THE ONTOLOGY OF QUANTUM PHYSICS and Transcendental Materialism chapter 14

“Is not what Badiou calls the Event, at its most basic, the very rise of re-presentation or appearing out of the flat stupidity of being? So that the Event proper (the Truth-Event in Badiou’s sense) is the For-itself of the In-itself of appearing? Insofar as appearing is always appearing for a thought (for a thinking subject), we can go further and say that the rise of a thought as such is an Event—as Badiou likes to say, thought as such is communist.

The key question is thus: how is thought possible in a universe of matter, how can it arise out of matter? Like thought, the subject (Self) is also immaterial: its One-ness, its self-identity, is not reducible to its material support. I am precisely not my body: the Self can only arise against the background of the death of its substantial being, of what it is “objectively.” So, again, how can one explain the rise of subjectivity out of the “incomplete” ontology, how are these two dimensions (the abyss/void of subjectivity, the incompleteness of reality) to be thought together? We should apply here something like a weak anthropic principle: how should the Real be structured so that it allows for the emergence of subjectivity (in its autonomous efficacy, not as a mere “user’s illusion”)?”

Thus Žižek starts the final chapter of his forthcoming book. It is an age-old question of course, the question of the gap between the self as material being and the self as the nonmaterial thinking subject. Where is that gap? How do we fill that gap between what is and what might be, between our own limited materiality and the unbounded possibility of our nonmaterial thoughts. Part of the reason for the return of theology as a philosophical discipline is in so many ways about precisely this question. Žižek’s theological turn has been often criticised as one which takes the easy route of transcendence, of believing that there is something outside of material reality and it is here that the dispute between him, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier and other speculative materialists comes to the fore. As he puts it:

“It is at this precise point that Ray Brassier criticizes me for choosing the second “transcendental” option, unable as I am to think the Void of Being as such without subjectivity; from my standpoint, however, Brassier is here following Meillassoux who pays a fateful price for his suspension of the transcendental dimension—the price of a regression to a “naïve” ontology of spheres or levels in the style of Nicolai Hartmann: material reality, life, thought. A move which is to be avoided at all costs.

But as usual, this dispute misunderstands, I think, the nature of the transcendence which I think Žižek is asking us to consider. by eliding the difference between ontology and epistemology we arrive at a position of transcendental materialism. By this Žižek means that within the material real there is also space for a transcendental element which stands outside of the real and stands in for the unobtainable Real. As he puts it:

“The path to the In-itself leads through the subjective gap, since the gap between For-us and In-itself is immanent to the In-itself: appearance is itself ‘objective,’ therein resides is the truth of the realist problem of ‘how can we pass from appearance for-us to reality in-itself.'”

Thus the transcendence being talked of here is what Ernst Bloch called “transcendence without the transcendent”. The Real is not an inaccessible pre-existing Real, but rather is the product of the ongoing process of its own realisation. This brings us back to a faith in the autopoietic emergence of a different reality out of that which already exists. In this way transcendence is always already immanent within real existing conditions. This is of course a return to the theme of Aufhebung but this time instead of locating the transcendent within a Parmenedian universal totality which already pre-exists, we are asked to assume that it is the not yet-ness of transcendence which is the most important thing, rather than its inaccessibility. He maintains that dialectical materialism must do away with any naive belief in the existence of objective reality out there somewhere simply to be apprehended, rather he maintains that it is the gap between the different subjective positions on objective reality that is the real locus of the Real: “The ‘Real’ is not the inaccessible X, it is the very cause or obstacle that distorts our view on reality, that prevents our direct access to it. The real difficulty is to think the subjective perspective as inscribed in ‘reality’ itself.” Again, so far, so familiar.

