Book Review: Event, Slavoj Žižek; The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek and Hegel and the Art of Negation, Andrew W. Hass
Event, Slavoj Žižek (Penguin, 2014)
A difficulty in reading Žižek is that he often seems to be juggling with too many balls, making dizzy the reader who tries to track the course of a single idea as it speedily travels from one page to the next before somersaulting in a paragraph. The challenge is not in grasping the idea but in following it amidst the inflections and involuting digressions. The whole asymptotic shebang can become just too much and the exasperated reader is tempted to close shop on the whole act by slamming the book shut.
What makes Event easier to read and follow through from start to finish is that this time one of the balls is bigger and more brightly coloured than all the others. The reader can keep this master ball in focus, safe in the knowledge that the smaller ones circulating with it are all derivatives, examples or reduplications of the one defining conceit: Event.
Ordinarily an event is just something that happens but with an Event something is realized in a way that is extraordinary. Rust Cohle in True Detective is far from being an ordinary police officer because of how he actualizes and fully realizes, in a Platonic way, the Idea of the detective. For Plato, everyday empirical reality is a pale shadow of the bright and substantial reality of Ideas, an originary and eternal order not to be confused with the fleeting world of appearances. DunmanusBay that I see outside a window, and every other bay that anyone ever sees, only participates in the Idea of Bay by virtue of being a surface copy. Žižek gives Platonism a twist by saying, yes, there are absolute Ideas but they realize themselves purely in appearance. Rust Cohle, in the pursuit of his investigation embodies what it authentically means to be a detective, he enacts the truth that belongs to the concept of detective and in him the Idea of detective shines in all its purity. The essence that he embodies is there, unhidden in the material reality of his behaviour. In Hegelese, the distinction between appearance and essence is inscribed within appearance – because appearance is all there is.
Žižek’s own examples of essence in appearance are many and varied and his useful trope for unfolding them in Event is that of a reader’s journey with stops along the way — each stop being the site of a new facet of an Event – a device that deftly fits Penguin’s series title — Philosophy in Transit — for their new ‘commute-length’ works of philosophy. The first stop considers the event as a change in the frame by which we view the world and references to movies pepper this chapter. The Crying Game –first used in The Metastases of Enjoyment (1994) – shows, for example, how love between a man and a transvestite can more truthfully reveal what it means to love someone than a ‘normal’ sexual relationship. What enframes our everyday worldview acts like a transparent background and until the fantasy embedded in a background is acknowledged and traversed we are blind to the truth of its existence.
The next stop is a tricky one and it employs Žižek’s atheist theology — the Christian Event of the incarnation leading to the death of God and the birth of a communal, potentially communist non-divine spirit (the Holy Ghost) — to portray Eve as the inaugural ethical agent. By her act, a door is opened to the recognition of the difference between good and evil. In this way, ‘the ultimate Event is the Fall itself’ because — something most readers of Paradise Lost feel to be true at the end of Book XII — it constitutes our human existence. Unlike Milton, however, Žižek regards as illusion, a retroactive creation, the idea that before the Fall there was some primordial harmony.
Further chapters in Event, on the events of philosophy and psychoanalysis, may cover familiar ground for seasoned readers of the Slovenian maestro but they are refreshing reminders of just how original and radical a thinker he truly is. Hegel would be proud of Žižek
The Most Sublime Hysteric, Slavoj Žižek (Polity, 2014)
The Most Sublime Hysteric, published in French in 2011 and will be available in July 2014 in an English translation, is Žižek’s doctoral thesis and what a fascinating document it is. It was written in 1982 and contains many of the ideas and explications that Žižek has been developing and finessing in the decades that followed. In the first chapter he turns to Zeno’s paradox known as the Dichotomy: before reaching any stage in a journey a half way stage must be reached and before this half-way stage is attained half of the journey towards it must be completed and so on ad infinitum. The logic suggests that motion is an illusion and that only unchanging Being is the only truth. For Žižek, this is not how the paradox should be interpreted and should be read instead as an insight into the complementary union of Hegel and Lacan. Hegel argues that a formulation subverts itself; instead of saying what it wants to say, it actually states the very opposite. The subject, for instance, who claims identity has nothing to do with difference is, by asserting identity as radically different from difference, unknowingly asserting that identity and difference are mutually implicated. Zeno, arguing that an unchanging Being lies behind apparent movement, shows the opposite: by breaking down a journey into an infinite number of never-to-be-realized stages what emerges is being’s self-dissolution, its immanent contradiction. Zeno’s argument is not a path towards the truth (of unchanging being) but the truth itself (of movement as continually and inconsistently present). There is no unvarying Being lying behind the appearance of movement; it’s a chimera — and by the same token there is no pre-existing essence that, if only we could peer behind the curtain of appearance, would be accessible; we would only find there what we have brought with us.
Zeno’s paradox equally well illustrates Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of a drive and how the object of desire necessarily eludes us. We set out to reach something desirable but perpetual repetition is what is really on the agenda and so the object remains out of reach, not despite but because of our movement towards it. As with Sisyphus, our compulsion to repeat reveals how the object of desire is also the cause of our desire.
