Monday, December 7, 2015

Slavoj Žižek’s Vanishing Contradictions

Slavoj Žižek repeatedly gestures to a medley of differences, ‘absence’, ‘gaps’, ‘splits’, ‘otherness’, ‘parrallax’, and ‘decentring’ as various instances of “irreducible contradictions” that pervade cognition. (cf. Less than Nothing 2012, 77) He detects the negativity of difference and contradiction already in Descartes’ epistemological turn to the possibility of subjective knowledge; finds it foreshadowed in Kant’s sublime dualism between the phenomenal and noumenal realms (1989 261-2); but finds its most revealing expression in Hegel’s famous ‘night of the world’ passage in the Jenaer Realphilosophie (1805-6):

“The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity – an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him – or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears.”  (Quoted in The Parallax View 2009, 42)

Žižek connects this night of empty nothingness that contains all the world’s representations with Schelling’s “pure night of the Self”, from whence free human subjectivity may emerge unfettered by objective constraints. (Rex Butler 2014, 107-108) But following Hegel’s radicalization of Kant’s antinomies, Žižek also makes contradictions into ‘real contradictions’ that are inherent in the things themselves. He thus seems to suggest every ‘real’ object of cognition is contradictory. Yet classical logic abhors a contradiction: according to the principle of explosion, any consequence may follow from a contradiction; and if every thought were contradictory, then it would seem that every statement could be true, and no statement could be false. Then no statement – however ludicrous – could be falsified; all distinctions between truth and falsity would collapse; and everything must be admitted. This is no mere tangential remark, but the decisive point upon which appraisals of Žižek have turned. Last week, I posed this question to Žižek during the third lecture of the Hegel Battles lecture series, which was hosted by the Birbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.

Ryan Haecker: Yesterday you described the “ABCs of Hegel’s dialectic” as the objectivity of contradictions in the things themselves that result in the gaps of irreducible contradictions inherent in the normative self-adequation of concepts. As I am sure you know, in classical logic any unresolved contradiction results in a trivial inference because, since any consequence may follow from a contradiction, no single determinate consequence may be inferred from irreducible contradictions. Yet you clearly wish to infer some determinate third position Hegel interpretation and politics, partly by eternally presupposing the virtual and vanishing mediation of the ‘Christian moment’. To avoid triviality, should you not more radically also affirm that the gaps of every contradiction should be resolved in and through the absolute paradox of the Trinity, which, as Hegel suggest, opens gaps and resolves contradictions within itself.  
Slavoj Žižek: First, I know what Hegel claims, this opening gaps and resolving contradictions and so on, but here, as you know, one has to be better than me very precise. Could you just repeat that point, maybe I didn’t get it, about that triviality?  
Ryan Haecker: Yes, so the Principle of Explosion, of Psuedo-Scotus, says that if there is ever a contradiction in an inference then any consequence may follow from it.  
Slavoj Žižek: Ah, you mean this one. I thought so. No, I would say, here I don’t have time to go into it, but you know for, again, for Hegel, what he calls contradiction is not just a general statement, in the sense of, you know, you can say anything: this is white and black; this is white and cold. No, contradiction in Hegel, I claim, means something very precisely that occurs at the singular moment of a system, or whatever. Let’s call it a symptomal point. So that it is not that you can say everything about it. It’s a very precise intervention… 
I am well aware that one way to redeem Hegel, by some analytic philosophers and others, close to common sense, is to try to do other subtle distinctions, claiming that what Hegel means by contradiction is not, in this naïve sense, radical contradiction that you can claim whatever you want about opposite things. They try to save Hegel in this way claiming that in a deeper sense Hegel nonetheless respects the Aristotelian A = A, and so on… 
You see what I mean, this is a very specific reversal that I call contradiction, when a thing, by pursuing a thing, up to its end, its logic, it turns into its opposite… You don’t end up in any kind of trivial state where you can say anything. Again, its a very specific point in the system.

[Click here to listen to an audio recording of question and answer:]

Žižek responded to the challenge of triviality by restricting contradictions to the “singular moment” of a “symptomal point” within a system: he seems to deny that contradiction applies to propositions, in which “you can claim whatever you want about opposite things”; as well as to terms, in a way that “respects the Aristotelian A = A”; but, rather, affirms that contradiction only applies to “this very specific reversal” of the psyche, in which “by pursuing a thing, up to its end, its logic, it turns into its opposite.” His intermittent elaboration of this ‘symptomal point’ in the single-minded pursuit of pleasure by the Marquis de Sade, illustrates its specific location in the inmost depths of the psyche. This location of contradictory symptoms in the psyche is one of Žižek’s oldest positions, which he had already charted in his first English language book, the Sublime Object of Ideology. (1989, 69-72) Since contradiction is an essential moment in the movement of dialectic, this restrictive localization of contradiction suggests that Žižek intends to re-conceive dialectic as a psychological activity. In Absolute Recoil (2014), Žižek has distinguished his own unique version of ‘materialist dialectics’ from the ‘dialectical materialism’ of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Where dialectical materialism had prioritized a reflexive determination within matter, Žižek prioritizes determinate reflection within the void within the decentred unconsciousness. He writes:

