Notes on Zizek’s Absolute Recoil
Perhaps the first thing to know about Zizek is that his work entails a certain interpretive strategy, which in his new book Absolute Recoil he calls brachylogia, (41) which refers to statements of excessive brevity, with words left out. This can be coupled with Zizek’s insistence that authors misrecognize their more fundamental discoveries. Zizekian method fills in the blanks in its source texts.
Hence Zizekian reading will go even further than Althusserian symptomatic reading in what it will impute to texts. It is actually rather more a kind of what Debord called détournement, copying and correcting, only more in the mode of correcting and repeating. No matter what the text, Zizek always finds the same thing in it – that gap named the subject.
The book starts with a passing mention of Lenin’s truly awful book, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, where Lenin repeats Engels’ claim that with every new scientific discovery, materialist philosophy has to change. As Zizek acknowledges, Lenin’s book fails at this task, which must be commenced again. Except that in Zizek’s hands, it is not the failure of materialist thought to take account of modern physics that is the problem. It is that it has to be rethought in the wake of psychoanalysis.
Hence two much more promising tasks for philosophy are here not even attempted. One might be to think what remains of philosophy after modern science. Not just the modern physics that blew Engels’ materialism out of the water, but the much more pressing issues arising now from biology and earth sciences. What would Marxist thought be now given what the sciences tell is about the Anthropocene? Surely that is a more pressing question.
The other path not taken would be to undo the damage done by Lenin’s thug tactics to Marxist thought itself. Bogdanov, who is the main object of attack in Materialism and Empirio-criticism, had usefully changed the question that a Marxist theory of science ought to ask. The question is not about what the real is independent of our cognition. A far more useful line of inquiry is to ask after the materiality of the practices and labors via which the real comes to be known. Thus Bogdanov, uniquely, extended Marx’s labor point of view to the sciences themselves.
Zizek’s book is unhelpful then in two ways: it is wholly preoccupied with a rewriting of Marxism after psychoanalysis rather than the sciences, and it is still a contemplative philosophy of the real, rather than a practice of inquiry into how the real is produced.
Perhaps the best way to assess any philosophy is not to draw attention to its limitations but to stress rather what it enables one to think. To what domain of experience does it most usefully apply? In the case of Zizek, the answer is that what he helps one think is the subject. Dialectical materialism, as Zizek wants to call this, becomes a philosophy of the ineradicable gap or break that is the subject.
This might no longer sound like an orthodox Marxism, and indeed in the absence of any institution that might authorize statements about it, there can not really be an orthodox Marxism. What we get in its place is orthodox Lacanian psychoanalysis, applied mostly to philosophical or theological texts and occasionally to Western Marxist ones.
Zizek sees psychoanalysis as continuous with an Hegelian account of phenomenology. It’s a species of negative dialectic – but with a twist. This procedure starts, as it does in Adorno’s Minima Moralia, with what Zizek often calls the standard account. This is the level of doxa, of an accepted view of things, even in philosophy.
Then comes the reversal or negation, often framed as a rhetorical question: “Is it not precisely the opposite?” In Adorno the reversal usually undoes the unity of phenomena under the sign of exchange value and administrative domination. In Zizek, the reversal can have a more general purpose, of liquidating apparently fixed categories, setting them in motion, showing the implication of terms in each other.
The distinctively Zizekian move is the third one, the twist. One can think this quite literally as taking the apparently opposed terms together and twisting them sideways, spiraling them around each other. If in Hegel, the whole is the true; and in Adorno, the whole is the false; in Zizek, the whole is a twisty otherwise. History is neither finished, nor foreclosed, but something that could be begun again and again, over and over. Zizek’s endlessly repeated gesture of the standard, the reversal and the twist might point to possible spaces for historical action.
Or it might rather be a rhetorical procedure repeating itself to the point of exhaustion. It’s like listening to an ageing jazz musician. After a while it doesn’t matter what the tune is, the improvisations on it will all end up relying on the same licks.
The title of this book, Absolute Recoil, is from Hegel, and refers to a moment of immanent dynamism. In a relation of reflection, every term is mediated by its opposite: identity by difference, essence by appearance, and so on. The exception is the term determined by an ‘absolute recoil’ upon itself, an immanent gap or discord. This speculative notion is for Zizek a universal ontological principle.
