Sex and the Failed Absolute (Žižek Lecture Overview)

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YouTube: Sex and the Failed Absolute

Last week I had a chance to attend a Masterclass at Birkbeck, University of London presented by Slavoj Žižek titled “Sex and the Failed Absolute”.  In this work I want to give an overview of the core information presented at that lecture and hopefully give my own interpretation which may be helpful if you are a theorist or philosopher interested in these topics.  I just want to give a quick preface that the meaning of the title will hopefully become apparent as we work through the material and has we come to the conclusion of the first (05/11/18) and second lectures (07/11/18).


The first thing that emerged was a core part of Žižek’s larger philosophical program which basically claims that we should pay more attention to theoretical abstraction over substantial holism.  We may say that many philosophical approaches are trying to articulate a holistic understanding of nature, a type of philosophy that may emphasize that everything is connected, everything is one, that we all have equal access to some totality, often presented as harmonious and balanced.  But what this does not capture for Žižek is the axiom he develops in Less Than Nothing: the Absolute is Substance, but also Subject.  For Žižek the subject is of course not part of the whole totality but a division or cut within totality.  This flips holism on its head because we should not think of the whole of reality as interconnected, but the way a subject will hold that idea as an abstract object.  So this is a classic Hegelian reversal of empiricism and abstraction.  What is empirical (the whole world) is actually an abstraction.  In Hegelian philosophy we study the way in which the subject engages with and plays with that abstraction.  The attention is really always on the subject and the subject’s abstractions and that is crucial to keep in mind as we work through this lecture content.


The second thing that came up in the lecture is another common theme in Žižek’s work, which is an insistence that the contemporary political movement shoots itself in the foot by putting so much attention on identity politics over and above the paradoxes of billionaire capitalism.  The example he highlights is Elizabeth Warren and her recent political blunder or mistake where she attempts to assert/affirm her identity as a Native American.  This kind of misses the point of progressive politics proper, for Žižek, because it is not really about what your genetic heritage or your ethnic background is.  In a classic Lacanian hysterical provocation it is rather this constant questioning of identity itself which is more true to the progressive political movement, as opposed to how your identity is registered by the big Other.  If the progressive political movement is to make real novel progress in the 21st century it has to confront with nuance and bold new strategies the paradoxes of billionaire capitalism.  Here Žižek specifically cites the people who use the late capitalist system to make obscene profits and simultaneously market themselves as the saviours of humanity.  We might think of someone like Bill Gates has someone in this category, who is perceived as a solution to some of the fundamental problems of global society.  Progressive politics would thus do itself higher justice if it were to focus on these paradoxes as opposed to our various identity categories.  Then we may think what a new Leftist politics would actually look like.


Connected to the first point, the question of what is a universal subject emerges, and this is important to reflect on when we think sex and the failed absolute. Žižek often emphasizes the Lacanian structure of a subject with an object.  It is never a subject without an object, but the subject with the objet petit a.  This statement is made against Badiou’s claim that we can think a subject without object, a type of floating subject.  This idea of an empty or floating/hanging subject is not the true universal subject.  Instead the understanding of concrete universality in the Hegelian system is really a subject which is a universality in-and-for itself.  This is a subject which has reflectively mediated its own objet petit a, its own object cause of desire.  This sets the universal subject in motion.

To connect some of these threads: we have the emphasis on abstraction as universal, we have emphasis on trying to think new socioeconomic coordinates independent of identity, and we have this emphasis on this radically engaged materialist subject, not this idealist floating subject, or subject hanging in the air, which is directly connected with its desire, the objet petit a.


To further bring those threads together, Žižek then makes a very interesting point about reaching a type of understanding of sexual identity which does not operate in the spurious infinity or the open multiplicity.  Of course, in the current gender politics or gender theory landscape, we might often frame things in terms of trying to be more and more inclusive of different identities.  This is often represented with this slogan “LGBT+” where the “+” stands for a spurious infinity of categories that can be included into the central organizing categories.  There is basically no end to the number of categories which could be included, and this leads to some internal paradoxes to some gender politics movements.  However, by utilizing some Hegelian and Lacanian theory, Žižek comes to an understanding that true infinity and a true transgenderism is an embodying of this plus itself.  It is not the plus which stands for a spurious infinity but a plus which stands in and for itself as universal subjectivity.

