaction between two objects is the mediation in-between; or, what both will refer to as the ‘vanishing mediator’. The point being that objects never directly act on each other, but only through a medium. When we look out on the world what we see is the medium, the sensual world of qualities: light, sun, water, mist, fog, heat waves, clashing gongs of sensual reality. We never perceive the underlying structures and forces supporting the sensual war of elements around us. And, yet, the structure is not of the Classical Aristotelian kind either. Not some substantial realm of Ideas, etc. (in the Platonic sense). As Zizek states it:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute proto-reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The agency which registers the collapse of the wave function is not in any sense ‘creating’ the observed reality, it is registering an outcome which remains fully contingent. Furthermore, the whole point of quantum physics is that many things go on before registration: in this shadowy space, ‘normal’ laws of nature are continuously suspended – how? Imagine that you have to take a flight on day x to pick up a fortune the next day, but do not have the money to buy the ticket; but then you discover that the accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within twenty-four hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know it was not paid prior to departure. (KL 1061)

So in the above Zizek is stating that there is a brute dualism in our Universe that is imprinted on the very medium of our sensual objects of perception, and that such is registered through external processes that do not (as in Kant and anti-realists) construct or create the observed reality but rather register it retroactively while accepting the contingency of all events (i.e., they could have turned out otherwise).

What’s interesting and funny at the same time is Zizek comes close to Harman’s notion of Vicarious Causlity and the Occasionalist forerunners when he says:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): one can cheat insofar as the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The theological implications of this gap between the virtual proto-reality and the fully constituted one are of special interest. Insofar as ‘god’ is the agent who creates things by way of observing them, the quantum indeterminacy compels us to posit a god who is omnipotent, but not omniscient: ‘If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that He is not observing the small.’ (KL 1078)

Occasionalism  brought to the fore the problem of causality between things and operations or acts. Philosophers have long wondered about the nature of causality. Are there true causes at work in the world, and, if so, what makes them the causes they are? How do causes bring things about, and what kind of connection does a cause have to its effect? These questions took on another level of complexity when various religious and theological considerations were brought to bear on these issues. For instance, philosophers came to question how divine causal activity is to be understood, particularly, in relation to the natural causality of creatures. It is from this context, in which questions about the nature of causation intermixed with questions about the relation between divine and natural causality, that occasionalism emerged. Occasionalism attempts to address these questions by presenting as its core thesis the claim that God is the one and only true cause. In the words of the most famous occasionalist of the Western philosophical tradition, Nicolas Malebranche, “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; …the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes” (OCM II, 312 / Search 448) As the Stanford article relates:

A full-blown occasionalist, then, might be described as one who subscribes to the following two tenets: (1) the positive thesis that God is the only genuine cause; (2) the negative thesis that no creaturely cause is a genuine cause but at most an occasional cause. Not all philosophers who have been identified as occasionalists, however, were full-blown occasionalists in this sense, since some argued that only a limited subset of creatures lack causal powers, and thus affirmed the causal efficacy of other creatures. In addition to this issue of the scope of occasionalism, we will, in the following sections, examine how these core theses of occasionalism address the issues aforementioned and what arguments are presented in their favor. 3

Harman would secularize this notion and subtract divine intervention from the equation. Levi’s article on Larval Subjects is probably one of the best expositions of Graham’s notion of Vicarious Causation (pdf). Levi will tell us that there are three characteristics of this notion: it is vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered. By vicarious as Levi states it after Harman What he means by vicarious is that no entity directly interacts with or encounters another entity. As Graham writes, “I [speak] of vicarious causation. A vicar is the earthly representative of something that need not act in person. But the same must be true of causation itself” (48).  By asymmetrical Levi remarks “if it is true that objects only ever relate to sensual vicars and never directly with other real objects, then this no longer holds true. This for two reasons. First, because sensual objects only exist on the interior of a real object, when one real object affects another real object through the intermediary of a sensual vicar, it doesn’t follow that the affecting real object will be affected in its turn. Second, it does not follow that the affected object will be affected according to the nature of the affecting object. Harman writes, “…I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one” (50). What the object relates to is not the other real object, but rather the sensual object that exists in the interior of the affected object.” And,  Levi relates the third characteristic of vicarious causation is that it is buffered. As Harman writes, “[w]hat I mean is that things can be in contact with something else without being fully in contact with them, just as the philosopher loves wisdom without fully possessing it” (50 – 51).

As Zizek in his comic stance on occasionalism and vicarious causation from his atheist reasoning tells it:

The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before its environs ‘take note’ of the discrepancy) is a way to cheat god himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: god himself doesn’t control the quantum processes, therein resides the atheist lesson of quantum physics. Einstein was right with his famous claim ‘God doesn’t cheat’ – what he forgot to add is that god himself can be cheated. Insofar as the materialist thesis is that ‘God is unconscious’ (God doesn’t know), quantum physics effectively is materialist: there are microprocesses (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system. And insofar as God is one of the names of the big Other, we can see in what sense one cannot simply get rid of god (big Other) and develop an ontology without big Other: god is an illusion, but a necessary one. (KL 1084)

Strangely this aligns with R. Scott Bakker’s notion of Blind Brain Theory but on a Cosmic Scale of lunacy. The notion that this Big Other, the God or Symbolic Order is Blind to his/its own machinations and processes (disturbingly similar to the Blind God of the Gnostics, too.). But as Zizek will point out God is but a name for our objective Symbolic Order (Big Other).

On a final note we’ll let Zizek conclude:

The theory of decoherence is an attempt to explain the collapse of a wave function, that is, the passage from the netherworld of quantum oscillations to our ordinary reality, in an immanent way. The role of external observer in the theory of decoherence is therefore ambiguous, and therein resides its strength. Its basic claim is that decoherence (collapse of the wave oscillations) occurs only at the ‘higher’ macroscopic level, being registered by an observer – at the quantum level, nothing changes, coherence remains. This, however, in no way implies that we have to presuppose an external observer in whose eyes (in whose registering mechanism) decoherence occurs. One is almost tempted to claim that theorists of decoherence apply a new version of the old dialectical-materialist law of the passage of quantity into a new quality: when quantum interaction reaches a certain quantity, wave function collapses since the object in a way begins to ‘observe itself.’ Therein resides the strength of decoherence theory: it endeavours to articulate the purely immanent way a quantum process engenders the mechanism of its ‘observation’ (registration). Does it succeed? It is up to the science itself to provide an answer. (KL 1090)

It’s in this gap between wave and particle, coherence and decoherence that the oscillating tensions of Zizek’s and Harman’s philosophies touch base, collide and make contact. The duality between the symmetrical quantum level of pre-ontological chaos, and the asymmetrical realm of sensual appearance. And, as Harman will remark (relating to the epigraph I used at the beginning):

With this single conceptual step, metaphysics is freed from its recent pariah status in philosophy—supplanting all phenomenologies, hermeneutic circles, textual disseminations, linguistic turns, and other philosophies of access, and thereby regaining something of its former status as queen of the sciences. There is no question here of reviving the old style of metaphysics of presence criticized so vehemently by Heidegger, Derrida, and their various heirs. After all, the implication of the tool-analysis is that objects never become present—not even by means of some sort of gradual, asymptotic approach. All that really needs to be abandoned in the Heideggerian position is his unspoken assumption that the gap between Dasein and the world is the sole philosophically significant rift, the single chasm across which all of the problems of philosophy unfold. This assumption stems most directly from Husserl’s rejection of all naturalism, but is ultimately grounded in the Copernican Revolution of Kant. However, if we push the tool-analysis to its limit, we actually find that all relations in the cosmos, whether it be the perceptual clearing between humans and world, the corrosive effect of acid on limestone, or a slap-fight between orangutans in Borneo, are on precisely the same philosophical footing. (74-75)

In this sense both Zizek and Harman are moving philosophy back into the ‘things-themselves’, where everything is on the same footing and no one stance or observer (Big Other/Master Signifier) reigns.


  1. Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (Kindle Locations 998-1000). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  3. Lee, Sukjae, “Occasionalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

On Land, Zizek, and Speculative Realism: The Mediation of the Real

What’s always been interesting in the current battles between materialist, vitalist, and speculative realist philosophies is that they all seem to dispute where to begin: the dialectical materialists and vitalists begin with the pre-ontological and formless void, then turn toward an emergent ontology arising out of it; while SR starts at that point when substance or form has already emerged, battling over just what it is that form and substance are without ever appraising the pre-ontological (or as Harman likes to put it: it’s objects all the way down).

I seem to float between Zizek and Land. Land begins in the formless ocean of energy – the vitalist stream of process and becoming he sees in Nietzsche and Bataille a non-dialectical process that never enters into any form of static substance, ever. Zizek seems to oscillate between form (Substance/Subject) and formlessness (Void) never resting in either world, always moving like a desperate thought between the two. Where Land is non-dialectical, Zizek is dialectical. For me there is a parallax view between the two that has yet to be assayed.

Or as Zizek says of parallax view:

“The common definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stations, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or, to put it in Lacanese, the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze.” (http://www.lacan.com/zizparallax.htm)

In this sense it coincides with Nietzsche’s sense of Zarathustra’s statement that one must be wary of staring into the abyss lest “it stare back” (paraphrase). This sense of the object gazing back becomes in Graham Harman’s system the notion of when two objects gaze into each other a third object is formed in excess of the original objects, thereby forming something new that is neither one nor the other. In this sense they form a parallax view onto each other; or, as Harman would say “Every relation needs a mediator.” So that for Harman:

“My view is that this problem arises directly from Latour’s “flat ontology.” If all actors are equal, then you cannot avoid an infinite number of mediators between any two entities. Yet the solution provided by object-oriented philosophy is that there are two kinds of objects, not just one: there are real and sensual objects that mediate each other one at a time, much like the north and south poles of a magnet which alone can make contact, leading to a potentially endless chain of magnets. … As for “weird realism,” it denotes a kind of realism that is not simply a question of matching the contents of the mind with a real world outside the mind. My sort of realism is “weird” because it claims that the real is too real to be known, or too real to be accessed. I choose the word “weird” because of its desirable association with things that never fully appear insofar as they are not quite of this earth: Shakespeare’s “weird sisters,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “weird tales.”” (http://figureground.org/interview-with-graham-harman-2/)

So in this sense Harman when he says that “the real is too real to be known” he would take us back to Socrates; or, as Land says:

“By interpreting contact with the unknown as the deferral of judgment by the subject, translating the positivity of sacred confusion into the negativity of epistemic uncertainty, Socrates initiates the proper history of the West.”1

So in this sense it’s a battle whether one argues from and for an epistemic stance (Zizek) over the ‘ontic’ or reduction to some static known or physical substance, and rather opts for either a non-dialectical or dialectical parallax view onto the object that one relates to within the mediation. The problem that one must resolve is not that there is relation and mediation, but rather is this mediator conceptual or energetic? This seems to be the battle among current philosophies. We’ve discussed Zizek’s and Harman’s views, below are Brassier and Land.

Brassier opts for the concept as mediator. “…many philosophers follow Hegel in defining the ‘concrete’ as that which is relationally embedded, in contradistinction to the ‘abstract’, which is isolated or one-sided. In what follows, the terms ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ do not designate types of entity, such as the perceptible and the imperceptible or the material and immaterial. They are used to characterise the ways in which thinking relates to entities. As Hegel showed, what seems most concrete, particularity or sensible immediacy, is precisely what is most abstract, and what seems most abstract, universality or conceptual mediation, turns out to be most concrete.”  (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wandering-abstraction)

Land says: “Everything is mediated by elucidations, re-elucidations, elucidations of previous elucidations, conducted with meticulous courtesy…” or “mediation assumes a kind of quarantine, whereby the interaction of organism-specific id and exo-organismic reality can be monitored and negotiated, collapsing libidinal circuitry into a polarity of the psychic and the extrapsychic, inside and outside.”2

Both Brassier and Land speak in almost Zizekian terms of oscillating between inside/outside, Brassier more formally reverting to the ‘concrete universal’ of Hegelian abstraction; while Land, energetic as always, moving among Freud’s libidinal dialectic; yet, both are in the end agreeing on a dialectical vision of mediation so that even Land succumbs to Hegel whether he will or no. Strangely, so did Bataille, who also struggled with and against Hegelian dialectics. Only Zizek would emerge from this battle with a notion of the Void within the Void – a return to Democritus’s notions that matter is void (“empty, immaterial”).

With Harman we come upon the notion of “vanishing mediator,” which strangely – due to his readings of Zizek would take an inverse relation to that philosopher’s use of the term. Whereas Zizek in The Ticklish Subject would bring to the fore is a thematization of the Subject as some kind of disjunctive “and”:

The key point is thus that the passage from “nature” to “culture” is not direct, that one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither nature nor culture—this In-between is silently presupposed in all evolutionary narratives. We are not idealists: this In-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on Homo sapiens, enabling them to form his supplementary virtual symbolic surroundings, but precisely something that, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos—the Freudian name for this In-between, of course, is the death drive. Speaking of this In-between, it is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose such a moment of human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal and simultaneously not a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized,” “derailed” nature which is not yet culture.3

Harman in his first work would discuss this notion, saying,

Zizek is perfectly right to point to the impossibility of correlating ontic choices to the ontological gap between presence and absence. It should also be clear that human existence never occupies the point of either pure immersion or pure awareness: “the ‘specifically human’ dimension is thus neither that of engaged agent caught in the finite life-world context, nor that of universal Reason exempted from the life-world, but the very discord, the ‘vanishing mediator’ between the two.” This ambivalent discord goes by many names in Heidegger, among them geworfener Entwurf, thrown projection. I have argued in this book that projection is no more primary than the thrownness, and hence, that the future has no real priority over the past.4

This brings into play another agreement between Land and Zizek over Harman. Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation, or against Harman – the notion that the future does have a priority over the past. Playfully Zizek in Absolute Recoil will tell it this way,

The book’s title refers to the expression 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. The most concise poetic formula of absolute recoil was provided by Shakespeare (no surprise here), in his uncanny Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, Scene 2):

O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt.5

Hegel uses the term “absolute recoil” in his explanation of the category of “ground/ reason (Grund),” where he resorts to one of his famous wordplays, connecting Grund (ground/ reason) and zu Grunde gehen (to fall apart, literally “to go to one’s ground”):

The reflected determination, in falling to the ground, acquires its true meaning, namely, to be within itself the absolute recoil upon itself, that is to say, the positedness that belongs to essence is only a sublated positedness, and conversely, only self-sublating positedness is the positedness of essence. Essence, in determining itself as ground, is determined as the non-determined; its determining is only the sublating of its being determined. Essence, in being determined thus as self-sublating, has not proceeded from another, but is, in its negativity, self-identical essence.6

In a final explication we quote from Zizek one last refrain:

To put it in traditional terms, 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.”7

Nick Land always an opponent to a certain type of dialectical thinking will harken back to Socrates to begin his attack, saying,

With Socrates, things are different. Philosophy becomes dialectical; which is to say justificatory, political, logical, plebeian. Truth is identified with irrefutability, evidentiality and educated belief, beginning its long subsidence into the forms of human credence, as if its acceptability were in any way a criterion.8

For Land Socratism is the mobilization of unknowing on behalf of knowing; subordinating irony to dialectic, confusion to judgments and the sacred to a subdued profanity.9

Land, favoring Maoist over Leninist/Stalinist Marxism and dialectics will offer an appraisal:

The Superiority of Far Eastern Marxism. Whilst Chinese materialist dialectic denegativizes itself in the direction of schizophrenizing systems dynamics, progressively dissipating top-down historical destination in the Tao-drenched Special Economic Zones, a re-Hegelianized ‘western marxism’ degenerates from the critique of political economy into a state-sympathizing monotheology of economics, siding with fascism against deregulation. The left subsides into nationalistic conservatism, asphyxiating its vestigial capacity for ‘hot’ speculative mutation in a morass of ‘cold’ depressive guilt-culture. (FN, KL  6110-6114).

Yet, in the end Land’s non-dialectical of base materialism begins in a rejection of physicalism or reductionary substantive formalist and scientific factuality:

A cosmological theory of desire emerges from the ashes of physicalism. This is to presuppose, of course, that idealism, spiritualism, dialectical materialism (shoddy idealism), and similar alternatives have been discarded in a preliminary and rigorously atheological gesture. Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is nothing but a scorch-mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.10

Land’s reading of Hegel unlike Zizek’s would see dialectical materialism as part of a redemptive system of saving the appearances, etc. as substantive formalism writ out in absolutist terms. Zizek’s Hegel is read through Lacan and vice versa as a non-substantive or immaterialist system wherein the Void or Less than nothing replaces substantive matter of physicalism. So that in some ways and by circuitous route both Land and Zizek are in agreement as to the dephysicalization of matter, but disagree over desire. Zizkek following Lacan sees in desire lack seeking the Object a; Land following Deleuze will see the unconscious as productive rather than lacking or needful, and will build an energetic or constructive notion of desire as desiring machines, as producer of desires.

In the end there will remain no reconciliation among these various philosophers, only open war and disparity.


  1. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3310-3311). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 4489-4491). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 39.
  4. Harman, Graham. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 206-207). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  5. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 1-2). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  6. ibid. (pp. 3-4)
  7. ibid.
  8. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3255-3257). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. ibid.
  10. Land, Nick. A Thirst for Annihilation. (p. 26)

Slavoj Zizek: This is not a Humanitarian Crisis

zizek

Zizek in his latest video has caused a stir of FB, so I thought I’d try to transcribe what he says and then close read it. (I neither support nor attack, but have tried to inform and relay the message for those interested.) I embedded it below as well.

He tells us the refugee migration out of Syria must be put into perspective, saying: “This is not a humanitarian crisis!” In the video he uses an example from cinema in which a view of refugees being saved in the last moments from boats coming into Greece. He’ll admit this is tragic, but that it misses more than it shows, saying, “What we need to do in cinematic terms is that the shot begins with a close up, but we should then slowly pan out till what we see in the old Marxist terms call the ‘social totality’.

The he asks: “What is going on? We should begin to ask the real question of who is responsible for this crisis? And, I don’t think it is only Western liberalism that is responsible for it. When something happens in a Third World country like Rwanda or others certain leftist think it must be a consequence of neo-colonialism. No, sorry, things like ISIS, things like the expansion of Islam, so on and so on. This is not a passive reaction, this is an active project, they are also active agents.”

