You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic

Continuing the theme of immanence and the constant presence of the Not Yet, Žižek says in chapter 7:

“…if the zero level of nature is space, then natural objects should develop out of space, not be conceived as mysterious chunks of matter that from who-knows-where “enter” space. The only thing that can happen to pure space is asymmetry, its becoming de-homogenized, “curved”—so the idea that “matter” is the effect of curved space is implied by Hegel’s theory of space.”

I know that I may be slightly prejudiced about this but Ernst Bloch uses almost the same language when he talked about the way in which people misunderstand matter as being a “Klotz” or a lump of something separate from a non-material Real. And it seems to me in my reading so far that this is increasingly the theme that Žižek is dealing with in this book. For example, in chapter 14 he uses the same strategy when discussing the Real as something integral to and entirely bound up in reality:

“But does this mean that we end up in a kind of idealism of the symbolic—what we experience as “reality” is symbolically constructed, and even the Real which eludes the grasp of the symbolic is a result of the immanent failure of the symbolic? No, because it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself. However, we do not touch the Real by way of breaking out of the “prison-house of language” and gaining access to the external transcendent referent—every external referent (“fully existing positive reality”) is already transcendentally constituted. We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the “minimal difference,” that separates the One from itself.”

In this way he also brings us back to the significance of failure, a theme which he has covered many times in his previous books:

“a subject wants to say something, it fails, and this failure is the subject—a “subject of the signifier” is literally the result of the failure to become itself. In this sense, also, within the symbolic space, the effect is a reaction against its cause, while the cause is a retroactive effect of its cause: the subject produces signifiers which fail, and the subject qua Real is the effect of this failure.”

Failure is thus not just a failure to achieve something but it is the achievement of something in a way which only fails against the measure of some ideal intentionality. Failure, as much a success, contributes to the development of a contingent reality. In hindsight of course what was considered to have been a failure may also turn out to have been a building block of success. If we think of Brecht’s poem An die Nachgeborenen where he is addressing the people of the future who will be living in a utopian society on the other side of the great eschatological flood, then we hear how Brecht justifies the terrible things that had to be done in order to create goodness. The flood is thus not some terrible catastrophe which befalls us but is the product of the process of development. This can also be seen in religious terms -as Brecht of course is wont to do – as the immanence of transcendence. William James, for example, spoke of transcendence “breaking in on us” from a metaphysical realm, whereas what both Hegel and Žižek – and Bloch – are maintaining is that the transcendent breaks out of us and carries us forward as drive informed by desire and hope.

This is of course why Žižek remains, as well as a Lacanian psychoanalyst and Hegelian philosopher, a Marxist, because the process of the development of material reality in a social sense has to include a conscious intervention into reality, which will itself create that reality. To put it in its profoundly banal sense, it’s like the poster I saw in a service station recently which said “You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”

We are not stuck in history, we are history.

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2 Responses to You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic

  1. Thanks Peter, this is really very exciting. Reading this, I think: a) all of this is indeed very familiar territory for Bloch-readers, and that in itself is an exciting hope for the future of philosophy, and b) it is a bit of a coming-out for Zizek. I was struck by he passage you quote above:

    “it is through this very failure to be itself that the symbolic touches the Real. In contrast to transcendentalism, Lacan agrees that we have access to the In-itself: Lacan is not a discourse-idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In-itself.”

    That is very clear and a real advance in, at least, my understanding of Lacan. Lacan’s prose is itself an example of this aspect of failure of the symbolic, it is the therapists’s voice as the analysand hears it; in another act of ‘turning the master on his feet’, Zizek’s voice speaks from the position of the listener-analysand: what we read is a counter-cultural-counter-transference. Being on the couch – that is the true position of the activist.

