No Peace in the Void, a review of Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek (Verso, 2014)
Žižek continues to fret away at the sweet-tasting bone of ontology, gnawing it from slightly new angles in the hope of stripping away any remaining morsels that will distract from savouring the pure marrow that lies within — a materialist philosophy that confronts the mystery of why there is nothing instead of something. His latest venture starts again with the dichotomy that Kant drew between the fundamental and allegedly unknowable nature of reality, the ‘in-itself’, and the human subject who, armed with his categories of thought like Captain America and his shield, goes out to meet and make sense of phenomenal experience.
A worthwhile materialism must go beneath, yet accommodate, the realisation that our sense of reality is governed by horizons of meaning, frames of reference, that we are born into. There is no escaping hard-wired webs of meaning — Kant’s transcendental idealism — but neither is there any breakout from the Real of a meaningless void. London Transport’s advice to mind the gap warns of the unresolved problem bequeathed to us by Kant: as passengers with mental coordinates for the lay of the land we step onto the firm ‘objective’ ground of the station platform and forget the space that is not accounted for in our conceptual maps of reality.
As ever, it is to Hegel’s ontology we must turn for understanding — a split universe of becoming, incessant movement through time in a praxis of being and nothing — and Žižek remains close to translating this ontology into the layperson’s language of quantum physics: a groundless vortex of what Badiou calls pure multiplicities, infinitely divisible and restless pluralities that contingently and finitely stabilize what is inherently opposed to the unifying power of thought. It is a universe utterly at odds with traditional notions of substantial entities bearing essential qualities independent of ourselves – in this sense it is nothing.
Instead of an a priori frame positioning contents of phenomenal reality, the formal frame lies within the contents and Žižek returns to an example he has used before to illustrate this: Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of how two groups in a tribe, asked to draw a ground-plan of their village, produced two different maps. Rather than indicating cultural relativism, this registers a basic split in social perception and the Real is not the actual arrangement of the village but the core of the social antagonism that distorts how individuals view the arrangement of their village. The two different maps reveal what is hidden, repressed, in the contents of the maps. Form does not mirror content, it mediates and fills the gaps.
The bleached truth is that reality is not complete. Antagonism and contradiction mark the fabric of being which is anything but seamless and Žižek has reiterated this with countless examples and amplifications across his books. This continues in Absolute Recoil and, for example, he points to the abiding inconsistency within the symbolic exchanges that govern our acts of communication. Expressions of politeness (‘How are you?) are empty at one level – I am not asking how you feel – but full at another – I am civilly and kindly communicating with you – for we are authentically human, moral, when we lie sincerely. Virtues, as Jane Austen shows so astutely, can be buried in our pretences. Žižek shares with the late Wittgenstein a sense of the groundless nature of our language games and speech acts. When, speaking of the social-symbolic side of everyday life, Žižek writes –
[we are dealing with] something that is part of our spontaneous sensitivity, a thick texture of customs and expectations that constitutes our inherited substance of mores (Sitten).
— it is easy to imagine Wittgenstein wholeheartedly agreeing but he could not have gone on, as Žižek does, to view this as ‘the domain of ideology par excellence’, straddling as it does interiorized morality and exterior legality. Without transgressing the legal order, some forms of impoliteness break a social obligation but, far from being weaker because of this, such obligations form the immateriality of the big Other, an intangible presence that confers on the subject a symbolic identity.
This may be how the subject operates but for the kind of dialectical materialism Žižek seeks we need a way of understanding what is there before subjectivization, before symbolic identification pins us in place. Ideological practices are material but the subject before subjectivization is a little piece of the Real and Kant recognised this as a propensity towards unruly freedom, a passion that needed taming. As he puts it,
children are sent to school at a young age not already with the intention that they should learn something there, but rather that they may grow accustomed to sitting still and observing punctually what they are told, so that in future they may not put into practice actually and instantly each notion that strikes them.
Children, like adults, resist social discipline in a variety of ways because there is no natural fit between the creaturely human and the big Other. Inconsistencies within the symbolic order reflect its inadequacy to account for the human animal’s drive to dissolve difference and finitude. For Žižek, the empty soul that constitutes subjectivity manifests itself today in particular conditions of acedia, quietist responses to a hyped-up, neoliberal world of overwork replete with objects of desire that fail to satisfy. Depression is resistance to happiness through consumption while boredom, as a form of reflection that mirrors the void at the heart of existence, reflexively registers our knowledge of life’s limitations.
