Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Everything – Notes on Less Than Nothing and Ontology

The following are some thoughts I have assembled after finishing Less Than Nothing, and I cannot claim that they represent anything like an expert and complete analysis of this vast text. Certainly I do not have the scientific background required to evaluate Žižek’s analysis of physics and can only attempt to provide an analysis of what he has written on the subject. The highly abstract discussion here has no obvious connection to politics, so next month I will attempt to write a follow-up post connecting my interpretation of Žižek’s philosophy to political thought.

Some reviews of Less Than Nothing suggest that the book does not have a traditional structure of presentation to its argument, but this is only true to a point. Generally speaking the structure of the book is quite clear – it begins with an introduction, is followed by four body sections, and concludes with a political commentary based on the philosophy presented in the rest of the book. The four body sections “The Drink Before”, “The Thing Itself: Hegel”, “The Thing Itself: Lacan”, and “The Cigarette After” form a clear progression (And a typically Žižekian joke). “The Drink Before” deals with precursors to Hegel. First, ancient Greek philosophy, then Christianity, and finally German Idealism, focusing mainly on the work of Fichte. The next two sections, dealing with Hegel and Lacan respectively, attempt first to present Žižek’s unorthodox interpretation of Hegel and then advance his argument that Lacan represents a “repetition” of Hegel (In the specifically Hegelian sense of the term). “The Cigarette After” then combines insights into both Hegel and Lacan. These chapters are interspersed with interludes that deal with issues first related to Hegel, and then issues related to Lacan. Finally we have the “Conclusion”, which is like the concluding chapter to Capital: Volume I in that it is somewhat extraneous to the main argument – a kind of coda or “conclusion after the conclusion.” The real conclusion of the book is arguably its penultimate chapter “The Ontology of Quantum Physics”, which brings together the whole book into a kind of “theory of everything.”

It is when we lose sight of this big picture and look only at the contents of individual chapters that we find Žižek’s style to be unusual. Within and across chapters, Žižek repetitively deploys a method of logical homology. He repeatedly makes use of a small collection of logical forms in his consideration of a vast variety of topics, and this formal structure is at the same time the content of the text as a work of philosophy. This is to say that the “big idea” of the book is the repetition of these logical forms across a variety of fields. While Žižek does make a great number of points about many topics and intervenes in a vast number of intellectual debates in Less Than Nothing he does this through homology in a kind of textual ostinato. This is why Žižek is able to present a topic, suddenly change topics, and then take the original topic up again in another chapter – a form that many of his reviewers have noted. The homologies he employs form the consistency of his argument against the dissonant presentation of content. In this way the changing content reveals slowly to the reader the form of Žižek’s logic at work; the scope of its application and frequency of its repetition impressing upon them its general character.

What specifically then is the big idea that Žižek is attempting to get across in this book, and why can we label it a “theory of everything?” In order to explain this idea, it is important to first understand what the traditional understanding of Hegelian philosophy has been, and how Žižek’s interpretation differs from it. This is accomplished very well in Todd McGowan’s article “The Insubstantiality of Substance, Or, Why We Should Read Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. McGowan describes the “traditional view” as follows:

According to this view, Hegel sets out to describe the structure of being itself without taking into account the epistemological barrier limiting the subject’s access to this structure. It is as if Hegel is able to read the mind of God. To this day, this remains the received wisdom concerning Hegel among those yet to read any of his works. This view of Hegel finds its baldest expression in Hegel’s arch-enemy Arthur Schopenhauer, who attacks “the attempt specifically introduced by the Hegelian pseudo-philosophy … to comprehend the history of the world as a planned whole.”…This interpretation of Hegel views him as committing all the philosophical errors that Kant had corrected in the Critique of Pure Reason.

The abandonment of Kant’s distinction between thought and being manifests itself in a seemingly straightforward way in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Here, Hegel claims that “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” This statement provides one of the pillars of the panlogical interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy. According to this view, here Hegel is conceiving the external world, the world of independent substances, as the manifestation of the thinking subject. The subject can know the world because the world is the product of the subject’s own activity. Not only does Hegel toss aside Kant’s caution about our capacity to know, he also grants the subject an extraordinary power to create the world in its own image.

