Bruce Rosenstock’s Response to Zizek’s “Am I a Philosopher?”

[Note: Bruce Rosenstock posted these responses as comments on my link to a a recent lecture by Zizek; with his permission, I am collecting them here for your enjoyment.]

Commenting as I read the lecture: Zizek complains about having his tics analyzed by Bosteels and then goes on to analyze Cantor’s psychic anxieties as due to Cantor’s materialism of the infinite. This is not only inconsistent, it’s just wrong about Cantor. Cantor himself believed, without any anxiety, that he had proved the existence of God, and he was, indeed, a realist about his infitities, but he spoke of Leibnizian “aether point multitudes” that are psychic in nature. Cantor saw himself as providing a secure basis for the great project of Leibniz and Spinoza, to account for the transition from infinity to finitude. This, indeed, becomes today’s mathematics of non-totalizable multitudes with a foundation only in the null set. What’s at stake in this? The difference between a Leibnizian-vitalist metaphysics and an Epicurean-reductionist metaphysics. In other words, the concept of life as really more than the Real, or life as a sort of abreaction within the Real. The irony: Plato, who calls philosophy the “practice of death,” is aligned with a concept of life as “more life” (to use a phrase from the great vitalist Georg Simmel), whereas Epicurus, whose whole philosophy is in the service of freeing us from the fear of death, is aligned with a concept of life as “less than life.”

Zizek’s critique of Althusser is locked in the dichotomy of idealism-materialism, so that he claims to show how Althusser becomes idealist in form when he totalizes technology as the decadent condition of bourgeois idealism. Zizek wants to say that technology can be the revolutionary site of a materialist appropriation in the name of sophistic democracy, the play of arbitrary signifiers. But again what Zizek is missing is the dialectical relationship between technology and life (see Canguilhem, Stiegers), where to model life on the basis of the machine is to proletarianize life, and where the revolutionary gesture is to affirm the always-already “more” that life is over any machinal-material reduction.

Now Zizek cannot avoid the logic of the “more than life” that is at the heart of a vitalist metaphysics. He reduces it, however, to Mehrgenuss, the “more pleasure” generated out of a phantasm, the difference between form and content, between pain and its cessation (the baby is sated, but it wants the pleasure of having-been-hungry-and-being-fed-to-satiety). This phantasmic pleasure was what Plato held against bodily pleasure (in the tenth book of the Republic, in the Philebus): it was illusory. For a sophist-materialist, this is all the pleasure there is, the illusion of being full when you’re only “really” empty. But is this the pleasure of being alive? The pleasure of what from Plato to Kant and beyond is the pleasure unmixed with (prior) pain, the pure pleasure of smelling the rose? This is the pleasure of play, of the transitional object, which is not the illusion of a missing object but the presence of a realm beyond (more than) desire as merely desire for the desire of the Other, but desire born out of the “more” (Plato talks about it in the Symposium as the desire to give birth in the beautiful).

Zizek’s attack on the “moderate hedonism” of the capitalist and the Master’s jouissance, the “deadly excess over pleasure,” comes directly from Republic X where Plato shows that the oligarchic soul must deteriorate into the democratic soul and then into the tyrant. The tyrant is the Master, Eros (that’s Plato’s characterization), the Eros that is the desire for the phantasm itself, the phantasm of the Master (Tyrant). Ok, so Zizek isn’t connecting the dots back to Plato, but I am pretty sure Lacan was. Again, what’s at stake? So long as we operate within the sophist-materialist realm, we cannot escape from the logic of the Master desire, the desire for/of the Tyrant. Or so says Plato. We need some sort of pleasure that is not merely the difference between lack and filling (the “tragedy and comedy of life” as Plato calls it in the Philebus), the realm of Dionysus in other words (Socrates leaves the scene of the Symposium after having discussed whether some capable of writing tragedies must also be able to write comedies). Plato points in the direction of an exorbitance of Being, a “more than Being.”

