Philosophy in Saturated Times

Frank Ruda’s For Badiou: Idealism Without Idealism probes the question that has driven a number of interventions into Badiou’s thought: what is the role of philosophy in non-evental or saturated times? Saturation is a state of atonality, a state in which the exception is not made actual. Saturation implies the end of a process or procedure of thought from the standpoint of its consequences.

As Sylvain Lazarus notes, the position of the worker under the sequence of revolutionary Leninism reached a point of saturation in the 1970’s. By the 1970’s, it had become clear that to experiment with the resources of Leninism, mainly the party form in revolutionary action, was equivalent to fishing in a pond with no fish. Lazarus argues that a period of saturation is one in which the primary prescriptive aspect to the mode is no longer effectual.

Every historical sequence ends with saturation, forcing a re-questioning of a given historical mode of politics (or art, science, music, etc.) from within this mode itself. Saturation indicates a new role for philosophy, one in which philosophy acts and intervenes to hold the place open for a new subject to come. How does one think the idea in the context of a saturated mode? Badiou’s idealism without idealism lies precisely here, in the wager that in saturated times we must develop the Idea of the Idea. Turning to Badiou’s critique of what he calls democratic materialism in Logics of Worlds, Ruda shows how it is Descartes who provides the basis by which we overthrow the false monism of democratic materialism.

Democratic materialism says yes to the proposition that there are only bodies and languages but it denies a fundamental dualism. It denies the exception by presenting a simultaneous yes and no to the Two – it is thus paraconsistent in its logic. The Cartesian dualism, on the other hand, relies on an exclusion, it relies on the void. A truly materialist thought is one that relies on the void and as such brings truth in the form of a three, not a falsely conflated Two. Materialist thought needs the three: one/multiple/void. There needs to be two ‘there is’s’ in order to arrive at materialism – you need to move through the first false materialism which has ossified into idealism in order to arrive at the materialist conception of the Idea.

To return to our example of philosophy in a saturated mode. What philosophy does is that it brings the Idea (in the case of leninism, the Idea of the party) to a position of idealism and then begins an operation of forcing on that Idea. Ruda argues that the idealist position is enveloped with a fundamental forgetting, whcih is why the task of philosophy is one of intervention into the Idea so as to disturb this forgetting, forcing the Idea towards a confrontation with conditions outside of philosophy proper.

Herein lies Badiou’s contribution to philosophy — by presenting four conditions in which philosophy can hold open new subjects of thought (art, love, politics and science) philosophy itself plays a very central role in saturated times. There are no philosophical subjects, Ruda correctly maintains, but there are philosophical acts that open a space of remembering and then repeating the Idea.

Philosophy is a creative invention of new problems, a decision that implies a new hierarchy. Philosophy does not think the there is, it does not think ontology, it rather thinks that which supplements being: the exception (121). Philosophy is an action without a subject, holding a space open for the subject to come.

The more dense part of Ruda’s text involves his reading of Badiou’s relation to Hegel. In a similar line to the two Two’s of Descartes and the exception being the third, he argues that Badiou abandons Hegel because Hegel presents a one world theory in which being appears according to one law. In essence, Hegel is not a thinker for saturated times. As Ruda states:

“Hegel is abandoned by Badiou because he is a proponent of a one world theory in which one being appears according to one law (of the negative) which is grounded in his denial, or rather masking of any form of (true, ontologically classical) decision and he thereby simply cannot account for multiplicity, true difference, history, and anything but repetition” (149).

Because Hegel is the thinker of the whole, of a constant return to the concept, he cannot think multiplicity and he cannot adequately think the rupture of the idealism of the idea (if you will). Ruda spends some time showing how the dispute between Badiou and Zizek goes back to Hegel, and specifically it goes back to how they both consider philosophy and its conditions.

For Zizek, the movement of philosophy is from the false yes or no of ideology to the yes or no of contradiction or antagonism and ultimately to the true affirmation of the death drive. Ruda asks whether Zizek’s system fall sway to a sublation of all forms of non-philosophical conditions into philosophy, i.e. in Zizek philosophy sutures (retroactive) ontology of the drive (77). The problem with this is that it relies on philosophy to condition itself. The in-itself is what becomes the determining basis for the other half–the less than nothing is the entire process of determination. So you have: first process of determination, first retroaction, splitting of the in-itself, second retroaction (79). Only in the second retroaction do we have drive. The first retroaction is a split, the second is a drive.

One can therefore say that for Zizek, nothing qua nothing is the same as being qua being for Badiou. From a Badiousian perspective, this amounts to the same thing. Is there a retroactive force, a real real, of the posited presupposition, and can it be depicted in terms of symbolic determinations or not? Positing presuppositions implies movements, the presuppositions themselves do not.

Zizek seems to suggest that there is movement independent from pure repetition and from absolute non-movement. While Zizek and Badiou both affirm a split in the beginning, a primacy of the Two, Zizek opens philosophy to non-philosophical practices in order to re-affirm philosophy, while Badiou opens non-philosophical practices to philosophy so as to hold open the space for the exception.

Elements of Islamophobia: The State, Class and Capital

I have a new essay up at Heathwood Press as part of their special series on Crisis Capitalism and Creeping Fascism – Bigotry, Racism, and the Rise of the Right in the Age of Neoliberal Barbarism. Please support Heathwood Press, an important new publisher working to revive the project of critical theory for today.

Here is the abstract:

Adorno and Horkheimer, in their famous “Elements of Anti-Semitism” essay, argued that anti-Semitism has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination in production and capitalist exploitation. Contemporary Islamophobia can be understood from the same functional perspective, despite many important differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This essay presents two Marxist theoretical models for thinking Islamophobia and racism, what I call the ‘failed revolutionary’ and the ‘projection of resentment’ models.

The Imminent Revolution Will Favor What Capital Does Not: Interview with Frank Smecker

The world seems to be burning all around us as we watch unthinkable tragedies and hopeful insurrections unfurl from our laptops and television screens. We wonder when the crisis will let up, when we will we have a real summer again?

But we manage to get our summer reading in, and this summer, I had the pleasure of reading philosopher Frank Smecker’s new book, Night of the World: Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity published by Zero Books. Frank’s book is a real contribution to the field of philosophy and cultural critique, as it seamlessly brings in a dense array of theoretical ideas and applies them to the ideological stuff of our everyday lives.

Frank’s book brings a familiar style of thinking to our contemporary social problems, and it’s a welcome addition to the Hegel-Lacan-Žižek field of dialectical cultural critique for this precise reason:  it is read-able without sacrificing the difficult theoretical points. That is a feat in and of itself.

What is the aim of this book? I would say that it is to isolate how objectivity functions in our contemporary life-world and social reality. He grounds his philosophical definition of objectivity in a German idealist lineage and elects Kant and Hegel as the real fathers of modern objectivity. In essence, objectivity refers to the way that we as subjects assume that there is a deeper knowledge beyond the object, and as such, we believe that there is something that can be accessed. But objective reality can only ever be for us, it can never be objective in and of itself.

Objectivity is then brought into our present, late capitalist period, where the resources of Lacan, and his insights into the categories of the Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real are brought to bear on objectivity. For Lacan, objectivity seeks to close the gap of a point de capiton, or a master signifier that takes the place of the void. Objectivity is thus established by the symbolic order as such, by the society around us, and objectivity in fact becomes the same thing as consciousness. In a Hegelian sense, objectivity is the objectification of Spirit; it creates the dimension in which spirit can recognize its presence in the Real as such.

True to a Žižekian-inspired dialectical project, Smecker grounds his style and polemics in a Marxist mode of materialism, and he engages in and with the stuff of late capitalism: popular film and television, journalism, jokes and finds answers for an escape or an outlet in radical leftist politics. In fact, I found the most refreshing part of his text to be his conversation on how objectivity fits into revolution and questions of politics and freedom. We cover all these topics in our conversation that follows.


Tutt: What made you want to become a theorist? Do you consider yourself a philosopher or a theorist? Is there a difference between a philosopher and a theorist in your mind?

Smecker: I don’t know if I ever wanted to become a theorist. I struggle with this position. For me, it’s a hystericized—and therefore neurotic—position, through and through. I’m sometimes repulsed by my own behavior; I hate theorizing because I can’t stop doing it. It’s lunacy. I question too much, I always have, and I’m often too hasty with it all. My book is a perfect example. I should have slowed down, taken extra months to edit the book more carefully, and so on, because now, I’m just not entirely happy with it—it’s a “this is not that” sort of thing—and so I must write another one. I’m impatient. Everyone who is close to me has told me that. Anyway, do I consider myself a theorist? I don’t know. On account of my hysterical nature, sometimes I think I’m closer to being a philosopher insofar as philosophy’s a form of psychosis.

As regards whether there’s a difference between theory and philosophy or not, the common doxa is that philosophy is conceptual, while theory is practical. But is this distinction really necessary? Are they not, really—in a paradoxical sense—one and the same? I see philosophy the way Hegel did, as an action, as a matter of making use of its thought determinations. So I don’t think philosophy and theory can be separated from each other: they’re “montages of the same fractured unity,” if you will.

Now, if philosophy is, as they say, made up of principles that have their basis in theory, then philosophy exists precisely to be applied to the content that theory generates, does it not? Thus philosophy is more theoretical than theory itself—why? Not because: philosophy requires theoretical content in order to actualize a reason for its own existence; but rather: theoretical content, in its original state, is always in a state of disarray, and thus theory requires philosophy to undo the mess it has put itself in. Philosophy, to use Žižek’s dialectic here, is none other than the site of theoretical antagonism. As such, it’s the paradoxical element that stands for the absence of itself, insofar as all there “is” is an inconsistent abundance of theoretical postulates, a vortex of thought that has emerged from, and circulates around, an absent center, a radical nothingness, a void that not only bears an immutable lack of (absolute) knowledge and understanding, but which stands for absolute difference just the same: an irreducible gap situated between thought and its empty place of inscription. This is precisely what Hegel meant by his claim that the Absolute begins with a radical lack. This is a human condition we’re talking about, one that has its basis firmly rooted in a radical lack of knowledge and understanding about the reality in which we’re placed. We desire knowledge because of the very lack that sustains this desire.

In any case, philosophy is what one would call a universal, a point of “condensation” in which, by which, and through which the entire mess of theoretical inconsistency seeks its resolve; it is the One that “totalizes” this multiplicity. But we should remember that, for Hegel, this One is not some monadic totality of absolute enclosure; this One always falls apart, it always fails, precisely because philosophy, as such, persists only in the very tension, the non-coincidence, between all particular theories it tries to reconcile and itself. Philosophy thus accounts for a dislocation of the antagonism inherent in the multitude of theory itself; as such it “is” the difference between philosophy and theory. And so this Twoness-within-One truncates philosophy, foreclosing it from ever achieving identity with itself. And it’s this tension that accounts for the dialectic between theory and philosophy. Žižek, in the introduction to his book about Deleuze, even alludes to this when he writes that, “the proper space for philosophy is these very gaps and interstices,” which are opened up by other disciplines that yield impasses to comprehension, which are akin, these impasses, to, say, Kant’s paralogisms. Anyway, the crucial point is that: The choice between philosophy and theory is a false one. The true choice is: both please! You can’t isolate one from the other.

Tutt: Your book, Night of the World; Traversing the Ideology of Objectivity is a major accomplishment for the field of critical theory and philosophy. Žižek is certainly central in your work, and I find your deployment of Žižek to be refreshing in that you don’t imitate his style as I think many do, but you rather invent a new mode of inquiry. Do you consider yourself a Žižekian? How do you intend to incorporate Žižek into your work in the future?

Smecker: You know, I can honestly say that I haven’t given much thought as to whether I’m a “Žižekian” or not. But I can say that his hermeneutics of Hegelo-Lacanian theory has greatly influenced the way in which I view the world. Žižek’s work has, without a doubt, proffered an intellectual direction that I’ve chosen to follow as regards theoretical work. For that reason, I do see myself as a sort of “Žižekian” ally, if you will: to not only introduce, help restore, and situate within the context of today’s dominant culture and its symptoms the fundamental concepts of Lacan’s work, but to also accomplish a sort of “return to Hegel” on my own account—to play my part in rectifying today’s misleading image of Hegel as being some “monadic totalist”, and to help advance the image of Hegel’s negative dialectic as being more akin to a “black hole” around and through which everything passes.

In terms of incorporating Žižek in my future work, the answer is an unequivocal Yes. There is no doubt. In fact, I’m currently amassing notes for my next book, which will be dealing exclusively with themes of universality, negative ontology, and subjectivity as an autonomous negative force (in the Kantian sense) of “over-determination”, and how all this philosophico-theoretical “blah-blah-blah”, as some of my friends like to call it, is actually extremely invaluable for emancipatory leftist politics. I can’t say when the manuscript will be complete, I’m also compiling a book of essays at the moment, and I begin graduate school in less than a week, so I’m going to be a busy bee for sure, at least in the near future. But I can say this: because Žižek and his contemporaries aren’t going to live forever, there’s a sort of responsibility, I believe, that belongs to my generation, and to those on the horizon, to carry the gauntlet onward. It’s unforgivable at this juncture in history, to live in this day and age, and not radically, militantly, subversively question the very status quo that has generated the sufficient conditions for today’s atrocities: new forms of racism, social exclusion, and apartheid; climate change, unprecedented ecological devastation and its pursuant species extinction rates; the corporate theft of communally held lands and other commons, the worsening of income disparity, the privatization of the intellect, and the overall exacerbation of class struggle.

I insist on petitioning for a better future, one in which capitalism is both a mere incubus of our collective memory, and, for that reason, an empirical fact of the past that will remind us that history is not necessary but is the radically contingent outcome of traumatic struggle. And I feel strongly that, in order to bring this kind of future into being, we must employ profound philosophical thought before choosing any kind of decisive action. And I’m not discouraging action, by any means—we won’t change a damn thing if we don’t act—but perhaps we’d fare better to think dangerously before acting effectively.

Tutt: What are your thoughts on the field of Žižek studies today? Is there such a thing as a Žižekian or is this a philosophical style? Who do you think is doing exemplary work in this field today?

