- Again and Again and Again: Real Materialism
In 2006, Slavoj Žižek’s self-described magnum opus, The Parallax View, appeared. Two years later, he has come out with the equally formidable In Defense of Lost Causes. Both books deploy Žižek’s characteristically wideranging style, a demanding engagement with an array of philosophical problems, texts, and interlocuters combined with entertaining detours through literary, cinematic, musical, popular, and sub-cultures such as necrophiliacs and the Amish (I touch on only a narrow range of Žižek’s themes in this essay). Both books continue to develop Žižek’s unique Hegelian-Lacanian version of psychoanalytic Marxism, an approach that established his reputation among English-language readers as a comprehensive upgrade of ideology critique. Both deepen and extend the theory of ideology elaborated in The Sublime Object of Ideology and For They Know Not What They Do into a compelling— and refreshing—vision of a materialist Messianic politics of universal emancipation. The Parallax View reconceives dialectical materialism. In Defense of Lost Causes argues for a new approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Together they contribute to a materialist philosophy meant to shatter the partial and accommodating acquiescence to capitalism and liberal democracy that has taken the place of left political theory.
Dialectical Materialism Redux
The Parallax View formats Žižek’s previous insights into the work of negativity, antagonism, and the Lacanian Real in terms of the notion of a parallax gap, an idea Žižek takes from Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique. The parallax gap designates the irreducible gap between two perspectives. (To see it in action, extend your arm in front of you. Raise your index finger. Close one eye then the other. Your finger will shimmy in front of you, seemingly moving from one spot to another. Which position is its true or real one? The gap.) Karatani employs the idea of a parallax gap to defend Kant against Hegel: antinomies go all the way down. Reconciliation, mediation, and overcoming difference are impossible.
Žižek accepts the claim for an irreducible and insurmountable gap. Yet he disagrees with Karatani’s anti-Hegelian conclusion. For Žižek, the key Hegelian move is not the reconciliation of opposites but their assertion as such, an assertion that literalizes the shift in perspective itself: “‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing it” (28). What this means for materialism is that reality is non-All (a term from Lacan); it contains the stain or blindspot of my inclusion it. So it isn’t simply that I am part of material reality, as if there were a god or history capable of grasping all reality; rather, there is always the twist of my inclusion in the reality I constitute.
Žižek uses the parallax gap both to explore Hegelian concrete universality and to revise some key Lacanian categories. Concrete universality does not refer to a universal core or essence animating its particular forms of appearance. Rather, concrete universality persists in the unsurpassable gaps between these forms, in their noncoincidence and struggle. The Universal, then, “names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are attempted but failed Answers to this problem” (35). For example, the concept of the State names the problem of how to contain the antagonism that underlies and generates society. Particular states are particular solutions. Christianity likewise names a struggling universality, one formulated from the position of the excluded which thereby splits substantial identities.
Turning to Lacan, Žižek argues for a “parallax Real.” The standard reading of the Lacanian Real is as that which “always returns to its place,” that which stays the same underneath all its symbolic appearances. Žižek rejects this substantialized account of the Real to view it instead as the gap between appearances, the shift between perspectives, or the non-existent X that is...