Tag Archives: Slavoj Žižek

Going to London for Hegel

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

The campus of University of London, Birkbeck

I know I’m a few months late in posting about my visit to Europe, and more specifically, my attendance of the conference on Hegel at the University of London, Birkbeck held in May, entitled “The Actuality of the Absolute: Hegel, Our Untimely Contemporary”. I’m pretty sure that the conference was organized by Slavoj Žižek.

From the audience at the conference.

From the audience at the conference.

The first note I took in my notebook happened during Žižek’s opening remarks. He said, “No tasteless, dirty jokes from me….This is pure..” I had to write down something he said to show his seriousness about the subject matter, to push away certain connotations that he is a mere jester.

In these opening remarks, Žižek gave us a few points. The first being the broad categories of readings of Hegel. There used to be two main camps of reading: conservative and revolutionary. Now, Žižek points out, there is a new category of reading on the rise, that being the Liberal Hegel. Žižek points to the Robert Pippen at the University of Chicago, and the so-called Pittsburgh Hegelians. This camp has the characteristic of speaking of a deflated Hegel. For Žižek, this liberal reading was to be the enemy of the work presented at the conference. The other point brought up is the question as to what materialism today. There is Naturalistic Materialism, Discursive Materialism—on this Žižek said, “The Deconstruction era is over”—, and “New” (so-called) Materialism, about which I’m not sure what he meant, but he mentioned a phrase “vibrating matter” with regard to it. Finally Žižek closed his remarks with a musing that maybe to be a Marxist today is to revert Marx’s materialism back to Hegel—perhaps Hegel was more materialistic than Marx.

At the conference there were people recording the presentations. Those recordings are now available online. I highly recommend listening to the many presentations given over the course of the three days. I’m probably going to listen to them again soon. Perhaps my studying in the interim between the time of their recording and now will help me better follow their ideas.

Steven Pinker and Scientism

I just read Steven Pinker’s recent article in The New Republic, “Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians”. Although the article calls itself a plea, it rather appears as the words of a self-appointed apostle of science, who reprimands ungrateful children for their inability to celebrate the manna bestowed upon them by science. Bewildered, Pinker writes, “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong”.

While I’m tempted to go through every part of the article and critique it, my argument can be summarized in a few points. First, Pinker begins with a misconception of philosophy, specifically metaphysics, which is not neurology, but rather the speculative thought about how we can come to make claims about knowledge and truth. Pinker’s enlisting of philosophers like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, etc. into the ranks of cognitive neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists is simply ignorant. Pinker would do well to walk over to the office of his colleague Peter Galison—professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University—and ask Galison to explain to him the differences between Metaphysics and neurology. Galison could also tell Pinker about the ideas of the self-improvement of humanity in the history of scientific thought. Pinker fails to see how anyone could possibly have anything negative to say “Enlightenment humanism”, which Pinker says is behind science today. This, I would argue, is the decisive point behind much of the criticism of scientism. Pinker lists such words as “reductionism” as terms used to criticize science’s flattening view of the world, but he doesn’t really explain how those criticisms are inaccurate.

The devotion to scientific facts becomes its own religious worldview. I want to quote at length a passage in which Pinker lists the ways in which science has accomplished such a view:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

While it is true that mystical belief-systems have been rejected, there is a difficult situation now in which scientific practice in thought becomes almost violent in its perception of all things. The enlightenment humanism espoused by Pinker due to its concern for self-preservation of humanity is heavily criticized by the Frankfurt School because it reduces nature and other humans to mere objects of domination. In other words: just as nature is now simply a material to be manipulated to achieve the goals of human flourishing, such a utilization can and has been turned upon fellow humans.

This of course is timely to have read this article while Noam Chomsky criticizes Slavoj Žižek for daring to have thought outside of scientific categories, which merely affirms the status quo. In Dialect of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno address such demands upon maintaining strict theoretical borders:

The loyal son of modern civilization’s fear of departing from the facts, which even in their perception are turned into clichés by the prevailing usages in science, business, and politics, is exactly the same as the fear of social deviation. Those usages also define the concept of clarity in language and thought to which art, literature, and philosophy must conform today. By tabooing any thought which sets out negatively from the facts and from the prevailing modes of thought as obscure, convoluted, and preferably foreign, that concept holds mind captive in ever deeper blindness (xvi-xvii).

The blind obedience to mere empiricism is a symptom of equating reality with eternal truths, thus leaving no room for imaginative thought.