In Greek, Being (ousia) can also mean “capital,” the patrimony one inherits from one’s father. Plato plays on this in the Republic, where the good (as beyond ousia) is the “father” of the sun. The “self-reproduction of capital” happens, Plato, would say, in the realm under the sun, the realm where the sophist generates illusions (since capital can only be “self-reproducing” as an illusion of reproduction). The realm beyond the sun, beyond Being in other words, is the realm of real reproduction. Now what if real reproduction is neither the cloning of the self or the illusory production of the self, but the exorbitant “more” than any self? Yes, we seem to be going right back to Cantorian Infinity, the “more” than any set. The real question about the Real, then, is: is the “more” than any set the null set or is it the generative source of all sets, empty and full? Here we are homing in on the imaginative realm from which all modern vitalist thought ultimately draws: the Kabbalah and the doctrine of zimzum. I say imaginative to stress that I do not want to reify Kabbalistic metaphors, just suggest how they are as fecund as the imagination from which they arise. Plato the Kabbalist? AKA Plotinus.

It’s a commonplace to attack vitalism as simply the ideology of fascism, of the “organic and wholistic” state. So Zizek positions Jung on the side of Aristotle/wholism/life and Freud on the side of irreducibility of illusion/lie/lack. This is only to be expected. But it’s not as easy as it seems to dispel the specter of vitalism by conjuring the name of the arch-fascist Jung. Canguilhem is much smarter about the ambiguity of vitalism in the modern world. And just conjuring the name of Aristotle as it is wielded by the Catholic Church against Darwin will not dispel his vitalist legacy. This is all just Zizek using the argumentative strategy of guilt by association.

The center of the article shows where the attack on the concept of life (aka Nature) leads: to a conception of the human as a stain on the (only material, unliving) real. The exorbitant, contingent, creative is reduced to the psychosis of the one part of nature that just can’t seem to fit in. Here is where I would ask Zizek: this anti-humanism, isn’t its “truth,” as you would say, the most Promethean “humanism”?

Again, Zizek’s anti-humanism, his attempt to see the world from an angle that reveals the inhuman Real, the “impossible phenomenon,” shows us that he is really a Promethean humanist in disquise. Why should the Real be the world of the concentration camp, a film of the Muselmaenner? Why not, say, a film of that unicellular creature that aborbed the other one and gave it a permanent home within itself, as some biologists speculate about the origin of multicellular life? Why not that particular living “set”? This is the language of pure pathos that Zizek attacks us with: can you bear to look at the Real? What if Meillassoux is right that the first pure contingency is the contingency of a universe without life, following laws that have no relation to life? And then another set of contingent laws emerge, the laws of living things, where sexuation is not only a symbolic dissimulation of the meaninglessness of the Real, but a novel form of being “more” than matter?

Aha, the enemy has been named: “Vitalism is the formula of the superego” (quoted from Schuster). Again, “life” is defined from the perspective of the human who feels life to be an imperative because the human is “death in life.” Very good. But why must life be defined by desire at all, and certainly why human desire (which, we saw, is only phantasmatic, the desire of/for the Tyrant)? Why not say that life is knowledge, as Canguilhem does, that is, the solving of problems, the first of which is, how to do “more” with energy, how to “delay” entropy. Thus, life is indeed coeval with a certain relation to time (as desire is), but it does not relate to a phantasm (the pleasure of sating desire) but to itself (the pleasure of solving a problem, of knowing “more” than before, of, in other words, learning). Is learning doomed to be only learning that one is, after all is said and done, a Muselmann?

No, it is not the death drive that is beyond the pleasure principle, it is learning drive, the drive to “more” knowledge (or, in Canguilhem’s language, “connaissance.”) Evolution, for Freud, is the way living things invent more complex detours on their route toward death. The pleasure principle is the motive of their inventiveness. What if its the other way round? What if evolution is the inventiveness of living things in relation to the problem of death and the pleasure principle is the joy of invention, of connaissance? Yes, this is Aristotelian (gasp): thought thinking itself is the most pleasant, and the most alive, activity in the universe.

