Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Introduction

Michael Burns, a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Dundee, starts off our discussion of Markus Gabriel and Slavoj Žižek’s Mythology, Madness and Laughter. – APS

First of all I’d like to thank Anthony for inviting me to take part in this book event, as this is a work that I think is truly worthy of consideration, and one that will hopefully lead to some lively debate and discussion.

To set the stage a bit, I’d like to offer a few introductory remarks about the book itself. I presume many were originally skeptical to see a book being co-authored by Zizek and a name that many in the English speaking world have likely not seen before, Markus Gabriel. I experienced this sentiment myself on first seeing this book, but ended up spontaneously ordering it one night based primarily on the subtitle, ‘Subjectivity in German Idealism.’ Upon receiving the book I ended up reading it at a very rapid pace, as I found the content to be one of the most exciting discussions of German idealism I’d seen in quite some time. I know there are quite a few of us who have been convinced, to varying extents, by Zizek’s underlying ontological project (one more explicitly developed in The Parallax View and brilliantly systematized in Adrian Johnston’s Zizek’s Ontology), and in this work Gabriel and Zizek develop this project in a more straight forward and philosophically rigorous way than Zizek has yet to do himself. This is also Gabriel’s first major publication in English, and while he may not yet be a household name to those working on Contemporary European philosophy in the English speaking world, this is surely on the horizon, as his work in German has already established him as a serious scholar of both German idealism in general and Schelling in particular. It is also worth noting that this is one of Zizek’s most straightforward philosophical interventions in recent years. His two essays are noticeably lacking both jokes and political pronouncements, but full of exciting, if controversial, philosophical insight.

To begin the actual summary of the book, I’d like to briefly outline a few of the themes which emerge in the introduction, the one portion of the book co-written by Gabriel and Zizek, entitled ‘A Plea for a Return to a Post-Kantian Idealism.’ The introduction itself is quite short, so I will simply point out a few of the themes they introduce in these pages that play a substantial role in the rest of the work.

The introduction opens with a re-consideration of the space separating Kant from his idealist successors (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel). Gabriel and Zizek want to argue that the project of post-Kantian idealism is not nearly as opposed to Kant’s transcendental project as is usually assumed, and that in fact “the basic coordinates which render Post-Kantian Idealism possible are already clearly discernable in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” (1).

They go on to argue that the thinkers of post-Kantian idealism “share Kant’s preoccupation with transcendental illusion but argue that illusion (appearance) is constitutive of the truth (being). This is what this whole book is about” (1). In simple terms, the entirety of this book involves a reading of German idealism that considers its primary project to be a radical ontological re-casting of Kant’s epistemological project.

They go on from this statement of purpose to introduce another key concept crucial to their reading of German idealism: inconsistency. Anyone familiar with Zizek’s recent work will recognize this term and its usage, as it is Zizek’s way of describing the ‘non-all’ nature of metaphysical systems. Rather than considering the phenomenal appearance of inconsistency to be merely the inability of the subject to perceive the truth of the noumenal, Gabriel and Zizek want to instead argue that rather than there being a gap between the phenomenal and noumenal (or, appearance and being) that the gap is immanent to the noumenal itself, and thus, “the relative occurs within the absolute” (2). This is the same ontological structure Zizek emphasizes in The Parallax View.

Gabriel and Zizek state their position in different terms on page 3:

In our view, the reason for this ontological overcoming of epistemological dichotomies (appearances vs. the thing in itself; necessity vs. freedom etc.) can indeed be motivated by the Post-Kantian insight that the very mode of appearance occurs within the noumenal.

They go on to state this differently:

Thought is not at all opposed to being, it is rather being’s replication within itself (3).

Next they outline what they identify as the two perspectives on the turn from Kant to Post-Kantian Idealism. The first is the position that:

Kant correctly claims that the gap of finitude only allows for a negative access to the noumenal, while Hegel’s absolute idealism […] dogmatically closes the Kantian gap and returns to pre-critical metaphysics (5).

The second position, which is the position defended throughout the rest of the book, is that:

Kant’s destruction of metaphysics does not even go far enough, because it still maintains the reference to the Thing-in-itself as an external, albeit inaccessible entity. Seen from this vantage point, Hegel merely radicalizes Kant, by offering a transition from a negative access to the absolute to the Absolute itself as negativity (5).

