Welcome to the fourth masterclass on Žižek’s work, focused on the concept of “less than nothing”. Less than nothing is the central concept of his first master work, Less Than Nothing.
In terms of less than nothing, Žižek is using this concept to approach the classical metaphysical question of something and nothing. Less than nothing is a strange ontological category, a third category, which is not quite like something or nothing. Less than nothing is virtual, not materiality, and not void, but what you could call virtuality. This virtuality is similar to the notions you can see emerge as a central philosophical concept in the 20th century work of thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.
Žižek is using Deleuze in an interesting way because he is re-reading Plato, Descartes, Hegel, through the lens of virtuality that we think of in 20th century philosophy, as opposed to deconstructing Plato, Descartes and Hegel. In that sense less than nothing is trying to approach experiences of potentiality and possibility in our current reality by retroactively reviving ancient thinkers.
When we think about the world we have a tendency to think about it in static and fixed forms, as opposed to thinking the potential that is always inherent and always structuring what is. Less than nothing is in this domain of potentiality, what could possibly be; or possibility, the trajectories that could come to pass. On the human level, less than nothing is on the level of fiction and dreams.
This should make it evident or obvious why Žižek would place psychoanalysis as an intellectual tool on such a high level. Psychoanalysis, starting with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, is placing importance on understanding the nature of the dream in-itself, as the navel or umbilical cord of subjectivity.
When Žižek deploys fully this concept of less than nothing, what he is doing is approaching the question of, not “why is there something?”, i.e. why is there a world instead of no world at all?; but rather “why is there nothing?” Zizek frames this is a fundamental modernist paradox.
An interesting way to think about this modernist paradox is that when modern science emerged, it could have been that we discovered at the basement level of reality, a true substantial reality looking back at us (God). Instead, when we look at the basement level of reality, there is nothing there at all, all you get is a void. But it is a paradoxical void, filled with virtual particles. The philosophy of physics is open about the nature of this strange quantum void.
The important point that Žižek plays with here in relation to quantum physics and modern atheism and modernist culture in general, is that there is this ontological emptiness that here signals either the death of God, or the death of some true substantial supernatural reality, that humanity has to confront and contend with. Why is there is this nothingness? Why do we constantly use fiction and our dreams to conceal this nothingness? Žižek says fiction and dreams are mechanisms by which we conceal the void, we pretend it is not really there, instead of confronting it directly.
You can see here how Žižek would frame the transition to modernity. The transition to modernity is a transition on a very existential level, of the transition from God to Death as the ultimate metaphysical category. This is reflected in Hegel’s historical and phenomenological work, Death is the ultimate master; but also in the well known transition from religion to science: instead of living in relation to Faith, science works patiently with what is.
The crucial dimension Žižek is paying attention to, is human potential itself. This potentiality itself is becoming more interesting as science advances, as subjectivity gets more and more space to express its free potential. What this means is that we have to understand the way the human creates.
We can understand the transition from religion and God to science and Death as opening up the space of direct confrontation with the void, with nothingness, where paradoxically, the most true, the most novel and spontaneous creativity can emerge. You will often hear people say “I created something out of nothing”. This is a process that is something we can approach with the idea of “less than nothing”.
Transitioning here, the ancient world might be seen as a metaphysics of a perfect circularity, or perfect sphere, where nothing new can emerge. In a more Aristotelian view, or even a Platonic view, a type of circular perfection. Žižek is suggesting that we are not breaking the circle for a linear temporality, but for a twisted circularity where we have to include the becoming of the human subject, and its potential, and its creation out of nothing. He invokes the work of Escher as a metaphor, of hands drawing themselves, to conceptualize this process of subject creating out of nothing but its own potential.
This twisted circle is composed of three elements that can be correlated with something, nothing, and less than nothing. Material is something; void is nothing; potentiality is less than nothing. World is something; subject is nothing; dreams are less than nothing.
To be clear, in most of Žižek’s writings, the subject is on this level of void or nothingness. There is no substantial ego. This represents the shift from the pre-Freudian to the Freudian universe. In the pre-Freudian universe the subject is a substantial ego, in the post-Freudian universe the subject is nothingness itself, just a void point, a self-relating void point of negativity.
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