But from this position Žižek goes on to maintain an adherence to the concept of truth within a grand narrative which takes him clearly outside of the post modernist universe. And this is his most direct criticism of Meillassoux, that there is truth in addition to and outside of knowledge. In dismissing the Transcendental as a “deceptive lure”, Žižek maintains, Meillasoux reverts to a limited materialism which can carry no message of active transformation. Žižek here is asking us to consider whether Hegel’s idealistic dialectic, in which all knowledge can be derived from truth, cannot be given a materialist twist. Using quantum physics and the uncertainty principle, we arrive once again at the concept of retrospective teleology in which the stringing together of contingent events which have emerged out of quantum processes and fields of uncertainty can be traced back only from from their teleological endpoint and cannot be divined in advance. Matter comes first, of course, but that matter is also subject to subjectivity and subjective perceptions of the material world and also lead us to undertake things which change that material world. This understanding of dialectical materialism means that the transcendent within the real is the thing which enables us to reach the transcendent endpoint. This, then, is the real “Real”. It is an inaccessible “Real” because it does not yet exist, just as there might not yet be a God, but at some point there may well be. “All we can do is wait for a contingent scientific breakthrough—only then will it be possible to retroactively reconstruct the logic of the process.” (Žižek)

Although Žižek is quite critical of the idea of autopoiesis and describes its use in the last few decades as “commonplace”, he nevertheless goes on to talk about a dialectical relationship between what is and what might be in highly autopoietic terms:

“The true problem is thus not how an organism adapts to its environment, but how it is that there is something, a distinct entity, which must adapt itself in the first place. And, it is here, at this crucial point, that today’s biological language starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. This relationship between the empirical and the transcendental-historical gets further complicated with the fact that, over the last few decades, technological progress in experimental physics has opened up a new domain, that of “experimental metaphysics,” unthinkable in the classical scientific universe: “questions previously thought to be a matter solely for philosophical debate have been brought into the orbit of empirical inquiry.” [1]

This dialectical admixture between science and philosophy is something which concerns Žižek very centrally in this final chapter. As one would expect, Žižek returns the usual understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy on its head and points out that:

“Today, the scientific discovery which needs philosophical rethinking is quantum physics—how are we to interpret its ontological implications whilst avoiding the double trap of superficial pragmatic empiricism and obscurantist idealism (“mind creates reality”)? Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism has to be thoroughly rewritten—firstly by abandoning the aforementioned naïve notion of fully constituted material reality as the sole true reality outside our minds. This notion of material reality as “all” relies on the overlooked exception of its transcendental constitution. The minimal definition of materialism hinges on the admission of a gap between what Schelling called Existence and the Ground of Existence: prior to fully existent reality, there is a chaotic non-All proto-reality, a pre-ontological virtual fluctuation of a not-yet fully constituted real. This pre-ontological real is what Badiou calls pure multiplicity, in contrast to the level of appearances, which is the level of reality constituted by the transcendental horizon of a world. This is why, in a strange reversal of the standard distribution of predicates, contemporary idealism insists on corporeality, on the unfathomable density and inertia of matter, while materialism is more and more “abstract,” reducing reality to a process rendered in mathematical formulae and formal permutations of elements.”[1]

in this way, philosophers are given a job once again, using quantum physics, in explaining science properly to the scientists, who have had far too materialist take on scientific reality, but paradoxically not materialist enough, because it does not take into account the potential for change within material reality, i.e. the unknowable, transcendental element within the material. Referring to Brentano’s and Husserl’s use of the term teliosis,  the claims that Hegel has been thoroughly misunderstood on the relationship between the finite and infinite
“No wonder that, in his Great Logic, in the section on “Quantum,” Hegel spends dozens of pages discussing differential calculus,[1] rejecting precisely the notion, usually attributed to him, that the mathematical infinite “is called the relative infinite, while the ordinary metaphysical infinite—by which is understood the abstract, spurious infinite—is called absolute (in point of fact it is this metaphysical infinite which is merely relative, because the negation which it expresses is opposed to a limit only in such a manner that this limit persists outside it and is not sublated by it; the mathematical infinite, on the contrary, has within itself truly sublated the finite limit because the beyond of the latter is united with it.”[2])  again this means that the transcendental is contained within the finite  real merely as potential and not outside it as a pre-existing absolute.
It seems to me that the core of this final chapter is to be found in the four features of quantum physics which “deconstruct” the standard binary opposition of nature and culture:

“(1) Within the symbolic order, possibility as such possesses an actuality of its own; that is, it produces real effects—for example the father’s authority is fundamentally virtual, a threat of violence. In a similar way, in the quantum universe, the actual trajectory of a particle can only be explained if one takes into account all of its possible trajectories within its wave function. In both cases, the actualization does not simply abolish the previous panoply of possibilities: what might have happened continues to echo in what actually happens as its virtual background.

