jueves, 30 de agosto de 2012

Žižek Against Brassier: On Conditions for Realism

Žižek Against Brassier:

- On Conditions for Realism -


       In Less Than Nothing,  Žižek  attempts to defend his Lacanian position as being the most cogent realist alternative, while challenging Brassier's older Laruelle-inspired account. His basic claim is that the question of realism as formulated by Meillassoux remains encumbered in the transcendental problematic of how one's inner world represents external reality, while the only true materialism requires objectifying thought by making the subject coincide with the Real, or in other words, to account for how reality 'appears to itself'. So far so good; things seem fairly congruent with the unilateralization that Laruelle himself pursues. But the argument he offers for the Lacanian option is, well, very sloppy. The first crucial passage is the following one:

      "The difference between Brassier's position and the Lacano-Hegelian position can be summed up by a simple replacement: Brassier refers to Freud's triple de-centering or humilliation of man's narcissism- Copernicus, Darwin, psychoanalysis- but he replaces psychoanalysis with cognitivism. The latter fully naturalizes our mind, reducing it to a phenomenon arising out of evolution- but perhaps Brassier proceeds too fast here: while cognitivism de-centers the human mind from outside, treating it as an effect of objective natural mechanisms only psychoanalysis de-centers it from within, revealing how the human mind involves not only objective neuronal processes which are inaccessible to it."

    It goes without saying that Zižek  here misidentifies Brassier's position with a neurophysiological reductionism, or eliminativist materialism. It's already a bit remarkable that Zizek would attribute this position to Ray, when the latter's argument vis a vis the eliminativist project of the Churchlands is pointing out its conceptual incoherence. And needless to say, Brassier's new Sellarsian position goes rather well with the idea that subjectivity has a dimension that is irreducible to causal, objective processes. This is, as we know, precisely the separation that Sellars proposes to make, following Kant, between reasons and causes: subjectivity is defined not metaphysically, but functionally in terms of the capacity of exhibiting intentional behavior, i.e. the capacity to undertake normative statuses by entering the 'logical space of reasons'. According to this conception of subjectivity, although the neurophysiological provides the ontological substratum for sapience, it is only insofar as the latter entails rational subjectivation that one comes to know of the former. In other words, while there is an ontological priority of the logical on the causal (there would not be thought without the proper biophysical evolutionary conditions obtaining; purposiveness arises out of purposeless mechanisms), there is an epistemological priority of the causal on the rational (only sapient creatures that inhabit the space of reasons can undertake normative statuses, and commit themselves to claims).

       Accordingly, Brassier proposes in terms of the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and rational subjectivity, the former being the illusory projection of a unitary self-model which is causally explainable in terms of the functional role of our neurophysiological system, while the latter provides the irreducible dimension wherein we understand the necessary concepts for concept-attribution and revision: justification, entitlement, belief, commitment, evidence, etc. Provisionally we might say then that psychoanalysis is not, contrary to what  Žižek   suggests, the only option that 'de-centers' thought 'from within', since Sellarsian nominalism also describes the internal conditions required for any empirical explanation or for indeed an investigation of facts, i.e. Sellars emphasizes that the capacity to make claims or have beliefs about what it the case requires that we know have to use modal notions, i.e. in order to believe or know that the cat is on the mat we need to be able to separate what inferentially follows from being a cat from that which doesn't. Thus, fact-stating or objective discourse logically depends on modal talk about what ought-to-be the case, and so it requires natural necessity, as well as pragmatic necessity (we need to know what we are committed to by having beliefs about cats as opposed to something else, and this obligation is to be understood in terms of proprieties for action in the making of inferences, observation reports, and action).
     But while the structuralist and the nominalist seem to coincide in their preservation of an irreducible dimension of subjectivity, whether rational-procedural or libidinal-symptomal, they disagree with respect to the role, if any, reserved for the transcendental conception of subjectivity. 