McGowan first outlines the view of the late 19th and early 20th century Hegelians:

…the contingencies of history and nature exist within the necessity of the subject’s self-expression and self-externalization. There is no fundamental barrier to the subject’s knowledge of the world because the subject participates in spirit’s production of the world. When the subject attempts to understand what appears external to itself, it is engaged, even if unknowingly, in an act of self-understanding.

According to McGowan this “panlogical” Hegel was not accepted as respectable within the philosophical community, and Hegel’s thought was carried on in the academic world only through “a radical amputation” that moved the focus of Hegelianism away from “the structure of the universe” (Ontology) and towards the structure of subjectivity – In other words by moving to grounds more acceptable to Neo-Kantian – “critical” – thought. This was the trend represented by Sartre, Fanon, Kojève, and the “Critical Theory” of Lukács and the Frankfurt School. As McGowan writes, this Hegel “…could become the ally of Heidegger and the friend of Marxism.” On the level of purely philosophical interpretation of Hegel, McGowan argues that Kojève was the most influential interpreter in this trend of thought, and characterizes his argument as follows:

Kojève centers Hegel’s philosophy on its thoroughgoing commitment to the fact of human reality as the sole province of thought and as the sole source for thought. Far from being a panlogical philosopher, Hegel shows us that thought never escapes the subject itself. As he puts it, “Hegel rejects all species of ‘revelation’ in philosophy. Nothing can come from God: nothing can come from any extra-worldly non-temporal reality whatever. It is the temporal creative action of humanity or History that created the reality that Philosophy reveals.” For Kojève, Hegel has value for what he says about the struggle of the human being in the history that humanity itself creates and not for what he has to say about the nature of being. As a result, Kojève dismisses the entirety of the Philosophy of Nature as a fantasy that anyone who takes Hegel seriously must toss aside…In Kojève’s interpretation, Hegel’s philosophical project comes to resemble that of the early Marx or that of Heidegger in Being and Time.

McGowan sees this subjective interpretation of Hegel at work in Merleau-Ponty’s theory of time and the hostility to ontology in Foucault’s critique of dialectics. Subsequent philosophers went on to develop Hegel’s epistemology (Reading Hegelian thought as an extension of Kant) or elaborated a view of Hegel as a speculative-political thinker, but Hegel’s ontology remained the “amputated limb” that formed the basis for Hegelian philosophical legitimacy. Into this space steps Slavoj Žižek, and his project of reviving Hegel’s ontology, which ultimately culminates in Less Than Nothing.

As McGowan puts it, Žižek re-establishes the legitimacy of Hegel’s ontology primarily through relating it to language. According to Žižek’s account, Hegel’s ontology does not return to a naive pre-critical stance which sees philosophy as a speculative inquiry into the self-sufficient and knowable truth of being, but rather radicalizes Kant’s epistemology by exploring its ontological implications:

There is no being that is entirely independent and self-sustaining, and we know this because our very act of speaking testifies to an incompleteness both in ourselves and in what we are speaking about. Hegel’s ontology begins with this rejection of pure substance and affirmation of the inherent self-division of being… The speaking being’€™s division from itself-its inability to realize its desires or achieve wholeness-€”must have a condition of possibility within being itself. Thus, we can work our way backward from the self-division of the subject to the self-division of being. Our ability to pose the question of our subjectivity testifies to the subject’s non-coincidence with itself, and this non-coincidence appears to separate speaking beings from rocks. This leads Kojève to confine Hegel’s philosophical purview to the speaking subject and its history. But Žižek sees the error in positing this artificial limit to Hegel’s reach. Even beings that cannot speak and demonstrate their self-division through speech nonetheless participate in an ontological self-division, and we know about this ontological self-division because of beings who exhibit it explicitly-that is, speaking subjects. The speaking subject retroactively reveals the contradictory nature of being. Hegel is a philosopher of language who recognizes that the nature of language reveals a fundamental truth about the nature of being.

