Dialectical Materialism: The undiscovered country

There has been one constant in my career as a Zizek expositor: no one cares about the parts where I discuss Zizek’s dialectical materialism. This may reflect on my feeble skills, but it also reflects a broader trend — no one seems to take Zizek’s development of dialectical materialism very seriously. Ideology critique, counter-intuitive political claims, remarks on film — that’s what really gets the attention.

To my mind, though, the deeper ontological questions Zizek is getting at with dialectical materialism are by far the most interesting things about him, the area where he is making a serious contribution. His notion of the universe as “non-all” or “non-whole” is very productive, and it’s not just idle speculation — he links it up with the frontiers of modern science. His chapter on cognitive science in Parallax View is a real tour de force (Jameson agrees), but it seems to have been greeted by total silence. Similarly, his discussions of quantum silence are dismissed as bullshit, apparently on an a priori basis, if they’re noticed at all.

What is going on here? Perhaps it’s a mismatch in his audience — the continental or theory crowds aren’t used to taking science seriously, and the analytic types and the scientists themselves aren’t used to taking “postmodern theorists” like Zizek seriously. I fear it’s just going to be Adrian Johnston and me, crying out in the wilderness — or rather, just Adrian Johnston, as I’m not sure my future research agenda has room for more than a few occasional pieces on Zizek.

6 thoughts on “Dialectical Materialism: The undiscovered country

  1. While I absolutley agree that the most interesting aspect of Zizek’s work is by far his theory of dialectical materialism and the interesting ontological proposals that go along with it, I’m surprised to hear you haven’t noticed much of an interest in this aspect of his work. I know that in my (philosophy) department there is a fairly steady interest in Zizek, but it’s almost always in regards to this aspect of his work, and equally the interest in work of Adrian Johnston on these issues seems to be steadily growing, which could be seen by the frenzy of bloggers and the like to get a copy of his most recent book on Badiou/Zizek.

    If anything, it seems like the problem may be that far too many people assume that Zizek’s ontological project is just him piggy backing on Badiou. Now, this is clearly not the case, but I have seen quite a few cases where Zizek is discussed in a ‘serious’ philosophical/ontological manner only to be brought into comparsion to Badiou.

    Regardless, I really do think in the next 2-3 years we’ll be hit with a shitstorm of articles/larger texts taking this side of his work more seriously.

  2. For what it’s worth, you’ve hinted at the topic I’ve proposed for my doctoral dissertation where I intend to focus on Zizek and Malabou’s readings of Hegel. So you’re not entirely alone in the wilderness, but I can’t promise to be all that significant as a companion.

    In agreement with your assessment, I would also say that not only does the continental or theory crowd not take recent (or past) scientific research seriously, but they usually don’t take German Idealism seriously either, except as a foil. And, having assumed a certain caricature of this tradition, they have no choice but to abandon Zizek or quickly move past his ontological contributions (and thus past Zizek), past his materialist appropriation of Hegel (with its emphasis on the Absolute as Non-All, its important analysis of the relation of Substance to the Subject and vice versa, Concrete Universality, etc.) lest they be forced to reconsider (or finally consider) Hegel.

  3. I completely agree here, and I think it’s partly the single-minded interest in his counter-intuitive engagements with politics and pop culture that makes it possible for so many to dismiss him as a jokester. I could only think of him as an entertaining sideshow until I read The Ticklish Subject, where his seriousness as a thinker became impossible to ignore.

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