June 7, 2008

Ontologinen katkos, 'oikosulku', mielenmuutos - Slavoj Zizek ja mahdottoman 'tunnustaminen/ymmärtäminen'

Otsikko: The Ontological Gap/Difference/Split, 'Short Circuits', Metanoia - Slavoj Zizek and 'confessing/understanding' The Impossible Real/RR.
Merv Bendel tekee tässä tiiviin ja valaisevan yleiskatsauksen Slavoj Zizekin magnum opuksen The Parallax View (2006) teemoihin ja siten Zizekin ajattelun perusteisiin ylipäätään.
(Otsikko, kursivoinnit ja kappalejaot minun)
'My dream is to combine an extremely dark, pessimistic belief that life is basically horrible and contingent, with a revolutionary social attitude.'
Slavoj Zizek

The Parallax View is Zizek's 25th book published since 1989 (excluding co-authored or edited works). This represents something in the vicinity of 2.5 million words and suggests that Zizek is producing, on average, 147,000 publishable words p.a., or 400 publishable words per day. As he also maintains a busy international lecturing and speaking routine this indicates that he is actually producing far more publishable words on those days when he is able to work. This is an amazing level of productivity, especially for someone apparently without substantial research support and editorial assistance. It is not surprising that a Journal of Zizek Studies is to be launched in 2007.

The Parallax View seeks to both expound and expand Zizek's Lacanian-Hegelian mode of analysis. Zizek has described it as his magnum opus, following on from The Ticklish Subject (1999). A complex theoretical work, it has been described as a "challenging book [that] takes us on a roller-coaster ride whose every loop is a Möbius strip" (Publishers Weekly).

Perhaps this takes us to the heart of what Zizek is doing, because the point of a Möbius strip is that one travels around the loop, desperately retaining contact with the surface, only to find oneself on the opposite side to where one started. Reading Zizek can be very much like that. In this respect, the reader should note the portrait of Zizek on the dust cover of the book.
It is a photo of an installation called "Slavoj Zizek Does Not Exist", which depicts Zizek sitting in a chair reflected in a mirror, while the actual chair stands empty before it. Are we meant to infer that Zizek himself is some form of reflection of a phenomenon that has no reality in itself - perhaps the intelligentsia's insatiable desire for prolix master-thinkers? Or is this image simply a visual pun on the Lacanian notion of the Mirror Stage?

In this book, Zizek offers his usual smorgasbord of ideas, insights, fragments of analysis, and discussions of various topics including (in no particular order) dialectical materialism, Heidegger, brain science, the war on terror, theories of subjectivity, Henry James, Herman Melville, Kafka, Abu Ghraib, pedophilia in the Catholic Church, de Sade, Stalinism, the rule of law, Alain Badiou, anti-anti-Semitism, etc, as well as a number of films, as we shall see.

Zizek explains that The parallax view is part of a new series of books that explore the effects of a cognitive 'short circuit' - a moment of metanoia - that occurs when the reader "confronts a classic text, author, or notion with its own hidden presuppositions, and thus reveals its disavowed truth. … After reading a book in this series, the reader should not simply have learned something new: the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time".

Amidst all this, his main concern is to resurrect the philosophical foundations of dialectical materialism, using as a metaphor the optical phenomenon of the parallax shift that occurs when the viewer of an object shifts position and thereby perceives aspects of the object that were previously obscured.
It must be said at the outset that this metaphor seems flawed, because Zizek appears to conceive of the two positions occupied by the viewer as exclusive - generating a "parallax gap" that must be mediated dialectically. In fact, as everyday experience reveals, a viewer can move through an infinity of positions as she moves around an object, traveling from her initial to her final position. There is no gap, there is a continuum.

This suggests not the dialectical thought of Hegel that Zizek champions, with its thesis-antithesis-synthesis model, but the Vitalism of Henri Bergson, who Zizek merely touches on. On the other hand, Zizek rejects the traditional triadic model of Hegel's system and insists that there is not real synthesis.

To advance his argument, Zizek invokes various examples from science, philosophy, and theory, e.g., citing confusions about the nature of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis, and the unresolved wave-particle duality in quantum physics. Intellectually, this latter move seems problematic and even reminiscent of such New Age popular science books as The tao of physics by Frithjof Capra and The dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, which purported to find a correspondence between theories of quantum mechanics and schools of Eastern mysticism.

Perhaps this is not surprising because various attempts have been made to link dialectical materialism with mysticism and this tendency arises from the doctrine's ultimate origins in the Neoplatonic aspects of Hegel's dialectical idealism. At another level, Zizek's foray into the paradoxes of quantum physics is also reminiscent of Lenin's similar expedition and his ill-fated attack on the Phenomenalism of Ernest Mach in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which was published in 1909 but remained a foundational text for the philosophy of science in the Soviet bloc for decades - much to the embarrassment of Soviet scientists.