The point then is to consider the Kantian account of the limited subject in terms of an ontological totality, recognize the logical antinomies that this produces within the linguistic exploration of the matter, and then accept these antinomies as an ontological reality. We could not reach the antinomies in thought if they did not have some real condition of possibility, and the fact that there is such a condition of possibility implies that there is a contradiction in the world that exists in the strongest sense possible: “Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character” (Less Than Nothing, 950). Therefore Žižek accepts the subjectivist Hegelians’ division of the world into beings-with-speech and beings-without-speech, but he argues that the division of the world into language and nature cuts across both of these categories:

It is therefore not enough to say that, while things exist out there in their meaningless reality, language performatively adds meaning to them: the symbolic transcendentally constitutes reality in a much stronger ontological sense, in its being itself. (Less Than Nothing, 960)

Natural beings without language such as rocks or animals do not exist in a kind of stupid self-sufficiency (e.g. Sartre’s famous door knob in Nausea) but are as alienated in language as beings-with-speech without a capacity for reconciliation with this alienation through language and thought.

Žižek sees this language-oriented philosophy as validated by the theories of language found in structualism and psychoanalysis (and their union in the thought of Lacan). Structuralism teaches us that language is in some sense always “out of joint” because of an ambivalence in the relationship between signifiers and signifieds, where the universality of signifiers in language is never firmly anchored in real things out there in the world, but is rather determined by oppositions between signifiers themselves. In this way signifiers are alien to signifieds, and therefore to sense perception at its most basic. Nevertheless, these alien terms coexist in their antagonism.

The validation that Žižek finds in psychoanalysis comes from its discovery (As McGowan puts it) of the “…split between what the subject desires and
what the subject says” – simply put, a subject’s desire never directly coincides with what it says it desires, or even with what an analyst says it desires. This constitutes another form of linguistic alienation, which Žižek sees as validating the split character of Hegel’s ontology.

The structure of Less Than Nothing is based on Žižek’s desire to establish the connection between Hegel’s philosophy and Lacan’s development of psychoanalysis in a structuralist mode. This is the concern that motivates its more or less straightforward “big picture” narrative. However if we accept this unorthodox Hegelianism as valid, we then are left with an ontology that is everywhere in antagonism and contradiction. If it is the case that language is alienated from sense/nature, that this alienation applies to all things, and that this implies the omnipresence of contradiction, then the Hegelian logic of contradiction (dialectics) applies to all things. In other words the Žižekian Hegel is the “panlogical” Hegel seen in a different light. “The real is the rational and the rational is the real” but rationality is not what we thought it was:

Here, we need only introduce a little displacement, and the entire image of a grand metaphysical process turns into a freakish monstrosity…Yes, antagonism is “reconciled;’ but not in the sense that it magically disappears-what Hegel calls “reconciliation” is, at its most basic, a reconciliation with the antagonism. (Less Than Nothing 951)

Rationality is not a clear and self-sufficient “deployment” of subjectivity, but rather split, impoverished, contradictory, tortured, and so on. The Hegelian real is a real of negativity, nothingness, and evil, but through thought and reason we can grasp it another light:

…in its positive aspect, as a condition of possibility: what appears as the ultimate obstacle is in itself a positive condition of possibility, for the universe of meaning can only arise against the background of its annihilation, Furthermore, the properly dialectical reversal is not only the reversal of negative into positive, of the condition of impossibility into the condition of possibility, of obstacle into enabling agency, but, simultaneously, the reversal of transcendence into immanence, and the inclusion of the subject of enunciation in the enunciated content.

