Plato, Badiou and the “Invariant of Direction”

In Chapter 1 Žižek also calls for a return to Plato, but this time transforming the idealist base of Plato’s eternal truths into a materialist dialectic in which it eternal truth and values emerge from contingent reality as an expression of the human desire for Exodus and liberation. Alain Badiou calls this the Communist hypothesis and Ernst Bloch’s term for this was the “invariant of direction”. First Žižek points out that Plato has been attacked from just about every philosophical and political position that has existed in modernity and post-modernity. He divides this opposition into six different groups of anti-Platonism: 1. vitalist; 2.empiricist-analytic; 3.Marxist; 4.existentialist; 5.Heideggerian; and 6.”Democratic”. Žižek puts it like this:

“Plato’s position is thus similar to that of Descartes: “Plato” is the negative point of reference which unites otherwise irreconcilable enemies: Marxists and anti-Communist liberals, existentialists and analytic empiricists, Heideggerians and vitalists… So why a return to Plato? Why do we need a repetition of Plato’s founding gesture? In his Logiques des mondes, Badiou provides a succinct definition of “democratic materialism” and its opposite, “materialist dialectics”: the axiom which condenses the first is “There is nothing but bodies and languages…,” to which materialist dialectics adds “…with the exception of truths.” One should bear in mind the Platonic, properly meta-physical, thrust of this distinction: prima facie, it cannot but appear as a proto-idealist gesture to assert that material reality is not all that there is, that there is also another level of incorporeal truths. Badiou here makes the paradoxical philosophical gesture of defending, as a materialist, the autonomy of the “immaterial” order of Truth. As a materialist, and in order to be thoroughly materialist, Badiou focuses on the idealist topos par excellence: how can a human animal forsake its animality and put its life in the service of a transcendent Truth? How can the “transubstantiation” from the pleasure-oriented life of an individual to the life of a subject dedicated to a Cause occur? In other words, how is a free act possible? How can one break (out of) the network of the causal connections of positive reality and conceive an act that begins by and in itself? Again, Badiou repeats, within the materialist frame, the elementary gesture of idealist anti-reductionism: human Reason cannot be reduced to the result of evolutionary adaptation; art is not just a heightened procedure for producing sensual pleasure but a medium of Truth; and so on.”

So far it seems to me that every part of this book that I dip into is essentially concerned with the nature of transcendence and how it can be rooted in reality rather than located in the unobtainable Real. Or rather, as he asks  later in Chapter 1, is there a ‘third way’ between Nietzsches self contradictions on Truth as both a “Passion for the Real and a passion for semblance”? This is because:

“There is not just the interplay of appearances, there is a Real—this Real, however, is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap which prevents our access to it, the “rock” of the antagonism which distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. The “truth” is thus not the “real” state of things, accessed by a “direct” view of the object without any perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism which causes the perspectival distortion itself. Again, the site of truth is not the way “things really are in themselves,” beyond perspectival distortion, but the very gap or passage which separates one perspective from another, the gap (in this case, social antagonism) which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable. The “Real as impossible” is the cause of the impossibility of our ever attaining the “neutral” non-perspectival view of the object. There is a truth, and not everything is relative—but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.”

Again, we can see here an attempt to overcome a dualism through contingent dialectic in which the Ding an Sich is not distorted by an external experience of perception but that the distortion that we experience is actually part of the Ding an Sich. In this way distinction between idealism and materialism, the gap between those two things, becomes the very thing which transcends the apparent contradiction between the two. Idealistic eternal truths and a commitment to the maintenance of those eternal truths become re-functioned as part of the dialectic of process and emergence out of immanence. Idealism and materialism in this view become merged into transcendence, but transcendence based in but also seen through the lens of objective reality. Again, contained within the real are glimpses or pre-illuminations (Bloch’s Vorscheineand Whitehead’s “Prehensions”) of something else which can only be understood as part of that which exists and not external to it. I haven’t found it yet, but I imagine that at some point he will quote Lenin’s famous dictum that “intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism”. What Žižek – using  Badiou –  argues here and elsewhere is that all of the economic analysis in the world will not put in the position to be able to win people over to your side in the struggle for equality and justice. Of course Žižek  brings in the Arab spring to elucidate this point, pointing out that although the root causes of uprisings lie in contingent processes, the desire to be free provided the impetus.

Again Bloch already recognised this the 1930s when he wrote in 1933/34 that the Communist Party had failed to stop Hitler because it had failed to address the German people’s more idealistic and even metaphysical concerns, leaving the ground free for them  to be exploited by fascism. As he said at the time “you can’t criticise the Communist Party for what it did, but you can criticise it for what it didn’t do.” He said that what was necessary was to put the “warm stream” of Marxism back in to the “cold stream” of economistic analysis. (As an aside we might say that as today, Marxist criticism exists almost entirely in the realm of cultural critique and has, with a few notable an honourable exceptions, almost nothing to say about economics, then one could argue that the reverse is necessary; that we need to pour some invigorating cold water into the rather tepid bath of philosophical Marxism.).

