‘Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism’ reviewed by Bart Zantvoort


Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism

Verso, London and New York, 2014. 444pp., £20 / $29.95 hb
ISBN 9781781686829

Reviewed by Bart Zantvoort

About the reviewer

Bart Zantvoort recently completed his PhD on historical development and resistance to change in …

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Those looking for a new foundation for dialectical materialism in Žižek’s Absolute Recoil are likely to be disappointed. The book deals with politics only very cursorily, and the scattered references to the Marxist tradition, primarily to Lenin and Althusser, serve mainly as a backdrop for Žižek’s Hegelian-Lacanian metaphysics. For the most part, the book is a reprise of Less than Nothing, his 2012 magnum opus: a work of unrestrained metaphysical speculation, drawing on examples and arguments from literature, music, philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis and physics.

If the title of the book is misleading, so is its structure. It is divided into three parts of three chapters each, with two ‘interludes’: one on psychoanalysis and Schönberg, and one on the works of the film director Ernst Lubitsch. Ostensibly, the first part deals with the shift from Kantian transcendental philosophy to Hegel and post-Kantian materialism, the second part with Hegel, and the third part with various ways of trying to think beyond what Žižek calls ‘the Hegelian event’. However, it is almost impossible to make out a sustained or structured argument from one chapter to the next, and each chapter contains a bewildering barrage of jokes, quotes, cultural references and philosophical arguments which often seem to be of little relevance to the supposed topic at hand.

The chaotic structure aside, the book does contain many interesting analyses. It mainly serves to explain the major themes of Žižek’s thought, which should be familiar with people who have read his earlier works, by applying them to new (and some not so new) material. The best way to approach it, therefore, is to try to reconstruct Žižek’s main metaphysical claims and the way these are grounded in his Lacanian reading of Hegel. It will then be possible to make sense of the relatively scarce discussion of politics and dialectical materialism in Absolute Recoil in light of this metaphysics.

The overall message of Absolute Recoil, and Žižek’s philosophy more generally, is captured well by its last sentence: ‘The position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void.’ Reality, Žižek argues, is in itself inconsistent and antagonistic, never at peace with itself. For him the idea that there is a stable natural order, or a harmonious social-political body, or a transcendental or divine guarantor of the unity, stability and harmony of the universe is a phantasmatic construction which serves to obscure the fact of this fundamental inconsistency. This idea is further explained through discussions of Buddhism and Christianity, Freud and Lacan, Kant and Hegel, as well as quantum physics. It is useful to go into the example of quantum physics in a little more detail, because it serves to underline the highly metaphysical nature of Žižek’s writing, as well as its ambitious and no doubt for many highly questionable epistemological approach, with its eclectic borrowing from different fields.

For Žižek, it is not just that reality is now inconsistent, contradictory and unstable; rather, it was never stable in any way to begin with. He explains this specifically with reference to the Higgs field in quantum physics: paradoxically, on Žižek’s account, the pure vacuum without Higgs field requires more energy to sustain than the vacuum with the Higgs field ‘turned on’, even if the Higgs field has a certain energy density. This means that ‘nothing has to be sustained by an investment of energy, i.e., energetically, it costs something to maintain the nothing’ (393). The absolute minimum level of reality is not the One of God or pure being which is subsequently divided, nor nothing which is disturbed by the emergence of something, but less than nothing: it is necessary for something to happen, for something to be added before we get ‘nothing’ in the first place. This is why Žižek disagrees both with the Buddhist concept of nirvana and Freud’s notion of the death drive as a striving for a return to equilibrium: both see reality as contradictory, a state of exception, but only on the basis of a lost original harmony to which we seek to return.

It is against this background of a metaphysics of the inconsistency of reality that Žižek defines his decidedly unusual notion of materialism. Materialism, he argues, has to be understood not only in terms of the ‘priority of being over consciousness, in the traditional Marxist sense … but also the immanent materiality of the ideal order itself’ (55-6). He arrives at materialism through a kind of immanent inversion of idealism: as he quotes Frank Ruda, ‘the only way to be a true materialist today is to push idealism to its limit’ (31). This move from idealism to materialism can only be understood in terms of Žižek’s reading of Hegel. He develops his notion of materialism by denying the traditional reading of Hegel as the absolute idealist for whom all differences are reconciled, politically in the rational modern state, philosophically in absolute knowledge and metaphysically in the absolute idea. Against this understanding of idealism he defends a version of Hegel who he portrays as the most formidable thinker of the inconsistent, non-reconciled, non-All nature of reality, and it is this insight which he takes to be the founding axiom of dialectical materialism.

