Slavoj Zizek: Am I a Philosopher?

[Delivered at International Žižek Studies Conference on May 27th 2016. Download .pdf]

International Zizek Studies Conference
International Zizek Studies Conference 2016

In his perspicuous review of the volume Repeating Žižek, dedicated to my work, Jamil Khader notes how some contributors interrogate

“Žižek’s credentials as a philosopher, especially in relation to Badiou’s critique of Lacan’s anti-philosophical position. Hamza points out, in fact, that philosophers who are Žižekian are always reminded that compared to Žižek, ‘it is not a difficult task to be a follower of Badiou, or a Badiousian in philosophy, due to his very-well-struc-tured system.’ To this extent, Noys cautiously reiterates Badiou’s claim that Žižek is ‘not exactly in the field of philosophy,’ only to proposes that Žižek is a ‘reader of philosophy,’ someone who offers not a philosophy but a method. Bruno Bosteels makes this case against a Žižekian philosophy more forcefully. He claims that after his interna-tional career took off, Žižek has been struggling very hard to disassociate himself from the field of cultural studies, in which his work was initially received and ‘misrecognized,’ and to reclaim his name as a philosopher. Bosteels writes: ‘Thus, whereas Badiou after the completion of Being and Event speaks from within the bastion of a classically or neoclassically styled philosophy, waving the ban-ner of Platonism with sufficient self-confidence to accept the challenge of an antiphilosopher such as Lacan, Žižek is still at pains to downplay the late Lacan’s antiphilosophical provoca-tions for the sake of gaining respectability as a philosopher.’ For Bosteels, this seems to offer a seamless explanation of Žižek’s ‘proverbial nervousness.’ His tics simply betray an anxiety about being excluded from prestigious institutional apparatuses and departments of philosophy, whether in Slovenia, Britain or France. As such, he performs the role of the hysteric to the master’s discourse of a stoically unfazed Badiou.”

I find these critiques of my work problematic on more than one count, even if I dis-count the – to put it mildly – very problematic “grounding” of my bodily tics (incidentally, the result of an organic disease for which I am taking medicines!) in my anxiety about being excluded from academic apparatuses and not recognized as a “serious” philosopher. (Can one even imagine the Politically Correct outcry if another thinker – who is, say, a lesbian feminist – were to be “analyzed” at such a level?)

First, I DO propose a kind of “ontology”: my work is not just a decon-structive reflection on the inconsistencies of other philosophies, it DOES outline a cer-tain “structure of reality.” Or, to put it in brutally-simplified Kantian terms: the last horizon of my work is not the multiple narrative of cognitive failures against the background of the inaccessible Real. The move “beyond the transcendental” is outlined in the first part of my [amazon asin=1784781991&text=Absolute Recoil where I deploy in detail the basic dialectical move, that of the reversal of epistemological obstacle into ontological impossibility that characterizes the Thing itself: the very failure of my effort to grasp the Thing has to be (re)conceived as a feature of the Thing, as an impossibility inscribed into the very heart of the Real. (Another move in this direction is my elaboration of the quasi-ontology of “less than nothing” in my reading of the ontological implications of quantum physics.)

