Zizek on Meillassoux

Today I read Zizek’s chapter on Meillassoux in Less Than Nothing, “Correlationism and Its Discontents.” Given the hugeness of the book, I assume that very few people have gotten this far, so I thought I would report on Zizek’s critique, with representative blockquotes. Basically, he claims that the realism/correlationism dyad is still stuck within the framework of the transcendental subject — realism simply negates the transcendental subject without actually changing the underlying structure of the relation between subject and object. He thinks this binary misses the really crucial question:

The critical implication with regard to Meillassoux is that the true problem is not to think pre-subjective reality, but to think how something like a subject could have emerged within it; without this (properly Hegelian) gesture, any objectivism will remain correlationist in a hidden way–its image of “reality in itself” remains correlated (even if in a negative way) with subjectivity…. it is not enough to oppose trasncendental correlation to a vision of reality-in-itself–transcendental correlation itself has to be grounded in reality-in-itself; i.e., its possibility has to be accounted for in the terms of this reality. (642-43)

Zizek also puts a Lacanian twist on the arche-fossil argument:

The true problem of correlationism is not whether we can reach the In-itself the way it is outside of any correlation to the subject (or the way the Old is outside its perception from the standpoint of the New); but the true problem is to think the New itself “in becoming.” The fossil is not the Old the way it was/is in itself, the true fossil is the subject itself in its impossible objectal status–the fossil is myself, the way the terrified cat sees me when it looks at me. This is what truly escapes correlation, not the In-itself of the object, but the subject as object. (644)

To me, this critique seems pretty cogent. It also seems that Meillassoux pushes somewhat further in Zizek’s direction in the translated segments of The Divine Inexistence, but still doesn’t really grapple with the question of genesis — human subjectivity “just kind of happens.” There is a dialectical element to the argument, but it is not dialectical enough to be really satisfying in my view. It’s dialectical going forward (every qualitative leap has to preserve the previous level, so that animals are still physical entities, humans are still animals, the resurrection humanity is still human, etc.), but there’s not the retroactivity as far as I can see (until we get to the present human hope for the resurrection).

39 thoughts on “Zizek on Meillassoux

  1. Isn’t the grounding of transcendental correlation as described by Zizek predicated on form i.e. transcendental correlation, itself, being a content in reality which it erupts from?

    Zizek is basically charging M with a version of positing an object as having an abstract immediate identity.

    This then begs the question for the realist, precisely because the independence of the object from “reality” is not a matter of hypostatization carried out by the subject but is ontological fact.
    For the realist the problem of genesis does not arise as individuation is taken for granted… hence the charge by Z for abstract identity.

    Then of course the counter to that counter is that it is a subject positing the ontological claim itself needs to be reckoned with….

    I would find the realist argument more compelling if I could find an argument somewhere which tackles “for-itself/retroactivity/reflection” in it’s own terms without presupposing it as a version of “in-itself/being/presence”, or at the very least attempts to make an argument as to why we should treat it that way.

    Perhaps someone could point me to an example, notwithstanding the Deleuzian caricature of Hegel.

  2. For the realist the problem of genesis does not arise as individuation is taken for granted…

    This has never made sense to me. It seems like they’re bracketing all the really interesting problems from the get-go.

  3. I think After Finitude could be read as an argument for some kind of Churchland-style eliminativism: transcendental structures (as the agents of worldly synthesis) are redundant.

    I take this from his distinction between the instantiation and exemplification of transcendentals. The transcendental subject is instantiated in a particular kind of body. But if subjectivity requires a particular kind of body – and if the EM project has some hope of success, then subjectivity is redundant because if you’ve got the body why do you need the structures? The question of genesis just becomes a question of history.

    I know none of that is Meillassoux’s intent.