Here too we find Žižek telling a joke that he has used many times since, most recently in Event and a piece for the LRB (‘Barbarism with a Human Face, 8 May 2014): Rabinovitch, a Russian Jew, wants to emigrate and claims two reasons for his request, the first being his fear that the Soviet Union will collapse and Jews will be scapegoats. The bureaucrat interrupts and assures him this will never happen, Soviet power is invincible; ‘and that is the second reason’ calmly replies Rabinovitch. In The Sublime Mystic, the joke may be expressed in the quaint officialese of Soviet-style Marxism but its potency as an insight into the dialectic remains cogent:
This is the logic of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis in its pure form. The thesis is the first argument (“I want to emigrate because I am afraid of the pogroms that would follow the collapse of Soviet power”), the bureaucrat’s objection is the antithesis (“Soviet power is indestructible”), the synthesis is exactly
the same as the antithesis – the bureaucrat’s reply becomes its own opposite, it becomes the reason itself. The synthesis is the antithesis, the only step between the two is a reversal in perspective, a retroactive realization that the solution can be found in what we originally saw as the problem.
Truth emerges out of error, it is through the failure embedded within truth that a sublation becomes possible, and the passage from Žižek’s first book in English (The Sublime Object of Ideology) showing how Pride and Prejudice illustrates this is there for the first time in his PhD thesis. The point he wants to bang home – because it opposes the caricature — is that Hegel does not propound some ultimate teleology where everything is unified by a divine-like Absolute. The Hegelian synthesis never aspires towards a totality given that reflexivity is the part of the motor of the dialectic. What changes is the subject’s perspective, the mode of symbolizing and understanding reality.
Travellers schlepping their way across a selection of Thailand’s islands soon realize there is only so much variation possible for enterprising locals setting up amenities for European visitors. On Koh Lanta, one restaurant has translated a Thai expression to name itself Same Same but Different. The phrase captures the topographical challenge of any attempt to draw a cartography of Žižek’s thought: he is paradoxical and repetitive but also original and – the beach-side hangout on Koh Lanta is indeed a cool place to spend an evening — highly truthful.
Hegel and the Art of Negation, Andrew W. Hass (I.B.Tauris, 2014)
In an illuminating and instructive book on this topic, Andrew Hass gives a lucid account of the mind-bending start to Hegel’s Science of Logic. Hegel tells us that pure being, indeterminate and immediate, is in fact nothing. If we think about pure being we fail to muster any thought except a diffuse kind of everythingness that is never any one thing – in other words, a nothingness. Being, when pushed to its greatest and most indeterminate extent, becomes its opposite. One thing vanishes into, or begets, its other; all we have is an unstable becoming: ‘Becoming is an unstable unrest which settles into a stable result’. This ‘stable result’ is never permanent because the mechanism of the dialectic, negation, is a cancelling out of each moment by its opposite,
It is a mistake to think of negation as acting upon something positive, negating it and then returning it as some higher positive. This is how the ‘negation of the negation’ is traditionally modelled but it is, instead, an internal operation, acting upon and destabilizing itself. It is self-oppositional but also, at the same time, generative. This generative power lies within consciousness as a self-cancelling, groundless dynamism.
An exasperated reader might wonder what any of this might possibly have to do with the price of bread and life as we know it (though this begs the philistine question as to what use philosophy or any other sophy –from the ancient Greek for ‘wise’ — might have) but Žižek has been providing for years concrete applications of the dialectic to social and political life. He points to Marx’s account of ‘bourgeois freedom’ where, if we stay at the level of a legal understanding of equality and freedom, everyone is indeed free to sell or not sell their labour-power on the free market. It is part of the problem to argue that this notion is inadequate at a commonsense level because a liberal mindset only endorses measures for more de facto equality (redundancy rights, labour protection legislation and so on). It may be counterintuitive but the result is to cement the inbuilt inequality between employer and employee. Liberal-minded reforms ignore a content (workers are not free) that the form (workers are indisputably ‘free’ in an abstract formal sense) effaces. The effect is the opposite of what is apparently the case, such freedom self-negates and the attempt to reform inequality only strengthens its existence.
What ‘bourgeois freedom’ starts with is something that appears to be positive (everyone is equal) but in actuality is its own negation. The negation of this (self-) negation would involve directly confronting the form — formal equality in this instance — and addressing what it occults. Negating the negation means not some synthesising of opposites but organizing the economy along different lines to effect proper equality and freedom. A similar movement would address theft not as a criminal negation of the form of property but as something inscribed within the form itself (the private ownership of the means of production steals what should belong to everyone). This brings home the force of the anarchist’s maxim that property is theft and its formulation in Brecht’s question — what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?
The force of self-referential negation has its own affective dimension, capable of being experienced at a personal level. You don’t need to be a weatherman to feel where the wind is coming from just as you don’t need to be a philosopher to know that deep grief turns pleasure into purgatory and that memory burns the mind with a desire to forget; the loss of a loved one renders presence into pain and affection is the source of anguish. The ultimate moment of self-negation, though one wouldn’t wish to hear it broadcast daily in maternity wards, is the genesis of death within life itself, from the very moment of birth to the final Event.