This is the first masterclass on Slavoj Žižek’s core philosophy. In this first article, Foundations, we will try to explore some of the central ideas used in Žižek’s major works. In order to start this investigation we will start with the difference between multiplicity and singularity. As the concepts may intuitively insinuate, multiplicity tries to conceive of our knowledge in reality as a web or network of differences that cannot be integrated into one totality. Whereas singularity, in the old metaphysical conception, tries to represent some unified totality or singular whole.
In Žižek’s work, singularity is much more paradoxical, and much more counter-intuitive, but something that appears as a singular limiting dimension internal to the functioning of a symbolic order. In other words, you could conceive of it as not just a reality of networks and webs, but a reality of networks and webs which have a type of central gravitational pull as a point of impossibility, a limit point which we stick to and repetitively obsess about in a circular motion.
Because singularity operates internal to our symbolism as an impossibility it brings us to an important dimension of a type of constructivism. Žižek’s constructivism is not a radical constructivism where anything is possible and there are no limits on our possibility to construct otherness; rather, constructivism is set in relationship to fundamental limitations of otherness as impossibility as such. In other words, we cannot construct anything we want, we have to learn what we can construct in relationship to inherent impossibilities, which are features of the symbolic order of our particular phenomenal universe.
This notion of a singular limiting impossibility brings us to another core difference, the difference between reality and the Real. For Žižek, reality is just physical reality out there, something that we might almost naively and spontaneously conceptualize in scientific materialist ideology. In contrast to this notion, the Real is something that functions internal to a symbolic order as some disorienting lack or excess. The Real may even be said to be something transhistorical or ahistorical. The best definition, or at least one good definition, would be that little piece of the present moment that resists your desire. Most importantly, in Žižek’s conception, it is non-substantial, it is not a physical thing, it is not a substantial entity, but rather an impossibility inherent to symbolism.
In order to come to reach these conclusions, Žižek relies on tools of phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and attempts to wed them in their historical genesis, and their consequences for our understanding. In phenomenology we do not start our understanding with the physical world out there, but with the triad of sensation, perception and understanding. Sensation can be thought in terms of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. From sensation we build up a way in which humans phenomenally experience reality. Then we move from sensation to perception, which is the way we try to organize all of our sensations into a unified conception of the world. Finally, we move to understanding, which is much more on the level of trying to conceptually meta-reflect on all the sense and perceptive data that we can accumulate and integrate into our symbolic order.
Psychoanalysis tries to build on and add to phenomenology by paying close attention and taking seriously, experiential problems of desire and love, which have in the psychoanalytic tradition, a non-experiential dimension. In other words, the problems of desire and love are conceptualised, not as things that emerge because of our experience, but something almost inherently non-experiential about our experience. That is another way of conceptualising the nature of the unconscious: as a non-experience or non-conscious dimension of our experiential consciousness which has an effect on how we frame and approach and act in the world.
The central concept that appears in Žižek’s work, that can be logically derived from phenomenology and psychoanalysis, is the notion of the objet petit a. The objet petit a, or the small object, is inherently a partial object, which means that it is a small and fragmented stimulus or cause of a subject’s desire. This object unconsciously holds together a whole network of identity associations, which the subject relies on for stability across time. You might think of the objet petit a as deeply connected and derived from the ultimately Freudian foundations of the oral, anal, and genital stages of infantile sexual development.
This concept gets its true genesis and elaboration in the work of Jacques Lacan, before becoming the central focus of Žižek’s philosophy. The reason why this concept holds a special place in Žižek’s work, is because it is a figure of lack and excess in our experiences of desire. If you consult your most intimate experiences of feeling a lack or void in your “heart”. Or alternatively, feeling an excess, feeling too much desire, this is, according to Žižek, the location of the objet petit a, and also the Real.
That is why, at least in our first encounters with the objet petit a in our development, we experience the Real as a negativity. This partial object is difficult, or we start to conceptualize, it is impossible to integrate into our normal sense experience, and the normal functioning of our understanding.
Nonetheless, this whole apparatus and relationship is crucial to understand our emotions and our motion in history. The ultimate solution to the problems of desire, the objet petit a, and the Real, is found in a type of motion that Žižek posits as undeconstructible: the undeconstructible non-psychical drive. In much of his work he clearly situates this notion against the many epistemological horizons of postmodernism. He posits this location of the drive as a motion that persists beyond the will. It is not that we reach the “will to power” and then we are at the ontological climax of existence. According to Žižek there is an unconscious undead motion that is the location where we “experience” immortality.
In Žižek’s work, this undead drive, this persistence which goes beyond and out of control of our will, is an important incorporation to a reinterpretation to historical philosophy, sexuality, capitalism, politics, science and religion. This is what a lot of Žižek’s work is ultimately about, using this horizon, the ontology of the drive, to reinterpret how we understand these epistemological structures internal to the historical process.
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