THE ONTOLOGY OF THE TITLE
A) WITHDRAWAL AND THE LEAP
In this chapter I begin my discussion of Slavoj Zizek’s SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. To begin, I’m going to talk about the title and its ontology. And in fact, this is how Zizek himself starts his theoretical discussion, but not right at the beginning. He begins the consideration of the title in the second paragraph of the Introduction: The Unorientable Space of Dialectical Materialism.
The first paragraph is a plea for abstract reflection. It begins with a quotation from Lenin, who cites Napoleon as saying, in the rough translation given, “One jumps into the fray, and then one figures out what to do next”.
Zizek is going to deconstruct that sentence, so his first reflection is that it’s important today, not to jump straight into the fray, but to take some time for thinking. He says to see, one has to withdraw and acquire a minimal distance. This recommendation holds not only for politics, but also for sex, not only for thinking about sex, but for sex itself, which always relies on a minimal withdrawal, a withdrawal which is not a retreat into passivity, but perhaps the most radical act of them all.
Aside from Zizek’s advice about how to engage in sex, which one can evaluate for oneself, there is a methodological principle there that looks rather modest: don’t jump into action, withdraw, and reflect. But in fact, we’ll see from the argument of the book, that the sort of reflection that Zizek is trying to present and construct for us is a leap in itself, it’s a leap to a higher level, it’s what we can call a “quantum ascent” in terms of the book’s vocabulary. And it’s a leap into the Absolute.
Here we have the importance of the title, if we leave into the Absolute, we better get the notion of the Absolute right. Or we may be leaping into the wrong thing and just acquiring under the goal of trying to reach a disalienation, we may be alienating ourselves even further.
In fact, I would argue, but we’ll see that perhaps later in the book, that once we make the leap into the Absolute, and we see that the Absolute is intrinsically failed, we’ll see that the Absolute itself is composed of leaps, is composed of incommensurabilities. And these are incommensurabilities all the way down sub-incommensurabilities and sub-sub-incommensurabilities.
So once you make the leap that Zizek is recommending, you don’t ever stop, you’re leaping all the time. So rather than just having a binary opposition between leaping into the action, as against withdrawing, we’re having a nuanced distinction between two different types of leaping, either we leap into the fray as pre-constituted by the reigning ideology or we withdraw into reflection. Withdrawing is not easy in that case, we have to leap back -that’s the withdrawal, and leap up – that’s the reflection. So either way, we’re leaping whatever we do.
B) IDEOLOGICAL READING
Next in the second paragraph comes Zizek’s considerations on the title, on the ontology of the title, but I will argue that he only gives us half the analysis. Zizek says: “The title of this book – SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE, offers itself to two interconnected common readings”. So, there are two “common” readings, that is to say they are ideological readings, and more properly Zizek agrees with Badiou’s analysis of the reigning contemporary ideology which is that there are only bodies and languages, and no truths. That is to say “and no Absolutes”. (Or, “and no Absolute”, if you have a problem with plural Absolutes).
The two interconnected common readings are:
“(1) when religion or any other belief in an Absolute fails, unbridled hedonism imposes itself as a way to some kind of ersatz Absolute”. That’s the unconscious, unaware version, that we think we’ve gotten rid of all absolutes, weighing bodies and languages, by biomaterialism and democratic relativism, and we are unaware that by the very fact we’re enshrining the pleasures of bodies and the pleasures of opinion as a new Absolute.
The second common reading, the second ideological reading of the title is:
(“2) because of the inconsistent nature of sexuality, its elevation into the new Absolute, necessarily fails”.
That’s Zizek’s constant Lacanian argument: sexuality is inconsistent, it’s our only contact with the Absolute, but you can’t elevate it directly into a transcendent, autonomous Absolute, there is no such Absolute in that sense. And any candidate “Absolute” including sexuality is traversed by inner self-antagonism, and so necessarily a failure, and in particular is an Absolute that fails to be an Absolute, in the sense of the transcendent Absolute.
Zizek goes on with examples, and he takes the case of female orgasm. And although he seems to generalize it: “the description of intense sexual act as experienced with the highest most intense unity of being is simply wrong”.
That was quite a theme 40-50 years ago when Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology was popular, and I think it still continues today in what people call the New Age ideologies. That’s the idea of sexuality as a peak experience, in the sense of a mystical experience where you attain complete self-forgetting and complete fusion with the All.
Zizek is saying that’s not just epistemologically and ontologically false, it’s phenomenologically false as well.
“it obfuscates the dimension of failure, mediation, gap, antagonism even, which is constitutive of human sexuality. This minimal reflexivity that cuts from within every immediate orgasmic One is the topic of the present book”.