When they argue for this reading of the Absolute itself as negativity, they are reaffirming their argument for the non-all nature of reality, in which the totality is in-itself incomplete and inconsistent. This is crucial as it is this gap (what Zizek also refers to as the minimal difference) that allows for the possibility of subjective freedom, a theme important throughout the work. It is also crucial to note that when they speak of totality, they do not mean what one typical thinks of as a totalized metaphysical whole. They note this distinction on page 10:

In other words, the Hegelian ‘true infinite’ is the infinity generate by the self-relating of totality, by the short-circuit which makes a totality an element of itself, which makes re-presentation a part of presence itself. The One is included in the act of excluding it, it becomes the inclusion of exclusion […]

In this passage they are once again reiterating the ontological conditions that see the immanent gap, or non-all, as the immanent ground of all representation. This is more or less the point that they spend most of the introduction re-iterating and expressing in different terms. Before concluding the introduction, they claim that philosophers in the 21st century must ‘bite the bullet of idealism’:

We need a concept of the world or the real which is capable of accounting for the replication of reality within itself (13).

This concept of the real, in which reality is immanently fractured in-itself, and all representation of the world is an event within the world itself, is the unique ontological advancement made by the post-Kantian idealist. They believe that this insight needs to be the guiding light of a much needed 21st century Post-Kantian Idealism, an era that Gabriel and Zizek believe has just begun (14).

The only critical question I’d like to pose at this point, and one that I think will re-emerge throughout our reading, is how faithful to the post-Kantian idealist this reading actually is. While I personally find the ontological vision presented by Gabriel and Zizek quite convincing, I still wonder how faithful their reading of the post-Kantian tradition, and Hegel in particular, is. On this point I hope those who are proper experts in Hegel and German idealism can offer their insight throughout this event.

23 thoughts on “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Introduction

  1. It was nice (if a little weird) to see Zizek formulate his arguments in a more systematic way than usual in the introduction, but it made me wonder to what extent Zizek’s usual style is a deliberate expression of his ontology of incompleteness and antagonism. Is there something a bit odd about clearly and systematically setting out an argument about the inevitable and inherent incompleteness of all systems?

  2. Marika,
    Interesting point. In one sense, I would be willing to guess that the systematic tone in the introduction has more to do with Gabriel’s voice than anything else. But in another sense, I think there is some relation between Zizek’s insistence on the real as immanently incomplete and his usual lack of a systematic tone in his writing. I think one complaint some may have about Zizek’s more philosophical writing is that he never really reaches an end point in which the system is complete and we now know what to do (esp. politically); but I think this is a precise implication of his ontological project, as one could never ‘say it all’ about reality when it is in-itself non-all.

  3. I also think that Zizek’s style is in some way a repetition of Lacan’s rather eccentric style. Reading his seminars, one gets the impression that Lacan never grew tired the endless jokes and puns he strung along while mapping out his revision of psychoanalysis.

  4. What I liked about this introduction – and which is brought out nicely by Mike’s introduction to the introduction – is the way they do attempt to make their point over and over, as if they keep flinging themselves against the wall of mistaken conceptions.
    I also hope there will be space in the following discussions to see the way non-phenomenological philosophers fit into this framework. I can see that at least one footnote refers both to Cavell and Foucault, so there’s lots of scope for re-thinking major twentieth century philosophical projects.

  5. Back in the old postmodern days, one would be forced to claim, when backed against the wall by an enthusiastic critic, that Derrida’s esoteric writing style was an attempt to perform deconstruction, that is, to avoid complete hermeneutical capture. I see you pulling a similar move here Mike about Zizek and I’m not sure I agree. If you watch the film Zizek, he basically writes in bursts then edits a little, which explains more about his scattershot style than some kind of deep metaphysical allusion. I like it as an explanation though!

  6. I enjoyed this summary of the introduction, but just wanted to chime in to agree with Alex and Adam that I don’t think Zizek’s writing style has anything to do with his making some sort of metaphysical gesture. It seems more likely that Zizek’s style of writing is simply better suited to the essay format, as his books tend to more or less be numerous essays loosely linked together by (sometimes) a core theme, or suggestive subheaders.

  7. Alex/Adam/Bryank,
    I really didn’t put that much thought into the earlier comment on Zizek’s writing style, and surely didn’t mean to imply that there was a Derrida-like quality to it. So disregard that, was just commenting in a caffeine-induced haze yesterday.