Smecker: The field of Žižek studies today is both potent and extensive for what it is. Not only does it encompass a multitude of punishingly complex philosophical systems, it also spans an immense and variegated terrain of intellectual and pop cultural subject matter. From media and communications theory, to film and social theory, literary and cultural criticism, and so on down the list, it’s as if there’s nothing that isn’t vulnerable to Žižek’s exhaustive dialectic. And so I think that, what is happening here, essentially, is that the ideas of Hegel, of Marx (and the broad philosophical systems in which their ideas and engagements were initially couched), and of Lacan (including the Freudian psychoanalytic theory that Lacan, who, with acute rigor, and not to mention an Oscar Wilde-like wit, worked so hard to revise) are not only being fused together in the nexus that is Žižek’s theoretical work, but, moreover, this bundle of theoretical accomplishment is being disseminated with such a pervasive force that it’s giving rise to new forms of thought, new forms of thought that aim directly at questioning the very establishment that sought to stigmatize and ostracize figures like Hegel, Marx, Lacan and their respective methodologies and systems of speculative and theoretical analysis. It’s literally a ‘terrific’ field of study, in the sense that I think it frightens those who have become too complacent these days, mired in simple thinking. And really, the stupid irony to this is that, it’s this retreat into simple thought—you know, the kind that basically borderlines complete mindless idiocy; like, the brain just shuts off and accepts the social domain to think for you; you get home from a long day of toilsome work, slouch in a chair, and just unglue from reality and watch television for hours, or animal videos on YouTube. Whatever it is, this retreat from questioning and critiquing the very social domain that interpellates you is the real terror, it’s the very source of the danger one is retreating from, no? We should be like Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s Network: avow that our business-as-usual lives are bullshit, and assert that we’re not going to take it anymore.

Anyway, forgive my digression, to answer your next question as best I can, I would say that—if I can be so bold as to make such an assertion—to be a “Žižekian” is to not entrust a complete summary of thought to his work, or, for that matter, to any other thinker’s work with which Žižek engages. A sweeping comprehension of Žižek’s texts, of course, requires a certain rapport, one that’s both intimate and unorthodox with the texts of Hegel, Lacan, Marx, Kant, Schelling, as well as Badiou, and many others; it also requires an astute engagement with the concepts of structural linguistics and, of course, with film. This I’m certain of. Anyhow, in any given case, there are many folks right now doing exemplary work in this field. Though often considering themselves first as Lacanians or Hegelians rather than Žižekians, there are a number of individuals doing a stellar job pushing Žižek’s scholarship forward: Todd McGowan, Fabio Vighi, Joan Copjec, Henry Krips, Adrian Johnston, to name not everyone but only a small handful that stand out at the moment.

Tutt: I want to move to the central topic of your text, objectivity. You provide a very interesting set of philosophical itineraries and legacies to unpack this concept. Where does objectivity begin? It seems that it starts with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, is that correct, or could we locate it even farther back in the history of thought?

Smecker: In terms of the book itself, my point of departure regarding objectivity begins, actually, with Hegel, with his three significances of objectivity, which I associate with Lacan’s ISR triad, though one cannot (and should not) pull this off without taking a detour through the profundity of Kant’s handiwork, just as well. No less important to note: the aim of my book is to short-circuit this point of departure with Freudo-Lacanian theory. That is to say, the intention is to show how objectivity plays a constitutive role in universal modes of desire such as philosophy, science, and religion, insofar as these domains are in the business of satiating man’s desire to know, to create meaning, and so on.

In other words, the sole function of objectivity, I argue, is to provide and maintain the internal consistency that holds together its subjects’ “reality principles” (one’s ability to assess the reality of the external world), which are always-already ideologically mediated by objectivity, an elemental ideology that reveals itself as empirical fact or necessity.

But yes, the notion of objectivity has, without a doubt, been present in philosophical thought since its inception, to the extent, of course, that we see objectivity as a sort of avatar for man in his desire for knowledge, in his desire to yoke together truth and reality. Do we not see this, for example, in Plato’s theory of knowledge? In The Republic—I believe it’s section VI—one can read there a description of objective knowledge, which is distinct from knowledge derived by way of sense perception. Due to the ephemeral nature of objects and their appearances, Plato writes, knowledge decocted therefrom offers no stable foundation on which an actual science can thrive. Thus it’s through pure intellect, rational cognition only, that man is able to ascertain a more intelligible and permanent level of knowledge: Ideas, in and of themselves, which exist objectively, independent of both the mind that grasps them and the objects to which they refer.

So, in a sense, it was Plato who first adumbrated the difference between pure and empirical cognition, which Kant would later take on in his Critique of Pure Reason. And of course, it was Aristotle, remember, who sought to discredit Plato’s mythical province of Forms, insisting not that knowledge isn’t universal, but that all meaningful statements have their basis in some empirical account (even though, if you read his Metaphysics, one can see that he was very aware of a priori thought such as logic and mathematics, which deals exclusively with thoughts as thought, as abstractions by themselves). In any event, Aristotle believed that, to use a cliché: the world as we know it is closely connected to the phenomenal world as we describe it. But, again, the suspicion just won’t go away: How are we to be so sure that the knowledge we have about some external thing pertains strictly to the thing itself, to properties of the thing as it is without me? Description is a loaded term, for what’s at stake in it is the nature of thought’s relation to reality.

The real aporia is that reality is caught up in thought, in the causal chain of Reason; and, vice versa, thought is caught up in the very reality it thinks about. Objectivity, I believe, is a sort of “defense formation” aimed against this inherent deadlock (which is perhaps the innermost core of reality itself). Hence today’s fetishization of objectivity: the ideal that leads one to believe that access to some intimate nature or truth of an object-in-itself can be granted. Though one shouldn’t fail to acknowledge that what’s being hidden behind the phenomenal appearance, is, as Žižek puts it, the fact that there’s literally nothing to hide. And it’s precisely this duplicity that shouldn’t be subtracted from the object, for it’s nonetheless this very antagonism that’s constitutive of the very phenomena we strive to represent objectively.

Anyway, I’ve bandied about long enough. To answer your question, I see the salvo of intellect between Plato and, later, Aristotle, as the herald of objectivity’s entrance into the history of thought.

Tutt: You tackle objectivity from a number of different theoretical registers: you deal with it from the standpoint of Hegelian self-alienated spirit, the Lacanian three registers of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real and you show how objectivity functions in the media and in intellectual life. But the most central functions of objectivity, and where it rears the most ideological damage is in the sphere of capital. What is it about capital that makes it associated with objectivity? Why does capital require objectivity?

Smecker: Objectivity, on the one hand, I argue, is that which serves to conceal the ruptures and rents in the social field of meaning. It’s an attempt to reconcile the irresolvable antagonisms, the irreducible fissures, the failures of understanding, and so on, which beset our reality; what Lacan designates as the Real (and I’m not unaware that the Real is a heavily packed term, but let’s go with this somewhat cursory definition for now). Objectivity, then, is constitutive of the larger ideological universals that serve to veil the Real as such. So in this sense, objectivity also refers to the Real, to something we can’t access without some modicum of symbolic mediation, while simultaneously referring to the larger ideological edifices of which it’s part and parcel.

Now, to jump tracks for just a moment, if one looks carefully enough, one will notice that, in capitalism, things work a bit differently than they had before in past forms of ideological closure. Here, in the ideological space of capital, individuals seek their enjoyment in desired objects and desired knowledge that are interned within the very ideological system that produces these desired items. Therefore one’s enjoyment remains rigidly confined within the very order it should otherwise be transgressing. Or rather, one’s enjoyment is, paradoxically, rigidly confined in an extremely polymeric ideology: capitalism gains strength, its interpellative agency becomes more potent, its very structure bends and swells and thrives with every transgression. Why? Because with capitalism, in capitalism, everything is reduced to a brutal economic reality (including science itself; for the lion’s share of scientific discoveries end up serving only the networks of capital), and in such a space capital’s objectivism becomes our only reality, and thus literally everything, prohibited or not, eventually becomes absorbed into the world of capital. This is precisely how capital is able to self-engender.


Let us not forget, too, and this is important, that human subjectivity is that which is constantly attempting to overcome a lack, to reconcile these gaps in the symbolic social field—that is why capitalism exists in the first place: it sinisterly dons the visage that it completes this lack, tessellating the social field with false images of wholeness, despite never really doing so; so we continue to play the game precisely because we desire something we’ll never have but which capitalism nonetheless vows to offer us: wholeness. So capitalist ideology tells us to enjoy, to enjoy it all; but because no single thing, no object, no commodity can ever fully satisfy our desires and make us complete, capitalism, as a system, therefore relies on this inbuilt inadequacy precisely in order for it to continue to function. We keep producing and buying, producing and buying… It’s this very contradiction between capitalism as a system and capitalism as an ideology—the fact that capitalism cannot give what it demands of us to desire—that sustains and perpetuates capitalism per se as a function of human desire.

And so, of course, today’s ideology of “intellectual objectivity” also serves as a false supplement to an immutable lack in our network of knowledge about the world and our selves. This is also highly conducive for capitalism’s self-engendering: we allow the fetishization of objective facts, data and statistics, to attempt to satisfy an insatiable desire to know, to supplement the immutable lack of absolute knowledge that sustains the very desire to know more. And so we end up with a whole field of egocentric specialists: talking heads and health gurus and economic analysts—the whole gamut of “subjects supposed to know”. In any case, commodity fetishism, and intellectual objectivism—the commodification and privatization of experience and the general intellect—serve to cover up the fact that we’re covering up a lack.

To put it bluntly: capitalism requires this level of objectivity precisely because, without it, none of us would actually believe in the idiotic aphorism that tells us: “There is no alternative to capitalism.” Our dogmatic faith in, and reliance on, “objectivity”, overlaps with our fidelity to capitalism. And I hope it comes to an end soon.

Tutt: I like how you turned to the question of capitalism and its relation to desire and drive. I was in complete agreement with your idea that capitalism itself seeks to sell drive; it does the work of making drive desirable. But ultimately capitalism can’t sustain a relation towards drive for it would result in a culture of psychotic subjects – of course in some sectors of our economic life, we already have this. What do you decide on in this debate amongst psychoanalytic theorists of capitalism today, as it pertains to drive and desire?

Smecker: Ultimately, I see capitalism as a function of desire. My reasoning behind this is, for the most part, laid out in my answer to your previous question. And yes, as I write in my book, it does appear to be the case that capitalism seeks to sell the perfect drive. But again, I disagree with anyone who posits the claim that capitalism is a function of drive. What makes logical sense to me, is that, if we define ‘function’ in its proper mathematical sense, as a relation between two “sets” that “associates a unique element of the second set with each element of the first,” then it’s clear that capitalism, as a function, is in constant service of linking people to their desires, which requires constant work and expansion of its own domain/co-domain, which refers to the roles of commodity production and consumerism, no?

Tutt: You write that capital presents a Real that conceals a certain command and this is the reigning ideology of belief in today’s time. Towards this notion of command, you note that command is paradoxical as it “removes subjects from the horror of the world.” Objectivism thus results in an ironic distancing from social problems, but this strikes me as a very odd form of command in that it’s a command that removes subjects from the world. What is the role of the command in contemporary forms of objectivism?

Smecker: Let’s take the idea of objective journalism. Essentially, the injunction behind this mode of reporting is: “Put your thoughts and feelings, your ideological biases aside, and just tell it like it is.” The problem with this, of course, is that, as we know, a small number of large corporations control the major media these days. This only enhances the suspicion that “objectivity in the newsroom” is none other than a tactical maneuver: although it sounds good, the push to remain neutral and nonpartisan serves merely to boost the commercialization of journalism—especially when today’s media corporations are among some of the largest beneficiaries of the global capitalist economy, using trade organizations and the free market as a means to increase profits. By these lights, the injunction to remain objective seems to play a key role in suppressing conscionable dissent directed at the capitalist economy that would otherwise encumber profitable revenue.

But at a deeper, more radical level, in truth, facts and data about an event always conform to some determination that has its basis in interpretation. Our approach to objective reality is supported by certain a priori assumptions we have about the world, whether we’re conscious of these assumptions or not, and these assumptions are shaped and informed by a larger ideological machinery, so to speak.

To put it differently, objective facts about the world and our place in it are not exempt from ideology; the latter “is” the underlying fantasies that regulate our relation to objective reality itself. So to mindlessly obey the injunction—Be objective! is to partake in a sort of proto-psychotic fantasy in which subjectivity, or rather, self-relating subjective truth (the truth about one’s own (symbolic) position in society) drifts towards obsolescence. Here, the gap between what is symbolic and real closes in on itself. Is this not precisely what’s behind today’s “abstract violence”? One can kill thousands of people without personally drawing any blood. Let me provide you with an example. Warren Anderson, the retired CEO of Union Carbide, he was responsible for the deaths of so many people in Bhopal, India, and yet, he never laid a finger on a single Indian. He’s probably an upstanding member of his community, and so on. The point is: it’s the alliance between objectivity and capitalism that maintains a certain sense of distance from, “unawareness” of, one’s own involvement in capitalism’s crises and catastrophes the world over. Warren Anderson did play a responsible role in the Bhopal incident, and that’s an objective fact, insofar as objectivity faithfully represents one’s subjective position in the larger socio-symbolic order.

What I’m getting at it this: In order for anyone to simply coexist with the presence of capital, let alone partake in the world of capital, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on the promotion of avarice and competition, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on wealth disparity, widespread subjugation, and thus hatred and envy toward others whose assets, resources, etc, are coveted. To simply coexist with the presence of capital, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on such wholesale atrocity, one must act as if capitalism does not thrive on the very crises it engenders, and yes, one must act as if they have no involvement whatsoever in these execrable conditions in which capital thrives. And to maintain this “as-if” attitude, this belief, one must remain obedient to today’s ideological injunction: one must remain “objective.” Do you see the problem here?

Tutt: Yes, absolutely. You know, I also really like this notion you present towards the end of your text about how objectivity can only be challenged through revolution. You note that revolution refers to how we perceive objectivity as such. So what does a revolution mean in these terms if we are speaking of revolution at the level of perspectival shift? What would be an example, perhaps even an historical example of this?

Smecker: Perspectival shift does not imply a perfectly safe and smooth transition from one state of conscious awareness to another. In fact, to effectuate a shift in perspective requires, first, a shift in conscious awareness, a tectonic shift in how we objectively view the world. But this must happen with sufficient and effective action. One must withdraw their allegiance from the ideological universal. The downside to this is that, it will likely result in political violence, intended or not—for example, was not the primary aim behind the uprisings in Tahrir Square in 2011 not to incite violence but to depose Mubarak?

Anyway, a seminal historical example of revolution that sticks out in my mind is the Haitian Revolution, which was essentially a very effective slave revolt that founded the Republic of Haiti. It was highly influenced by the French Revolution, by the way; with the French turned upside down, the black slaves of Haiti recognized an opportunity that was embedded in a “crisis”. Keep in mind, however, that the Haitians themselves endured nearly a decade of civil wars, multiple insurrections, and other strife before achieving what amounted to a very short-term victory.

Another historical example I find inspiring is the decolonization of Algeria. The actions carried out by the FLN (of which Franz Fanon eventually became a member) against the French Algerian authorities was a tremendous breakthrough, in my opinion, in terms of radically shifting the global perspective on colonialism. For the record, one should watch Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers; it really is a riveting and spectacular film.