So his minimal reflexivity is not just a tiny little step back in order to think, it’s the core of the book. And it’s not just a simple piece of advice from a methodologist: take a step back, take a pause, to integrate what’s going on and then go forth. He’s giving it ontological purport with respect to the Absolute.
What is missing from this paragraph, although we can find it later on, is the non-ideological reading of the title. Using Zizek’s quantum ontology, the two ideological readings that he’s proposed are decoherent readings. Instead of having a quantum superposition with multiple quantum states superposed and coexisting in the virtual, these ideological readings of the title of Zizek’s book via the ontology of the ideology of bodies and languages, of biomaterialism and democratic relativism, are decoherent readings.
C) QUANTUM READING
Ontology: re-virtualising and re-actualising
From Zizek’s quantum physical point of view a title, like everything else that is actual, is the result of the decoherence of a virtual quantum superposition. This decoherence is observed in a specific experimental set-up. With other experimental set-ups other decoherences would have been possible.
To see this in relation to Zizek’s own title SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE, let us consider the superposition of infinitives: sex-fail-absolute, taking each of these as unmarked verbs. Other setups would observe: absolute sex and failure, absolutised failed sex, sexing the Absolute’s failing, etc. The title itself defines one of the non-binary unorientable spaces that the book itself is about. Any particular title is generated by a process of quantum descent.
We will see that to open such a space is no guarantee of « success ».
So once you’ve read the book, you can understand the title. The title is either these both at once are coherent superposed virtual and orientable space with the basic terms in it, that are not preset into any particular orientation. That’s the quantum ascent reading of the title, and the quantum descent readings are the two that he has just given: bodies and their pleasures are the supreme value or more determinately the peak sexual experience, in particular of women, is the supreme experience of the Absolute. Those two are decoherent readings and thus deprecated by Zizek.
I’m arguing, in line with Zizek, that yes we have to have our minimum withdrawal which is either preparatory of or effectuating quantum ascent, we have to open up these sorts of unorientable spaces, but that alone is insufficient to guarantee success. Absolute success is ruled out in principle. And here I’m giving not Zizek’s argument but a related one, an ontological one.
Generic Quantum: immanent Platonism
Absolute “success” is ruled out in principle, as it is possible to imagine a meta-universe composed of a nesting of universes, where the decoherent state of one sub-universe functions as a coherent state for a sub-sub-universe’s decoherence.
A fictional presentation of this sort of cosmology can be found in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel ANATHEM, which I have analysed on my blog. In that analysis I give a Badiousian reading of the novel, and in my Presentation of TETRALOGOS I bring out its connections with François Laruelle’s ideas. A Zizekian reading in terms of the two formulae of sexuation would also be possible.
Quantum descent: Zizek’s « Lacan »
If we examine the individual terms of the title: “Sex” for Zizek is what Lacan says it is, « failed » evokes Lacan’s famous « there is no sexual relationship », « Absolute » implies Zizek’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought through that of Lacan . Zizek’s manifest title is « SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE », but on a decoherent reading this manifest title can be read as expressing the latent tautology: « Lacan and the Lacanned Lacan ».
This decoherent reading captures the repetitious aspect of Zizek’s work, its seeming degeneration into a vast game of tautologous reformulations of Hegel in Lacanese and Lacan in Hegelese. This aspect of Zizek’s work captures its moments of quantum descent. However, it is incomplete without examining the inverse movement, that of quantum ascent, what Laruelle calls the « generic ».
We are all the decoherent shadows of our coherent selves, and Zizek is no exception. Badiou has analysed (in THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS) this sort of decoherent reading as a « covering-over », in which the infinities mobilised by a work are replaced by more familiar, finite properties.
Note: for a discussion of Badiou’s concept of covering-over see MY PATH THROUGH BADIOU’S “THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS”: full English text
We shall attempt to do justice to Zizek’s text by refusing ourselves the ease of such a reductive reading.
Generic Ascent: Badiou’s Conditions
A first ascent can be achieved by means of Badiou’s philosophy. Zizek talks about « sex » where Badiou talks about the four conditions of philosophy (science, art, love, politics). Zizek talks about « failure », where Badiou talks about immanence. The “failed Absolute” in Zizek’s title, on a Badiousian reading, is an Absolute that fails to be autonomously transcendent, whose absoluteness is immanently tied to immanent worlds.
Badiou could easily write a book for each of his Truth procedures: on « Love and the immanence of the Absolute”, « Science and the immanence of the Absolute » etc. In fact these imagined notional titles correspond to actual chapters in the last part of Badiou’s THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS.
Zizek replaces « love » by « sex » and cuts out other possibilities of access to the Absolute, implying and also explicitly stating) that his way is the only way:
« The only way for us, humans, caught in the parallax gap, to break out of it is through the experience of sexuality which, in its very failure to achieve its goal, enables us to touch the dimension of the Absolute » (SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE, page 107).
