Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reflections on Adrian Johnston's Zizek's Ontology

Zizek's Ontology
is illuminating, and at times electric, but comes up short(-circuited) in several directions. Perhaps the most exhausting of these dimensions is Johnston's tendency to embrace the "antinomic" aspects of Zizek over-against the dialectical tensions that traverse his work. On the last page of Johnston's book, we can read:

Being free is a transitory event arising at exceptional moments when the historical, psychical, and biological run of things breaks down, when the determining capacities of natural and cultural systems--these systems are never actually the seamless networks of unfaltering determination (i.e. big Others) they so often inaccurately appear to be--are temporally suspended as a result of deadlocks and short circuits being generated within and between these multi-faceted, not-whole systems (ZO 287, emphasis mine).

Glaring is not only Johnston's whelm of adjectives--"multifaceted, not-whole"--but the saturation of prepositions within his work. Not merely a stylistic quirk, these excesses leave me with a question: in what sense are systems "generative" of parallax splits, irreducibilities, and so on; is synthesis/resolution here replaced by becoming-conscious and becoming-$; and, finally, how can Zizek's famous deadlocks be said to jam the "within and between" of systems? To answer briefly, there is an extremely precise Zizekian trope that is characteristically absent in Johnston's book: the notion of isness (what, for those of you for whom this is relevant, Ori Dasberg might call the isness of the is)or the event of an italicized "is" transforming what looked like a paradox into what was always a dialectical relationship.

Witness this extremely lucid quote of Zizek's:

We should take Lacan's term "subject of the signifier" literally; there is, of course, no substantial signified content which guarantees the unity of the I; at this level, the subject is multiple, dispersed, and so forth [process without a teleological subject--perhaps Althusser's stopping point]--its unity is guaranteed only by the self-referential symbolic act, that is, "I" is a purely performative entity, it is the one who says "I." This is the mystery of the subject's "self-positing," explored by Fichte; of course, when I say "I," I do not create any new content, I merely designate myself, the person who is uttering the phrase. This self-designation nonetheless gives rise to ("posits") an X which is not the "real" flesh-and-blood person uttering it, but, precisely and merely, the pure Void of self-referential designation [the symbolic act or Symbolic as such] (the Lacanian "subject of the enunciation"): "I" am not directly my body, or even the content of my mind; "I" am, rather, that X which has all these features as its properties. The Lacanian subject is thus the "subject of the signifier"--not in the sense of being reducible to one of the signifiers in the signifying chain ("I" is not directly the signifier I, since, in this case, a computer or another machine writing "I" would be a subject), but in a much more precise sense: when I say "I"--when I designate "myself" as "I"--this very act of signifying adds something to the "real flesh-and-blood entity" (inclusive of the content of its mental states, desires, attitudes) thus designated, and the subject is that X which is added to the designated content by means of the act of its self-referential designation. It is therefore misleading to say that the unity of the I is "a mere fiction" beneath which there is the multitude of inconsistent mental processes: the point is that this fiction gives rise to "effects in the Real," that is to say, as a necessary presupposition to a series of "real" acts. (Zizek 2006, 244-45).

And Johnston follows this quote as such:

As with Lacanian desire, the positive articulation of subjectification simultaneously generates an impossible-to-articulate negativity as an X detached from and out of joint with both nature (as the barred Real) and culture (as the barred Other). What's more, this anonymous, faceless misfit ($) starts wandering around Imaginary-Symbolic reality, bending and warping the fields in which it is an internally excluded element. The process Zizek describes in the passage quoted immediate above, a process in which the subject-as-$ arises out of signifiers as a medium of subjectification, relies on the lack of a unifying closure in the symbolic order, namely, the fact that the big Other is barred because its own internal constituents and their laws create, one could say, a chaotic, broken-up hall of mirrors in which reflexive regressions potentially stretch out to infinity [i.e. there is no substantial "Thing that refers," only a produced place of designation]. And prior to this entrance into the defiles of the symbolic order's signifying batteries (an entrance creating both subjectification and the subject), a barred Real (as the anxiety-laden, conflict-perturbed corpo-Real) propels the human organism into the arms of this barred big Other. The subject-as-$ is a by-product of both the barred Real and the barred Symbolic (Zizek's Ontology 285-286).