The TV host then asks: “What is the solution then? How do you tackle this… what is your solution?”

Zizek: “Now this may shock you, but I think this is the only concept that Leftist – from a truly Leftist position: I don’t think too much integration is good. I think what we need in our multicultural mixed society is a degree of ‘distance’. My ideal today is not to live together with all these rent racist culture – “we all love each other”: No! I admit it openly, there are things about them I don’t understand, and probably there are many things that appear weird to them in what I do. I want to allow ignorance, and then from time to time, of course, its wonderful…”

The TV host then asks: “Then you have polarized communities, and you have a potential rise of extremism? If you have people living in entirely separate enclaves?”

Zizek: “No, actually here comes another problem, I claim that extremists… Look closely at their life stories, they are not truly excluded, they are deeply fascinated by those Western culture, and they kind of side with it deeply. They envy it. If anything, this wave of young people, ready to fight for ISIS and so forth. They react to a certain type of integration that didn’t work.”

The TV host asks: “So if you’re saying you have to respect each other’s differences, and stop trying to integrate, where does that leave Britain with Europe and the European Union… On whether to stay in or leave?”

Zizek: “First let me correct you, I love these marginal spheres where different identities intermingle and so on, this is usually the source of the site where interesting things happen. And let’s say don’t enforce it, it’s a catastrophe…”

TV Host: “So what I want to know is where does it leave the UK’s relationship with the European Union? Or we better off being part of one big happy family… or… – Zizek interrupts…” (She seems more interested in the UK than in the actual issue of the refugees. As if the refugee issue was a side issue, and that the issue of the UK staying or exiting the EU is a more important issue.)

Zizek: “No we’re not happy, we all know… I think the only way to fight the destructive aspect of Global Capital is through transnational connections. The problems we are facing today … intellectual property, ecological problems, and so on… biogenetics… These are problems which can only be properly approached large international operations.”

TV Host: “Stay in and reform is clearly in site?”

Zizek: “I’m a little bit tired of people saying, “Oh Europe is dead, it’s over. Sorry why are there so many people… haha … Because they still have this dream, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an illusion. No! As we know in politics illusions have a certain political efficiency. And this illusion is not a bad one. Europe needs a land, a place where you can combine a certain level of freedom, safety, weak social solidarity, minimum of welfare and so on… This part of the European legacy is worth fighting for.”

Liberal Universalism & Zizek’s Dialectical Critique

What’s always amazing is that Zizek is attacked by Western liberals as not being one of them, and is attacked by Communist hard-liners as not being a true Marxist. Zizek being an agent provocateur of culture and the political arena has always fallen into hyperbolic overstatement and shock appeal.

Zizek is a provocateur, he says shocking things not only to wake people out of their complaisance, but also to make them think and think again. He seeks to make you look not at the obvious statement out of context, but rather to what it reveals in what is concealed. In the old school meaning Zizek inverts the traditional meaning of the agent provocateur, and becomes a secret agent of alternative cultures who encourages people to carry out a political change against the present ideology of Western global capitalism. His method is to incite people out of their lethargy, to awaken them and to as well cause the opponent to do counterproductive or ineffective acts against him (i.e., criticize him, or foster public disdain or provide a pretext for aggression against him, etc.). The agent provocateur activities raise ethical and legal issues in every culture, but in the West they are usually labeled and renounced through the pressure of Press and Media.

If one has carefully read Zizek over the years he’s always taken the low road, spun tales of disgust and shock against the usual liberal humanist creeds and notions of Universalist discourse which has brought many in the West to both misunderstand and place him against himself. Many even from the communist side see him as the enemy from within and hate him for it. What’s always been strange for me is that many people never dip below the surface texture of his works, but rather accept the media caricature of Zizek the Clown, rather than the actual dialectical arguments he presents. Our culture is losing its traditions in humanistic learning, and because of that we are losing the force of what Marxist dialectical materialism once was: a humanistic enterprise. Of course, that’s the point of many academics in our moment: humanism is the enemy, right? The early Marx, influenced by Feuerbach’s humanistic inversion of Hegelian idealism, articulated a concept of species-being, according to which man’s essential nature is that of a free producer, freely reproducing their own conditions of life. However, under capitalism individuals are alienated from their productive activity insofar as they are compelled to sell their labor-power as a commodity to a capitalist; their sensuous life-activity, or labor, thus appears to them as something objective, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. To overcome alienation and allow man to realize his species-being, therefore, the wage-labor system itself must be transcended, and the separation of the laborer from the means of labor abolished.

Zizek’s argument in this video is not truly about segregation or integration, etc.. It’s about the Liberal West’s imposition of universalist standards of morality and ethical dilemmas upon a Third World culture who does not share those standards or ethical beliefs. Because of racism and slavery in our own Western liberal heritage we have over time battled for integration and the breaking down of walls and hierarchies separating peoples of all nationalities, race, and culture. But that there are those in the Third World who do not share our Universalist discourse, nor our ethical dilemmas; and, in fact see them from other perspectives and claims. For Zizek our imposition of Liberal Western ideology of integration may not only cause more strife but lead to more terrorist acts when we impose our systems and ideologies upon the refugees against their will. For us this is hard to accept, but what he’s saying is that we have yet to learn to listen to them and what they want. Maybe it’s time to  listen to the refugees rather than imposing our high and mighty liberal ethics of responsibility, etc. upon them without asking them what they want or need.

Zizek is neither for segregation or integration, which for him are part of Western liberalist tradition and politics – and, therefore a problem rather than a solution; instead he sees not only great that divisions are walls against the other, rather than those of solidarity among; and, both sides of the issue need a certain distance and respect, one that seeks a level of interaction rather than Universalist imposition. As he’ll suggest we need neutral sites where people from both sides can intermingle and cohabitate ‘spaces of freedom’ without forcing or enforcing legal or ethnic enclosures. He also sees that this is a question about Global Capitalism rather than the refugees, and that it will take a larger transnational concourse of all earth’s nations to resolve this issue, not just the imposition of Western liberalist ethics and ideology, the so to speak democratic universalism which has been tried and has failed across the globe.

As far as the notion of UK leaving or staying he supports the need for the EU as a larger entity with its ramifications for economic well-being, but that it must do more to actually benefit the member nations rather than as now imposing arbitrary austerity and legal servitude upon them.

Zizek is not so much against Universalism per se, only the form of Western liberalism’s use of it. As he’d say in another interview about communism as he sees it:

Instead of asking the obvious stupid question: what is the idea of communism still pertinent today? Can it still be used as a tool for the analysis and political practice? One should ask, I think, the opposite question: how does our predicament today look from the perspective of the communist idea? This is the dialectic of old and the new. If communism is an eternal idea then it works as a Hegelian concrete universality. It is eternal not in the sense of a series of abstract features which can be applied to every situation, but in the sense that it has the ability, the potential to be reinvented in its new historical situation. So my first conclusion: to be true to what is eternal in communism, that is to say, to this drive towards radical emancipation which persists in the entire history from ancient times of Spartacus and so on, to keep this universal idea alive one has to reinvent it again and again. And this holds especially today. As Lenin put it one should begin from the beginning.

So that his defense of ‘concrete universalism’ over Western liberal Enlightenment forms of abstract universalism becomes the order of the day. The point of this form of ‘concrete universalism’ is that it arises out of concrete historical situations from below, rather than being imposed from above like some absolute law. And, this form of ‘concrete universalism’ is bound to the historical dilemmas of temporality, and because of this are always needing to be reinvented if situations change – as they always do. Or as he says, “this universal idea” must be reinvented “again and again”.

Zizek plays into this history, but has taken his cue from Hegel’s notions of ‘concrete universalism’. Zizek in another interview will say:

Humanism is not enough. In the same way that Freud talks about meta-psychology. There must be a dimension above it. Theology is another name for meta-psychology, for something that is in Man more than Man, the inhuman core of Man etc. These are very precise terms. It’s interesting how many American theologists with whom I debated, they were very close to what I’m saying. They accepted this. They told me “If this is materialism, I’m a materialist.” That is to say that God is  not an old man sitting up there pulling the strings etc. God is just a name for this void, openness, this inhuman, more than human. I think that we should rehabilitate, and we all agree here with my friends, Badiou, Agamben, me, of course not in the sense of “Let’s kill them” inhumanity, more than human, trans-human dimension.(19)

The video…

 

On Slavoj Žižek: The Stranger in our Midst

The true question is not “are immigrants a real threat to Europe?”, but “what does this obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Europe?”
– Slavoj Žižek: What our fear of refugees says about Europe

First is their such a unity as ‘Europe’ anymore? And, to describe it as having a ‘weakness’ concerning an “obsession with the immigrant threat” tells us what exactly? Zizek, as usual, sets up a straw dog, a fictional entity against which he can begin an argument not about the economic entity known as the EU, nor of any of its member nations and their present immigration policies and politics, but rather he will draw a Lacanian comparison of psychopathology telling us this problem is like that of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy whose anti-Semitism will serve Zizek as a notation form current anti-Islamic ideology throughout many countries of the European nations.

This so to speak ideology is based on two dimensions he’ll tell us: fear “against the Islamization of Europe…”; and,  the other dimension is the humanitarian idealization of refugees. And, like the liberal democrat socialist that he’s become of late he’ll tell us of these various nations of Europe that there “is no place for negotiated compromise here; no point at which the two sides may agree”. As if this was just a matter of bringing people to the table for a nice chat, a friendly talk over the fine points of sociopathy and psychopathological inhumanity; as if we could just reason together and come up with a universal solution viable for all, etc. In fact, as he’ll suggest the task before us is none other than “to talk openly about all the unpleasant issues without a compromise with racism”. Listen to that sentence carefully “all the unpleasant issues” without “compromise with racism”, as if we should admit to ourselves openly there are unpleasant issues that must be brought out into the open without pulling us back into the old fascisms of scapegoating and exclusion that have dominated European politics for millennia; with the hint of WWII and the Nazi holocaust shadowing over all of this table talk.

Instead we should put the shoe on the other foot, why not bring the one’s in question to the table for a talk in this manner too? Zizek never even mentions such a breach in the political etiquette of negotiations, instead he mentions that arch conservative Catholic G.K. Chesterton who will remonstrate humans as the alienated animal, the animal that is not at home on earth, not at home in their body, but rather a “stranger” and alien in the midst of those nonhuman creatures we share this planet with. Then he’ll  bring it down to this notion of one’s culture, one’s “way of life” – custom, habit, law, ethics, etc., all those things that form and shape our lives in a life-world. What Lacan would call our Symbolic Order within which we move and breath like automatons of some vast network of power and knowledge (Foucault). Finally he admonishes that the “point is thus not to recognise ourselves in strangers, but to recognise a stranger in ourselves – therein resides the innermost dimension of European modernity. The recognition that we are all, each in our own way, weird lunatics, provides the only hope for a tolerable co-existence of different ways of life.”

So is this it? Is this the wisdom of Zizek? We should honor the lunacy of our stance, that seeing the stranger in ourselves is allowing the lunatic out into the light of day? As if admitting we are all raving lunatics we’ll suddenly learn to tolerate those strangers in our midst and their way of life. What wisdom is this? Has Zizek turned preacher, a sort of soap-box speaker dreaming of peace and kumbaya? We should all dance and sing around the lunatic table of our strangerhood and become brothers, sisters, children of the greater light of toleration and co-existence because of our acknowledgement of lunacy and strangerhood?

Maybe I’m a little more realistic… lunacy usually leads to dire and dark places, more violent and atrocity ridden than Zizek on his good days might imagine. I remember reading from his book, Violence another truth that is more likely to remain and cause further division:

The fundamental divide is one between those included in the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it.1

That’s the real divide in all European nations, the divide between those who have and those who do not, the prosperous and the excluded poor, migrant, refugee, worker, proletariat, precarious citizen, etc. Do you think they might actually come together over that? Or, even better let all those excluded in their midst have the ability to speak for themselves at this table of economic and social negotiation? Offer all those excluded strangers in their midst, both citizen or refugee, a way to gain a real life worth living rather than just a tolerable co-existence in the midst of degradation and corruption? Maybe they should just wipe the entire debt system, start fresh, open those hidden books of the corrupt bankers in their midst, all those rich plutocrats and oligarchs, politicians and statesman, etc. who have imposed generations of austerity on the poor and excluded.


 

  1. Zizek, Slavoj (2008-07-22). Violence (BIG IDEAS//small books) (p. 102). Picador. Kindle Edition.

Franco Berardi: Future Civil-War or Žižekian Emancipatory Politics?

Franco “Bifo” Berardi in his latest doomsaying tirade on e-flux offers us a vision of the world gone mad: “Mental illness is not the rare malady of an isolated dropout, but the widespread consequence of panic, depression, precariousness, and humiliation: these are the sources of the contemporary global fragmentary war, and they are spreading everywhere, rooted in the legacy of colonialism and in the frenzy of daily competition.”

As we hear from Dana Priest and William M. Arkin in their  Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, America has grown a massive Security State that is not just concerned with turning its eye outward, but has entered into a private spy world aimed directly at its own citizenry. Since 9/11 the FBI’s counterterrorism structure had grown three times larger than it had been before. Straitlaced criminal investigators whose goal in life had been to send bank robbers to prison— the sooner, the better— were now trying to turn themselves into spies and the FBI into a domestic intelligence agency that monitored more and more people— with all the appropriate legal authority, of course.1

Even at the level of day to day life we don’t face mass censorship. We still have Habeas corpus. And the odds of any single person being victimized by a wrong-door raid, shot or beaten by a cop, or otherwise victimized by militarized police violence are slim to nil. But perhaps we have entered a police state writ small. At the individual level, a police officer’s power and authority over the people he interacts with day to day is near complete. Absent video, if the officer’s account of an incident differs from that of a citizen— even several citizens— his superiors, the courts, and prosecutors will nearly always defer to the officer.2

Continue reading

Slavoj Žižek: Angel of History vs. Demon of the Future

“It is easy to be wise after the event.”
………― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

“But all these hints at foreseeing what actually did happen on the French as well as on the Russian side are only conspicuous now because the event has justified them. If the event had not come to pass, these hints would have been forgotten, as thousands and millions of suggestions and supposition are now forgotten that were current at the period, but have been shown by time to be unfounded and so have been consigned to oblivion.”
………― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Slavoj Zizek in his magisterial Less Than Nothing describes an anecdotal history of Schelling’s arrival in Berlin in 1841 ten years after the death of Hegel. Schelling – an old philosopher himself by this time, would come to Berlin and start teaching there, answering the call by the Prussian king himself to fight the “dragonseed of Hegelian pantheism” with its “facile omniscience,” Karl Rosenkranz, a leading pupil of Hegel, wrote that he was “delighted” by this prospect:

I looked forward to the fight that this occasion must cause. I rejoiced in quiet over what by all appearances would be the toughest test of the Hegelian system and its adherents. I revelled in the feeling of progress, which for philosophy must spring from this. I greeted this challenge as a phenomenon never before encountered in philosophy, where a philosopher should have the power to step beyond the circle of his creation and grasp its consequences, which in the history of philosophy until now is without precedent.1

Zizek describing this event as a form of hindsight or retroactive mediation – this notion of Rosenkranz’s “feeling of progress, which for philosophy must spring from this,” says:

It is effectively as if, on such occasions, an impossible encounter takes place: a philosopher is somehow able to step onto his own shoulders and see himself, his thought, “objectively,” as part of a larger movement of ideas, interacting with what comes after. What is the philosophical status of these “retroactive” rejoinders? It is all too easy to claim (in the postmodern vein of the “end of the grand narratives”) that they bear witness to the failure of every general scheme of progress: they do not so much undermine the underlying line of succession (from Kant to late Schelling) as, rather, highlight its most interesting and lively moment, the moment when, as it were, a thought rebels against its reduction to a term in the chain of “development” and asserts its absolute right (or claim).2

This notion that the “philosopher is somehow able to step onto his own shoulders and see himself,” reminds one of Nietzsche’s critique of “free-will”. In his 1886 philosophical treatise Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche uses one of the Baron Münchhausen adventures, the one in which he rescues himself from a swamp, as a metaphor for belief in complete metaphysical free will; Nietzsche calls this belief an attempt “to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness”. Yet, for Zizek it is about hindsight and progress (more of a decision/determination and justification after the fact) in Doyle and Tolstoy, the sense of a retroactivation of insight into an event that retroactively activates the notion that “thought rebels against its reduction to a term in the chain of “development” and asserts its absolute right (or claim)”.  For him this is an illustration of how Hegelian reconciliation works — not as a positive gesture of resolving or overcoming the conflict, but as a retroactive insight…”3 So that this retroactivity accounts for the specific temporality of reconciliation of which hindsight is the outcome.

One might be tempted to name it the Epimetheus syndrome (i.e., in Greek Ἐπιμηθεύς, some see this as meaning “hindsight”, literally “afterthinker”):

According to Plato’s use of the old myth in his Protagoras (320d–322a), the twin Titans were entrusted with distributing the traits among the newly created animals. Epimetheus was responsible for giving a positive trait to every animal, but when it was time to give man a positive trait, lacking foresight he found that there was nothing left.

Prometheus decided that mankind’s attributes would be the civilizing arts and fire, which he stole from Zeus. Prometheus later stood trial for his crime. In the context of Plato’s dialogue, “Epimetheus, the being in whom thought follows production, represents nature in the sense of materialism, according to which thought comes later than thoughtless bodies and their thoughtless motions.” (see Wiki)

Yet, to see this as a positive is to misrecognize Hegelian logic for if there is a “semantic choice” that underlies Hegel’s thought, it is not the desperate wager that, retroactively, one will be able to tell a consistent, all-encompassing and meaningful story in which every detail will be allotted its proper place, but, on the contrary, the weird certainty (comparable to the psychoanalyst’s certainty that the repressed will always return, that a symptom will always spoil every figure of harmony) that, with every figure of consciousness or form of life, things will always somehow “go wrong,” that each position will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction.4

Against Mobilism as Zizkek describes it in  The Speculative Turn (2011):

The main feature of historical thought proper is not ‘mobilism’ (the motif of the fluidification or historical relativization of all forms of life), but the full endorsement of a certain impossibility: after a true historical break, one simply cannot return to the past, one cannot go on as if nothing happened—if one does it, the same practice acquires a radically changed meaning.