All of this is, of course, designed as a hefty sideswipe at post-modernism and “dogmatic relativism”, as Christopher Norris called it, in an attempt to re-establish a grand narrative of history, but this time one, as discussed in my first posting on this, with only a contingent and retrospective teleology. It is on the basis of that which has become that we can make some predictions about we might want to see, but we can in no way predict what might actually come about as a result of our actions in the face of contingent reality. The question I am starting to ask myself is whether this book is one long plea for seeing history simply as processually autopoietic.

Having started with Plato we might end with Aristotle and ask whether his two categories of being and possibility are relevant here. Bloch used as the basis for his processual dynamic the two Aristotelian terms kata to dynaton (that which is possible) and dynamei on (that which might become possible) to describe the way in which the impossibility emerges out of the darkness of the possible in ways which are as yet unpredictable. the only thing which would keep us on the right path in this process is our commitment to the Invariant of Direction or, as Badiou calls it, the Communist Hypothesis.

 

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12 Responses to Plato, Badiou and the “Invariant of Direction”

  1. “So far it seems to me that every part of this book that I dip into is essentially concerned with the nature of transcendence and how it can be rooted in reality rather than located in the unobtainable Real.”

    I anticipated some responses to Adrian Johnston’s “Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity” from Zizek in this book, given that the latter ‘gets to the core’ of Z’s problematic and is his favourite topic — for which he claims he would abandon all the others.

    The more I read of your blog the more it becomes evident that I need to read Bloch. Are there any good English-language introductions to or commentaries on his philosophical writings that you would recommend?

    Your reading of Zizek with Badiou and the mention of commitments towards the end there sounds strangely promising to me, and I hope this reflects a direction in Zizek’s recent thinking. For a long time it has seemed to me that Zizek has been too comfortable to propose the Lacanian ‘impasse -> passe’. formula as his universal solution to all deadlocks: with the antagonistic and irresolvable gap becoming the focus of his intensity. Seems like here he is edging towards a folding of the Real antagonism back into the reality it exceeds in order to be able to formulate positive prescriptions and resolve (‘fidelity’ to a Truth?). No doubt he would claim this is what he had been doing all along, my understanding being retroactive, having to misread him first. It’s very stimulating, so thanks for taking the trouble to post these updates,

  2. Peter Thompson says:

    David, thanks yes it is quite time-consuming but I think it is quite a valuable exercise. I think you’re right in that there is a shift towards the fidelity to the truth, but that has always been that a certain extent and he is in this book intending to read Lacan with Hegel as well as vice versa.
    Bloch’s main work The Principle of Hope is available in translation, as are the Spirit of Utopia, The Heritage of Our Times but the majority of it is available only in German. That is particularly ashamed in the case of his book on Hegel: Subject-Object Erlaeuterungen zu Hegel and a very good book on materialism: Das materialsmus Problem. Seine Geschichte und Substanz.
    the best introductory books in English on him are by Vince Geoghegan and Wayne Hudson, but I think they might both be out of print now. I am hoping to have my monograph finished in the next year or so so you have to wait for that!

  3. “The “truth” is thus not the “real” state of things, accessed by a “direct” view of the object without any perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism which causes the perspectival distortion itself. Again, the site of truth is not the way “things really are in themselves,” beyond perspectival distortion, but the very gap or passage which separates one perspective from another, the gap (in this case, social antagonism) which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable. The “Real as impossible” is the cause of the impossibility of our ever attaining the “neutral” non-perspectival view of the object. There is a truth, and not everything is relative—but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.”

    This makes truth (and reality) processual, because the gap cannot exist as a static thing. It is movement, occurence or occasion, to its very core. This is a dynamic monadology, in which objects appear (or become real) only in moving – like the particle-wave duality. To affirm ‘becoming’ over ‘being’ in this way is exactly how Engels distinguished dialectical materialism from what he called ‘metaphysics’. In the shadow of (a misunderstood) Nietzsche and Heidegger that view of metaphysics has almost disappeared. Here it comes back to the surface. Pitting ‘becoming’ against ‘being’ is a more fruitful strategy than you might at first think from the point of view of (discourse) idealism.

    I am thinking of Husserl, who notices that the object as other than myself necessarily appears in Abschattungen, if I saw all of it at once, it wouldn’t be an object – that is transcendentalism I guess. But I am also thinking of Bloch, and his remark that truth is always ‘parteilich’, partisan. He didn’t mean that as a trivialisation of truth, precisely the opposite. The ‘site’ of non-relative truth is the gap that makes perspectives incommensurable (a ‘perspective’ is that which is incommensurable to another perspective; incommensurability is the criterion of identity for perspectives): that is indeed the dialectic. So the unity of all perspectives exists only as a gap – as the nothing, or not-yet, that provides the invariant of direction, the ontological layer in ‘communism’. It is the gap which provides the passage from one to the other and which curiiously is the same for all perspectives. We understand each other and can communicate with each other insofar as we recognise that the gap (Bloch uses the word “Hohlraum”, in fact) is the same.