But the heart of the problem lies elsewhere: in the application on philosophy of the opposition between the Master and the Hysteric – to cut a long story short, if we identify true philosophy with a stoically unfazed master’s discourse, then philosophers like Kant and Hegel are no longer philosophers. After Kant, “classically or neoclassically styled philo-sophy,” i.e., philosophy as a “world view,” as a great rendering of the basic structure of entire reality, is simply no longer possible. With Kant’s critical turn, thinking is “not exactly in the field of philosophy,” it offers “not a philosophy but a method”: philosophy turns self-reflexive, a discourse examining its own conditions of pos-sibility – or, more precisely, of its own impossibility. Metaphysics (the description of the hier-archic rational structure of the universe) gets necessarily caught in antinomies, illusions are unavoidably needed to fill in the gaps in the structure – in short, with Kant, philosophy is no longer a Master’s discourse, its entire edifice gets traversed by a bar of imman-ent impossibility, failure, and inconsistency. With Hegel, things go even further: far from returning to pre-critical rational metaphysics (as Kantians accuse it), the whole of Hegelian dialectics is a kind of hysterical undermining of the Master (the reason Lacan called Hegel “the most sublime of all hysterics”), the immanent self-destruction and self-overcom-ing of every metaphysical claim. In short, Hegel’s “system” is nothing but a systematic tour through the failures of philosophical projects. In this sense, all of German Idealism is an exercise in “anti-philosophy”: already Kant’s critical thought is not directly philosophy but a prolegomena to future philosophy, a questioning of the conditions of (im)possibility of philosophy; Fichte no longer calls his thinking philosophy but Wis-senschaftslehre (“the teaching on scientific knowledge”); and Hegel claims his thought is no longer a mere philo-sophy (love of wisdom) but true wisdom (knowledge) itself. This is why Hegel is “the most sublime of all hysterics”: one should bear in mind that, for Lacan, only hysteria produces new knowledge (in contrast to university discourse which just reproduces it).

— In his two great manuscripts published posthumously, Initiation a la philo-sophie pour les non-philosophes (1976) and Etre marxiste en philosophie (1978), Althusser (among other things) outlines a specific theory of philosophy which overlaps neither with his early “theoreticist” concept of philosophy as “Theory of theoretical practice” nor with his later notion of philosophy as “class struggle in theory”; while closer to the second notion, it serves as a kind of mediator between the two. Althusser’s starting point is the omni-presence of ideology, of ideological abstractions which always structure our approach to everyday life and reality; this ideology has two level, the “spontaneous” every-day texture of implicit meanings and the organized religion or mythology which organized a systematic system of these meanings. Then, in Ancient Greece, something new and unexpected happened: the rise of science in the guise of mathematics. Mathematics deals with pure abstract numbers deprived of all mythic reference, it is a game of axioms and rule in which no cosmic meaning resonates, there are no sacred, lucky or damned numbers. Precisely as such, mathematics is subversive, it threatens the homogeneity of the universe of cosmic meaning, its homogeneity and stability. A weird incident that happened on a departing AA flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse on May 7 2016 indicates that this fear of mathematics persists even today. An economics professor was solving a differential equation on a piece of paper, and a lady passenger seating at his side thought he might be a terrorist because of what he was writing, so she passed a note to a flight-attendant, claiming that she is too ill to take the flight. The plane returned to the gate, the lady was taken from the plane and voiced her suspicion to the ground personnel; security members then took off the plane the economics professor and questioned him…

Footnotes

  1. Alberto Toscano, “The Detour of Abstraction,” in Diacritics, 2015, Vol.43 (No2): Other Althusser, p. 78.
  2. Quoted from Diacritics, 2015, Vol.43 (No2): Other Althusser, p.85.
  3. Quoted from op.cit., p. 93.
  4. Jason Barker, “Are We (Still) Living in a Computer Simulation?”, in op.cit., p.94.
  5. Jaques-Alain Miller, “Un reel pour le XXIe siecle,” in Un reel pour le XXIe siecle, Paris: Scilicet 2013.  English translation available at http://www.congresamp2014.com/en/template.php?file=Textos/Presentation-du-theme_Jacques-Alain-Miller.html.
  6. Gilles Deleuze, L’image‐mouvement (Paris: Minuit, 1983), 122.
  7. Ibid., 81.
  8. See Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, pp. 28–29
  9. Alain Badiou, “Badiou: Down with Death!,” Verso Books blog, August 18, 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2176‐badiou‐down‐with‐death.
  10. Hegel’s Science of Logic, p. 824.
  11. Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre XIX: . . . ou pire (Paris: Seuil, 2011), p. 43.
  12. Ibid., p. 54.
  13. Brandom, “A Spirit of Trust,” quoted from http://www.pitt.edu/~brandom/spirit_of_trust_2014.html.

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