Recently, I have been trying to synthesise the conclusions of my six years of philosophical blogging. One of the philosophies that I engaged with at the beginning was OOO. I wanted to include it in my synthesis, but it is old stuff for me now, and it has not fared well. As a research programme it is dead. As decoration it continues. I had finished with OOO long before Wolfendale’s regressive scientistic vademecum came out. I was looking for some way to speak of this dead paradigm of OOO when I came across Zizek’s critique. It provided me with the appropriate occasion.
Anyone who has any doubts about Zizek’s thesis that OOO is a practice of re-enchantment should consider the key role of aesthetics in OOO. As I have often pointed out OOO has in fact two ontologies, an austere one of real objects and a hedonistic one of sensual objects. The fundamental doctrine of OOO is one of dis-enchantment: real objects withdraw and are invisible, untouchable, unknowable. This disenchanted world of withdrawn real objects is supplemented, re-enchanted and aestheticised in the illusory world of sensual objects and their use to “allude” to the real.
At the beginning Harman’s OOO was an intellectually fragile idealist venture. It was then supplemented with a scientistic version, which has come to replace it and finally to reject the appellation OOO. Thus the scientistic critique of OOO has two phases. First Levi Bryant criticised OOO seemingly from within, by naturalising and scientising it. Secondly Peter Wolfendale radicalised Bryant’s arguments, proposing basically the same critiques only more explicitly and from a point of view “outside” OOO. This had the effect of reinforcing the scientistic wing of OOO and of giving them enough assurance to allow them to “come out” in their rejection of the original idealist paradigm. Thus the scientistic naturalistic wing of speculative realism (Meillassoux, Brassier, Bryant) and diverse fellow-travelers has emerged victorious over the idealists.
The advantage of Zizek’s intervention is to provide a non-scientistic critique of OOO. But Zizek’s anti-scientism is combined with his own technique of re-enchantment. All Zizek’s dark talk of Kraken, monsters, trauma, madness, zombies, apocalypses etc. constitutes an alternative way of re-enchanting ontology. But is another way possible? One is entitled to wonder whether dark enchantment (dialectics) and bleak disenchantment (scientism) are the only possibilities.
Some people see Zizek’s thesis that the real is the impasse of symbolisation as a form of linguistic idealism, a crypto-relativism. But there is another way of reading it, if we pay attention to the word “impasse”, as an empiricism. The real resists our approaches, it is not infinitely plastic. For the linguistic idealist a totalising language always succeeds, it constructs reality in its own image, it knows no impasse from inside, it is not testable or falsifiable in its own terms. For Zizek such a totalising language will always fail, not only when judged from without, but even from within, in its own terms. It will frequently, but unpredictably, be forced to change, its impasses will be constant but productive.
Zizek’s “enchantment” argument fails, it does not distinguish his position from that of OOO, but his “impasse” argument remains useful against Harman and relates him to the scientistic version of OOO.
Zizek tells us that “objects are never wholly objects”, which fact grounds his vision of the subject in terms of a certain plasticity of the object. But his “impasse” argument, his claim that the real is the impasse of symbolization, could be phrased correspondingly: objects are never wholly not objects, objects also resist symbolization. The first is an expression of ontological incompleteness and pluralism, the second of epistemological incompleteness and empiricism or testability.
Zizek’s criterion of enchantment versus disenchantment fails because as we have seen as his own work is characterised by a rhetoric of dark enchantment. This is part of the more general problem raised by Zizek’s attempts to distinguish his views from his predecessors. This is difficult as one of his procedures is to take ideas from Deleuze and Lyotard and to “find” them in Lacan or Hegel.
For example, Zizek’s appeal to the image of the Kraken at the beginning of DISPARITIES is a case of failed re-enchantment. Zizek’s goal is to distinguish his view from the “mole”, a hidden determinist law of history, and the rhizome, a pluralist dispersion of histories. The Kraken symbolises the deep traumatic disparity of the ontologically incomplete and thus non-determinist Real, or the dialectics, or capitalism.
Surprisingly, after introducing the image of Kraken at the start of the book as a figuration of the concept of disparity Zizek makes no more mention of it until right at the end, where he refers to it only once in passing as “the Kraken of dialectical thought”. Thus his effort to distinguish his thought from Deleuzian or Lyotardian pluralism is ineffective even at the figurative level.
What remains is the concept of disparity as a contribution to the task of thinking the real with the right combination of plasticity and resistance, of subjectivity and testability, of pluralism and realism.