YouTube video here: Chapter 1 – Vacillating the Semblances
In this second lecture of Less Than Nothing, we are starting the first chapter, which is the first of three chapters in Part 1 — The Drink Before, and entitled “Vacillating the Semblances”. In Vacillating the Semblances we are going to be focused mostly on what it means to think in a Platonic way in the 21st century. What did Plato say, what did Plato achieve in philosophy, that requires us to rehabilitate his thought in the 21st century? From this effort we hope that we can make Plato come to life, and also identify some of the key philosophical movements that ground their analysis in an anti-Platonic dimension, so as to differentiate themselves from Plato. In that sense we see that Plato has become both the “footnote upon which Western philosophy” stands, and also the point of absolute negation, around which contemporary philosophies attempt to form a totally other identity.
We will hopefully find that what is at stake when we think Plato today, is nothing less than the status of how we conceive of Truth, and whether or not we can still live up the standards of a lived human mind that Plato set forth at the dawn of philosophical inquiry. It is from this perspective that Žižek starts his analysis in Vacillated Semblances with the axiom that “When truth is too traumatic to be confronted directly, it can only be accepted in the guise of a fiction”. What Žižek attempts to convey with this notion is that, Plato himself, the radicality of his thought, is too traumatic for the contemporary mind, and thus, we can only confront Plato by reducing Plato to a straw man, to a philosopher of the highest fictional absurdity, the philosopher who proposed that we had direct access to the Absolute Truth. However, in classical Žižekian style, when we are thinking about the relation between truth and fiction, we have to think about their direct overlap. In this sense, we may remember that it is the Platonic philosophy, ultimately, that grounded the historical fictional movements of Western religion and philosophy. “Eppur si muove”… (and yet it moves…).
Žižek starts the analysis with the absolute basics: Plato and the status of appearances in relation to Truth. In standard Plato, which is often taught in introductory philosophy courses under the paradigm of the Cave Allegory, we have the standard distinction between relativistic temporal appearances of the world (the ever-changing dynamical manifold that manifests as a multiplicity of sensations); and the eternal reality of absolute Truth (the never-changing, always present fundamental unified real of being that can only be conceived by the most enlightened of minds). In standard Plato we are told that this fundamental unified real, this eternal absolute Truth, is where we come from and where we will return, it is the eternal Ideal, the realist possible being, and the true home of the Soul. In that frame the physical world is merely appearance, merely there, a mute indifferent background of appearances, the Cave World of lower mind.
Of course, on a meta-level, when the human mind is told such ideas, like, for example, when the human mind first confronts these ideas in an introductory philosophy class on Plato, we are the actual recipients of logical propositions. In this sense Žižek quotes the great 20th century philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein in the relationship between language, reality, and logical form, from the Tractatus:
“4.121 — Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.”
What Wittgenstein means by this phrase is thus not that there exists as an eternal “Absolute Truth” beyond appearances some naive externalist realm. Instead what Wittgenstein is saying is that what the very logical form of a proposition, the very symbolic reality of a proposition, displays itself purely in-itself. In this sense the fact that so many human minds have come to conceive of the logical form first convincingly articulated by Plato and instantiated as a part of our shared reality, is the very way in which the Absolute shines in our world of appearances.
To push this idea further, Žižek deploys an unlikely connection between Wittgenstein’s notion of logical propositions and Einstein’s notion of spacetime. In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as is common knowledge, he proposed the logical form that time itself as another dimension of space. In that sense time becomes “spatialized” and thus the “past” and “future” as conceived by Newtonian physics, becomes “eternally present”. Thus it is only by virtue of the fact of our “low level mind” or “low level perceptions of the world” that we cannot “conceive of the whole of time in its spatialized eternity”. However, Žižek then paradoxically notes the necessity of this so-called “lower level mind state”. For example, if we were all of the time conceiving of the whole of time at once (if we were in a state of Absolute Truth), then how could we practically engage in the world? In classical Žižekian form, he asks us to consider the most brutal of ethical situations: the traumas of being in an internment camp during the Holocaust, for example. Žižek claims that the price to be paid for the cognitive “freedom” of “being in the absolute itself” is that we become subject to the most devastating blind spot: “we can see everything except the the present of the camp itself” and thus become unable to act ethically.
Now, here Žižek makes the crucial move to what he sees as a proper syntheses of the standard straw man of Plato: it is not that there is this dualism between temporal appearances and the eternal absolute, but rather that, in the flow of our becoming, in the world of temporal appearances, the eternal reality as an absolute surface of a flow of sensations shines through in the present moment. In that sense, Žižek here is instantiating a distinction that will be absolutely essential to understand for the rest of this episode and for the rest of the lecture series: that there is “nothing beyond” the appearances of our becoming, there is only the temporal appearances, where, we experience the transpiration or transformation of absolute eternal states of being as a pure surface of our being (1):
“Plato’s deep insight: Ideas are not the hidden reality beneath appearances; Ideas are nothing but the very form of appearance, this form as such — or, […] the supra sensible is appearance as appearance.”
