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 favoursdisparity,  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 about the choice of models. In his book ANTI-BADIOU. He requires us to choose between quantum and set theory. This is in accord with the uniqueness hypothesis, or rather the axiom of uniqueness that subtends Laruelle’s thought:

A1: 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 incommensurability and divergence in favour of uniformity and convergence.

A related point is the denial of ontological difference. In effect, Laruelle’s non-philosophy falls under the same aporia as Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP): it asserts the existence of animpermeable  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 explicit alliance of Zizek and Badiou mentioned above there is an implicit rivalry founded on a divergence of interpretative style. Zizek is to Niels Bohr (qualitative approach) as Badiou is to Paul Dirac (formalist approach). Dirac contributed a useful formalism to quantum mechanics, which was mathematically equivalent to the others. However, his underlying philosophical interpretation of the formalism was not equivalent.  Dirac was more deterministic than Bohr and seems to have rejected Bohr’s 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. (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 retro-activity. The key feature for the discussion here is Zizek’s use of the concept of non-causal “retro-activity”, which is in direct contradiction with Laruelle’s idiosyncratic notion of unilaterality, that he imports arbitrarily into his deployment of quantum thought.

Zizek also differs from Laruelle in that he he separates the notions of over-determination and determination in the last instance. He assigns superposition/coherence to the side of over-determination and disparity and collapse/de-coherence to that of determination in the last instance.

Paradoxically Zizek’s use of quantum theory is a gesture of pluralism and anti-scientism. It functions as 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’s analysis 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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2 Responses to Reading DISPARITIES (3): Zizek’s Quantum Hermeneutics

  1. landzek says:

    You r rad. terrence. I got to say in considering I’ve just your post here and from what I know of Z and others and L: it tends to describe for me the partition that I talk about. Because it’s not a theoretical partition.

    I can’t stop thanking you for your efforts and your descriptions and your ability to analyze dissect and compare and present. And a couple few years I might go back and try to get my masters in philosophy and maybe I will I will have the temperament and the time to be more thorough.

    For now, The conundrum really keeps falling back into what Layotard brought up: how can a case be made to a court that is incapable of hearing it?

    The development of this situation appears to me not to bring about a better way of reconciling, because this would assume that the terms somehow overtime are being better suited to communicating the issue, the case. So indeed on one side of this proposed partition we indeed have discourse in an operation that sees itself as addressing issues that are not resolved in some sort of manner or attitude that sees itself having an ability to solve the issues or at least address them in some sort of manner that is pertinent to whatever juncture.

    This first side of the partition sees itself as able to address everything that can possibly be. And thus what it sees as might be occurring on the other side so to speak, as nothing, or as some sort of withdrawn, or other various ‘nils’.

    So on the other side of the partition really lies a situation that is never accounted for on the first side of the partition. due to the prevailency of The majority opinion being that which determines what is allowed to be true , talked about and addressed, this other side, because it nevertheless is not negated but only marginalized , colonialize and forced into silence ‘already’, still ‘speaks’ albeit outside the estimations of what I am calling the conventional method.


  2. Carl Looper says:

    Dirac’s universe is one in which it is fundamentally mathematical. Someone like Tegmark will adopt something of the same philosophy. But in Dirac (as much as Tegmark) it is not as though our current understanding of mathematics is equivalent to that of which the universe is created. The mathematics of which the universe is created will be more complex: of some yet to decipher, or invent, mathematics. A “god knows” mathematics, but one that won’t be, in advance, declared inaccessible. There will be an answer to the question of what kind of mathematics, rather than a shrug of the shoulders and a “god knows” as the response.

    In Heisenberg is the conceptual birth of the Uncertainty Principle, the mathematical expression of which Dirac will elaborate. Bohr, by more philosophical means, will elaborate a version of such called Complimentarity but Bohr does not elaborate on any mathematical formulation of this concept. The concept will be concerned with a return to the experimental results, and their circumstances, rather than any mathematical elaboration of such. For the mathematics, Bohr will refer back to the formalism of quantum theory, not as the essence of quantum mechanics or complimentarity for that matter, but as an “adequate” representation of it. It is not in any way a rejection of the formalism, but a steering away from a purely mathematical conception, to one involving people engaged in experiments and talking about what they can see. Bohr will find a certain fundamentalism in what is observable, if only because such is something a group of people can agree on: they can agree that here in an experimental result is a particle detection at such and such a location. What Bohr is attempting to head off is the alternative conception: that what we see is some sort of mirage or “ghost wave” as Einstein was want to put it. To head off any simulation theory of the universe. Bohr becomes particularly sceptical of any assumed reality behind what is otherwise observable. He will be called an “anti-realist” for this reason. He will famously lock horns with Feynman’s path integral visualisation of the “reality” behind observables. But it will be a misunderstanding of sorts. In terms of Bohr’s philosophy, Feynman’s visualisation can be recast as a visualisation of the mathematics, rather than a visualisation of the “reality” behind the observables. But Bohr’s world of particle detectors with human observers is giving way to the age of computer simulations, and Feynman is riding this wave.

    It is not necessary to find some winner or loser in a Bohr vs Feynman game. Bohr’s philosophy provides for a distinction to be recovered between a computer simulation of particle detections and those obtained by experimental means, ie. involving particle detectors and the marks they leave on sensors. This distinction is otherwise at risk of being sutured in a computer simulation. There is risked the suggestion that the observables of a computer simulation (the computer graphics on a computer screen) are the same thing as the trace of particle detections in a particle detector. If the computer graphics refer back to the mathematics (the algorithms) that drive the graphics display, one can imagine the particle detections in an experiment might be the same thing – that they refer back to some mathematical reality behind such detections. But in this context observables play the role of *representing* the mathematics. They become subservient to the mathematics. They become a function of the mathematics. The observables in a particle detector are of a different order. They establish the reason for the mathematics in the first place. They are not a representation of the mathematics. And indeed we could say they are not a *representation* of the particles. They are the particles. Or what is otherwise known as “particle detections”.



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