(2) Both in the symbolic universe and in the quantum universe, we encounter what Lacan calls “knowledge in the real”: if, in the famous double-slit experiment, we observe an electron’s trajectory in order to discover through which of the two slits it will pass, the electron will behave as a particle; if we do not observe it, it will display the properties of a wave—as if the electron somehow knew whether it was being observed or not. Is such behavior not limited to the symbolic universe in which our “taking ourselves to be X” makes us act like X?

(3) When quantum physicists try to explain the collapse of the wave function, they resort again and again to the metaphor of language: this collapse occurs when a quantum event “leaves a trace” in the observation apparatus, when it is “registered” in some way. We obtain here a relationship of externality—an event becomes fully itself, it realizes itself, only when its external surroundings “take note” of it—which echoes the process of symbolic realization in which an event fully actualizes itself only through its symbolic registration, its inscription into a symbolic network, which is external to it.

(4) Furthermore, there is a temporal dimension to this externality of registration: a minimum of time always elapses between a quantum event and its registration, and this minimal delay opens up the space for a kind of ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it quickly enough, before its environment “takes note” of the discrepancy.) This delay also opens the way for temporal retroactivity: the present registration decides what must have happened—for example, if, in the double-slit experiment, an electron is observed, it will not only (now) behave as a particle, its past will also retroactively become (“will have been”) that of a particle, in a homology with the symbolic universe in which a present radical intervention (the rise of a new Master-Signifier) can retroactively rewrite the (meaning of the) entire past.[1] Perhaps, then, insofar as retroactivity is a crucial feature of the Hegelian dialectics, and insofar as retroactivity is only thinkable in an “open” ontology of not-fully-constituted reality, the reference to Hegel can be of some help in bringing out the ontological consequences of quantum physics.

