Reading DISPARITIES (6): The Failure of Substantialization

Zizek continues his exploration of the impasses of OOO by examining its passage from subject to substance. His argument here is that far from escaping the problematic of the subject (which Meillassoux draws from Althusser and re-names “correlationism”) OOO reinforces the very dualism that it purports to escape. The naturalisation of the object is accompanied by the substantialisation of the subject, which in turn must be compensated by a more or less poetic re-subjectivation (or “re-enchantment”) of the real.

Zizek advocates a reprise of the contrary movement, from substance to subject, that is to say he proposes to undercut OOO’s secondary re-subjectivation of the object (regressive re-enchantment) by means of a renewed concept of the subject as de-substantialized. This movement of de-substantialization was accomplished, in Zizek’s view by Lacan and by the Deleuze of LOGIC OF SENSE.

Here Zizek’s terminology and argument become murky indeed, but the main lines are clear. We need a concept of pure appearance that is not the appearing of anything. This de-substantialization of appearance corresponds to Lacan’s semblance and to Deleuze’s simulacrum. It is only with this concept that we can conceive of the subject:

subject is the self-appearing of nothing

Zizek proposes this idea of self-appearing of nothing as a more satisfactory solution than OOO’s subject as based on the self-withdrawal of the object.

Zizek argues that this de-substantialisation of the subject is a way of avoiding the paradox of transcendental constitution that pervades OOO. It does not accede to an objective vision of subject-indepebdent objects but only to a transcendental vision of a substantialized real that is in denial of its own subjective basis:

the problem with subjectless objects is not that they are too objective, neglecting the role of subject, but that what they describe as a subjectless world of objects is too subjective, already within an unproblematized transcendental horizon.


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Deleuze, Laruelle and the “Decision”

I argue that Deleuze already anticipated and drawn the practical implications of Laruelle’s “non-philosophical” critique of philosophies of Difference long before Laruelle published his  critique. Deleuze’s collaboration with Guattari amounted to effecting the passage from a philosophy of difference to a philosophy of multiplicity, and so Laruelle’s strictures miss their target.

I think to get his critique going Laruelle needs more than just the word “decision”, which does occur in Deleuze’s writings to make good on his critique. Deleuze’s whole philosophy is in one sense a philosophy of decisions, plural (see PERICLES AND VERDI). It’s decisions all the way up and all the way down. But these decisions are singular noetic acts, and are part of the de-prioritisation of universals. In that sense Laruelle is full of decisions too.

What you don’t get in Deleuze is the sort of totalised synthesis of all these decisions into the very technical notion of the philosophical Decision that Laruelle propounds as the universal structure of philosophy. Deleuze’s encounter with Guattari led to his passage from “saying the multiple” (which falls under the decisional structure) to “doing the multiple” (which is no longer decisional in that sense, and marks also the passage from representational pluralism to performative pluralism), and Laruelle’s critique fails.

I see no “decision” in Deleuze’s work with Guattari, no “sufficiency”, and I may add no scientism. Quite simply because in this phase of his work (doing pluralism rather than just saying it) pluralism wins out over structuralism. Laruelle however is still stuck in all three because he is still too structuralist, his pluralism is contained by his structuralism.

There is too much saying and not enough doing in Laruelle’s works.


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Reading DISPARITIES (5): OOO and the torture house of language

According to Zizek OOO has an irremediably incoherent view of language as containing two contradictory poles. Language is firstly a purely sensual construct comprising intrinsic perversions, antagonisms, and distortions – but also miraculously contains a referential pole or function.

Note: distortion and reference are combined in Harman’s doctrine of allusion.

For Zizek language is not a mirror, not even a deforming mirror, nor is it a prison house from which we may try to escape, but a torture house that generates in us the idea of a place to escape to and the desire to escape only to frustrate it. Language is essentially traumatic and its inability to refer beyond our constituted realities to a Real outside language is not a matter of Kantial withdrawal but of Lacanian trauma.

I think that Zizek has located an important weak point in OOO, namely its philosophy of language. How can we say anything meaningful about that which withdraws behind an apophatic veil? However Zizek’s own solution is left vague and undevelopped.