We might be able to think in this way of the pure subject of division in-itself and its desire.  It does not need to conform or fit into any categories like LGBT+.  These categories introduced or inspired by the work of Judith Butler as oppositional reactions to heteronormativity, but to break this field in its entirety, we just need to understand the “+” which is our desire in whatever form the takes.  The objet petit a is a formless form it can take any form.  On the more important point in regards to universal subjectivity, the universal subject is not this entity that will merge with the whole world or another subject, but the universal subject is nothing but this division with itself.  The “+” is emphasizing your own antagonism, and your own struggle that you are going through with your sexual energy, and this is true infinity, as opposed to a spurious infinity.


When we think of a true infinity with a subject working through its antagonism and its desire and its motion, what is absolute and transhistorical, is the antagonism as such.  This runs throughout the work of Žižek and other closely related scholars: the materialist presupposition which structures an understanding that where the we come to think of the ideal (communism, marriage, state of being), that this ideal is in some sense an obfuscation of an underlying antagonism which is the subject itself.  What does not change, what is transhistorical, is the location of the antagonism as such.  Of course the antagonism will change, there will be different struggles at different times in history, but the antagonism as such does not change, its transhistorical.  Thus the coincidence of time, of history and the absolute, can be located in the present moment of the deepest antagonism of your desire.  Working with that desire is the work of the absolute.  This is deeply connected to the idea of sex and the failed absolute.


On a final point, to sort of conclude, what this means, if we are thinking about systemic wholes, but inclusive of the subject and its abstractions (divisions), then in order to analyze a system as a whole, we have to start with the deviations.  The things that are going wrong are the key to the whole.  We do not learn something new by idealizing the perfect system.  We do not learn something new by thinking about the way the system is working.  We learn something new by thinking in new ways about the way the system is not working.  These are really the theoretical interventions that Marx and Freud introduced in their own ways.  Marx introduced this idea of capitalism in a permanent imbalance, of a structural negativity, that the meaning of capitalism could be found in its disruptive failures, in its crises, that those were the moments of its true transformation.  Then Freud, as well, introducing the idea that we could understand the psyche as a whole by understanding the things that you may not think are too important in a cognitive science context: things like dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue.  Freud thought these were the things that helps us understand the psyche as a whole, these deviations, these points of antagonism where the system “goes wrong”.


In this second overview I am going to give a structural systematization of the Absolute.  The whole coverage can be seen in this “Absolute Quadrant”.  In this quadrant we are operating within the naive traditional question “Is it possible for us, finite and mortal humans, to achieve some kind of contact with the Absolute?”

This might seem like an old religious question but it is really an important question when you think about our contemporary philosophical universe which cannot think about the eternal.  We live in an intellectual universe of abstractions where multiplicity, change, evolution, externality are overly emphasized, and the turn to once again understanding metaphysics, and understanding these old central questions which have structured civilization, are re-emerging.

#1: Mystical Unity

The first quadrant can be labelled a “Mystical Unity”.  This appears in many different religious traditions.  The first example he gives is of Brahmin (God) / Atman (Soul), and that we can purify our Souls to have a divine unity with the fundamental ground of Being, a pure unity of consciousness.  This also appears in other religious traditions, like in Western traditions, similar notions of God and Soul appears.

Another example he gives is of Schelling’s Art, related to the idea that a subject with its creative project there is a type of mystical unity between subject and object in a type of aesthetic transcendent space with its artistic motion.  This is why Schelling put art above philosophy.

Other examples Žižek gives is of the Buddhist void, thoughts without a thinker, just an empty screen (nirvana), a mystical unity that is kind of a no-thing, that no-thing is the thing.  We can obviously reach this state in mediative trances and other spiritual practices that help us get rid of some of the linguistic operations that are often times or all the time structuring our minds to reach the innerness of consciousness itself.

Finally, you have the idea of the Spinozan substance, and the Spinozan substance is the pure substance of being independent of a subject, or the subject as purely merged or purely identical with this pre-subjective substance, perfect substance.

#2: Pure Appearance

The second dimension of the quadrant could be labelled as “Pure Appearance”.  Pure appearance puts less emphasis on this mystical unity with the object beyond appearances and puts more emphasis on the appearances themselves as truth.  This problematizes the division between appearance and reality.  We often think about appearance as one thing and reality as another thing, that we have to go through the appearances to get to the core of things.  This can be seen in the first example of the mystical unity.  But in this idea that the Absolute is a pure appearance, we get the idea that the pure appearances are themselves the truest being, part of the Absolute’s revelation to itself.  Here we get to the level where we can think Absolute as substance but also as subject.