Again, I would like to point out that, in particular with reference to the first of these four features, Ernst Bloch came to almost identical conclusions in his work on Hegel and in particular coined the term “multi-verse” to describe the way in which retroactive teleology means that contained within any particular moment there are echoes of other contingent processes which may well have happened and which still continue to resonate, rather like the static you hear on the radio is continuing echo of the Big Bang, an event which we are pretty sure happened but we do not know what its cause was more whether it is simply one in an infinite number of big bangs that have gone on throughout time and will continue to do so in future for an infinite amount of time.
Žižek points out here, that it is necessary to replace the multiversal potentialities and echoes within any given moment and posit a temporal succession of universes:
“The next logical step after that is to transpose this multiplicity into a temporal succession within the same universe. Along these lines, Martin Bojowald replaced the Big Bang with the Big Bounce: the time-space continuum from time to time tears apart; the ensuing collapse brings about a new Big Bang, in which the density of quantum forces causes a kind of “amnesia” of the universe—all information about what went on before the Big Bang is erased, thus with every new Big Bang the universe wipes out its past and starts again ex nihilo.”
In this model the universe suffers from severe amnesia leading to collapse and rebirth in which knowledge has to be built up all over again on the basis of a truth, the truth of existence; eternal but not unchanging. This is not some Nietzschean eternal recurrence of the same, but a cyclical and infinite redevelopment of multiversal possibilities. It seems to me that this is the nub of Žižek’s thesis throughout this highly complex and extremely long book. This final chapter on the quantum physics and reality ( I wrote an introduction to Ernst Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity (Verso 2009) along similar lines titled “The Quantum Mechanics of Hope”) refers to Barad’s “exteriority within” all the infinite within the finite, but whichever way you cut it it keeps coming back to this problem of retrospective teleology and what I have called elsewhere the “Metaphysics of Contingency”. In other words; not everything that has happened had to happen, but now that it has it did. There is no reason for it, no Telos towards which it is heading, only a Telos of the finite moment in which we exist and from which we can look back. From this finite position, what Bloch called the “darkness of the lived moment” we can perceive the multiversal possibilities and potentialities of both what has passed and what might come. Bloch’s conclusion from this was that you get the Telos you deserve and I think Žižek is arguing along similar lines.
He brings this chapter, and with it the book, back to the triadic structure (sections II and III representing two versions of the same act) that I showed in the table of contents. The structure is that of the act of copulation; The Thing Itself:
And he finishes this last substantive chapter relating the reduced gap between ontology and epistemology with examples precisely from Lacanian sexual theory:
“This brings us back to the properly Lacanian notion of sexuality as the immanent limit of ontology. One has to oppose here sexuality and animal sex (copulation): animal sex is not “sexual” in the precise sense of human sexuality.[1] Human sexuality is not defined by its bodily content, it is a formal feature, a distortion or protraction of the space-and-time which can affect any activity, even those which have nothing to do with sexuality. How does an activity that is in itself definitely asexual acquire sexual connotations? It is “sexualized” when it fails to achieve its asexual goal and gets caught up in a vicious cycle of futile repetition. We enter sexuality when an activity or gesture that “officially” serves some instrumental goal becomes an end-in-itself, when we start to enjoy the very “dysfunctional” repetition of this gesture and thereby suspend its purposefulness. For example: I meet a friend and we shake hands, but instead of letting go after the first shake, I continue to hold his hand and squeeze it rhythmically—with this simple non-functional protraction, I generate an obscene sexual undertone. It is in this sense that “sexuality (as the real) is not some being that exists beyond the symbolic, it ‘exists’ solely as the curving of the symbolic space that takes place because of the additional something produced with the signifying gesture.”[2]In other words, sexuality as Real is not external to the symbolic field, it is its immanent curvature or distortion, it occurs because the symbolic field is blocked by an inherent impossibility.And this brings us back finally to the triad of the premodern sexualized view of cosmos, modern desexualized ontology, and Lacan’s re-assertion of sexuality in its ontological dimension within the modern desexualized universe, as its inherent limitation: “De-sexualization of ontology (its no longer being conceived as a combinatory of two, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, principles) coincides with the sexual appearing as the real/disruptive point of being.”[3] “Desexualized modern ontology attempts to describe a flat neutral (neutered) order of being (the anonymous multiplicity of subatomic particles or forces), but in order to do so, it has to ignore the inconsistency or incompleteness of the order of being, the immanent impossibility which thwarts every ontology. Every field of ontology, even at its most radical (like the mathematical ontology of Badiou), has to subtract the impossible/Real (the curved space of sexuation) from the order of being.”
This is an exhaustive, exhausting and brilliant book, which I think does earn the epithet Magnum Opus. Yes, there are many parts of it which will be familiar to those of us who’ve been reading Žižek over the years, but the dialectical structure which he brings to this work helps to unfold the dialectical materialist explanation of existence and potentiality in a way which is at times quite breathtaking. I have not had the time or energy to read the whole 1200 pages (and I do not indeed have the complete manuscript) over the last few weeks but I hope that these blogs have whetted your appetite for the real thing, and I certainly look forward myself to seeing the final version in print. If we can make any predictions about the future at all, while avoiding any temptation of teleology of course, then I can certainly say that the debate over this book will run and run.

[1] It is in this sense that we should read those theologians who claim that Adam and Eve did copulate while in the Garden of Eden, but did so as a simple instrumental activity, like sowing seeds in a field, without any underlying sexual tension.

[2] Zupančič, “Sexual Difference and Ontology.”

[3] Ibid.

[1] To cite Borges, with the emergence of Kafka, Poe and Dostoyevsky are no longer what they were, for, from the standpoint of Kafka, we can see in them dimensions which were not previously there.

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International 1989, pp. 238–313.