Bryant presents this essential reference to a non-human Real outside language as a key feature of his onticology and criticises Lacan’s entrapment in the Symbolic. To escape this entrapment he relies on the supplementation of Lacanian psychoanalysis with scientistic naturalism, creating a strange hybrid that cannot account for its own ability to refer to the non-linguistic real except by the imperious insistence that it must be so.

Zizek has highlighted a problem here, but his solution is unsatisfying. However, his thesis that there is no undistorted language brings him in agreement with Harman’s doctrine of allusion as against Levi Bryant’s scientism. In effect, Bryant’s scientistic naturalization of OOO amounts to positing that science provides us with an escape from correlationism by means of an undistorted language of the real.

For Zizek there is no undistorted language (Bryant’s scientism) nor is there an undistorted real alluded to by distorted language (Harman’s idealism). Zizek brings distortion into the real itself, as constitutive. The real is in the failure of (undistorted) symbolization. Against the relativist notion of the prison-house of language (each in their own linguistic prison) with its dualism of inside and outside, Zizek proposes the notion of the torture house. The outside is inside the prison with us, “torturing” our dualist stereotypes and linguistic.

This thesis of the torture-house of language is a means of escaping the idealist idea that we are necessarily emprisoned in our incommensurable linguistic systems while avoiding the scientistic idea of a unified Nature accessible to the undistorted language of a unified science. It is a mark of Zizek’s empiricism without scientism. Language is not all-powerful and Reality is not infinitely plastic, reference can fail at any time within our systems of interpretation.

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Reading DISPARITIES (4): non-standard ontology and its standard shadow

In the introduction and the first chapter to DISPARITIES Zizek has emphasised that his work is not only to be understood in terms of ideological critique but also as ontological critique. He is not just a  media critic or a theorist in the field of cultural studies but first and foremost a philosopher who is proposing a new, non-standard ontology.

This ontological project leads Zizek to give a critical account of the differences between his own ontology and the seemingly similar positions defended by object-oriented ontology (OOO). It emerges from Zizek’s critique of the work of Levi Bryant, who has elaborated a naturalistic version of OOO, that OOO represents a pre-modern regression within standard Kantianised philosophy rather than a significant advance beyond it.

Zizek’s critique of OOO has many points of convergence with my own analysis of OOO and with my critique of Levi Bryant’s naturalistic version (see also:

The overarching idea is that far from breaking away from standard ontology, developped under the sway of what OOO calls “correlationism”, OOO constitutes merely a further step within the Kantian paradigm, merely universalising the distinction between noumenon and phenomenon, internalising it within each object. One may object here: this distinction itself remains transcendental, it is not naturalised, it is not treated as itself an empirical hypothesis but as a necessary posit. More generally, OOO’s basic propositions are purely subjective posits, and its “method” is none other than subjective intuition.

Zizek traces a double movement, firstly one of naturalisation under the aegis of science, accompanied by secondly, and more superficially, a movement of re-enchantment. This is OOO’s way of avoiding the nihilistic consequences of Ray Brassier’s position. The ascetic worldview of naturalism, which reduces subject back to substance, is supplemented with the euphoric vocabulary of a pre-modern vocabulary expressing the interiority of things, a description of their “inner life”.

In appearance OOO seems to operate a necessary de-centering away from the primacy of human subjectivity and a re-centering on an objective field of objects and their relations. However, the real contribution of OOO to modern naturalism is as a secondary ontological discourse that enacts the triumph of human subjectivity.

Thus the overt conceptual aim of OOO, to critique the purported correlationist primacy of subject over object within recent philosophy, is a mask for a covert ideological operation: to provide an ideology that combines elements of a progressive account of modern science with a regressive pre-modern ontology.

OOO proposes a strong critique of the primacy of epistemology and effects its replacement by pre-modern ontology. Zizek notes that OOO’s critique of epistemology is inadequate and that it is made in the name of an ontology unable to break with standard metaphysics and its standard critique. OOO’s vision of the Real is based on a mixture of pre-critical naiveté and Kantian limitation.

For Zizek, OOO’s biggest defect lies in its inability to see that the lacunae, limitations, distortions, obstacles, and impossibilities of epistemology are themselves ontological features rather than simple epistemic failures. In a slogan: Kantian loss is Hegelian gain.