If Hegel’s maddeningly and intricately wrought logic is echoed in particle physics, Žižek valiantly strives to descend from such rarefied formalism and find instances of it in our culture, history and everyday life. Where Hegel talks of ‘pre-supposing the presuppositions’, Žižek applies it to how we think and make determinations. Something coming into existence creates or opens up the conditions for its possibility. It is not that causation literally works backwards, though this it is sometimes how it seems, but that understanding, rationality, is something retrospective. Christian theology provides an example. The Fall is the starting point for redemption because only after the Fall do we enter into a world of ethical choices. It is the movement of the Fall that creates our humanity – think of the ending of Paradise Lost — and therefore what was there before was not a state from which we could fall. Prelapsarian life was animal life, unaware of good and bad, not a state from which a fall is possible. The emergence of the Fall coincides with its loss. A dream, like trauma, is only constituted when it is told, it is not something ‘recovered’. It is only after the Fall that, as ethical beings, we are capable of measuring what it means to fall and so we must
resist the temptation of returning to the innocence before the Fall: there is no such thing as a lost innocence, only the choice of Evil makes us aware of the Good as that which was lost in making this choice.
Another example would be how British colonialism in India, interfering with and destabilizing traditional forms, created a new space for universalizing values that originated in the West. It was only through a sense of having lost their pre-colonial identity, their roots and traditions, that Indians – adopting notions of democracy imperfectly propagated by Britain – looked to ‘the authentic dream of a new universalistic and democratic India’. Aspiring to this identity creates it and it was this very identity that fuelled anti-colonial struggle. This is a prototype case of the ‘absolute recoil’ that Hegel refers to: something emerging through loss.
Reflection therefore finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind. /…/ the reflective movement is to be taken as an absolute recoil upon itself. For the presupposition of the return-into-self – that from which essence comes, and is only as this return – is only in the return itself.
Things do happen and so do results of action but for quantum physics knowing changes reality – it does not create it but registers contingent encounters – and for Hegel there is no simple transition from a given ‘immediate’ to thought (‘reflection’) because givenness is a state irreducible to the unity which would be necessary for such transition. What is given is ontologically incomplete and it is only in thought thinking being, through the movement he calls reflection, that being emerges in the way it does. What might seem to be thought’s acknowledgement of a given reality is actually a registering of what thought created in the first place (‘this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it’) but ‘left behind’. It is ‘only in the return itself’ that there emerges what was left behind.
The alchemy in Žižek’s crucible works by seeing not just that everything is mediated but that nothing lies behind the mediations, the movement of reflection. What is there in ‘things’ is the contradictory mix of multiplicity and unity: the pure multiplicities of being and the unities inscribed therein by thought. The net result is far from a simple materialism where things exist independent of our knowledge of them; it is equally far from a simple subjective idealism where things only exist in our minds.
Absolute Recoil is the best book Žižek has written, ravelling out the strands of philosophy, physics and psychoanalysis that have always engaged his attention but which have not until now being brought together in such a fluent and readable account. There is some delicate Hegelian footwork in the final chapter but it’s a complicated dance that brings Hegel and Lacan into a sweet partnership. The pivotal step in this theoretical tour de force is to locate Lacan’s crossed-out subject ($) within the Hegelian movement of reflection, making subjectivity emerge from its own loss. The loss here is the impossibility of the subject finding satisfaction in the radical negativity of an ontological void, making enjoyment only possible by enacting and re-enacting its own failure. This is Freud’s death drive, not a yearning for dissolution but a fixation on its own impossibility. Only through fantasy and objet a (‘a positivized negativity’) is desire able to find a substitute for, a distraction from, the fullness denied it. A standpoint is distorted by the subject’s desire, the subject inscribing itself into the field of objects, and beyond this and immanent to everything is a void, nothing. This allows for a conclusion:
The $, a kind of glitch in the pre-ontological field, triggers its ontological actualization, but this ontologically constituted reality is never fully actualized, it needs to be sutured by a paradoxical object, the objet a, which is the subject’s counterpart in the world of objects, the subject’s anamorphic inscription into reality.
Žižek has said this before in previous books but in Absolute Recoil there is a tightness and economy to the writing that was not there before. So we find footnotes that refer to particular chapters or the entirety of a previous publication, allowing the main discourse to stay on tracks and proceed to its destination. This is the good news. The bad news is the nature of the destination, expressed in the last sentences of this book:
The objet a registers the antagonism of the One, its inability to be one. $ registers the antagonism of Nothing, its inability to be the Void at peace with itself, to annul all struggles. The position of Wisdom is that the Void brings ultimate peace, a state in which all differences are obliterated; the position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the void.