The Battle in Philosophy: Time, Substance, and the Void – Slavoj Zizek vs. Graham Harman (Dark Ecologies)

03 Wednesday Dec 2014

In my pursuit to understand poetry and philosophy in our time I’ve found that “time” is the key: there is a great battle that has up till now been perpetrated under the auspices of subtantialist versus process philosophers – as in the recent battle over Graham Harman and Object Oriented Philosophy (a reversion to a substantive formalism, although non-Aristotelian in intent), and the Process philosophers who seem to come out of Whitehead and others. Part of the wars of speculative realism…

In Harman the object is split between a sensual (phenomenal) appendage and a real (noumenal) withdrawn core, etc. For him this real can never be described, or even known directly, but must be teased out or allured from its “volcanic” hiding place, etc. While for those like Zizek there is nothing there, even less than nothing: a void that is the negation of negation: a self-reflecting nothingness. No core, no substance, no big Other.

Graham Harman will tells us that at the heart of our era there lurks a philosophical dogma, an idealism purporting to mask itself under the rubric of deflationary realism. Under the banner of deflationary realism he will align deconstruction (Jaques Derrida), Lacanian/Hegelian dialectics (Slavoj Zizek), and every dialectical philosophy “which tries to undercut any subterranean power of the things by calling this power an “essence,” then claiming that essence is a naive abstraction unless it finds its proper place in the drama of human knowledge about the world.”1 The point he makes is that at the center of this view of the world is the notion of singular gap between the human and its world. (p. 123)

As one reads Harman’s works which on the surface seem a revisionary turn in phenomenological thinking and philosophy – especially as to its central reading of Heidegger’s concept of readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), which “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness” (ibid. 1). This notion of a non-utilitarian realism beyond the human with its attendant swerve from the linguistic turn, dialectical materialism, and the naturalism of scientific physicalism and scientisms sets the tone: an enframing of the withdrawal of objects from the human/world bifurcation or gap ontology of deflationary realism, and a decentering of the anthropocentric world-view that pervades humanistic philosophy and literature, art and aesthetics offers the base approach of Harman’s philosophical outlay.

Objects for Harman are first of all entities as formal cause, as well as the converse notion that “every set of relations is also an entity” (p. 260). Harman will argue against all naïve materialisms and naturalisms, saying: “

What separates this model from all materialism is that I am not pampering one level of reality (that of infinitesimal particles) at the expense of all others. What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside of forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is “materialism,” then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter.(p. 293)

This notion that there is no physical matter, but that everything from the smallest quantum events to the largest structures in the universe are forms within forms: structured entities immersed in relations and the engines of reality. Yet, these very entities can unplug from these relations and enter into new and different engagements. The point here takes up the notion of intervention and the revisionary process of entities in their actual ongoing movements across the tiers or levels of reality. As he will tell it instead of materialism, this is perhaps a new sort of “formalism,” one that sides with Francis Bacon “who lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous.” (p. 293).

Anyone who has read the early works of Harman finds Zizek everywhere in the pages. Harman fights with Zizek from the opposite end, holding to an new or revised substantial formalism. Zizek starts with lack (Void, Gap, Den: Democritus) at the heart of things, while for Harman there is no lack – everything is fully deployed in an almost copy of the Platonic notion of time as vessel (our universe on a flat plane with multilevel tiers or scales). Zizek sticks with the whirlwind of nothings that Democritus termed “Den”: his less than nothing that gives birth to nothing and from there our universe ( a quantum theory of subjectivity as process and emergence out of the void). This is the basic battle between opposing conceptual frameworks of reality.

Harman will openly tell us he likes Zizek, yet he totally disagrees with almost everything he’s written, saying of one of Zizek’s key concepts: “

Among the most central of these ideas is Zizek’s concept of retroactive causation—a theme in one respect very close to the present book, and in another respect diametrically opposed. (p. 205)

He will tell us that Zizek’s retroactive causation brings with it the notion that the Real is not a “real world” outside of the human sphere, but the very gap between appearance and the non-appearing that is first posited by the fantasy of the human subject.(p. 207) Even a cursory reading of Zizek’s latest two magnum opus’s will attest to this continued drift (see Less Than Nothing, and Absolute Recoil). Zizek against all substantial formalisms will tell us:

This last claim should be qualified, or, rather, corrected: what is retroactively called into existence is not the “hitherto formless matter” but, precisely, matter which was well articulated before the rise of the new, and whose contours were only blurred, or became invisible , from the horizon of the new historical form— with the rise of the new form, the previous form is (mis) perceived as “hitherto formless matter,” that is, the “formlessness” itself is a retroactive effect , a violent erasure of the previous form. If one misses the retroactivity of such positing of presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch . This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicted.”3

The point Zizek makes is that in a dialectical process, the thing becomes “what it always already was”; that is, the “eternal essence” (or, rather, concept) of a thing is not given in advance, it emerges, forms itself in an open contingent process— the eternally past essence is a retroactive result of the dialectical process. This retroactivity is what Kant was not able to think , and Hegel himself had to work long and hard to conceptualize it. Here is how the early Hegel, still struggling to differentiate himself from the legacy of the other German Idealists, qualifies Kant’s great philosophical breakthrough: in the Kantian transcendental synthesis, “the determinateness of form is nothing but the identity of opposites.(ibid.)