Generic Ascent: Laruelle’s Acts
However, the quantum ascent is not finished with Badiou. In his recent book TETRALOGOS Laruelle calls Badiou’s conditions the « acts » of conceptual personae, and he remarks that they should not be limited to only four. These “conceptual personae” include philosophy, science, and non-philosophy. I would argue that there is a complementarity persona/act, and that the four truth conditions are both conceptual character and conceptual acts, depending on the perspective.
Laruelle further argues that Badiou’s reliance on mathematics is a non-generic limitation of his system as it maintains a gap between formalism and the real. On Laruelle’s view quantum physics is more generic than mathematical formalism as it overcomes this gap. Elsewhere, Zizek has also argued the same point against Badiou. However, in SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE Zizek argues that topological formalism can provide a more satisfying solution.
My conclusion on this point is not that any one of these philosophers is « better » than all the others, or has the best (most generic, or most quantum, or most immanent, etc.) system, but that we must be sensitive to these phenomena of generic ascent and descent within the texts that we read.
My motivation, as always, is to open up a more ample dialogue by showing the zones of encounter, the passages of argument, and the lines of translation between the diverse systems of thought that are being elaborated around us.
One can remark that most critics of Zizek cannot be taken seriously, as to understand his work one must read it with at least a working knowledge of Freud, Lacan, Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, quantum physics, etc. I would add that many followers of Zizek, and that includes Zizek himself as his own decoherent shadow, need to read him with a working knowledge of Serres, Badiou, Latour, Stiegler, Deleuze, and Laruelle.
This is the requirement of quantum ascent: to read Zizek’s texts we must re-virtualise them. A decoherent reading is a dogmatic one.
DE-OTHERING THE OTHER OF THE OTHER’S OTHER
Zizek, of course, agrees with this maxim:
the true dialectical-materialist motto should be Ibi Rhodus, ibi saltus: act in such a way that your activity does not rely on any figure of the big Other as its ontological guarantee (SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE, 11).
It is easy to see that this ethical maxim is potentially self-contradictory, as to formulate it Zizek relies on the terminology and concepts of his own big Other and ontological guarantee, Lacan.
The problem, as Zizek indicates, is that any such failed ontology cannot be presented in direct positive terms, but must be mediated, schematised. Zizek’s schematisations are his references to Lacan and Hegel. They are the framing fantasies he needs to get working theoretically.
To bring out the fantasy element one has only to try a simple-thought experiment. Every time Zizek appeals to Hegel we can substitute « Modern Occultism », every time he appeals to Lacan we give it a Hindu spin as « Lacananda ». This substitution serves to remove the authority-effect, what Zizek calls « Word Art », defined as:
one-liners intended to fascinate us with their fake “depth.” They no longer function as articulated propositions but more like images providing instant spiritual satisfaction (13).
Zizek’s works contain too many of these one-liners and would be better off without them.
THE SUBSTITUTION GAME
Word Art is the decoherence of thinking, its collapse into doxic determinacy. The thought experiment I propose can help us break out of the word art aspect of Zizek’s text. If the substitution works, we can now discuss the actual thesis as it occurs in Zizek’s text more critically.
For example, we can rewrite:
as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently « mediated », so that an « epistemological » shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an « ontological » shift in the object itself. (SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE, 5).
According to Modern Occultism, subject and object are inherently « correlated », so that a « ritual » shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects a « magical » shift in the object itself.
Similarly, we can say that against Taoism’s yin-yang Lacananda preaches: « in yoga there is no sexual relationship ».
It is easy to see that such substitutions are ignorant travesties of Zizek’s philosophical work at the same time that they reveal its tendency to degenerate into a new form of « wisdom ». The principle of charity requires that we do not play this substitution game with Zizek’s texts, that we give it its “best” or most generic reading. It is only fair to require that Zizek, and his followers, not play this game with others thinkers’ texts.
SCHEMATIC SCHOLARSHIP: schematising the bad Other
We can now see more clearly why we must reject Zizek’s useless detours critiquing and rejecting anything and everything that could count as a possible rival to his two chosen gurus. Zizek knows nothing about Taoism, Zen, or even Jung. He has invented « Western Buddhism » out of thin air to have something to inveigh against.
We must not take such diatribes seriously, there is no scholarship there, no work, and no thought either. Zizek’s interest lies elsewhere (unless you are a disciple of the decoherent Zizek).
READING FOR THE NON-STANDARD ZIZEK
We have seen that Zizek’s conceptual project as instantiated (once again) in his new book SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE could be read tendentially as a tautologous updating of the Lacanian research programme. In its tautological form, Zizek’s project can be read as LACAN AND THE LACANNED LACAN.