       Brassier, like Sellars, conceives of his nominalism as not only compatible with but as the condition for a naturalist metaphysics. However immanent to his semantic nominalism, the functional conception of subjectivity thus proposed is still transcendental. Sellarsian philosophy is not transcendental in the strong sense in which it gives the conditions for how mind or language 'reaches out into world', but in the weak sense in which rational norms provide the transcendental conditions for any empirical investigation of objective processes. The irreducibility of the normative is thereby methodological and epistemological, not metaphysical. Representation being a function of conceptual role in an inferentially-articulated linguistic economy, Sellarsian nominalism refuses the reification of intuition as a kind of subjectively constituted species of representation, of the sort that would wrap the correlationist leash around the mind by keeping the great outdoors proscribed from our reach. 

     Žižek , in turn, wants to liquidate the mediating function of epistemological knowing, and of linguistic 'rationality' as the core of the subject, the better to safeguard a purely voided conception of the subject which is less than ontological, which means also less than transcendental. This is of course because Zizek understands the transcendental problematic of access as still encumbered in a pre-Hegelian stage, which is overcome by asking about the emergence of real appearing as opposed to the separation between reality and appearance. So as to avoid the reduction of subjectivity to objectivity without reifying subjectivity metaphysically,  Žižek  searches for a purely formal conception of Real subjectivity.

The Lacanian story is familiar: the subject 'slides' through the signifiers, as a pure functional index that operates invisibly, at the point in which formal inscription is indiscernible from Real phenomenon. The matheme adequate to the psychoanalytic theorization of the Real desire subtracts itself from the commerce of the symbolic, undergirding the delirium of the phantasy and the symptom with its structural universality, i.e. its irreducibility and ubiquity. And this impossibility of translating the mathematic inscription of the subject into any positive, qualitatively specific, philosophical register, is supposed to wrest any sort of ontological baggage from its pretenses.

   At this juncture, the second quote compendium from Žižek, in alleged agreement with Laruelle, makes the Lacanian position apropos realism very slippery:

   " [T]he problem is not how to think the in-itself without mind, but how to think the 'objectual' status of this zero point of thinking itself...[T]he very distance which separates us from the In-itself is immanent to the In-itself, makes us (the subject) an unaccountable/"impossible" gap or cut within the in-itself. Insofar as, for Lacan, "what is foreclosed to thought in the object" is the "impossible" objet a, and "what is foreclosed to the object in thought" is $, the void of the barred subject itself, this overlapping brings us back to Lacan's formula $-a

     ... The Lacanian Real-impossible is precisely such a 'given without givenness', without a phenomenological horizon opening the space for it to appear, the impossible point of the ontic without the ontological... What we call 'external reality' (as a constituent field of already existing objects) arises through subtraction, that is, when something is subtracted from it- and that something is the objet a. The correlation between subject and object (objective reality) is thus sustained by the relation between the same subject and its objectual correlate, the impossible-Real objet a, and this second correlation is of a totally different kind: it is a kind of negative correlation, an impossible link, a non relationship, between two moments that can never meet within the same space... not because they are too far away, but because they are one and the same entity on the two sides of a Mobius band. This impossible-Real virtual object is not external to the symbolic but its immanent impediment, what makes this symbolic space curved... What this means, in effect, is that there is no ontology of the Real: the very field of ontology, of the positive order of Being the Real are mutually exclusive: The Real is the immanent blockage or impediment of the order of being, what makes the order of Being inconsistent... 

         Lacan is not a discourse idealist who claims that we are forever caught in the web of symbolic practices, unable to reach the In itself. However, we do not touch the Real by way of breaking out of the prison of language and gaining access to the external transcendent referent- every external referent ("fully existing positive reality") is already transcendentally constituted. We touch the Real-in-itself in our very failure to touch it, since the Real is, at its most radical, the gap, the "minimal difference", that separates the One from itself." (Pg. 954-9)

   I find  Žižek's ruminations here to be profoundly unpersuasive, even confused. To see why it is simple enough to realize that for all his defenses against the charge of idealism-correlationism, the conception of the Real provided here is still correlational, however reduced to formal aspects, and however much  Žižek wants to say that the Real 'resists ontology'. 

     Put simply: if the reality commensurate with ontology is epiphenomenal and the Real is its non-ontologizable "ontic residue", then 
Žižek has bought into the idea that the Real is indeterminate categorically, an ineffable remainder, forcing us to render the objective status of our that which our claims are about and our ontological valences merely for-us. This is the typical move which renders the Real almost like a negative-theological pole. The theory of the Real 'desire' cannot be ontology, because the world of ontology is relative to the commerce of the symbolic and the signifier, underwritten only by the formal vacuity of unconscious desire.

