[Paleopsych] TLS: News from Elsewhere

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News from Elsewhere
Vincent Deary
TLS, 4.7.16

[Can you explain this to someone with a mathematics and economics 
background? It seems that Zizek is saying that the web of causation is not 
tight. But I can't think of any logical reason why causal chains cannot 
begin at any time. Pan-causal determinists seem to think that, just 
because every effect has a cause, every event must also have a cause. But 
just what Zizek is driving at, I can't figure out. Help!]

CONVERSATIONS WITH ZIZEK. Slavoj Zizek and Glyn Daly. 171pp.
Polity. Paperback, £16.99. - 0 7456 2897 4.

Is it possible to be a materialist and not be a determinist?
Books like Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1992), and Daniel
Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) have worked hard to dispel
the popular belief in "the magic of our own causal agency" (Wegner). Our
idea of freedom is, to paraphrase Spinoza, based on our ignorance of the
workings of the machinery that is us. This machinery works largely
automatically. Consciousness, if involved at all is - pace the work of the
neuroscientist Benjamin Libet half a second behind the game, but, like a
senile monarch in a democracy, mistakes its nods of assent for real
agency. This is not the only camp besieging consciousness.

     Dennett has noted that he and the deconstructionists have
arrived at similar conclusions - those of the self as a fiction spun from
a web of discourse, a centre of narrative gravity. The increasingly
numerous followers of Gilles Deleuze are there too, dismembering the self
into a shifting confluence of impersonal affects, concepts and percepts.

     What unites the Deleuzians and the scientists in particular is
that they will admit to no rupture in the great chain of being through
which freedom can enter. The world is a closed system and subjectivity
must be constructed from the materials to hand. It is precisely here that
Slavoj Zizek disagrees. While insisting throughout his work on the
materialism of his position, his assertion is that "the material" is
fissured, inconsistent, and that this gap in substance is subjectivity
itself. Arguing that the materialist notion of a mind observing an
external reality contains the covert idealism of the world existing
outside our minds, he insists, against this, "that our mind does not exist
outside the world".

Implicit here is that any ontology must account for the place
of its enunciation, that "contingent humanity is at the same time the only
site of disclosure of the Absolute itself". Zizek, then, attempts a kind
of transcendental materialism, where subjectivity is factored in rather
than explained away. His work is informed by, and often evokes, a basic
wonder at subjectivity, that "an accident as such, detached from what
circumscribes it, what is bound and actual only in its context with others
should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom - this is the
tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure
'I'". The quote, a favourite of the early Zizek, is from Hegel's
Phenomenology of Spirit, and it lies at the heart of Zizek's project:
"Absolute self relating negativity . . . this is at the very center of
what I am doing generally". Under the intelligent guidance of Glyn Daly,
in Conversations with Zizek we follow this heart of darkness through its
three incarnations in Zizek's thought, first as Subject, then as Real and
finally as Act.

Kant argued, and the cognitive scientists would agree, that
reality is posited, achieves its phenomenal coherence through the
world-building activity of the observational machinery.

However, using Zizek's "The Abyss of Freedom", to paraphrase
his argument here, "it is not possible to pass directly from the purely
'animal soul' immersed in its natural life-world to 'normal subjectivity'
dwelling in its symbolic universe - the vanishing mediator between the two
is the 'mad' gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the
space for its symbolic (re)constitution".

This "mad gesture" appears in numerous guises in his work -
the Hegelian Night of the World, Schelling's Night of the Self, the Abyss
of Freedom, and, here, as Freud's Death Drive. What all these homonyms
attest to is a fundamental negativity, a moment between the noumenal and
the phenomenal where the former must be utterly destroyed to be reformed
as the latter. This moment can never appear in the phenomenal. As Kant
noted, "the thing which thinks . . . is known only through its
predicates". Indeed, it is absolutely essential that the means of
production of meaning remain, in Zizek's terms, foreclosed for reality to
have its coherence. It is only when it begins to "peep through", in
moments of madness, that we even notice it at work at all.