In Laruellean terms, we can call this tautologous version of Lacan the « standard » Lacan, not in the sense of orthodoxy, but rather in the sense of philosophical sufficiency. The two senses are related in that the principle of sufficiency underlies and validates the orthodoxy. The standard Lacan is the self-validating Lacan. The same goes for Zizek, the standard Zizek is the self-validating Zizek.
We are reading Zizek to see where he escapes this whole process of sufficiency and self-validation. We are on the lookout for the non-standard Zizek.
AGAINST THE TAUTOLOGY MACHINE
Zizek’s Freud-Lacan-Hegel tautology machine would quickly grind to a halt if it did not have a way of integrating its outside as the source of a different type of insights. This predicament of combating closure models Zizek’s more general question of how to gain access to the real while recognising our enclosure in transcendental subjectivity.
(The parallax gap traverses Zizek’s work, and our reading of it).
This strategy of incorporating outside resources to prevent the philosophical tautology machine from reaching maximum entropy can be seen in the reference to « sex » in the title. Zizek’s concept of « sex » is indebted to Lacan’s formulae of sexuation. By « sex » Zizek means both biological sex and sex « as described by Lacan’s formulae of sexuation ». Zizek is playing his own substitution game.
FORMULAE OF RECUPERATION
Lacan’s graph and formulae of sexuation are by no means an original contribution. They are dependent on, and derive from, Deleuze’s prior distinction between the two different images of thought, embodying the fundamental philosophical choice between standard and non-standard philosophy: the choice between immanence and transcendence, and the corresponding choice between pluralism or monism.
Far from preceding, anticipating, or « influencing » Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction Lacan’s formulae come after the event. They were first expounded in his seminar in 1973, one year after the publication of ANTI-OEDIPUS (1972), and four or five years after the publication of Deleuze’s DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION (1968) and LOGIC OF SENSE (1969).
FORMULAE OF ANNEXATION
Lacan’s doctrine as expounded in this seminar amounts to a very weakened and watered down appropriation of insights that Deleuze and Guattari had been elaborating over the preceding four years. This strategy of tacit annexation and adulteration is one of Lacan’s preferred modes of erudition and « creativity ».
The amusing thing about Lacan’s graph of sexuation is that if we ask where Freud and Lacan are to be situated we must conclude that Freud and Lacan himself must be placed on the infamous left side of the graph, that of transcendence.
The whole of Deleuze and Guattari’s first book together, ANTI-OEDIPUS, is devoted to mapping out this Freudo-Lacanian dilution and betrayal of immanence by means of transcendent over-codings.
LACAN AS CONCEPTUAL PERSONA
Zizek’s research programme, while relying on the standard Lacan, attempts to elaborate a different conceptual portrait of Lacan as non-standard thinker, and at the same time to produce a decoherent reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought as still remaining within the confines of standard philosophy. Having taken his distance from this decoherent clone, Zizek is free to annex the insights he needs to maintain his non-standard Lacan.
DE-SCHEMATISING THE CONCEPTS
We may justly feel impatient with all this talk of « annexation » and pseudo-originality, as these are mere ontic concerns, and so entangled that it is almost impossible to untangle them. Deleuze and Guattari themselves annexed in silence and mis-read Lacan more or less knowingly and willfully. We shall not see the greatness of a thought by cavilling and carping without end.
In SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE Zizek proposes to exit from mere picturing and to lay out in conceptual form the heuristic core of his philosophical project. We shall need to follow him in his « abstractive turn » to see where it may take us.
THE HEURISTIC CORE
SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE has an interesting and unusual structure. In the interest of de-schematising his thought he has resorted to a quasi-mathematical form of presentation: a nested layout of theorems, corollaries, and scholia.
The book contains 480 pages, and after a brief introduction (15 pages) it divides into four « Theorems » (numbered from I to IV), each followed by a « Corollary » (numbered from 1 to 4). Each theorem and corollary is followed by from three to five « Scholia » (numbered by decimal notation, e.g. 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 then 2.1 etc.). For the full table of contents see here.
Each theorem is stated and expounded in a chapter of about 50 pages on average (more or less, depending on the theorem). I will list the theorems here by chapter title, by name and by the formulation they are given in italics at the head of each theorem-chapter.
Note: the theorems are not given a name by Zizek, so I have chosen the most appropriate name in terms of Zizek’s terminology. I have also chosen the formulation of Theorem III by quoting a very general statement within the chapter, as it is the only chapter without a formulation in italics at its head.
We shall see in surveying the four theorems that the book’s title SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE corresponds to only two of the four theorems. A more accurate title would be SEX AND THE FAILED ONTOLOGY OF UNORIENTABLE SPACES OF REAL ABSTRACTION.
