Zizek’s INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID (1): the only good ontology is a failed ontology

Slavoj Zizek’s new book INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID embodies the latest stage in his ongoing “non-standard” metaphysical research programme. It is non-standard in that its “ontology” of the “barred One” is at the same time an exploration of “the impossibility of ontology.”

Part 1 is entitled “SOS: Sexuality, Ontology, Subjectivity”. It begins with an introduction in which Zizek reflects on the contemporary status of the question “What is philosophy?” by way of analysing the oft-repeated accusation that Zizek himself is “not” a philosopher.

Behind this accusation Zizek diagnoses the remanence of an untenable opposition between idealism and materialism that makes his sort of (non-)ontology inconceivable and incomprehensible as philosophy.

Zizek tells us that his metaphysical research programme, symbolised by the formula SOS is of a different nature than deconstructionist philosophies caught in the “hypercritical transcendental questioning of every ontological claim”, but also differs from the rise of the many “new ontologies” which “replace the critical stance with (sometimes feigned) realist naivety”. Zizek’s project attempts to escape the false alternative between critical sterility and naive proliferation:

The project of SOS is to formulate a third way: to break out of the critico-transcendental approach without regressing into precritical realist ontology.

At the beginning of this introduction, Slavoj Zizek cites a series of critiques that seek to deny him the very status of philosopher. The three main claims are that

1) Zizek has no philosophy, no system, but only proposes and exemplifies a method, he is a “reader of philosophy” rather than a real philosopher.

2) Zizek has no status as a philosopher inside of the academy, he is anxious over “being excluded from prestigi­ous insti­tu­tional appar­at­uses and depart­ments of philo­sophy”.

3) Zizek is an excitable hysteric rather than a Stoical master.

In short, Zizek has no legitimacy as a philosopher.

A primitive psychological explanation accompanies this diagnosis: Zizek’s nervousness, anxiety, and bodily tics are so many subjectivations and somatisations of his intellectual and social situation, psychosomatic reactions to his lack of legitimacy.

One is reminded here of Deleuze’s similar response to intellectual and personal criticism in his text “I have nothing to admit”. Zizek too refuses to admit to a diverse collection of imputed personal failings, and chooses to raise the discussion from this trivial level to a more philosophical one. Like Deleuze before him, Zizek diagnoses a dogmatic image of thought (in Lacanese, the discourse of the master) underlying his detractors’ accusations.

2) Symptom versus singularity: Zizek quickly dismisses accusation to (2), by remarking simply that there is no psycho-sociological interpretation to be given of his nervosity and bodily tics, which are purely physical manifestations of an organic disease. They are, like Deleuze’s workers’ vest and long nails, not symptoms to interpret but singularities.

As for complaints (1) and (2), he finds them to be based on dichotomies that he does not accept.

1) Method versus system: Zizek indicates that his work is not purely methodological or “deconstructive”, but that it contains also a constructive element, a kind of ontology, or a “quasi-ontology”:

I do propose a kind of “ontology”, my work is not just a deconstructive reflection on the inconsistencies of other philosophies, it does outline a certain “structure of reality”.

3) Hysteric versus master: Zizek replies that philosophy after Kant and Hegel does not conform to the dogmatic image of the master’s discourse. Philosophy is deconstructive and reflexive, but it is not purely destructive. This is because the impasses to thought and the obstacles to knowledge that the deconstruction discovers are not just epistemological failures, they have ontological import and weight.

To deepen his analysis Zizek refers to two posthumously published book manuscripts by Althusser: Ini­ti­ation a la philo­sophie pour les non-philo­sophes and Etre marx­iste en philo­sophie. Zizek finds that beneath the surface of their renunciation of the “theoreticism”, and also of the scientism, that characterised Althusser’s earlier work (for example in FOR MARX) a certain number of scientistic presuppositions remain.

In particular, Althusser’s naive opposition of science and ideology persists in the idea that philosophy originates in a reaction to the rise of science, and that it tries to reinscribe the results of science within the same sort of universe of meaning as religion. Zizek, while acknowledging a certain degree of truth to this idea, argues that the deeper opposition is not between philosophy and science (which is only conjunctural, varying according to the historical situation and the state of various struggles) but rather that between philosophy and the Sophists.