Zizek’s analysis concludes that far from constituting a non-standard alternative to current “correlationist” philosophies, OOO is standard dualistic philosophy proposing a simplistic de-subjectivised ontology of the real as the in-itself of objects beyond our sensual reach, radically inaccessible not only to us and to other objects, but also to themselves. For OOO objects self-withdraw. Zizek argues that this concept of “self-withdrawal” is incoherent, as it implies the prior existence of a Self as substance.

According to Zizek, the distortions and antagonisms of our knowledge and worldviews (of the Symbolic) are not, as OOO claims, located inside the sensual nor in the passage from the real to the sensual, but within the real, as an “excess” of the real itself. The real object, the putative undistorted absolute real underlying all we encounter sensually is an ad hoc posit, a fantasmatic projection.

OOO requires a triple transcendental constitution: first the real is posited as an objective (de-subjectivised) field, second the transcendental meta-constitution of the elements of this field as objects, third the transcendental specification of these objects as certain types of empirical elements . Thus, Levi Bryant is free to specify these real objects as empirical objects available to scientific study, but also as processes, differences, units, or machines, according to the needs of the conjuncture.

Note: Harman’s OOP short circuits this type of specification: in his version of OOO real objects are re-specified as simply objects, conflating the meta-level placemarkers with their specific instantiations.

There is no place for the subject in OOO. Zizek is right to note the similarity on the question of OOO’s vision with Althusser’s conception of the subject as misrecognition. The parallel that Zizek draws between OOO’s and Althusser’s philosophy of the subject can arguably be extended to seeing OOO’s distinction between the real object and the sensual object as a variant of Althusser’s distinction between the real object and the theoretical object. OOO is perhaps the perfect ideology for our times, amounting to a neo-liberal structuralism, a sort of de-Marxised and de-scientised Althusserianism.

In conclusion, despite its non-standard ambitions OOO remains completely within the confines of standard philosophy, with its self-confirming transcendental positing of an objective field of self-withdrawing substantial objects. Having no method and no viable concept of the subject, it bases itself on the purely subjective grounding of arbitrary posits and idiosyncratic intuitions. Unable to escape the nihilistic consequences of the complete obectivisation of Nature it overlays its scientistic naturalism (or in the case of Harman’s OOP its idealism) with an ideological vocabulary of re-enchantment.

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Sometimes one begins a conversation on social networks and after a few short exchanges it suddenly stops, your interlocutor rejects what you have been saying with a short sharp rejoinder, like a verbal slap in the face. What is to be done? Such is life. My reply is simple:

This is not up to the level of the rest of the exchange as I understood it. This is a pity as I put time and effort into formulating and arguing for my ideas and for my perspective, which are inhabitual, I grant you that. Such crushing quick dismissals are an unfortunate practice of intellectual discussion and do no work.

Nowhere do I say what you mock me for saying. I am disappointed as what I thought were the beginnings of an open dialogue turn out to have been a closed discussion all along. It is counter-productive. I have no time for such things.

There is no shame in opening discussions, in trying to bring about dialogue, in initiating free exchanges, in contributing to the debate. The shame is on the other side, that of those who will never feel it, who find their behaviour normal.

One cannot allow oneself to be paralysed or discouraged by these outcomes, despite their frequency and their probability. We know that the probable outcome is disappointment or worse. This is described by the Stoics’ recitation of adversity, and the injunction to prepare yourself for the worst.

But we go on in the expectation of the improbable, of the event, of the unlikely encounter. We continue to expect the unexpected, which sometimes happens and often doesn’t.

That’s how we think and that’s how we live. It’s also how the universe works, according to the thinkers we love.

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Nobody would ever write a book on the “dark” Zizek as, following in Lacan’s footsteps, he systematically highlights dark options and terminology. In contrast, Deleuze, like Jung, is both dark and bright.

The Shadow for Jung, but Deleuze too talks about the Shadow, is archetypal and not just a secondary formation, and God himself has a Shadow. For Deleuze the shadow is a gateway to becomings (becoming woman, animal, molecular, cosmic) and also the combat with the shadow as the only real struggle.