“Dialectics which is not yet speculative is the vibrant domain of the tremor of reflection and reflexive reversals, the mad dance of negativity in which “all that is solid melts into air”—this is dialectics as eternal warfare, as a movement which ultimately destroys everything it gives birth to. In Marxist terms, we are dealing here with materialist dialectics and not dialectical materialism; in Hegelian terms, with determinate reflection and not reflexive determination; in Lacanian terms, with “there is no relationship” and not “there is a non-relationship.” (Introduction, Against the Deflated Hegel)

Dialectics has, since the days of Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates, slumbered in the subterranean depths of logic. Plato’s dialectic had combined Pythagorean logic (i.e. the limited and unlimited of Philolaus) with Eleatic ontology (i.e. Parmenides’ paradoxes of being and non-being) to impose order upon the world by stamping the unlimited manifold of phenomena with the limited hypothetical paradigms, or Ideas, to form a genus and species taxonomy, which are mixed together as the basic formal ingredients for the construction of a speculative ontology. (cf. Philebus 16c) For nearly two millennia afterwards, dialectics was cast into disrepute as an undemonstrative method of reasoning between uncertain opinions. Kant’s antinomies awakened its tempestuous seas with the suggestion, unheard since the time of Nicholas of Cusa, that dialectical contradictions were an ineluctable negative moment of speculative reasoning. Hegel’s dialectic forthwith combined Fichte’s transcendental dialectic with Schelling’s identity-philosophy to distinguish, contradict, and resolve opposed theses into a higher and richer synthetic unity of opposites. Marx and Engels are said to have inverted Hegel’s ‘dialectical idealism’ into a ‘dialectical materialism’, in which contradictions are altogether inscribed in objective reality of material nature and material production. (cf. Illyenkov 1977)

Žižek’s materialist dialectics has inverted dialectical materialism by excavating the genealogy of matter from the pre-determined beings hanging from the eternal past. After his break with Hegel, Schelling increasingly turned towards the questions of being, evil, and freedom, which culminated in his last publication, the Freedom Essay (1809). But his herculean efforts to square the circle of divine freedom and rational necessity led him into a speculative impasse, littered with successive drafts of his never-completed magnum opus Ages of the World (1811-1814), from which Schelling would only afterwards emerge, at the behest of King Frederick William IV, to lecture at the University of Berlin in opposition to the pernicious growth of ‘Hegelian pantheism’. Žižek found in Schelling’s speculative impasse the prime exemplar of psychological contradiction, which he names the “Grundoperation des deutschen Idealismus, the fundamental, elementary operation of German Idealism.” (1996, 92) In the Indivisible Remainder, he describes how Schelling’s innovative conception of ‘spiritual corporeality’ of pre-determined beings “enables us to establish an unexpected link with Marx” because “there is no spirit without spirits-ghosts, no ‘pure’ spirituality without the obscene spectre of ‘spiritualizing matter’.” (1996, 4) In later Schelling, Žižek linked the transcendental turn of Kant and Fichte to the positivist turn of Comte and Feuerbach: once spirit is materialized in the philosophy of nature, matter may be spiritualized in natural philosophy. Schelling’s un-grounded pre-determined beings may thus become, in the hands of Marx and Engels, the self-subsisting matter of nature and production. (cf. Manfred Frank, 1992; Andrew Bowie,1993; Iain Hamilton Grant, 2006)

Žižek’s wildly original interpretation of Hegel is the product of his interpolation of this materialist re-reading of later Schelling into the conflict between Schelling and Hegel, which he exuberantly describes as the “knot at the junction at which ‘everything is decided’.” (1996, 5) In his Berlin Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1818), Hegel purported to dialectically sublate the identity-philosophy of early Schelling, but in his Erlangen lectures on the History of Modern Philosophy (1821), Schelling alternatively purported to dialectically sublate Hegel’s dialectical sublation of his identity-philosophy in a new positive philosophy. Žižek recasts this reciprocal dialectical sublation as “two ‘formal envelopes of error’” that may only be adequately re-examined through Jacques Lacan’s pyschoanalysis. (1996, 6) He argues that the reciprocal sublation of oppository poles results in a ‘vanishing mediation’ that “opens up the possibility of establishing a connection with Hegelian dialectics” by penetrating into the deep recesses of thought that have hitherto been “‘repressed’ by the formal envelope” of Hegel’s Logic. (1996 92, 99) Once the reciprocal sublation of Schelling and Hegel has been suspended by this ‘vanishing mediation’, then Žižek may psychologize every question of logic. Logic is forthwith reduced from the celestial heights of pure, invariant, and eternal truths, to sink into the fluctuating vagaries of inner sense. Žižek then proceeds to re-read Hegel entirely through the lens of his Lacanian interpretation of later Schelling. He writes: “we should not try simply to return to Hegel “the way he was,” but to read Hegel through Freud (as reconceptualised by Lacan).” (Absolute Recoil, The Disparity)