Thus, in Žižek’s synthesis of standard Plato, we are asked to think of what we normally think about as the “Truth beyond appearances” as the very manifestation of the absolute Truth within the world of appearances. In this positing Žižek places great emphasis on the “suprasensible”. We can think of the “surpasensible” almost as a “sixth sense”. We have the world as constituted by our sensations: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. But we also have the “suprasensible”, perhaps we we could put it on the level of visionary state, the state of pure manifestation of the Idea as a surface image on the frontier of our becoming. The crucial thing to remember is that this “appearance” of the suprasensible is conceived by Žižek as purely in itself, or as he states “supra-sensible is appearance as appearance”.
Building on this synthesis of Plato we have Žižek attempting to make his first of many attempts to put Deleuze into conversation, first with Plato, and then later with Hegel. It is a well known fact of the history of philosophy that Deleuze was the archetypal “anti-Platonic” and “anti-Hegelian” thinker. Deleuze is the philosopher who attempted to think outside of the Platonic-Hegelian tradition. Here Žižek attempts to re-think both Plato and Deleuze as attempting to build a “materialist truth”. In this system we have the dualistic structure of “substantial bodies” and a “pure surface of sense”. This could be thought of in contrast to the standard dualism of “body” and “mind” where we are constantly attempting to think “what is the connection between the body and mind”: is the “mind” “in” the “brain” (biological body) or is the “mind” disconnected in a transcendental World-Soul above and beyond the world of appearances? In the system of “substantial bodies” plus “pure surface of sense” we do not have to think in this particular dualism, and instead think about the way in which the pure surface of sense emerges from the realm of substantial embodied existence. Again, the pure surface of sense is nothing but “appearance as appearance”. Thus, the “mind” is not reduced to the body, but it is also not “transcendentalized” in a realm beyond the world.
In this analysis Žižek makes reference to Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense where Deleuze begins by “inverting” Plato’s eternal Ideas and sensuous reality with the notion of senses as surfaces that subsist within being. Quoting Deleuze:
“[Surfaces] are not things or facts, but events. We cannot say that they exist, but rather that they subsist or inhere (having this minimum of being which is appropriate to that which is not a thing, a non-existing entity).”
Žižek furthermore attempts to connect this Deleuzian realm of pure surfaces against the transcendental substantial with the Stoics first rejection of standard Plato in the notion of incorporeals:
“the [Stoics were the] first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion. For if bodies with their states, qualities, and quantities, assume all the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of the idea are relegated to the other side, that is to this impassive extra-Being which is sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things: the ideational or the incorporeal can no longer be anything other than an ‘effect’”.
In this way Žižek claims that it is against this background that we should “return to Plato”. Here what he emphasizes we gain from this return is not that the eternal Idea is causing our lower level realm of being, but that our empirical reality of appearances can and does participate in the eternal Idea, “that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it”. In this sense eternal Ideas are not the ultimate Cause but a-causal, outside of the normal chain of material cause and effect, a hole in the chain, where the normal run of things gets derailed in a discontinuous break.
Here Žižek attempts to make a connection between Plato and the notion of attractors in complex mathematics. In complex mathematics attractors are purely virtual forms within a state space where all lines in a field point towards a form with no substance; thus the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not a ‘fully substantial being’ but a purely formal structure in a state space; we may say it is what emerges from the virtual tendency of a material body (2):
“One should fully accept that spatio-temporal material reality is “all there is”, that there is no other “more true” reality: the ontological status of Ideas is of pure appearing.
The suprasensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being it is appearance as appearance. No wonder that the great admirers of Plato’s Parmenides, Hegel and Lacan, both provide exactly the same formula of the “truth” of the Platonic suprasensible Idea: the suprasensible.”
In this clear re-affirmation of how we are structuring this philosophical analysis, Žižek then attempts to ground what he refers to as a “raw” Platonism, which may also be called a psychoanalytically informed Plato. In the dualism of bodies and the pure surface of sense we do not just have bodies in the world but bodies captured by fields of virtual force in attractors that become more real then mere material reality. In that sense Žižek starts to infuse his Platonic synthesis with language that will be common to anyone who has read Lacan: we have the introduction of a Real that is is deeply embedded in material reality, something that emerges within material reality as its immanent tendency despite appearances towards decay.
