Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
Verso, London and New York, 2012. 1056 pp., £50 / $69.95 hb
Reviewed by Tom Eyers
Tom Eyers is a post-doctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His first book, Lacan and the Concept of the Real, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan
It almost seems too obvious to note how Slavoj Žižek’s hyper-obsessive productivity mirrors the relentless, unfettered expansion of capital that his more political work serves tirelessly to critique. In recent years, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist has expressed increasing frustration with those who expect him to offer bite-sized political critique on cue, although his forthcoming publications, including yet another short book addressing capitalism, ideology and, this time, the ‘Arab Spring’, hardly suggest he is acting on his dissatisfaction. Accompanying those pronouncements of discomfort have been tantalizing hints of a magnum opus in the works, one that would definitively cement his reputation as a serious European philosopher; or at least the latest magnum opus promised to do so, after 2006’s The Parallax View, and 1999’s The Ticklish Subject.
This book, so the rumours went, was to offer a sustained and serious reading of Hegel, Žižek’s professed philosophical first love, without the leavening jokes and pinball cultural commentary. That Less Than Nothing, the book meant to fulfill these unlikely expectations, maintains a significant distance from such self-serious scholarship is something of a relief. There would be something awkward and stultifying about a Žižek book that stays resolutely ‘on point’, and the demands for such work from a man who frequently (and effectively) drops obscene jokes into his lectures say rather less about the shortcomings of his work, present though they no doubt are, and more about the multiple frustrations of those writing within the European philosophical tradition at a time when its abstractions, long monographs and concentrated seriousness of intent has less and less institutional support.
That’s not to say that this new book is simply a repetition of the philosophical bricolage that one could be forgiven to now expect from Žižek. Running to over 1,000 pages, Less Than Nothing contains some of the Slovenian thinker’s most reflective and textually-rooted writing on Hegel, although some of the most suggestive work addresses other names in the Western canon, including Plato, Fichte and Heidegger. Hegel is the ostensible subject of only around a third of the book’s chapters, with other large sections devoted, again only in principle, to the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and to the philosophical implications of quantum physics. (The inclusion of a chapter on the latter at the conclusion of the present book mirrors exactly the structure of The Parallax View, Žižek’s last weighty volume of philosophy). Lacan has always been the only serious rival to Hegel in Žižek’s affections, and much of what he writes on the great psychoanalyst here is little different to that already published in numerous previous books. Moreover, Žižek makes little attempt to argue in any conventionally linear way for his frequently heterodox readings of Hegel and Lacan; the philosophical consequences deduced from both thinkers, who couldn’t be more different in approach, tone and content, are often strikingly similar, with both marshaled to construct a non-teleological, eccentrically materialist philosophy of what Lacan called the ‘not-all’, the constitutive gap or lack located in the very texture of being. But again, to hold Žižek to account for ‘misreading’ Lacan as an Hegelian – Lacan being the most anti-dialectical, anti-Hegelian of all the French maître pensers – is to rather miss the point; what the Hegel-Lacan conjunction offers Žižek is a kind of philosophical machine, a tool from which to craft brief snaps of dialectical insight that may fade from memory on the turn of the page, but whose efflorescence makes the scholarly shortcuts taken to achieve them seem irrelevant. Indeed, to underline those shortcuts in the light of Žižek’s fizzing perorations almost seems pedantic, even stern and ungenerous.
Despite the book’s length, it is possible to list the repeated turns of Žižek’s philosophical machine without spilling too much ink. That it is possible to do so says much about his method, and the form that his texts tend to embody. Rather than beginning from a premise in order to let its logical consequences unfold over time, Žižek tends to approach and retreat from certain nodal points or zones of attraction, such that his books accrete gradually into collage, or into asymmetric quilts that loop back on themselves at key moments. It is unlikely that the echo of this structure with the psychic architecture of obsessional neurosis is coincidental. Obsessional neurosis as Lacan understood it is defined by repetition, by the protective distancing of the subject from the Other through the production of insistent symptoms or tics. To note this isn’t to vulgarly ‘diagnose’ Žižek, but rather to register the extremes of reflexivity, even performativity, that his texts stage. Žižek is one of the best informed of contemporary, non-clinical writers on psychoanalysis, and only a naïf would assume that his modeling of the obsessional ur-text, over and over again, is anything but intentional. But more than this, the performative brio of his writing follows a (distinctly red) thread back to his formation in Communist Yugoslavia, where the development of a non-capitalist opposition to the nominally ‘socialist’ state required the ability to hold together the demands of parodical misdirection and high-theoretical seriousness, without the gauche assumption that the one would cancel out the other.