Zizek contrasts what he calls, in a way reminiscent of Laruelle, the “standard situation”, (where philosophy’s task is “to contain the subversive potential of the sciences”) with another, call it “non-standard”, situation where philosophy and science provide us with arms on the terrains of class struggle. Zizek clearly rejects the whole model of standard philosophy, but he denies that the only alternative is purely negative deconstruction.

Something is wrong with Althusser’s demarcation of the respective roles of science and philosophy and with the accompanying historical narrative. Zizek claims that if we see philosophy in rivality with Sophistry we will no longer be caught in a simple dualism. Sophistry makes a real discovery, that standard philosophy tries to cover over. This discovery is that of the impossibility to fixate meaning within a universal unchanging system, resting on a synchronic ontology.

What non-standard philosophy adds to this discovery, so as to avoid falling into the trap of total scepticism or of facile relativism, is a new ontological idea. This failure to obtain univocity, totality, and stability is not just a negative trait preventing us from obtaining absolute knowledge, it is also a positive feature giving us ontological knowledge of a different sort, “non-standard” philosophy, if you will. This is what Zizek calls “quasi-ontology” and that I have discussed elsewhere under the name of “diachronic ontology“.

Note: Zizek’s critique of Althusser’s “simplicity” and “arrogance” can justly be transposed onto non-philosopher François Laruelle. Like Althusser, Laruelle puts forth “brutally simplified” statements about the universal structure of philosophy, and his enunciations also exhibit a performative contradiction between a “modest” content (the critique of philosophical pretention) and an arrogant form. The source of these failings is the same for both Althusser and Laruelle: a naive, dualist principle of demarcation, a simplified and univocal terminology, and an undue degree of certitude and arrogance in the form of the enunciation.

How­ever, in what Althusser actually does when talk­ing about philo­sophy, his “pro­cess of enun­ci­ation,” his approach to philo­sophy, we can eas­ily dis­cern the exact oppos­ite of what he char­ac­ter­izes as a mater­i­al­ist approach: bru­tally sim­pli­fied uni­ver­sal state­ments which pre­tend to define the uni­ver­sal key fea­tures of philo­sophy, with no mod­est pro­visos.

Thus, in examining the initial question of whether Zizek is a philosopher, we are confronted with two seemingly plausible possible responses, a veritable parallax:

1) Zizek the hysterical cultural studies guy, the neurotic failed philosopher

2) Zizek the proponent of a new image of thought, of a different sort of philosophy, Zizek the quasi-ontologist

I have based my discussion so far on the introduction to Part 1 of INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID. Suddenly, on page seven, Zizek changes the subject and begins talking about Lacan and surplus-enjoyment, and we are left perplexed as to the relation of the first discussion on the nature of philosophy with the rest of the text.

Zizek has given several talks previously covering much of the same ground. As is usual with his books, each talk is composed of disjoint “blocks” in various combinations, some including passages not found elsewhere, while omitting other passages, that may or may not turn up later, in a different context.

This mode of composition would seem to corroborate the stereotype of Zizek the neurotic failed philosopher, unable to put things together into a coherent whole, self-plagiarising, indulging in disjointed ramblings on his recent reading, his enthusiasms and repulsions. This is the hysterical Zizek forever fixated on the lack of  legitimation of his pretention to the status of philosopher by the discourse of the University.

Another reading of the text would be in terms of Zizek’s quasi-ontology. On this vision we are left to our own resources to reconstruct the conceptual problematic tying together the various blocks. This is sometimes hard work, and we will not spend time and effort on articulating the underlying philosophy if we are convinced that there isn’t one, that Zizek is not a philosopher. However, another reaction is possible.

My interpretative hypothesis is that the link between the heterogeneous blocks is not so much discursive (in the sense of the “university discourse”) as performative. Zizek is not a “failed” ontologist nor even a deconstructionist of the “failure” of ontology. Failure enters Zizek’s thought as a feature rather than a fault. In a slogan, the only good ontology is a failed ontology, one that performs its own failure instead of dogmatically asserting it (cf. Laruelle’s performative contradiction):

to put it in brutally-simplified Kantian terms: the last horizon of my work is not the multiple narrative of cognitive failures against the background of the inaccessible Real. The move “beyond the transcendental” is … the basic dialectical move, that of the reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological impossibility that characterizes the Thing itself: the very failure of my effort to grasp the Thing
has to be (re)conceived as a feature of the Thing, as an impossibility inscribed into the very heart of the Real.