From that perspective when we see that all material things fall into disorder; when we find that all material things eventually fall to the universal law of entropy, in short, when we see that things “fall apart”, we may think that this is really the lower level realm of being. But, in fact, the revenge of Plato is that what is immanent is the Idea, the Idea in its virtuality as a hole in Being that pulls all material bodies towards its Ideal perfection. We can thus think of our material bodily becoming with a surface of sense as lines of force that is the very surface structure of our becoming, where we re-shape our bodies in relation to the Idea (3):
“The Real announces itself in the seductive appearance of the naked body. In the spectral appearance of the naked body. That is to say, in the opposition between the spectral appearance of the sexualized body and the repulsive body in decay, it is the spectral appearance which is the Real, while the decaying body is merely reality — that to which we take recourse in order to avoid the deadly fascination of the Real as it threatens to draw us into the vortex of jouissance [enjoyment].”
Here this virtual Plato is also used to structure the realm of analysis on the political level of ideality. For Žižek, the true event of modern politics can be captured by the event of the French revolution, where “the hitherto unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality”. The fact that this event re-structured, not just France, not just Europe, but World History was for the German Idealists evidence that it was the emergence of an eternal Idea that offered the real possibility of freedom. The problem for the German Idealists was how to think this break with traditional structure, how to think a world constituting itself in relation to Absolute Freedom from external forces.
Thus, what was “Absolute” about the “appearing of this Idea” in World History was that it was the highest expression that human beings (our material bodies, seen from the outside) no longer ran along deterministic trajectories posited externally by monarchical forces, but, in an eruption from within, asserted new trajectories, posited new destinies, and became the active participants of a new World Order that would re-discover value structures in free transformations. Thus, it was the main claim of the German Idealists that history was not just about material progress (of industrial advance, in their time; or informational advance, in our time); but also of “freedom”, of the ability to determine your own trajectory in the World.
In order to think this “event” today, Žižek attempts to make connections between the discontinuous nature of evental ruptures with our current world where people fearlessly assert new trajectories, on the collective or individual level, in ways that cannot be predicted in advance, in ways that cannot be predicted by “expert opinion”. From this perspective, when it looks like there is no way to escape, when it looks like the coordinates of our being are surrounded on all side by impossible obstacles, it is precisely at this time when we should expect the impossible to happen, when, all of a sudden, the coordinates of our being change, and what was once impossible becomes an immanent actuality.
Žižek structures the real of such events with analogies to the event of falling in Love. When we fall in Love, the normal routines of our lives becomes background noise, the normal routines of our lives become performed in indifferent mechanical ways, simply because everything pales in comparison to the passionate attachment of our new found Love. In that sense there is a suspension of the normal run of events as if it “loses its real” and a new real that is impossible to ignore overdetermines the coordinates of our being (4):
“For an authentic political engagement […] an Absolute intervenes and derails the normal run of our affairs: it is not so much that the standard hierarchy of values is inverted, but, more radically, that another dimension enters the scene, a different level of being.
[For] Kant: is there true progress [towards freedom] in history? […] Although progress cannot be proven, we can discern signs which indicate that it is possible. Kant interpreted the French revolution as such a sign which pointed towards the possibility of freedom: the unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality.”
Here we can move to what Žižek sees as the 20th century constellation of philosophy, a constellation that he constructs in relation to Alain Badiou’s assertion that the 20th century was the “anti-Platonist” century, where all of the bad things in the world were blamed our the Western traditions adherence to Platonic thinking of Absolute Truths:
- The first element of the constellation we have the “vitalist school” with thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze. In the vitalist school what we have emphasized is the real of a life becoming, of a life flux. In this school Nietzsche of course emphasized the will to power of a radically engaged subjectivity that was free from any external tyranny like the Church; Bergson emphasized that constant change and novelty that was a part of the new scientific evolutionary worldview where we could no longer thing in terms of dead materiality, but had to think the radicality of the living being; and Deleuze emphasized becoming and multiplicity over any notions of a static being or a real oneness, thus his whole metaphysics was an anti-Plato on the highest sense, where we conceive of a eternal One.
- In the empirical-analytic schools of philosophy we have the conjecture that we should only focus on things we can empirically observe in the world; and we should not waste our time thinking about “transcendentals” or “abstract concepts” like “freedom” and “truth”. We should instead ground ourselves concretely in the world, and disconnect as much as possible from the crazy “realm of Ideas”. Thus this school privileges a more reductionist and analytical frame of mind that wants to get to the core mechanics and core workings of a phenomena independent of the mysteries of their framing or their relation to the mysteries of the totality of being. It is not that the empirical-analytical school does not think such questions are important, but it does not believe we can make progress on these ideas by way of recourse to more idealist philosophy.
- In the Marxist schools of philosophy we also have a political rebellion against Platonic notions of Idealism because we have the introduction of a materialist dialectics that is skeptical of all spiritualism and religious thinking that would take us away from the practical life workings of the proletariat working class and their material instantiation in being. Thus, for the Marxist schools what we are aiming at is a materialist theory of history that can explain how we go from a primitive communism to a world communism that is pure in its material instantiation. For Marxist philosophers Plato is often seen as “too much in the clouds”.
