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.