Read within that frame, Žižek’s latest is of a familiar type, albeit one that buckles, by virtue of its very length, against its already complex rhetorical structure. The book is unedited in the best sense, in that its contradictions have enough space to breath, and its longueurs are sufficiently enveloped by their surrounding thickets of text to seem temporary. It’s not a book to be read cover to cover; to do so would be to fall into a category mistake, to assume that its end is anything but a refracted version of its beginning.
In numerous places in Less Than Nothing, Žižek finesses his central philosophical obsession, what Adrian Johnston has aptly called a ‘transcendental materialist theory of subjectivity’. At the core of this position is the rejection of an apparently false choice: either Hegel and the absolute idealism that comes with this, psychotically absent from the material density of things, or a rejection of the latter in favour of, variously, a version of the ‘linguistic turn’, or a reversion to scientific naturalism, whereby matter is all. Far from matter being ‘all’, for Žižek a truly materialist philosophy must insist on matter being ‘non-all’, on it being formatively riddled with gaps, through which the transcendental freedom of the subject might be glimpsed. Addressing the problem through the lens of Kant’s critical turn, Žižek writes: “of course there are things – processes out there not yet known or discovered by us, there is what naïve realism designates as `objective reality’, but it is wrong to designate it as noumenal – this designation is all too “subjective”.” (283) That final clause is characteristic Žižek, italics and all, dialectically rerouting one’s expectation – that the concept of noumena is overly ‘objective’, too abstract to yield possible knowledge – to the counter-intuitive revelation that, to the contrary, Kant remains beholden to the subject, to what Žižek calls “the in-itself as it appears to us, embedded in phenomenal reality”. (283). The problem, in short, is the Kantian supposition that appearances or ‘phenomena’ are of a different kind to reality in-itself, whereas for Žižek after Hegel, “we should never forget that what we know (as phenomena) is not separated from things-in-themselves by a dividing line, but is constitutive of them: phenomena do not form a special ontological domain, they are simply part of reality”. (283).
Such an argument would fail the test of most philosophers associated with Anglophone analytic philosophy; after all, if phenomenal appearances are ‘constitutive’ of things-in-themselves, how far are we from the standard anti-realist claim that reality is a construct of our perceptions? That Žižek does not hold to such a position has not prevented him from being criticized by young thinkers in the ‘Continental’ philosophical camp, grouped around a new commitment to various kinds of realism. It is Žižek’s response to these increasingly influential authors, of whom Quentin Meillassoux is the most consequential, that marks one of the genuinely new contributions of Less Than Nothing. Meillassoux has sought to inveigle a way out of what he calls ‘correlationism’ – the Kantian argument that the limited correlation between thought and phenomenal appearances marks the limit of possible philosophical knowledge – by radicalizing it from within. Meillassoux makes use of mathematical set theory in doing so, and his closeness to Alain Badiou makes Žižek an obvious interlocutor.
The new realisms are addressed in one of a number of ‘interludes’ that punctuate Less Than Nothing. Žižek addresses the core of Meillassoux’s realism, which consists in the argument that the only necessity is contingency itself. Everything that exists could have been otherwise. But the upshot of such a position is not Humean skepticism or relativism but, as Žižek notes, “the assertion of the cognitive accessibility of reality-in-itself, the way it is independently of human existence”. (629) For Meillassoux, the shibboleth of causal necessity has blocked philosophy’s capacity to think the real. If one accepts the argument that there simply is no causal necessity at all, then reality becomes rather more approachable, in all its mutability, provided that one retains the classical distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of a thing, and that one posits post-Cantorian mathematics as a privileged instrument for thinking the primary qualities of the contingent thing-in-itself. If reality is simply the potential that it may always be other then, as Žižek writes, “[t]he absolute is the possible transition, devoid of reason, of my state towards any other state whatsoever”. (633)
Ingeniously, Žižek poses his critique of Meillassoux’s realism within the terms of Lacan’s ‘formulae of sexuation’. Meillassoux, Žižek charges, relies on the masculine logic of the constitutive exception, whereby the totality of all that is contingent is grounded by its exception, the necessity of contingency itself. For Žižek by contrast, contingency is – that Lacanian term again - “not-All”; “Not-All is necessary, which means that, from time to time, a contingent encounter occurs which undermines the predominant necessity […] so that in it, the `impossible’ happens.”. (636) Finally, “it is out of contingency that, contingently, necessities arise”. (636) It is not hard for a reader familiar with the terms of contemporary French philosophy to notice the source of this logic, for it reproduces exactly Alain Badiou’s account of the political Event that emerges out of the multiplicity of a situation as its fleeting but necessary exception. That Žižek would slide so quickly from metaphysical argument to the radical ontological politics of Badiou, without acknowledging the shift, is one of the symptoms of Žižek’s rhetorical style, and its refusal to stay within the lines prescribed by academic convention – both for better and for worse. At the negative end of the balance sheet, one sometimes gets the sense that Žižek is just too impatient to follow his opponents’ arguments to their logical conclusions. On the positive side, the frequent interposition of asides and ephemera can serve to inspire connections that the reader will almost certainly not have anticipated, allowing for the momentary illusion that we may, too, be capable of the furious synaptic intensity that seems to underpin Žižek’s quick, lateral argumentative moves.