- Moving on the existentialist philosophy, we have many thinkers from Kierkegaard to Husserl to Sartre who assert that Plato eradicated the multiplicity of existential modes by asserting the singularity of being. Thus, the singular uniqueness of a life world, its singular existence irreducible to an over-arching truth, is what most fundamentally characterizes this form of philosophy. For existentialists we would be better to focus on the pureness of existence in-itself, where we are phenomenally grounded in the real of our birth, the real of our growth, and the real of our attempt to make sense of mortality and finitude. Here one of the principle axioms of existentialism were proposed by Kierkegaard’s “Socrates versus Christ” and in Sartre’s “existence precedes essence”.
- Now on to Heidegger, who stands as one of the most titanic figures of 20th century Western philosophy with his master work Being and Time. In Heidegger’s work we have an anti-Platonism that that negates Plato as the founder of Western metaphysics which instantiates the ultimate delusion of the historical process causing us to “forget Being” itself. Thus, for Heidegger, with the existentialists, he would call us to affirm the real of Being over the Idea and that if we are to start and ground ourselves in Being we would be able to better understand existence and the world then if we are lost in the realm of Ideas.
- Finally, in Democratic anti-Platonism, Žižek attributes this school of thought to be championed by Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, who believe that Plato is the reason for Western thinking of a “closed society” that tends towards totalitarianism. In this assertion Plato is seen as a figure who subordinates the real of political decision making to the realm of Absolute Truth that can be accessed by the greatest philosophical thinkers, and thus disconnected from the masses and disconnected from a realm ethos of democracy. For democratic materialists we should always emphasize the contingency of unpredictable political decisions that cannot be contained by an a priori Truth.
What Žižek ultimately ends with here is a meditation on the fact that Plato, like other philosophers, most notably Descartes and Hegel, became “negative points of reference”; where the name is used as a signifier to launch a new philosophical project that could break from tradition. Of course, for Descartes, he is often used as a negative point of reference for naive mind-body substantial dualism where mind is reified as a substantial essence (a res cogitans); and where Hegel is often used as a negative point of reference for naive notions of Absolute Knowledge (at the End of History), where the Hegelian dialectics can bring us to a True conception of Totality.
Why Return to Plato? In this analysis we try to situate why Plato should be worth repeating, even against the philosophical onslaught of the 20th century, which seeks to relegate Plato to an old ancient tradition that is not worth re-thinking.
We can build from what we started building at the start of the lecture: namely that we affirm the distinction between material bodies and sensual appearances. What the contemporary philosophical world will affirm is that this dualism includes bodies and languages, as in the first quote by Wittgenstein on the nature of a linguistic proposition revealing the logical form of a truth. In this sense, the return to Plato is a return to the real of a Truth. This is not a Truth in the sense of a totalizing sphere independent of Being and existing from all time, but it is the real of a Truth that shines forth to an individuated material body on the plane of sensual reality as an Event signalling an Absolute rupture. The point of reaffirming the real of Truth is to return to the level of the subject as a being that structures its world in relation to the highest Cause it can conceive — i.e. the Reason or the Art of its Being. In a paraphrased passage from Badiou: “human Reason cannot be reduced to the result of evolutionary adaptation; art is not just a heightened procedure for producing sensual pleasure but a medium of Truth; and so on.”
This is where Žižek (following Badiou) situates the difference between democratic materialism and dialectical materialism. For Žižek democratic materialism seeks to reduce our life to a play of bodies and language games, with no Truth that structures or orients our being, with no Truth that can signal our direction in the matrix of being. In contrast, dialectical materialism still seeks to make sense of Truth, still seeks to make sense of what it means to be a linguistic body caught in a historical web of higher level mystery and purpose; where the “normal run of things” can be derailed by an Absolute that blinds us out of our mundane life world (5):
“”There is nothing but bodies and language…,” to which materialist dialectics adds “… with the exception of truths.” […] How can a human animal forsake its animality and put its life in the service of a transcendental Truth? How can the “transubstantiation” from the pleasure-oriented life of an individual to the life of a subject dedicated to a Cause occur? […] How can one break (out of) the network of the causal connections of positive reality and conceive an act that begins by and in itself?”
Thus one can see why Žižek would be against the notion that our world is simply bodies and languages devoid of Truth. In this conception Truth is the turning of a circle, the way in which a subject can “in-and-for” itself generate an act that overdetermines the coordinates of being itself. In that sense the universality of being is structured in such a way that a particular element, a form of subjectivity, can engage in a circular motion of self-relation that allows it to re-structure the very coordinates of being itself.