This ontological impossibility of ontology explains why Zizek affirms that the “heart of the problem” is performative, it lies “in the application to philosophy of the opposition between the Master and the Hysteric. This is another Deleuzian point. In philosophy we are not talking about psycho-social types but about conceptual characters. With Kant and after Kant the philosopher is no longer the Master enunciating “the basic structure of the whole of reality” in an all-embracing complete and coherent world-view:

with Kant, philosophy is no longer a Master’s discourse, its entire edifice gets traversed by a bar of immanent impossibility, failure, and inconsistency.

This failure is not to be simply asserted as the abstract principle of a negative dogmatic “non-philosophy” but is to be performed concretely, as in Hegel’s phenomenology:

With Hegel, things go even further: far from returning to pre-critical rational metaphysics (as Kantians accuse it of doing), the whole of Hegelian dialectics is a kind of hysterical undermining of the Master … immanent self-destruction and self-overcoming of every metaphysical claim.

This Hegelian “hysterical undermining of the Master” aptly characterises Zizek’s own performative undermining of declarative ontologies and deconstructionist critiques. The contribution of psychoanalysis to philosophy is to formalise and to intensify this hysteric approach:

Insofar as philosophy (traditional ontology) is a case of Master’s discourse, psychoanalysis acts as the agent of its immanent hystericization.

Zizek’s response to the question is not to give a hard and fast identitarian answer, but to entertain us with a performance. To “entertain” is a parallax concept: as the post-Jungian James Hillman reminds us, it means to hold in the space between two possibilities:

That word “entertain“ means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between — between your two hands (PHILOSOPHICAL INTIMATIONS, 28).

The “performance” of philosophy, in Zizek’s sense, means holding the idea between the two alternatives of hysterical practical application and academic theoretical reflexion.

Underlying the question Is Zizek a philosopher?, that his critics answer in the negative, Zizek diagnoses a fixation on identities, the presupposition of an identitarian ontology that inscribes social identities in a putative hardcore Real. Philosophy for Zizek belongs to performance and enjoyment. The social status of “philosopher” is something else: the retrospective reconstruction of an identity and of its exclusions.

Thus Zizek begins by citing various accusations of “arrogance and stupidity” that people have directed at him. His response is a philosophical one. He refuses the accusation of arrogance, claiming that his discourse is that of the hysteric rather than of the “arrogant” Master. He further claims not to fall into the stupidity of a positive pre-critical ontology, and situates himself at the analytic pole of an ontology of the incomplete, inconsistent real.

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3 Responses to Zizek’s INCONTINENCE OF THE VOID (1): the only good ontology is a failed ontology

  1. Janet Abbey says:

    I loved this on Zizek. I find myself so in tune with Z whenever I read what he says. This is the clearest piece I have ever read by you. Right now I am working on WHO WAS JACK THE RIPPER? I do know and so does Patricia Cornwell the best selling mystery novel writer. BUT she cannot prove it. Because IMO it cannot be proved. Just as psychoanalysis cannot be PROVED to be the treatment of choice for the presenting malady. You can’t measure it so you can’t prove it. Does the patient feel better because they have spent all that money and time? Because they make more money? Because they make less money but feel happier? I am looking at Jack the Ripper through a number of different readings two of them being psychoanalytic, one theory from clinical work, and the other a case study in transcript form. I know I cannot repeat Cornwell’s failing, but her relentless work into the archives in various parts of the world is of the depth of Foucault’s research. But alas she does not know anything about Foucault. She just amasses so much information she risks becoming the NSA of Ripper studies. No end in sight as Baudrillard says when you enter the psychological swamp of interpretation. Hey, how come the continental guys never mention Sontag – Against Interpretation – when they discuss this. She spent a lot of time in Paris and knew about all of them. She worked closely with Godard, who does it all in film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. landzek says:

    Wow. I hadn’t even seen your post here when I posted in part 2. Killer.


  3. Pingback: Statistical Outliers will always be Excluded in the Study.  – Constructive Undoing

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