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August 01, 2006


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Illuminating post. I'm exhausted out of my mind but am having trouble shutting down this evening, so I'll [guiltily] hog your blog some more and throw out a couple of comments.

I'm not fully commited to the thesis that Zizek remains at the level of epistemology, though the term "finitude" tends to raise my hackles. Right now I'm trying to do a bit of an "archeology" on the term "materialism" as it's been used among the French Marxists by going back to Althusser, so perhaps I'll be able to flesh out a bit more there.

I find that Zizek's remarks about the empty square closely parallel Copjec's discussion of history in _Imagine There's No Woman_ (83-98). There Copjec argues that Freud's _Moses and Monotheism_ and _Totem and Taboo_ are essentially addressing the question of what's left of one's history after one's effaced all traits of their ethnic identity (Freud being secular, not observing jewish traditions, and largely ignorant of Hebrew). "Peeling away or erasing all positive traits of Jewishness, he then wonders what, if anything, survives their removal" (92). Copjec contends that even when we whipe away all such traits, there's something that refuses to be wiped away, which is a sort of remaining stain, a hard kernal, of the *phantasmatic* figure of Moses that somehow haunts the present. So here's there a sort of a priori history that is singular and which haunts identity, and which refuses to be reduced to generalizable humanity as such.

Zizek strikes me as making a similar sort of argument with regard to meaning; that even when we erase all specific meanings, we're left with meaningfulness as such or a sort of empty meaning that is in excess of all specific meanings (the arguments aren't exactly analogous as the spectre of Moses-- or Marx! --is highly specific, whereas this kernal of meaningfulness as such is not).

What this empty place evokes in my mind (it also appears in Deleuze's Logic of Sense), is Levi-Strauss' "mana" signifier in his _Introduction to Marcel Mauss_. "...everywhere else, and still constantly in our own societies (and now doubt for a long time to come), a fundamental situation perseveres which arises out of the human condition: namely, that man has from the start had at his disposition a signifier-totality which he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified, given as such, but no less unknown for being given. There is always a non-equivalence or 'inadequation' between the two, a non-fit and overspill which divine understanding alone can soak up; this generates a signifier-surfeit relative to teh signifieds to which it can be fitted. So in man's effort to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification (which he shares out among things in accordance with the laws of the symbolic thinking it is the task of ethnologists and linguists to study). That distribution of a supplementary ration-- if I can express myself thus-- is absolutely necessary to ensure that, in total, the available signifier and the mapped-out signified may remain in the relationship of complementarity which is the very condition of the symbolic thinking... And, indeed, mana is all those things together; but is that not precisely because it is none of those things (force, action, quality, etc, etc), but a simple form, or to be more accurate, a symbol in its pure state, therefore liable to take on any symbolic content whatever? In the system of symbols which makes up any cosmology, it would just be a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking thenecessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains, which can be any value at all, provided it is still part of the available reserve, and is not already, as the phonologists say, a term in a set" (62-3).

So there's an excess of the signified over the signifier or there are more referents in the world than there are words. The mana signifier both marks the limit of language, the effect of meaning (phallus), and is what allows new meanings to be introduced. For instance, if I encounter a technology of which I'm unfamiliar I might call it a "gadget" or "whatchamacallit". Zizek's point seems to be that when all meaning is stripped away this zero signifier remains like a white square painted on a white canvas. As such, meaningfulness as such is always in excess of determined significations, leading us to encounter language as always constitutively incomplete (the objet a effect in the discourse of the master).

Hegel deals with the logic of appearance in the second part of the doctrine of essence, which, in my view, is the most impressive and exciting portion of the Science of Logic. I take it that when Zizek talks about the "two appearances" he's talking about the standard conception of essence in which we encounter a plurality of particular entities, say three cats, recognize that something is common and abstract an essence.

In the first move of the doctrine of essence, Hegel discusses how being has passed over into what he calls "schein", which Miller poorly translates as "illusory being". This term has connotations of "appearing", "deception", "hiddenness" and so on. So the idea is that in the move from the doctrine of being where things are *just brutely there* (like Roquentin's tree roots in Sartre's _Nausea_), in essence entities now appear split from within or to contain something in excess of themselves calling for us to discover a deeper ground. For instance, someone says something to me or makes a slip of the tongue and I don't simply take the words at face value as brute reality, but as containing some deeper, hidden ground that would account for why these words *appeared* in the way that they did.

Your post on analysis might shed a little light on this point. Prior to the first session you didn't pay all that attention to your speech (or maybe you did). Yet you describe how suddenly you found yourself very self-conscious of all the words tumbling out of your mouth, as if they might be saying something else. Your speech had moved from simple being, to the level of schein and essence. Now you're in a pursuit of a ground of all these strange occurances, something that can only be detected *through* the appearances but which is somehow also more fundamental than the appearances.

In my view, Hegel's account of essence is so fascinating and exciting because it gives a purely immanent account of essence. That is, where traditionally we are told that there's an ontological divide between essence and exist, with the most radical version of this split being the vulgar reading of Plato's two-world hypothesis (appearances versus forms) Hegel argues that essence is immanent to existence itself, that it is somehow in the appearances. To Lacanian ears, of course, this idea of schein, of appearances hiding something or containing something in excess of themselves, sounds a good deal like agalma or objet a. Things get really exciting as Hegel moves on to his discussions of Ground and Existence, where essence begins to sound a hell of a lot like network systems and complex systems. For instance, in an important addition or Zusatze, Hegel writes that, "The term 'existence' (derived from existere) points to a state of emergence, and existence is being that has emerged from the ground and becoming reestablished through the sublation of mediation... Ground is the unity of identity and distinction, and as such it is at the same time the distinguishing of itself from itself... What we have here is therefore also to be found in the ordinary consciousness: when we consider the ground of something, this ground is not something abstractly inward, but is instead istelf an existent again. So, for instance, we consider the ground of a conflagration to be a lightning flash that set a building on fire, and similarly, the ground of the constitution of a people is their customs and circumstances in life. This is the general shape in which the existent world is presented initially to reflection, namely, as an indeterminate multitude of existents which, being reflected simultaneously into themselves and into something else, are in mutual relationship of ground and grounded with regard to each other" (Geraets Translation, 193).

Hegel here seems to be talking about interdependence. Thus, for instance, in a passage I'm having difficulty finding, he talks about society being a product of its citizens and citizens being a product of society in endless feedback loops. In each case there's a process of distinguishing itself from itself. This totality of grounds becomes what Hegel calls "essence", which strikes me as quite distinct from the notion of essence as form.

I think all of this would be the monkey-wrench in my critique of Zizek's materialism. Zizek would remain at the level of an epistemological position if he remained Kantian and drew a sharp distinction between phenomena and the thing-in-itself. However, Zizek's Hegelianism allows him to undermine the opposition between phenomena and the in-itself, showing how the in-itself always shines through the phenomena or appearance. Hegel's position here-- fitted with appropriate bells and whistles --becomes a sort of materialism. The big challenge for Zizek, then, becomes how to think Hegel as a thinker of the "not-all" or of constitutive incompleteness.

Apologies for the endless rambling.

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