But against this motif of “mobilism” Zizek will ask: How, then, does the truly historical thought break with such universalized “mobilism”? In what precise sense is it historical and not simply the rejection of “mobilism” on behalf of some eternal Principle exempted from the flow of generation and corruption? As he remarks “the key resides in the concept of retroactivity which concerns the very core of the relationship between Hegel and Marx: it is the main reason why, today, one should return from Marx to Hegel and enact a “materialist reversal” of Marx himself”.5

Zizek in Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism will relate two forms of retroactivity:

First, following Pippin the meaning of our acts is not an expression of our inner intention, it emerges later, from their social impact, which means that there is a moment of contingency in every emergence of meaning. But secondly there is another more subtle retroactivity involved here: an act is abyssal not in the sense that it is not grounded in reasons, but in the circular sense that it retroactively posits its reasons. A truly autonomous symbolic act or intervention never occurs as the result of strategic calculation, as I go through all possible reasons and then choose the most appropriate course of action. An act is autonomous not when it applies a preexisting norm but when it creates a norm in the very act of applying it.6

This is his nod to free-will as “free acts”: free acts are distinguished by the reason to which a subject might appeal in justifying them, and justification is a fundamentally social practice, the practice of “giving of and asking for reasons” by participants in a set of shared institutions. Even at the individual level, expressing an intention amounts to “avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge.”  It is not until my intention is recognized by others and myself as being fulfilled or realized in my deed that I can identify my act as my own.  Justification thus turns out to be more retrospective than prospective, a process in which the agent’s own stance on her action is by no means authoritative. Being an agent, being able to provide reasons to others to justify one’s deeds, is thus itself an “achieved social status such as, let us say, being a citizen or being a professor, a product or result of mutually recognitive attitudes.”7

So it’s this social compact or collective recognition after the fact or “to be more retrospective than prospective,” that makes it non-intentional rather than intentional or directed etc., which coincides with Tolstoy’s notion of eventual acts as “only conspicuous now because the event has justified them” (see above). This is Zizek’s Ethics of Event and Act – his critical materialism: the retroactive justification of hindsight or Epimethean logic of dialectical materialism; or, as Sherlock Holmes says: “It is easy to be wise after the event.”

The Angel of History

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

…………….— Walter Benjamin, Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Is this not the image of the philosopher of the Act? A secular angel turned toward the catastrophic event and ruptures of the past, yet who is caught up in a future retrospection in which it is impossible to repose in the present? Han Jonas, a friend of Benjamin’s and a scholar of Gnosticism once remarked of those ancient Valentinians who make no provision for a present on whose content knowledge may dwell, in beholding, stay the forward thrust:

There is past and future, where we come from and where we speed to, and the present is only the moment of gnosis (knowledge) itself, the peripety from the one to the other in the supreme crisis of the catastrophic now.8

Bloom in commenting on this passage will puzzle “I take it that this is why a Gnostic never learns anything, because learning is a process in time”. (ibid. p. 58) In this sense the philosopher does not learn anything about this past, instead the philosopher like the Angel of History is force to see the vast ruins of time past piling up like a massive explosion through time into the flowing future of the Angel’s sad movement into the future. Yet, what is known through seeing is a mapping and a writing, a scoping and telescoping of this urgency of a time always open to redemption. (Benjamin)

If as Novalis once surmised that philosophy is the “desire to be at home everywhere,” then the Zizekian/Lacanian mode of desire is the desire to be elsewhere, the desire to be different. Zizek’s philosophy has a catastrophic character. For him the form of progress is crisis: the absolute recoil from the traumatic Real of the event may be
evident in Descartes’s reification of the subject as a thinking thing, Kant’s attempt to ontologize “this I or he or it (the thing) that thinks” or more strongly his inability to delve into obscure foundations of unruliness and diabolic evil, or in Hegel’s mature system as a covering up of the madness of the night of the world, it is only by recourse to Schelling that he can retroactively posit such a self-deploying disavowed knowledge that deepens itself through the trajectory of tradition and knowing.9

The “gap” between the movement of the Angel into the future and the knowing/seeing of the event or rupture of the ruinous and catastrophic past is the very present within which the philosopher cannot repose: this “gap” can never be filled in, it is ultimately repressed due to its traumatic, personality-shattering quality, so that we find traces of its disavowed knowledge in the slips and slides of speech, symbolic inconsistencies and non-coincidences in writing, the images of fantasies and dreams, and other phenomena. (Carew, p. 30)

If for Hegel true knowledge begins when philosophy destroys the experience of daily life, such destruction a phase on the way to the Universal – as the orthodox Hegelians would have it, a truth that finally negates both the per se existence of the object and the individual perceiving consciousness or Subject. Then for Zizek the reverse is true in the Lacanian reading of Hegel in the sense that the truth remains with the knowing Subject: the patient labor of the Negative. The Angel of History in his redemptive act of retroactive intervention.

Against any sense of Bergsonian duree (duration), cosmic fate, and time as measure and the quantified chain of destiny, etc., the Angel of history is withdrawing or contracting from the past, opening a “gap” in the present not that it should be filled in with our fantasies, but rather the void of the present becomes what the poet Stéphane Mallarme in describing the supreme irony of the supreme blue void of the sky called a “sterile desert of sorrows”: our world of appearances as a cosmos of mirrors that mirror nothing but the void within which we are trapped in the symbolic and psychotic order of madness.

Benjamin in his thesis will remark the “past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.   That claim cannot be settled cheaply…. even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he triumphs. And this enemy has not ceased triumphing.” In this sense Benjamin like those ancient Gnostics developed the most daemonic negative theology in post-Marxian times.

Zizek unlike Benjamin follows these truths up to a point, the point at which there can be no transcendence, no Savior or A-Cosmic God beyond the veil of time and space, outside all Being who is himself a prisoner awaiting the moment all the sparks are gathered, etc. for the redemption. No. Zizek sees us stuck in the time of times, circling in the void of the death-drives, in the entropic “night of the world”; and, yet, “it moves” Eppur Si Muove.

Freud once said that “negation, the derivative of expulsion, belongs to the instinct of destruction.” Negation in this form is seen as the process by which the Subject selects terms to express its ambivalence.10 In a reading of David Lynch’s Blue Highway Zizek will disparage what he perceives as spiritual or New Age Gnosticism, saying,

This approach culminates in the reading of Lynch as a New Age dualistic gnostic whose universe is the battlefield between two opposed hidden spiritual forces, the force of destructive darkness (embodied in evil figures like Bob in “Twin Peaks”) and the opposing force of spiritual calm and beatitude. Such a reading is justified insofar as it implicitly rejects the interpretation of Lost Highway as a new version of the arch-conservative warning against delving too far behind appearances: do not go too far, do not try to penetrate the horror that lurks behind the fragile order in which we live, since you will burn your fingers and the price you will pay will be much higher than you think… (p. 26)11

What Zizek is against in the New Age Gnosticism he sees around him is the notion of an “optimistic twist”, that the vortex of the abyss is nonetheless not the ultimate reality: that beneath it, there is the “domain of pure, peaceful, spiritual Rapture and Beatitude” (ibid., p. 26). Instead for Zizek the horror is right in front of us, there is nothing behind the stage or screen, no magic world of love and peace, nothing but this world of “rotary drives” (Schelling).

Benjamin would criticize such pessimism that regards fundamental change as impossible and that tells us that historically, utopian dreams have been losing propositions (i.e., Zizek’s “lost causes”). As an antidote to resignation, Benjamin proposes “the gift of fanning the spark of hope [that was] in the past,” as if memory could ignite a kind of prairie fire across the generations. Such memory is identified by Benjamin as “the quintessence of Judaism’s theological concept of history.” Embedded within Jewish tradition is extraordinary hope – Biblical accounts of Exodus and of the Maccabees, for instance, remind us that liberation movements can succeed against seemingly invincible power structures.12

Zizek on the other hand will not embed himself in any religious mythology of redemption, but rather as he says of 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. (LTN, KL 616)

So against Benjamin or even the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation Zizek remarks that in politics, against those who think “we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one;  [we should instead] reject this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan.” (LTN, KL 626-628)

Conclusion: Enlightened Catastrophism

Zizek says we should practice what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls “enlightened catastrophism”: one accepts the final catastrophe— the obscenity of people killing their neighbors in the name of justice— as inevitable, written into our destiny, and one engages in postponing it for as long as possible, hopefully indefinitely. Here is how, along these lines, Dupuy sums up Günther Anders’s reflections apropos Hiroshima: On that day history became “obsolete.” Humanity became able to destroy itself, and nothing can make it lose this “negative omnipotence,” even a global disarmament or a total denuclearization of the world. The apocalypse is inscribed as a destiny in our future, and the best we can do is delay its occurrence indefinitely. We are in excess. On August 1945 we entered the era of the “freeze” and of the “second death” of all that existed: since the meaning of the past depends on future acts, the becoming-obsolete of the future, its programmed ending, does not mean that the past no longer has any meaning, it means that it never had any meaning.

It is against this background that we should read the basic Paulinian notion of living in an “apocalyptic time,” a “time at the end of time”: the apocalyptic time is precisely the time of such an indefinite postponement, the time of freeze in-between two deaths: in some sense, we are already dead, since the catastrophe is already here, casting its shadow from the future— after Hiroshima, we can no longer play the simple humanist game of insisting that we have a choice (“ It depends on us whether we follow the path of self-destruction or the path of gradual healing”); once such a catastrophe has happened, we lose the innocence of such a position, we can only (indefinitely, maybe) postpone its reoccurrence. (LTN, KL 21878-21893).

So that instead of the Angel of History we have the Demon of the Future, an alien power or dispotif  of catastrophe at the core of the Capitalist project itself that is cannibalizing the present in a self-lacerating bid to stave off the doom awaiting it. In rancorous denial of the facts of the sixth extinction, climate-change, and any of a number of other aspects of the future we’re moving toward it attacks all who would defend the truth. Capitalism locks us in an eternal present or “crack” in time, hoping to forget the past and future alike. It seeks a transhumanist agenda that would obliterate the natural in us, create immortals, and produce an infospheric virtuality of idealist pretense – an ontologized psychosis of information, abstraction, and infinity for its supporters, while pushing an agenda of exclusion and cultural suicide and amnesia for all those outside its Human Security Systems. Like Peter Sloterdijk’s cynics of the enlightened “false consciousness” these minions of the reactionary world all act against their better knowledge – the gnosis (freedom), knowing that today the situation within the global-capitalist superstructure is entering its end-game of catastrophe, ruin, and apocalyptic annihilation (i.e., take your pick of catastrophes – climatic, asteroid, pandemic, desertification, plutocratic exit, nuclear war, global civil-war…); it knows itself to be without illusions and yet knowing this still seeks out its doom eager demise like a pirate who bluffs his way into the infernal paradise.


 

  1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 3271-3275). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 3276-3282).
  3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4784-4785).
  4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4835-4840).
  5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4843-4847).
  6. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 21). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  7. AR: ibid. (p. 18)
  8. Bloom, Harold. Agon. (Oxford, 1982)
  9. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)
  10. Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Princeton University Press (August 5, 2012)
  11. Zizek, Slavoj. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; First Edition edition (April 1, 2000)
  12. see Raymond Barglow: The Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of Hope and Despair. Published in “Tikkun Magazine,” November 1998

 

Radical Idealism: The Extimate Core of Transcendental Materialism

When it comes down to it we’re all Idealists caught in the prison house of the symbolic order of culture: it determines the boundaries and limits of what is thinkable. The moment you use or enter language, math (matheme) or natural (linguistic) you are trapped in the iron cage of the play of signifiers in an infinite circle without exit or end: a psychotic universe of solipsistic self-lacerating sophistication. This is the core of the poststructuralist rational myth; or, the Anti-Realist stance par excellence. One can never break out of the cage and into the Real. In such a universe of meaning “thought and being” are One. Yet, does this mean we can do nothing? No. This is but the beginning of an exit strategy. For if the truth be told it is out of acknowledgement of our predicament that we can intensively pursue a new radicalization of the correlational circle of Idealism; push it to its extimate limits.

One is always borrowing from the future. Think of the Mobius strip that is folded back on itself in such a way that the inside/outside distinction vanishes. No matter how far one travels on this surface one will never reach beyond into some alternate world, one is always riding upon the surface of an unbounded curve around the extimate core of universe in and endless strange loop folded and refolded into itself: a paradox that appears irresolvable but by its very nature offers within its own insurmountable obstacle a way out. Think of a Mobius strip as social time: the temporal history of one’s life, or the history of Society, or even the Universe.

As Molly Anne Rothenberg describes extimate causality in The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change:

One can define each point on the band as here or there, but each point is excessive with respect to the determination of its “sidedness.” The Möbius band suggests a field in which both the paradoxical boundary of external causation and the infinite mutual implication of cause and effect of immanentism cease to be problematic. We can define points of contact that are not so discrete as to become uncoupled, thanks to the non-determination or excess embodied in the band. This excess alters the apparently rigid boundary between sides (or between cause and effect): non-determinate sidedness means that causes are not quarantined from their effects because the excess brings them into contiguity. At the same time, these points and their relations have a certain specifiability; they do not merge into one another as they do in the infinite flux of immanentism.1

She’ll describe the social field in which the subject is situated in terms of a non-orientable object, an excess within the temporal distortion that is both non-determinant and acts by way of an “operation we will call the formal negation” (Rothenberg, p. 32). As she remarks: “We can say, then, that each subject is a Möbius subject, a site of non-determinate “sidedness” or switchpoint, if you will, which lends to the social field its character as non-orientable object” (Rothenberg, p. 32). Because of this we can define “extimate causality, as the alternative to both external and immanent causation, produces the excess that links subject to social field” (Rothenberg, p. 32).

One imagines Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction as a paranoiac hermeneutics: an endless search for the missing signifier: the movement of an infinite play of subjects on a Mobius strip, each seeking the undecidable hole of meaning that will allow them to escape the prison house of the Symbolic Order. Or as Zizek will say of it we can think of the modern Leader who is obsessed by plots – “to rule is to interpret” is the perfect formula of Stalinism (Rothenberg, p. 31). But as Zizek will relate:

the fantasy of breaking out of the closed circle of representations and re-joining the pure outside of the innocent presence of the voice – a voice which is in excess of the self-mirroring prison-house of representations, that is, which needs no interpretation but merely enjoys its own exercise. What is missing here is the way this innocent externality of the voice is itself already reflexively marked by the mirror of interpretive representations. (Rothenberg, p. 32)

To radicalize Idealism is to discover that even though we are locked within the cage of correlationism unable to escape into the “Great Outdoors” of Being, we can nevertheless act, produce certain inevitable “unintended consequences” due to the very complexity of the symbolic network which is always overdetermined (paranoiac hermeneutics) by meaning; as well as, realizing that those very acts by their nature produce unintended consequences that “emerge from the very failure of the big Other, that is, from the way our act not only relies on the big Other, but also radically challenges and transforms it” (Rothenberg, Forward). The big Other being none other than this Symbolic Order within which the Subject is caught as if within a fly trap, glued to the surface of a Mobius strip, gliding through the temporal decay of entropic life, etc. But against this symbolic order as Zizek will emphasize the “awareness that the power of a proper act is to retroactively create its own conditions of possibility should not make us afraid to embrace what, prior to the act, appears as impossible” (ibid.).

Once we have seen that “[t]he opposition between idealistic and realistic philosophy is therefore without meaning,” we can develop a metaphysics critically rather than dogmatically. This dissolves the worry regarding how we can have access to the world from within the clutches of subjective thinking. To say that the Real is a product of thought is not to lapse into a Berkeleyan form of idealism wherein reality is simply created by the subject: “the Real is not some kind of primordial Being which is lost,” but rather “what we cannot get rid of, what always sticks on as the remainder of the symbolic operation.”2 Rather it is by this very operation that we have an indirect but methodologically secure entry point into the world by means of the inconsistencies that our notional apparatus generates in the freely determined self-generation of the universe of meaning, inconsistencies that unexpectedly let us develop an objective discourse. (Carew, p. 270)

It’s these inconsistences and failures in the symbolic order of meaning that give us an opening onto the Real. Radical Idealism by its very nature becomes contaminated, as it were, by a constitutive “outside” as soon as it tries to posit itself in its own self-determining freedom, so that it must constantly struggle with this outside. As Zizek states it:

There is a Real not because the Symbolic cannot grasp its external Real, but because the Symbolic cannot fully become itself. There is being (reality) because the symbolic system is inconsistent, flawed, for the Real is an impasse of formalization. This thesis must be given its full “idealist” weight: it is not only that reality is too rich, so that every formalization fails to grasp it, stumbles over it; the Real is nothing but an impasse of formalization—there is dense reality “out there” because of the inconsistencies and gaps in the symbolic order. (C, p. 271)

This is the extimate core that cannot be reduced to symbolic inscription or description: the excess that leaves us in the impossible, restless and struggling against the obstacle of the “Outside”. Set adrift upon the sea of linguistic traces knowing it has failed us utterly, yet knowing that it is this very failure that opens a door upon the Great Outdoors of Being. Ontological solipsism is only apparent, for materialism justifies itself in the cracks of a radical idealism: the very condition of possibility of discourse means that discourse is always more than itself, even if that means that its very possibility coincides with its impossibility. (Carew, p. 271) As Žižek correctly points out, “[t]he irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic tradition ends with Hegel, the ‘last philosopher,’ who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the Symbolic with no external support of its truth.” (Less Than Nothing, pp. 76-77)

What we learn from this is that rather than falling into naïve idealism the self-referential nature of thinking itself always already depends upon and is entangled with the world, thereby attesting that the split between knowledge in itself and for us exists not because we are separated from the world, but because we are  a part of it, included within its extimate core: “the very limitation of our knowing—its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character—bears witness to our inclusion in reality.” (Carew, p. 272) This in a nutshell is the extimate core of Transcendental Materialism (i.e., dialectical materialism in Zizek’s vein). In this respect, radical idealism (reflection, notional constructs, language as such) creates the space of reasons in virtue of which things can present themselves to us as they are in reality in itself. As Carew commenting on Zizek remarks,

Instead of merely separating us from the world, the reflexivity of the Ideal thereby allows objects to have meaning for us as something more than objects to be used by specialized biological or natural needs. We symbolize them, grant them a place in discourse, a discourse whose failures make it seem as if a world out there directly attacks our concepts and theoretical models when, in fact, we never exit discourse at all, for only its self-sustaining matrix can sustain phenomenal reality as a universe of meaning. (Carew, p. 272)

It’s this strange double nature of language and the Real as impossible, desutured as the are, forever cut off from each other that allows communication and manipulation between the two intelligibly through the reflective mediation of language itself which by its very inconsistencies, gaps, cracks, and failures opens us to what is incomplete in language and the Real. But we cannot sit back and relax here for the great work of the moment is to push the limits of radical idealism from within idealism (an epistemological sublation of the correlation). To do this we must also overcome it from the side of being by showing how the ambiguities of idealism are in fact a part of the world’s fundamental structure through an account of how being comes to appearance/thinking/phenomenalization (an ontological inscription of the correlation). (Carew, p. 273) The crack or gap in the Symbolic Order is also in the Real. It is only by way of the “vanishing mediator” of the Subject that the two realms meet and form a new relation and thereby produce the bridge between them not by filling this gap with fantasies but rather by “tarrying with the negative” in the very failure to bring closure to the gap between thought and being. By acknowledging that the Ideal and the Real are both inscribed within each other as open and incomplete that we begin to register the truth of the negative that brings thought and being into relation without closing them into identity. It is the very non-identity of thought and being within the Subject that is Transcendental Materialism unbounded and moving along the axis of that Mobius strip of infinity, oscillating between two voids.