This Lacanian reading of Hegel casts the radically decentred subject into a phenomenal void where all concepts - even that of the subject itself - suffer from inner and irreducible contradictions. No concept is adequate to itself because each is inwardly divided by what Kant had called an ‘infinite judgment’, in which “the opposition of the two concepts and indicates that the one concept does not belong to the other.” (Vienna Logic, 930; trans., 370) The infinite judgment that inwardly differentiates, divides, and excludes every concept produces a ‘gap-ontology’, in which the totality of being is cratered with holes, like Swiss-cheese, with no a priori guarantee of any ‘third-thing’ over, above, and between differentiated beings. Once this “illusory synthesis” is rejected, Žižek reduces Hegelian dialectic, in which contradictions are resolved into concepts, into a Lacanian-Schellingian contrary opposition of pivoting poles. This reduction of contradiction to contrariness has two disappointing consequences for any formulation of dialectical logic: first, insofar as Žižek’s contrary opposites are not contradictory, there can be no dialectical explosion to annul the opposites and motivate the dynamic toward their mutual synthesis; and, second, insofar as there is no explosive dynamic to motivate the dialectic forward, there can be no principled way to resolve the contrary oppositions. For these reasons, both remain insufficiently motivated and unresolved. Since it can neither annul fixed contraries nor resolve contradictions, Žižek’s ‘materialist dialectic’ can never satisfy the basic requirement that logic should generate novel conclusions from premises that are already known.

Žižek wishes, by this double-Schellingian manoeuvre, to triply sublate the free floating matter of Marx and Engels; the idealism of Hegel; and, ultimately, the tradition of Christian theology that he believes has been kenotically abolished in the death of Christ on the cross, in a new materialist dialectic of which he is the arch-dialectician and preeminent propagandist. This double-Schellingian manoeuvre may, however, ironically expose Žižek to a further theological critique because the unconscious site upon which his Lacanian contraries pivot has already been identified with the eternal past of Schelling’s philosophy of revelation. The eternal past is the infinitely preceding conditionality of all conditioned concepts from which every thought and being is suspended. Schelling identifies it with the eternal unconditionable revelation of God, but Žižek re-identifies it with the Lacanian unconsciousness. Since, however, there is no synthetic ‘third-thing’ between divine revelation and human unconsciousness, Žižek has inadvertently abandoned the only principles that might have allowed him to prioritize Lacan over Schelling, and the secular psyche over sacred revelation. The site of all contrary opposites, the unconsciousness, is thus ineluctably conjoined in opposition to its prime contrary, the super-consciousness of God. To circumvent this theological riposte, Žižek insists upon the need to ‘virtually presuppose’ a Christian recollection of the end at the beginning, which, he hopes, may be fully subsumed only after it has been surpassed. But to guarantee this recollection he also requires its ritually re-enacted and retrospective recapitulation in something like the Eucharist of the Catholic Mass, in which the Meno paradox of knowledge and the post festum paradox of systematicity are altogether is resolved in the in the sacrificial consumption of the incarnate Logos.

Žižek advocates a ‘third position’ Hegelianism that is neither the new ‘Right Hegelian’ British Idealism of Bradley, Green, and McTaggart, nor the new ‘Left Hegelian’ American pragmatic and non-metaphysical Pittsburg Hegelianism of Pippin, Pinkard, and Brandom, but some radically undetermined emergent possibility of class struggle through a spontaneous show of international solidarity (e.g. Occupy Wallstreet, Tahrir Square, etc.). Yet his reduction of dialectical contradiction to contrary opposition has neutered the determinateness of any such possibility. Since, moreover, the inner contrariness of all concepts must also apply to Žižek’s ‘heroically dogmatic’ master-concept of Marxist-Leninism, every serious note must be confounded by a laugh track, so that the maleficence of Stalinist brutality may morph into the canned applause of ‘ironic stalinism’. But once all distinctions between truth and falsity have collapsed and everything must be admitted, then he cannot plausibly exclude alternative Hegel interpretations, whether they be Robert Brandom’s more benign pragmatism or Giovanni Gentile’s more malign fascism. A more definite interpretation for a more radical Hegelian politics should demand that the impasses of fixed contraries should be dialectically annulled by the absolute contrariety of the Cross, upon which the highest of all concepts dies to restore the unity, identity, and integrity of all concepts. Such a radicalization of dialectics would substitute an atheist Christianity for Žižek’s Christian atheism, in which it is not the ‘virtual presupposition’ and ‘vanishing mediator’ of Christ that is dissolved into the void of the decentred subject, but rather this absolute negativity that is resolved into the blessed tragedy of the speculative Good Friday.