    I think Zizek is right to say that transcendence is the gap in immanence, and this solves a lot of problems with respect to the relation between Kant and Hegel, and it shows the mistake of reifying the thing-in-itself into an independent reality which is merely presently absent: that is also what Hegel tries to show, so there is not much here that Hegel would not agree with. In fact, this is the whole point of the idea of Vergegenstaendlichung as opposed to Verdinglichung. But Hegel sees his dialectical logic as necessarily and retrospectively constituting itself out of a simple necessity: that being is infinite, and that the infinite, precisely to be infinite, paradoxically has to incorporate finitude as its own other. It seems as if Zizek gives up that starting point in order to be able to put Hegel on his feet, Lacan-style. So while Lacan does not fall into the trap of the analytical philosophers who keep on breaking their heads over the problem of access to the fully constituted real (which is how they mistakenly translate the ‘being is infinite’ principle of Hegel – this goes back to Russell’s fall from Hegelianism into positivism: ‘the furniture of the world’ -there is a furniture theme running through all of this), Lacan does say that we, as real, are constituted as the constant failure of the symbolic itself. Hence Zizek’s return to Gorgias: There is nothing, even if there was something, we could not know it, even is we could know it we could not communicate it. Gorgias’ “on not-being” is like Cage’s remark “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”. Zizek accomplishes both the re-installation of a ‘point of clarification’: we are no longer, and have never been, discourse idealists, and the contention that that insight is possible only when we start from this retrieval or re-reading of the spirit of Hegelianism.

    Philosophy now becomes speculative again, but in an immanent manner, and the speculative operation is at once critique, a constant critique of the necessary impetus to deny the failure of the symbolic, which itself precisely IS the failure of the symbolic (in a strange way all of Lacan’s council points towards a sense of ‘maturity’ with respect to our desires), and the way in which we are in touch with the real. (This is in my view the same idea as that of Whitehead’s understanding of speculative thought – it is the meaning of what he called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’, see my 1998 thesis on speculative method).

    The immanence of transcendence has, among other things, two results: speculative thought becomes a creative enterprise, and we return to an aesthetics of expression – though not in the sense of the artist expressing his true self in an external work, but in Cage’s sense.

    Now, Bloch would understand all of this, I think. And agree with a lot of it. But: the idea that remains fundamental is that the failure of the symbolic is a constant. That is clear: we are now no longer discourse idealists, we have understood the lesson of the masters (Gorgias-Hegel-Lacan). But we have taken it too literally still. The failure of the symbolic has to be enacted all the time to be precisely that: the idea that it is constant is another example of that failure. Hope installs itself when also that insight is taken to its logical conclusion. We don’t know, do we? That is what is most difficult to endure, if you want to put it like that, to come to terms with: es ist noch nicht aller Tage abend. I think this is the meaning of what Bloch called ‘docta spes’ – we have to learn to hope. There is a work of hope. The underlying idea is that of Cusanus’ docta ignorantia: the learned ignorance is the ignorance thar recognises its true extent. Schopenhauer chose this remark by Goethe as a motto to his book: ‘Ob nicht Natur zuletzt sich doch ergruende?’ Keeping that question open seems to me to be something that is, again paradoxically, precisely what is happening in philosophy today, also by Zizek, while the full logic of it must lead to the conclusion that failure may fail. The thin line, the straight and narrow of hope, is the living nerv of it. Marxists, dialectical or speculative materialists, have it as their public secret. Hope as Bloch understands it is the complement of the metaphysics of contingency. And that is a necessity, now that things have started, as you say. But the Lacanian insistence on failure must lead to ‘bad metaphysics’ in the end: the unmediated opposite of what it aims at.

  2. Peter Thompson says:

    Johan, thanks for that very full and lucid response and think you’re right that the Lacanian insistence on failure is in itself a double bind and that if we want to really move forward and we have to do so on the basis of a metaphysics of hope located in the latent processes at work in the real. For us Bloch-heads I think that is what is so exciting about Zizek’s new work on Hegel because it is starting to unravel the dead-end of the absolute.

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