Politics is less of a feature in Less Than Nothing than in many of his other lengthy works. Nonetheless, there are some stimulating comments on Marx in his relation to Hegel and, as in much of the book, Žižek tends to derive his own insights from close readings of other contemporary philosophers with similar agendas, in this case Fredric Jameson. Jameson’s slim volume on Hegel The Hegel Variations, published in 2010, enables Žižek to approach Marx’s criticisms of the ahistoricity of German idealism with a view to criticizing Marx’s own “utopian-ideological notion of communism” (257), a vision that Žižek reads as overly beholden to notions of full productivity and expansion that are ultimately the mere index of capitalism’s historical situation. Instead, contemporary theory must “repeat the Marxist ‘critique of political economy’” while finding ways to “imagine really breaking out of the capitalist horizon without falling into the trap of returning to the eminently premodern notion of a balanced, (self-) restrained society” (257), the latter being the obverse of Marx’s error in valorizing modern, technological productivity.
Žižek devotes a successful chapter to Badiou’s Logics of Worlds (2006), where the latter’s attempt to derive the logic of appearances from an ontology of mathematical ‘inconsistent multiplicity’ comes in for scrutiny. Returning once again to the problematic of contingency and necessity, Žižek charges Badiou with being overly faithful to his vaunted mathematical formalism, which fails to account for the contingency required to pass “to ontology proper”. (807) Such an ontology would require “a minimum of contingency able to disrupt or surprise the necessity involved in generating formulae from axioms”. (807) Such a contingency, one infers, is to be gained through the radicalization of Hegel that repeats throughout Less Than Nothing, whereby the latter’s notorious ‘Absolute knowledge’ is taken not as the culmination of all possible shapes of consciousness, but as the formal recognition of ontological incompletion, the instability inscribed in the very texture of reality itself.
But if Žižek charges Badiou with failing to account properly for the link between abstraction and its actualization, a similar charge can and has been leveled at Žižek himself. How, for instance, are we to square the ontology of transcendental incompletion, a kind of minimal ontological persistence that exists beyond all possible subtraction – ‘less than nothing’ – with the concrete positive demands for Marxist revolution that also reoccur at several points? Žižek is admirably insistent on the need to theorize not only the radical break with capitalism that would necessarily precipitate meaningful change, but also the kinds of popular authority and organization that would allow such a break to be sustained.
I wonder, however, whether the commitment to the dialectical double-take that undergirds Žižek’s broader philosophical architecture and his more specific political engagements prevents him from foreseeing other, precisely non-dialectical possibilities for thought. The dialectical logic here, whereby a seemingly oppositional hypothesis is shown to be more complicit in that which it opposes than the thing opposed in the first place, ultimately restricts Žižek’s analysis to the terms of the original proposition, its antagonist, and the putative ‘third way’ that issues from their dialectical mediation. Even if, in his version of Hegel, the recuperation of negation is frequently suspended, in a manner not dissimilar to Adorno’s ‘negative dialectics’, an account of singularity, of that which falls radically outside the perspectival shifts of dialectical ontology, is lacking. Ironically, there are many such concepts to be found in the work of one of Žižek’s most important influences, Jacques Lacan, whose formulation of the ‘object-cause’ of desire, to take just one example, resists both a hypostatization of lack or negativity and the weightless positivity of Deleuzian virtualism. For all that, there is more than enough in Less Than Nothing to signal the continued vitality of Žižek’s Hegel-Lacan machine and, if nothing else, the book offers the most comprehensive synthesis to date of Žižek’s myriad obsessions.
29 July 2012