Recently, in another forum, I passingly expressed my perplexity with regard to Zizek’s conception of materialism. In The Parallax View, Zizek remarks that,

Materialism is not the direct assertion of my incusion in objective reality (such an assertion presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality); rather, it resides in the reflexive twist by means of which I myself am included in the picture constituted by me– it is this reflexive short circuit, this necessary redoubling of myself as standing both outside and inside my picture, that bears witness to my ‘material existence.’ Materialism means that the reality I see is never ‘whole’– not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which indicates my inclusion in it. (17)

I confess that this definition of materialism causes me to scratch my head. First, I quite agree that I myself am included in the picture constituted by me. This is part and parcel of psychoanalysis. Perhaps one of the most jarring moments in analysis occurs when the analysand experiences the manner in which the moebius strip is, in fact, one-sided where before it appeared two-sided (i.e., that there was me in here and the world out there). If, for example, I encounter the world as a hostile place in which people are constantly denegrating my credentials, dismissing my views, and generally find nothing of worth in me, psychoanalysis brings us to the point where we come to see that I constitute this world, that this world is a product of my own desire and not in the things themselves. This is seen most strikingly in cases of paranoia.

I also quite agree that the world is not whole, that it doesn’t form a totality (though Zizek seems to articulate this thesis in epistemological terms, not ontological terms). What I have difficulty following is why these two claims taken together constitute materialism? If anything, these remarks sound far closer to traditional idealism in its Kantian formulation than anything like a thorough-going materialism. Moreover, why does the claim that we are included in material reality necessarily lead us to posit the view of an outside observe (Descartes’ God) as an observer that can grasp the whole of reality?

A few pages earlier, Zizek gives a slightly more explicit formulation of his materialism, when he writes that,

In all three cases, the problem is how to think this gap in a materialist way, which means: it is not enough merely to insist on the fact that the ontological horizon cannot be reduced to an effect of ontic occurances; that phenomenal self-awareness cannot be reduced to an epiphenomenon of “objective” brain processes; that social antagonism (“class struggle”) cannot be reduced to an effect of objective socioeconomic forces. We should take a step further and rach beneath this dualism itself, into a “minimal difference” (the noncoincidence of the One with itself) that generates it.” (10-11)

Once again, all of this sounds terrific, but what is specifically materialist about this project? For instance, when Zizek strives to argue that phenomenal self-awareness is not reducable to brain states, this strikes me as being exactly the opposite of materialism. And if we argue that being cannot be reduced to ontic beings, then we seem to find ourselves in a similar position as well.

I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something here. However, with his characteristic brilliance and penetrating insight, David shot back the following in response to my perplexity:

What if the emperor is naked and and Zizek really does not know himself what he means by materialism (why place him in the position of the subject supposed to know in the first place?) ? I have a suspicion that there is very little philosophical depth behind Zizek’s use of the concept. In these parts of Europe, and Slovenia is not far off, in the pedestrian sense of the word, openly acknowledging that one is a materialist usually means just two possibe things – A) yes, you are right, I am money-obsessed and proud of it B) I am an atheist. Usually with regard to B), especially for older generations, the concept still has the good ol’ nostalgic taste of Marxist-Leninist pseudo-scientific dialectical materialism to it.

Throughout his writings (can’t track this down now for the lack of time) Zizek often plays on the Leninist motto ‘fighting materialism’, where ‘materialist’ is freely interchangeable with ‘atheist’. In short, I read Zizek’s materialism as just another name for rather vulgar atheism. But then again I am a rather vulgar atheist myself, so maybe it’s just my imaginary ego-talk :)

In other words, David points out that Zizek himself might not be clear as to what, precisely, he means by “materialism”. The possibility that I hadn’t really entertained was that Zizek’s conception of materialism might not itself be clear or have any substantial content behind it. I find David’s observation interesting as it is the perfect example of academic transference at work. When presented with the work of a great theorist, one often encounters the points of vagueness and incoherences in that body of work not as stemming from the theorist, but as arising from our own lack or incompleteness. That is, the tendency is to assume that the master knows what he’s talking about, that it’s clear to him and that it’s simply because we haven’t read enough or can’t think deeply enough that we fail to understand the theorist on this or that particular point.

This is one of the hallmarks of neurotic thought structure: rather than face the lack in the Other, the neurotic instead assumes this lack himself. Faced with the lack in the Other, the neurotic experiences guilt. Verhaeghe explains this logic well in his brilliant Being Normal and Other Disorders. The search for a complete Other already emerges structurally in infancy, as the infant, being born helpless, relies on the Other so as to have its demands satisfied. If the Other were lacking, incomplete, desiring, then the infant would risk being unable to satisfy its demands. Consequently, it’s far more reassuring to experience oneself as lacking and incomplete, than the Other, and we thus spend our lives passing from master to master, hoping to finally find that complete Other.

This occurs in the world of theory no less than any other domain of social life, and is the lynchpin of transference. It is precisely in attaching ourself to a subject supposed (believed) to have knowledge, that that figure comes to have power over us. Thus, Lacan suggests that it is precisely in de-supposing someone from knowledge that good readings become possible. Referencing Nancy’s and Lacoue-Labarthe’s Title of the Letter, and remarking that he’s never been read better despite the fact that it’s clear that they hate him and are trying to “de-suppose” Lacan’s knowledge , Lacan suggests that de-supposition is itself a condition for reading:

In analysis, we deal with nothing but that [love], and analysis doesn’t operate by any other pathway. It is a singular pathway in that it alone allowed us to isolate what I, I who am talking to you, felt I needed to base transference on, insofar as it is not distinguished from love, that is, on the formulation of the “subject supposed to know”.

I cannot but mention the new resonance this term “knowledge” can take on for you. I love the person I assume to have knowledge. Earlier you saw me stall, back off, and hesitate to come down on one side or the other, on the side of love or on the side of what we call hatred, when I insistently invited you to read a book whose climax is expressly designed to discredit me– which is certainly not soething that can be backed away from by someone who speaks, ultimately, but on the basis of “de-sideration” and aims at nothing else. The fact is that this climax appears sustainable to the authors precisely where there is a “desupposition” of my knowledge. If I said that they hate me it is because they “desuppose” that I have knowledge.

And why not? Why not, if it turns out that that must be the condition for what I call reading? After all, what can I presume Aristotle knew? Perhaps the less I assume he has knowledge, the better I read him. (Seminar 20, 67)

Now, I am not suggesting that Zizek isn’t himself clear as to what he means by “materialism”. I’m holding out for a better answer and hopefully some plausable reasons as to why more traditional materialist philosophies– say Lucretius’ –are mistaken. However, I do find it interesting that it’s so difficult to avoid supposing the knowledge of the Other and assuming the lack in the Other in oneself.