There is an old philosophers’ joke that the analytical philosopher always accuses the continental one of being insufficiently clear, while the continental philosopher accuses the analytical one of Being insufficiently. In Zizek’s long awaited book, Less Than Nothing. Hegel and the Shadows of Dialectical Materialism it is possible to feel both things are true at the same time, which is perhaps only appropriate for a book on the dialectics of speculation, materialism and transcendence. It takes up those themes in 14 chapters which divide the book into two parts on Hegel and Lacan respectivelt and which range over German idealism, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, Quantum Physics, Necessity and Contingency and just about anything you can think of in the history of post-Kantian philosophy. The text itself, while complex and challenging, is also highly accessible and with the usual scatological jokes thrown in it is not a particularly difficult read.
What Zizek is trying to do here is to try to reorientate our appreciation of Hegel by, as he says, rejecting the old textbook notion of Hegel as the philosopher of the whole and of totality and the absolute and re-presenting him as someone who sees necessity and the absolute as emerging from the contingent workings of the real. He is trying to get away from the idea of Hegel as a purely teleological thinker, presenting him as someone who sees the endpoint of history in the present moment as a product of the contingent events which have led to this moment. Any teleology is a purely retrospective one. However, what he also tries to make clear is that a retrospective teleology has to also be open to the future, to possibility and process not as a predetermined and inevitable course but as one in which the contingent will continue to create necessity even while recognising that the necessity which emerges from that process is not a necessary necessity, but merely a contingent one. To paraphrase Brian Cox’s latest book on quantum physics, everything that has happened did not have to happen, but now it has, it did.
It is this difficulty of speculating about the nature of what we can know at the same time as thinking about what might become without dropping into the transcendent that represents the greatest problem for any philosopher trying to straddle the gap between epistemology and ontology. As Zizek puts it:
‘The first step in resolving this deadlock is to invert the standard “realist” notion of an ontologically fully constituted reality which exists “out there independently of our mind” and is then only imperfectly “reflected” in human cognition—the lesson of Kant’s transcendental idealism should be fully absorbed here: it is the subjective act of transcendental synthesis which transforms the chaotic array of sensual impressions into “objective reality.”’
This means that what emerges from the book is an onto-epistemic attempt to bridge the gap between what we know and the Ding-an sich. That is why we might say that it is a book about the Metaphysics of Contingency: how did what is come to be and how do we know what it is. This is of course the basis of all culture, thought and philosophy but it is very difficult to unravel the real from the Real. This is because Zizek continues to maintain that although the Real is inaccessible to us due to its basic non-existence it is at the same time always already present in reality. In other words, there is no hole where the whole once was because the hole is part of the whole. The obvious theological implications of this mean that the book also deals centrally with questions of belief, faith and uncertainty and as we can expect with Zizek religion is given a fair crack of the whip even if only to be dismissed as a transcendental attempt to understand the workings of the Real.
Indeed, another possible subtitle for this book might have been Mind the Gap, as what Zizek is trying to do here is to trace the enduring relevance of Hegel to modernity and our alienation from it by way of an investigation of perception within the totality of post-Kantian thought. Although this is a book about Hegel it also has much to teach us about Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and all the other masters of suspicion.
But above all what this book is about is an attempt to try to rescue the transcendental without collapsing into metaphysics. Zizek of course accepts that material reality has a hard-core of existence which is present independently of our perception of it but what he also maintains is that our perception of reality is part of that material reality. The dialectic of epistemology and ontology therefore produces an intertwined reality in which the gap between what we can know and what might be exists as a metaphysics of contingency. As Zizek said in response to a question from Giorgio Agamben at a conference in 2004
“You know what Einstein did in his relativity theory? He started with curved space as the effect of matter. So, let us say that curved space occurs because something brutally from the outside, like a trauma, intervenes into it. Then he turned it around and claimed that it’s the other way; the only thing that effectively exists is the curved space. And that this transcendent matter curving the space is just our misperception of it. In a parallel way I would claim that, in a Hegelian way, the truth of transcendence is a radical gap in immanence. In this sense I would conditionally, if you ask me at gunpoint, be for immanence. But again I have to resist Kant paradoxically as a philosopher of immanence, where the distinction between transcendence and immanence is projected back into immanence itself.”
Ernst Bloch called this “transcendence without the transcendent” in which the transcendent is always already present within reality but is also not yet perceivable or possible other than as anticipation. The point is that the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process.