  8. Thanks Michael for your clear and concise summary of the Introduction. I’m looking forward to hearing what readers made of this book. My only thought whilst we’re on ‘first things’ is actually about the book’s cover. It seems an interesting choice (assuming Gabriel had a say in it). C. D. Friedrich’s paintings, particularly those done on Ruegen have long been seen as embodying an artistic Romanticism which drew its power from the ideas of the philosophical Romantics, particularly Schlegel but also Schelling, ideas about natural sublimity, the infinite, being and death inflected of course by Christian concerns, which all three shared at different points in their lives. I wonder whether (again assuming this was the author’s and not the publisher’s choice) we get a hint here of Gabriel’s defence of ‘unprethinkable Being’ later in the essay, and what I see (though others may disagree with this take) as his slight preference for Schelling over Hegel?

  9. Utisz,
    Clearly I have no idea about the cover, but I really like your explanation! I may try to investigate more out of curiousity. Also, I think you are spot on to note Gabriel’s preference for Schelling over Hegel, it will be interesting to see if everyone agrees with that as we read on.

  10. I think it’s absolutely the case that Gabriel prefers Schelling over Hegel, and in some ways I think his essay could be described as a Schellingian critique of Hegel (I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed–if memory serves me correct–that Zizek never really addresses Gabriel’s essay at all in his chapter). Anyhow, Utisz, the connection to the front cover you point to strikes me as very interesting, certainly there’s something worth exploring there.

  11. Having finally gotten around to reading the introduction, I do find it to be both remarkably clear and remarkably repetitious. Building on Mike’s question of faithfulness, though, I wonder why it’s even necessary to hang all this so directly on the actual German Idealists — why not say, as with Kant, that they were heading toward this insight and now is the time to radicalize it?

  12. Excellent introduction, Mike. Picking up on the topic of style above, I was going to say something longer Z’s cutting-and-pasting (e.g., some of the passages quoted above Z lifts almost verbatim from his PV), but I see that the conversation has drifted from there. So, I’ll just say that it seems to me that what could be chalked up as a generally frowned upon tactic to increase one’s output (which, from his Leninist political viewpoint, might be negligible if it means a greater possibility that they will make a difference by greater exposure, more people reading his texts, etc.), could also be demonstrative of one of his philosophical points, that novelty can be found in repetition. Here his point seems closer to Deleuze than Badiou (in his his latest book, Johnston analyses the differences between the two on repetition, but, to my memory, doesn’t talk about Zizek’s own cutting-and-pasting as an example of this repetition).

    Sharing enthusiasm for Z’s (and G’s) ontological project, I also share your concern with the finer details, the compatibility of some of Hegel’s arguments with this dialectical/transcendental materialist project (“the Absolute itself as negativity”). It seems to me that a lot of this comes down to how one reads Hegel’s Aufhebung, whether or not the Aufhebung can submit itself to sublation (for example, in Spirit’s self-detachment in Absolute Knowing, or the moment of existential dread in the slave), and what the final status of abstract negativity is in Hegel; how, in the end, should we understand the relation of abstract and dialectical negativity?

  13. This might sound strange (and I’d like to join in and thank the folks here for organizing this reading), but is it plausible that Zizek actually had little to do with this Introduction? I mean of course it’s “their” book and all, but one doesn’t have to be an exegete to see that the Introduction was most likely written in full by Gabriel (including a footnote in which he refers to himself in singular which would be odd for a joint introduction). Just thinking that if it is the case, then Zizek’s essay(s) not addressing any of Gabriel’s points could be explained easily – they were written in a very loose connection to Garbiel (or maybe with no connection at all, unless I’m misremembering). Again, I don’t know if this will help with the reading/interpretation, but this might be one of those cases where we are looking for a Guattari-Deleuze sort of joint work when it is just a usual “collaboration” where independently written essays are put together…

  14. Hello all— I am very pleased to see this forum!
    I don’t have any philosophical contributions to make just yet, but I would like to say: I edited the book with Gabriel and I can indeed confirm that the introduction was largely Gabriel’s doing.

  15. Tom,
    Thanks for shedding some light on that. If I’m not mistaken, you’re a part of the summer school in Bonn starting next week? If so, see you then sir.

  16. I happened to have had Gabriel as a professor a couple years ago (around the time of writing or finishing this book) and he told me that Zizek just sent him a bunch of ‘fragments’ for the introduction, so I’m pretty sure it was his work that systematized and completed it.

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