As you can see, Johnston misses an exceptional opportunity to distill Zizek's work into a single and fundamental point: the "performative event" that symbolically appropriates the formal difference of the One with itself. (I've been trying to work through this point all morning--what are the "real effects" of the minimal difference between utterance and enunciation?) Indeed, it's not merely that this event, this presentation of a One, has real effects in terms of Substance, in terms of life-in-itself (I think that it does, for as we know the not-all is open to re-constitution and change, but with one hell of a delay): this would be a One-ifying of the One which reduces effects to their material determinations or effects in Substance, for which Johnston incessantly ribs dialectical materialism, but I think it's a critique that's also applicable to a certain Freudian tradition, i.e. the claim that, "Consciousness [or superstructure] can only be understood in its relation to unconscious [or base]." Instead, this symbolic act, this minimal difference between enunciation and utterance--internal to utterance itself--actually forges a new Real within symbolic reality, a Real whose shape is essentially of a different plasticity, a different time, from the plasticity of the not-all. The process of subjectification repeats the formal trauma of the latter (inconsistency as such) in the time of the former, and therefore endows it with an entirely newcontent, the Real of the Symbolic, namely $.

Johnston rather insists that the causes of this process are numerous and variable inconsistencies within being qua being and the expression of the latter in the place of representation (or the process of subjectification). So following a recent insight from my friend Adam Bresnahan regarding the role of Darstellung in the master-slave dialectic--the disjunction between master and slave determinations is produced by a Darstellung, or presentation and structure reified by this presentation, of the master as master--the "performative event" of the "I" would be nothing less than the master presenting himself as a representation, appearing as essence. This is also to say that theplace of representation, the Symbolic as such, is essentially an act of presentation which differentiates symbolic reality, by ensuring, as I will now propose, that representations both take hold in reality and are absolved, and that this taking-hold is the very process of their absolution: the "realization" of representation is effectively its immediate success and mediated failure. Indeed, the "positing of presuppositions," the positing of a Thing that enunciates, occurs as an antagonism between success and failure, between the designation of a substantial content and the abrogation of the same. First, even though the master is "not-all," he becomes what he is: he takes up the master position and articulates reality as if it were whole. Second, the master is not what he becomes: the very time of present-ation is that of theNachtraglichkeit, the supplementation (perhaps this is what the homology between "afterwardness" and "addition" means in German) of the utterance with an "I" who was to have been there, who was retroactively presupposed--posited as presupposed--to have been referred to with the "I," and who has the advantage of being neither an illusion as such nor a formal reality (i.e. noumena) which precedes phenomenalization. What is produced is rather the slave. The slave is a formal negativity which is parallel to the not-allness of substance; in other words, the slave is the identity of the master. (One could even conclude that the negativity of substance is temporal, whereas the negativity of symbolic reality is spatial: but I think that Zizek's dialectic demands we dissolve such easy identities.) The fundamental fantasy is that the master views this presupposition as himself quasubstance, or said otherwise, himself as the Real of need--that he views himself as proceeding from satisfied, raw need (his vision of a) to conscious subject, from unconscious to conscious. The reality of the slave is that need as such does not exist: "raw need" is always already a product of signification--need is always a demand met and domesticated by symbolization as a way of displacing the immitigable "rawness" of the Real, which is a demand insoluble by either philanthropy or "holistic parenting."

The brunt of my argument is a wish that Johnston had more accurately delineated the difference between unconscious and conscious. On my view (and this is partly an answer to my concerns about the language of "becoming-conscious"), the "processes of subjectification" do not yet constitute consciousness, but rather a vanishing mediator between the unconscious and consciousness as such. There is no "becoming-conscious of," one does not become-conscious of a predicate. There is no becoming-conscious qua appropriation of an object, satisfaction of a need, and the subject does not arise like a whale breaking the waves. The waves were rather always broken; Moby-Dick is present from the very first page, but present precisely as absent (and this against Althusser's doctrine of symptomatic reading: absent as present). (Is the climax of Moby-Dick the presentation of Event as such, or rather its dissolution, its abandonment?) The act of becoming-conscious, as opposed to the act of presentation, is instead $ itself: one cannot be said to be conscious until the time of $, until the time that presentation pour l'instant (here we could re-approach the Derridean problematic of the instant) abandons representation as a mode of becoming what it is. In the instant of becoming what it is, Ereignis is not Sein, event is not equal to being as I suppose the later Heidegger, according to Bill, will assert; Ereignis is in this sense rather the anxiety of different times. A time in which very little happens (the not-allness of substance--barred a), a time which mediates and repeats the latter in order to become what it is through the very denial of what it is (the process of subjectification--not sure what the Lacanian matheme is here), and a time in which everything happens all at once (the revolutionary time of $ and barreda). In the time of $ it is as if time finally appears to itself. Three different times that appear in the place, the Darstellung absolved of its constitutive Vorstellungen or representations, of a single point. One could approach Lukacs's concept of "becoming-historical subject" anew in this way.