  4. Thanks, this is really helpful since I have done nothing more than idly page through Zizek’s tome. I will definitely need to read the chapter in question.My own point of view on this is orthogonal to both Meillassoux and Zizek. Subjectivity is indeed the problem; Meillassoux, as far as I can tell, accounts for it (as he accounts for everything else) by appealing to sheer contingency. This seems to me like a reductio ad absurdum of Meillassoux’s whole argument. But I am more in accord with Meillassoux than Zizek, in the sense that I accept the basic critique of correlationism, and reject Zizek’s assumption, or assertion, that human subjectivity is somehow a unique wound in the cosmos. I argue that sentience (or what Whitehead calls “feeling”) is something entirely *common* and generic, rather than being either an ungrounded contingency OR a traumatic exception. Meillassoux and Zizek alike claim that human subjectivity is something special, unique, and unprecedented in the world. But it’s not. (Can I actually back this up? That’s my writing task of the next three months…).

  5. Adam – yeah, his account of emergence in DI certainly conflicts with what I said. But I this is what I see in AF:

    Subjectivity emerges in a time and space not constituted by that subjectivity. Subjective time (whether intuition or temporalization of being-there) emerges out of a pre-existing, ancestral time. Transcendental structures have, as their necessary (and sufficient?) conditon, a particular body – which implies a pre-existing spacial configuration. This is what I get from the first chapter.

    Not only do time and space not depend on subjectivity, neither does causation or synthesis more broadly. I get this from the Hume chapter.

    This just seems to lead to a simple logical conclusion to me: phenomenology is redundant vis a vis physics and the Subjekt is redundant vis a vis neurology.

    (I’ll qualify one last time: obviously, these are not Meillassoux’s own conclusions.)

  6. Adam, could you perhaps try and explain Zizek’s critique in that quote? I’m just confused as to why he seems to be asking for an account of the rise of subjectivity… isn’t the whole point of Meillassoux’s insight into hyper-(or super, whatever)-chaos that, by definition, asking the “why” question about anything it produces is kind of an absurdity? Hyperchaos as I understand it doesn’t have to give a reason why it does anything at all, if it produces subjectivity, then it produces subjectivity and asking “why” is applying (is Harman’s terminology?) inter-world logical standards onto Advent (arising out of pure hyperchaos, for no reason whatsoever). What am I missing from Zizek’s argument here?

  7. Hi there. Apologies for gatecrashing.

    Žižek wants us to believe that the Universe in the transcendental ontological sense of the Real is the product of the failure of the symbolic order (our speech, our writing, knowledge in general) to become fully symbolic). He emphasized this in his critique of Meillasoux in Less Than Nothing. But there is the Real and it is not absolutely unknowable which metaphysics (and the parallax as a recent addition) defend on the assumption that our finitude is incapable of making a fully symbolic leap. But if only for a fully symbolic leap we can properly make the necessary leap to infinity or absolute knowledge relative to what can be temporally ex-posed as knowable by the Universe that as Real unilaterizes objective reality by affecting it through the throw of the dice. One simply has to radicalize or accentuate the full symbolic or speculative direction of thinking.

    Rather than the principle of sufficient reason inscribed by the correlation of subject and object (in Žižek, always from the standpoint of an incomplete subject, yet a subject in the last instance that must decide to be a subject vis-a-vis the Real) Meillasoux’s contingency or unreason allows what ‘is’ to be what it is. The very contingency of the Real allows the subject to either objectify the Real or negate the autonomous persistence of the Real ala Žižek. The ‘symbolic failure’ of the symbolic order only comes later, as a unilateral excess of the Real. The subject has never been in the Real contra Žižek.

  8. A rough cut: Meillassoux wants to say that subjectivity is contingent: there could have never been any subjectivity, and time and space and all the other things that there contingently happen to have been could have existed anyway. Zizek wants to say that the contingent arising of subjectivity induces a retroactive necessity: now that there is subjectivity, it must always have been that there could have been subjectivity (although this does not mean that it must always have been that there must one day be subjectivity); the *possibility* of subjectivity is thus installed as a non-contingent feature of the universe, since the appearance of subjectivity means that at no point can it ever have been impossible that subjectivity could ever appear. But hyperchaos basically gives you the possibility of everything, all the time, so there isn’t a list of having-always-been possible things to which subjectivity gets *added* if and when it should happen to appear. For Meillassoux, subjectivity has no particular privilege in this regard: one could say the same about snowflakes (the appearance of snowflakes means that it must always have been possible that snowflakes might one day appear) or [insert Latour litany here].