Zizek’s Call for a Critical Metaphysics

Against any return to the pre-critical heritage of the Rationalists, or being stuck in the correlational circle of Kantian system and freedom, Zizek supports a move toward a critical metaphysics. As Carew outlines it:  a true speculative philosophy should comprehend both the Real in its pure non-correlationality (the nonhuman) and how correlation comes to pass in being (the human). Perhaps unexpectedly, the price we pay for this theoretical gain of re-inscribing humanity into nature, that is, the latter’s minimal anthropomorphization, is a simultaneous denaturalization of nature and a dehumanization of humanity. (Carew, p. 275)

Zizek’s move is to combine an idealist epistemology with a dynamic realist metaphysics in one single gesture of a post-finitude philosophy. The breakthrough in Kant was not so much his supposed Copernican Revolution as it was that in his philosophy for the first time “the subject loses its substantial stability or identity and is reduced to the pure  substanceless void of the self-rotating abyssal vortex called  “transcendental apperception.” (LTN, p. 631) It’s the discovery of the “void” not the Subject that is central. Neither fully ontological nor yet part of the symbolic register the Subject-as-Void and pure negativity linked to both the Todestrieb that destroys the homeostasis of nature and the Symbolic Order of Culture without it becoming second nature and overdetermining the gap at the heart of our subjectivity, it acts as Zizek’s “absent centre that, by protruding out of all ontological and symbolic structures, negatively ties them together in its very undecidability” (Carew, p. 276). Ultimately this relation between the ideal and real in the subject leads us to “see in what way two lacks overlap in this impossible object: the constitutive lack of the subject (what the subject has to lose in order to emerge as the subject of the signifier) and the lack in the Other itself (what has to be excluded from reality so that reality can appear).” (LTN, p. 642)

Any critical metaphysics must above all supply the ontological conditions of the possibility of its own status as a theory and the ideal conditions of possibility of its own intelligibility in one sweeping move, thus making the theory itself extremely self-referential in its structure. As Carew remarks, such a theory will display a complete systematic self-enclosure: it explains itself as a theory in both the real and ideal registers in such a manner that both depend upon and mutually ground one another in a self-articulating whole; it has succeeded at developing “a concept of the world or the Real which is capable of accounting for the replication of reality within itself.” (Carew, p. 278)


 

  1. Rothenberg, Molly Anne (2013-05-20). The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)

Slavoj Žižek: Catastrophe Creation and Spectral Materialism

Having entered into the empty territory of fears, he passed before those who were stripped by forgetfulness, being both knowledge and perfection, proclaiming the things that are in the heart of the vastation, the great emptiness and apophatic kenoma, so that he became the wisdom of those who have received instruction in the negation of negation.
………– Valentinus, 2nd Century Gnostic

The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity.
………– Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing

The Gnostics provide innovative and oftentimes disturbing interpretations of the creation stories they read in the Hebrew scrolls of Genesis. Unlike their Christian rivals they read this unique work in reverse, providing an exegesis that enabled the universe of process and change we see around us as the handiwork not of some supreme Being (God), but rather as the botched and catastrophic bungling and error of an inferior Demiurge.  They concluded that a distinction, often a dualistic distinction, must be made between the acosmic, spiritual deity, who is surrounded by aeons and is all wisdom and light, and the creator of the world, who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent. Yet through everything, they maintained, a spark of transcendent knowledge, wisdom, and light persists within people who are in the know. The acosmic deity is the source of that enlightened life and light. The meaning of the creation drama, when properly understood, is that human beings—gnostics in particular—derive their knowledge and light not from the transcendent acosmic god, but through the mean-spirited actions of the demiurge, the creator of this world, wherein they have been confined and imprisoned. (The platonic aspects of this imagery are apparent.) Humans in this world are imprisoned, asleep, drunken, fallen, ignorant. They need to subtract themselves from the catastrophic trauma and consequences of the Real—to be freed, awakened, made sober, raised, and enlightened. In other words, they need to return to the gnosis of the spectral materialism of the gap just beyond the self-lacerating “night of the world”.1

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful.
…….– Hegel, The Night of the World

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Slavoj Žižek: The Anxiety of Retroactive Trauma

The essence of Slavoj Žižek’s vision is that philosophy is the result of a critical act of buggery, by which another, earlier philosopher is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, retroactively absorbed and incorporated into the ongoing project of the making of a Subject. In one of those impromptu interviews he has had over the years, Žižek once related the notion that “Hegel didn’t know what he was doing”. He went on to say,

You have to interpret him. Let me give you a metaphoric formula. You know
the term Deleuze uses for reading philosophers—anal interpretation, buggering them. Deleuze says that, in contrast to other interpreters, he anally penetrates the philosopher, because it’s immaculate conception. You produce a monster. I’m trying to do what Deleuze forgot to do—to bugger Hegel, with Lacan [chuckles] so that you get monstrous Hegel, which is, for me, precisely the underlying radical dimension of subjectivity which then, I think, was missed by Heidegger. But again, the basic idea being this mutual reading, this mutual buggering [chuckles] of this focal point, radical negativity and so on, of German Idealism with the very fundamental (Germans have this nice term, grundeswig) insight of psychoanalysis.1

Maybe we should apply this to Žižek: “Žižek doesn’t know what he is doing, but he knows that; and, this knowledge is the open wound that enforces a retroactive trauma and violence onto Žižek’s buggering of Lacan/Hegel texts. In a sense he like Peter Sloterdijk’s Cynics knows very well what he is doing, but he is doing it anyway: mis-reading former traumas as the cause of his own open wounds by which he is ‘traversing the fantasy’ of modern philosophical and political struggles. What Žižek describes as “mutual reading” and “mutual buggering” might be more of a mutual rending, a violence that tears asunder the very fabric of thought between both philosophers and intensifies the negativity in their mutual exchange to the point that nothing remains of the original text underlying either of their works. In this sense Žižek’s work is what Carew surmises as the “generative activity of concept-creation” which can bring forth something “unexpected, unsettling, even traumatic—we may produce monsters” (Carew, p. 41).

One might see in this a form of retroactive intervention, too. The retroactive trauma is the black hole in rhetoric through which the Real breaks through, the invisible made visible not as discursive display, but rather as the non-relation around which the text hovers like a lost object that can never be found but is always there in the very violence of this darkness in the text leading us to the Real. The philosopher must mis-interpret his philosophical father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the active negation of the Orthodox vision most philosophers literalize into submission; and instead he must intervene in the dialectical re-writing of his philosophical father’s text into the colours (tropes) of a metaleptic reversal that give birth to his own traumatic truths. (Of course metalepsis  is a figure of speech in which a stance, word, phrase from figurative speech or act is used in a new context.) What we’re getting at here is the notion that the philosopher is not a man speaking to other men, but rather a man as Nietzsche once said “rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man outrageously more alive than himself” ( I need the source of the quote? – came from memory). What makes a philosopher stand out, become so strong that others seem to fall away into shadows? Why is a Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc. figures of strength around which philosophers like moths seem to alight and circle like the scorched denizens of some black sun? Why do certain philosophers achieve such strength that their thought seems almost self-begotten and free of all earlier pre-cursors influence, as if they themselves were ancients themselves and like Plato had put to rest all earlier pre-Socratic forms? Of course I’m transmogrifying the thought of Harold Bloom whose work on the anxiety of influence and poets is already so well known there need not be a rehash of his basic concepts. I’ve only displaced it into philosophical speculation.

But in this sense why has Žižek returned to German Idealism if not to find some far removed pre-cursor to overcome his debt to Lacan. For Žižek Idealism is the gateway to materialism, a radicalized form that revolves around certain contradictions, antagonisms, and sheer black holes that it in itself cannot resolve within idealism. This radicalized Idealism seeks out those very impossible gaps, cracks, and holes and finds in the obstructions and contradictions a path to the Real. It was the linguistic idealism of Lacan that led him back to the German Idealists. As Carew will say of him:

By zoning in on the limitations of idealization, the experiences of internal
resistance within its own self-enclosed phenomenal space (experiences that
reveal a difficult truth concerning the impotence of self-positing idealist
freedom), Žižek tries to construct his own metaphysics. Only able to
sustain itself from within the cracks of transcendental synthesis, his parallax
ontology functions within the impossible in-between of spectral materialism
and full-blown subjective idealism. (Carew, p. 63)

One could find as much in Johnston’s books on  Žižek as well, but I’ve covered his work in other posts: here, here, and here. Žižek has yet to step out from under the shadow of influence of Lacan and invent himself whole cloth. His work is an almost complete repetition of Lacan, Hegel, and other pre-cursors to the point that one can literally confuse Žižek for these others. In the process a monstrous creature emerges which is an amalgam of several pre-cursors visions, concepts, and thought all brought together in a series of texts that repeat over and over the key conceptual enframing and redoubling of a retroactive trauma. In his essay A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua) Žižek will describe it this way: 

The frame is always-already redoubled: the frame within “reality” is always linked to another frame enframing “reality” itself.  Once introduced, the gap between reality and appearance is thus immediately complicated, reflected-into-itself: once we get a glimpse, through the Frame, of the Other Dimension, reality itself turns into appearance. In other words, things do not simply appear, they appear to appear. This is why the negation of a negation does not bring us to a simple flat affirmation: once things (start to) appear, they not only appear as what they are not, creating an illusion; they can also appear to just appear, concealing the fact that they ARE what they appear.

In Less Than Nothing he’ll explain it this way, saying, that what counts is that one part of ordinary reality is separated from the rest by a frame which designates it as a magical space of illusion. We have one and the same reality, separated from itself (or, rather, redoubled) by a screen. This inversion-into-itself by way of which reality encounters itself on a fantasmatic stage is what compels us to abandon the univocity of being: the field of (what we experience as) reality is always traversed by a cut which inscribes appearance into appearance itself. In other words, if there is a field of reality, then it is not enough to claim that reality is inherently fantasmatic, that it is always constituted by a transcendental frame; this frame has to inscribe itself into the field of reality, in the guise of a difference between “ordinary” reality and the ethereal reality: within our experience of reality (structured by fantasy), a part of reality has to appear to us as “fantasmatic,” as not “real reality.” (LTN, KL 5634)

Think of the philosopher within the frame that Žižek is linking to this series of misreadings, what we discover in the reading of his giant book on Hegel (as an example) Less Than Nothing is this very process in which the “gap between reality and appearance, literal and figurative, are buggered, complicated, reflected-into-itself, thereby producing this monstrous reversal in which retroactively Žižek appears to have given birth to the thought of Hegel and Lacan presenting a transumptive display and reversal in which Žižek seems to appear earlier than the philosophers he is absorbing and interpreting: the framer enframing the Frame. As if Žižek were himself the pre-cursor and father of Hegel/Lacan instead of the other way round. As if Hegel, then Lacan had read the ancient works of Žižek, and were both deeply influenced by his dialectical thought. This grand fantasy or retroactive trauma in which it is Žižek, rather than Hegel/Lacan who had given birth to the whole tradition of dialectical materialism. As if Hegel and Lacan were mere ephebic inheritors of the great philosopher, and had all along been influenced by his conceptual originality. A retroactive trauma and violence of the first order in which the roles are reversed and transumptively Žižek comes first, and Hegel/Lacan second or after the fact in this time lapse sequence of retroactive inversion. So that in this scenario Žižek becomes retroactively the Father of Hegel and Lacan, the buggering trauma having been a violent and painful male-birth; a sort of Athena from the skull of Zeus thematic, but this time out of the very loins of Žižek’s retroactive trauma or intervention in German Idealism, discovering that “our experience of freedom is properly traumatic.”

“Freedom” is thus inherently retroactive: at its most elementary, it is not simply a free act which, out of nowhere, starts a new causal link, but a retroactive act of determining which link or sequence of necessities will determine us. Here, one should add a Hegelian twist to Spinoza: freedom is not simply “recognized / known necessity,” but recognized / assumed necessity, the necessity constituted / actualized through this recognition.
– Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Žižek is the midwife who gives birth to that which could not give birth to itself: the monstrous truth around which the earlier philosopher hovered like an analysand upon a couch but could never quite put into words. Žižek brings out retroactively the very concept deformations that seemed so hidden in the traumatic event of the earlier philosophers discourse, as if what the philosopher were trying to say were impossible: it is this very impossible thought that Žižek through his ‘traversal of the fantasy’ of the former philosopher’s thought discovers and reveals as the Real of the philosopher’s anxiety thereby releasing it into the open wound of our own mis-readings of Žižek himself. One never reads Žižek directly but is always reading Lacan/Hegel through the open wound of Žižek’s retroactive trauma. Like victims of a rapist we become the partners in a crime after the fact, our buggery of Žižek enables in us the very violence of the trauma that emerges as the truth of Lacan/Hegel in Žižek. A violent act from which there is no redemption, only the awakening to our own wounds, an interminable determination without recourse or redress. The repetitions of difference we repeat are always already those of the retroactive trauma’s violence upon our own interventions, our buggeries and rapes.

If we take another quote from that same essay previously described above, we discover an illustration in this notion of interventionism (buggery) into the past retroactive text that does a violence to it even as it is rewritten in the current philosphers own colours (tropes, concepts):

“If /the Kantian moral view/ presents itself as the narrative successor to the revolution, this is not because it logically fulfils or supersedes it: Kant’s critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the revolution that it chronologically, of course, anticipates only insofar as his text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project of modernity to its most extreme trial. /…/ the revolution itself inflicts on Kant’s own text a kind of retroactive trauma.”

This notion that the French revolution “inflicts on Kant’s own text a kind of retroactive trauma” could be applied to Žižek’s own work-in-progress (for is there any beginning or ending?). What we observe in Žižek’s writings is a continuous churning of concepts in which the thought of Lacan and German Idealism acts as a revolutionary violence that inflicts on his texts a “kind of retroactive trauma”. And the so called “traversing the fantasy” is the very body of his struggles, his multitudinous works that seem to revolve around the missing object of desire situated in the wound of the Real:

In a case of constituted anxiety, the object dwells within the confines of a fantasy, while we only get the constituent anxiety when the subject “traverses the fantasy” and confronts the void, the gap, filled up by the fantasmatic object—as Mallarmé put it in the famous bracketed last two lines of his “Sonnet en-yx,” objet a is ce seul objet dont le Néant s’honore /” this sole object with which Nothing is honoured/.”

Is not this constituted anxiety none other than that anxiety of influence of which to follow Bloom, Žižek has internalized and formalized the structure of influence in his work. The knowledge that behind every philosopher’s anxiety about his originality stands a Primal Scene of Instruction in which the Great Original sleeps with the Dead while the young philosopher or ephebe looks on belatedly, powerless except to repeat, revise, memorialize and recognize the circumstances of his secondariness. Is Žižek after all anxious that his work will ultimately fail the test of primariness? That he will be and remain a repetition of all those he has fought and struggled with so long, like Jacob wrestling the Angel on Mount Horeb, seeking the wound that will earn him a place in the philosophical sun as one of the greats. Has he not almost ironically and in tribute of Badiou called him the “Plato of our Age”, as both an epithet of praise but also a distancing and anxious appraisal and judgement upon his own work?

Will Žižek ever step out from under the burden of influence of Lacan and Hegel and produce original work of his own, discover his own stance against the tide of secondariness? We ponder and wait… I sometimes think Žižek would like to be considered the ‘Hegel of his Age’, a revised, updated, refined and more industrious inverted materialist version of Žižek himself, part hip cultural icon, part Lacanian anti-philosopher; yet not completely of the substantialist Marxian form, but rather of the new dialectical (im)materialism that Žižek is already so adept at, investing in his immediate retroactive traumas of the Void, giving us the interminable open wound that knows nothing is completed and everything is open to the future: militant, revolutionary, and politically savvy.


 

  1. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)

 

 

Postnihilistic Speculations: The Ontology of Non-Being

For speculation which founded itself on the radical falsity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason would describe an absolute which would not constrain things to being thus rather than otherwise, but which would constrain them to being able not to be how they are.
….Quentin Meillassoux

Is this what we’ve been waiting for all along? The movement beyond the troubled circle of Being and becoming, of Time and its figural and literal tropes of disquieting lapses into finitude? The fragments of this lie all around us in such thinkers as Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, and so many others within this metamorphic thought of a non-thought, this disquisition of an anathema.

My friend Cengiz Erdem in his essay Postnihilistic Speculations on That Which Is Not: A Thought-World According to an Ontology of Non-Being charts such a history:

A speculative move in the way of mapping the cartography of an ontology of non-being, of that which yet to come, post-nihilism clears or excavates the old ground, thereby suspending the dominant presumptions, therefore rendering the void, non being, or the Real itself as the new ground on and out of which a new subject can emerge and present the paradoxical and contingent natures of ‪Truth and Necessity, as well as the ‎non-correlation of Being and Thought…

(addendum: Cengiz added a new post in concert with this… here.)