On this speculative axiom, Zizek tries to found a dialectical materialism, which he will claim is the only kind of materialism possible. It is supposed to be an alternative to both the new vital or vibrating materialisms of a Deleuzian stripe, and also to what is rather crudely called ‘scientific naturalism’, although more subtle versions of this, which might descend from Bogdanov, for example, receive little attention. Lenin’s erasure is still in place.
It is also supposed to function as a way of avoiding the ‘turn to the object’, or speculative realism. Quentin Meillassoux famously attacked ‘correlationist’ thought for its dependence on a subject that correlates to an object of knowledge. Rather than free the object from the subject, Zizek takes what appears to be the other path, the raising of the subject to the place of the absolute.
One might note here in passing that there is actually a third path, not even mentioned in Zizek, mentioned in passing in Meillassoux: the refusal of subject and object as pre-constituted categories. What Lenin would never grasp about Bogdanov is that his thought was a realism of sensations, a kind of media theory. Its question was to ask after the reality of the apparatuses and practices that make objects and subjects appear as such. Or as Karen Barad puts it: what makes the cut?
That inquiry might be the only one that could justifiably call itself Marxist, in its attention to the social production of knowledge as a part of the social production of the means of existence. Materialism would then be a matter of asking after how things are produced, rather than a metaphysical and contemplative speculation about ‘matter’ in the abstract.
Such might for Zizek be a ‘standard’ way of proceeding. He will of course begin by making the case for the opposite. Materialism in philosophy is to be found in that least likely place – German idealism, in a materialism sans materialism, where the material disappears into purely formal terms and relations.
It’s a novel suggestion, and possibly no worse than certain things that pass as ‘materialism’ these days. I can’t say I’m too convinced by the ‘new materialism.’ It too quickly lifts its gaze from the properly Marxist question of how the real is produced, and reaches rather for new metaphors to describe a purely contemplative reality.
In an era awash in innovative life sciences and complexity theory, new materialist metaphors are often organic and vitalist. “I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen,” Zizek quotes Jane Bennett as saying. But this is just Ostwald’s energism, a position Bogdanov abandoned a long time ago.
Zizek rightly points to the trouble Kant causes for philosophies that attempt to directly describe the real. Zizek: “Kant breaks with this entire tradition and introduces an irreducible gap in our perception of reality.” (9) Deleuze practiced rather a constructivist metaphysics after Kant, interested in what kinds of worlds can be created out of speculative ontologies. Post-Deleuzians seem now to actually believe in these constructed languages as if they really were an ontology.
Again, the other way out is not to construct a transcendental subject as limit-condition and guarantor of knowledge of the appearances of the object-world. It might rather be a Marxist examination of the means of production of thought, of the apparatus and social relations that produces objects and subjects. Such an approach can avoid both a speculative metaphysics and also the necessity for a correlating subject for objects of scientific inquiry.
Hence I agree with Zizek that “New Materialism takes the step back into (what can only appear to us moderns as) premodern naivety, covering up the gap that defines modernity and reasserting the purposeful vitality of nature.” (12) But I don’t agree with his solution, which is to render the gap of the subject absolute, rather than inquire into that which makes the cut of which the gap is the result.
Zizek occasionally acknowledges that another path is possible, only to quickly shut it down. Thus he is aware that there are actually three postures towards the objective-real even in Hegel’s commentary. The first is metaphysical, such as the Spinozism from which New Materialism descends. The third is Kant’s transcendental position, from which Zizek’s will descend, after a reversal and a twist, of course. Empiricist skepticism, the other option, is mentioned but left alone.
Rather, everything passes through Kantian thought. Zizek: “it elevates the very forms of our mind, of subjectivity, which (de)form our access to the in-itself and thus deny us direct access to it, and into an a priori, a positive fact constitutive of our phenomenal reality.” (16)
But how to press on beyond the limits of the Kantian subject toward the object? One way is via Fichte and Schelling, toward an intuitive knowledge of the absolute. (There may be traces of this in Meillassoux). Zizek: “The second form, of course, is Hegel’s dialectics, which does exactly the opposite with regard to intuitive knowing: instead of asserting a direct intuitive access to the Absolute, it transposes into the Thing (the Absolute) itself the gap that separates our subjectivity from it.” (16) Here then is absolute recoil, the gappiness not just within the subject, or between subject and object, but in the object itself – absolute gap.