1) THE PARALLAX THEOREM (or THE « FAILED ONTOLOGY » THEOREM)
THEOREM I: THE PARALLAX OF ONTOLOGY
« Not only our experience of reality, but also this reality itself is traversed by a parallax gap: the co-existence of two dimensions, realist and transcendental, which cannot be united in the same global ontological edifice » (17).
2) THE REDOUBLING THEOREM
THEOREM II: SEX AS OUR BRUSH WITH the Absolute
« The only way for us, humans, caught in the parallax gap, to break out of it is through the experience of sexuality which, in its very failure to achieve its goal, enables us to touch the dimension of the Absolute » (107).
3) THE UNORIENTABILITY THEOREM
THEOREM III: THE THREE UNORIENTABLES
« conceptual thinking is a matter of self-referential twists and inward-turns which, at the level of the figural, of what Hegel called “representation” (Vorstellung), cannot but appear as a perplexing paradox » (225).
4) THE NEGATIVITY THEOREM
THEOREM IV: THE PERSISTENCE OF ABSTRACTION
« In the twisted surface of unorientables that is our reality, abstraction is not just a feature of our thinking but the most basic feature of reality itself whose organic unity is always and by definition ruined » (343).
“THE WAISTCOAT”: A puzzling example of Absolute Knowing
After a general introduction (The Unorientable Space of Dialectical Materialism) which sets the context and summarises the argument, the book begins with a chapter entitled THEOREM I: THE PARALLAX OF ONTOLOGY. The incipit of this chapter, i.e. the first page after the introduction, contains a brief summary and even briefer analysis of a short story, « The Waistcoat ». Zizek ends by telling us that the story illustrates Hegel’s concept of « Absolute Knowing », the central concept of this book. This is high praise indeed!
The relation between this first example and the rest of the chapter is not evident, and the analysis proposed by Zizek is very compressed. It is rather hard to see the relation of the story with that particular chapter, and Zizek’s comments on it are brief and cryptic, as he talks of “Absolute Knowing”, which is not the subject of that chapter.
The story comes at the start of Theorem I: The Parallax of Ontology and is properly the incipit not just of this particular chapter but of the book as a whole. One may be puzzled as to the example’s relevance at that point of Zizek’s argument, and, given the terms of the story, as to its relevance to the book as a whole. Yet its position as incipit and its characterisation by Zizek as illustrating the central concept of the book, Absolute Knowing, give it salience, calling for careful consideration.
I will argue that if the Introduction: The Unorientable Space of Dialectical Materialism can be considered a retroactive summary or rational reconstruction of the book’s argument, then the short paragraph on “The Waistcoat” can be read as a prospective synopsis of the whole book, not just of Chapter One, and it could just as well have come at the end.
First Twist: Ruse
The story concerns a young, poor, hard-working couple. The husband is sick, he is suffering from tuberculosis and ultimately dies of this disease. To hide his loss of weight he repeatedly shortens the cinch of the waistcoat on one side. He does this « in order not to worry his wife », to reassure her.
The man’s wife does the same on the other side, shortening the other band, not to give her husband the illusion that he is not losing weight, but that it is not happening as fast as he fears, that there are periods of remission, « in order to give him hope ».
The waistcoat analogises our knowledge of the real. If we are constantly adjusting our knowledge to gain a better « fit » with the real and the other is doing so too, we cannot know the real independently of the mediations, our knowledge is mere convention.
Instead of throwing out the waistcoat and substituting another, each partner « fudges » the size to make it fit. Knowledge is instrumental.
This corresponds to Theorem I: the parallax of the waistcoat keeps us separate from the real as we are unable to know all the moves of adjustment at play in the game.
Asymmetry: formulae of Sexuation
Each of the partners is hiding their ruse from the other, i.e. they are not content with just producing an appearance of (relative) health, they are trying to induce the other in error. However, the symmetry is only apparent, the result sought by each partner corresponds to the formulae of sexuation.
1) The husband is trying to produce an illusion that everything is under control, to close off the need to worry.
2) The wife is trying to produce an impression that despite his weight loss things may be more open than they seem, hope is possible.
Second Twist: Redoubling
The second twist comes with the discovery by each partner of the other’s ruse: instead of the obvious reaction of calling the other out, halting the ruse, and discussing the problem openly, they continue the ruse as a new game. From material and instrumental the game becomes formal and pragmatic. We are not just confronted with errors that can be either involuntary or deliberate. We are faced with an ocean of anomalies and adjustments
If I take into account the moves of the other players in the knowledge game and I am still obliged to make further adjustments then something of the real is being touched on. The adjustments in knowledge are required by transformations in the real.
By including within our purview both the waistcoat and the ongoing adjustments a non-conventional, non-instrumental knowledge of the real is possible.
This corresponds to Theorem II: the mutual failure to observe and know the real across an « unaltered » instrument amounts to the inscription of the subjective moves within the real to be known.