But in terms of revolution today, I don’t believe it would look anything like these other events. It can’t. Society, governance, ideology—everything has evolved tremendously. Today’s social conditions—no doubt a result of yesteryear’s—are nonetheless diametrically different. For example, the degree of media, its digitization, its ubiquity and pervasiveness, is unprecedented. As we all know, the level of surveillance it can attain is just something else, and, mutatis mutandis, the degree to which it can play a pivotal role in social change is also promising, as evidenced by the events that took place during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Also, the severity of crisis in these times is unlike anything we’ve been up against before. As Žižek explains, in Living In the End Times, capitalism is coming up against a series of crises it can’t structurally deal with. So change—revolutionary change—is inevitable. The question is, will this change be for the better or not? Right now, it doesn’t look so good. Those in power have a lot of resources, a lot of sway, and they won’t hand over power or even cede some of it in exchange for a more just society just because we protest peacefully. Why would they? They’ve worked hard to accumulate what they have—unless, of course, one is a capitalist! But seriously, this is in no way a call to violence; it’s just that, clearly, we must think very deeply before we act at all.

In my opinion, the best possible political project, the one that makes the most sense to me, is firmly rooted in psychoanalysis. We must recognize our symptom, that which will not integrate into the larger order. This is the source of our freedom, of our liberation from the manacles of capitalism—restraints, I should remind you, that we’ve put upon ourselves.

I believe part of the task at hand is to carefully, tactfully, take the radical work that’s being done within academe outside of the smooth functioning domain of capital, and translate it into the language of the slums, the ghettos, the trailer parks, etc, precisely in order to politicize the ghosts of our society, today’s proletariat. We should stop speaking truth to power, that’s utterly ineffective: those in power know the truth. We should speak truth to those who can’t afford the luxury of a college education, who can’t afford a subscription to an intellectual leftist magazine, who couldn’t care any less about what, say, C-SPAN or the New York Times have to say, because, let’s face it, when these establishments, when these institutions recognize them, the underclass, they’re often referred to objectively, as another statistic. If we can politicize today’s proletariat, if we can courageously put to use today’s crises, then the imminent revolution will favor what capital does not: equality and liberty for the fellow man, and the fragile planet on which he thrashes and thrives.

Frank Smecker is an American philosopher and social theorist. He studied English, Philosophy, and Psychology at University of Vermont. An emerging voice in the canon of social theory, contemporary philosophy, and Žižekian dialectics, his topics of interest include: left politics, philosophy, Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis, radical environmentalism, workers’ rights and movements, lit-theory, film, and music. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the International Journal of Žižek Studies, OWS Journal, The Ecologist, Z Magazine, Truthout, among others.

Community and Subjectivity in Contemporary Theory: Dissertation Abstract

Since I have been away from writing essays and blogs for some time, it might be of interest to readers that I share the abstract of my dissertation that I have been working on, and have just finished. This is my penultimate draft and I plan to defend it this August. Overall, I feel good about it, and despite the immense challenges of time that it took to write, which were not easy on my family, I did thoroughly enjoy writing it.

As you can see, it combines many of my primary interests: late continental ethical and political thought, Lacanian psychoanalysis, identity, justice, love and affects. The focus on community is of interest to me as community links to secular religious problematics that I have been interested in exploring for some time.


What this dissertation seeks to evoke is a theory of community based in an analysis of the work of four contemporary philosophers: Alain Badiou, Ernesto Laclau, Jean-Luc Nancy and Slavoj Žižek. The main argument of this work is that across these four diverse philosophical projects, a framework emerges for thinking community, a new set of conceptual and theoretical ideas that present a significant contribution to the philosophical understanding of community in the history of western philosophy. This dissertation uses a comparative approach and grounds the work in an etymology of community from the Latin communitas: munus meaning the “gift,” and cum, meaning “together.” I argue that the munus as gift is what puts in jeopardy individual identity as well as identity founded on the Other, and I locate this mode of thinking the munus as communitas – a rare version of community that emerges through an act, decision or event. What annihilates community-as-communitas is what I term immunitas, which is a defense against the singular features of communitas.

I open this study with a theory of contemporary immunitas using the framework of Roberto Esposito, but I significantly expand his theory and apply three new paradigms outside of biopolitics, including psychoanalytic, alienated social being and logical forms of immunitas. Chapter one situates contemporary theories of community through a genealogy of community in Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Bataille that looks specifically at how each thinker treats the question of the munus of community.

Chapter two examines the ways that the ontology of each thinker contain a theory of rupture with ontology or being qua being and develops how this rupture with being constitutes an alteration to the social field. I argue that rupture with ontology makes a theory of community unstable and empty. While this rupture no longer relegates the community to the periphery of the social, it makes any thinking on community pre-political, and by extension, ethics is suspended and politics elevated as a privileged site of intervention.

Overall, part one argues that the munus is that which cannot be integrated into the community, and remains foreclosed within the sphere of the social. However, a theory of rupture enables a thinking of communitas to emerge that is able to break with the reigning modes of immunitas – I term this theory of rupture ‘transcendence.’ Part two turns to the question of the cum and the munus as a problem of alienated social being and begins with an analysis of Lacan’s theory of alienation. It then tracks how Lacan’s ethics is revised in each thinker into a new mode of ethics, what I call an ‘ethics of singularity.’ The ethics of singularity seeks a movement out of the relationship of an ethics of commitment, care or duty to the Other and posits a singular, non-relational theory of ethical engagement that privileges political interventions. I argue that the munus must be thought of as objet petit a and not as the Freudian das Ding, as this mode of thinking the munus leads to a tragic deadlock of community formation.

Chapters five and six look at the question of authority and the master. I argue that Lacan’s conception of Oedipus and the Names-of-the-Father is helpful in thinking the postmodern reversal of Oedipal subjectivity, as the father is a symbolic function that is capable of supporting desire and subjective/psychic organization. Furthermore, I develop a new theory of the master based on Badiou’s collective-master that possesses an educative and instructive role for the community of truth. Finally, I map Lacan’s theory of sexuation onto the problem authority poses at the site of the social bond, and show that the feminine not-all, when it serves as the basis to the social bond—precisely because it relies on loss and mourning—provides an egalitarian theory of the bond.

In the concluding chapter, I turn to the affect of love and argue that love is essential to the impasse of immunitas because love functions as a stabilizing affect to an otherwise unstable abyssal ground of an emerging community.

A Theory of What Constitutes the Heart of the Žižekian

Here is the introduction of my essay for a new book on Žižek and Education edited by Antonio Garcia, with contributions from many of my favorite Žižek scholars.

In this piece, entitled “The Threshold of the Žižekian” I argue that the heart of the Žižekian, can be located in the way that Žižek modifies the discourse of the Master by putting the disciple (reader) into a new relation towards what I call “emancipatory knowledge.”

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature.

After outlining the threshold, I develop a theory of Žižekian pedagogy that can be arranged like a musical score, reaching its crescendo at the point of the act, where the subject (disciple) becomes an agent in possession of emancipatory knowledge, possessing the ability to re-inscribe revolutionary potential into any socio-symbolic field: the pedagogical, the political and or the social.

The threshold of the Žižekian is also enabled by the way in which Žižek modifies Lacan’s four discourses, and introduces a new, “fifth discourse” (an argument made by Levi Bryant). The fifth discourse has an important effect on what constitutes the core of the Žižekian. Overall, I argue that if we can apply the precise way in which the Žižekian places the disciple towards emancipatory knowledge, we can also facilitate a shift from “Žižek studies” – the current reference point for scholars of Žižek – to the “Žižekian.” This movement consists of understanding and applying the subjective transformation of knowledge that underpins Žižek’s philosophical approach.

The Threshold of the Žižekian

Rarely do scholars of Žižek speak of themselves or their work as “Žižekian.” Most critical interventions into Žižek’s philosophy tend to examine a particular facet of the Žižekian, and the Žižekian as a mark of one’s own approach to philosophy is rarely cited in scholarly work on philosophy or critical theory more generally. Despite this deficit of the application of the Žižekian, there are notable works by Žižek scholars that seek to transcend this limitation by highlighting a particular aspect of the Žižekian that in turn illuminates his larger project.

In this category, several texts stand out, including Adrian Johnston’s work on Žižek’s ontology[1], Fabio Vighi’s work on Zizek’s use of the dialectic[2], Adam Kotsko’s invaluable work on Zizek’s “Christian materialist” theology[3], and the numerous interventions into aspects of the Žižekian critique of ideology, ethics, Hegel, and Lacan published by various thinkers in the journal dedicated to Žižek studies, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. The diversity and range of these studies certainly constitute and encompass major shades of the Žižekian, but there still exists an unwillingness to embrace the Žižekian in the same way many embrace philosophers whom we might place as contemporaries of Žižek, such as Badiou, and other major thinkers that Žižek sees as interlocutors to his own work such as Derrida, Deleuze or Heidegger.

At the level of Žižek’s philosophical project, we can understand the essence of his project from multiple angles. For example, Žižek himself has defined his work as revolving around the question of postmodernity and modernity, where his interventions ask, “is it still possible to pursue the Enlightenment goal of knowledge under conditions of late capitalism?[4]” But this approach to Žižek’s work falls short precisely in that his engagement with the modern out of a particular Freudian Marxist lineage, with unique refinements of Hegel, Lacan and thus all of continental philosophy, is only a shade of the Žižekian. This is what we might call the form of the Žižekian, but not the method of the Žižekian. Beginning with Žižek’s dissertation on Hegel and the end of analysis, we find the origins of his project, in terms of form, up to his more recent tomb, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism: to re-actualize the German idealist tradition through the application of Lacan’s meta-psychology and anti-philosophy. Perhaps then one of the reasons why the Žižekian has been difficult to locate is tied in part to Žižek’s own (sometimes dogmatic) affinities to this constellation of thought and history of philosophy. Added to the complexity of locating a central Žižekian position is the fact that Žižek’s work often lacks an intentionally rigorous explication of a distinct philosophical position.

The Žižekian is also difficult to locate for psychoanalytic reasons. Buried deep within the “act” of Žižek’s interventions, (writings and performative lectures) there is transference and a resistance that takes place with his readers. This transference between Žižek and his readers is tied to the way that Žižek’s writing functions similar to an analytic session in the Lacanian sense, where the “reader-as-analyst” participates in the working through of Žižek’s own symptom. In Leigh Claire La Berge’s account, the reader-as-analyst is constructed around the fundamental fantasy of Žižek, which she sees as his confrontation with the postmodern in dialectical relation to the modern. This dialectic presents a knot that prevents the transition that Žižek truly desires, which is a more informed critique of political economy, to move us out of late capitalism through theory[5]. But his interventions into postmodernism prevent such a movement, but this symptom, of a constant barrage of critiques on the postmodern serve as the hidden desire supplement that keeps the Žižekian forever stalled. What the reader-as-analyst is caught up in is Žižek’s transference with postmodern multiculturalism – which for however much application of Lacan-Hegel and Marx, Žižek himself remains unable to break the knot.

While Zizek himself very well could be caught in this transference relation to late capitalism, there is a qualitative issue that arises in regards to La Berge’s essay. It neglects the way in which the reader-as-analyst of Žižek is placed into a field of knowledge in a way that positions the reader towards what I would call “emancipatory knowledge.” As Žižek notes, the analyst’s discourse – for which the reader is placed into in the exchange with Žižek’s work, portends major consequences for developing a new relation to truth and to the role of emancipation:

The analyst’s discourse stands for the emergence of revolutionary emancipatory subjectivity that resolves the split of university and hysteria. In it, the revolutionary agent– a –addresses the subject from the position of knowledge that occupies the place of truth (i.e., which intervenes in at the “symptomal torsion” of the subject’s constellation), and the goal is to isolate, get rid of, the master signifier that structured the subjects (ideologico-political unconscious) (Žižek, 2006).

The threshold of the Žižekian

The threshold of the Žižekian is a positioning of the reader-as-analyst towards the real, facilitated by dialectical materialism and the parallax – arguably Žižek’s signature and most original methodology. Dialectical materialism is an approach that seeks through interpretation of phenomena of late capitalism (democracy, tolerance, imperialism, etc.) an identification with the repressed Real, which always returns in the form of a traumatic intervention into the social (symbolic). This return of the real is what reveals the inherent inconsistency of the Master-Signifier, or the figure that stands in for the real. As Lacan articulated, and as Žižek points out in his work, the empty Master-Signifier is the point whereby the signifier collapses into its signified. Žižek’s ontological position, because he sees all symbolic identity and all reality as inconsistent/incomplete (non-All), is premised on the notion that the subject has the potential to be radically autonomous, or free.

The Žižekian parallax also engages phenomena: an idea, a pop cultural reference, or even another philosopher, into a dialectical analysis of that thing with a social field or other problem and brings the two phenomena to a point of aporia whereby the reader is brought into a parallax with the Real which disrupts the entire basis of presuppositions that formerly sustained the field. Žižek’s unique brand of dialectical materialism is a careful revitalization of Marx, Hegel, and Lacan and it involves, like the parallax approach, a similar radical commitment to exposing the Real within any symbolic order. Once the real is exposed as an inconsistent network of signifiers defined by relations of difference with one another, the subject is able to face a certain he Zizekian thus consists of this radical displacement of the field of the symbolic and a positioning of the subject (disciple/reader) towards “emancipatory knowledge.”

The threshold of the Žižekian consists first of a demand put onto the reader (subject) bringing them into a new relation to the Real – a process that makes any identity or reality inherently paradoxical, and thus the orientation towards the Žižekian is disorienting by its very nature. There is something unheimlich about the Žižekian a priori, because one faces their own radical lack of support in any symbolic[1]. The way that Žižek confronts the Master’s discourse is seminal to the entire basis of the Žižekian as it consists of placing the subject in a new relation to knowledge, what I will refer to as “emancipatory knowledge.”

The way in which Žižek’s thought confronts the disciple (reader) is a philosophical method or orientation to doing philosophy that also puts a demand on the subject. The onus Žižek places onto the disciple is tied to a more general axiomatic position of philosophy in the precise moment of late capitalism today. As Žižek is fond of repeating, we must reverse Marx’s 11th thesis in his, Theses on Feuerbach, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world and have not yet changed it” – indeed interpretation as such holds the power in the Žižekian to change the world in so far as interpretation facilitates a shift in the perspectival field and a re-positioning of knowledge towards emancipation. This shift takes place at the threshold of the Žižekian, where the reader is faced with his or her own split subjectivity, and ultimately faced with his or her own un-freedom. As Žižek claims, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.[2]” Confronting one’s own relation to the Real and to reality is an a priori to the Žižekian, and it has pedagogical consequences, serving as a threshold or entry point to the heart of the Žižekian. Before considering whether there is a pedagogical consequence of the Žižekian, we will examine Žižek’s debate with Alain Badiou over the role of the Master and the Master’s discourse in relation to emancipatory political change today.

[1] Adrian Johnston’s text, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity is notable in this regard as it draws out the unique constellation of Zizek’s appropriation of German idealism (Schelling and Hegel) with Lacan’s metapsychology – revealing a consistent thinking of materiality (nature, body, world) as internally inconsistent, shot through with antagonisms, despite the wide array of Zizek’s interrogations into popular culture, politics, etc.

