Slavoj Zizek: Contingency and Ontological Incompleteness

“Materialism has nothing to do with the assertion of the inert density of matter; it is, on the contrary, a position which accepts the ultimate Void of reality—the consequence of its central thesis on the primordial multiplicity is that there is no ‘substantial reality’, that the only ‘substance’ of the multiplicity is Void.”

- Slavoj Zizek, Speculative Turn

“But, as I have shown,  the world is not formed of solid substance, since there is an admixture of void in things…”

- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

I wager that Zizek will more and more come to be known as an Epicurean materialist in the tradition of that great formulator, Lucretius. Zizek’s admixture of atheism and Christianity in dialectical process weans us from the corrosive affects of that religion, while inserting the Void itself - as the central figure, rather than Christ, in a drama that has more to do with the unshackling of human finitude from its roots in false-consciousness than it does of some religious vision of pure transcendence.  Against the substantial formalism of Plato and his progeny, up too and including certain forms of speculative realism, Zizek follows the secret life of both material and immaterial phenomena, and their irreducibility in the natural order of things that is imperfect, contingent, incomplete and open.

His version of the great tradition begins and ends with the logic of quantum physics, but read through the lens of Hegel and Lacan. Disputing with Zizek is like entering a chameleon’s den, not realizing the enemy is oneself rather than the dialectician sitting across from one; one who has already attuned himself to the full panoply of effective argumentation you so carefully brought to the table; having quickly replaced its ill-understood truths with with a jouissance that is both disarming of your uncertain mind, and a partial completion of the very truth of Zizek’s own irreducible thoughts on the Void.

At the center of Zizek’s involvement with quantum physics is a sense that our understanding of reality is incomplete: an ontological incompleteness informs all aspects of our imperfect knowledge (Zizek: “its premise is the ‘non-All’ of reality, its ontological incompleteness”… one can think of this as well within mathematics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.). This imperfect, incomplete reality is shaped by the necessity of contingency as well as founded on the contingency of necessity.  This irreducible and immaterial materialism sets itself against both idealization of matter (cognitive naturalism) and the materialization of thoughts (material idealism). As Zizek would have it, the opposite of materialism is not – as some would say, idealism, but its vulgarization within the cognitive sciences (i.e., Churchland): the presumption of certain cognitive scientists who presume to make of ‘self-awarness’ of consciousness itself a fundamental force within the natural order of things; its “quintessence”(407).1

In an interview at the tail-end of the first Speculative Turn Zizek plunges ahead making his most radical turn toward a new materialism, telling us that if reality is ontologically incomplete, if the ‘non-All’ of matter is equated with the Void, then “this means that a truly radical materialism is by definition non-reductionist: far from claiming that ‘everything is matter’, it confers upon the ‘immaterial’ phenomena a specific positive non-being” (407). A materialism that is both non-reductive and immaterial would suddenly turn the tables on the history of materialism from Democritus to today, a rejection of ‘objective reality’: the insubstantial reality that undermines the logic of a consistent subjectivity, that brings with it an ontological openness breaks with Kant’s second antinomy of pure reason, and one that Plato in the Parmenides qualified: ‘Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly; If one is not, then nothing is?’ (408). Rather, nothing exists; rejected by Kant, yet accepted in the qualification of a materialism in which “‘material reality is non-all’, as against the saying: ‘material reality is all there is’”(408).

In this interview Zizek says there is a struggle between two materialisms playing themselves out, the one formulated by Alain Badiou, a democratic materialism; and, the other, by Quentin Meillassoux, with its assertion of the radical contingency as the only necessity. Yet, Zizek tells us this radical contingency without the supplement of this principle of ontological incompleteness leads not to a viable materialism, but to such fantasies as a virtual God and the resurrection of the dead; instead, we should supplement Meillassoux’s contingent materialism with the principle of incompleteness, thereby overcoming the Kantian challenge (408).

Against both scientific and discursive forms of materialism, which for Zizek are no longer viable; scientific materialism offering a supposed radical naturalism, and discursive materialism a radical culturalization, and neither offering a view onto reality as the non-All of materiality itself, neither able to explain the irreducibility of those strange immaterial phenomenon that make up the science of quantum mechanics.

In the same interview he tells us that he does not so much oppose Laruelle’s conception of the Real as the ‘Instance defined by its radical immanence under all possible conditions of thought: thus by its being-given (of) itself, yet called Vision-in-One or One-in-One, and by its being-foreclosed to thought. The Real is neither capable of being known or even ‘thought’, but can be described in axioms. On the other hand, it determines-in-the-last-instance thought as non-philosophical’ (409). Instead he tells us that Laruelle is missing something, and that his conception needs to be supplemented by Lacan’s notion of the Real, saying,

“[the] Real [is] a purely formal parallax gap or impossibility: it is supra-discursive, but nonetheless totally immanent to the order of discourses—there is nothing positive about it, it is ultimately just the rupture or gap which makes the order of discourses always and constitutively inconsistent and non-totalizable” (409).