A side note: for a critique of the encroachment of scientism—in the form of the controversial Evolutionary Psychology—into literary studies, read Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011): 315-347. The essay is available on JSTOR as well, if you have JSTOR access. This essay was brought up a lot during my time at Critical Inquiry, and we even printed several responses to the essay in issue 2 of volume 38 (Winter 2012).

Solaris: Communication, Perception, and Imperfection

Still from Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation, Solaris (2002)

I just finished Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris (1961) a month or so ago. The driving force of the novel is the attempt to comprehend, and have a meaningful dialogue with an alien entity. The ambiguities of communication are also troubling among the main characters themselves as they try to make sense of the object of their study.

After the crew on the station beamed Kris Kelvin’s brainwaves as x-rays into the ocean, Kelvin experiences dreadful, incredibly lucid dreams, which may well have happened:

I have never had visions of that kind before or since, so I decided to note them down and to transcribe them approximately, in so far as my vocabulary permits, given that I can convey only fragmentary glimpses almost entirely denuded of an incommunicable horror.

A blurred region, in the heart of vastness, far from earth and heaven, with no ground underfoot, no vault of sky overhead, nothing. I am the prisoner of an alien matter and my body is clothed in a dead, formless substance—or rather I have no body, I am that alien matter. Nebulous pale pink globules surround me, suspended in a medium more opaque than air, for objects only become clear at very close range, although when they do approach they are abnormally distinct, and their presence comes home to me with a preternatural vividness. The conviction of its substantial, tangible reality is now so overwhelming that later, when I wake up, I have the impression that I have just left a state of true perception, and everything I see after opening my eyes seems hazy and unreal.

That is how the dream begins. All around me, something is awaiting my consent, my inner acquiescence, and I know, or rather the knowledge exists, that I must not give way to an unknown temptation, for the more the silence seems to promise, the more terrible the outcome will be. Yet I essentially know no such thing, because I would be afraid if I know, and I never felt the slightest fear.

I wait. Out of the enveloping pink mist, an invisible object emerges, and touches me. Inert, locked in the alien matter that encloses me, I can neither retreat nor turn away, and still I am being touched, my prison is being probed, and I feel this contact like a hand, and the hand recreates me. Until now, I thought I saw, but had no eyes: now I have eyes! Under the caress of the hesitant fingers, my lips and cheeks emerge from the void, and as the caress goes further I have a face, breath stirs in my chest—I exist. And recreated, I in my turn create: a face appears before me that I have never seen until now, at once mysterious and known. I strain to meet its gaze, but I cannot impose any direction on my own, and we discover one another mutually, beyond any effort of will, in an absorbed silence. I have become alive again, and I feel as if there is no limitation on my powers. This creature—a woman?—stays near me, and we are motionless. The beat of our hearts combines, and all at once, out of the surrounding void where nothing exists or can exist, steals a presence of indefinable, unimaginable cruelty. The caress that created us and which wrapped us in a golden cloak becomes the crawling of innumerable fingers. Our white, naked bodies dissolve into a swarm of black creeping things, and I am—we are—a mass of glutinous coiling worms, endless, and in that infinity, no, I am infinite, and I howl soundlessly, begging for death and for an end. But simultaneously I am dispersed in all directions, and my grief expands in a suffering more acute than any waking state, a pervasive, scattered pain piercing the distant blacks and reds, hard as rock and ever-increasing, a mountain of grief visible in the dazzling light of another world (178-180).

While the excerpt above reminds me vaguely of various philosophical approaches to the problem of understanding perception, e.g. those of René Descartes and G. W. F. Hegel, it also reminded me of creation myths, with ideas such as there being something that sprouts out of a void.

Of course the excerpt above expresses a sense of imperfection in the narrator’s ability to comprehend this interaction, and, in fact, it’s merely another episode of many in the novel, in which the characters are constantly confounded by their findings in their “Solaristics” research. Obviously communication is an imperfect relation of exchange of ideas, but when no meaningful (to the scientists) findings arise throughout the novel, they come to an acceptance of this frustrating imperfection as it emerges from human communication itself. Characters reflect on the narcissism of humans highlighted by their anger at Solaris’s refusal to affirm humanity in the ways they had hoped. The scientists’ visitors on the station, which are brought about by their own memories, challenge them to ask if they really can handle inhuman communication or even self-reflection via an inhuman mediation.

Slavoj Žižek has written on Solaris, and come to some interesting conclusions in his essay, “The Thing from Inner Space” (Mainview, 1999). The concept he wishes to explore in this essay is the trauma of experiencing an impossible, indiscernible materialization of the Real within a subject.