[2] Fabio Vighi’s On Zizek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation develops a theory of Žižek application of the dialectic that places it into context with Marx, Foucault and psychoanalysis.

[3] Adam Kotsko’s Zizek’s Theology is an important companion to understanding how one can truly apply the Zizekian to the theological, but it does not provide us with a more all encompassing sense of the Zizekian.

[4] Quote from Truth of Zizek

[5] La Berge The Truth of Zizek

[1] Žižek interprets the symbolic as always alienated from itself, a position that was held by Lacan in his late work. For Žižek, the symbolic order does not have an order that controls it, and the problem lies around the existence of the big Other as such. By this stage of his work, the symbolic is itself alienated and thus its Laws function anonymously. Žižek notes that it is this anonymous order that is the big Other, particularly in the context of our postmodern and post totalitarian societies.

[2] “Introduction: The Missing Ink”, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (2002), p. 2

Badiou and Žižek: Radical Act vs. Evental Enthusiasm

One of the real benefits of an open access classroom at the European Graduate School is that all of the lectures are recorded and archived for online consumption. We do very little virtual work and have no virtual seminars, which I have personally participated in before via the Lutecium a non-school of Lacanian/Freudian Psychoanalysis and I did find it fruitful. In the late 1990’s MIT began to pioneer this approach to their lectures and courses, and more recently it was Stanford who really began to see the benefits of it. I attended the WISE conference on education in Doha, Qatar in 2008, and I was struck by so many professors of the humanities making the claim that their online seminars were just as effective in terms of the evaluations as were the in-person seminars.

But at the EGS, there is a difference from these other institutions. At EGS, we get to study with the seminal figures of philosophy and art who tend to be outside of the traditional institutions of academe. As you know, my interest in Žižek’s and Badiou’s philosophy is paramount to my interest in theory more generally. A lot has been written about the intersection of Žižek’s and Badiou’s politics, especially in terms of the act vs. the event. In Žižek’s seminar this year, he was kind enough to give those of us that really wanted it, the floor to ask him our questions.

My questions for Žižek are still relevant for me, and I think that in some ways, we will have to wait for Badiou’s new book, The Immanence of Truth to really address many of the questions that I have raised. Below I have included my specific questions, and you can follow along with them in the video (also embedded below) starting at 37:45 in. The first part includes a wonderful set of questions on the ontology of the One, multiplicity, and the debate between the Slovene School of Lacanians (Žižek, Zupančič, and Dolar) by my friend Bree. In a separate post I will share my questions for Badiou and his responses.


The act for Lacan is that which does not remain authorized by any big Other, but only by itself, and thus it avoids self-instrumentalization (Žižek 2000: 351). In your development of the act, the subject undergoes an Hegelian night of the world that enables, through negation, a freeing of the subject to create a new libidinal set of coordinates. For you, the act is located in the Lacanian imaginary. For example, let’s pretend that a political system is in a crisis. In a pre-evental way, the system fails; this becomes the truth of the system, the symptomal point.

Contrary to this position, the event in Badiou, vis a vis the truth-evental subject on the other hand, is beyond politics, it is “archiopolitical” in the sense that it seeks to revolutionize humanity itself – similar to Nietzsche’s splitting of history in two.


Is not then Badiou’s idea of the truth-evental subject the same as Deleuze’s non-human philosophy, designed to bring the overman above self reflection?

Furthermore, is then the truth-evental subject, in not being brought into a new world without the death drive, no longer in need of psychoanalysis for Badiou?


In Less Than Nothing, you argue vehemently against Miller’s “ironist” approach to the relation of the Lacanain gap that is constitutive of the political as such. You suggest that Communism is that system which will allow for the enjoyment of sympthomes to flourish? For idiosyncrasies to flourish, we need Communism. So then Communism is the only system that we can have for individuals to enjoy their symphtomes?

But can your subject of the act be included into Badiou’s Truth-evental subject? As we know, there are four affects that signal a human being’s entry into an event: terror, justice, anxiety and courage. These are meant to be categories of subject-effects, as well as processes. They are not tied to generic truth procedures, but are generated around any event-generated truth.

How precisely does psychoanalysis fit into the affects related for the evental subject? Badiou limits the evental subject to four affects corresponding to the truth-event subject: happiness (love) enthusiasm (politics) joy (science) pleasure (art).

For the evental subject, the affects function like feedback loops drawing the subject more into each truth procedure, associated with event fidelity create and reinforce aspects of heroism.

The death drive is relegated to the human animal, but is the truth-evental subject somehow outside of death drive? Or does this go too far?

Might the difference here be between the precise positioning of the master signifier for you vs. Badiou?

What is this difference between the role of the master signifier in suturing a new political order?

My final question on emancipatory political engagement is not answered by Žižek, but here it is nonetheless. He does go over much of this in his lecture regardless.


On the question of interpassivity and political engagement: Lacan famously said in Television that, when it comes to changing capitalism: “I only remark that I cannot seriously do it, because in denouncing it I reinforce it, I normalize it, that is, I perfect it” (255).

The problem, it seems to me, is that of differentiating between interpassive acts against the big Other and authentic acts becomes difficult to differentiate specifically in today’s political climate in the west, what Badiou calls an “atonal world devoid of passages”. In today’s political space, how might pre-evental human beings still caught within the relational matrices of the state be brave enough to wager investing their faith in an incredibly uncertain prospect for potential change that has yet to actually transpire.

Against the Foucaldian – Agambenian notion of resisting the dispotif, you argue that we must promote modalities for thinking and acting that present ruptures to the dispotifs and not merely resistances (994).

You have also claimed that, “One cannot ever be sure in advance of what appears (within the register and the space of visibility of the ruling ideology) as a “minor” measure will not set in motion a process that will lead to the radical (evental) transformation of the whole field” (Žižek, Badiou: Notes on an ongoing project, Pg. 5).

So the political suspension of the ethical seems to imply that all acts are gambles that is supported on the fact that big Other is weak.

But as we know For Badiou, forcing must happen after the event, for them to truly emerge, they must emerge mysteriously. “The future anterior is the real political time” (58) as Badiou points out in his discussion of ethics at the end of Logics of Worlds:

“What corrupts a subject is the process of treating as a possible consequence of an event what is in fact is not a consequence. In brief, it’s a matter of logical arrogance. For there’s no reason why the intensity of existence should be identical to the totality of the world” (350).

So how might we resolve this lack of clarity for action and avoid what Badiou refers to as the risk of emancipatory acts, which are merely nihilistic strikes at an imaginary opponent?

Antiphilosophy and the Knot of Transference

In philosophy, we wind up in a camp of thinkers whom we share some affinity with. When you’re in your twenties you have the freedom to decide where to start. Then you reach your thirties and all those long hours in the library reading only what moves you are a thing of the past. At some point, you just focus and become immersed. But once your desire has caught up with your work ethic, you’ve managed to form a camp of influences under a bigger tent, under a family of thought.

All of the sudden you have gone through all of these various phases. You had your Nietzsche phase, your Foucault period, and your summer working on Kant that was largely a let down but important in the long run. And then you settle into a real challenge and you spend considerable time with one figure. But these figures of yesteryear sit on your shelves haunting you in some way. Where did they come from? How did their questions intersect with your own questions? What are your questions? They yearn for some greater logic as to what ties them together? Why were they chosen? Why were you chosen?

Untying this knot of influences is something that I have been interested in. Before it leads to insufferable hysteria, anxiety, transferences, and projections, we must stay vigilant in avoiding the cliche pop wisdom that tells us to “seek the questions that our masters have sought.” Let us strive to go further in this de-knotting of the transference to our lineage of thinkers.

I started with Nietzsche. Like Goethe, Nietzsche was a seasonal philosopher, or so I thought. I was caught in the matrices of my emotional valences as a young person and Nietzsche was an authoritative voice. His resounding clarity was like a thunder bolt that somehow put me at ease. I didn’t realize it then but it was Nietzsche’s jostling with the category of truth that got me fixated onto him. Even though I was hooked on the hagiographic qualities of Nietzsche, the mythologies of his powers, the death of God and so on, I was, in a much deeper sense, hooked at the point of his relation to truth.

In Alain Badiou’s lectures on antiphilosophy, Nietzsche invents the approach in philosophy that subjective change occurs not through the formula that an idea can produce in language or in the mind, but change happens in relation to the idea at a subjective level. An idea can produce a dynamite effect on our very subjectivity. This change that an idea can produce is beyond the merely formal, logical, or conceptual formulations that involves truth as we know it in our current mode. The change that an idea can produce becomes central to what lies beyond the limits of the present. This also means that there is a part of accessing truth, and a part of reality that can’t be said.

It is in Badiou’s work on antiphilosophy that I have begun to see the lineage of philosophy that I have come to love. My book shelves have a new symmetry to them. My camp has been formed at the base of a mountain not filled with any particular theoretical approach (existentialist, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, etc.) but formed as a bold wager towards philosophy writ large.

It is the relation towards truth that draws me into the camp of the antiphilosopher. The antiphilosopher is so called because she is no longer able to produce happiness as such. When philosophy has grown stale from its sophistry, from positivism, and the analytic love of philosophy as a thought exercise, or as a series of language games, the antiphilosopher steps in.

The antiphilosopher breaks philosophy’s dependence on the anonymous statement. That a statement’s validity does not depend on the person stating it is central to the logic of philosophy, but this does not produce happiness.

For Badiou, philosophy is not one of the four conditions (art, love, politics, and science) because it in some ways negotiates a change amongst these four. It is the antiphilosopher who facilitates this rupture, but Badiou cautions the antiphilosopher not to go too far, because he does depend upon philosophy at the end of the day.

All at once, the antiphilosopher is pregnant, eager for catharsis, suspect of language and its relation to truth, suspect of philosophy’s distancing from religion, and able to show that the philosophers love of truth is also a love of meaning which has the same features of the quest for religious meaning.

For the antiphilosopher, what is needed is an atemporal act to break with the regime of truth in its current guise. Think of Pascal’s wager, Nietzsche’s breaking history into two, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and of Badiou’s event, or even of Zizek’s night of the world (act). The antiphilosophers act is what holds the capacity for taking over the philosophical category of truth.

Radical Love and Žižek’s Ethics of Singularity

Last April, I presented a paper at the first ever Žižek Studies conference hosted by Verso Books, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, and SUNY Brockport in New York. I presented this paper with my colleagues at the European Graduate School in a panel on Žižek’s ethics and theory of subjectivity.

By the grace of the big Other, this paper won first place and I got a free copy of Žižek new book on Hegel, Less Than Nothing. It was an amazing conference with serious philosophers from around the world. I was truly honored to have been able to participate and meet Žižek for the first time in person. He was exceedingly generous.

You can read it here, and by clicking on the logo below:

On Žižek’s “Less Than Nothing” and Determinate Negation in Google Ideas

Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism is Žižek’s most serious, all encompassing, and might I add, most well-structured work to date. While it does not announce a methodology for ideology critique as The Submie Object of Ideology, it consists of a series of problematization’s of every prior and current reader/reading of Hegel in a way that does not over-scrutinize Hegel too close to the details, but that sticks to many of the same ideas that Žižek has been developing for several years. This work is his best yet because it seems to achieve a kind of freeing of thought through interventions into ecology, ethico-political problems, sexuality all the while pitching the arguments from a highly nuanced and informed grasp of German idealist / philosophical problems such as negation, Understanding, reality, ontology and so on.

In “the big fat book” Žižek’s arguments and digressions breathe in and out in usual Žižekian fashion, however, the transitions between topics are not didactic as we find in his shorter more popular books such as Violence and Living in the End Times. Nor do the transitions from one topic to the next go too far afield or become nonsensical or even repetitive. They are focused and helpful. Žižek’s philosophy, when it is at its most original is still easy to read compared to say Deleuze or Badiou. I admire this about Žižek, however, it does lead me to remember less of his core arguments after I have finished the text. There is something about the struggle of philosophy that sticks with you, and at times, Žižek’s lucidity eludes me, his clarity goes beyond me. I read page after page and feel fine as it sinks in, but sometimes I feel empty after the race. Reading a thinker such as Hegel, or Badiou, is a slow and methodical, albeit structured and well argued series of proofs and propositions. Žižek is a race track thrill ride and he seems to err towards clarity through providing multiple extrapolations and examples. If Žižek were more like Badiou and more systematic, he would lay out his theses in advance and not jont through a series of digressions, jokes, and references to films. This style, however, is infectious, and as Adrian Johnston points out, there is a deep pattern and consistent philosophy at play. You could say that Johnston did for Žižek what Badiou tried to do for Deleuze; making their thought about a more singular series of primary philosophical comittments that return throughout all of their multitudinous interventions into cinema, pop culture, politics, etc.

Despite these reservations, Less Than Nothing is structured quite coherently in fact. It begins and ends with the practical political circumstances in today’s thought and takes us to the three great moments of philosophy, or the three great figures that philosophy was unable to move beyond: Plato, Descartes, and Hegel. We still stand at the precipice of the Hegelian moment, for Žižek, (an argument that he never fully articulates) because continental thought is still in a mode of response to Hegel. There are many who strongly disagree with this sentiment: deconstructionists, Heideggerians, and of course analytic philosophers, however, it’s worth reading the text to make up your own mind, and I’m still working on it!

What we do find is an honest attention to what Hegel cannot think, which includes the following:

Repetition – it is the movement of contingency, and is idealized into material consistency. Caeser had to die to emerge as Caeser the universal title.

The unconscious – Hegel can think the unconscious, but it is a formal transcendental unconscious. It is the formal – when we think we forget the universal form, this is Hegel’s form of unconscious. The structure of over-determination.

Truth and jouissance – The problem of jouissance as irreducible to truth.

The problem of mathematics – He reduced math to abstract reasoning. He argued that math is unable to conceive of true infinity.

Postmodern capitalism – When Hegel describes modern economy he was unable to think it all the way through because of objective social circumstances.

Objet petit a – and this is ultimately the motivation for the Less Than Nothing title of the text. Like the Fichtean Anstoss, which is uncannily close to Lacan’s object petit a, a stand in for a void, and the object cause of desire. We can only think the Anstoss, we cannot know it, just like object small a.

Sexual difference – Hegel is unable to think sexual difference in the mode of Lacan’s radical intervention; as in ideas such as “woman’s is man’s symptom.”