In The parallax view, Zizek posits three main modes of parallax that he calls upon to illuminate his analysis.
The 'Stellar Parallax' is generated by the ontological difference between Being and being, which is the ultimate parallax that conditions our very access to reality.

The 'Solar Parallax' is exemplified by the irreducible gap between humanity's phenomenalistic experience of reality and its scientific explanation.
For Zizek, this is exemplified by the brain sciences, which he reads as asserting that there is 'nobody home' in the human skull, which is occupied merely by meat. He characterizes this situation as being either "the unbearable lightness of being no one", or "the unbearable heaviness of being divine shit".

The 'Lunar Parallax' is concerned with the politics of power and resistance that emerge where the intensity of social antagonisms provide no common ground.

Separating these three major sections are two 'Interludes', where Zizek discusses Henry James, anti-anti-Semitism, and related issues.

Underlying these various discussions is the main idea that Zizek derived from Lacan. This is the notion that the human subject is split and bears a gap within itself. This vision of an irredeemably wounded self, characterized internally by an unbridgeable fissure translates into an analysis of the self's external alienation from other selves and the world, which confront it as similarly alienated and fragmented, forever mutually separated.

By deploying the notion of the parallax Zizek is suggesting that this separation can be transcended through the 'short circuits' of the parallax gap - the moments of metanoia - that occur with the parallax shifts in perspective in the various fields that he discusses in his book.

Zizek makes limited use of examples from cinema in The parallax view, certainly in comparison to some of his other works. This appears to reflect the nature of this particular inquiry, with its concerns with quantum mechanics etc., rather than any major shift in concern in Zizek's thinking. Where he does make reference to film Zizek exhibits his usual acute insight and ability to draw illuminating connections. For example, he argues (74) that "Mrs Robinson is the only true ethical figure" in Mike Nichols' The graduate (US 1967), relegating Benjamin Braddock to the status of a shallow, insecure and moralizing opportunist who is insensate with respect to his lover's emotions.

In his discussion of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (UK 1985) Zizek claims that its depiction of the "mystery of institution" is best illuminated by liberal theology, with its emphasis on the primacy of sincere inner conviction over the merely external character of institutions (117). On Ridley Scott's Alien (UK 1979) he builds on Stephen Mulhall's comments about the alien being "life as such", characterized solely by the drives to survive and reproduce.
For Zizek this is a metaphor for capitalism: "how capitalism parasitizes on and exploits the pure drive of Life. Pure Life is a category of capitalism" (118).

Not surprisingly, The matrix trilogy figures prominently in the book, allowing Zizek enthusiastically to invoke such pivotal notions as "the desert of the Real", and the "big Other". Zizek has no doubt about the central idea of the films: "What, then, is the Matrix? Simply what Lacan called the "big Other", the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us.
[Like the Matrix,] the big Other pulls the strings; the subject doesn't speak, he "is spoken" by the symbolic structure" (313). Similarly, Zizek is also convinced that the "ultimate strength of the film" lies not in this idea but rather in its "central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles. … This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects" (313). For Zizek this is "the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are ultimately instruments of the Other's (Matrix's) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance like batteries" (313).

Zizek makes use of this analysis in his discussion of Minority report (US 2002). He points out that the eponymous report is a dissenting view provided by one of the 'precogs' who are able to predict future crimes: "And, insofar as the three 'precogs' are a direct medium of the 'big Other', their discord is not simply subjective, an erroneous cognition of the future, but a direct expression of the inconsistency of, inherent cracks in, the 'big Other' itself" (207).

These few examples illustrate the way in which Zizek is able to draw upon an apparently inexhaustible knowledge of cinema and popular culture to illuminate complex theoretical arguments. It is an ability that sets him aside from virtually all other critics working from within the Marxist-Lacanian-Hegelian tradition, with the possible exception of Fredric Jameson.

However, this very uniqueness raises the question as the actual nature of Zizek's project. The central notion of the parallax used in the book under review seems to suggest that the optimal intellectual stance is one of constant critique, conceived of in terms of the metanoic 'short circuiting' of the gap that characterizes our apprehension of the world. This implies that there is no possibility of any final philosophical systematization of Zizek's thought (or anybody else's thought for that matter).

What lingers as a question however is the extent to which this 'short circuiting' actually changes anything.
The parallax shift that Zizek advocates ensures that we don't make the error of assuming the empirical reality of the world as it appears to us in our first 'commonsensical' encounter with it.
We do indeed see the other dimensions that parallax shifts open up to us, and we are able, perhaps, to provide to ourselves and others a cognitively much richer account of the person, object, or text, with which we are concerned. Zizek's project, therefore, is essentially theoretical, and it remains ungrounded.
However invaluable Zizek's theoretical and critical insights are, the moment of praxis remains provisional and unconnected with the objective dynamics of the social transformation that both Marx and Hegel detected in history, and of the psychic transformation that Lacan recognized as the mission of psychoanalysis.

Merv Bendle

James Cook University, Australia.


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