This reversal-into-itself-the shift in the status of what-is-at-stake from sign to Thing, from predicate to subject-is crucial for the dialectical process: what first appears as a mere sign (property, reflection, distortion) of the Thing turns out to be the Thing itself. If the Idea cannot adequately represent itself; if its representation is distorted or deficient, then this Simultaneously signals a limitation or deficiency of the Idea itself. Furthermore, not only does the universal Idea always appear in a distorted or displaced way; this Idea is nothing but the distortion or displacement, the self-inadequacy, of the particular with regard to itself.

This brings us to the most radical dimension of the (in)famous “identity of opposites”: insofar as “contradiction’ is the Hegelian name for the Real, this means that the Real is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is impossible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. (Less Than Nothing, 535)

A recognition of these ideas is what constitutes Hegelian “reconciliation.” We become reconciled with reality, but this is reconciliation one stage removed from any positive fact – it is a reconciliation with negation itself and is therefore not a license for the kind of “social adjustment” that is the stock-in-trade of all the therapeutic and disciplinary apparatuses of the state. Given the all-encompassing nature of this theory, it is important to understand why Žižek characterizes it as “materialist” and therefore to understand how Žižek relates it to the physical sciences – for this is an area of his thought that strongly diverges from the subjectivist Hegelians who preceded him (Marcuse famously called for a “new science” that would exist in harmony with his philosophy of life, but he was an exception in this and was strongly criticized for it, notably by Habermas).

It is noteworthy that the culmination of Žižek philosophical arguments in Less Than Nothing is his chapter on quantum physics, which attempts to salvage the reputation of Hegel’s much maligned Philosophy of Nature and develop its themes in a modern context. If Žižek’s Hegelianism cannot be applied to nature, then its claims to refute arguments for the self-sufficiency of nature cannot be taken seriously. In this sense, Less Than Nothing is an all-or-nothing venture.

Žižek approaches contemporary physics through its intersections with ontology, and understanding why Žižek calls himself a materialist despite identifying himself with the “absolute idealist” Hegel will clarify his approach to physics considerably. In the first place, it is important to understand why there has historically been a connection between materialism, communism, and democracy. Simply put, any idealist system of thought will tend to rely on a distinction between spiritual and base-material orders of being. Whether the higher order is spirit, the soul, the intellect, or any other such thing, this higher order can always be used to justify hierarchy in the name of maintaining the proper authority of the higher order of being (Whether it is spiritual or meritocratic or cultural). Certainly revolts can also be carried out in the name of this higher order, but these are in the end necessarily conservative, as they can only aim to reestablish a hierarchy after the dust has settled.

On the other hand, materialism is inherently democratic insofar as it does not recognize a higher order of being. For the materialist, on the most fundamental level of ontology we are all equal. As a matter of practice though it has generally been the case that materialism has also been used to justify hierarchy, except with a secular gloss that claims the authority of knowledge instead of the authority of some higher order of being. Nevertheless, materialism does hold an enduring sort of democratic/communist promise, and this is the promise that Žižek is attempt to hold faithful to in his philosophy.

That being said, Žižek’s materialism is highly unorthodox in that is rejects the “naive empiricist” or “naive realist” form of materialism wherein there is only the self-sufficient determinism of the material whole, within which we as material beings with limited senses and cognitive capabilities grasp an illusory figment of reality we experience as consciousness. As we have seen above, Žižek instead strongly emphasizes the reality of the symbolic, but in doing so he opens himself up immediately to the criticism that he is in fact an idealist in disguise. If we have the natural and the symbolic as two separate orders, a materialist account must find a way to somehow unify them in some common material order. This is where the gap plays such a crucial role in Žižek’s ontology, and it is with this concept that he takes up a consideration of contemporary science.