Despite these fairly major limitations, Žižek brings Hegel studies into a new domain, and goes beyond he predominant Hegelians of recognition, particularly the St. Louis school. One of the most consistent bones of contention is Robert Pippin, the American Hegelian who makes a point to “defend the bourgeois way of life” and who’s book on Kant and Hegel, The Persistence of Subjectivity becomes a sort of home base for continually setting the record straight on Hegel scholarship. While if Zizek’s primary critique of Hegel scholarship were the American thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and other Leo Straussians then we might label his effort a sort of tilting at windmills. But he also detects misreading’s of Hegel in thinkers such as Derrida, who’s reading of Hegelian temporality is riddled with holes, as well as Žižek’s other two primary interlocutors; Lacan and Marx. While dedicating a sizable series of reflections and writing on Lacan’s evolution as a thinker who abandoned Hegel, and who moreover promoted a type of Heideggerian-Hegel vis-a-vis Kojeve; Žižek brings the point of abandonment of Hegel for Lacan into greater focus. What we find in Žižek’s reading of the late Lacan is in short a thinker who was never able to discover the formula that discovered the secret of desire. Lacan ended in failure.

There are certain repeating Hegelian gems for philosophy that Žižek brings out time and again throughout the text. For starters, Hegel is the only German idealist who was able to radicalize Kant’s separation between phenomena and noumena and then literalize the problem inherent to phenomena themselves. For Hegel, “behind the curtain of phenomena, there is only what we put there (Phenomenology of Spirit). There is an inherent inconsistency of all phenomena at an ontological level which is why we have an inability to experience the transcendental in-Itself. This inability to experience the in-Itself out of the inconsistency of the ontological reality is what forms the subject’s freedom.

Admittedly, Hegel could only think the evil of capitalism from an individual’s point of view and not from a systemic point of view, there is thus a perhaps valid overlap with conservatives today who posit Hegel as the philosopher of recognition and individualized markets, etc. While ascribing economic meltdowns and major unemployment, stock market crashes to just “a few bad apples” is constitutive of ideology at its purest in that it affirms the “individual critique”, Žižek points out a nice distinction for how, despite the fact that Hegel could not think concepts such as pure domination, or even the idea of a dispotif of hegemonic power and control, (vis a vis Foucault and Agamben) he was able to think the overcoming of capitalism from the standpoint of the immanent theory of negation. Hegel’s -and Marx’s for that matter- understanding of work cannot be transferred to the new post-industrial situation we face today, because he did not see the factory or the way that abstraction would impinge upon workers.

Much of the text describes -in intricate attention to nuance in Hegel- the precise way that dialectics happens, and most of the examples are incredibly insightful. Žižek attacks the cartoon version of Hegel, where the dialectic consists of a “synthesis of opposites”; that all too familiar dialectical procedure that seeks to promote reconciliation through a “balancing of the extreme poles.” This approach, which was perhaps popularized by thinkers such as Jung, misses for Žižek, what the nature of negation really is. There consists in any negation of negation a prior negation inherent in the object itself.

Implicit in reconciliation is a shift in perspective. The negation of negation is nothing other than a shift in perspective. The problem of the “idealist” type of reconciliation is a pseudo balancing of the extremes. Take the issue of fundamentalism. Our solution to solving fundamentalism is to strike a balance with permissive individualism; to shift our perspective and promote a recognition that the fundamentalist is a reaction to a discord between a return to another communal way of life, a rejection of modernity. What this idea misses is the idea of determinate negation, which points out that the problem of negation is immanent to one form. The shift of perspective that constitutes negation of negation is thus a move from bad to worse, or a move from objective to subjective. This move reveals the radicality of Hegel, who did the same thing to the object. The phenomena, the Thing in-Itself becomes that which blocks access to itself. The question is not, how do I know God, but how does God develop in humans knowledge about himself? The absolute itself is broken. This loose shift in perspective, this immanent move is what completes the dialectical process. It ends in a space for subjective freedom because the subject is included in its movement.

Is this move not what Google Ideas needs to incorporate into their ongoing work on countering violent extremism? This think tank is premised on the idea that if we put former radicals (KKK members, al-Qaeda terrorists, IRA, and others committed to violent radical causes) that we can begin to develop a series of data both subjectively and empirically about the causes of radicalization and thus end violence. The think tank is predicated on the notion that reality that violent extremism presents us with a non-traditional data set: most terrorists post-9/11 in Islamic contexts are from well educated western lifestyles and are not the result of stark poverty but may be the thought leaders who seek to inspire those impoverished in Muslim countries with nothing left to lose.

The premise behind Google Ideas is that violent extremism can be fought if we recognize the inner human behind every former radical; that there is a certain fundamental malleability to identification with violent extremism. What is needed, aside from this recognition, are programs to bring the potentially radicalized subjects into new ways of identification with western society as such: gangs that promote good, the arts, music, etc. to re-direct the libidinal drive of passion that leads to radicalization into programs that have former radicals steering the agenda and making the rules up so they feel authentic and can integrate the subject’s foreign identity into the west more harmoniously.

The solution is thus to promote a more harmonious integration of individuals from the target group into society. The point of determinate negation in this matrix would be located within the permissive individualism that produces the subject of potential wild violence. The typical reading of the negation of negation is that the first negation is a splitting of particularization of the inner essence, its externalization, and the second negation the overcoming of that split. This mode of negation of negation has led Mao and Stalin to criticize Hegel for a magical happy ending that is predestined. For Hegel, the negation of negation does not involve a type of re-inscribing of the excess, or the symptom, or formerly alienated substance. On the contrary, the negation of negation is a more radical gesture which has to do with assuming the failure inherent in the universal itself. The shift of perspective needed to produce a dialectical sublation to the situation of Google Ideas is thus not to precisely to problematize the universal integration model as the site where the production of the symptom of radicalization takes place.

Panel at 2012 Žižek Studies Conference: “The Perverted Subject Does (not) Exist: Subjectivity and Žižek’s Ethics”

I’m very happy to announce a panel I’m putting together at the 2012 Žižek Studies Conference, “Neo-liberal Perversions: Fantasy and Gaze in Contemporary Culture” at the College at Brockport (SUNY) April 28-29, 2012.

At the recommendation of the conference director, Antonio Garcia (a great guy), I invited a few friends from the European Graduate School to present papers on Žižek’s ethics under the “Other” track. I think the papers that our team has come up with look very promising.

My own paper is based in part on a piece I wrote for the San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies, “The Object of Proximity” when I was a graduate student at American University.

I hope that you can join us for what promises to be an incredible conference. Oh, and did I mention that Žižek will be there too?

Go here to register. The registration should be up by March 5th at the latest.

Here is what we came up with, see description of the panel and the title of each paper below.

Panel Abstract:

As Žižek reminds us, in his work on ethics, when faced with the ethical injunction “to love thy neighbor as thyself,” the postmodern multiculturalist approach keeps at bay the proximity of the neighbor, opting for an experience of the decaffeinated, “PC other”. For Lacan, a subject truly encounters the Other not when one discover her values, dreams, and wishes, but when the subject encounters the neighbor as jouissance. This encounter is characterized as monstrous, traumatic, and inhabiting the dimension of the real. It also becomes the founding of all ethics, as that which throws the subject out of joint.

Ultimately, the other of the real does not exist, and no reciprocal exchange is possible. In order to render bearable our coexistence with the thingness of the other in the real, we turn to the symbolic order that is either deprived of this monstrous thingness resulting in a flat, Habermasian lifeless and regulated sphere of communication, devoid of desire, or an excessive desire that is unable to be assimilated into the symbolic and teetering on fantasy.

Žižek does not waver in his radical call to stay true to loving the neighbor qua traumatic thing, a position he finds support for in the Old Testament and St. Paul. As one of our presenters will argue, Žižek’s subject is able to step out of the symbolic and into what German idealism called “radical negativity,” making his ethics one tied not to a lethal suicidal submersion into the thing, but one that desires a radical break with the fantasmatic coordinates of the symbolic.

This panel is the result of an ongoing debate and exchange amongst students of Žižek at the European Graduate School. We propose nothing less than a dialogue on and examination of Žižek’s ethical theory by working through his core concepts of subjectivity, otherness, and the way in which other psychoanalysts and continental thinkers inform his theory.

The paradoxical position of the subject constituted via the non-relation to the Other will orient the panel. What does the shrugging off of the big Other and fantasy imply for ethics? Does the other exist in Žižek’s ethical framework? One presenter claims that Žižek’s insistence upon Hegelian repetition is rooted in a theory of a subject that indeed exists; the perverted subject, that stems largely from a latent influence of the philosophers of life, specifically Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze.

Our presenters will approach the question of the perverted subject from a number of different angles. One paper poses the notion of “distributed desire” as the emblematic feature of Badiou’s “faithful subject” emerging from the Event, putting into question Žižek’s perverted subject. Other papers will look at Žižek’s ambiguous allegiance to Paulinian militant ethics, examining the deadlock in today’s political theology, and looking towards a new conception of alterity. To complement our more theoretical presentations, the panel is excited to examine Žižek’s notions of alterity via popular culture, by asking: “Is Žižek Fanon for White People?”


Bree Wooten, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Repetition in Hegel: The Perverted Subject Exists”

Am Johal, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Is Žižek Fanon For White People? Reading Žižek Through Fanon”

George Elerick, Graduate Student at Exeter University, “The (dis)crete Psycho-Trauma in the Double-Return of the Other”

Panel Chair: Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, FRCP(C), FAPA, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “This Desire That Isn’t Mine: Distributed Desire and the Consciousless Subject”

Daniel Tutt, PhD Candidate at European Graduate School, “Radical Love and Žižek’s Ethics of Singularity”

Justin Joque, University of Michigan Libraries / European Graduate School, “The Third and the Other: Towards a Žižekian Ethic of Networked Life”

Are Catastrophes Virtual? – Žižek Up Close

Last night I went up to the University of Pennsylvania to listen to Žižek lecture on the virtuality of catastrophes. I kept my fingers crossed that the talk would present some new material, for which it did. I got the impression that his next big work (aside from the Hegel tome) will be at the intersection of ethics and otherness studies. It just so happens that was the topic of my graduate thesis, so I was happy. It also just so happens that out of an audience of over 1,500 two questions were asked, for which mine was one of them!

Here you can watch my question and Žižek’s response. I ask him two questions: one about the tea party, (which he did not answer) and the second about ethics and how to transcend the fragile and sentimentalized mode of engaging the other.

The Precarious Other and the Human

He opened with a nice critique of Judith Butler’s ethical project and conflated it with Levinas’. His primary point was not in and of itself radically new for Žižek, if you follow his ethical theory, however, the connection that he made from Butler and Levinas’ ethics, which he referred to as “precariousness nature of subjectivity” to liberalism and to democratic capitalism was quite new and interesting.

While Žižek himself remains committed to the Lacanian notion of alterity – i.e. that the founding moment of ethics occurs in the encounter with the other. That encounter throws me out of joint, it disturbs me in so far as my desire always remains the desire of the other. Žižek argues that Levinas and Butler actually go to support the same kind of engagement with the other that liberal democratic capitalism supports in its ideological construction of otherness.

The other in the liberal mode is either imbued with a certain fear (the creation of the fundamentalist / terrorist) or the other is to be condescendingly saved (the image of the starving child). The problem remains not so much what the other appears as, but that the very mode of engaging an other that is idealized leads to the creation to and participation in a system of ideological domination over the very conception of alterity.

What Žižek points out is that the liberal hegemonic mode of confronting the traumatic encounter with the other is itself a disavowal of the monstrosity of the other. This then leads one to think that Žižek is after developing a procedural ethics for how to engage the other that does remain authentic, that does confront the monstrosity of the other without disavowing the gaze.

I don’t think he offers such a procedure, however, he did offer some nice pointers. For starters, he pointed out a very interesting connection to a book by Derrida, The Animal the I am reveals how our gaze of the animal is built largely off of the Cartesian premise of the animal as a machine, as an almost soulless entity – but when we look at the animal’s face we are presented with an even more abyssal monstrosity of our own alterity than when we encounter the face of the other human. The animal presents a pure screen to see the encounter with the real that is deprived of any jouissance (desire surplus).

Without getting into the technicalities of Lacanian theory – Zizek referred multiple times to the need for an intervention into the exchange with the other that allows for a fulfillment of this desire-surplus. What I think this implies is that the moment of desire surplus in the exchange with the other can lead to the development of a structured ideological predicament.

This notion of being able to put oneself into the presence of the other, to see what the other would want from me becomes a key point. For Kant, the problem of the human was the very idea that human freedom was turned unto itself. Man is that being who experiences such radical freedom that nature itself is actually turned against man.

Meme’s and Ideology

Any reader of Zizek would know that his notion of the ideological system relies on a very challenging premise – that knowing is not enough. It isn’t enough because we are always caught up in a sort of fetishist disavowal. Perfect example is that if you were to take an average participant in the financial system and tell them that the way that business is conducted will lead to a meltdown, that would not lead anyone to actually change their behavior and opt out of that system.

This remains a major problem of Zizek’s critique, this notion of a herd mentality – because his critique is not simply left to what rational choice theory and game theory could figure out already. Rather, he seems to be saying something much more radical — what I would summarize in the following way:

1. We must escape the confines of legalist answers to the problems of global warming, biogenetics, migration and refugees, and to natural disasters. These problems transcend the capacity of legalistic protocols, and the very notion of positing a systemic critique runs afoul – the reason that it runs afoul is that we are caught in the ideological system itself – although this point ought to be developed at greater length.

2. Humanity must learn to live more plastically in order to begin to escape the ideological confines. For example, the desire to recycle is founded in a particular view of the earth as an entity that we control in some direct way when in reality we are alienated by mother nature to a degree that we fundamentally lose sight of real environmental problems.

What felt most rewarding was the final point made – that with the way of our “expert-based” society we have lost touch with thinking for thinking’s sake. Every discipline is now commodified, is now packaged with an expert risk management association – the world of pure theory is alive and vibrant. It may be the last refuge in a world gone awry.

The Subject Rendered Bare: Biogenetics and the Ontological Impact on Psychic Subjectivity

Download into pdf, “The Subject Rendered Bare” w/ full citations

Scientific advances in biotechnology from the psychoanalytic tradition pose epistemological and ontological problems impacting the way that subjectivity itself is constituted. The point of interference into the subject of genetic enhancements, or the subject made “self objectified” by the rendering transparent of their genetic code, is in the “structure of self reference,” i.e. the relationship between one’s genetic substance and their environment. With the technological capacity to render bare one’s genetic code, this reality fundamentally changes the way subjects relate to themselves, the way that one “chooses himself” in relationship to his environs, as well as to (what he perceives as) his “nature.”

The impact of biogenetic interventions onto subjectivity occur precisely in the structure of “self reference,” and as such pose potential ontological problems that contest the very basis of desire, the ontology of the subject, and ethical praxis generally. The position that adopts genetic determinism, or the attitude of, “I am fully determined by my genetic makeup” does not directly threaten the subject’s ontological status, rather it is in the way the subject relates to others both responsible for that genetic enhancement, and to others in society that changes the contours of autonomy, freedom and dignity.