Here is a short video clip from his film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), in which he talks about the self-reflection that goes on in Solaris, using material from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation, Солярис [Solaris] (1972).

Considering the Preconditions of Thought

Terence Blake points out, with regard to recent remarks traded between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, the confines of analytic thought by those such as Chomsky:

Chomsky admits to looking at these thinkers’ theories and at seeing nothing there. He does not ascend to the meta-level to see if there are systematic presuppositions causing a form of cognitive blindness, he simply infers that there is nothing to see. Perhaps it all goes back to Hegel’s PHENOMENOLOGY. The dialectical way of thought lets one see ideas as being inscribed in different figures of consciousness or different phenomenological worlds or different understandings of being.

This is indeed Chomsky’s lack of dialectical thinking. That scientific thinking is now unable to think about its own role in society was one of Max Horkheimer’s concerns, specifically in the Anglo-American empiricist tradition. Martin Jay writes concisely on this concern in The Dialectical Imagination, “Only by overcoming the fetishistic grounding of scientific knowledge in pure consciousness, and by recognizing the concrete historical circumstances that conditioned all thought, could the present crisis be surmounted” (27). This is also a problem having to do with dialectical thought in the historical sense, in that those claiming to have allegiance only to empirical fact don’t seem to see the ideological preconditions of such a stance.

For Chomsky, empiricism is the standard with which all thought is to be done. With this empiricism, we end up left with no room for imagination. In other words, the only thing to be done if we are unable to veer from empiricism is to confirm the already reified status quo. To alter Herbert Marcuse’s term, we see here the “affirmative character of” contemporary science. A day after Blake’s post quoted above, Blake considers this part of empiricism: “For example, it is difficult to discuss the Zizek-Chomsky divide without making use of at least a minimum of theory. Otherwise one falls into the worst sort of empiricism, acting as if facts speak for themselves.” This thinking that “facts speak for themselves” is a perfect example of ideology’s hold—when you think that as an empiricist you speak only of eternal truths, while everyone else only speaks in nonsense.

Music and Abstraction

Detail of album of Windy & Carl's The Dream House

Detail of album art of Windy & Carl’s The Dream House

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that perhaps one of the reasons I like Windy and Carl’s album The Dream House (2005) is that one of the two great tracks on the album is named “The Eternal Struggle”. The title and the track itself open up a space of contemplation, and I often end up thinking about humanity—the constant struggle of chasing utopia, and how we’ve failed over the past 200 years with the rise of capitalism. Yes, utopia is always unreachable, but it must also always be our goal. As Leszek Kolakowski writes in “The Concept of the Left”, “Utopia is the striving for changes which ‘realistically’ cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the forseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity” (147). That sense of remembering the project of utopian longing that has lasted for as long as humanity is sometimes difficult to remember. But when you read something like Walt Whitman’s poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” it comes back to you, and you are able to experience history beyond the reaches of your own lifespan:

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated,
every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme, /
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, /
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so
many generations hence, /
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt (7-8, 20-22).

I might as well talk about the other track on the album, which is “I Have Been Waiting to Hear Your Voice”. Although the title points to a more personal emotion, I argue that it too provides a statement of love that is a form of abstraction of life: given the bombardment of daily personal experience, the simple act of awaiting was always remembered and maintained by the speaker. This one practice persevered. It was able to transcend all other distractions and remain an important part of the speaker’s life.

It seems that this practice of maintaining an abstract focus on life is important. Isn’t this an example of resisting ideology? To put it differently, isn’t it important to maintain the ability to see through the everyday forces of ideology? Off the top of my head, one way of saying it might be, Missing the point to see the point. Or, rather, missing the point in order to see the preconditions for the point. To put it in a broader sense of history, isn’t this what Slavoj Žižek is always talking about when he criticizes the idea that we’ve now reached the end of history, that all that’s left is to act and to live our lives? In a recent interview, concerning another aspect of this anti-intellectualism, Žižek states,

I think the danger today is precisely a kind of a bland pragmatic activism. You know, when people tell you, “Oh my God, children in Africa are starving, and you have time for your stupid philosophical debates. Let’s do something!” I always hear in this call (“There are people starving there. Let’s do something”), I always discern in this a more ominous injunction: “Do it, and don’t think much!” Today we need thinking.

There’s a reason I like science fiction. Its ability to defamiliarize everyday human existence can push the reader into the realm of this historical abstraction. I really am sounding sentimental right now, but I truly feel a sense of wonder sometimes when approaching the study of history in this more abstract sense.

