Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nick Srnicek Reviews "Zizek's Ontology" by Adrian Johnston

For those who like (or at least are interested in) the work Slavoj Zizek, this sounds like an interesting and useful book. Zizek's work is all over the place, covering a wide range of topics and sometimes seemingly contradicting himself from one work to the next (which is to be expected in a psychology of multiplicity).

This is an older post, but having just discovered this cool blog - The Accursed Share - through this article, it's a good introduction to the material Nick covers - he's an astute philosopher and author, check him out.

Book under review:
Zizek's Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity
, by Adrian Johnston; Northwestern University Press, 312 pages, available as a paperback

Zizek & Materialism

Adrian Johnston's newest book, Zizek's Ontology, is an impressive attempt at systematizing Zizek's notoriously hyperactive writing style. Focused on developing a "transcendental materialist theory of subjectivity" - i.e. an ontology capable of accounting for how subjectivity can emerge from an asubjective realm of matter - Johnston places Zizek's work squarely in line with the contemporary materialists. As we will see, this perhaps raises some issues about whether Johnston/Zizek can meet the requirements of a truly materialist ontology set out by Ray Brassier (via appropriations of Francois Laruelle and Quentin Meillassoux), but regardless, Johnston's work presents a huge rejoinder to both naive cultural studies proponents of Zizek and overly simply critics of Zizek. Cutting through the myriad of pop culture references and political interventions, Johnston aims at the heart of Zizek's philosophical project - a re-reading of German idealism (specifically, Kant, Schelling & Hegel) through Lacanian psychoanalysis.

A dense book that can hardly be done justice in a blog post, for now I just want to follow a single line of argument that leads to some initial characterizations of matter. The first step in this direction is to shift the focus of Kant away from the epistemological limitations of cognition and to the properly ontological limits. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant famously set out to determine the immanent limits within which reason could operate, in an effort to establish the proper boundaries of philosophical thought. Taking experience as a given, Kant deduced what he deemed to be the necessary structure of thought. In order for experience to appear as it does, the mind must organize experience according to some fundamental cognitive structures - the pure forms of intuition, the categories, and the regulative Ideas. These structures produced our phenomenal experience, outside of which we could have no knowledge - they were the rationalist basis from/for empiricism. Outside of experience, however, lay a number of problems for Kant. On the one hand, the sensible intuitions are given their impressions from something outside of experience - what Kant will call the noumena. Any characterization of these, however, was prohibited. In the other direction, reason is led to ask questions that it cannot answer by reference to experience (e.g. is reality finite or infinite?). It is led, through the pure use of reason outside of any application to experience, to establish contradictory propositions concerning these questions. But even more distressing is the fact that we can not even know ourselves outside of how experience phenomenally presents it to us. My knowledge of myself is limited to the empirical presentations that pass before my gaze. What I am - ontologically - remains a gap in knowledge. In Lacanian terms, we are only ever presented with imaginary egos and subjects of statements, but never the subject of enunciation. As Johnston argues, this gap in knowledge leads to an antinomy concerning our own subjectivity: on one level, we are well aware that we are finite beings, subject to mortality. Yet, on another level, we can never experience our own deaths or births, and so we are led to implicitly believe in our immortality. That is to say, my lived existence has no beginning or end for myself (no doubt, this is in part where religious ideas of immortality get some measure of plausibility).

In response to these gaps of the subject, we instead take up various imaginary egos and symbolic identifications in order to try and fill in the empty space at the centre of our beings. This is what accounts for the strength of various identifications (particularly ideological), since to remove these various attachments is to be forced to face up to our own nothingness. Doing so provokes horror and disgust as the framework within which reality is meaningful disappears, and we are instead put before the Lacanian Real. A similar phenomena happens with respect to our birth and our death - since we are incapable of representing them to ourselves as experienced (since there was no 'I' until after our birth, and there will be none at the moment of death), they effectively index our ontological finitude. Reacting against the horrors of mortality and the body, consciousness covers over these ontological gaps in phenomenal reality by constructing what psychoanalysis refers to as fundamental fantasies. These fantasies provide a sort of mythical structure within which we can imagine our own origins and our own demise, thereby removing any sense of our own non-existence. (Take, for example, the thought of being present at our own funeral; of being present without existing.)