Out of the psychoanalytic tradition, the specter of biogenetic interventions reveals the ontological status of the subject all along, “when faced with the genome I am nothing and this nothing is the subject itself.” In Slavoj Žižek’s critique of biotechnology, he locates three primary problems of biotechnological advances. Examination into the way that human nature is developed in the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and Lacan is strengthened by charting a theoretical legacy stretching back to German idealism, mainly the thought of Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, which offers a framework for understanding the ways that biogenetics impact the ontology of psychic subjectivity. This combinatory reading of psychoanalysis with German idealism reveals four overarching threats to the ontological status of subjectivity.

Firstly, biogenetic interventions change the ontological status of the subject of technological manipulations, i.e. subjects of biogenetic interventions run the risk of being “dedifferentiated” as objects of nature to be manipulated. Secondly, the specter of a dedifferentiated subjectivity induced by biogenetic interventions has the capacity to prevent the subject from their capacity to “self differentiate” because it interferes with the freedom and autonomy of choice and act. Self-differentiation is a structural necessity for grounding one’s freedom and autonomy in Schelling and Lacan’s ontological account of the formation of subjectivity and the unconscious. In the psychoanalytic account of subjectivity, the subject “chooses” their unconscious configuration through a process of self-differentiation from their drives, as evident in Lacan’s conception of the “act.” Since biotechnological advances pose a potential “dedifferentiation” of the subject with bare life, biotechnology blurs this ontological process, thus dedifferentiating the very conception of human nature and what makes humanity unique.

Thirdly, biogenetic interventions disturb identity making in the Schellingian-Lacanian tradition that posit “contractive self-sameness,” because it prevents the capacity for radical differentiation of oneself from substance (institutions, culture, the life world) and the drives. The impact of this interference into human freedom and autonomy hampers the subject’s ability to ground an authentically free new beginning. Unlike Habermas’ use of Hannah Arendt’s natality, (applicable to the political axiom) “contractive self-sameness” posits an ontological threat to identity making in the realm of the socio-symbolic, and this threat is imminent with the specter of biogenetic interventions.

Fourthly, the ontological threat of biogenetic interventions changes the way that desire functions. The biogenetically determined subject suffers from a breakdown in the openness of desire: all of a sudden “everything becomes clear,” there is no longer any enigmatic X to sustain our desire. The subject is “thrown out of joint” in relation to their ethical commitment to the Other and takes on what Lacan refers to as the “being of drive.”

The Dedifferentiated Subject of Biogenetic Intervention

In Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Žižek levels an important criticism of Jürgen Habermas’ project in The Future of Human Nature, in which Habermas argues that biogenetic interventions pose a threat to the ethical self understanding of the species. Žižek points to a much more fundamental predicament that biogenetics presents, mainly that we already live in a world whereby we know enough about our genetic code prior to any intervention into that code. Habermas is then posing the wrong solution by formulating an ethics that excludes scientific advances that threaten autonomy and human dignity and in the process, “pretending and acting as if this is not the case” so as to protect our dignity. What unites Habermas and Žižek in their assessment of biogenetic interventions is their commitment to following through with the enlightenment project, whereby “a new figure of freedom will emerge when we follow science to the end.”

The way that technology has influenced subjectivity since the time of Socrates has revolved around the notion that the bare life (Zoe), or the dark “thing-in-itself” that constitutes human essence has been the basis by which humanity realizes its life force. Coming after the Socratic shift, Aristotle sought for bare life to be mastered and cultivated through the organization of the life-world. Habermas, Lacan, and Zizek, have all shown, through processes of modernization human beings have been able to master life through technology.

However, bare life returns to haunt humanity in biotechnological advances, particularly those into the genome. Biotechnology reverses the pre-modern problem of either externally encountering the thing-in-itself as an opaque essence or partaking in essence through a pantheism that relies on a metaphysical order. In genetic interventions we find ourselves firmly within the rawness of bare life, having the preconditions of our capabilities set by our genetic profile. The essence of the subject’s bare life is thus “dedifferentiated” from the life-world because the macro processes of daily life are grounded in the micro relations of our genetic material. The philosophical challenge thus arises that what once vanished into the thing-in-itself and made the thing-in-itself appear opaque to phenomenal experience, humanity is domesticated and rendered visible as a technical object of technological inquiry. The shift then is an epistemological shift in how the human can be presented given that the life-world and bare life now coalesce.

Man relies on nature and the paradox remains that there is only man in so far as there is a nature. Biogenetics reduces man to another natural object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. Biotechnological interventions predetermine the socio-symbolic substance of the (talent and cognitive enhancements, etc.) expose the subject to what Žižek refers to as the subject’s bare life, or the state of, “I am my genes.” To Habermas, the genetic programming of human beings represents a domination of nature and a potentially negative self empowering of man, thus changing our self-understanding as members of the species – and perhaps touching upon a necessary condition for an autonomous conduct of life and a universalistic understanding of morality.

The “shift” in ethical self-understanding follows the shift in the understanding of human nature in the (natural) sciences. The implications of this shift for Žižek present an ontological crisis for the subject of bioethical interventions. Where human beings had previously found a way to master nature in technology, now humans and nature are one and the same through the making visible and controllable of the genome. This process of “dedifferentiation” that Habermas discusses in the Future of Human Nature suggests a crisis for the ontological status of the subject because there is a direct confrontation between scientific breakthroughs and humanist values, i.e. genetic predisposition confronts human dignity and autonomy. The shift Habermas is noting here follows the shift in the understanding of human nature in the (natural) sciences. Where human beings had previously found a way to master nature in technology, now humans and nature are one and the same amorphous collection of genes.

The Psychoanalytic Basis of Human Nature

How does this epistemological coalescence with bare life and the life world lead to an ontological impact on the basis of subjectivity? A reading into the psychoanalytic theory of subjectivity and human freedom reveals the way that desire and the drives form their relationship to human nature. Human nature, from the psychoanalytical tradition is thoroughly denaturalized, or subjectivated upon its traumatic confrontation with a symbolic realm of images and signifiers. Lacan develops a radical account of human nature in the twenty-first and twenty-fourth seminars, where he posits that human nature itself is unnatural, and that there is something within human nature itself that is unnatural, i.e. it’s unnaturalness is not constituted solely on its traumatic confrontation with the symbolic castration. In other words, as Adrian Johnston writes, “it must be in the nature of the subject’s nature to be receptive to this blow (symbolic castration) and its repercussions.” The “blow” that symbolic castration gives to the very denaturalized process of naturalization, or entry into the socio-symbolic order is the very process of subjectification.

How Lacan defines nature is intimately connected to how he conceives of the “nonexistent sexual relationship” thesis, and both ideas are rooted in challenging the standard ontological account of human nature as rooted in harmony and wholeness. For Lacan, human nature has a direct impact on liberty and freedom for the subject. In Seminar eighteen, Lacan points out that the freedom enjoyed by the autonomous subject is made possible by “the lack of an integrated organic foundation as the grounding basis of this subject’s being.”

The subject dedifferentiated with nature from biogenetic interventions is thrown into an ontological predicament that establishes the subject’s relation to their own symbolic castration, i.e. to their own symbolic substance, rendering palpable the social situation that eludes their core being. Because

“nature can attain itself, its self-identity, only at the price of a radical decenterment: it can only find itself in a medium outside itself,” the subject of biogenetic intervention may no longer be able to access their core being.

Lacan refers to this elusive core being as that which is “in the subject more than the subject,” their thingness, or object petit a, that kernel within itself that is something foreign to itself. A subject deprived of the mysterious excess within them, their object petit a must develop a radically new way of understanding their own freedom. Traditionally, all identity consists of a gap between the positive properties of the person, what is known about that person, and the mysterious properties that sustain that person’s future, that something more in the subject. How that something more is interfered with can be understood when looking at the example of Huntington’s disease. With advances in the Genome, anyone with a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s disease is able to not only know whether they have the terminal disease but in many cases, doctors are able to determine the exact degree of life that person will have, when they will die, etc. Regardless of whether the subject chooses to know their fate, or does not choose to know, the mere fact that an Other knows about the status of my genetic fate makes my elusive thingliness more intangible. This erasure of my own capacity to be free from the Other’s knowledge about my own genetic life interferes with the something in me that is more than me.

Schelling and Self-Differentiation

The influence of the metapsychological philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling has been profoundly absorbed by psychoanalysis, particularly Lacan’s account of human nature and the transcendental materialist emergence of subjectivity. In Schelling’s metapsychological texts Ages of the World and the Weltater, the ontogenesis of psychic subjectivity is put forward in dramatic mythical and theological terms. Schelling’s idea of freedom is structurally dependent on a radical capacity for freedom, but the ground by which freedom is constituted is split and lacking, similar to Lacan’s account. For a subject to be lacking in autonomy, it is the result of a lack of capacity to be determined by the substance that the subject desperately seeks to self-differentiate from. This capacity to self differentiate is an ontological structural necessity for the Lacanian-Schellingian theory of subjectivity, as Adrian Johnston points out in the “Ghosts of Substance Past

“being gives birth to the non-being of a desire which, although it owes its existence to being, seeks to achieve a relative autonomy with respect to it.”

Put into Lacanian terms, the transition from the real ground to the reality of existence occurs in a barred real, that is a real that is always already out of joint. The “ground” by which the subject constitutes itself is already structurally an excess within being. The excess of being desires an exit via negation, (the process of differentiation from ground) whereby the subject breaks free from their drives. It is this break with the drives that makes true subjectivity possible.

This break with the chaotic forces of the drives ends up being a conscious choice, or what Lacan refers to as an “act.” The idea of a conscious choosing of one’s own unconscious is akin to the position that Freud adopted when he wrote that the subject “chooses their neuroses.” In both Freud and Schelling, the subject exists prior to symbolic castration without subjectivity and the unconscious, “the unconscious and the subject are co-emergent, owing their existence to the same ontogenetic factors.” In other words, “no subject(ification) is possible without the unconscious.” The subject’s atemporal founding gesture of its own consciousness remains forever out of grasp because the act remains behind the veil of repression that structures all reality after the moment of mergence into the socio-symbolic realm. This structural necessity that founds the unconscious is kept unconscious, according to Schelling because it produces a horror of freedom for the subject, or an “abyss of freedom” that can never be realized.

How might this ontological mergence into the socio-symbolic impact the dedifferentiation of the biogenetic subject? By interfering with the bare life (embodied existence) of the individual,

“the ontogenetic ground out of which full subjectivity emerges is linked to the embodied existence of the individual. Moreover, the emergent subjectivity possesses a degree of freedom in so far as its drive-ridden nature bequeaths to it the absence of a natural programme.”

This basic “absence” of the subject’s natural programme is what Lacan refers to as lack. Unlike Kant, freedom does not arise from a special faculty in the noumenal realm that possesses an innate capacity for autonomy – rather; freedom arises for the psychoanalytical subject precisely as a consequence of the incomplete and deficient harmonization of the various faculties forming the individual’s subjectivity. What we have then is a biogenetic subject that may lack the freedom and autonomy required to perform the negation of their ground precisely because they may remain conscious of the determined interventions into their genetic code, which they perceive to determine their very nature.

The Capacity to Make a New Beginning

Schelling’s notion of “contractive self-sameness” points out how the subject can only actualize itself against substance (spirit, culture, institutions) by positing a totally contingent process of self-differentiation between its ground and drives. This fundamental tension that founds identity is also the founding of the unconscious itself. In this founding gesture of consciousness, the means by which a subject chooses itself, i.e. the “act of identity” is determined by the multitude of the drives. As Schelling points out, “if, in making a decision, somebody retains the right to reexamine his choice, he will never make a beginning at all.” In the moment of “making a beginning” through the founding gesture of identity formation, the genetically enhanced person could lose hold in the capacity of autonomy needed to make a beginning.

This capacity for the subject of biogenetics to make a new beginning is reminiscent of Habermas use of Arendt’s natality. Arendt’s concept of “natality” is the central category for political and not metaphysical thought for Arendt, it represents the primordial possibility to act, the infinite possibility to be something new. Since biogenetic interventions limit the subject’s capacity to make a new beginning, the role of freedom is central in both natality and contractive self-sameness.

As we have seen from the psychoanalytic tradition thus far, biogenetics doesn’t necessarily change the status of the subject; it is the way that the structure of self-reference is interfered with in the subject’s socio symbolic substance that poses the ontological threat to subjectivity. As Žižek points out, freedom remains a part of the real but the agent requires a degree of agency to assume a free distance towards the act of realizing ones own freedom.

“Freedom can become the predicate of a subject only in so far as the subject accomplishes the act of self-differentiation by means of which it posits itself as grounded in and simultaneously different from its contracted substance: a free subject has to have a ground that is not itself; it has first to contract this ground and then to assume a free distance toward it via the act of primordial decision that opens up time.”

Since human freedom is fundamentally barred from the subject’s consciousness and its very ontological ground is founded on an abyssal unconscious relation to the register of the real, how do biogenetic interventions impact this process of realizing the appropriate space or distance towards one’s subjective freedom?
Genetic interventions interfere with the very normative ground of human freedom and thus problematize the standard conception of human freedom. The Schellingian-Lacanian-Zizekian tradition shows that there is no positive/realizable version of human freedom, and the ontological process is structurally embedded on a failure of access to one’s own freedom. The subject realizes itself in relation to an abyss of freedom it can never fully fathom. On the liberal side of the argument, some have argued that genetic interventions might be a way to realize the “abyss of freedom.” The problem with this argument in favor of accessing the abyss of freedom as revealed in one’s genetic code is that this process interferes with the way that desire functions.

Desire and the “Being of Drive”

As we have developed up to this point, the Lacanian subject is founded on a negative ontological gesture conditioned by the drives. The rendering visible of the genetic code threatens to disturb that thing that is in the subject more than the subject, what Lacan refers to as object petit a. Object a is also what sets desire in motion. It confers the consistency of our desire, and as such, it serves as a mediator between jouissance and desire. The subject makes itself an object out of itself. In this sense, the subject who makes herself the Other’s object-cause of desire becomes her own cause. With the specter of the subject of biogenetic intervention that is made aware of the basis of their genetic code (as in the example of Huntington’s disease) there is a breakdown in the openness of desire. All of a sudden, “everything becomes clear,” there is no longer any enigmatic X to sustain our desire. The subject of biogenetic intervention is thrown out of joint to their ethical commitment to the Other and takes on what Lacan refers to as the “being of drive.”

The “being of drive” is strikingly similar to the way that the coalescence between the bare life subject of biogenetics as a tool of scientific manipulation and the being of drive operates. As Žižek claims, science “doesn’t think,” it “knows”, ignoring the dimension of truth, and is as such drive at its purest. Within psychoanalysis, this knowledge of drive, which can never be subjectivized, assumes the form of knowledge of the subject’s “fundamental fantasy,” the specific formula which regulates his or her access to jouissance. That is to say, desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, exclusive even: desire’s raison d’etre is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire. How is it possible nonetheless to couple desire and jouissance, to guarantee a minimum of jouissance within the space of desire? This is made possible by the famous Lacanian object a that mediates between the incompatible domains of desire and jouissance.