As I was reading this post of his I felt a deep underlying, almost religious tone in his voice; the power of the absolute filtering its banal surprise (maybe a non-God, non-All, rather than the mundane gods or God religion or the philosophers). Whatever the absolute may be, it seems to ride the edges, or borderlands of between thought and non-being rather than the metaphysical realms of Being. Though secular through and through the incorporation of the themes of eternity, time, mortality, immortality, etc. like those others who have influenced our thinking: Nietzsche, Badiou, Zizek, Laruelle, Henry, Deleuze, etc. – and, lest we forget, Freud (Lacan: lack?) with his mythology of drives, that endless war of eros and thanatos, life and death, love and war – comes through Erdem’s essay. What struck me above all is the underlying mythos and movement toward transcension, toward elsewhere, immortality, transcendence. Of course as he says, this is nothing new, and it is everywhere in our present transcendental field of speculation, as if between a totalistic closure upon metaphysics had brought with it – not a rational kernel, but rather an irrational kernel of ancient thought. For do we not hear that oldest of songsters, Orpheus, the Greek singer, theologian, poet, philosophical forbear out of whose roots Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle and their ancient antagonists Leucippas, Democritus, and Lucretius down to our day still wage a war over the body of a dead thought (God?).

Shall we follow Badiou or Zizek? Or Both?

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A Short Note on Zizek

Been rereading The Ticklish Subject by Slavoj Zizek of late and realize I like the early works better than the later. Later Zizek is bloated, untidy, full of long repetitions, along with copy and paste jokes and assays from his earlier works. He’s sloppy and needs an editor. His arguments with himself have become habit rather than a staging for some new concept. Why do philosophers think they need to repeat what they’ve done better in earlier works? Why repeat yourself over and over and over again?

One of the great differences between Zizek and his friend Badiou is this sense of total command on the part of the Frenchman, a fastidiousness; even a certain fussiness over each sentence: structure, word, meaning. Badiou’s works never overstep or overreach, every word has its place in the systematic format of his books. It’s as if he’d read and reread certain passages, honing them down to perfection; to the point that one could not replace, excise, or change the wording without losing the conceptual thought altogether. With Zizek it’s just the opposite, one is given page after page of repetitious monologue, as if the philosopher we’re happily engaged in argument with himself at the total expense of any future reader.  As if it would be too much bother to go back and revise, edit, or change anything…. anything at all.

Does he ever allow someone to read his works early on? Are his editors disciples afraid to say the truth: ah, Zizek maybe you could tidy up this or that passage; your locutions seem to go on and on without really giving us clarity, but rather confusion. To read later Zizek is to know in advanced that one is condemned to reread certain passages over and over because his affectation for dialectical materialism is in the scale of rhetoric lacking that polish and precision one expects from such a touted pop icon. No if one wants a philosopher’s philosopher, one reads Deleuze and Badiou, not Zizek. Zizek is a street philosopher, a speaker who can reach the mass mind but rarely reaches the pitch one expects from such a giant intellect.

But one says just the opposite of his early works. Here the mind of the philosopher is sharp, witty, controlled; he speaks what he measures, nothing more, nothing less; he offers apt examples, and displays an acumen and reserve that one expects and demands of such writing. His style is still verbose, but it seems compact and to the point, rather than obtuse and sprawling like his Less Than Nothing is. The several works of The Essential Zizek Series I would recommend without reserve. Here one listens in on a mind inquisitive, challenging, probing; tracing a concept into its dialectical interplays among various philosophers without getting bogged down in details. Maybe he had better editors in the early days? Either way these works and essays – and, above all, Zizek is an essayist of the first order – have that refined eloquence of the obvious, yet reach into an abyss that few have traveled to develop and explicate concepts that instruct and delight those who know.

Atheistic Materialism: A Cheerful Philosophy… continued…

zizek-

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

RubensPeterPaul

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.),

Slavoj Zizek: The Question of Potentiality and Virtuality

virtual_universe

Throughout the corpus of his writings Zizek will return to one central or core theme: the Hegelian notion of “Substance as Subject”. I decided to gather a few entries as a way of getting a handle upon this thematic. Yet, this notion seems to be bound up with the difference between potentiality and virtuality, along with his concept of retroactive causation.

from Less Than Nothing

For we Hegelians, the crucial question here is this: where does Hegel stand with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? On a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? Is not the dialectical process the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? This mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates, however, the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.1

Here he begins with this question of the distinction between potentiality and virtuality. Before I take up the notion of “substance as subject” I think we should gain an better understanding of these two concepts or notions and how Zizek deploys them within his form of dialectical materialism. First, we take up Zizek’s distinction between idealism and materialism:

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. (Zizek, KL 5309)

These two perspectives upon Being as such brings us to the difference between potentiality and virtuality. Zizek himself will bring to the fore Quentin Meillasoux’s explication in After Finitude which states:

Meillassoux proposes a precise distinction between contingency and chance, linking it to the distinction between virtuality and potentiality: Potentialities are the non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law (whether aleatory or not). Chance is every actualization of a potentiality for which there is no univocal instance of determination on the basis of the initial given conditions. Therefore I will call contingency the property of an indexed set of cases (not of a case belonging to an indexed set) of not itself being a case of sets of cases; and virtuality the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles. (Zizek, KL 5337)

The difference between the two is that of the possible: potentialities are possible because they pre-exist the set of possible manifestations (i.e., think of the throw of dice: the determination of the outcome arises because there is delimited set of probable states –  a one in six chance of number six turning up, so when number six does actually turns up, a pre-existing possible is realized). While virtuality is defined retroactively as that which allows something new to emerge; a case is realized for which there was no place in the pre-existing set of possibles. The point of this distinction between potentiality and virtuality is made by Meillassoux himself:

The notion of virtuality permits us … to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent.2

What he is referring to is the Platonic world of Ideas as that order of potentials, and against this notion of a separate world of Ideas or potentials pre-existing their emergence in the temporal nexus of our world there is novelty instead. This novelty comes ex nihilo; the emergence is not of some potential that pre-exists time but rather emerges virtually in the moment of its advent as appearance. But if a virtuality does not pre-exist its advent how does it actually exist? Something more needs to be explained. Its as if a virtuality is a black hole, an impossible possible.

Zizek himself will revert to Deleuze telling us that the solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat. (Zizek, KL 8041) Is it? Is this what Deleuze is saying? To clarify this we need to understand how Zizek uses the symbolic. The starting place with Zizek is always Lacan. So when Zizek tells us that for Lacan the imaginary relates to the seen, while the symbolic as it were redoubles the image, shifting the focus onto what cannot be seen, onto what the image that we see obfuscates or blinds us to. Lacan spells out very precisely the implications of this redoubling: it is not only that, with the symbolic, the imaginary turns into the appearance concealing a hidden reality— the appearance the symbolic generates is that of appearance itself, namely the appearance that there is a hidden reality beneath the visible appearance. The precise name for this appearance of something that has no existence in itself, that exists only in its effects and thus only appears to appear, is virtuality— the virtual is the invisible X, the void whose contours can only be reconstructed from its effects, like a magnetic pole which only exists inasmuch as it attracts the small metal pieces that gather around it. (Zizek, KL 15529)

This sounds very familiar. One might think of the notion of an attractor in dynamical systems theory. This notion of an attractor was first developed as a way of explaining a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system (see wiki). For Zizek we never have direct access to this virtual attractor, but know it indirectly by its effects (i.e., retroactive causation). As Zizek will explicate a purely spatial definition which immobilizes its object produces a non-actual abstraction, not a full reality; the unfinished (ontologically incomplete) character of reality which compels us to include the virtuality of teleiosis (from Greek: the event which verifies the promise)  in the definition of an object is thus not its limitation, but a positive condition of its actual existence.(Zizek, KL 20402) So that in this sense the virtual is what actuality tends toward rather than being what it actualizes; rather than the pre-existing potential that is fulfilled, the virtual is the attractor toward which actuality moves. Virtuality is the condition for Being as such.

This leads us to negation …

more later…

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5392-5402). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality,” Collapse: Philosophic Research and Development 2 (2007), pp. 71– 2.

Thoughts… on Zizek: The Unbearable Darkness of the Real

644488-slavoj_zizek

Wanted to get this down for future reference… obviously my repetition of Zizek is part of an ongoing book on dialectical materialism. Zizek awakened me to another way of seeing the issues and problems we are facing. His confrontation with the German Idealist traditions with his Lacanian lens interests me both philosophically and personally. His notion of ‘Christian materialism’ haunts me to no end, having escaped the world of Bible-Belt Southern Baptist belief systems I know very well that they still live in the hinterlands of my psyche like troglodytes of some impossible pre-history of my Self. The Self or subject does not pre-exist the very structure of our self-relating negativity, but is a retroactive construction, a narrative among narratives: a lie we all hold on to and cherish. Even as I proclaim a form of atheism, the world of religion haunts my thought like a bad dream. One never truly leaves one’s dark heritage, one can only live through the traumas of its broken world, the pain and effects, the scars and traces of its horrors. Zizek is one of the few philosophers to confront this heritage from a Continental perspective that rings true.

Zizek’s notion of retroactive reconstruction (causation) is about the effects of this Symbolic Order and its impositions, the way it tries to interpose its own narrative and control systems within the gap to shape the very texture of the life-world, thereby hoping to stave off the actual effects of the gap itself and its repercussions. The truth is found in the brokenness, the obstacles, the things that will not fit into the life-world representations or narratives we love to cling too. We love to believe in something rather than nothing. Even nihilists who try to live without any firm grounding or meaning grasp onto such frameworks as the sciences offer to give them a foothold onto the impossible truth, to fill the gap with scientific narratives of truth; this, too, is ideology, part of the symbolic Order or big Other’s game of Truth.

The thing about Zizek is that one does not read him, one deploys him; that is, one enacts the very dialectical materialist movement that his concepts conceive. Dialectical materialism is based on this oscillation between antinomies, between competing registrars of thinking and being without choosing one side or the other, but rather than trying to reconcile their differences or sublating them into some higher synthesis (Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel), he chooses to keep them in a parallax gap from which to discover new truths and concepts, problems and questions. There can be no final truth, no absolute answer, no place in which thought will find its final resting place. We live in an open universe where thought’s limit is the unknown – what Ray Brassier once termed the ‘unbounded nihil’: this is the missing piece, the gap that will not go away and cannot be filled. We can only oscillate between its competing poles and antinomies, conflicts and unresolved dilemmas. Yet, in this very process we come to understand both ourselves and the unbearable darkness of the Real.

The Real in the guise of primordial flesh, the palpitation of the life substance as the Thing itself, in its disgusting dimension as a cancerous outgrowth; and, the Real of writing… The difference hinges on the different starting point: if we start with the imaginary, we get the Real in its imaginary dimension, as a horrifying primordial image that cancels the imagery itself; if we start with the symbolic, we get the signifier itself transformed into the Real of a meaningless letter or formula. These two figures are the two opposite aspects of the Real: the abyss of the primordial Life-Thing and the meaningless letter or formula (as in the Real of the modern science).1

The key is to hold these two aspects of the one Real in our vision without trying to reconcile their antinomic difference, to realize in the very oscillations between these two aspects of the Real the truth of our lives.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 11013-11021). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Slavoj Zizek: The Order of the Real

What this means, in effect, is that there is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being, emerges through the subtraction of the Real.

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

Reading Zizek is like floating around in a vacuum of endless repetitions that seem to never find a resting place. I sometimes shift from Zizek to Wallace Stevens to remind myself that “the imperfect is our paradise” (from The Poems of our Climate):

I
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

II
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

III
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

– Wallace Stevens

The last stanza exemplifies the work of Slavoj Zizek who admits that words alone are uncertain good – not as in William Butler Yeats.  When Zizek introduces his concept of the Gap we should understand that it is not what we might think it is: a Void between us (For-itself) and the proverbial Thing-in-itself. Which is the Idealist prognosis and Kant and his tradition as received in most academic scholarship of the last two hundred years. A move Quentin Meillassoux in his book After Finitude has marked by the appellation of correlationism, etc. No. For Zizek the Gap is the Real, the screen that distorts all our views onto reality.

…the Real is a gap in the order of Being (reality) and a gap in the symbolic order? The reason there is no contradiction is that “reality” is transcendentally constituted by the symbolic order, so that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein). In the common transcendental view, there is some kind of Real-in-itself (like the Kantian Ding an sich) which is then formed or “constituted” into reality by the subject; due to the subject’s finitude, we cannot totalize reality, reality is irreducibly inconsistent, “antinomic,” and so forth— we cannot gain access to the Real, which remains transcendent. The gap or inconsistency thus concerns only our symbolically constituted reality, not the Real in itself.1

So the gap concerns not the Real as it is in itself, but with our symbolic order of  that  constitutes our view onto reality. Yet, against any Idealist reading of this, of the notion of the subject’s performativity and/or creativity (““symbolic construction of reality”), Zizek will rather expose another truth of the ontological “collateral damage” of symbolic operations: the process of symbolization is inherently thwarted, doomed to fail, and the Real is this immanent failure of the symbolic. The circular temporality of the process of symbolization is crucial here: the Real is the effect of the failure of the symbolic to reach (not the In-itself, but) itself, to fully realize itself, but this failure occurs because the symbolic is thwarted in itself. (ibid. KL 21401)

But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic— what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself.

– Slavoj Zizek,  (Kindle Locations 21410-21414).

For Zizek all ontologies are limited because they do not account for what is left out in their descriptions: the Real itself. And, yet, for Zizek this is as it should be:

Desexualized modern ontology attempts to describe a flat, neutral (neutered) order of being (the anonymous multiplicity of subatomic particles or forces), but in order to do so, it has to ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology. Every field of ontology, even at its most radical (like the mathematical ontology of Badiou), has to subtract the impossible/ Real (the curved space of sexuation) from the order of being. (KL 21446-21449)

I want go into the full argument of the “limits of sexuation” which concerns Zizek’s reading of Lacan. Instead I want to focus on the kernel of Zizek’s problems. Zizek’s philosophy stands or falls on his theory of the Subject. Yet, when he uses this term he is not speaking of individual subjects or human subjectivity, rather his theory defines the relations among his various concepts of the Gap and Real. It’s because of this concept that many philosophers reduce Zizek to an old school Idealist, rather than what he is – a dialectical materialist. But Zizek himself is not a clear and precise thinker, but is rather a man stumbling from example to example, analogy to analogy, seeking metaphors, hyperboles, metonyms that might actually help him define that which he knows can never be put into language. So maybe we should read Zizek against himself, maybe read him through his very failures to say what he means.

Take for instance the Thing-in-itself:

What, then, is the “Thing-in-itself” from a dialectical-materialist standpoint? The best way to answer this question is, again, to oppose dialectical materialism to Buddhism: in Buddhism, the In-itself is the void, nothing, and ordinary reality is a play of appearances. The question ultimately unanswered here is how we get from nothing to something. How do illusory appearances arise out of the void? The dialectical-materialist answer is: only if this something is less than nothing, the pre-ontological proto-reality of den. From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.(ibid. KL  21362-21368)

His use of Buddhism has nothing to do with the actual practices of Buddhism, but rather with his own reception of certain concepts he has aligned with his own philosophical approach as counters and tools against which to measure his own thoughts. The kernel of the problem is situated in the sentence “From within this proto-reality, our ordinary reality appears through the emergence of a subject which constitutes “objective reality”: every positive reality of Ones is already phenomenal, transcendentally constituted, “correlated” to a subject— in Badiou’s terms, every reality is that of a world defined by its transcendental coordinates.” But what brought this immanent relation of a subject into constituting “objective reality” to begin with? Why was there a need to objectify the world? And is this universal subject which before all individual or concrete universal subjects (humans, etc.) something that preexists objective reality? Or is it immanent to the very process that is our universe to begin with? The problem is one of essence: is this subject some substantial agent preexisting our objective reality, that in fact constitutes it? Or is their another reading of what this subject is, a non-substantialist view onto its very status as subject?

Over and over Zizek assures us that his enemy is all forms of substantive philosophy. He is no Spinoza of the jet-set postmodern variety. Speaking of actual selves Zizek will tell us that the self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being. Consequently, in the process of Buddhist Enlightenment, we do not quit this terrestrial world for another truer reality— we just accept its non-substantial, fleeting, illusory character; we embrace the process of “going to pieces without falling apart.” (ibid. KL 3121-3125)

Against Plato’s notion of an eternal realm of Ideas, a truer world beyond or behind this illusory one Zizek affirms that instead their is only the insubstantial truth of the Void. Yet, what is this void? How are we to understand it? For him it all comes back to Democritus’s Void: he endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. (ibid. KL 293-296)

What we cannot accept is this vastation, this emptiness, so instead as humans strive to fill the void with something rather than accept the voidness at the heart of reality. Yet, this emptiness is not what you think it is. In this emptiness that is nothing something exists. Zizek will analogize using modern physics notion of the Higgs Field as an example:

 There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy— in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.” (ibid. KL 306)

Behind the façade of Zizek’s confrontation with the tradition of Hegel and Lacan is the central core of his political vision of radical emancipation. Reading him essay by essay one realizes that for Zizek the greatest confrontation in philosophy is not to understand reality, but rather the illusions that sustain our symbolic order. As he states it succinctly (after Kant):

The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“ true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.” (ibid. KL 435)

So that Zizek’s insistence that we need the anti-philosophy of Lacan is the obverse to such philosophical quests. Agreeing with Badiou for whom Lacan was the condition of philosophy in our time, Zizek will tell us that we must work through Lacan rather than bypassing him:

My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”  Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”— and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: 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. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination— or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one. The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan. (ibid. KL 608-628)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21387-21392). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: Quote of the Day!