As you can see at the heart of the conflict between Harman and Zizek is a notion of causation, a view of time and the implication of time’s determinations in reality. For Zizek the concept or essence does not precede its history or processual movement in time, but is rather a creation of its contingent interactions in the dialectical process of this time itself. For Harman the “essence” is that core depth of every entity. In his discussion of Zubiri on essence he will tell us: “

Zubiri allows common sense to pull off a bloodless coup d’état at the precise moment when he had begun to open our eyes to a zone of incomparable strangeness—- that of the essence withdrawn from all relation, even from brute causal relation (as overlooked by Heidegger, Levinas, and Whitehead alike).(p. 258)

This is a core notion of Harman’s that real objects (essences) can withdraw from all relations. As he will tell us further on “It is not only the case that every entity has a deeper essence—rather, every essence has a deeper essence as well” (p. 258). Realizing this leads to an infinite regress Harman will instead term it an “indefinite regress, and move on to other problems that arise from the emerging concept of substance” (p. 259). Succinctly Harman’s position is stated as follows:

I have offered the model of reality as a reversal between tool and broken tool, with the tool-being receding not just behind human awareness, but behind all relation whatsoever. This duality has been crossed by another opposition of equal power: the difference between the specific quality of a thing and its systematic union. Furthermore, the world is not split up evenly with a nation of pure tool-being on one side and a land of sheer relations on the other—every point in the cosmos is both a concealed reality and one that enters into explicit contact with others. Finally, in the strict sense, there is no such thing as a sheer “relation”; every relation turns out to be an entity in its own right. As a result, there is no cleared transcendent space that gains a distance from entities to reveal them “as” what they are. There is no exit from the density of being, no way to stand outside the brutal play of forces and vacuum-packed entities that crowd the world.(pp. 288-289).

In the above tool-being and the concept of “essence” are interchangeable. So for Harman the essence of real objects precedes its sensual appendages, and in fact for him withdraws not only from human awareness but from all relation whatsoever.

We are here back at the notion of den in Democritus: a “something cheaper than nothing,” a weird pre-ontological “something” which is less than nothing.

– Slavoj Zizek

(Badiou and Zizek from a materialist perspective also opt for a event based, non-substantive notion of time, a time of rupture and newness: an event.

Zizek recounting an Agatha Christie Jane Marple mystery in which a woman sees a murder on another passing train in which the police find no evidence, and only Mrs. Marple believes her and follows up:

This is an event at its purest and most minimal : something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation.

It is a manifestation of a circular structure in which the evental effect retroactively determines its causes or reasons.1

As Zizek further qualifies  an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes. Already with this approximate definition, we find ourselves at the very heart of philosophy, since causality is one of the basic problems philosophy deals with: are all things connected with causal links? Does everything that exists have to be grounded in sufficient reasons? Or are there things that somehow happen out of nowhere? How, then, can philosophy help us to determine what an event – an occurrence not grounded in sufficient reasons – is and how it is possible? (Zizek, 5)

Zizek will see this as two approaches or opposing views of reality: the transcendental and the ontological or ontic. The first concerns the universal structure of how reality appears to us. Which conditions must be met for us to perceive something as really existing? ‘Transcendental’ is the philosopher’s technical term for such a frame, which defines the co-ordinates of reality – for example, the transcendental approach makes us aware that, for a scientific naturalist, only spatio-temporal material phenomena regulated by natural laws really exist, while for a premodern traditionalist, spirits and meanings are also part of reality, not only our human projections. The ontic approach, on the other hand, is concerned with reality itself, in its emergence and deployment: how did the universe come to be? Does it have a beginning and an end? What is our place in it?(Zizek, 5-6)

I’ve begun a long arduous process of tracing down this ancient battle between substantial formalists (object oriented) and non-substantive event (process) based philosophers, and have begun organizing a philosophical work around the great theme of Time that will tease out the current climate of Continental thought against this background.

In some ways I want to take up Zizek’s philosophical materialism of non-substantial self-relating nothingness vs. Harman’s substantial formalism where they intersect in the notions of Time and Causality. We’ve seen work on both of these philosophers, but have yet to see the drama they are enacting from the two world perspectives of transcendental vs. ontology and ontic, substance vs. void or gap. I think this would be a worthwhile battle to bring to light what is laying there in fragments.

Stay tuned.

1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 1). Open Court. Kindle Edition
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-26). Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept (p. 4). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 6322-6330). Norton. Kindle Edition.


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