In section five of Chapter 1 of DISPARITIES, “Biology or quantum physics?“, Zizek takes on an impossible task, that of justifying “the priority of quantum physics” (page 39) in the explanation of emergent properties, in particular of the emergence of subjectivity in the human organism. Of course, he fails. Any such primacy is forbidden by the principles of his basic research programme. However, in the course of this failed mission Zizek gives a very interesting account of his entangled engagement with quantum physics.
This section takes the form of Zizek’s reply to Adrian Johnston’s objections to the primacy of the quantum model in the materialist account of the genesis of free subjects. (If I were Adrian Johnston I would be seriously tempted to commit hara-kiri as Zizek’s replies are most often infuriatingly wrong-headed).
Johnston’s theoretical strategy is pluralist and pragmatic, arguing that Zizek’s reliance on quantum physics is neither necessary nor feasible:
1) it is not necessary as other theoretical models that break with the naive materialist presupposition of a fully constituted, complete, determinate and deterministic nature are available (he cites “emergentism, neuroplasticity, and epigenetics”) – this is his pluralist point.
2) it is not feasible, as the distance between the sub-microscopic quantum level and the macroscopic level of human subjectivity is too great for the quantum model to have any real explanatory power. The parallel between the quantum level and the human level is thus more formal than explanatory – this is his pragmatic point.
In his reply, Zizek does not consider this second point. He responds to a more general version of the first point, to the pluralist objection that the primacy he accords to the quantum model amounts to an undue ontological privileging, collapsing the universal ontological level and a particular ontic level, effacing the very ontological difference that he claims to defend.
Zizek’s argument serves to complexify this dual vision of ontological difference. He argues that between non-manifest Being and the various manifest realities or ontic domains there is a third term, that of an ontologically incomplete “proto-reality”, a de-substantialised “embodiment of nothing”. This is the level that is, according to Zizek, best described by quantum physics.
Quantum physics is necessary because the “triumphant triad of evolutionary biology, biogenetics, and brain sciences” is not enough. It is not paradoxical enough to account for the emergence of human subjectivity and of the paradoxes inherent in the symbolic order. He concludes that “something stronger is needed” (48).
The quantum model provides this “something stronger”, not because it is reductively more primary, but because it is closer to human subjectivity. Zizek’s argument is after all a pragmatic one. He refuses what one could call Johnston’s “argument from distance” as being too epistemological. On pragmatic grounds Zizek can say quantum physics is closer than the biocognitivist triad to human subjectivity, as it has an “uncanny resemblance to what we consider specifically human”.