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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