  9. Virgilio, I don’t agree with your characterization of his argument in the Meillassoux chapter. I don’t recall where he says the Real arises out of the failure of the Symbolic — and in any case, wherever he does say that, it’s a step in the dialectic, not a resting point or definition of the Real.

    Ben, I suppose that Zizek thinks — and I have to agree — that “it just happened at random” isn’t an explanation at all.

  10. Steven, I’m not sure that Zizek thinks “human subjectivity is somehow a unique wound in the cosmos” — he has consistently argued that the universe as such is non-all or non-whole, a claim that he’s ultimately going to ground in quantum physics (the last chapter of Less Than Nothing). Human subjectivity certainly has a “special relationship” to the inherent incompleteness of the universe, there is something unique about it (and can we really argue that, at least in our experience, that does seem to be true?), but it’s not as though human subjectivity stands over against a universe with which it is fundamentally incompatible. Human subjectivity arose during the contingent conditions of human evolution (this is what he’s presumably going to do in reprising his cognitive science argument) — it wasn’t simply “there all along,” which seems to me to be just as poor an explanation as “it just happened at random.”

  11. Hi Adam. In his lecture held at Bonn University, he emphasized the following (Bonn has compiled reading materials from its Summer School Program this year; the title of Zizek’s essay is “How to break out of correlationism”):

    “The Real is the point at which the external opposition between the symbolic order and reality is immanent to the symbolic itself, mutilating it from within: It is the non-All of the symbolic. There is a Real not because the symbolic cannot grasp the external real, but because the symbolic cannot fully become itself” (pagination not available).

    I take his words to be consistent with his Lacanian orientation. Zizek, at some point in the transcribed lecture, has additional words to spare:

    “[Why] this constitutive withdrawal from reality of a part of the Real? Precisely because the subject is part of reality, because it emerges out of it….We can also see in what way two lacks overlap in this impossible object (the Real): the constitutive lack of the subject (what the subject has to lose in order to emerge as the subject…) and the lack in the Other itself (what has to be excluded from reality so that reality can appear)…. So the Real is not some kind of primordial Being which is lost with the opposition of subject and object (as Hölderlin put it in his famous Ur-Fragment of German Idealism); the Real is, on the contrary, a product (of the overlapping two lacks)… (pagination not available).

    As to the Hegelian connection of this notion of the Real (which Zizek broadly exhibits in Less Than Nothing), Jean Hyppolite can help us draw the connection regarding its relation to the opposition between being and nothing: “That is due to the fact that it is the self that has posited itself as being and that this positing is not tenable; it engenders a dialectic. The self is absolute negativity and this negativity shows through in its positing itself as being. If the self is being, that is because being as such negates itself, and if being is the self that is because it is in-itself this negation of itself” (Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology, trans. Samuel Chernak and John Heckman [Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1974], 590).

    This ‘being’ is the active subject, or simply the subject. And I humbly think this is the resting point of the Real for Zizek whose Hegelianism is no longer news.

  12. I didn’t deny those elements of Zizek’s thought, I said they were steps toward a more comprehensive whole rather than the last word. The Real is the non-All of the Symbolic precisely because it’s the non-All of everything!

    Showing me that Zizek says the kind of things you’re saying is not a counterargument, because I’ve already acknowledged he says those things.

  13. Further to Adam’s last point, I don’t think Z would deny the statistical likelihood of there existing other beings in the universe that exhibit subjectivity of an even more sophisticated character than humans. He has never argued that humans are unique in the universe or with respect to <being per se, whatever that might mean. His response to realists on this point is simply the modest (and in my opinion correct) point that subjects are not constitutionally unable to know the in-itself.

  14. In the bits Virgilio is quoting, he’s talking about human experience and saying that the most fundamental problem isn’t that our experience (the Symbolic) “can’t reach” the Real, it’s that the Symbolic can’t reach itself — it is inherently incomplete, which is precisely the point where it does reach the Real. This doesn’t mean that the Symbolic “creates” the Real or (even stupider) that language comes first and the external world is a consequence of its incompleteness.