Now let’s try to do the hard work of a philosopher committed to Plato. Can we re-think Platonic Truth in the 21st century? Here there is an ancient battle at work. This is an ancient battle that is still being re-enacted today in our current symbolic universe between fundamentalist traditionalists and liberal progressivists. This is the difference between the closed universe of a totality of being (or God); and the self-referential abyss where there is nothing but bodies and languages (or void).
In this structure today we have can see the origin of philosophy itself. The origin of philosophy was a battle between these poles; the poles of the closed mythical universe of the mystics and self-referential abyss of the sophists. The concrete problem is the problem of whether or not our speech can find any true external support. This problem that emerges on the side of an antithesis with the self-referential abyss is what Plato referred to as a “horror vacui”. In this way Plato was well-aware that the old mythical closed universe could not be saved in philosophy, and that the real problem was finding out how to re-anchor our being in a meta-physical realm of true Ideas.
From this works, which can be found in the Parmenides, we find a mediation of pure logic, the pure logic of the relation between Being and One; or as we will soon find, the relation between what psychoanalysis thinks of as the relation between the Real and the Signifier. For now, we can think of Being and the One as a relation between the World and One-Self.
The starting point is the phenomenological fact that the human universe is not just a low level concept of reality, something like we might think in the scientific sense of the term reality. In the human universe we must also think the “fictional semblances” or the “symbolic masks” that in many ways count much more than “mere reality”. Here Žižek invokes Lacan’s formula for “fiction versus reality” as the truth of a human universe where a mask means more than the reality beneath the mask; like when the symbolic title of Father or Mother becomes the reality of the empirical bearer of the title, which is of course, just a material human who cannot in anyway live up to this Ideal title.
From this view we can actually re-think the old analogy of Plato’s Cave — not as a naive separation between appearances and True reality, but the Truth of a perspectival distortion of being, that being appears to itself as a perspectival distortion. This is equated with the “cave” as “sensation” and the “truth” as a “suprasensible” frame that is always already the condition of our becoming. The “Truth” as a “suprasensible” realm is thus not reality “as it really is” or things “as they really are” but the relation between suprasensible semblances (vacillated semblances); the gap or distance or antagonism between a field of vacillating semblances (6):
“In the history of philosophy, the first exemplary case of “vacillating the semblances” occurs in the second part of Plato’s Parmenides, with the deployment of eight hypotheses on the relation between Being [Real] and One [Signifier]. Each hypothesis, of course, describes the contours of a semblance — however, taken all together, they are not “mere semblances”, but “semblances vacillated”. And is not the Hegelian dialectical process the climax of this strategy of “vacillating the semblances”? Each figure of consciousness, each notion, is described and denounced in its semblance, without any reliance on an external standard of truth.”
Here let’s start the exercise that Plato started. In the Parmenides, we have is a matrix of all the ways in which these “truths” as “semblances” can relate to “being”. In this philosophy we get a clear difference or a more sophisticated articulation of the “closed universe” of a fully substantial truth and “sophistic language games universe” in relation to a “horror vacui”. Žižek claims that this is achieved in some sense, through the Socratic collapse of the big Other, which introduces a movement into the Ideas themselves, which introduces, the philosophical dialectic, because, of course, as is central for Žižek, the big Other is fundamentally inconsistent, fundamentally incoherent, nothing but the realm of vacillated semblances.
In this matrix we have on the one side the unconditional One proposed by Parmenides as an unconditional fully constituted ontological One. We have here the Parmenidean Absolute Being, the eternity of the moment of the eternal fullness of Being. In this first gesture of philosophy as Absolute Being we have the Mother of all Logical Propositions; we have the highest possible logical proposition, and it is a logical proposition designed very specifically, designed as a way to keep away at all costs the horror vacui of non-being, the void, the Nothingness. In existential terms, to vanquish Death with God. In this way we can conceptualize the birth of philosophy as the birth of the ultimate coincidentia oppositorium; the ultimate structure of being and non-being, life and death, something and nothing.
Now Plato approaches this matrix of Being and the One with 8 different logical propositions to attempt to work out all of the possible relations between this coincidentia oppositorium of being and non-being in relation to the “vacillated semblances” of suprasensible frames of reference. In Badiouian terms we have the formal matrix of eight possible worlds with each hypothesis of a semblance formulating a world’s “immanent transcendental”.
In this matrix Žižek emphasizes that the eight hypotheses are not a “forerunner” to the “postmodern plurality of universes” where there is no “one true reality” but rather the matrix of one immanent “impossibility or deadlock” where the One and Being appear in an asymmetrical relation that cannot be “actualized as symmetrical”, where One would overlap with Being in eternity.
In order to understand this matrix let us first cover the hypotheses that posit a positive result for the One. A positive result for the One is in some sense its verification in existence as a really existing One.