Testa_di_Medusa

It was Schopenhauer who claimed that music brings us into contact with the Ding an sich: it renders directly the drive of the life substance that words can only signify. For that reason, music “seizes” the subject in the Real of his or her being, by-passing the detour of meaning: in music, we hear what we cannot see, the vibrating life force beneath the flow of Vorstellungen. But what happens when this flux of life substance is itself suspended, discontinued? At this point, an image emerges, an image that stands for absolute death, for death beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, corruption and generation. Far more horrifying than to see with our ears— to hear the vibrating life substance beyond visual representation, this blind spot in the field of the visible— is to hear with our eyes, to see the absolute silence that marks the suspension of life, as in Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: is not the scream of the Medusa by definition silent, “stuck in the throat,” and does not this painting provide an image of the moment at which the voice fails?

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

Zizek’s Return to Plato: The Idea as Appearance of Appearance

pobeb241_young_girl_throwing_rock

What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes.

…a Platonic supra-sensible Idea is an imitation of imitation, appearance as appearance—something that appears on the surface of substantial reality.

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

In discussion Picasso’s A Woman Throwing a Stone he tells us it lends itself easily to a Platonic reading, saying, “the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure”.1

Zizek will see in this painting a radical revision of Plato’s essential insights, which Plato himself was unable to see:

the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. (ibid, KL 934-938)

 The point here is that Ideas are not part of another eternal order outside reality, opposed to the illusory world of appearance, but rather that Ideas are the appearance of appearance: forming the very core of appearance as appearance. Ideas are situated in Zizek as part of the notions first described by the Stoics in their concept of “incorporeals” and in Deleuze as “virtual entities”: Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. (ibid., KL 935) Zizek’s materialism reverses Plato’s notion that Ideas form some other world and that we must seek beyond the illusory word the truth behind appearances, and instead shows that it is in this very realm of appearance that Ideas are created and appear. Yet, we must not mistake Ideas as substantial entities, but rather as incorporeal and virtual, insubstantial.

As Zizek will state it the ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order , how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance. (ibid., KL 946-950)

As one thinks on this one must return to Zizek’s conception of the “gap”, which he equates with Freud’s concept of drives: the thesis of the present book is double: (1) there is a dimension missed by all four, that of a pre-transcendental gap/ rupture, the Freudian name for which is the drive; (2) this dimension designates the very core of modern subjectivity. (ibid., KL 358-359) Like many readers I had difficulty understanding what Zizek meant by his concept of “gap” for a long time. Zizek will read Hegel’s notion of the “Spirit as Bone” as the shock that happens between two people who become aware of each other as self-conscious beings for the first time. He’ll relate this with the notions that as a subject “I am by definition alone, a singularity opposed to the entire world of things, a punctuality to which all the world appears, and no amount of phenomenological description of how I am always already “together-with” others can cover up the scandal of another such singularity existing in the world” (ibid. KL 12386). This knowledge that another exists, this shock that I am not alone, that “the Other is thus not simply another subject with whom I share the intersubjective space of recognition, but a traumatic Thing” (ibid., KL 12403). This recognition scene and shock is what Freud will term the drive: the name for this excessive attachment to the objectal excess is the drive, which brings us to the key question: can Hegel think the drive? (ibid., KL 12413)

For Hegel Consciousness does not yet know that there is nothing behind the veil of appearances— nothing but what consciousness itself puts there. This feature captures the acephalous character of the drive: it is not “mine,” the subject’s, it is the very core of my being insisting “out there,” as a partial object which is not me. (ibid., Kl 12419) So against any Platonic reading of something behind the veil of appearance we have the Thing, the appearance of appearance. The void that oscillates between attachment and detachment, the movement that is an excess between two voids, that Zizek will following Democritus term Den.

Democritean atomism is thus the first materialist answer to Eleatic idealism: Eleatics argue from the logical impossibility of the void to the impossibility of motion; Democritean atomists seem to reason in reverse, deducing from the fact that motion exists the necessity that the void (empty space) exists. The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness/ the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void/ nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e ., there is an indistinction of being and the void. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being. In order to get from nothing to something, we do not have to add something to the void; on the contrary, we have to subtract, take away, something from nothing. Nothing and othing are thus not simply the same: “Nothing” is the generative void out of which othings, primordially contracted pre-ontological entities, emerge— at this level, nothing is more than othing , negative is more than positive. Once we enter the ontologically fully constituted reality, however, the relationship is reversed: something is more than nothing, in other words, nothing is purely negative, a privation of something. (ibid. KL 1539-1548)

From this we come to Freud by way of Hegel’s notion of Force. Zizek will ask: Is the drive a Force in its being-driven-back-into-itself? Does the rhythm of Force point towards the repetitive movement of the drive? Hegel’s Force is driven back into itself as the very power of annihilating the appearances in which it expresses itself; it is not yet the potentiality of virtual Power which retains its authority only as virtual, as the threat of its actualization. More precisely, the drive is not Power, but also not Force. It is a Force thwarted in its goal, finding its aim in repeating the very failure to reach its goal. The drive does not express itself, it stumbles upon an external element or obstacle; it does not pass from one to another of its manifestations or expressions, it gets stuck on one of them. It is not driven back to itself through overcoming or annihilating its expressions, but through not being able to do so. (KL 12433-12439)

In this the drive is stuck in repetition, oscillating between two voids: subject and object. “Does this image not supply the minimal coordinates of the subject-object axis, the truly primordial axis of evil: the red line which cuts through the darkness is the subject, and the body its object?” – Describing the red line that cuts between two darknesses or voids on the cover of his book: this, perhaps , is how one can imagine the zero-level of creation: a red dividing line cuts through the thick darkness of the void, and on this line, a fuzzy something appears, the object-cause of desire— perhaps, for some, a woman’s naked body (ibid. KL 1549):

He will return to Freud’s concept of Drive reiterating that it is defined Trieb (drive) as a limit- concept situated between biology and psychology, or nature and culture— a natural force known only through its psychic representatives . But we should take a step further here and read Freud more radically: the drive is natural, but the natural thrown out of joint, distorted or deformed by culture; it is culture in its natural state. This is why the drive is a kind of imaginary focus, or meeting place, between psychoanalysis and cognitive brain sciences: the paradox of the self-propelling loop on which the entire Freudian edifice is based and which the brain sciences approach in metaphoric formulations, without being able to define it precisely. Due to this in-between status, the insistence of the drive is “immortal,” an “undead” striving that insists beyond life and death. (ibid., KL 12442-12448)

The point that Zizek makes is that there is no other place that the immortal undying drive is striving to reach beyond or into, no immortal separate realm of Heaven or Ideas, etc., but that the drive exists in the oscillations of appearance as appearance in this realm arising out of the nothing between two voids. He’ll use examples from physics, neurosciences (which in some ways resemble my friend Scott Bakker’s BBT theory, strangely), and others from many various philosophical and non-philosophical theories. That materialism resembles Idealism, and that Zizek insists we need to return to German Idealism to understand where materialism went wrong in its superficial fall into many of the fragmented philosophies of the twentieth-century is the subject of his book among other things. In process of rereading this work in light of his newest Absolute Recoil I’m beginning to see how Idealism and Materialism are tied to each other not as in a mirror reversal, but in a more subtle immanent form of the one tied to the pre-ontological notion of the void (Den) which is missing in all Idealisms from the time of Parmenides onward.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 932-934). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Pussy Riot: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

 What is a modest Pussy Riot obscene provocation in a church compared to the accusation against Pussy Riot, this gigantic obscene provocation of the state apparatus which mocks any notion of decent law and order?

– Slavoj Zizek

Michael Levin tell us he came to Harvard School of Government recently (09/16/2014 posted) to observe two young women from Russian: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria (Mosha) Alyokhina of Pussy Riot fame. Reading his blog post (HuffPost College: post) one is struck both by the naiveté of his critique, and its liberal progressive tendencies. He castigates them for not being liberal progressive protesters and upholding the typical critiques of power and dominion as laid down by the Western agendas. Instead they speak of the prisoner’s rights, immigration restrictions, the “brain drain” on Russian by the current regime, and a return of Christianity from its Stalinist Capital heirs to the actual people of Russia. In a last gaff, Levin throws out a limpid lambast at the two young women:

If you’re going to stand for something in today’s world, you have to declare a major. It doesn’t work to hoist the banner for every cause, no matter how noble, because you end up dissipating the energy that brought you — and your followers — to the spotlight to begin with. The last time a protest movement sought to be all-encompassing, it was Occupy, and we all know how that turned out. (here)

That Levin’s luke-warm jive of Occupy and the wrongheaded equation of it with Pussy Riot becomes clear as one reads the letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and SlavojIn it we become reacquainted with the act of political protest that landed them in the gulag system to begin with: Pussy Riot members in their red, blue, orange, yellow , and violet balaclavas entered the new Christian Cathedral in Moscow, took off their coats, revealing their brightly colored dresses and tights and proceeded to sing a “punk prayer” to the Queen Mother, Mary. The female maintenance staff started to panic and called security. One security guard hurried across, tackled a young woman holding a guitar and pulled her away. He returned to grab hold of a loudspeaker. Church employees attempted to intercept the other four. But they had already begun their twenty-verse “punk prayer,” whose refrain is “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin.”1

After two years Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were freed on December 23, 2013, when Putin released them two months early in order to open his Winter Olympics in Sochi. During her imprisonment she expressed her interest in meeting Slavoj Zizek after reading his book on “Violence”. As she describes her first year in the new gulag at Mordovia:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [PC-14] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.”2

Reading of her trials and tribulations within the new Russia one discovers just how brutal it’s become. Or is it that the old system never went away? As we discover one of the warden’s affirms that he is still a “Stalinist”:

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.”3

What struck me is a comparison with the brutalization in the American Penal System, which shows some of the same classic earmarks of inmate brutality and survival mechanisms. As she discovers over time the prison is enforced not by the wardens, but through a brutal regime of inmate terror and fear. The inmates enforce their own brutalization on each other when quotas and other issues come about. If one tries to stand up against the system, or tries to inform those outside the system about the atrocities of its lawlessness the very inmates turn against one another to the point of murder, torcher, and animalistic behavior. As she states it:

Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.4

 She provides example after example of atrocities purported upon inmates by other inmates to keep them in line, or the punishment of units, or even the whole prison: forcing inmates to live in the open under freezing conditions, starving them, forcing them to work sixteen hour days, forcing them to remain at their sewing machines unable to pee, enforced hazing and beatings at the hands of inmates to scared not to comply with their own leaders, etc. She speaks of a gypsy woman killed in a beating in a rival unit:

It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14.5

 When Nadya tells her lawyer of the conditions and the problems he puts in a formal complaint which turns against her intentions when the wardens learn of it and impose even harsher conditions on her entire prison forcing convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. The warden tells them: 

“You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers , especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day . Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”6

In the end she declared a hunger strike, saying:

I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.7

 Zizek in response to this courageous young woman will answer the call and begin a series of personal letters (that on both sides is carried on through translation and a restrictive lens of the overseers themselves – as the wardens read all letters, emails, etc. and impose their martial regulatory gaze upon them).

Zizek in his opening letter will greet Nadya, saying:

Against all postmodern cynics, you demonstrate that ethical-political engagement is needed more than ever. So please ignore enemies and false friends who pity you as punk provocateurs who deserve mere clemency. You are not helpless victims calling for sympathy and mercy, you are fighters calling for solidarity in struggle.8

Of course Zizek is showing forth his version of this old form stating in his Sublime Object of Ideology that cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to the cynical subversion of its ideological universality, while keeping the mask of it in place and allowing the imposition of its heritage to remain in place even as it castigates it on the surface. As he says:

This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality — the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. This cynicism is therefore a kind of perverted ‘negation of the negation’ of the official ideology: confronted with illegal enrichment, with robbery, the cynical reaction consists in saying that legal enrichment is a lot more effective and, moreover, protected by the law.9

One sees this in outgoing President Medvedev’s statement to the press:

“I wouldn’t have sent them to jail if I had been the judge. I simply don’t think that’s right because these girls had already served a prison sentence. And actually that should have been enough. The fact that one has been released is fortunate … but it’s not up to me, rather to the courts and their lawyers. They have the right to appeal, and I think they should and let the courts consider the case on it own merits.”10

On the surface he makes a moral plea, but underneath this stance of protest on the part of a system representative we see the cynical face of the new Russia imposing its harsh realities while at the same time telling us it is not right or moral, etc.

But Zizek will not stop there in his next letter he’ll tackle the liberal progressive critics for their attack on Pussy Riot for turning against Global Capitalism. He will then make his pointed attack plain, saying: “What makes Pussy Riot so disturbing for the liberal gaze is the way you reveal a hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.”

Zizek will take up the whole imposition of austerity across the Continent with its tendency to both destroy and dismantle the old social security systems and safety valves of the democratic processes, while allowing the elite and their banks to gain utter power over the populace through a sophistry of arguments that are at once moral seeming and in actuality Stalinist measures of total authoritarianism. He will go on saying that Pussy Riot symbolizes the truth, the spirit of our age in the Hegelian sense, embodying the critique that not only do the experts have no clue, but the ruling elite themselves are powerless to solve the world situation.

In her response to Zizek’s first letter she will reiterate her Nietzschean and youthful stance, saying, “we’re the children of Dionysus, floating by in a barrel, accepting nobody’s authority . We’re on the side of those who don’t offer final answers or transcendent truths. Our mission, rather, is the asking of questions (KL 407)”. Influenced by Heraclitus and Berdyaev Nadya will offer a vision of hope from the world of fire and transformation against aspects of Zizek’s more dialectical materialism. Berdyaev’s almost gnostic sense of a rebellion against the powers of the world in high places sings out of her letter. Of course Nikolai Berdyaev, a Russian Orthodox propounded his own Christian oriented vision of earthly revolt. In the letter she will quote him: “Christianity itself is to me the embodiment of the revolt against the world and its laws and fashions.” (KL 417)

Against the notion of experts having the answers to the dilemmas of the world  she says: “Cultural competence and sensitivity to the Zeitgeist don’t come with a college diploma or live in an administrator’s briefcase. You need to know which way to point the map” (KL 441). Against experts she offers the “Dionysians, the unmediated ones, those drawn to what’s different and new, seeking movement and inspiration over dogmas and immutable statutes. The innocents, in other words, the speakers of truth. (KL 446)” Yet, she herself admits that she has no answers. The dilemmas between the experts and the innocents remains, and the only thing she hopes for is an almost salvatory vision of “Herod’s daughter” who may come, one bearing hope and truth, etc., saying those “who live their lives entirely within the gift economy, will always receive a miracle at the exact moment they need it” (KL 453).

In response to this letter Zizek will remember Trotsky’s dream of Lenin in which Lenin does not know that he is dead. For Zizek it has a two-fold meaning: on the one hand it aligns with the notion that we must slough off the old utopianism, let it die a final death; and, on the other, that what must remain alive in Leninism is not the utopian dream, but its Idea, what “Alain Badiou calls the “eternal Idea” of universal emancipation, the immortal striving for justice that no insult or catastrophe will manage to kill— Lenin lives wherever there are people who still fight for the same Idea.” (KL 478-480)

Zizek will argue that in our time it is the experts who have become the utopianists, who would keep things in stasis, bring the world under one rule, one law, one movement of power and logic: “Experts are by definition the servants of those in power: they don’t really THINK, they just apply their knowledge to problems defined by the powerful…” (KL 488) Zizek in a critique of her Nietzschean opposition of Dionysus/Apollo or Flux/Order invocation will remind her that it does not go enough, that what is needed is “not just to shake people out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very coordinates of social reality such that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying “Apollonian equilibrium.” (KL 508)”

He will launch into his latest critique of “late capitalism”, using Brian Massumi’s idea of affective capitalism saying:

It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety— because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay— as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value . It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorizes affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.(KL 513)

Affective Economy as the mode of generating emotional investment in variety is at the heart of this new economy. The notion here is that one cannot subvert what has already internalized its own subversion as a permanent revolt, instead “late capitalism” defines itself now in normal terms of a carnivalized economy, “with its constant reversals, crises, and reinventions, such that it is now the critique of capitalism, from a “stable” ethical position, which increasingly appears as the exception” (KL 531).

Yet, Nadya in her response will agree that maybe their right, but that they forget the other side of the equation, the losers, the outcast and third-world slaves of this new economy:

…the logic of totalizing normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, and incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behavior is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule. No wonder authoritarian China has emerged as a world economic leader.(KL 565-569)

 She will take exception to Zizek’s “distrust of thinking that is posited within the frameworks of binary oppositions, and even insist on the use of such binaries as a heuristic— one that is situational and, when it must be, even burlesque” (KL 573). What is interesting next is that she will point out Zizek’s own male chauvinism, saying in response to his sympathy at her plight while he is in a privileged position of male power outside the situation: 

“Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ‘empirical deprivations.’ ” (KL 594)

Zizek will apologize for this flaw in his character: “my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched male chauvinism can be, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue” (KL 559).

In this letter he will contrast the two visions of Hardt/Negri – with their reliance on a Deleuzian/Guattari rhizomatic vision of “cognitive capitalism” as totally deterriolized and opening up a creativity that cannot be contained or mastered; against, Franco Berardi’s vision of doom and impotence, in which the only way out is to abandon the machine, the world of capitalism through small aggressive communities withdrawing from its system of economics. Zizek will comment:

Berardi, only withdrawal, passivity, and the abandonment of illusions can open up a new way: “Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope.” I, of course, do not follow him here, but I do share his skepticism about chaotic resistance. I am more and more convinced that what really matters is what happens the day after: can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but are also able to offer the prospect of a new order? (KL 649-653)

In her next letter Nadya will respond to Zizek’s male chauvinist apology, and its inherent inability to address the differences in regional exceptions to the capitalist agenda with a question: “what are the acceptable limits of tolerance? When does it cease to be tolerance and become instead collaborationism, conformism, even criminal complicity?” (KL 702) Here she questions the U.S.A.’s complicity in dealing with Russian and China and overlooking its internal atrocities against its citizens or former satellites.  Against the notion of global capitalism in Left critiques she offers instead that they “set aside their colonial Eurocentrism and consider global capitalism in its entirety, encompassing all regional variants” (KL 720).

Countering this attack on universalism Zizek will say yes, yes, by all means we must fight in the diversity, yet we must not forget the Hegelian notion of totality which does not mean some false notion of organic whole, but is instead to realize it as a “critical notion— to “locate a phenomenon in its totality” does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its distortions (“ symptoms,” antagonisms, inconsistencies) as its integral parts. In other words, the Hegelian totality is by definition “self-contradictory,” antagonistic, inconsistent: the “Whole” which is the “True” (Hegel: “das Ganze is das Wahre”) is the Whole plus its symptoms, the unintended consequences which betray its untruth. (KL 753-757)” His point being that in dialectical materialism as he sees it “the Whole is never truly whole: every notion of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the effort to include this excess, to account for it” (KL 759).