As the example of Huntington’s disease shows, even if I didn’t want to know my genetic constitution, the Other still knows and his knowledge of my genetic fate fundamentally changes the way that desire operates. The fundamental issue becomes, how do we “protect the Other from pain, of keeping him in protective ignorance.” This predicament then presents the subject with the truth of their condition all along. The very contours of psychic subjectivity are forced into a confrontation with the real and blocked from the object petit a that sustains their desire.

“The confrontation with the meaningless real of the genome thus obliterates the fantasy screen through which I perceive reality: in the formula of the real I am compelled to directly access the real.”

The subject is forced into a position reminiscent of Hegel’s “infinite judgment” the spirit is a bone, this subjective attitude is revealed in the condition of “I am my genetic makeup. In a way this argument brings us back full circle to confronting the ethical impasse of Habermas’ “hyphen ethics” or how to orient ethics in the face of biogenetic infinite judgment. Žižek argues that it is incumbent to follow this logic of infinite judgment to its end and not posit the overarching challenge as one of ethics (as Habermas does) but to notice how the predominate issue should be to follow the enlightenment project to its logical end where, “a new figure of freedom will emerge when we follow science to the end.”

The real danger of biogenetic interventions, if not a matter of ethics is addressing the socio-economic context from which it operates. As Žižek points out, when biogenetic uses are co-opted by the “interests of corporate capital and of the state agencies tempted to rely on it in order to increase their control of the population,” the very coordinates of the liberal-democratic subject disappears.


Biogenetic advances impact subjectivity in the realm of the “structure of self reference,” meaning that the way these technologies are perceived will have the largest impact on the socio-symbolic substance of the subject. In the realm of psychic subjectivity, this potential impact entails an utterly concrete form of power exerted over the subject. With the specter of biogenetic interventions, the psychoanalytic tradition reveals that it is not so much that we lose our freedom and dignity but that we realize we never had it in the first place. If we follow infinite judgment (”I am my genes”) to its logical conclusion, based on the progress of scientific advancement into the genetic code, then we must not seek to invent entirely new ethical codes.
When we engage on a new path, full of dangers and shattering new insights, we need to stick to old established rules as a practical guide for our daily lives, although we are well aware that the new insights will compel us to provide a fresh foundation for our entire ethical edifice.

Thus Žižek rejects Habermas’ clinging to “old humanist mores” and a “common language of rational morals” that rejects science, in favor of following science through to its very end. The ethical question, in light of Žižek’s position remains twofold, how might we change the structure of self-reference, and how might this change then inform new notions of freedom, responsibility, and autonomy?

Works Cited

Adrian Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, 2008, Northwestern University Press.

F.W.J. Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 2006 State University of New York, NY.

Johnston, Adrian, Ghosts of Substance Past: Schelling, Lacan, and the Denaturalization of Nature, 2006 Verso Press, New York, NY.

Žižek, Slavoj, Parallax View, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 2008

Hourigan, Daniel, Biotech Fantasia, Borderland Journal, Griffith University, Australia. 2007.

Žižek, Slavoj, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences, Northwestern University Press, Boston, MA. 2004

Žižek, Slavoj, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters, Northwestern University Press, Boston, MA. 1996.

Stratchey, James, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, Hogarth Press. 1998.

Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Sinthome 1975 – 1976. Ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, session 17 May 1977

Žižek, Slavoj, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World. University of Michigan, 2000.

Habermas, Jürgen, The Future of Human Nature, Polity Press, Malden, MA, 2005.

The Abyss of Freedom: Schelling and Lacan

Before philosophers have even spoke about the idea of freedom and autonomy for the subject, they have relied on a certain view of human nature. This view argues that the subject is at harmony with some sort of organic, balanced state of nature. That the subject is dependent on an integrated organic foundation of subjectivity. This integrated, or more accurately ‘materialist’ view of human nature is put into question when we combine the seemingly disparate thought of Schelling with Lacan. When seen in a Zizekian parallax reading, Lacan and Schelling provide compelling philosophical arguments for embracing a different view of subjectivity – an immaterial view of subjectivity.

The subject in this view is founded on an inherent lack, or in the ‘abyss’ of their own conception of freedom. In The Ghosts of Substance Past: Schelling, Lacan, and the Denaturalization of Nature Adrian Johnston reveals how when combining the German idealist tradition of Schelling and the ‘abyss of freedom’ with Lacanian theories of ‘lack and symbolic castration,’ a startling interconnection between this relationship between nature and subjectivity is revealed. Instead of the birth of a subject arising out of organic balance, a reading of Schelling shows that the lack of an integrated organic foundation to subjectivity is the very grounding basis of the subject’s being (Johnston, pg. 36).

Schelling proposes that there never was a balance state of nature caught in some sort of placid equilibrium. Rather, Schelling asserts that the beginning of any movement is predicated upon negation. This founding negation is not to say that his ontology is founded on ex nihlio (as some argue that Lacan’s is) but Schelling claims that the universe is composed of different negative drives, triebs that become starting points for negation. This may become clearer when we look at how God originates to Schelling: “It is only in taking a distance from the drives trieb that God comes to be himself.”

In Schelling there is a certain point at which the subject is constituted on his own pathology not through the unconscious, but through the advent of a representational-structural mediation that permits subjectivity to arise as what detaches itself from and transcends the turbulent immediacy of the drives. Or put differently, the subject arises out of the negative drives, or forces of the natural world in a way very similar to that of Lacan’s subject of the unconscious. To Lacan, no subjectivity is possible without the creation of an unconscious (Johnston, 43). As Johnston points out, Lacan’s theory of the act can be considered a conscious act. The act of the subject in determining their own unconscious relation to the big Other is an autonomous act itself. Furthermore, both Schelling and Lacan identify the real as riddled with cracks – that upon realization in the real of desire. Schelling refers to desire as a primordial force within the material real. Ideal spirituality, initially incarnated in desire is simultaneously independent of and dependent upon real materiality.

Thus it is clear that Lacan’s conception of autonomy, just as Schelling’s is thoroughly denaturalized. This ‘denaturalized’ view has implications for human freedom. Since immaterial subjectivity arises out of heteronomy autonomy arises as an excess that cannot be reinscribed back into the ontological register from which it grew. ‘Being’ in Schelling gives birth to a non-being of a desire which, although it owes its existence to being, seeks to achieve a relative autonomy with respect to it.

Thus, the truth of Schelling’s idea of freedom consists in the notion that to encounter human freedom as an “abyss” means that freedom is a matter left to the unconscious. The very specter of freedom is barred from consciousness as a defensive design rather than for structural reasons. To Schelling, freedom is groundless, there is no normative principle, or transcendent law. This is the same to say in Lacanese that the “big Other does not exist.”

Heidegger reads Schelling in a very different way than would have Lacan, even though Lacan never dealt directly with Schelling. Heidegger claims that Schelling showed above all else that “the nature of man is freedom.” That the ground of human essence is the very lack of a grounding nature and freedom thereby arises. A materialist paradigm at one with nature and in harmony with the natural world is then ruled out as utterly inconsistent, and shot through with antagonisms if we accept Schellings fundamental premises.

Some Problems with Zizek’s Account of Interpassivity

In a late capitalist world with our lives constantly bombarded by activity, interpassivity arises as a mode of fetishism that structures the symbolic space of our beliefs systems. An environment of constant activity results in what Lacan refers to as the “over-burdened demand to enjoy,” a build up of pressure from this demand causes the subject to delegate a level of passivity onto the scene of hyperactivity. Zizek points out in many places, particularly in his text On Belief how this “externalization of belief,” or interpassivity belongs to the realm of the symbolic, and enjoyment belongs to the realm of the real. Why? Because enjoyment can never reach homeostasis in the rush of activity and flux, enjoyment remains the object petit a, caught in an infinite tension around the object of desire, never reaching fulfillment, thus it remains part of the dimension of the real.

The clearest account of the Lacanian symbolic register is the example of Woody Allen’s public divorce with Mia Farrow. Allen is said to have dealt with the media in the same hyperactive, idiosyncratic ways that the characters in his films. A traditional psychoanalytic reading of this occurrence would argue that Woody Allen’s actions are merely repressed character traits of his own self put down onto the big screen, and then reappearing as a result of a psychical and emotional breakdown. The Lacanian reading would argue something different, that Allen’s incorporation of his symbolic behavior patterns from symbolic art is real life as such. The Lacanian subject is deprived of that which it believes to be the most intimate part of himself, and this happens in the realm of the symbolic. The symbolic is, after all “the only dimension that cures.”

What are the consequences of interpassivity on our own idea of subjectivity? Zizek claims that as interpassive subjects we are ambivalent and unsure to what extent we are able to give up part of our subjectivity in the required transfer with the other. Of course there are many different sorts of transfers of belief onto an other, the most common examples Zizek sites are that of canned laughter on television – an example that he gets from Lacan’s reading of Antigone and the role of the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. In ancient Greek tragedies the Chorus functions similar to how canned laughter functions on television sitcoms, the Chorus functioned as a sort of interpassivity itself, doing the work for the audience, establishing the way in which to respond to the play.

Zizek’s theory of interpassivity is from Hegel but Sartre also discussed passivity, what Zizek does is add a Lacanian twists. He defines interpassivity as “believing or enjoying through the other.” Interpassivity is the process, or mode of externalizing one’s beliefs onto an other, wherein one doesn’t merely believe through the other, but belief itself functions like a defense mechanism. Zizek frequently compares subjectivation to interpassivity to a wide range of examples from religous rituals such as Buddhist prayer flags,to the oft cited example of the Atheist scientist’s use of the mezuzah, who when asked why he still has it on his entryway to his fome even though he does not believe in God responds, “I have it there because I was told that it works even if you don’t believe.” The view of Zizek’s conception of religion is rooted in Feurbach who believed that religion is an externalized part of our own subjectivity. The main difference here is that interpassivity is a distinctly modern iteration of the emergence of “praxis” onto the scene of philosophy a la Marx.

In other examples of interpassivity Zizek looks at multiculturalism and projects that seek to promote tolerance as a form of interpassivity. In the example of the State sponsored ‘race-dialogues’ the subject is interpellated by the (false) universal value of the state. In the jump from belief to tolerance projects that subjectivize the subject, it is unclear if interpassivity functions in the same way? It also seems unclear how interpassivity functions as a defense mechanism and simultaneously as a mode of subjectivization.

Where does Zizek’s critique of ideology come into play in the realm of interpassivity? Ideology can be understood as the stand in for impossible real of externalized belief. Thus, ideology is the process of taking externalized belief as real, when it is in fact an externalized part of our consciousness, or subjectivity. The real will always resist reification and hypostatization. Seeing ideology as a form of fetishism is the very structure of all reality because fantasy relations inhabit all reality. Externalized belief itself is a form of reality that we have difficulty time disavowing and delegating to an other, as mentioned above, the interpassive transfer of belief onto an other creates a superego injunction of guilt, similar to that of the liberal injunction to ‘know my neighbor as thyself.’

The interpassive subject feels depleted and unable to contribute to the norms of social production and suffers from the hyperactive mental fatigue. Interactive life presents a superego injunction that cannot ever be fulfilled. The way to regain autonomy, or to shrug off the hyperactivity is to reflect on the delegation of enjoyment onto others. Start by affirming what we cannot affirm in the abyss of the other’s impenetrable desire.

Zizek: Beyond Foucault

What Fabio Vighi’s and Heiko Feldner’s fabulous new book, Zizek: Beyond Foucault points towards is akin to Hubert Dreyfus’ question on Foucault’s political project, “is there any way to make resistance positive to move toward a new economy of bodies and pleasure?” Is it possible to theorize resistance without the subject at the center of that resistance? In one reading, you could posit that in Foucault’s corpus, power takes the place of desire. In this sense, since power has an imminent nature, we enter a realm devoid of the possibility of negation, which makes sense in terms of Foucault’s refusal of dialectics in his treatment of historical change. “Since negation implies an intervention into the positive order with the goal of transforming that order, transgression leaves that which it changes untouched.” Foucault’s mode of resistance is based on transgression more so than on negation, as we will see, Zizek offers a model quite different, and more relevant to contemporary critical theory.

What Foucault did to western conceptions of power was to challenge the Freudian and Marxian strategies of locating power in the realm of a repressive, centered, and ultimately debilitating mode of oppression. What Zizek is doing to western conceptions of desire presents an even more tangible form of social resistance, and may be outstripping the relevance of the Foucauldian historicist approach to big theory solutions to social oppression and injustice. The concept of power is not simply rendered in negative terms, but more as a force utterly imminent to all social relations. The idea of bio-power operates via two general axioms: a procedure of discipline over the body, and secondly as a force exerted at the level of population, of species, life, and racial/ethnic control. This bipolar conception of power, or anatomic and biological, if you like, combine to decipher the primary nodes for controlling and reproducing bodies in modern society.

In Foucauldian thought, a society reaches its threshold of modernity when man looses her Aristotelian political existence and becomes subsumed into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population is conflated with economic processes. One of the key features of biopower is its capacity for normalization, and in many ways, this is the most ubiquitous form power has taken in the modern world. Conversely, the goal for Zizek’s critique of power is an approach rooted in seeking to identify with the repressed core of the ideological predicament. To Foucault, knowledge exists only where power relations are suspended. To Zizek, this Foucauldian position is false: there is no knowledge that does not presuppose power relations. There is no place beyond discourse and the power relations that govern them; resistance and change are possible from within them (Zizek: Beyond Foucault, p. 90). It is this position that colors the primary difference between the political strategies of Zizek over Foucault. To Zizek, revolutionary potential must be sought within the capitalist system of desire, and it must seek to be universalized.

Foucault neglects the very process through which power technologies become contaminated by what they seek to control, or what Zizek would consider “the obscene supplement that sustains its own operation.” In Foucault’s political system, “resistance” can be practiced along three general fronts: 1. Regimes of power produce their own surplus, with potentially destabilizing circumstances, 2. Capitalism’s capacity to ingest its own negativity and to redirect these negativity’s towards differential affirmation enables the, 3. The way to resist power is rooted in strategies that enable subjects to break free from regimes of power that depend on the excess and integration of that excess back into the hegemonic social edifice.

Zizek’s wager to a late capitalist left is a complex road-map of desire and identification with the lack and disavowed core of subjectivity, but his theory is certainly worth understanding. Firstly, the core of ideology can be reached by understanding how we are developed by capitalism as subjects. The couple fantasy/spectre is the core thematic device deployed to reveal Zizek’s notion of subjectivity. So, in order for ideology to be effective, fantasy has to be disavowed. And this theoretical matrix is universalizable to any moral or ethical system. The “spectre” of Zizek’s theory is a radical inversion of the Derridan commitment to an “ethical other” that can never be fulfilled or reconciled.