Third Twist: Unoriented Thinking
These two twists are redoubled in thought, as emblematic of a space of thinking that is opened up by the redoubling of the ruse.
The progression of the consumptive weight loss is no longer simply an unknown degree (subjective uncertainty), it is unknown to an unknowable degree (objective uncertainty). This corresponds to Theorem III: the ruse itself when redoubled produces an uncertainty that then becomes a mode of knowing of the real.
The initial wish to reassure the partner by means of dupery as to the progression of the illness is transformed into a wish to undupingly assure him or her of one’s love. The love-situation becomes unorientable, and can be thought in terms of the three unorientables that Zizek is proposing.
1) Möbius Strip: the redoubled play of ruses and adjustments leads to a situation of the coincidence of opposites (dupery/sharing, secret/explicit, silence/avowal).
2) Cross-Cap: the two ways of managing the traumatic situation of the fatal disease and its progress introduce the cut of sexual difference: a materially determinate state of affairs in the real becomes formally indeterminate in reflection.
3) Klein Bottle: the becoming aware of the game needed to continue the game displaces the object of reflection from the « game » (formal moment), which has as object disease and death, to the love of the couple playing the game (subjective moment).
Fourth Twist: Retroactive Negativity
These adjustments, adaptations, twists, redoublings and paradoxical subjectivations are moments of a subjacent negativity, that is reached not only at the end but at every moment along the way.
The couple of the story have been proceeding as if they were surrounded by substantial « normal » couples, and that their traumatic state of affairs is an exception to this rule. So they act to normalise their situation, by at least keeping up appearances. This is fated to fail, as no couple is normal, all couples have an absolute traumatic kernel.
This corresponds to Theorem IV: what the spouses learn from these twists and redoublings is that negativity is there from the beginning, and is constitutive of the couple and its love. As long as the couple perdures there is no way out, the ruses resolve nothing, nor does treating the whole thing as a game, for the game is itself deadly serious. The husband dies at the end and the waistcoat is sold back to the original merchant.
I hope this analysis has gone some way towards unpacking the sense of this story, and why Zizek could call it a figure of Absolute Knowing in a book titled SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE. Where is the sex? one may ask, and what’s so « absolute » about this foolish-seeming game? Why does Zizek conclude with « abstraction » seen as “radical negativity”?
The sex is to be found not in any transgressive excess of sexual passion, nor in the empirical fact that we are dealing with a man and a woman, but in the logic of the different modes of coping with the trauma, from closure and control under the conditions of exceptionality to openness and hope under the conditions of reflexivity.
the Absoluteness is to be found in the passage from « faking » it to playing it through. The trauma of negativity is not something that we can talk through to resolve, as it resists complete and convergent symbolisation.
The abstraction lies in acknowledging that our attempts to patch up or to cover over the gaps or the cracks are empty (formal) but necessary (subjective) gestures, that negativity is inevitable because constitutive.
I have argued that the titular waistcoat of the story functions as an analogue of our transcendentally constituted knowledge, and that its relative fit to the husband’s torso corresponds to the “fit” of our knowledge with reality. Seen in this light the story is emblematic of the fundamental problem and argument of the whole book, i.e. of its movement from the dangers of reductionism or relativism stemming from the parallax of the transcendental constitution of our knowledge to the resolution of this problem in the Absolute.
Since the couple’s knowledge of the progression of the wasting disease is singularly mediated by the waistcoat, its adjustments and its fit, this knowledge can be manipulated accordingly. As the mediations, in this case the different modifications of the vest’s bands, pile up it becomes even more impossible for them to get at the true state of the disease’s progression. This impossibility of unmediated knowledge leads to a displacement of investment.
The adjustments made to the waistcoat’s bands lose their function as (well-meaning) manipulations, and become demonstrations of love. The move is from material game to formal game, to subjective game, but the game is also very concrete, its stakes are life and death, the game becomes (as it always has been) absolute. This absolute game is Absolute Knowing.
Paradoxically it is these very concrete stakes that give an added twist of universality to the story. It takes on more general import concerning the negativity at the heart of human life and of the couple as a lived experience and institution.
This general import is not limited to how we handle disease, but also (lack of) money, frustrated ambitions, housework etc. and even “good” things (e.g. a promotion), as radical negativity lies in the inescapable trauma of pure difference. (This is why a promotion, a marriage, the birth of a child, or winning the lottery can have a traumatic impact).
Our own versions of the Waistcoat predicament will hopefully be less tragic. Zizek likes to use pathological examples, but the lesson is also formal. We should not get too hung up on the concrete pathology of the content.
I would add that in accordance with Lacan’s formulae of sexuation Zizek describes the actions of the husband as being undertaken in order for his wife “not to worry”, which corresponds to the masculine side of keeping up the pretence that everything is under control. Conversely, the woman acts so as to “give him hope”, which corresponds to the feminine side of the “not-all”, keeping the world, and thus also the future, open.
