Slavoj Žižek on Objects

Slavoj Žižek offers the following recent critique of Levi Bryant and object-oriented ontology, which evoked a single question for me:

What are we arguing about again?

I think I get Žižek’s argument. I don’t think there’s really anything new or unexpected in terms of an argument made from an idealist, Lacanian viewpoint. I understand he objects to Bryant’s use of Lacan in The Democracy of Objects and that ultimately the argument comes down to “if you accept Lacan’s theories then OOO doesn’t make sense.” So I suppose this could be an argument over an interpretation of Lacan, which honestly I could not care less about. Also, I’m not interested in defending OOO from Žižek’s critique.

So why am I writing about this here?

There are a couple points on which I’d like to make comment.

Žižek writes

ooo follows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s famous book, WWerNever Modern—it endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment of the world. The Lacanian answer to this should be a paraphrase of his correction of the formula “god is dead” (god was always already dead, he just didn’t know it): we were always already modern (we just didn’t know it).

So apparently Latour’s book is not famous enough for Žižek to actually remember the title. Based on the brief description here that the book “endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment of the world,” it would appear that the book was also not famous enough for him to remember what Latour’s book is about. That said, he does recall well enough what the Lacanian response should be. The arrival of the modern, the birth of correlationism, the development of idealist philosophy–however you want to capture this history of Western philosophy–would certainly assert that the ontological condition it describes has always existed, that humans have always already been “subjects,” even if they didn’t know it. (To be honest though, since subjectivity in Lacan and elsewhere is so tied to language, I’m not sure how it applies to pre-historic humans without symbolic behaviors, but let’s skip that point.)

As the next passage demonstrates, language–symbolic behavior–is a central issue of Žižek’s critique. As he argues

one cannot include language into reality since what appears to us as reality is already transcendentally constituted through a horizon of meaning sustained by language. We have to introduce here the distinction between the transcendentally constituted phenomenal reality and the Real: the way to be a consequent materialist is not to directly include subject into reality, as an object among objects, but to bring out the Real of the subject, the way the emergence of subjectivity functions as a cut in the Real.

Here’s my rough understanding of this. Žižek argues that we can’t think of language as a part of reality because reality is constituted by language. Following the Lacanian argument, the subject is produced by a traumatic event which cuts the subject from the Real through the deployment of language. As he concludes his critique,

As to its content, it is a position of radical passivity (of a Kantian transcendental subject suspending its constitution of reality), but as to its form, it is a position of radical activity, of violently tearing oneself out of the immersion into reality: I am utterly passive, but my passive position is grounded in my withdrawal from reality, in a gesture of extreme negativity.

It is in this sense that the “democracy of objects” in which subjects are conceived as one among the objects-actants obfuscates the Real of subjects, the cut that IS the Real.

I’m not entirely sure what “it” is in this passage, but I suppose the response to that confusion is to say “Yes, exactly.” What I do get from this argument is what I’ve always gotten from Idealist critique, which is that the subject is that which is defined by its separation from reality, a separation, a cut, that is made with/by/in language.  I understand the internal logic of this argument.

In the end though this just strikes me as part of an ongoing performance of two philosophical positions that are irreconcilable with one another. I don’t think there’s anyway to hold on to the Lacanian subject and entertain any kind of speculative realist position. Maybe Bryant would disagree, but from my perspective I have no need to make those two things work together. I am happy to accept Žižek’s determination that “there is no place for subject in ooo,” as long as we can agree that by that “subject” we mean Lacan’s notion of the subject.

There could be, and in fact are, other kinds of concepts of the subject. My own particular interests in speculative realism/new materialism remain more with Latour and DeLanda than OOO, who certain each have a theory of the subject. I can only guess that Žižek might trot out similar critical performances in those cases. Though we have all experienced the conceptual difficulty of reading texts like this, we can always have confidence that such texts are made more accessible by our knowledge that arguments made from such positions never discover anything and reliably will end up where they began, utterly passive in their withdrawal from reality and extreme negativity (to take on some of Žižek’s words).

For my own disciplinary interests in investigating how digital technologies participate in our capacities for thinking and communicating (for rhetorical action), I’m not sure that the arguments Žižek puts forward have any value. I suppose that’s the point of being passive and negative. There’s no use to it, there’s nothing to do with it, and it only leads back to itself. Perhaps it has some interest in debunking the kind of work that interests me, and in a pragmatic-rhetorical sense, I suppose I need to have some strategy for responding to an audience that might take up a response of this kind to my own work. Honestly, it’s not a problem I’m particularly worried about. And ultimately I think the best answer is to say that these are two incompatible ontologies and that if you don’t find what I say interesting or useful then maybe you’ll find some alternative more productive for you. That works for me if it works for you.

  • nickpguetti

    As I understand it (Bryant is not a big focus for me as yet), the main idea of Lacan’s I’ve seen OOO people refer to is the lack of a metalanguage. Otherwise, most of them don’t seem that interested in him.

    • That may be true, but Bryant is a significant outlier in this respect.