Zizek shares the Lacanian rejection of the “inner life”, which is quite worrisome, and for Lacanians who practice or who have been in analysis it is in bad faith. For Jung most of our “inner life” is outside, in primitive participation and also in what he calls the “psychoid” aspect of the archetype.

The hypothesis of the death drive may have had a biographical origin in Freud’s failures, as most of his concepts did, but it was no doubt also guided archetypally. James Hillman a post-Jungian analyst makes death and the underworld the major archetypes of the psyche and of analysis.

The shadow as personal complex can never be completely integrated because underlying it is the shadow as archetype. Integration is not the last word on the process of individuation as ego integration during the process of individuation must give way to integration in and by the self, which has a transpersonal composition.

“Inner” is a term rejected by Deleuze because of its dualist presuppositions and replaced by “intensity” but many intensities are located “within” us in familiar language. I see no reason to oppose Jungian and Lacanian perspectives as embodying absolute opposites of inner and outer, given that one tendency of Hillman’s psychology  is to undo this dualism and to find, and produce,”soul in the world”. Some people usefully combine both of these perspectives, for example Ted Friedman:

I have always analysed Zizek (and before him Derrida) as representing a half-way house between Freud and Jung, and between Lacan and Deleuze, pouring old wine into new bottles, and thus as an unconscious Jungian.

I originally came to France in 1980 to get away from the Lacanian doxa that surrounded me. However, I don’t have any problem with making heuristic use of many concepts and images, a practice advocated by Deleuze and Guattari.

Zizek is not a seamless block, to be accepted or rejected in toto, but is a multiplicity that contains good aspects as well as bad, and is in becoming, like everyone else. I find the first chapter in LESS THAN NOTHING one of his most Deleuzian pieces, and it constitutes a tour de force in its synthesis of influences both named and unnamed (in particular Lyotard).

I would never re-read Jung as a prefiguration of Lacan, but I do take seriously the advice of Jungians who claim that only Jungians can understand Freud as they re-read him for the mythology.The same approach can be applied to Lacan and Zizek.

So I do not capitulate before Zizek’s texts but I propose a close reading that is at the same time a transformation. Reading is individuation, and I individuate both myself and the text I am reading by means of my process of interpretation as both Deleuze (who is a conscious Jungian) and Bernard Stiegler (another unconscious Jungian) have often emphasised.

Deleuze refuses the notion of constitutive lack because of its Lacanian and “priestly” associations. However his system is built on negativity (which is different to “negation”) as even a cursory look at his favourite prefixes (a-, de-, dis-, non-, in-) shows. He talks constantly not only of difference and deterritorialisation, but also of unmaking (dé-faire), a-signifying, de-territorialisation, disjunction, non-philosophy, in-nommable. He also talks about the fissure (“fêlure”) constitutive of the personality and of every event. He claims that deterritorialisation is primary, that it comes before territorialisation.

It is important not to fusion problematics but it is also important to find secret passages and unfamiliar resonances. Noone writes on Zizek or Laruelle from this perspective, and fewer Deleuzians than I would like practice it.

Note: I am indebted to a conversation with Andy Noobpwner for helping me clarify these points.

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Reading DISPARITIES (3): Zizek’s Quantum Hermeneutics

It is a disappointing feature of much of the discussion in Continental Philosophy  that it is dominated by the vocal supporters of one or another master thinker. The Deleuzians mock Badiou and condemn Zizek, the Zizekians dismiss Latour, the Laruellleans condescend to everyone else. The audience is summoned to take sides in a battle for hegemony rather than to participate in an open dialogue. Many choose to keep silent for fear of being held up to ridicule, patronised, or simply ignored.

This refusal of dialogue is not only ethically reprehensible and inhumane, it is also an epistemic vice that harms intellectual progress. My ambition on this blog is to restore dialogue, at least between ideas, even if their proponents and defenders avoid exchange. Something is lost if we do not envision alternatives, our ideas become emptied of sense, meaningless war cries or signs of membership in the right club.