    (I probably need to stop now — for some reason, your comment really got under my skin, and I assume that’s an unfair reaction. My bad!)

  15. After reading this discussion of Zizek’s definition of the incompleteness of being related to the inability of subjectivity to become an object for itself, I keep wondering if it can be related to Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis. Might not the vision of Ereignis, as yet unfulfilled, represent the possibility of a condition where subjectivity is reconceived as at one with itself and existence? Thereby being-in-the-world becomes intimacy with the world? I realize that sounds extravagant but the resemblance between “Ereignis” and “ownness” is seductive.

  16. I’m pretty sure Zizek would say that that kind of ownness is simply impossible. It’s not that subjectivity just so happens to be in a state of division and an inability to become an object for itself — that’s what subjectivity is, full stop. For a subject to become an object for itself is a contradiction in terms. It would no longer be a subject if that happened.

  17. Thanks. Your reply makes perfect sense and sets me to thinking. When I get back to Heidegger’s Beitrage I shall look for his strategy to avoid that subject-object hurdle, if he can.

  18. Zizek is more of an Hegelian, but Meillasoux is under Hegel influence as well. Is the problem the absoluteness of the subject’s self-relation (Zizek)? Or is the problem about the subject’s relation (or non-relation) to other things (Meillasoux)? Some will say Zizek is humanistic, but i don’t think that’s correct. I don’t find his subject is anthropomorphic at all. To put it in simple Hegelian terms, I think Meillasoux operates at a level of “mere externality”, whereas Zizek accedes to Begriff. But this of course raises lots of questions, particularly regarding the status of dialectical progress…

  19. I’d like to return to Ben Abraham’s question.

    At the very start of After Finitude, Meillassoux explains that the first premise we have to accept is his transformation of the Cartesian distinction between primary and secondary qualities. In his version, whatever properties a thing possesses which can be formulated in mathematical terms staunchly belong to the object-in-itself as primary qualities. Now, if the introduction of set theory makes it possible for Meillassoux to comment on the nature of the universe as a set, then one of the primary qualities of the universe as an object can’t account for all of its members (I’m working from memory, so feel free to clarify this point, but the basic point should be there); the members of the set ‘universe’ never ‘add up’ to the universe as a set. The principle of sufficient reason is thus an impossible feature of the objective universe because it would suppose everything that exists belong to an totally enveloping set (the set is equivalent to the count of its members), or God.

    So all the questions have to adjust to lack of sufficient reason. There’s no need to think the origins of anything because as long it as a thing meets the minimum logical requirements of hyperchaos, then it does exist or it could come into existence (like the God of Divine Inexistence). So isn’t “How something like a subject could have emerged” second order to “Can something like a subject emerge”?

  20. I am not satisfied with that as an explanation — in fact, it seems like a refusal to explain. This is the weakest part of M’s system, by far, and he more or less admits he doesn’t have an argument for why math gets at the primary properties. Nor does he have an account for why the universe happens to operate according to laws — he just develops a clever response to our sense that we would witness all kinds of weird things if hyperchaos were true.

  21. The question of how miraculous it is that the subject comes to be is already found in On Virtue. One can not teach someone to be a Pericles. Much later, Duns Scotus introduces contingency as a concept that is ‘outside’ determinism. There never was a necessity to create a Pericles. To say it black/white: ‘contingency’ of Duns Scotus implies creatio ex nihilo. Michael Sylwanowicz on “Contingent Causality and the foundations of Duns Scotus Metaphysics'” (Brill, Leiden) gives a start in another direction on thinking about ‘contingency’ (and thus on the subject). Scotus works with a divine intelligence and a divine will. The divine intelligence presents a series of possibities which are all good, the divine will chooses from this list just like that. Duns Scotus still works with a list (conceptually belonging to the countable infinite). But if you take into consideration Cantor, that is uncountable infinite, then to my opinion Meillassoux is very close to Duns Scotus. Meillassoux’ term is hyper chaos from which everything may come to be, Duns Scotus works with a god who freely chooses. From the very few remaining public available letters of the catholic Cantor to the pope of his time, it is clear that Cantor did not see any difficulty between his uncountable infinite and scholastic theology about the christian god (to my knowledge the Vatican has never published the letters of Cantor).