This, for want of a better word, trope of a foreclosure as the
founding gesture of a closed system of meaning is in many ways the central
Zizekian notion. It provides the key to understanding his reworking of the
Lacanian notion of the Real. The Real, at first glance, is to reality as
the noumenal is to the phenomenal: the "raw stuff" prior to perception. As
Kant acknowledged, any representation is always partial, the totality of
reality can never be given to a finite being. This partiality led Kant to
formulate the notion of the Ding an sich, the idea that there must be an
excess of this partial process. Zizek, going via Hegel and then Lacan,
reverses the contingency of this relationship. The Real is nothing but
this lack/excess of the process of symbolization given positive form,
ontologized; the Thing is "retroactively produced by the very process of
symbolization . . . it emerges in the very gesture of its loss"

(from Zizek's Tarrying with the Negative).

This is not to say that there is nothing beyond the
phenomenal, only that any notion of it can never be anything other than,
in Hegel's terms, Notion becoming aware of its own inconsistency. This is
the second key Zizek trope: that the foreclosed of any system is nothing
but the inherent inconsistency of the system (mis)perceived as external

Implicit here, then, is the paradox that the Real is both the
cause and the effect of the process of subjectivity/meaning formation.
Zizek is in no hurry to dispel this apparent contradiction, but he does
here further specify his position by deploying the three Lacanian
categories - the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real - with regard to the
Real itself. The Symbolic Real is the territory of science, the
meaningless algorithms of matter.

The Real Real is the "impossible", "unsymbolisable",
"traumatic", etc, which nevertheless instigates the process of
symbolization (cf trope one). The Imaginary Real is the most complex
formation. Partly it is whatever we imagine to lie behind the veil of
appearance, the glimmers of the Eternal we believe we occasionally intuit.
It is also what any ideology or meaning system has to foreclose or posit
as an obstacle to function (cf trope two) - the founding violence of the
rule of Law; the figure of the Jew in Nazi ideology. Consequently, he
argues, by changing the coordinates of our symbolic universe(s) we can
change the Real.

This brings us to his ethics, and specifically to his notion
of the Act. As with Kant's, Zizek's ethics are founded on the notion of
the subject's absolute freedom. And here we return to our starting point.
In a closed, deterministic universe, freedom is an illusion or a miracle -
news from elsewhere. However, Zizek's wager is that through the loophole
in substance that is subjectivity, an Act can emerge that is literally
unconditioned, not determined by the prevailing symbolic order or by its
antecedents. By not being of it, the Act thus changes the symbolic order
within which it occurs, without, however, appearing to break the chain of

This latter point is crucial and is for Zizek what separates
his notion of the Act from Alain Badiou's similar notion of the Event.

The Act "papers over" the gap of its occurrence by virtue of
key Zizek trope number three - by positing its own presuppositions.

The Act and the Event, as Zizek acknowledges, are more or less
synonymous with trauma, and trauma works retroactively. This point was
brutally illustrated in Gaspar Noe's recent film, Irreversible, which
reverses narrative chronology and presents the events leading up to the
trauma after it has happened. Innocent and contingent remarks which,
without the Act, would have been forgotten, now stand transfigured in the
light of hindsight as ghastly precursors of an inevitable fate.

Lacan describes a similar structure under the category of
Truth: "the effect of a full Word is to re-order the past contingent
events by conferring on them the sense of necessities yet to come".

This, then, is the logic of positing presuppositions, how
freedom balances the causal books. "We philosophers are madmen: we have a
certain insight that we affirm again and again", notes Zizek here. Quite
so. The Subject, the Real, and the Act are essentially identical - an
"unbearable" excess which instigates/disrupts a reasonable order, all
performing the three-trope dance, all versions of trauma. His vision is a
compelling and, as befits this heir to German idealism, a romantic one.
Human freedom and dignity are snatched from the teeth of materialist
reductions, the virtues of courage and fidelity are asserted in the face
of awful contingency. However, at the heart of this "materialist" system
lies something profoundly odd: an indescribable nothing that is
simultaneously the subject's "real core" and the ineffable beyond of the
phenomenal world; a nothing that can never be described, only evoked by
its predicates; the immaterial font of freedom. Readers of recent
philosophy may be puzzled by this, readers of Judaeo-Christian mystical
theology will not. Slavoj Zizek has put the Soul back into philosophy.


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