In hypothesis 2 we can read the formula “If One is” then “the consequences for the One” is positive since “the One is” (simply). However, in this situation Žižek notes that it is also paradoxically one of the strangest scenarios because if the “One is” it is by definition “different then Being” since we find ourselves in the world that is “not One”. Here the “One” participates in being somehow, which is different then “One”.
In hypothesis 3 we read the formula “if One is” then “consequences for the Others” is also positive since “others” can also be “One with Being”. In this scenario we have a “One” as a series of Others.
In hypothesis 5 we read “if One is not” then “the consequences for the One” is still positive because we are dealing with “the One” as a negative predicate, we are dealing with a “One that IS not”.
In hypothesis 7 we read “If One is not” then “the consequences for the Others” is positive because the “One” as a negative predicate functions also for “the Others”.
Now, let us move to the negative results.
In hypothesis 1 we have “if There is One” then the “consequences for the One” is negative because we are dealing with a One that is ineffable to our knowledge, a One that exists somehow but is not accessible to us.
In hypothesis 4 we have “if There is One” then the “consequences for the Others” is also negative because if the One is but is ineffable in Being then this is also true for Other beings.
In hypothesis 6 we have “If There is no One” then “the consequences for the One” is negative because it is not a “non-existent entity” as in the “the One is not” but a “nonentity”, there is nothing of a One.
In hypothesis 8 we have “if There is no One” then “the consequences for the Others” is also negative since the One is a “nonentity” also for “the Others”.
(I will note that if you want to follow this part with the actual chart in Less Than Nothing, one could find this representation along with Zizek’s descriptions on pages 53-55.) (7):
“What if the matrix of all possible relations between the One and Being is also effectively the matrix of all the “impossible” relations between the signifier and the Real? Socrates tries to resolve the paradox that opposites can be attributed to the same entity (oneness and multiplicity, rest and movement, etc.) by way of distinguishing between the eternal order of Ideas and empirical reality. The entire set of hypotheses [in Parmenides] as a formal matrix of eight possible worlds: each hypothesis formulates a world’s “immanent transcendental”. The eight worlds implied by the eight hypotheses […] arise against the background of a certain impossibility or deadlock which generates them — the impossibility of “reconciling” Being and the One, the Real and the Signifier, of making them overlap symmetrically. There are many worlds because Being cannot be One, because a gap persists between the two.”
Thus if we take the Parmenidean logical exercise by Plato between One and Being as something designed to be re-articulated in the modern world then we can here engage with psychoanalysis and the potential overlap between the philosophical notion of One and Being with the psychoanalytic notion of the Signifier and the Real. The wager here is that this relation between a One (Signifier-Self) and Being (World-Real) emerges precisely because of an asymmetry that constitutes the relation; an asymmetry which is attempting to be reconciled, or which is immanent in its impossibility of reconciliation, on the side of the One/Signifier. What this means is that Being/Real is not in need of reconciliation, it is just there; but it is in fact the side of the One/Signifier where the demand for a reconciliation appears; as in Parmenides initial desire to reconcile Being with an Absolute Being, or a One. Here Parmenides is the ultimate One, the ultimate Signifier attempting to reconcile the material symmetry with an ideality.
What does psychoanalysis teach us about this relation? Žižek helps us to recall that it was Lacan who noticed that the formula “there is a One” has a real but that, in fact, “this One” is something like a minimal partial object, what Lacan referred to as an “objet petit a”, as the paradoxical place holder that emerges as a virtuality representing the Absolute “unity of the opposites”. In this way the One is constitutive of the death drive, and that even the One, is an emergence, an emergence from a pre-evental One-less multiplicity. What does this tell us about Being? What does this tell us about the Real? Or more precisely, what does this tell us about the relationship between One and Being and the Signifier and the Real?
If one recalls the first lecture we can here make a clear connection between Plato, Hegel, and now, Lacan. In that sense there is “no One” (in a negative result, sense), there is only the pre-eventual multiplicity. However, with the introduction of the One in the philosophical sense, or the introduction of the Signifier in the psychoanalytic sense, the pre-eventual multiplicity is transformed into the “the One is not” in the paradoxical sense that the “One” or the “Signifier” appear to themselves as a suprasensible semblance. From this perspective the One or the Signifier are irreducibly barred internally (not externally). There is no “final reconciliation” or “final truth”; there is nothing but their immanent deadlock or impossibility internal to their very ideal structure. The only eternity is the asymmetrical void where images of the ideal appear to the One or the Signifier, or where the One or the Signifier themselves form.