I read Zizek with Laruelle’s non-philosophy in mind, even though neither discusses the other. I think that each adds something to the understanding of the other. In particular, Laruelle’s emphasis on the far-reaching consequences of “quantum thought” allows us to see that Zizek’s use of quantum physics is not just one example amongst many other ones, but is of central importance. The different interpretative options that each adopts allow us to see more clearly what is at stake in each option and their possible coherence or conflict.

Zizek like Laruelle is a non-standard philosopher. Also like Laruelle he turns to quantum physics for a model of non-standard thinking. However Zizek’s use of quantum physics is very different from Laruelle’s in that Zizek privileges its disparatous pluralist aspects whereas Laruelle privileges quantum uniformity, called by him “unilaterality”. Laruelle’s thought is one of ultimate convergence, resumed under the name of “determination in the last instance”. In contrast, Zizek’s thought favours divergence and “over-determination”.

Zizek makes use of quantum physics as model but he acknowledges that Badiou’s use of set theory and category theory achieves similar goals. Laruelle is less pluralist. In his book ANTI-BADIOU. He requires us to choose between quantum and set theory. This is in accord with the uniqueness hypothesis:

there is only one non-philosophy, there is only one non-standard philosophy and Laruelle is its thinker.

Zizek does not discuss Laruelle directly, but he outlines a critical analysis of the use that Ray Brassier makes of Laruelle’s key concept of “determination in the last instance”. For Zizek the big problem with Laruelle, Brassier, and their epigones is scientism and what he calls “direct naturalization”.

Zizek rejects naturalism as a project based on the “full naturalization” of Being and the “total naturalization of humanity”. He argues that this naturalist project is one of total de-subjectivation, and that subject is based on denaturalization.

Another problem is that Laruelle’s and Brassier’s scientism leads to the uniformisation of thought and to the denial of incommensurabilities and divergence in favour of uniformity and convergence.

A related point is the denial of ontological difference. Despite impressions to the contrary Laruelle’s non-philosophy falls under the same aporia as Harman’s OOO: it asserts an apophatic veil but then, in contradiction with this, proceeds to specify what lies behind the veil (Harman’s real objects, Laruelle’s One) and its mode of relation (Harman’s withdrawal, Laruelle’s unilaterality). Brassier’s naturalization of Laruelle’s One, like Levi Bryant’s naturalization of Harman’s objects, is an attempt to resolve this aporia by simply dropping the apophatic aspect.

Perhaps behind the alliance of Zizek and Badiou mentioned above there is a rivalry and a divergence of interpretation. Zizek is to Bohr (qualitative approach) as Badiou is to Dirac (formalist approach). Dirac contributed a useful formalism to quantum physics, which was mathematically equivalent to the others, but his underlying philosophical interpretation of the formalism was not equivalent.  Dirac was more deterministic than Bohr and seems to have rejected the ontological interpretation of the uncertainty principle. Laruelle leaves Dirac (formalism) behind but doesn’t quite get to Bohr because his non-philosophy leads him to subordinate complementarity to unilaterality.

Note: for more discussion on Laruelle’s quantum thought see my paper:

Zizek argues that the recourse to quantum physics is necessary to avoid presupposing a stratification and hierarchisation of Nature, rising from the supposed completeness and presentiality of inanimate nature to the incompleteness and absentiality of human nature. For Zizek such a theory of emergence is a form of dualism and explains nothing.

Zizek lists four features that according to him characterise both the quantum universe and the symbolic universe: the actuality of the possible, knowledge in the real, the delay of registration, and retroactivity. The key feature for the discussion here is the non-causal “retroactivity”, which is in direct contradiction with Laruelle’s notion of unilaterality that he imports arbitrarily into his deployment of quantum thought. Zizek also differs from Laruelle in that he assigns superposition/coherence to the side of overdetermination and disparity and collapse/decoherence to that of determination in the last instance.

Paradoxically Zizek’s use of quantum theory is a gesture of anti-scientism. It is a key part of his argument against the scientistic vision that theories of emergence tend to reinforce, a vision of a unified science corresponding to the stratified hierarchised whole of a unified nature. In contrast, Laruelle’s use of quantum theory is both monistic and scientistic, and can easily be recuperated by a monist naturalism.

Zizek shows us that science itself, in the form of quantum physics, furnishes us with some of the best arguments against scientism.


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