 Against the backdrop of global capitalism each country reacts in its own way, but the “general tendency of contemporary capitalism is towards further expansion of the reign of the market, combined with progressive enclosures of public space, sweeping cuts in public services, and a rising authoritarianism in the functioning of political power” (KL 781-783). The truth is that democracy in our time is failing everywhere not do to the economic system, but rather due to a failure to any longer believe in the elite experts and their monetary sponsors to actually fix things. Instead we are slowly waking up to the truth that without true leadership people follow not their desires but rather their animalistic habits. He will respond with his notions that instead we need a figure, a Master to call us out of our habits, engendering in us true desires for an emancipatory world. Yet, the temptation here is between the excess of the Master that leads to the false totalitarian world, or the one that inspires in people to take on the responsibility of living in a non-totalitarian world of conflict and negotiation.

Speaking of Nelson Mandela and his legacy as an example, he says:

We can also safely surmise that, on account of his undoubted moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life aware of how his very political triumph and elevation into a universal hero was itself the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is but a sign that he didn’t really disturb the global order of power— which certainly cannot be said of Pussy Riot. (KL 898-901).

In her next letter she admits she has finally been freed. She and her partners have also founded Zona Prava a new organization to promote and help prison inmates and to retrain the overseers (the wardens). She sees it as a commitment to those who have suffered in silence for too long, especially taking on the task of helping both her former inmates and all women in prison. She mentions the different uprisings in Russia (May 6th) and other issues and concerns surrounding the imprisonment of radicals, journalists, and all who speak the truth. Reading her one realizes that prison gave her a new opportunity and task, rather than closing off her mind it opened her eyes to a need, a new way to help locally her own people both politically and spiritually. One is reminded of activist Angela Davis in the States and her years of working for African-American rights in prisons and the issues surrounding this new form of apartheid within America, etc.  

In his final letter to Nadya on her freedom he will bring everything back to his point about the true idea of the universal: “it is absolutely crucial to insist on the universality of our struggle. The moment we forget that Pussy Riot and WikiLeaks are moments of the same global struggle, everything is lost, we have sold our soul to the devil” (KL 1074).

Reading the short book was well worth the effort. Not much new in Zizek’s repeat of central ideas he’s gone over in his recent Less Than Nothing and Absolute Recoil. What was more important was the meeting of two minds sharing their diverse feminine and masculine struggles in dialogue. This sense that we must begin talking again to each other rather than critiquing is important. Without a sense of dialogue, of communication the world loses value. In this sense the Kantian tradition of critique is dead on arrival. What is needed now is people conversing and struggling together in concert across the planet. Politics must be taken back into the streets, into the local spaces of one’s life and realized in personal ways and tasks (as in Nadya’s creation of a intervention into prison systems, etc.). For Zizek the struggle of the commons against the empire of global capitalism starts and ends with the human face of its actors who need the right push to awaken out of their capitalist sleep.

1. Zizek, Slavoj; Tolokonnikova, Nadezhda (2014-09-30). Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (Kindle Locations 50-54). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 173)
3. ibid. (KL 179)
4. ibid. (KL 198)
5. ibid. (KL 234)
6. ibid. (KL 294)
7. ibid. (KL 305)
8. ibid. (KL 325)
9. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 28-30.
10. (in Russian). Gazeta.ru. 2 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 July 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2013
11. ibid. (KL 350)

 

 

 

 

 

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: 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.

Slavo Zizek: Quote of the Day

Kinder Surprise, one of the most popular confectionery products on sale in Europe, are empty chocolate eggshells wrapped in brightly colored paper; when you unwrap the egg and crack the chocolate shell open, you find inside a small plastic toy (or small parts from which a toy can be put together). A child who buys this chocolate egg often unwraps it nervously and just breaks the chocolate, not bothering to eat it, worrying only about the toy in the center—is not such a chocolate-lover a perfect case of Lacan’s motto “I love you, but, inexplicably, I love something in you more than yourself, and, therefore, I destroy you”? And, in effect, is this toy not l’objet petit a at its purest, the small object filling in the central void of our desire, the hidden treasure, agalma, at the center of the thing we desire?

Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf

Utopia or Hell: The Future as Posthuman Game Strategy

 

There was no question; the dead thing in the gutter was one of his clones. – Jeffrey Thomas, Punktown

As I was thinking through the last chapter in David Roden’s posthuman adventure in which a spirit of speculative engineering best exemplifies an ethical posthuman becoming – not the comic or dreadful arrest in the face of something that cannot be grasped 1, I began reading Arthur Kroker in his book Exits to the Posthuman Future, who in an almost uncanny answer to Roden’s plea for new forms of thought – to prepare ourselves for the posthuman eventuality, tells us that we might need a “form of thought that listens intently for the gaps, fissures, and intersections , whether directly in the technological sphere or indirectly in culture, politics, and society, where incipient signs of the posthuman first begin to figure.”2 We might replace the use of the word “figure” with Roden’s terminological need for an understanding of “emergence”.

Rereading Slavoj Zizek’s early The Sublime Object of Ideology he will see a specific battle within the cultural matrix in which scientists and critics alike have a tendency to fill these gaps, or unknowns with complexity and an almost acute anxiety of that which is coming at us out of the future. He says that there is always this dialectical interplay between Ptolemaic and Copernican movements. The Ptolemaic being the form that simply shores up the past, solidifying and reducing the complexities of the sciences to its simplified worldview, while the Copernicans always opt for fracturing the old forms, for opening up the world to the gaps that cannot be evaded in our knowledge, to allowing the universe to enter us and challenge everything we are and have been.

The Gothic modes of fiction seem to follow and fill these uncertain voids and gaps with the monstrous rather than light when such moments of metamorphosis and change come about. Fear and instability shake us to our bones, force us to resist change and seek ways to either turn time back or to put the unknown into some perverse relation to our lives, darkening its visions into complicity with the inhuman and sadomasochistic heart of our own core defense systems. One might be reminded of Thomas Ligotti’s remembrance of Mary Shelley’s famous Frankenstein in which his own repetition of her story in a postmodern mode has the creature awaken into his posthuman self with a sense of loss: “

This possibility is now , of course, as defunct as the planet itself. With all biology in tatters, the outsider will never again hear the consoling gasps of those who shunned him and in whose eyes and hearts he achieved a certain tangible identity, however loathsome. Without the others he simply cannot go on being himself— The Outsider— for there is no longer anyone to be outside of. In no time at all he is overwhelmed by this atrocious paradox of fate.

This sense of ambivalence that he fills at having attained at last something outside of humanity returns with a darker knowledge that becoming other he can no longer harbor what he once dreamed, he has become the thing he dreaded. Cast out of the biological tic he is free, but free for what? No longer human he is faced with the paradox of who he now is: and, that he has nothing to which his mind can tend, no thoughts from the others, the humans; no libraries of philosophy, ethics, history, literature. No. He is absolutely outside of the human; alone. Is this solipsism or something else? Even that classic work by the Comte de Lautremont Maldoror in which the ecstasy of cruelty is unleased cannot be a part of this world of the posthuman. What if the mythology of drives, of eros and thanatos, love and death, the rhetoric flourishes of figuration, else the literalism of sadomasochism no longer hold for such beings? How apply human knowledge and thought to what is inhuman? As Ligotti will end one of his little vignettes:

And each fragment of the outsider cast far across the earth now absorbs the warmth and catches the light, reflecting the future life and festivals of a resurrected race of beings : ones who will remain forever ignorant of their origins but for whom the sight of a surface of cold, unyielding glass will always hold profound and unexplainable terrors. (ibid)

This sense of utter desolation, of catastrophe as creation and invention, is this not the truth of the posthuman? Zizek will attune us to the monstrous notion that Hegel’s notion of Aufhebung or sublation is a form of cannibalism in that it effectively and voraciously devours and ‘swallows up’ every object it comes upon.4 His point being that the only way we can grasp an object (let’s say the posthuman) is to acknowledge that it already ‘wants to be with/by us’? If as Roden suggests we as humans are becoming the site of a great experiment in inventing the posthuman then maybe as Zizek suggests its not digestion or cognition, but shitting that we must understand, because for Hegel the figure of Absolute Knowledge, the cognizing subject is one of total passivity; an agent in which the System of Knowledge is ‘automatically’ deployed without external norms or impetuses. Zizek will tell us that this is a radicalized Hegel, one that defends the notion of ‘process without subject’: the emergence of a pure subject qua void, the object itself with no need for any subjective agent to push it forward or to direct it. (ibid, xxii)

This notion that the posthuman as ‘process without subject’ that has no need of human agents to push it, direct or guide it takes us to the edge of the technological void where our human horizon meets and merges with the inhuman other residing uncannily within our own being, withdrawn and primeval.

Engineering Our Posthuman future

Chris Anderson , in his ‘The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete’  argued that data will speak for themselves, no need of human beings who may ask smart questions:

With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves. […] The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years. Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence . Data without a model is just noise. But faced with massive data, this approach to science— hypothesize, model, test— is becoming obsolete.5

So what is replacing it? Luciano Floridi will tell us that it’s not about replacement, but about the small patterns in the chaos of data:

[One needs to ] know how to ask and answer questions’ critically, and therefore know which data may be useful and relevant, and hence worth collecting and curating, in order to exploit their valuable patterns. We need more and better technologies and techniques to see the small-data patterns , but we need more and better epistemology to sift the valuable ones.6

So if we are to understand the emergence of the posthuman out of the relations of human and technology we need to ask the right questions, and to build the technologies that can pierce the veil of this infinite sea of information our society is inventing in the digital machines of Data. Data itself is stupid, what we need are intelligent questioners. But do these intelligent agents need to be necessarily human? Maybe not, yet as Floridi will suggest:

One thing seems to be clear: talking of information processing helps to explain why our current AI systems are overall more stupid than the wasps in the bottle. Our present technology is actually incapable of processing any kind of meaningful information, being impervious to semantics, that is, the meaning and interpretation of the data manipulated. ICTs are as misnamed as ‘smart weapons’. (Floridi, KL 2525)

Descartes once acknowledged that the essential sign of intelligence was a capacity to learn from different circumstances, adapt to them, and exploit them to one’s own advantage. And, many in the AI community have followed that path thinking it would be a priceless feature of any appliance that sought to be more than merely smart. In our own time the impression has often been that the process of adding to the mathematical book of nature (inscription) required the feasibility of productive, cognitive AI, in other words, the strong programme. Yet, what has actually been happening in the real world of commerce and practical science of engineering is something altogether different, we’ve been inventing a world that is becoming an infosphere, one that is increasingly well adapted to ICTs’ (Information & Communications Technologies) limited capacities. What we see happening is that companies in their bid to invent Smart Cities etc. are beginning to adapt the environment to our smart technologies to make sure the latter can interact with it successfully . We are, in other words, wiring or rather enveloping the world with intelligence. Our environment itself is becoming posthuman and in turn is rewiring humanity. (ibid. Floridi)

ICTs are creating the new informational environment in which future generations will live and have their being. The posthuman is becoming our environment a site of intelligence, we are we are constructing the new physical and intellectual environments that will be inhabited by future generations. For Floridi the task is to formulate an ethical framework that can treat the infosphere as a new environment worthy of the moral attention and care of the human inforgs inhabiting it:

Such an ethical framework must address and solve the unprecedented challenges arising in the new environment. It must be an e-nvironmental ethics for the whole infosphere. This sort of synthetic (both in the sense of holistic or inclusive, and in the sense of artificial) environmentalism will require a change in how we perceive ourselves and our roles with respect to reality, what we consider worth our respect and care, and how we might negotiate a new alliance between the natural and the artificial. It will require a serious reflection on the human project and a critical review of our current narratives, at the individual, social, and political levels. (Floridi, KL 3954)

James Barrat in his book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era tells us he interviewed many scientists in various fields concerning AGI and that every one of these people was convinced that in the future all the important decisions governing the lives of humans will be made by machines or humans whose intelligence is augmented by machines. When? Many think this will take place within their lifetimes.7 After interviewing dozens of scientist Barrat concluded that we may be slowly losing control of our future to machines that won’t necessarily hate us, but that will develop unexpected behaviors as they attain high levels of the most unpredictable and powerful force in the universe, levels that we cannot ourselves reach, and behaviors that probably won’t be compatible with our survival. A force so unstable and mysterious, nature achieved it in full just once—intelligence. (Barrat, 6)

As Kroker will admonish we seem to be on the cusp of a strange transition, situated at the crossroads of humanity, and the future presents itself now as a gigantic simulacrum of the recycled remnants of all that which was left unfinished by the coming-to-be of the technological dynamo – unfinished religious wars, unfinished ethnic struggles, unfinished class warfare, unfinished sacrificial violence and spasms of brutal power, often motivated by a psychology of anger on the part of the most privileged members of the so-called global village. The apocalypse seems to be coming our way like a specter on the horizon, not a grand epiphany of events but by one lonely text message at a time. (Kroker, 193)

The techno-capitalists want to enclose us in a new global commons of intelligent cities to better control our behavior and police us in a vast hyperworld of machinic pleasure and posthuman revelation, while the rest of humanity sits on the outside of these corrupted dreamworlds as workers and slaves of the new AI wars for the minds of humanity. Bruce Sterling in his latest book The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things says we’re already laying the infrastructure for tyranny and control on a global scale:

Digital commerce and governance is moving, as fast and hard as it possibly can, into a full-spectrum dominance over whatever used to be analogue. In practice, the Internet of Things means an epic transformation: all-purpose electronic automation through digital surveillance by wireless broadband.8

Another prognosticator Jacque Attali who supports the technological elite takeover in this world of intelligent systems, tells us that in the course of the twenty-first century, market forces will take the planet in hand. The ultimate expression of unchecked individualism, this triumphant march of money explains the essence of history’s most recent convulsions. It is up to us to accelerate, resist, or master it:

…this evolutionary process means that money will finally rid itself of everything that threatens it — including nation-states (and not excepting the United States of America), which it will progressively dismantle. Once the market becomes the world’s only universally recognized law, it will evolve into what I shall call super-empire, an entity whose structures remain elusive but whose reach is global. … Exploiting ever newer technologies, global or continental institutions will organize collective living, imposing limits on the production of commercial artifacts, on transforming life, and on the mercantile exploitation of natural resources. They will prefer freedom of action, responsibility, and access to knowledge. They will usher in the birth of a universal intelligence, making common property of the creative capacities of all human beings in order to transcend them. A new, synchronized economy, providing free services, will develop in competition with the market before eliminating it, exactly as the market put an end to feudalism a few centuries ago.9

The dream of the global elites is of a great market empire controlled by vast AI Intelligent Agents that will deliver the perfect utopian realm of work and play for a specific minority of engineers and creative agents, entrepreneurs, bankers, and space moghuls, etc., while the rest of the dregs of humanity live in the shadows controlled by implants or pharmaceuticals that will keep them pacified and slave-happy in their menial tier of decrepitude as workers in the minimalist camps that support the Smart Civilization and its powers.    

Yet, against this decadent scenario as Kroker suggests what if the counter were true, and the shadow artists of the future or even now beginning to enter the world of data nerves, network skin, and increasingly algorithmic minds with the intention of capturing the dominant mood of these posthuman times – drift culture – in a form of thought that dwells in complicated intersections and complex borderlands? He envisions instead an new emergent order of rebels, a global gathering of new media artists, remix musicians, pirate gamers, AI graffiti artists, anonymous witnesses, and code rebels, an emerging order of figural aesthetics revealing a new order, a brilliantly hallucinatory order, based on an art of impossible questions and a perceptual language as precise as it is evocative. Here, the aesthetic imagination dwells solely on questions of incommensurability : What is the vision of the clone? What is the affect of the code? What is the hauntology of the avatar? What is most excluded, prohibited, by the android? What is the perception of the drone? What are the aesthetics of the fold? What, in short, is the meaning of aesthetics in the age of drift culture?(Kroker, 195-196)

This notion of drift culture might align well with David Roden’s call for a new network of interdisciplinary practices that combine technoscientific expertise with ethical and aesthetic experimentation will be better placed to sculpt disconnections than narrow coalitions of experts. One in which the ‘Body Hacker’ with her self-invention and empowerment toward a self-administered intervention in extreme new technologies like the IA technique…(Roden, KL 4394). Kroker will call this ‘body drift’:

Body drift refers to the fact that we no longer inhabit a body in any meaningful sense of the term but rather occupy a multiplicity of bodies— imaginary, sexualized, disciplined, gendered, laboring, technologically augmented bodies. Moreover, the codes governing behavior across this multiplicity of bodies have no real stability but are themselves in drift— random, fluctuating, changing. There are no longer fixed, unchallenged codes governing sexuality, gender, class, or power but only an evolving field of contestation among different interpretations and practices of different bodily codes. The multiplicity of bodies that we are, or are struggling to become, is invested by code-perspectives. Never fixed and unchanging, code-perspectives are always subject to random fluctuations, always evolving, always intermediated by other objects, by other code-perspectives. We know this as a matter of personal autobiography.(Kroker, KL 53)10

 This notion that we are becoming ‘code’ is also part of the posthuman nexus. As Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge in Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life tell us this sense of the pervasiveness of the environment enclosing us is becoming posthuman is termed ‘everywhere’: the ubiquity of computational power will soon be distributed and available to the point on the planet… many everyday devices and objects will be accessible across the Internet of things, chatting to each other in machinic languages that humans will not even be aware of much less concerned with; yet, we will be enclosed in this fabric of communication and technology of Intelligence, socialized by its pervasiveness in our lives. Instead of the old Marxian notion of being embedded in a machine, we will now be so enmeshed in this environment of ICTs that they will become invisible: power and governance will vanish into our skins and minds without us even knowing it is happening, and we will be happy.