In this sense let me emphasize the formulas that were again emphasized in the first lecture, that the real difference that we are mediating in the human universe, the real truth that we are mediating dialectically (as opposed to simply being in a realm of bodies and languages) is the division between division and non-unity; or the real of the “non-Other”. What this means is that internal to the subject-object division i.e., there is another division. Now I am going to ask you to stop for a moment and reflect on this because it requires extra attention. What does this mean? It means that you as a subject, as a subject of the signifying chain, divided from the world and thus gazing out at the world, there is another division, a division constitutive of the difference between you and the ideal of a perfect symmetry.
This is what it means to think “division between division and non-unity” or “there is a non-Other”. We can think this formula as a potential hypothesis to contain all of the other plurality of universes in the Parmenidean formulas since we include within the hypotheses the situation for Being or the Real before the introduction of the One or the Signifier; and then we also include the situation for the Being or the Real after the introduction of the One or the Signifier, which by definition appears to itself as a suprasensible realm in-itself which is marked by its immanent antagonism or impossibility of being “fully One” or being “fully Signifier”. In that sense we have a One that emerges, and we have a One that is internally thwarted from being One, we have a not-One or a non-Other.
Furthermore, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis, anyway, we can identify that this “not-One” or “non-Other” is constitutive of a multiplicity of libidinal drives as repetitive tics, a multiplicity of Worlds dialectically constituting themselves, vacillating semblances, whose “immanent trarnscnendetal” is marked by a relationship to the One, i.e. how a vacillated semblance attempts to internally resolve the deadlocks of its non-being or non-unity.
Now, then, let us go into the paradoxical realm, this paradoxical realm “between the Two”, between the One and Being and between the Signifier and the Real. This is a paradoxical realm precisely because it is something not accounted for in traditional ontological frames, which cannot think this immanent tension or antagonism.
Here Žižek starts his analysis between the Two with the archetypal materialist philosopher, Democritus. In Democritus materialist ontology we start with the material realm of atoms and the void which can be formulated as the practical materialist approach to the same problem that Parmenides articulates on existential terms between Being and Non-Being. However, what is often lost in simplistic scientific interpretations of Democritus (which, outside of modern quantum field theory, are usually friendly), is the idea of Den. Den was Democritus name for the fact that we did not simply need to resolve the issue of “atoms and the void”, but the very emergence of atoms and the void and their movement. Atoms and the void are not static reified things existing from all time, but a state of being that emerged and was in constant motion.
In order to explore this motion the notion of Den is meant to capture “the radical real” of the void, the racial real of nothing. In that sense we are not conceiving of the void in a naive sense of a “pure nothing” that exerts no effect or consequence on “something” but as constitutive to the motion of “something” as necessary for “something” to “call something” (else) into being; like, for example, when Parmenides confronted the nothingness of the void and called into existence “Absolute Being” as an image that ignites the ideational motion of philosophy. In this formula Parmenides “Absolute Being” (which is obviously a ridiculous image to guard against the nothingness of Death); not on the level of something but on the level of “Less Than Nothing” as the ultimate “unity of the opposites” in the guise of Parmenides object of desire. Thus, philosophy from a psychoanalytic point of view, has always carried with it a “blind passenger”, the less than nothing of virtuality that upholds any conjecture or positing of the state of being. As Žižek quotes from Barbara Cassin’s Lacanian modification of Lacan himself: “Not nothing, but less than nothing”. In this sense Den is the name for a “subtraction after negation” (8):
“If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus nothing is as much as being. In order to get from nothing to something, we do not have to add something to the void; on the contrary, we have to subtract, take away, something from nothing. […] “Nothing is the generative void out of which othings, primordially contracted pre-ontological entities, emerge — at this level, nothing is more than othing, negative is more than positive. Once we enter the ontologically fully constituted reality, however, the relationship is reversed: something is more than nothing, in other words, nothing is purely negative, a privation of something.”
“If we take the form of the One away from the others, we get a chaotic unlimited multitude. If the One is not (as full ontological reality), the space remains open for Ones which just are, that is, for the fluid play of appearances in which others can partake of the One and thus acquire a temporary fragile consistency if, however, there is no One, not even a temporary elusive appearance of Oneness is possible, leaving just the void of Nothingness.
Last lines of Parmenides:
“Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: if one is not, then nothing is?
Let as much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.
Could we get a better demonstration of “vacillated semblances”? Here we start with the world without any sign of a One, just a chaotic unlimited multitude. Then, we move to the space where there appears “Ones” where “the One” is not (as a full ontological reality) and this space persists as a space where Ones appear to themselves, partaking in the One but not able to be fully One; they appear and disappear, as fragile inconsistent semblances vacillating in the historical void. However, as philosophically convincing as this ontology, this work is not finished, history is not finished. We have paradoxes to work out, paradoxes that can be approached with what emerges in historical dialectics, and paradoxes that can be approached with what emerges in psychoanalysis. In that sense we should always emphasize the productivity of the void.