  22. I do not regard Zizek comments vis-a-vis the incompleteness of the Symbolic as a reference to it determining the Real, but rather a reference to the inscription of universality in the “thwarted particularity”. Whilst Zizek in LTN states that the Real emerges from the redoubling of the Symbolic (p.480), I take this to be pertaining to the emergence of a place for the Real, for the subject. Topology not causality.

    I don’t feel in a position to comment about Meillassoux and his penchant for mathematics. Regarding the point about Meillassoux avoiding the demand for explanation via refuting the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), Zizek grounds explanation in dialectics not PSR.

    For Hegel PSR is insufficient as it is a tautology that begs the question. An explanation which is identical with that which it explains does not advance reason. True explanation requires the explanation to be grounded via distinction, but in doing so we lose the internal link which makes the PSR sufficient in its own terms – which leads us into empirical scepticism. Hegel contradictory grounds identity and distinction in the same principle, so differs from PSR in that it includes distinction and differs with respect to Hume via the positing the retroactive moment of reflection leading to a consideration of the subject/object as for-itself. Upon my understanding this for-itself is what moves Zizek on from correlationalism.

    Zizek’s Lacanian twist of the fossil argument is a levelling gesture which debunks claims of human exceptionalism.

  23. First to give some general comment on LTN.
    There is the trope “is it not that “, followed by “but I do not mean that “.
    The first part “is it not it that e.g., “is it not that that object is green” can be applied to something green. Everyone agrees: yes, greener it can’t be. But if I say “is it NOT that that object is green” and I point to something black, everyone agrees too. And in all fervor I can say after that: but I do not mean that it is pink.
    In the background plays “green” and “pink”. However, the trope never gives anything positive about greenness or being pink. It is all negative logic.
    Zizek is a master in raising expectations. And he also tells again and again: I do not know what to do. Fits.
    In LTN Zizek demonstrates that he is an entertainer. But if you do close reading, even his comment on music is not followed by many musicians.
    LTN has no support from the symbolic. Every philosopher is adapted to Zizek’s needs. In the case of Hegel: he did not publish in Hegel Studien about his interpretation of Hegel. In short: he has no support from that discourse. And from many other discourses. Ask an experimental physicist about what Zizek writes about physics. His method is citing and praising and twisting, but never referring to his publications in a professional journal, because he has none.
    Second, to be specific on Lacan: Zizek invents a new kind of lacanian thinking. Hegel is not enough, nor Lacan (see the beginning of the book where he tells about the deadlock of Lacan: page 18).
    The positive of LTN: it keeps you busy on a winter’s day.
    Meillassoux is different. Philosophically he takes position. But that is another discussion.

  24. How many philosophers of science have published original scientific research in field-leading science journals? The rest of your critiques are debatable, but that one seems patently unfair. Doing science and doing philosophy of science are two different things.

  25. You call Zizek a philosopher of science? Well, well. If you pretend to know Hegel in a new interpretation then certainly the general public does not belong to the required discourse. If you have a new type of lacanian theory, then may I ask where are your analysands (clients) that give you so much practice? Lacan had tens of thousands of them.
    Practice and theory in these fields go together and otherwise it is entertainment. The current left has no field of practice. It is in shambles. And the opposite is that shambles. No one knows where this will lead to. Although I do not agree with Meillassoux he shows a way out. It is messianistic, ok. We now have pious philosophers, ok. It is to be seen how much of this will have a stand in practice. Where are the nuclei of change? Meillassoux also states that one can NOT organize the next jump to justice. In that super exporting Germany 25% of old people live in poverty. As long as there are no action groups everywhere in Germany, this living in shambles continues. We still are in the phase of ‘entertainment’. And the logic of entertainers or believers is generally spoken not the best. See our recent history on all opposite sides.