     More crucially, the Real
objet a is described as that which alongside the subject cannot be positivized, but for which nevertheless the subject remains its condition of possibility. Yet here is where the realist must pull the breaks. The question of the Real is not just that of a gap between the subject and its object, or the gap in subjectivity itself. No! The question about the Real is, as Meilassoux and Brassier insist, and contra Žižek, that of a world radically indifferent to thought.

   Dissolving the transcendental, 
Žižek  cannot but end up conflating the epistemological and the ontological, and so sense dependence and reference dependence. To remind ourselves of this crucial distinction:
1) Sense dependence - For any x, x is sense dependent on y iff x cannot be known unless y is known.
2) Reference-dependence: For any x, x is reference dependent on y iff x cannot exist unless y exists.

       The result of this is that the fear of thinking that knowledge of an external reality requires vitiating the immanent account of language in favor of an old 'mirror theory', is unfounded. Sellars' contention is to preserve an immanent understanding of semantics in his nominalism, while refusing to say that, because language is the condition for knowing, all ontological valences or claims must be ontologically for-us as well, leaving us with a barren conception of the Real as the impossible inconsistency of being, however lacking the honor of the name.

     We must insist that while the categorical specificity of the object as thought is 
epistemologically relative to a subject, this is not to say its being is dependent on a subject. The question anyone should address to  Žižek is simple: can one think of the Real object as not just the zero-point of thinking or its correlative object, but as that which requires no thinking at all for its being? The problem is that eliding the epistemological and ontological levels, along the Hegelian identification of logic and metaphysics, one cannot but claim that logical dependency is metaphysical dependency. But to deny the possibility of categorical determination in being is to continue to reify being as an ineffable chimera, or impossible inconsistency, reducing the phenomenal determinacy of the world to being subjective constructs. And to continue to claim that the Real is a function of the subject's emergence, as that which subtracts itself from every positive valence, is still to be a correlationist, or an idealist even. Indeed, if it makes no sense to speak of a Real that precedes ontologically the emergence of the subject, even if the latter conditions its epistemic appearing, one begins to sound like a strange proto-creationist according to which the emergence of mind occasions the Real as a byproduct or splitting. 

   At this point it seems clear that, eliding the transcendental, Žižek, like Lacan, just has no resources to distinguish between the Real subject and its Real object ($<>a) in such a way so as to avoid reifying the relation between the two ontologically, neverming his protests to the contrary. This seems to be the result of every attempt at eliding the referential relation between knower and known: it becomes impossible to distinguish between the thinking of the Real and the Real itself, since by proposing a formal conception of the Real in which the vacuity of the subject is knit to its objective polarity, any criterion of distinction between the two becomes a nullity. Just like in Badiou's endorsement of the Parmenidean thesis, the matheme 'touches' the Real and the subject its impossible objectual pole insofar as it cannot distinguish itself from it, since any such positive delineation involves a pathological ontologizing of the difference between thought and the object, like transcendental correlationism is imputed to do. 

     But the price to be paid for this destitution of epistemology is the inability to explain the distinction between the Real inscription of the matheme which formalizes the Real's structure apart from the commerce of the symbolic, and the Real phenomenon or the voided subject-object gap, which subtracts itself from all ontology. There are thus three gaps:

- Between the Symbolic and the Real.
- Between the Real Object and the Real Subject
- Between Real inscription or matheme and the Real of the object/subject as such.

The incapacity to distinguish being from thought is the inevitable consequence of trying to wrest the Real from the symbollic by making the latter not just epistemologically constrictive, but ontologically afoul. Against the drama of the void which, however proud of its formal stringency, remains the gulf for a residual romantic fideism, we must insist on the difference between knower and known, between sign and referent, as that which provides the conditions to separate mind and world.

If the Real cannot be understood as ontologically autonomous from the subject, then dialectical materialism proves to be just another correlationism or idealism, one in which the Real is the non-ontologizable intrusion of that which, however recalcitrant to the Word, glares forth in its formal presence without remainder.

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