Humiliaiton is not the one sublime emotion in Kant. There is also respect. Humiliation comes from a sense of our being nothing in relation to phenomenal nature, understood as Kant does as purely deterministic and unliving (the “starry heavens above”). Yes, this is the only possible emotion for Zizek, for whom Nature is not alive. But respect is the emotion that comes from the sense of self-determination, rising above not life but the machine. In idealist Naturphilosophie (yes, vitalist), respect is the sense of being “more than machine,” and, specifically, the sense of the creative imagination as the source of life (the power to make machines as solutions to problems). Now humiliation is the lowering of self into the service of the Machine. Is there pleasure in this? Sure. Is it sadistic-masochistic? Sure. Is it the only pleasure there can be? No. There is the pleasure of creation. Very Romantic of me to say so, I admit.

The Sadean Crime that would put an end to the cycle of birth and death is not only imaginable as the “second death” of the pleasure principle (the pursuit of phantasmatic pleasure), it is also imaginable as the resurrection of the body. Yes, if we are going for an ontology that rejects the finality of life itself, we don’t have to take it back to an ontology of radical and immanent incompleteness, but to what this ontology holds as its exorbitant beyond, beyond even the beyond of life: resurrection. No, I am not necessarily arguing for an embrace of Meillassoux, but for invoking this possibility in order to think very clearly about what Zizek is committed to. What does it mean to not hope for resurrection? It means, to not hope for an end to useless suffering. We come back to the Kabbalah. The divine exuberance is necessarily tied to suffering, and redemption requires the ingathering of sparks. Can I put it like this: Zizek wants to extinguish the sparks?

Oh, yes, “the mystical doctrine of the night of world” comes from the Kabbalah (and Boehme), via Schelling. The “night side of God,” however, is not primary, although it is coeval with creation, which is itself not secondary. Put simply: life solves problems that it also creates.

The conclusion of the lecture returns to the materialism vs. idealism question that was raised at its opening, but now situates it in relation to question of life and vitalism. Idealism place the Event as that which inscribes itself in the order of animal life (this is the Kabbalistic zimzum, the emergence of the null space, the event of the null space within the plenitude of Infinity). Materialism is the reverse: the Event results from an earlier disarticuation within animal life, the human disarticulation called the death drive. Once again, this privileges the human over against animal life. What if animal life were not the dumb, repetitive, eat-till-you-die existence that Zizek describes it as? What if animal life were always already inscribed by an event, the coming-to-be-a-problem-to-itself of matter? Then immortality would not be illusion of “the dream of a shadow” (Pindar describing human life without the glory of athletic victory), it would be the glory of life, the triumph that signals life’s victory over matter. What we really need is a conceptual history of “glory” (kudos, kavod) that would show how it is always tied to the immanence of the divine as eternal life. Zizek asks a question about sacrificing animal life for the desire that constitutes the pleasure-pain (and phantasmic pleasure) of human life — this is the Kant of humiliation and the Sade of pleasure he mentions in the final line of his lecture. Ok, we are right back to Plato. The question about the ineluctible connection between pleasure and pain is what Socrates is made to reflect upon in the opening of the Phaedo, the dialogue where philosophy is defined as “the practice of death.” Without knowing it, Zizek takes us right back to this moment. So, yes, this is the founding question of philosophy, and yes he is a philosopher. And yes, he refers to the Phaedo indirectly (the soul as prison of the body), and thus positions himself in its tradition. But the Pheado was a frontal assault against the idea that the human being must be defined by the cycle of pleasure and pain, which only generates illusions of pleasure. Socrates wants his friends to not see him as his body. But what is there, when you take the body away? Plato, who knew his hero cults, knew that the tomb (sema, sign) was the sign of the resurrection of the body. And so does Zizek. What else, in the end, is “sacrificing everything for desire” except a fervent hope for more life? Only, and this is the key to everything, is this desire born of sheer pain or is it the birth pangs of beuaty?

By the way, I am aware that Agamben offers us just this conceptual history of glory. Take that as my way of thanking Adam, the translator of that wonderful book of Agamben, for abusing his FB post with these ruminations.