Žižek chooses quantum physics as his point of entry into the world of physics because as he says, this strange physical world is similar in many ways to the world of language – which we will recall is the cornerstone of Hegelian philosophy. As Žižek writes:

A fact rarely noticed is that the propositions of quantum physics which defy our common-sense view of material reality strangely echo another domain, that of language, of the symbolic order-it is as if quantum processes are closer to the universe of language than anything one finds in “nature;’ as if, in the quantum universe, the human spirit encounters itself outside itself…(918)

It is important to note that Žižek qualifies this statement with “as if,” because the notion that the human spirit encounters its double in the quantum physical world has of course been the starting point for all sorts of idealist and spiritualist obscurantism (a popular example of which is the documentary What the Bleep do We Know!?) which he aggressively attacks. Žižek makes his case for discussing quantum physics in dialectical terms through four main points:

  1. The virtual is efficacious in both the symbolic order and quantum physics. In the symbolic order the potential of exerting coercive force itself has a real effect, in quantum physics the potential trajectories in the wave function of a particle determine its actual trajectory.
  2. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds we find “knowledge in the real” – that is, what we take something as, conditions what it actually is. This has to do with the famous fact that an electron “knows” whether or not it is being observed, and “displays itself” as either a wave or a particle accordingly, almost as if it is following an expected social role.
  3. In both the symbolic and quantum worlds something only “becomes what it is” when it is “registered” in the broader network surrounding it. The wave function collapses when it is “registered” by the observing instrument, a signifier acquires a meaning only in specific context of use.
  4. Both the symbolic and quantum worlds display the phenomenon of retroactivity. In the symbolic world a new master signifier “rewrites history” (e.g. With the dawn of Christianity all of history became a story leading up to the birth and death of Christ, and a path to his second coming) and similarly the “registration” of an electron changes not only its current form, but also the trace it left of its past to be consistent with its particle form. The “history” of the electron is determined retroactively.

Žižek then claims that these four characteristics of quantum physics produce two main reactions: Either the spiritualist claim that the observing subject’s mind creates reality, or the “naive realist” claim that “registration” of electrons is done by instruments with no subject neccesarily involved at all (Which allows the claim that consciousness is an illusion of no real ontological consequence to be sustained):

The basic enigma is the following: insofar as the result of our measurement depends on our free choice of what to measure, the only way to avoid the implication that our observation creates reality is either to deny our free will or to adopt a Malebranchean solution (“the world conspires to correlate our free choices with the physical situations we then observe”). (923)

Žižek rejects the “naive realist” position on the grounds that it can only be defended in terms of an abstract mathematical understanding of reality that is overly abstracted from any basic experience of reality:

“objective reality” as a mathematicized set of relations is “for us” the result of a long process of conceptual abstraction. This does not devalue the result, making it simply dependent on our “subjective standpoint;’ but it does involve a paradox: objective reality”(the way we construct it through science) is a Real which cannot be experienced as reality. In its effort to grasp reality “independently of me;’ mathematicized science erases “me” from reality, ignoring (not the transcendental way I constitute reality, but) the way I am part of this reality. The true question is therefore how I (as the site where reality appears to itself) emerge in “objective reality” (or, more pointedly, how can a universe of meaning arise in the meaningless Real).

He then also rejects the spiritualist claim, on the grounds that it cannot account for the fact that any observer of an experiment will obtain the same results (given the same object being observed and the same apparatus). To Žižek, this suggests that the “finitude” of the observation should be instead read as the “incompleteness” of reality itself. In other words the issue is “to conceive how our knowing of reality is included in reality itself” – to move from epistemology to ontology. Typically, the “transcendental materialism” that Žižek is advocating here is not simply a compromise position between the spiritualist and naive realist positions, but instead focuses on the gap or contradiction that structures their opposition in the first place, producing a new position altogether.

Žižek’s point is that this sort of gap is not only real but “Reality-in-itself” (926):

Reality-in-itself is Nothingness, the Void, and out of this Void, partial, not yet fully constituted constellations of reality appear; these constellations are never “all;’ they are always ontologically truncated, as if visible (and existing) only from a certain limited perspective. There is only a multiplicity of truncated universes: from the standpoint of the All, there is nothing but the Void. Or, to risk a simplified formulation: “objectively” there is nothing, since all determinate universes exist only from a limited perspective. (926)