    So, a question: ‘truth is the truth of perspectival distortion as such’: is that the same as Bloch’s (and Plato-Badiou’s) invariant of direction, a material via negativa towards the infinite? Or would that be an overplaying of your hand, for Zizek, a relapse into metaphysical neurosis? (Whereas for Bloch and Badiou, I guess, not going the extra mile of affirming the unity of truth in this analysis would be the relapse into neurosis.) The question bears on pragmatism. The pragmatic notion of truth is virtually indistinguishable from what Zizek says in the quotation above (you already mentioned William James, I think). Truth, as truth, exists in the moment as a wayfaring. There is perhaps no release from this dilemma, it is where philosophy moves from theory to praxis, it is, again, the same gap, now as that between the incommensurable perspectives of essence (was) and existence (dass). Nietzsche takes recourse to the gesture, when he gets to this point:

    „Gesetzt, dass auch dieses nur Interpretation ist – und ihr werdet eifrig genug sein, dies einzuwenden – nun um so besser – .“

  4. Simon says:

    Peter, would you recommend Daniel and Moylan’s “Not Yet”?

  5. Peter Thompson says:

    Johan, it’s a good question and I’m not sure that the two are the same thing. I think Z’s point that “the truth is the truth of perspectival distortion as such” it is not quite the same as the invariant of direction or the Communist hypothesis, but it does move towards it as you say. Perhaps it is an early stage of that invariant, or a distortion of the appearance of that invariant. Later on in this chapter Z does spend quite a lot of time on the appearance of the appearance. Perhaps the perspectival distortion comes from trying to peer out from ‘the darkness of the lived the moment’, as Bloch calls it. What we have is the dialectic of the material at the heart of Utopia as well as the utopia at the heart of matter and the question is how you can transition between the two.

  6. Anonymous says:

    That is very well put I think. The utopia at the heart of matter is the ‘gap’ in the Lacanian sense, it seems. The subject as a gap, not a foundation. It is a big problem in Bloch ‘how’it is at all possible to come to a relation to the outside – the ‘peering out’ you mention. He calls it ‘Drehung/Hebung’ to articulate it and says the very fact that a ‘what’ can be related to a ‘that’ is the categorial basic situation. That is what philosophy articulates. I am reading Wagner’s essay ‘Beethoven’ from 1870, where the same problem comes back, interestingly in the context of improvisation. The ‘perspective’ that Zizek talks about can perhaps be understood as creative activity rather than, Heidegger-style, as the per(through) spicere(seeing) of being – the monadological ‘durchgreifen’ that would bring us back to a modern epistemological debate. In that way the dialectic of the material at the heart of utopia could be linked to the utopian heart of matter. Communism would be what happens when we relate to each other from the point of view of ‘fundamentally’ recognising the gap in each of us as constitutive of our irreducible individuality, while that gap is also the same in all of us – that is the ‘invariant of direction’. Zizek speaks in his Wagner essay of the similarity between Wagner and Brecht. Wagner teaches us ‘cold compassion’ – emphasis on compassion; Brecht teaches us ‘cold compassion’ – emphasis on ‘cold’. What I think is important about this is that it brings the discussion on communism to the same level that Bloch pitches it at. Communism is precisely what happens when we take the nature of our desiring seriously. The freedom of all is the prerequisite for the freedom of each.The ‘appearance of appearance’ is, in Bloch’s ‘scheme’, the ‘Realisierung des Realisierenden’.

  7. Johan says:

    sorry that was me, not an anonymous!
    Johan

  8. Johan says:

    And a final one, to finish this thought: so, we might say: in Zizek’s philosophy as far as I understand it now, the mirror stage is constant, and leads not to the epistemological problems Kant struggled with, nor to discourse idealism: in that sense it is both and heir to Hegel and to Marx. But the dialectical materialism that results is a dialectic ‘im Stillstand’: communism has found a way to formulate its basic engagement while at the same time affirming a universe of contingency, so without cosmological progress. Pessimism has, as Zizek says in his Wagner essay, become the basis of a political activism. Whereas what is the mirror stage in Zizek (his basic theory of mediality) is in Bloch the movement of Drehung/Hebung. The ‘Hebung’ can no longer be conceptually legitimised. It is a feeling. Wagner vs. Beethoven. (Zizek has a wonderful remark on Beethoven in the Wagner essay wich seems to fit into this interpretation. He asks if we have ever noticed the extent to which it is possible to hear the first movement of the 9th Symphony as being ridiculous.) There is more to be said, and I do come down on the side of Beethoven in this tableau.

  9. Peter Thompson says:

    Johan, sorry, missed these comments. And yes, that seems to me entirely correct. The Drehung/Hebung has to take place on the basis of a ‘geahnte Gewissheit’ or indeed, a leap of faith.

  10. […] and “dissolute” and ending his analysis on that note.  If indeed his new book contains the criticism that Marxists today are too focused on political economy (a line of reasoning I’ve seen him hint at before, but of which I don’t know any actual […]

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