In order to start with such a project let us start with what, evolving from the Democritean version of materialism, we can call the materialist dialectic of historicity. This dialectics has four principle features that we can analyze in turn.
- The first is that our world appears to us as a holistic entity, as connected and integrated as a whole, where phenomena are co-determined by each other. Where we can find no phenomena that is isolated and disconnected from the totality of being.
- The second feature is its evolutionary character, the fact that the whole is a state of constant movement and change, that it is there is nothing we can discern as static and immovable. In this sense we have learned that being itself is an evolutionary phenomena, not merely in the sense that biology evolves, but that everything is evolving, changing from moment to moment in a constant flux of becoming at different scales and velocities.
- The third feature is a consequence of evolution, that it is characterized by emergence, which is to say that there is not simply a drift in stable qualities, but instead an evolution where new qualities appear, phase transitions into new states of being. In this sense, being can transition from one state into another state, where the radically new as quality can appear in being. We can thus start to grasp the true temporality of being as manifesting what was once non-manifest.
- Fourth, this integrated, evolutionary, emergence does not happen without conflict and struggle, that being appears as a struggle of opposites where oppositional determination allows for the emergence of the radically new. The old and the new are in a constant state of antagonism, between something that is dying, and something that is being born, between something that is preserving itself and something that is constituting itself for the first time.
Philosophy proper, as we have seen, in some sense situates itself in the field of oppositional determination, within a coincidentia oppositorium. How do we then make sense of this dualistic or oppositional character to the becoming of being. Should we, on the one side, take a “good pole” against a “bad pole” as in Parmenides initial philosophical gesture where he asserts the primacy of “Absolute Being” against its opposite “Absolute Nothing”? Or, should we take a “higher-deeper view” and search for a “meta-synthesis” of the opposites where we see that both are in some sense “necessary” for the appearance of being as in the Socratic-Platonic dialogues that wrestle dialectically with being and non-being? In the language of modern quantum physics a “both/and” situation?
Here Hegel stays with a classical “either/or” but does not, against common wisdom of the Hegelian dialectic, does not offer a “meta-synthesis” that “both are necessary” (even though, of course, both are necessary). Instead, Hegel opts for a historically engaged approach where one asserts the New, but not in a naive progressivist sense where one posits the utopian image, as in Parmenides “Absolute Being” eradicating its oppositional determination. Hegel opts for the New in a conservative stance, which acknowledges, fully and Absolutely, that this new is inclusive of chaos and uncertainty, that there is no guarantee of success, there is no guarantee that the New will be Good, no guarantee that the New will produce a utopian reconciliation of Being.
In this perspective, then, what becomes of Platonic Truth in its radical Hegelian historicization? In the classical relation between the ideological inside versus the external outside, Hegel opts for neither. In history it is not that there is an ideological inside versus an external outside. Instead, the point is that the internal consistency and coherence of an engaged “vacillated semblance”, the ideological inside, or subjective suturing, allows for the very objectivization or externalization of the outside. In that sense it is the very becoming of integrated semblances vacillating in a void that objectives reality itself. In that sense there is nothing but “figures of consciousness” who are “becoming what they are” and constituting truth itself in the play of their own symbolism, which is not a pure chaotic multiplicity, but a multiplicity against the background of the not-One, their own immanent impossibility (10):
“Sophists broke down the mythic unity of words and things, playfully insisting on the gap that separates words from things; and philosophy proper can only be understood as a reaction to this, as an attempt to close the gap the sophists opened up, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos but under new conditions of rationality.
This is where one should locate Plato: he first tried to provide this foundation with his teaching on Ideas […] The line of philosophers who struggle against the Sophistic temptation ends with Hegel, the “last philosopher”, who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist embracing the self-referential play of the symbolic with no external support for its truth. For Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process — the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction”, the inner (in)consistency of the discursive process, the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation.”
Thus, we conclude the second lecture on Less Than Nothing, which grounds Chapter 1 “Vacillating the Semblances” of Part 1 “The Drink Before”. I hope you found this [written] lecture to be a useful compliment to the reading of Less Than Nothing, with the necessary visual and commentary aids that may be necessary to fully comprehend the ontological opening that is absolutely crucial to understanding the rest of the book. If you did gain a benefit from this works, and if it helped you with your own understanding of philosophy and more importantly, a deeper understanding of your self, then I would very much appreciate if you considered becoming a Patreon. Becoming a Patreon is as easy as donating even $1 a month, and this helps me to continue producing the highest level of philosophical discourse possible.
(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Chapter 1: Vacillating the Semblances. London: Verso. p. 31.
(2) ibid. p. 31-32.
(3) ibid. p. 32.
(4) ibid. p. 34.
(5) ibid. p. 42.
(6) ibid. p. 48.
(7) ibid. p. 51-52.
(8) ibid. p, 60.
(9) ibid. p. 60.
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