Žižek thus opposes dialectical materialism, which ‘incorporates the idealist legacy,’ to ‘vulgar democratic materialism’ under which he ranges everything from cognitivism and scientistic naturalism to Deleuzian ‘new materialisms’ (5, 72). The problem with all other materialist positions is, firstly, that they do not recognize the fundamental inconsistency of reality as Žižek describes it. This leads, on the one hand, to their attempting to provide a full, positivist account of nature (which, as Žižek points out, seems to lapse into a radical idealism in that it seeks to render nature completely transparent to reason (5)), and on the other hand to their ideological implication in projects seeking to extend rational control over nature and society. His second and main complaint against other current materialisms is that they fail to account for the ‘ideal’ aspects of reality, for the existence of subjectivity and ideas. The task for dialectical materialism, on Žižek’s account, is ‘to explain the rise of an eternal Idea out of the activity of people caught in a finite historical situation’ (72), and secondly to determine how reality should be structured ‘so that (something like) subjectivity can emerge in it’ (19).

Another major theme in Absolute Recoil is that of ‘retroactive positing’. In chapter 3 and elsewhere Žižek explains this point in a religious register. The Christian God should not be conceived of as a perfect being who subsequently creates the world; instead, the message of Christianity is that God is nothing but the fall into corrupt, material reality: ‘There is no God prior to His kenosis‘ (261). For Žižek, this expresses a fundamental feature of reality, correlative with the point made above about the ‘less than nothing’: reality as it appears to us is not the scattered trace of a transcendental origin, a thing in itself or a divine first cause. Instead, the notion of such an origin is itself posited retroactively, and is nothing outside of its effects. This is another lesson Žižek takes from Hegel, although with a strong Schellingian twist. As he puts it in Hegelian terms: ‘The paradox is thus that there is no Self that precedes the Spirit’s “self-alienation”: the very process of alienation generates the “Self” from which Spirit is alienated and to which it then returns’ (140).

The notion of retroactivity is applied to many different topics, including moral self-determination, Christianity, colonialism, politics, psychoanalysis, history and Hegelian metaphysics, to the point where it becomes difficult to accept that all these things can be meaningfully explained in the same way. The main point, however, is connected to what Žižek calls the inexistence of the ‘big Other’ (242-4, 346), which reiterates the idea that the existence and consistency of reality is not guaranteed by a transcendental or highest cause. Against traditional readings of Hegel, Žižek argues, Hegel’s true message is that we are not pawns in the hand of destiny, history, God or nature; rather, these are nothing except their contingent, messy, inconsistent appearance in particular humans, historical moments, or natural processes.

The interpretation of Hegel supporting these points is fascinating but highly unorthodox. Žižek has become the main proponent of an alternative reading of Hegel, together with others like Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda (who are both discussed at length in this book). This approach seeks to rehabilitate Hegel as a political and metaphysical thinker while rejecting the dominant ‘liberal’ Anglo-American scholarship, which tends to make Hegel ‘harmless’ by presenting him as a liberal-democratic political philosopher, a non-metaphysical category theorist or a neo-Aristotelian thinker of organic unity. While his reading of Hegel seems highly ambiguous – Žižek sometimes seems hard pressed to make up his mind about what Hegel can or ‘cannot think’ – this ambiguity is grounded in his methodology, rooted in psychoanalysis and a tradition of Hegel scholarship passing through Althusser, Adorno and Derrida, which seeks to think ‘with Hegel against Hegel’ (34). The basic idea here is that the core insights which Žižek develops can already be found in Hegel himself, but that Hegel failed to fully understand the radical nature of his own theoretical breakthrough. As a recurring Žižekian phrase has it, with regards to various topics, such as sexuality or capitalism, Hegel ‘falls short of his own standards’ (202, 262).

Although it is clear that the metaphysical arguments described here have political implications, these are not brought out in any detail in this book. Some of the metaphysical ideas are elaborated with political examples. One interesting point is Žižek’s discussion of historical development and revolutions. Quoting Rosa Luxemburg, he argues that revolutionary change has a peculiar temporal structure: there is never a ‘right’ moment for a revolution, because the possibility of realizing truly revolutionary social change depends on a series of ‘premature’ revolutions, which necessarily fail, but nonetheless are needed to prepare the ground for a later, more successful revolution (190-1). For Žižek this dynamic of change is connected to the notion of retroactivity in Hegel, which is here used to argue that the legitimacy of a particular act, institution or historical situation is not determined once and for all, but is changed retroactively by contingently erupting historical events. As examples he gives Ayn Rand, who supressed her communist origins in order to become vehemently anti-communist, and Trotsky, whose contribution to the revolutionary struggle was retroactively erased by Stalin (188-90). Interesting though these examples are, it is not clear whether the principle of retroactivity can be applied in all these cases. In some cases, it seems to function like an ontological principle, in other cases a moral, political or psychological one. Can Stalin’s suppression of Trotsky’s legacy really be compared to the way a revolution fundamentally alters the structure of the previously existing reality which gave rise to it?

Through his jokes, cultural references and intellectual eclecticism, Žižek offers a highly ambitious, original, stimulating and wide-ranging system of philosophy. In the case of Absolute Recoil, this goal would have benefited from a more structured and carefully considered presentation.

1 February 2015

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