 With this notion of the Real one imagines the drunk giant sleeping within James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake dreaming the strange punster history of humanity, knowing that it is the reader who is situated at the gap, at the parallax rupture between the cycles between ocean and riverrun wherein the only constitution of this vast dreamworks discursive potential is the inconsistent contingency of the reader (subject) who can never totalize his reading of the discursive dream.

Next he defends his own sense of the contingency of necessity against Ray Brassier’s apparent critique of it, wherein Brassier attributes to Zizek the assertion of the necessity of contingency and of the free act as a gesture in which ‘a contingent material determinant is retroactively posited by the subject as necessary’ (410). Against this distortion he offers a lengthy explanation which exposes his view on change (i.e., how do change ever happen?). Against any notion that Hegel’s philosophy is evolutionary Zizek tells us that that instead it is ‘static’, non-developmental, non-progressive. Hegel’s philosophy shows us that self-identity is not as some assume it is based instead on the conclusion that the Hegelian contradiction is not a direct motionless ‘coincidence of the opposites’ (A is non-A): “it is identity itself, its assertion, which ‘destabilizes’ a thing, introducing the crack of an impossibility into its texture” (411). Instead of the self-identity of Being and Nothing, we have the “oscillation between two poles” that produces change or becoming (411).

What this leads to is the truth of facticity, the reversal of the old dictum of those philosophies of finitude that impose limits on knowledge, instead what Zizek sees in Meillassoux’s notion is the notion of a limit to thought be put back into the thing itself; instead “of construing the absence of reason inherent in everything as a limit that thought encounters in its search for the ultimate reason, we must understand that this absence of reason is, and can only be the ultimate property of the entity’” (411). He goes on to say of this:

“The paradox of this quasi-magical reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological premise is that ‘it is through facticity, and through facticity alone, that we are able to make our way towards the absolute’: the radical contingency of reality, this ‘open possibility, this ‘everything is equally possible’, is an absolute that cannot be de-absolutized without being thought as absolute once more’” (411).

This incompleteness at the heart of the Real can never be brought back under the banner of finitude: that the absolute can never be absolutized again does not mean that it can be totally known, it means instead that our limits to knowing are that there are still ‘blanks’ in our knowledge and that “these blanks are just that, blanks, things we simply do not know, not a substantial ‘deeper’ reality” (412).

Now comes the crux of Zizek’s dealings with Meillassoux’s materialist project asking “how does Meillassoux justify this passage from (or reversal of) epistemological limitation to (or into) positive ontological feature?” (412) In other words, How does Meillassoux make the step from this epistemological limitation to the unique access to the absolute? How do we move from philosophical finitude to ontological openness? The conclusion to this is that what we assumed was the gap between our thinking and being is already a part of Being itself: the Absolute includes within itself the very gap that we thought separated us from it in the first place. As he states it:

“If we can think our knowledge of reality (i.e., the way reality appears to us) as radically failed, as radically different from the Absolute, then this gap (between for-us and in-itself) must be part of the Absolute itself, so that the very feature that seemed forever to keep us away from the Absolute is the only feature which directly unites us with the Absolute” (413).

Zizek tells us that Meillessoux’s ultimate breakthrough is show us how to see reality: “to see reality the way it ‘really is’ is not to see another ‘deeper’ reality beneath it, but to see this same reality in its thorough contingency” (414). Between the necessity of contingency (i.e., how the Idea necessarily externalizes itself in phenomena which are genuinely contingent), and the contingency of necessity (i.e., the ‘performative’ process of constructing (forming) that which is ‘discovered’) we discover: “as Hegel puts it in his Logic, in the process of reflection, the very ‘return’ to the lost or hidden Ground produces what it returns to” (414). This is a gnosis that is beyond experience (not cognitive), but is instead performative knowledge (particular to the self-reflecting negativity ) which is both a return and a production of the subjectal. Ultimately we discover that the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process. (415)

All this leads to the Hegelian dialectic which for Zizek is the sin qua non:

“…the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is (also, among other things) what ‘to conceive substance as subject’ means: subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges, i.e., every dialectical reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits/creates its necessity” (415).

Summing up this appraisal Zizek tells us it’s not so much about how we escape subjectivity in our quest to attain an account of ‘objective’ reality independent of the subject, what is more important is to understand just how this strange material reality, this “flat stupidity” that just is, “how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself ” (415). For this, he tells us, “we need a theory of subject which is neither that of transcendental subjectivity nor that of reducing the subject to a part of objective reality” (415).

1. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman. (re.press 2011)

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