Adrian Johnston’s new book A NEW GERMAN IDEALISM Hegel, Zizek, and Dialectical Materialism is a sustained reading, and immanent critique, of Slavoj Zizek’s speculative materialism as articulated in two of his most recent books: LESS THAN NOTHING and ABSOLUTE RECOIL.
Johnston wishes to make a contribution to the edification of an ontology adequate to the practical stakes and theoretical problematics of the twenty-first century. In particular he wants to criticise and to improve from within the “ontologically ambitious philosophical framework” of Zizek’s Hegelian speculative materialist ontology.
Johnston intends to follow the dialectical method outlined by Hegel, Zizek, and himself so he begins with the convergences (Hegel, materialism, dialectics) not to indicate a will to consensus, but to lay out a shared field of immanence where divergence, disparities, and dissensus can be embraced. The negativity inherent to critique is not seen as destructive, reductionist, or transgressive, but as constructive, emergentist, and transformative.
In the Preface Johnston elucidates the method that he will be following, after Zizek, after Hegel. This “method” diverges from the standard understanding of Hegel’s dialectics, and so it obliges us to read Hegel a little more closely.
It emerges from this closer reading that the standard opposition between understanding (Verstand) and reason (Vernunft) thought to hold in Hegel’s dialectics is itself a dialectical illusion. According to Johnston reason is not a faculty of synthesis and totality as opposed to the analytic fragmentation of the understanding, but the re-visioning of that disunified field.
This re-visioning of the dispersive field revealed by analytical understanding is carried out in terms of such concepts as inconsistency, incompleteness, disparity, negativity and multiplicity taken as positive values in a heuristics of immanence. The “synthesis” is not a separate moment, it lies in a transformed (but selective) relation to the dispersion.
Such a re-visioned Hegel is no longer the proponent of a necessitarian historicism but the thinker of materiality, facticity, and irreducible contingency.
Elaborating an ontological research programme whose fundamental heuristic premise is the incomplete and un-synthesisable real means inscribing openness into the framework of Being itself. We shall see Johnston deploying the concepts of an incomplete, weak, or “rotten” nature and grappling with the best theorisation of indetermination, emergence and freedom in an open universe.
It is an important achievement that Johnston begins his book with such an extensive and illuminating methodological preface. Despite his obsessive repetition of master signifiers (Hegel, Lacan, Zizek, dialectical materialism) he is able to articulate that methodology at a high enough level of abstraction that he can begin to productively question seemingly central aspects of Zizek’s thought (such as the primacy of quantum physics in accounting for subjectivity, emergence and freedom).
A second advantage of his giving us his positive methodology at the beginning is that we can assess Johnston’s own fidelity in implementing it, evaluating immanently not only his criticisms of Zizek and his positive suggestions, but also his particular, contingent theoretical commitments.