Ideology often takes the form of a systemic displacement. For instance the post cold war trend to displace political struggles into the realm of ethnic and religious struggles is a form of ideology at the macro level. The social antagonisms inherent in American democracy made evident in the wake of Hurricane Katrina created a clear example of macro ideology entering mainstream discourse. The idea of race was the overarching goal of the media’s Hurricane Katrina depictions. The ideological supplement to this over association of race with the crux of the problem was made evident in the elevation of (in this case race/racism as the cause of the social antagonisms that led to Katrina) into the realm of impossibility so that we can avoid it. The obscene fantasies overlay this macro ideology: the exaggerated fear of New Orleans as being overran by thugs, middle class fear of African American encroachment, accompanying the explicit messages: we are sobered by the racist exclusionary underbelly of American life, yet we are unable to identify the root cause: economic deprivation. It is this within this ideological interstice that we can locate social ideology.

The whole operation of ideology in the case of America’s reaction to Katrina is one similar to the prototypical obsessional neurotic, who circulates in an endless fascination with an object that will always elude its grasp in fear of confrontation with the traumatic kernel of their repressed desire. Since desire is always the desire of the other, or, what enables us to perceive ourselves is always wrapped up in the others desire.

To Zizek, there are two types of resistance: imaginary, which in many ways is really only a pseudo resistance that actually is an “interpassivity” or liberal pseudo revolutionary resistance to merely maintain the status quo, and there is symbolic intervention of the real, which seeks to destabilize the entire symbolic system as such. It is the latter that Zizek seeks to bring about.

The passing from the realm of the imaginary to the symbolic, or into the intersubjective field is what Lacan deems the other. The subject in this theoretical field in their passing from the mirror stage of the imaginary into the symbolic field of social relations is identical with a set of fractured social relations. In the passing from the private imaginary to the symbolic, Lacan points out that “there is no signifier that can adequately represent the subject.” Upon entry into the symbolic order, the subject must look for its identity not in the mirror but in the symbolic order of social life, which represents an infinite “play of difference.” Since the other (constituted both in terms of the big Other and the small other, or object small a) is never wholly accessible to the subject, one’s identity is also never disclosed to the subject.

The Interpassive Subject:

In formulating a theoretical position on social and political action in late capitalist society, Zizek turns to “the Leninist act” – mainly the October revolution of 1914 upon the outbreak of WWI, Lenin incited a revolution within Russia as opposed to unify socialism with the rest of Europe. This act was precisely the sort of revolutionary act that Zizek feels is necessary to move from the interpassive resistance of the ant globalization movements and liberal resistance to capitalism, into an act that fundamentally changes the realm of possibility. Lenin’s action of inciting the October revolution was based upon his recognition that Europe (mainly France and Germany were unable to live out an authentic unification of the socialist project). In Zizek’s treatment of late capitalists leftist resistance, there is a clear separation between conscious activity away from the act, and activity sustained by a fantasy. Since any authentic act a subject performs is always rooted in a foreign body, too close contact with the core of the desire that sustains the act results in a sort of “self erasure.” Thus, when we act, a sort of invisible agency guides our acts. The act is thus not a part of subjectivity, but is an object, in so far as the act is always the internalized excess, or surplus-enjoyment. To act is what is required because to act requires us to empty our subjective frame, and emerge as totally free subjects.

The act can only be conceived through a lack that offers us the ability to reconstitute ourselves. Connecting with the lack is perhaps the first practical move to incorporate into ones act. This state of subjectivity is akin to the Freudian death drive that posits the only proper state for a living organism is to constantly live in a state of tension, to refuse homeostasis.

The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human nature is always caught in a state dictated by the “pleasure principle” forcing a superegoic call to enjoy, and that enjoyment inevitably proves excessive. The subject is caught in a compulsive desire to circle around an object that ultimately produces its own jouissance, or excess of desire. Think of Dennis Hopper’s character from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as emblematic of jouissance. In this endlessly repetitive dance around the object, the subject then becomes the object.

Thus the “radical act” is not that which violates the radical norm, but that which redefines the norm itself. Much of Zizek’s critique of the Fukuyamaist post ideological “end of history” wager, or more accurately the 10 year post-cold war honeymoon with capitalism, what is missing both from liberalisms as well as the Hardt and Negri mode of sites of resistance is the impossibility of any universality able to reassert itself in the field of social resistance. Put simply, anti globalization doesn’t enable us to reconceptualize the possibility of totality in its program.

To understand the inability for conceptualizing resistance, Zizek continually brings up commodity fetishism. The significance of commodity fetishism is for Zizek a matter of form over and above any empirical content that commodities posess. The commodity contains, like the subject, a totally empty form. The epistemological influence here from Lacan and Hegel is clear: any discursive field is sustained by its disavowed truth. The reality to which we intervene is always already the product of our own subjective pre-intervention. This is what Hegel referred to as foreclosure, the act of the subject structuring his or her perception towards the object before the act. This “act before the act” is merely a formal conversion, and the only way to perceive of commodity fetishism is to bring Lacan’s real into the equation where we can see ourselves as subjects, before objectifcation from the disavowed truth of the desire system develops.

Foreclosure is at play in commodity fetishism in Zizek’s theory as capital as such, which takes the form of the real. Here we must differentiate between the real (or the spectral logic that determines what occurs in reality) and reality as the realm of symbolic exchanges amongst subjects. Since capitalism has established its mode as the ultimate horizon of our being in a “staging of the endless desire to desire,” or the limitless desire system. Yet, in order to understand this process, Zizek brings in Freudian “drive” to unravel capitalism. The function of drive is to circulate around an object, and its true aim is never able to reach the object, and thus circulates around the object ad infinitum. It is here that the symbolic class (top managers, elites, creative class, etc.) live out drive. Even though there is no single agent that embodies the flow of capital in the system, the symbolic class acts as if they control the flow and display of Freudian drive and it is this symbolic force that propels capital as such. To Zizek, “pure life is a category of capitalism.” This categorical statement is meant as both a metaphor of the desire system, as well as an existential declaration of our existential predicament in a late capitalist era. The fundamental deadlock of capitalism is the drive of capitalism’s circulation around the commodity fetish.

There is a major difference between how Foucault would respond to this predicament, in his position, “there is no revolutionary position that can embrace external to the capitalist system,” since “capitalism erases all references to externality and forces us to enjoy what we hate.” Zizek instead seeks a radical political identification with the core of enjoyment, qua the disavowed core of the subjects ideological predicament with capitalism, hence the Zizekian subject remains within the symbolic order precisely in an effort to resist that order.

Since every universal owes its existence to its non-discursive obstacle, the real of enjoyment does not belong to us, much like desire, the universal is an empty framework filled in by fantasy. Thus, for example, Zizek locates racism as “the hatred of the other as the hatred of our own excess of enjoyment.” In this way, desire is clearly a political category that is unable to be under ones sole autonomy, (this position differs from Reich, Deleuze and poststructuralism writ large). Zizek boldly argues that desire can never be grounded back into our true interests, but will always go against our conception of the good. Or, if taken to the extreme, desire will inevitably turn into drive, which, a la death drive will always leads to a strained relationship towards the object of ones desire. But why would Zizek insist that we must traverse the fantasy of desire and remain within it at the same time in order to realize the explosive real of our enjoyment? I a way, Zizek’s revolutionary position to desire and resistance is akin to Heidegger in Being and Time: we must turn away from Dasein, to step back, and to not over identify with the excessive core of the real, we must “let it be.” To keep oneself at bay, in witness of the plurality of subject positions available and simultaneously connect with the disavowed truth of desires hold on subjectivity.

Inherent to maintaining the capitalist identification with desire will often inevitably breed masochism. A popular culture example that exemplifies masochism to resistance of power relations is evident in Ed Norton’s scene from Fight Club where the only mode of resisting the authority of his boss comes through self-flagellation. This odd masochistic resistance represents a Hegelian tone of revealing to the master his own impotence in enforcing absolute power over the slave.

Taken to the level of commodity logic a la Marx’s essential differentiation between exchange value and use value, Zizek adopts the dichotomy and then revises it drastically to fit into the late capitalist system. Since exchange value maintains full autonomy over use value, and as such, Marx argued that capitalist “crisis” occurs first when money is perceived as merely self-propelling. Zizek stages Marx’s split between use and exchange value as the split between the way we perceive material reality, i.e. our participation in the capitalist system (the Starbucks Ethos water purchase as representing some sort of belief that one is contributing to philanthropic causes but is ideologically disavowing the reality of “frictionless capitalism, and denying the invisible oppression of third world labor that created the commodity). Zizek argues that in late capitalism, this realm of material reality is becoming more and more “spectralized” by fantasy. Whereas the “mad dance” (Marx’s term) of the spectral dimension of circulating capital, which follows the above logic, is never fulfilled, nor is it ever able to enable a capitalist subject to identify with the core of its drive, which sustains the entire system as such.

In over-identification with the real, or the excess, the real can be made consubstantial with the dimension of the symbolic. The true intellectual task in contemporary society is not to identify the fiction/myth that sustains the symbolic edifice, and then resist it, (this was more akin to Frankfurt school/post Marxists/current anti-globalization movements) Zizek’s wager is much more radical:

“to recognize the real as what we take as symbolic fiction.” The real is a dimension where one can intervene, and that intervention is ethical as long as you assume that there is no big Other, and revolutionary because it represents the only possibility for any true break with the capitalist symbolic order.

A Case for Dialectical Materialism? Zizek’s Tarrying with the Negative

The strongest argument for a contemporary application of Hegel is Zizek’s Tarrying with the Negative. The treatment of the Logic of Essence within Tarrying with the Negative examines the evolution of “for-itself” to “in-itself,” extending from that, the relationship between an internal and an external that is always at odds, and how these theories of the dialectic apply to Marx’s radicalism of the proletariat, the master slave relationship, symbol study in art, and even to abstract mystical Heideggarian ontology of human essence.

Can a thing, in terms of the dialectic ever fully attain what Hegel called “restored essence?” If we accept the inherent contradiction basis of every process then we must gain a solid footing in relationship to this inevitable “short circuit.” If all essence is formed out of a reconciled notion – i.e. the form always combines with it’s opposite, well then in what way do we position our senses to this inevitability? Out of this, Zizek argues that a true Hegelian dialectic is actually impossible to achieve. Why?

Within every process of development there exists an inner possibility that is contrary to the actuality that is occurring. So, this means that all possibility will always externalize itself. Therefore, our reality brings the externality of the thing as raw objectivity. In a stage of objectivity the thing has not yet reached its notion. Heidegger’s metaphysics and ontology of human essence presupposed an antagonism between the external dominance of the thing – and the solution was that we must turn away from the external and deny all dominance in order to “let things be” – to restore essence, we must leave the field open for the full deployment of potentials. This positions the subject as perceiving that “something” exists in reality only in so far as its representation is filled out by the contingent, empirical content provided by intuition, (alone, which is where the Kantian “return to the senses” applies) only in so far as the subject is affected by senses.

How does this apply, to anything? In an intimate relationship the only real way to become aware of what you have is after it has been consecrated. The whole argument that true love is actually the most painful thing and the only way to reach harmonic love would be to sever the intensity of love and get married. The dialectic at work here is a failed encounter; the passage to for-itself (non chaotic love, marriage) happens by means of its loss. The antagonism between the in-itself (chaotic love) to (for-itself harmonic love) is a process between two grounds: both the inner essence and conditions of a thing (are its true nature) and the external circumstances are what render possible the realization of this essence.

The same process of and relationship between external and internal is at work in the artistic symbolical realm. Most symbols in films and movies exceed their own symbolic capacity – as in Jaws, Jaws cannot represent a symbol of America’s fear of the third world (as has been suggested by many, in particular Fidel Castro) because the shark would then consist of pure fear – an overload of meanings are immediately assigned to the shark. He represents now the destructiveness of capitalism, or of the impending destruction caused from nature, in a natural disaster etc. The shark ends up annulling the fears by occupying the space of the symbol qua fear, so the shark has rendered invisible the fear and is a non-symbol.

Applied to the dialectic of identity a certain stage of reflection on the “for-itself” process known as “absolute reflection.” In this stag all appearance (senses) are an elusive “surface” revealing a hidden necessity. Since there is always an unknown necessity, appearance is always of-itself. Hegel’s dialectic of identity concerns the “for-itself” transposing into its other in order to become itself, (which we discussed via Gadamer’s Truth and Method in the concept of cultural Bildung, or the ability of the educated person to switch their gaze to the world through an intersubjective transposition with an other that they have no solid ground in their own subjectivity and this enables a return to the for-itself – the birth of knowledge acquisition) however, there is always a split between subject and object in that transposition. This split of subject and object causes an utter unrest in absolute reflection because the reflection is not grounded i.e. the subject is not able to grasp the entire causal chain that has constituted her situation. Because absolute reflection is an unknown (Necessity) behind appearance, it is concealed. This concealment of identity leads to Lacan’s statement that, “there is no I, I feel that I exist but I do not. Each of us is a cross roads where things happen.” The Lacanian will is the will to joy, the will to joy that is infinitely deferred in myself as it is transposed into the other, or as Lacan would say, into “my other.”

The split between subject and object causes an absolute unrest, in the situation of absolute reflection both subject and object turn into their opposite. This is contingency. In its other, contingency becomes itself. The identity of one in the other is necessity. The search to ground the act of possibility is always an effort to transcend “empty presumption.” From this standpoint we gain an understanding of what Kant described as human freedom, which is: the only way to prove you can do something is to actually do it, which is clearly never attainable in the actor. Every attempt to realize freedom may fail and for this simple reason it is the basis of our evolution of understanding freedom.

The risk associated with proper understanding of freedom is to avoid automated freedom. Automated freedom is the kind of satisfaction found within pedagogical practice, found within master slave dialectic.

The master (teacher) relishes in the pupils failure as a lesson, whereby he has to go through a automated course of understanding, and we can call this automated on the basis of the master’s intentional and controlled superimposition of his own experience onto the pupil. The goal being to connect both the suffering and plight of the master himself in subjective terms to the pupil in order to establish the pupil’s own validity in a transposition of the master’s subjective understanding of freedom.

What is dangerously flawed in this egocentric teaching style is not only its gendered bias application but also its barring of any genuine process of freedom development, both in the pupils consciousness and a dramatic stripping of the subjects (pupils) own actuality.

This is equivalent to the status of possibility versus actuality – what this system does is denigrates the actual empirical potential of the subject through its transposition into the intersubjective life-world of automated learning.
This is identical to the fathers rage, the moment he attacks with shouts and hollers he represents the opposite of his intended meaning which is blind impotent rage – any outward sign of evil (according to Kant is always in evolving towards good).
This is why the master is always an impostor, is always someone who, when he presents himself as human like the rest of us is able to wield the most potent power – only in his finite nature do we actually witness the inverse of what traditional role the master formerly occupied, absolute dominance.