A few years ago I read Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”, and one line in particular has stuck with me: “For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Now, before I’m accused of wishing to naïvely reject the preconditions of our contemporary moment in order to start a pagan commune, I just want to point out that one could read the line as a call to reject the act of resignation in the face of the overwhelming pressure of history weighing upon our time. To accept the contemporary conditions openly is the position of the Right, but to strive to change towards utopia based on theoretical practices conscious of their place in history is the position of the Left.

Detail of album art of Fennesz's Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Detail of album art of Fennesz’s Endless Summer (2001, reissued by Touch Music in 2006)

Another quick example of abstraction in contemporary music might be Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer (2001)—a love letter to the film of the same name documenting surf culture in the 1960s, along with the Beach Boys’s compilation album which came out a couple years later. Fennesz’s work here is highly abstracted, glitched guitar playing among other things, leading to a shining layered work that sounds very little like a pop song of that era, while at the same time sounding like the feeling of listening to songs from that era. Or better yet: his album sounds like experiencing summer.

Abstracting Narratives

In his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Hegel boldly says that History can be abstracted and thus summarized quickly as really the history of freedom. I’ve been thinking lately about how powerful this Hegelian method of thinking through abstraction can be.

What gives me pause in works of art are the moments where there is a stillness. It’s somewhat hard to explain, but what I mean by stillness here has to do with the idea of abstraction, or rather–in an almost naïve way–losing track of the unnecessary intricacies of a narrative. The narratives become abstracted and we go to a different perspective, where one can feel the undercurrent of humanity and life flowing. In an interview with Libération, filmmaker Chris Marker stated, “Ce qui me passionne, c’est l’Histoire, et la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent” (“What interests me is History, and the cross-section of History in the present”). The filmmakers within the movement of Le Groupe Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) such as Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda were focusing on this perspective of “la coupe de l’Histoire dans le présent.”

Still from Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7

Still from Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7

A great example of the Left Bank’s approach can be seen in comparing two different approaches to the simple narrative of two people falling in love in Paris. One need only compare Jean-Luc Godard’s famous À bout de souffle (1960) to Varda’s relatively overlooked Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). Frankly, besides Godard’s technique in editing, I think À bout de souffle can be mostly discarded as a self-obsessed, narrow-minded artifact of the 60s. Varda’s Cléo, on the other hand, while telling almost the same story, is able to cut deeper to the heart of human existence. The historical consciousness of Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wouldn’t be successfully realized in the hands of those on the the Right Bank, better known as the Nouvelle Vague.

In Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek points out the power of this naïve abstraction:

How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of a blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision (279-280).

Still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

Still from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

I feel that there is a great affinity between the American filmmaker Terrence Malick and the Left Bank. One of Malick’s films gives us the chance to inspect another interesting comparison with films more contemporary than those above: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Both storylines occur over a short period of time during the second World War, although they take place in different fronts: one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Saving Private Ryan seemed to have garnered more acclaim as a war film, whereas The Thin Red Line seems like something else. In a conversation recently with a friend who angrily denounced The Thin Red Line for having no real story, I ended up exclaiming, “Yes, exactly! There is no story!” Although the film is about the taking of Guadalcanal told from the perspective of several U.S. soldiers, the film is more about life. This is not to say that Malick can’t tell a story, but rather that Malick’s story dwells so much on existence that it becomes more of a meditation–a stasis that moves, rather than a story arch, in which a main character(s) encounters an “inciting incident” that calls him to action so that he may overcome an obstacle, which is then resolved in a dénouement. What is the ending of The Thin Red Line? What is the “inciting incident”?

Appropriately, Hegel-scholar Robert Pippen has written about this abstraction in Malick’s film. In “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” Pippin writes,

In all of Terrence Malick’s five films, various genre conventions of Hollywood movies like these are invoked and structure much of the narration. This is especially true of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line, which has many of the elements of a Hollywood World War II movie. But, as in his other films, these genre conventions create expectations and suggest explanations that are then undermined, refused, left open, made to seem irrelevant, made mysterious, or even ironized.

The implication is unavoidable that, therefore, these conventions about motivation and value are no longer available, no longer credible, and the viewer has to struggle to find some point of orientation. This sense of being lost, once these conventions are invoked and then refused, is the main effect on any viewer and seems a major point of the film itself (249).

[…] since the voice-overs are unattributed by visual cues or anything else, the thoughts seem to float in logical space, as if they could visit any character or be shared by, be thought by, anyone (252).

I really still need to see Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’ll be interesting to see if these ideas above correspond to that film too.