[2] Ibid., p. 249. (italics here denote Hegel’s original text)

[1] No wonder the greatest poet of the material inertia in cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky, is simultaneously one of the great cinematic “spiritualists.” More broadly, do not the three aspects of the Lacanian Real fit the three aspects of materialism? First, the “imaginary” Real: the proverbial grain of dust, the material “indivisible remainder” which cannot be sublated in the symbolic process. Then, the “symbolic” Real: scientific letters and formulae which render the structure of material reality. Finally, the “real” Real: the cut of pure difference, of the inconsistency of structure.

[1] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press 2007, p. 35.


8 Responses to THE ONTOLOGY OF QUANTUM PHYSICS and Transcendental Materialism chapter 14

  1. specularimage says:

    Reblogged this on Specular Image and commented:
    Check out Peter Thompson’s examplary notes-readings of Slavoj Zizek’s forthcoming “Magnum Opus” Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.

  2. This is very interesting, and it would be interesting to be able to see more of the source material. In particular detailed exposition so of the implications of various interpretations of quantum physics would be welcomed (and yes, there are still competing versions of quantum physics, which social scientists need to take into account)

    However one only really needs to note that things modify one another unpredictably as they are brought into new sets of relations with one another, in order to start to explain emergence without needing either transcendence or ex-nihilo get-out clauses.

  3. Peter Thompson says:

    Daniel, yes I think I agree with you that this does all smacks slightly of get out clauses, as you call them, but the fundamental questions of how things emerged and what from as well as where things are going and what to remain to be discovered/uncovered. I think all Zizek is doing is trying to rethink the unpredictability of sets of relations in a way which doesn’t preclude thought as constituting material base.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well I agree with the ambition to get away from reifying thought as if it has no material imminence, and I think Zizek is doing interesting things here.

      But is it not the case that he is slightly overcomplicating things? If you take thought as material, as something that is an activity and practice, it is not hard to see that just as materia, the novelty arises out of how things modify as they are combined.

      What I am not clear about is are the arguments that force Zzek to go so far beyond this insight, when basically overcoming the sense of totally distinct and timeless entities or underlying states of reality is the main philosophical struggle.

      It’s like he wants to storm the Bastille and build a whole new prison all at once!

  4. Peter Thompson says:

    Zizek over complicating things? Come come. Yes, I think it is easy to see thoughts as materia, but the whole book is about the interaction between these different forms of material entities, hence the term dialectical materialism in the title. But I think it goes beyond that in order to ask questions about where thoughts actually emerge from, both temporally and spatially.

    • Well, it does sound interesting, and since I am not able to read the book (or your translation of Bloch) I guess I can only look forward to it, you have certainly piqued my interest.

      As for new prisons, yes, though one wonders if this is the only way.

  5. Peter Thompson says:

    and all new states, once they have cleared their Bastilles need to build new prisons for those who built the Bastilles in the first place

  6. “Using quantum physics and the uncertainty principle, we arrive once again at the concept of retrospective teleology in which the stringing together of contingent events which have emerged out of quantum processes and fields of uncertainty can be traced back only from from their teleological endpoint and cannot be divined in advance.”

    I find that many people misunderstand the uncertainty principle (do not like its use in this blog at all). Besides the usual interpretation that you cannot measure two canonically conjugate observables at the same time, Heisenberg also means that there is stuff you miss. By that I mean that when you measure a quantum system, there is stuff you can detect and just as much stuff you miss. The missed stuff is stored in quantum coherences, or as phases, and can be brought back only by doing another experiment. But you can never know if you have got it all.

    For example, spin is believed to have a single axis of quantization. If it has more, quantum measurement can not resolve them, so we do not know if spin has more than one axis. If it did, that would throw things off a bit.

    I do not think you consider this lost information due to the act of measurement. It really is there, with the emphasis on “REALly”

    Then, something that is clear concerning the difficulties philosophers have: it is impossible to reconcile (convincingly) ontology with the statistical properties of qm. Very soon research will come out that shows that EPR was right, Bell is wrong and Nature is local and real.

    How will that, when it happens, impinge on the ideas presented here and by others in the philosophy of science?

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