In sum: love is a figure of real abstraction, moving in the unorientable space of traumatic divergence, hoping for moments of reprieve beyond our ability to provoke and control.
THE TANGLED HEURISTICS OF THE CONCEPT
In SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE Zizek gives a systematic presentation of his philosophy in the form of four theorems (Parallax, Redoubling, Unorientability, Negativity). Together these theorems express our relation to the Absolute and relate a series of steps towards, or ascent to, Absolute Knowing.
In discussing our relation to the Absolute Zizek sometimes makes use of the terminology of « access », and talks of the modalities of our access to the Absolute. However, I think this vocabulary is untrustworthy. In general “access” is not an appropriate term to describe the knowledge relation.
We must not forget that Object-Oriented Ontology has perverted the term of « access » to create a false problem and a corresponding false solution. Knowledge is not access, the knowledge relation is not best described as one of « access ». Further, perception is not access, although both knowledge and access may require some form of access among their conditions of possibility.
“Access” as an epistemological term presupposes a determinate existing object to which an already constituted subject establishes a partial but direct relation. OOO rightly concludes that we never have direct access to the object but only to its sensual and conceptual mediations. It wrongly reifies this conclusion by positing a division between real and illusory “sensual” objects. Zizek concludes, as do many others, that this inherent failure of “access” demonstrates that this is not the right way to conceptualise knowledge, but sometimes he forgets his own conclusions.
We have already given names to these theorems, but they have several possible names. If our focus is epistemological we can view them as providing a coherent critique of the “access” model of knowledge. We can call them respectively: the No Access Theorem, the Disrupted Access Theorem, the Dis-oriented Access Theorem, and the Dissolution of Access Theorem.
If the « object » to be accessed, the accessing « subject » and the relation of « access » itself are all instantiations of radical negativity (TIV – Negativity Theorem), then the picture of a subject accessing an object (or not) is far too simplistic. This access is impossible (TI – Parallax Theorem), and it cannot be achieved by indirection (TII – Redoubling Theorem). This redoubling can be epistemologically effective only when it is itself redoubled (TIII – Unorientability Theorem), allowing for the inscription of subjectivity into every moment of the quest for access, opening an unorientable space in which access itself is dissolved and dispersed, as is the Absolute ontological gap between real and sensual objects.
These four theorems also allow us to reply to the question of the location of the concept, and to that of its movement. The concept is present from the beginning (TI – Parallax Theorem – concept-ladenness). All attempts to get behind the concept to compare it to the real only serve to redouble the concept-ladenness (TII – Redoubling Theorem – all methodologies aiming to redress concepts are themselves permeated by conceptual presuppositions). This means that a more formal approach to adapting and improving concepts based on methodological progression fails, the aim of cognitive convergence on a single “best” theory fails, opening up contradiction, discontinuity, cuts, gaps, lack, exception and disruption in and between concepts and theories. This failure to achieve “access » to the object is re-conceptualised as indicating the necessary inscription of unorientable subjectivity in the concepts themselves (TIII – Unorientability Theorem) and is retroactively or reflexively attributable to constitutive negativity (TIV – Negativity Theorem: non-self-identity of concepts).
These four steps, derived from the four theorems, are present in Zizek’s recapitulation of « The Waistcoat ». He calls them deception, redoubled deception, silent knowing, Absolute Knowing.
The Concept as concrete universality is immanent self-reflexively in step three (« silent knowing ») and fully subjectively in step four. It is however present from the start, and the ineradicable parallax of the concept drives the process.
It follows from this analysis that Deleuze and Guattari’s account of the concept and its place (in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?) is seriously flawed. Firstly, the detachment of the concept from other thinking practices (e.g. science) creates an illusion of autonomy of philosophy with respect to science. Secondly, they deny the existence of concepts inside science, thus making paradigm-change unthinkable. Thirdly, they re-orient a previously unoriented space to striate it with separate Zones of Thought (philosophy, art, science). This is a decoherent reading of the concept.
Zizek implicitly uses the Unorientability Theorem in his criticism of Badiou’s distinctions and demarcations between Being and Event, and between Truth and Knowledge. Similar considerations apply to Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of the concept as characterising uniquely philosophy, to the exclusion of other domains. We have seen above that this thesis is untenable.
Unorientability is constitutive, it defeats these demarcations (i.e. those affirmed by Deleuze and Guattari and by Badiou) from within.
We have seen that sometimes Zizek slips into a vocabulary of access in regard to knowledge, and that this is unfortunate. This usage can be contrasted with an analysis making use of the terms of « embodiment » and « inherence », which I think are far less likely to induce us into error than the vocabulary of « access » popularised by OOO and its archaic analysis of the knowledge relation.