The result of these defensive reactions against our ontological finitude is to set out on a path between mind-body dualism and theories of harmonious embodiment or mind-body identity. Instead of a complete separation or a harmonious unity, Johnston argues that while subjectivity originally arises from material reality (presumably through some sort of neurological basis), it then reacts against its own material conditions, aiming to separate itself from the body. As Johnston puts it,

"The subject's anxiety in the face of anything that threatens to strip it of its seemingly transcendent, immaterial status through a reduction to its brute corporeal condition isn't a mysterious, inexplicable phenomenon. Only a form of subjectivity that constitutes itself as inherently incompatible with its own finitude experiences the prospect of being plunged back into its fleshly materiality, the inevitably occluded ground of its mortal being, as a horrible danger to be avoided no matter what." (59)

At this point, however, we have to move to Schelling to further flesh out a transcendental materialism. For while Kant can point towards the gaps within phenomenal experience, he fails to provide us with any genetic account of the subject's emergence. Schelling's contribution is to outline how matter immanently produces the transcendence of subjectivity. Key to his account is the idea that the materialism which underlies subjective experience is, in a sense, pre-ontological. Rather than being a physical substance - complete and deterministic according to physical laws - matter is instead riven with contradictions and conflicts. It is itself not-All, to use Zizek's term. If reality were complete and whole, Zizek argues, then subjectivity and freedom would be impossible and the simplest versions of determinism would hold. In Zizek's reading of Schelling, it is therefore the discord of the psychoanalytic drives (themselves derived from a deeper groundlessness) that causes the emergence of subjectivity as an attempt to domesticate these dueling impulses.

In Schelling's work, this idea of materialism is fleshed out in part by reference to its form of temporality. Curiously, at least as Johnston reads it, Schelling appears to put forth an argument similar to Meillassoux's arche-fossil argument. That is to say, that each aims to point towards an ontological time that is outside the time of phenomena. For Meillassoux, the arche-fossil (any object that indexes a time before life) reveals that schools of thought like idealism, phenomenology, and anti-realism are not closed in and complete ontologies. The arche-fossil shows that not only are there gaps within phenomenal experience and not only are there unperceived phenomena, but that the entire realm of phenomena is itself subject to its own determinate origins and endings. At a certain point in time, the possibility of objects manifesting themselves to consciousness appeared, and at a certain point in time, the possibility will disappear. Reality couldn't care less for consciousness. The difficulty in describing this non-phenomenal realm is that present-day science, relying on empirical objects, is within the field of phenomena that Meillassoux is criticizing. To take empiricism as the definitive basis for ontology is to fall into the correlationist trap that Meillassoux is trying to escape. (I think this also raises the question of the status of scientific discourse in Brassier's Nihil Unbound, but I'll leave that for another post.) Similar to Meillassoux, Schelling argues that matter is never present but is instead situated within a past time before (linear) time.

While explicitly described as a non-conscious mode of time, there is also the question of what precisely initiates the movement whereby subjectivity emerges from matter. Beyond the tensions and contradictions within being, what is it that leads specifically to the emergence of ideality? Why does being not remain within itself, for example? For Schelling, the reason is because proper to natural being there is a "desire" for the ideality of subjectivity, and it is this which ultimately causes transcendence to emerge from immanence. But in answering the problem this way, Schelling reintroduces a form of teleology whereby reality has always been aiming at consciousness, thereby effectively incorporating the "non-conscious" past within the framework of the present conscious moment. The materialism here therefore remains subject to the sort of correlationist approach that Meillassoux more adeptly escapes from. As it stands then (and I'm only part way through the Schelling section of the book), if Zizek's materialism remains grounded upon this immanent desire of reality for the ideality of consciousness, then he still remains stuck with the criticisms of the speculative realists. Following Brassier, a truly speculative materialism must evacuate all ideality, something which he believes can only be achieved through Laruelle's difficult concept of unilateral duality.

[UPDATE: 5/28/08]
For more, see Naught Thought's series of posts on Zizek, materialism and related matters:
(1) Freedom's Fairytale: Pt. 1, or Wrinkly Dialectics
(2) Freedom's Fairytale: Pt. 2, or Love and Temporality
(3) Freedom's Fairytale: Pt. 3, or Narratology, The Ancestral and The Real


Michael- said...

glad to see you took my suggestion to check out the "speculative realism" niche seriously Bill...

You might want to check out Levi Bryant's blog as well.


william harryman said...

I did - still have much to read :)

Michael- said...

Here is a good source of reference for all the SR rleated blogs:

[notice the list includes my own blog, Archive Fire:]

all the best!