Examples Žižek gives as demonstrative of pure appearance as absolute, are things like feminine beauty, the feeling of absoluteness that can be experienced when we see a beautiful woman or just a beautiful human in general.  We see the other as absolute, we see the other as erasing time, where eternity shines through the appearance. Žižek emphasizes that this is the way he and Badiou see Platonic form.  Platonic form is not some Idea in another world, but rather the suprasensible appearance of form in this world.  If we think Plato in this way we can think a materialist Plato.  This also connects to this Hegelian reversal of the abstract/concrete where the aesthetic (abstraction) is seen as itself concrete.  This is part of the problematization of appearances and reality.  With pure appearance as absolute we see the aesthetic as concrete, as the most real.

#3: Transcendental Frame

On the third quadrant we have the “Transcendental Frame”.  The examples he gives for philosophers who have embraced this frame as absolute, are thinkers running from the Kantian tradition, the Marxist tradition, to 20th century philosophers operating under horizons of deconstruction and social power regimes, like Derrida and Foucault.  For the transcendental frame what is absolute is the frame of reality, we can never get behind or beyond it.  We are always already looking at the absolute, it is the frame itself as absolute.

What this means is that our collective historical practice, whether that is political engagement, artistic practice, or our scientific form of knowledge (e.g. Darwinian knowledge), that these systematic categories are the absolute itself and that is transhistorical dimension of the symbolic order as such.  Even though categories might change and be constantly evolving, the categories as such do not change, that is an a priori, and that is central to understanding any system of categories.  The example he gives is that we can never purify our categories independent of context.  The content of a frame always has to be situated within its historical context even if the frame is transhistorical.

#4: Fundamental Negativity

Finally, in the absolute quadrant he goes over the understanding of “Fundamental Negativity”.  Fundamental negativity is seen as the break down of all concepts or your consciousness itself.  This is absolute in the fact that it is beyond questioning, its beyond your control, its just pure negativity, the pure break down of your identity, the moment of death, the moment of collapse, the moment where everything goes wrong, where the system you thought of as the true reality reveals itself in its true temporality, in its fleeting appearances.  That would be in some sense the zero point of consciousness.  This is more true or absolute then any other form.

The interesting thing he goes into with this is the first and second death and their paradoxical reversal.  The first death we may think of as a biological death where we just think its the end of our biological substance and possibly the end of our subjectivity, but the second death is like the death within life, the death where our identities dissolve, and become reconstituted in a way that will be radically different then the way they were when they first dissolved.  In that sense Žižek is emphasizing that this fundamental negativity can be tarried with, played with, approached, and used as a tool for the transformation of your identity, to become something that the world has never seen before.  This second death is something that can be repeatedly engaged with, to transform ourselves for a different world.

The metaphysics of this fundamental negativity is basically the location of the -1, which is either between or underneath the 2.  We may say the 2 is Man and Woman, Spirit and Nature, Subject and Object, Observer and Observed (any such dualism of this nature).  However, for Žižek, what underlies or is between these 2 is the -1, the impossibility of their unity, of their staying together.  The one is internally thwarted, lacking, broken.  It is this internal brokenness which allows for a 2.  The question is what do we do with this 2?  What are the structures of determination in which we can transform this 2 if we want?  That would be a drama that is taking place in between or mediated by absolute negativity.  That can be connected with the first lecture where we emphasize the transhistorical nature of the antagonism as such and the identities deviations which are the most important elements to understand a systemic whole.

I suppose to add one more crucial point: when we think of the absolute as this fundamental negativity, we can think of historical identities and civilization as a whole as an attempt to contain and control this absolute negativity, that our identities are a reaction formation to deal with this transhistorical underlying negativity.  Thus our most authentic mode of engagement for our identities to engage with this ground is what Žižek would call a deadly passion.  This brings us to sexuality as such.  Sexuality is the most intense and primordial relationship that a human has with the absolute, it is the location where we experience most intensely the desire for reunion, the desire for the deepest connection, the desire for an obliteration of ourselves, the desire for eternity.

The question that I think can be derived from thinking the absolute in this way is what is the status of sexuality in the 21st century?  In order to leave you with these thoughts and this overview I would just like to recommend the book What Is Sex? by Alenka Zupančič. This is a useful guide to going through and thinking through some of the problems and structural determinations of contemporary sexuality.

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Failure never felt so good.

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