Slavoj Zizek: Apostle of the Void

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Arnold Schoenberg’s … work was unbearably shattering, a key part of the modernist breakthrough— the only true artistic Event of the twentieth century (whatever it is, postmodernism is not an Event).

-  Zizek, Slavoj Absolute Recoil

I decided to reread John Barth’s classic postmodern essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”, where what is touted is not the decay of literature but its emergence as literary virtuosity. In this essay Barth will defend the work of Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov as virtuosi, as confronting intellectual and artistic dead ends and employing them against themselves to create new human work.1 Barth will mention one of Borges fables in which Shakespeare is on his death-bed, and having already exhausted the possibilities of dramatic form in all its various guises, as well as having himself become in his life everyone and no one, he asks God to allow him to be one and himself. God in his almost ironic distaste answers Shakespeare from the whirlwind saying: “I, too, have been no one either.” Borges in his own subtle irony will deploy the fable of Proteus who has in all its infinite play “exhausted the guises of reality” and found that it, too, is nothing and no one. What we are left with is the dance of the Void: the production of reality is this very voidic play in all its infinite guises, a mask for what Zizek will term the gap: the void of subjectivity “that eludes the … form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder”.1

This notion of negation and virtuosity comes to mind in my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s Interlude I in his new work, Absolute Recoil. Zizek in this small essay will take on the virtuosity of Arnold Schoenberg. I must admit reading this essay brought me back to my early love of music, art, literature, etc. Zizek is one of those creatures who cannibalizes everything, who seems on the surface to be a piranha of the arts and philosophy, gobbling everything in site; yet, to a purpose. Everything he does is calculated to teach. Reading Zizek is like sitting in a classroom where the professor having spent his whole life in a Borgesian library has engulfed its riches and has now the terrible duty to guide his wayward and almost imbecilic pupils through the first stages of this vast labyrinth of knowledge. Yet, this would be false, too. For there is a method in his madness. Everything Zizek does is to counter such strange relations of the Master/Epigoni mythos, and instead he speaks only to those few who have already earned the right to listen in on his monologues; for, in truth, Zizek’s books are dramatic monologues taking place between actors in his own mind that he allows others to listen in on. Robert Browning would have understood this.

I’m not being deprecatory here, just seeing what is going on in this “dialectical materialism” as praxis. He isn’t explaining dialectical materialism, instead he is enacting it in performative virtuosity of an exemplary movement between the various cultural and social actors, artifacts and artifices he takes up and deploys as examples.

In Schoenberg we witness the figure of an Event around which Zizek’s monologue on the void of the subject will endlessly dance. In his previous chapter he exposed most of Hegelian commentators standard readings and misunderstandings of the dialectic:

The beginning of Hegel’s logic as well as the beginning of his “logic of essence” which deals with the notion of reflection are just two, though crucial, examples that demonstrate how misleading, even outright wrong, is the standard notion of the dialectical process which begins with a positive entity, then negates it, and finally negates this negation itself, returning at a higher level to the positive starting point. Here we see a quite different logic: we begin with nothing, and it is only through the self-negation of nothing that something appears. (154)2

Here he describes the standard commentary on Hegelian dialectics that starts with a positivity, whereas for Zizek one must start instead with “nothing” and then work through “the self-negation of nothing” till something appears. “The only full case of absolute recoil, of a thing emerging through its very loss, is thus that of the subject itself, as the outcome of its own impossibility” (150). He’ll elaborate:

Absoluter Gegenstoss thus stands for the radical coincidence of opposites in which the action appears as its own counter-action, or, more precisely, in which the negative move (loss, withdrawal) itself generates what it “negates.”“What is found only comes to be through being left behind,” and its inversion (it is “only in the return itself” that what we return to emerges, like nations who constitute themselves by way of “returning to their lost roots”) are the two sides of what Hegel calls “absolute reflection”: a reflection which is no longer external to its object, presupposing it as given, but which, as it were, closes the loop and posits its own presupposition. To put it in Derridean terms, the condition of possibility is here radically and simultaneously the condition of impossibility: the very obstacle to the full assertion of our identity opens up the space for it.(148)

To embellish this argument he will take up the work of Arnold Schoenberg’s work Erwatung (Op. 17, composed 1909): 

Erwartung is a double Event, maximal and minimal. First, it was a turning point in the history of music: nothing remained the same after Erwartung, the coordinates of the entire musical landscape were transformed.(158)

In Chapter Two he took up the concept of Event in detail. He will contrast two variant readings of this concept of the Event, one in the work of Frank Ruda, the other in his friend Alain Badiou. Ruda will offer the notion that it all begins with the contingent and unpredictable event itself— an encounter between two people that both of them experience as a shattering provocation: their lives are thrown off the rails . The two have to react, and here comes the free decision: will they say yes to the event, assume it as their destiny, or will they ignore it? If the latter , life will go on as usual, but if they say yes to it, they constitute themselves as a subject, (re) organizing their entire life around the event— in short, out of fidelity to the event, they engage in the long and arduous work of love. (74) While for Badiou on the contrary, the subject is not the agent of a free choice, but the result of a positive free choice— a subject emerges after the choice of fidelity to an event, it is the agent which engages itself in the work of enforcing the consequences of an event. Furthermore, common sense tells us that free choice and forced choice are opposed and mutually exclusive, but for Badiou, a truly free choice is a forced one. (74)