  26. You have a bizarrely authoritarian view of how philosophy works. Zizek has to have his reading of Hegel vetted by other scholars? He can’t use Lacan in a new way and then find that Lacan doesn’t go far enough?

    And I literally cannot understand your explanation for why you would prefer Meillassoux — why is openly saying “we have to wait for a miracle” better than having no clear plan of action? And how can any of this discussion possibly bear directly on the problem of inadequate pensions for the elderly in Germany? I’m pretty sure there are great models for improving government programs by reformist means, with no need for any fancy ontology or messianism.

  27. Well, well: bizarrely authoritarian? Did I mention that word? Or you! Yes, I ask that if one talks about Hegel in a twisted way one has to be open to criticism in an open journal, that is to publish amongst scholars. That seems normal to me. Especially in the case of Zizek who claims a lot about Hegel. And if you talk about Lacan, that is psychoanalysis, then having a practice like him seems to me also normal. Of course Zizek, can say whatever. He does.
    And that ‘literally’: very impressing! But what does it mean?
    Meillassoux says something in a positive logic: he speculates. And certainly my ironic ‘pious philosopher’ points to my scepsis. As does just taking a practical example of the elderly in a rich country.
    How can you be so sure about great models by reformist means? Where are your facts? And also, that seems to me quite anti Zizek. Amazing.

    To answer to an original question in this blog: Meillassoux uses ex nihilo. There is no reason why subjectivity comes about. It is a jump. The cat shows it. He does not see a subject.
    I speculate this: hyper chaos gives room to uncountable infinite worlds. One of these is where we live in. In that world there are still other jumps possible. They do not need to happen. There is no idea that should guarantee the next jump. Here the system of Hegel falters. In christian theology there is no difficulty: it is the highest principle which activates the next jump without any necessity. Because that principle is free (axiom of choice?). Meillassoux has only hyper chaos. And indeed, there is an hegelian dialectical need here. At this point, so I think, Meillassoux sees a new kind of causality: in our hope for justice we do not cause the new world, but still, to be realised, that new world needs our work on justice. I see this as an attempt to get around the current point of view on causality (like Duns Scotus also tried with the determinism of Aristotle). Open question: what is that concept of ’cause’ outside the many forms of determinism we now know? Christian theology has an answer to this, but it is not yet in philosophy. This is why I wrote ‘pious philosopher’.
    My personal question is: what makes ‘ex nihilo’ to happen? I see around me examples of ex nihilo: Pericles as such can’t be taught, a good soccer player is ‘only that person’ etc. The christian answer is also clear: it is agape (another type of love, a gift, grace). Badiou tried to bring agape out of theological context. I think he failed. But that is me. I can only say that it intrigues me how these items are now brought into the context of the so called left. I appreciate the attempts of Meillassoux as he brings about a non-violent form of messianism. But the world knew and knows other forms. Here also I have many questions. Looking forward to Meillassoux’ next book.

  28. Zizek has published plenty of work on Hegel that scholars are free to critique. I don’t see why it has to go through conventional journals. He’s also been clear that he is using Hegel’s philosophy for specific goals and that he’s using Lacan as more of a social theory or ontology than as a guide to clinical practice. (As far as I understand, he has been trained as an analyst and had at least some patients, though obviously that’s not his primary focus.) Why not assess the ideas directly instead of complaining that he hasn’t been “certified” by all the proper authorities? If you’re not convinced by his reading of Hegel, that’s the problem — not that his argument hasn’t appeared in a particular journal. Presumably you don’t automatically agree with every article that appears in Hegel Studien, right?

    As for your direct response to my actual post, those are more interesting reflections, and I suspect Zizek might be helpful for thinking through them if you would bother to take him seriously. Or maybe Deleuze would be more helpful, or Badiou! I don’t know. In any case, I don’t wish to continue this conversation with you any further.

  29. If you can’t have this, don’t start an open blog. Notice: your last response is authoritarian. And that is what your desire is. See the “Desire of the analyst”. Well, it took me only a few words to get there. Thank you.

Comments are closed.