« Access » indicates a short cut in the passage from the particular to the universal, without noting that this passage is itself by no means universal. It can only be a heuristic (i.e. useful in some cases) but non-obligatory requirement. Even so the impression of this passage from particular to universal is often the product of a retrospective re-ordering of a far more messy dis-ordered or « unorientable » process.
For example, in many cases one can begin with the universal and approach the particular almost as an afterthought. This is true both on the intellectual plane (identity politics as particularism is a derivative, tardive phenomenon) and the subjective plane (politics is in place before ego). There is no rule.
These neat orderly progressions (such as first particular then universal) correspond to a detached pedagogical schema imposed on a more disorderly subjectivity. The pedagogy of life and of lived political experience may, but need not, follow this schema.
THE SAGA OF THE SIGNIFIER
The primacy of the signifier as material, and thus particular, element is of no avail here, as if its materiality allowed it to escape from the aporias of the immaterial concept. The signifier is just one face of the concept, and it risks enclosing us in a pseudo-universal phase of the dialectical process because of its own associated parallax. The necessary parallax of the signifier is just as much a transcendental trap as the parallax of the concept.
The discovery of the signifier may induce a subjective revolution in a particular conjuncture but its moment cannot be absolutised without falling into the trap of abstraction. The attempts to avoid this trap may lead in some cases to the « disappearance of the signifier », where an author appeals to some other word or set of words in order to avoid the word « signifier » becoming itself a master-signifier.
A similar phenomenon would be at work in the « disappearance of the concept ». Once one has recognised the omnipresence of the concept one can begin to think that its parallax is dangerously reinforced by the word itself, which may tend to enclose our thought in a pan-conceptualism, or pan-intellectualism. The passage by a synonym can be a useful heuristic in this case.
For example in his new book UNIVERSALITY AND IDENTITY POLITICS Todd McGowan makes far less use of the word « concept » than in his previous book on EMANCIPATION AFTER HEGEL. However, McGowan clarifies, quoting Hegel, that the word universality « belongs to the concept as its own », p 220. The non-mention of the name “concept” is no proof of its absence.
Whereas the signifier bestraddles the type/token distinction, which is what allows it to function as an implicit concrete universal, the concept is traditionally more on the type side of the distinction and so more readily associated with the universal. The passage from signifier to concept can be seen as one path of philosophically bootstrapping oneself into access to the Absolute by increasing abstraction.
Note: I have discussed above the sense of « heuristic » as one non-obligatory path amongst many, and the defects of the terminology of « access ».
This « bootstrapping » via the concept comes close to granting too much autonomy to the concept as such. While I have no absolute objection to such depictions, in a discussion whose focus is on an epistemological heuristics it may be useful to emphasise that the logical and ontological impetus behind such « bootstrapping » is negativity.
ON (FAILED) DIALOGUE
In this chapter I am in the process of re-reading Zizek’s SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE and I find it a very interesting and inspiring work. It contains a very useful and systematic elaboration of Zizek’s main ontological and epistemological theses. In particular, the book contains a thorough working out of Zizek’s thesis that the (epistemological) absence of foundations for our knowledge is redoubled by the (ontological) absence of foundations in and for being.
According to Zizek, it is the absence of foundations that is foundation enough.
I read the book as presenting a metaphysical research programme in the technical sense of Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, i.e. as presenting a very general vision of the world containing both testable and untestable elements (Popper) structured around a heuristic core (Lakatos).
Zizek’s metaphysical research programme is in explicit dialogue with other metaphysical research programmes, in particular with those of Gilles Deleuze and of Alain Badiou, and with the various new materialisms and speculative realisms.
I would also include the thought of François Laruelle, Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, and Bernard Stiegler as important components of the current problem-situation. A neglected predecessor is Jean-François Lyotard, especially in his epistemological and ontological reworking of the death-drive.
Zizek is in dialogue with these thinkers, and with many more from philosophy’s history. “Dialogue” is a grand word. In Zizek’s terms all dialogue is failed dialogue. He also explains there can be no complete epistemological or ontological closure, so dialogue is always possible.
We can see this thesis of the necessary failure of dialogue exhibited both in Zizek’s often flawed accounts of other thinkers and conversely in the many flawed or travestied readings of Zizek’s books. Unsurprisingly on this account Zizek, whose thought is in constant dialogue with itself, also misunderstands himself.
Zizek’s self-thwarting dialogue with his own thought is a great part of the dialectical force driving his research programme forward. No doubt he also self-plagiarises, we all do that, the name of this operation is ego. However, it is self-failing that is the primary dynamic of his constant progress.
We should be aware of this fraught, fractured, wounded, incomplete, and improbable self-dialogue, and of our own, as we plunge into this eccentric, cranky, wrong-headed, unlikely, i.e. philosophical, book.