The notion here is the idea of the subject either precedes the event (Ruda), or emerges in retroactive “fidelity to the event” that has already occurred: the notion of enforcing this fidelity to the event by working through its consequences in a moral way (“free choice is a forced one”). This will go back to one of Zizek’s leitmotif’s (“lack”):

This paradoxical reversal (of the common-sense logic which tells us that a positive entity has to precede its lack) defines the space of subjectivity from the Hegelian and Lacanian perspective: a “subject” is something that “is” its own lack, something that emerges out of its own impossibility, something that only persists as “barred.” (80)

 Zizek will of course give example after example in various contexts to guide the intractable pupil through his maze of simplicity; for in the end, it always harkens back to Den, Nothing, and the nothingness that gives us something, etc. The Gap as the nothingness around which we dance and play our ideas in endless combat, etc. It is this theme which will define World War I, which according to Zizek was a reactionary defense of the old world against modernism as defined in all those avant garde artists in literature— from Kafka to Joyce; in music— Schoenberg and Stravinsky; in painting— Picasso, Malevich, Kandinsky; psychoanalysis; relativity theory and quantum physics; the rise of Social Democracy …). This rupture— condensed in 1913, the annus mirabilis of the artistic vanguard— was so radical in its opening up of new spaces that, in our speculative historiography, it is tempting to claim that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 was, from the “spiritual” standpoint, a reaction to this Event. Or, to paraphrase Hegel, the horror of World War I was the price humanity had to pay for the immortal artistic revolution of the years just prior to the war. In other words, we must invert the pseudo-profound insight according to which Schoenberg et al. prefigured the horrors of twentieth-century war: what if the true Event was 1913? It is crucial to focus on this intermediate explosive moment, between the complacency of the late nineteenth century and the catastrophe of World War I— 1914 was not an awakening, but the forceful and violent return of a patriotic slumber destined to block the true awakening. The fact that the fascists and other patriots hated the vanguard entartete Kunst is not a marginal detail but a key feature of fascism. (157-159)

Against the rich Romantic traditions of tonal music Schoenberg would work through the beginnings of atonal and onward to what he would term a “pantonal” music, one that would enact for Zizek the example of Lacan’s misreading of Freud’s “Unconscious” as in alignment with such music as “an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with:

The unconscious is neither the primordial nor the instinctual, and what it knows of the elemental is no more than the elements of the signifier … The intolerable scandal when Freudian sexuality was not yet holy was that it was so “intellectual.” It was in this respect that it showed itself to be the worthy stooge of all those terrorists whose plots were going to ruin society. (Lacan Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton 2006, pp. 434– 5.) (Zizek, 176)

 One could do no better to sum up this interlude than Zizek rendering his notion of a truly materialist formalism:

In a truly materialist formalism, one should thus invert the relationship between form and content, following Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of Hemingway in which he pointed out that Hemingway did not write short terse sentences in order to render the isolated heroic individuality of his heroes— form comes first, he invented the isolated heroic individuality to be able to write in a certain way. And the same goes for Schoenberg : he did not take the fateful step into atonality in order to express in music the extremes of morbid hysterical violence; he chose the topic of hysteria because it fitted atonal music.(169)

Instead of the expression of some substantial essence or inner kernel of things, one retroactively defines one’s forms against the fidelity to an event, discovering in those events the forms that will work through its masks. He will liken this to Freud’s dream work:

The paradox is that the dream-work is not merely a process of masking the dream’s “true message”: the dream’s true core, its unconscious wish, inscribes itself only through and in this very process of masking, so that the moment we retranslate the dream-content back into the dream-thought expressed in it we lose the “true motif force” of the dream— in short, it is the process of masking itself which inscribes into the dream its true secret. One should therefore invert the standard notion of an ever-deeper penetration to the core of the dream: it is not that we first move from the manifest dream-content to the first-level secret, the latent dream-thought, and then penetrate deeper, into the dream’s unconscious wish. This “deeper” wish is located in the very gap between the latent dream-thought and the manifest dream-content.(176)

So that in Erwartung it is the very gap between content and form is to be reflected back into the content itself, as an indication that the content is not all, that something was repressed/ excluded from it— this exclusion which establishes the form is itself the “primordial repression” (Ur-Verdrängung), and no matter how much we bring out all the repressed content, this primordial repression persists. In other words, what is repressed in a cheap melodrama (and then returns in the music) is simply the sentimental excess of its content, while what is repressed in Erwartung, its Unconscious , is not some determinate content but the void of subjectivity itself that eludes the musical form and is as such constituted by it, as its remainder. (176)

1. John Barth. The Friday Book (John Hopkins University, 1984)
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism. Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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