There is yet one more distinction to be made for Zizek, between a dialectical and a speculative approach to the absolute, or between the negation and the twist. “Dialectics which is not yet speculative is the vibrant domain of the tremor of reflection and reflexive reversals, the mad dance of negativity in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – this is dialectics as eternal warfare, as a movement which ultimately destroys everything it gives birth to.” (16)
This is Zizek’s claim, then: to a speculative knowledge of the absolute as gap or void. That the critical stating of a standard position, its negation and finally then giving it a twist can reveal in affirmative terms the non-relationship of absolute recoil at the heart of things, the “ontological incompleteness of reality.” (19)
That incompleteness is what gives rise to the subject. Zizek: “subjectivity emerges when substance cannot achieve full identity with itself, when substance is itself ‘barred’, traversed by an immanent impossibility or antagonism.” (29) Everything is subjectively mediated, but paradoxically, the subject is not originary. The subject is an effect of an originary void. Zizek: “while we have no direct access to the substantial pre-subjective Real, we also cannot get rid of it.” (29) The Real is impossible, and yet indispensible.
The subject does not have priority, then. The subject is the mark of a prior void, but one which asserts itself as primary. The subject retroactively posits its own pre-suppositions. Which as Zizek cannily remarks, is a good way of thinking what Marx means by ‘capital.’ It appears as if everything is the self-movement of capital, because capital posits itself as subject retro-actively.
Zizek’s brachylogical reading of Marx makes him an über-Hegelian, and “Hegel is to be repeated today because his and our epochs are both epochs of passage from the Old to the New…. But the failure of the Marxist revolutions makes it clear that we can no longer rely on the eschatology of the New-to-come – the future is open.” (36)
Zizekian-Hegelian history is one of affirmation, negation – and the twist. “The Hegelian matrix of the dialectical process is thus that one must first fail in reaching the goal, as the intended reconciliation turns into its opposite, and only then, in a second moment, will the true reconciliation come, when one recognizes this failure itself as the form of success.” (36)
The communist project is thus for Zizek still an open question. The revolution just has to be repeated, even though it failed the first time: “this fiasco is necessary since it creates the conditions for its overcoming.” (37) Which is of course a peculiarly perverse version of Stalinist apologetics. It is not enough to have endured the negation, still to come is the twist.
Here Zizek touches on a central point for accelerationist theories of history. For Zizek, Marx saw the dynamic capitalism had unleashed, its self-propelling productivity, but thought it possible to conceive of a higher state of civilization that would retain the dynamic but without the internal limit to it imposed by capital itself. Zizek: “if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, then far from fully unleashing the drive to productivity, we precisely lose this dynamic…” (38) Once more the subject – in this instance capital itself – cannot be eliminated.
Hegel is for Zizek the source of both Marx’s concept of capital itself, but also of the will to overturn it. In explicitly brachylogical move, Zizek reads together Hegel’s remarks about the rabble and his account of the conditions under which a subject has a “right to distress,” meaning that it must break the law to survive. The result is a “Maoist Hegel,” The Master whose lesson is “It is right to rebel.” (44)
While pretty much nothing in Zizek could really be read as orthodox dialectical materialism, the doctrine of the Master does indeed recode Lenin’s belief in the necessity for the party in psychoanalytical language, as the Master. Zizek: “A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want… A Master is needed because we cannot access our freedom directly.” (45)
Without the Master, our freedom does not appear as such, but as a pre-determined field of possibilities. The Master shows us to ourselves otherwise. The Master does not try to fathom what we really want. The Master simply follows their own desires: “his power stems from his fidelity to his desire.” (46)
That there is, or could be freedom is guaranteed by the incompleteness of the real itself. First comes freedom, in the sense of the incomplete determination of the real, then comes the subject, which marks the gap. The role of the Master is in a sense to be the gap itself, to open the void. To show that we are free to repeat history, to get it right this time – with a twist.