Luis Suarez-Villa in his recent Globalization and Technocapitalism tells us “the ethos of technocapitalism places experimentalism at the core of corporate power”, much as production was at the core of industrial corporate power, undertaken through factory regimes and labor processes. And , much as the ethos of past capitalist eras was accompanied by social pathologies and by frameworks of domination, so the new ethos of technocapitalism introduces pathological constructs of global domination that are likely to be hallmarks of the twenty-first century. As Floridi will tells us, we are already living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized ( space ), and correlated (interactions). Although this might be interpreted, optimistically, as the friendly face of globalization, we should not harbour illusions about how widespread and inclusive the evolution of the information society will be. Unless we manage to solve it, the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums (Floridi, 9).

 Welcome to the brave new world. As our drift and code culture, digital immigrants in a sea of information slowly become inforgs and are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. (Floridi, 16-17)

What remains of our humanity is anyone’s guess. The Inforgasm is upon us, the slipstream worlds of human/machine have begun to reverse engineer each other in a convoluted involution in which we are returning to our own native climes as machinic beings. Maybe a schizoanalyst could sort this all out. For me there is no escape, no exit, just the harsh truth that what is coming at us is our own inhuman core realized as posthuman becoming, an engineering feat that no one would have thought possible: consciousness gives way to the very machinic processes that underpin its actual and virtual histories.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 4399-4401). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Kroker, Arthur (2014-03-12). Exits to the Posthuman Future (p. 6). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
3. Ligotti, Thomas (2014-07-10). The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein (Kindle Locations 397-399). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
4. Slavoj Zizek. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso 1989
5. Anderson, C. (23 June 2008). The end of theory: Data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired Magazine.
6. Floridi, Luciano (2014-06-26). The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (Kindle Locations 4088-4089). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
7. Barrat, James (2013-10-01). Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (p. 3). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Sterling, Bruce (2014-09-01). The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things (Kindle Locations 8-10). Strelka Press. Kindle Edition.
9. Attali, Jacques (2011-07-01). A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century . Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.
10. Kroker, Arthur (2012-10-22). Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 53-60). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.


 

 

 

 

 

Zizek & Deleuze: On Desire

Of late I’ve been tracing down the two forms of desire that interplay through much of the past two-hundred years in discourse. I was rereading Zizek who is a student and epigone of Lacan/Hegel who both conceived desire as lack, while Deleuze on the other hand conceived desire as fully positive. I had discovered in Nick Land’s works this same sense of desire as in Deleuze. There is this undercurrent of philosophers that seem to battle between these conceptions of desire as if it were a central trope and mask for aspects of drive and energy that those following the transcendental Idealists despise with a passion. I’m just taking a few notes here and there as I trace this strange battle of the philosophers over conceptions of desire. It seems important.

 Below is a quote from Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences by Slavoj Zizek:

…Deleuze insists that desire has no object (whose lack would trigger and sustain its movement): desire is “a purely virtual ‘movement’ that has always reached its destination, whose moving is itself its own destination.” This is the thrust of Deleuze’s reading of masochism and courtly love— in both cases, not logic of sacrifice, but how to sustain the desire … According to the standard reading of masochism, the masochist, like everyone, also looks for pleasure; his problem is that, because of the internalized superego, he has to pay for his access to pleasure with the pain, to pacify the oppressive agency which finds pleasure intolerable. For Deleuze, on the contrary, the masochist chooses pain in order to

dissolve the pseudo-link of desire with pleasure as its extrinsic measure. Pleasure is in no way something that can only be reached via the detour of pain, but that which has to be delayed to the maximum since it is something which interrupts the continuous process of the positive desire. There is an immanent joy of desire, as if desire fills itself with itself and its contemplations, and which does not imply any lack, any impossibility.

And the same goes for courtly love : its eternal postponement of fulfilment does not obey a law of lack or an ideal of transcendence: here also, it signals a desire which lacks nothing, since it finds its fulfilment in itself, in its own immanence; every pleasure is, on the contrary, already a re-territorialization of the free flux of desire.

Of course Zizek goes ballistic at Deleuze’s insistence on the notion that desire lacks nothing… Zizek being a faithful child of Hegel gets exasperated and wants to say, ah ha, I got you Deleuze when he says:

Therein resides the ultimate irony of Deleuze’s critique of Hegel: when, against Hegel, Deleuze claims that creation “is immediately creative; there is no transcendent or negating subject of creation that might need time in order to become conscious of itself or otherwise catch up with itself,”  he thereby imputes to Hegel a substantialization-reification which is not there and, in this way, obliterates precisely that dimension in Hegel which is the closest to Deleuze himself. Hegel repeatedly insists that Spirit is “a product of itself”: it is not a pre-existing Subject intervening into objectivity, sublating-mediating it, but the result of its own movement, i.e., pure processuality. As such, it does not need time to “catch up with itself,” but simply to generate itself. (ibid, KL 169)

What’s truly ironic is that for Hegel ‘Spirit’ is a mask for desire, so that it is Zizek not Deleuze who is bound to a misprisioning of Hegel and Deleuze both. Zizek has a fetish for the self-reflecting nothingness at the center of his own empty being: what he calls subjectivity. He could not find desire there so he has been chasing after it through all the worlds of philosophy, film, art, trash, culture, Lacan, Hegel… will he find it? All he need do is give up his love of nothingness. But that’s the key he desires less than nothing so will continue to revolve in his own black hole of non-being.

Yet, if we remember from his opus Less Than Nothing the basic theme was on desire:

This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by an obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive. One should thus (also) invert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of how we relate to the proximity of death in the Kierkegaardian sense of the “sickness unto death,” as the series of five attitudes towards the unbearable fact of immortality. One first denies it: “What immortality? After my death, I will just dissolve into dust!” Then, one explodes into anger: “What a terrible predicament I’m in! No way out !” One continues to bargain: “OK, but it is not me who is immortal, only the undead part of me, so one can live with it …” Then one falls into depression: “What can I do with myself when I am condemned to stay here forever?” Finally, one accepts the burden of immortality.2

And, of course, one realizes that Zizek is being beyond ironic in such statements since he is a purist of atheists. Zizek is after that “something continues to move”. The burden of life and immortality for Zizek is to be condemned to this life forever, to repeat it ad infinitum like Kafka’s surveyor in The Castle he is condemned to a novel that will never end because the author left the stage before it was completed. An irony too sweet to be missed: one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp (Zizek, KL 5319). This is Zizek’s desire as lack. A sort of hell where one is condemned like Dante’s lovers to whirl in the winds of infinity just out of reach of each other, condemned to an eternity of longing that can never be fulfilled.

Deleuze will offer his own view on desire in which he will point out that desire always flows from within an assemblage. To desire is to construct and assemblage, to construct and aggregate – a dress, a sun ray, a woman or assemblage of a woman, a vista, a color, etc. To be abstract about it: desire is a constructivism. Everytime someone says they desire something, they first of all desire to construct an assemblage, to shape their desire around a mileu:

 

In the video he goes on to speak of the three points he and Felix Guattari had in disagreement with classic forms of psychoanalysis:

1) they were persuaded with the notion that the unconscious is not a theatre, a place where Hamlet and Oedipus continually play out their scenes. It’s not a theatre but a factory, a production… the unconscious produces, continuously produces… ;

2) the theme of delirium, which is closely linked to desire… to desire is to become delirious… it is opposite to what psychoanalysts discuss – it’s not about the father and mother… the great secret of delirium is that we desire about the whole world… one desires about history, geography, tribes, deserts, people, climates, etc. … it’s not about family, its about tribes and milieu, about one’s place within these…the determinants.

3) desire always constructs assemblages and establishes itself in assemblages, always putting several factors into play, while psychoanalysis is just the opposites and reduces the factors to a single factor: the father, the mother, etc.  While assemblages are a multiplicity, psychoanalysis is a reduction to the one. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-05-04). Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge Classics) (Kindle Locations 156-169). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 313-321). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Letters to a young Comrade (1)

Dear Comrade,

I know we’ve had this conversation before, and I know you’ve asked me more often than not why the ‘Idea of communism’ matters in such an age as ours. You’ve pointed out that the history of communism has been the history of a great failure. But was it communism that failed us, truly? Should we not admit that mistakes have been made? Are we better than Comrade Lenin who once stated that those “Communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy (particularly in a small-peasant country) without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done.”1 Yet, we cannot stop there, we must continue, must remember, allow his message to sink in completely into the core of our being, listen to what he says after this first iteration: “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish). (ibid.)

Continue reading

Slavoj Zizek: The Right Questions

The great lesson of state socialism was indeed that an immediate abolition of private property and market-regulated exchange, in the absence of concrete forms of social regulation of the process of production, necessarily resuscitates direct relations of servitude and domination.

– Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing

What we need are the right questions, we already have plenty of answers, says Slavoj Zizek.  He is more pragmatic and realist than most give him credit for. No pied-piper piping to the choir of children here. He offers no panaceas for the struggles ahead. What he does offer is strategies, problems, and dialogue. He agrees that for the moment all of our debates remain on the ‘enemy’s turf’, and that all “we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us— everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror,” ominous and threatening as it should be.”1

He tells us there is a difference between a politics of resistance which is parasitical upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation. Sometime a ‘gesture of subtraction’ a withdrawal from both the political stage and the economic stage, as in the Occupy Movement is the only path toward opening such a space of the New. One might also say that the Occupy Movement was a first step in withdrawal, a movement of opening up a hole in the veil of capitalist geomancy, of a refusal to enter into any relation with the political or economic system in a constructive or positive way.

Reminding us that none of the great protests movements replaced the existing systems with something new, and that as Lacan said of the May 68′ revolts: “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.”(Kindle Location 22450) The sadness of the political resistance and protest movements insofar as their protest remains at the level of a hysterical provocation of the Master, without a positive program for the new order to replace the old one, it effectively functions as a (disavowed, of course) call for a new Master.(Kindle Locations 22452-22453)

He also states provocatively that the intellectuals as a class with answers, as a vanguard to lead the masses into the new, is a dead myth, that the roles have been reversed, that the people themselves have answers and solutions but have yet to realize the right questions, that they lack only the proper concepts and words as John Berger said, that ‘ring true’. (Kindle Location 22471)

We should treat the demands of the Wall Street protests in a similar way: intellectuals should not primarily take them as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose the questions to which they are answers. The situation is like that in psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but does not know what they are the answers to, and the analyst has to formulate the questions. Only through such patient work will a program emerge. (KL  22478-22482).

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 22433-22435). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Panda Bear Democracy

If we don’t see this, if as a consequence of our cynical pragmatism, we have lost the capacity to recognise the promise of emancipation, we in the West will have entered a post-democratic era, ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

– Slavoj Zizek, Berlusconi in Tehran

Zizek asks: “Is there a link between Ahmadinejad and Berlusconi? Isn’t it preposterous even to compare Ahmadinejad with a democratically elected Western leader?” Sad as it is he comes to the pessimistic conclusion that the two leaders are part of the same “global process”. Even if Zizek intends a communist future, he is more pessimistic in that he envisions that we could take another path. He quotes Peter Sloterdijk who once remarked that “if there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’.” Even China is modeling its future on the logic of Singaporean success. Like a viral meme that is infecting the socio-culture nets of our postmodern cities the “link between democracy and capitalism” has finally been severed. Like zombies in a second rate film we move fitfully and without purpose, consuming everything in out path knowing full well that we have given ourselves over the embedded mechanisms of control that have become so habitual and invisible that we no longer even know they were at one time the pure substance of propaganda. Governance has disappeared into our neuralnets like artifacts from the future controlling the very processes of productive thought.

Democracy is an empty shell he tells us. Capitalism no longer needs democracy to prop up its illusionary scaffolding. Democracy everywhere in the world has become an experimental laboratory where our future is being worked out. If our political choice is between “permissive-liberal technocratism and fundamentalist populism”, then the great choice of the future is a marriage of the two. Zizek reminds us that the “dignity of classical politics stems from its elevation above the play of particular interests in civil society: politics is ‘alienated’ from civil society, it presents itself as the ideal sphere of the citoyen in contrast to the conflict of selfish interests that characterise the bourgeois.” Now our neoliberal Leaders have effectively abolished this alienation: in today’s democracies, state power is directly exerted by the bourgeois, who openly exploits it as a means to protect their own economic interest, and who parades their personal lives as if they were taking part in a reality TV show. And, the funny thing is, that they truly are. One need only turn on the TV to any cable network and find it littered with Reality Shows more fantastic and fictional that reality itself.

Every night we watch the news our media moguls dish out to us an ever more preposterous series of repetitive time bombs that seem to repeat the same message: you need us, we will protect you, the world is a bad place, government can solve your problems, just continue buy more and more of our sponsors products, everything will turn out ok. In their fictional universe our Leaders are all clowns, but as Zizek remarks “we shouldn’t be fooled: behind the clownish mask there is a state power that functions with ruthless efficiency”. The ideological fictions we live in are more like bad cartoons. He explains it using a cartoon movie:

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon hit, provides the basic co-ordinates for understanding the ideological situation I have been describing. The fat panda dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. He is chosen by blind chance (beneath which lurks the hand of destiny, of course), to be the hero to save his city, and succeeds. But the film’s pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by a cynical humour. The surprise is that this continuous making-fun-of-itself makes it no less spiritual: the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!’ This is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them. Berlusconi is our own Kung Fu Panda. As the Marx Brothers might have put it, ‘this man may look like a corrupt idiot and act like a corrupt idiot, but don’t let that deceive you – he is a corrupt idiot.’

Zizek warns us that the future coming at us is one where the ‘state of emergency’ is permanent. Agamben’s notion of homo sacer – the figure excluded from the civil order, who can be killed with impunity – is being realized everywhere and without impunity. Freedom is another word for slavery. In search of security we have allowed ourselves to be put into chains. There is no exit door from this insanity. Barbarism with a human face. The kindness will kill you, literally.

A Theory of What Constitutes the Heart of the Žižekian

Daniel Tutt of spirit is a bone introduces a new book on Žižek, Žižek and Education by Antonio Garcia. Nuanced and calibrated he lays out the parade of scholars succinctly and with his usual aplomb! Looking forward to the reading the new work.

Description

Zizek has spoken very little on the subject of education, so how could a book be devoted to such a subject? For many years, educational theorist and philosophers have incorporated Zizek’s work, but none have taken on the project of developing an identified “Zizekian line of thought” (Butler), how Zizek and Education might be a matter of “Public Pedagogy” (see The handbook on Public Pedagogy by Sandlin, Schultz, and Burdick), or what renderings of education in the vein of Boris Groys (and Badiou) anti-philosophers.

Daniel Tutt

Here is the introduction of my essay for a new book on Žižek and Education edited by Antonio Garcia, with contributions from many of my favorite Žižek scholars.

In this piece, entitled “The Threshold of the Žižekian” I argue that the heart of the Žižekian, can be located in the way that Žižek modifies the discourse of the Master by putting the disciple (reader) into a new relation towards what I call “emancipatory knowledge.”

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature.

After outlining the threshold, I develop a theory of Žižekian pedagogy that can be arranged like a musical score, reaching its crescendo at the point of the act, where the subject (disciple)…

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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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Slavoj Zizek: On Lacan as Philosopher

Jaques Lacan (13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981)

SŽ: Lacan was a French psychoanalytic theorist, who despised philosophy officially. For Lacan, the discourse of philosophy is of a complete worldview which fills in all of the gaps and cracks. And Lacan’s idea is that precisely what we learn in psychoanalysis is how cracks and inconsistencies are constitutive of our lives. So officially he was against philosophy, but the paradox is that Lacan was constantly in dialogue with philosophy. In his work, there are even more references to Plato and Hegel than to Freud himself.

BLVR: So even though Lacan didn’t want to define the world concretely, he was a kind of philosopher himself?

SŽ: Obviously, Lacan was playing philosophy against itself. The idea being very simply that in our experience of the reality of the world, we always stumble upon some fundamental crack, incompleteness. What appears as an obstacle, the fact that we cannot ever really know things, is for Lacan itself a positive condition of meaning. There is a kernel of philosophy here, what philosophers call ontological difference; this is this experience of a rupture as a fundamental constituent of our lives. So to cut a long story short, for Lacan (and I try to further develop this idea, based on his insight), to properly grasp what Freud was aiming at with the death drive (the fundamental libidinal stance of the human individual for self-sabotaging; the basic idea of psychoanalysis is the pursuit of unhappiness, people do everything possible not to be happy), is to read it against the background of negativity, a gap as fundamental to human subjectivity, so in other words to philosophize psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in this way is no longer just a psychiatric science which develops a theory of how we can cure certain diseases; it’s kind of a mental and philosophical theory of the utmost radical dimensions of human beings.

BLVR: So Lacan was reading Freud’s death drive, the desire to self-destruct, as a good thing, philosophically speaking. Incompleteness and cracks, themselves being the place where difference is created.

SŽ: Exactly

– from Interview (2004) The Believer

Slavoj Zizek: On Cinema from Geert Lovink Interview

What I despise in America is the studio actors logic, as if there is something good in self expression: do not be oppressed, open yourself, even if you shout and kick the others, everything in order to express and liberate yourself. This is a stupid idea, that behind the mask there is some truth.

– Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek (1949 – )

Concerning theory, there are a lot of others, the whole domain of cultural criticism in America is basically cinema theory. What attracts me, is the axis between gaze and voice and nowhere will you find this tension better than in cinema. This still is for me the principal axis. Cinema is for me a kind of condensation. On the one hand you have the problem of voice, on the other the narrativisation. The only change I can think of is that up until twenty years ago, going to the cinema was a totally different social experience. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and this changed. But what still appears in ordinary commercial films is the shift in the notion of subjectivity. You can detect what goes on at the profoundest, most radical level of our symbolic identities and how we experience ourselves. Cinema is still the easiest way, like for Freud dreams were the royal way to the unconscious. Maybe I am part of a nostalgic movement. Nowadays, because of all these new media, cinema is in a crisis. It becomes popular as a nostalgic medium. And what is modern film theory really about? Its ultimate object are nostalgic films from the thirties and forties. It is as if you need the theory in order to enjoy them. It’s incredible how even Marxists enjoy this game. They have seen every film, I’m not joking. It’s not only this paternalising notion that it is good to use examples from cinema. I would still claim that there is an inherent logic of the theory itself, as if there is a privileged relationship, like the role literature played in the nineteenth century.

Interview with Slavoj Zizek by Geert Lovink (1995)