In other words, if we take what is common to multiple perspectives as what is “objective” we should recognize that the most common property of everything is in fact finitude – nothingness. However as noted above, Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with negation, not with “the Void” as a fundamental reality against which all phenomena are taken as illusory. The void is in fact fecund and active, because in negating itself it produces things which still bear the mark of finitude and are themselves destined to be negated, producing something else. Žižek explains this in terms of the Higgs field:

Left to their own devices in an environment in which they can pass on their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy; to put it another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, until we reach the vacuum state of zero energy. There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that systems energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy-in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing:’

Therefore Žižek’s argument is that reality as a “negation of the negation” is in fact less than nothing – If we take “the Void” as “Reality-in-itself” and self-sufficient, reality-with-consciousness is a subtraction from that strange plenitude, and, like with the Higgs field, there is a natural tendency of reality to continue negating itself (which Žižek identifies with Lacan’s interpretation of the “death drive”). This is the “negation” with which one can become reconciled. It is “immortal” in the sense that every particular negation is survived by yet another negation.

This leads Žižek to a discussion of “the Vacuum” in an attempt to elaborate on this ontology. Žižek argues that “the Void” is always in fact divided against itself into the “false vacuum” and the “true vacuum.” Žižek associates the false vacuum with Buddhist “Nirvana as the return to a pre-organic peace” (945) – it is the Void self-sufficient in itself. The true vacuum on the other hand is the “negated nothing”, it is the nothing which has become something by negating itself. As in the case of the Higgs field it is the “less than nothing” that emerges out of the false vacuum, or taking another of Žižek’s examples, it is like the particle that emerges out of the collapse of the wave in quantum physics.

Žižek then brings the discussion back to Hegel by claiming that this move from the false vacuum to the true vacuum is homologous to Hegel’s claim that reality exists not only as substance but also as subject. The false vacuum is substance “in-itself” and the true vacuum is the subject which disturbs it, the subtracted abstraction that causes substance to appear to itself as alienated. This is why Žižek argues that:

It is crucial that this tension between the two vacuums be maintained: the “false vacuum” cannot simply be dismissed as a mere illusion, leaving only the “true” vacuum, so that the only true peace is that of incessant activity, of balanced circular motion-the “true” vacuum itself remains forever a traumatic disturbance. (950)

The subject then is properly “alienated” from substance. If we simply had substance reality would be “stupid” – there would be no self-reflection and therefore no antagonism. On the other hand if we simply had subject (i.e. the “mind of God”) reality would be just as stupid because it would lack all distinctions and would be without any “content.” Finally if substance could be truly “sublated” into subject so that we could reach the “true peace” of “incessant activity” (as is sometimes argued in Daoist texts, or in the work of the ‘panlogical’ Hegelians) the result would be functionally equivalent to the case of the “mind of God” since substance would no longer be alien to subject. What Žižek calls the “properly dialectical reconciliation” is none of these things:

…the two dimensions are not mediated or united in a higher “synthesis;’ they are merely accepted in their incommensurability. This is why the insurmountable parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible, is not a Kantian revenge over Hegel, that is, yet another name for a fundamental antinomy which can never be dialectically mediated or sublated. Hegelian reconciliation is a reconciliation with the irreducibility of the antinomy, and it is in this way that the antinomy loses its antagonistic character. (950)

Finally Žižek restates this point in ontological terms by drawing a distinction between Being and the Real, arguing that “there is no ontology of the Real” (958). Ontology attempts to give us a complete picture of Being, but it therefore has to “ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology” (961). The abstract, alienated “real” thing we call the subject is therefore never successfully included in any ontology, except of course the sort of “reconciled” ontology that Žižek offers, which only gives us a “complete” picture by recognizing the “incompleteness” of the order of Being created by the subtraction of the subject.

This conclusion allows Žižek to provide the “transcendental materialist” ontology he has been aiming at. The “third term” that unites the symbolic and the natural is the “Real”: “We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference;’ that separates the One from itself” (959). There is no “higher” and “lower” orders of being in this ontology, only a reality sustained by its failure to be complete and identical to itself.

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