Currently I find myself reading Zizek’s latest, Disparities, and what he has written about my second book, The Democracy of Objects. I am not at all sure of where to begin, and whether I will respond in print at all. I do know that if I decide to respond, I would prefer something like a dialogue than pointing out the places where he’s just plain wrong in his portrayal of my thought (though some of that will be unavoidable), because I’ve been deeply influenced by his thought and have learned a great deal from him. I do confess a certain horror at being read by Zizek. There’s something about his thought that is like a great devouring machine that sucks everything out and spits it out. It’s a strange experience to have. Initially three things stand out to me.
First, Zizek effectively erases Graham Harman from OOO. The first sentence of “[t]he core of object-oriented ontology (OOO) developed by Levi Bryant can be summed up by the formula: from subject back to substance” (55). Nowhere does Harman appear in Disparities, yet we know this can’t be simple ignorance on his part as Harman appears in Less Than Nothing and the two of them did keynotes alongside one another this last year. Perhaps this was simple grammatical imprecision on his part. Perhaps he meant to say “the core of object-oriented ontology in the form developed by Levi Bryant…”, however, the remainder of the chapter doesn’t read this way. From psychoanalysis, of course, we know that forgetting is among the parapraxes. What are we to make of this forgetting in Zizek’s book and what might it indicate?
Second, and in an even more curious vein, he conflates my thought with Jane Bennett’s. Zizek goes on to write that, “…insofar as subject is correlative with modernity (recall Lacan’s thesis about the Cartesian subject as the subject of modern science), we can also say that ooo follows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s famous book We Were Never Modern (sic.): it endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment with the world… The main target of ooo is thus not transcendental philosophy with its subject/object dualism but modern science with its vision of ‘grey’ reality reduced to mathematical formalization: ooo tries to supplement modern science with a premodern ontology which describes the ‘inner life’ of things” (55).
This is a very curious claim, for 1) I’ve never defended the re-enchantment of nature (quite the contrary, as my article “Black Ecology” in Prismatic Ecologies makes quite clear), 2) the project of onticology has never been to save being from modern science (if anything I’ve defended the rather unpopular position in the humanities and social sciences of needing more and better science and philosophy that responds to the ontological challenge that contemporary science presents to us), and 3) I’ve been a longtime defender of both the Enlightenment and modernity (though I would say I defend not Enlightenment as such, but what is “in enlightenment more than itself” or “the enlightenment such as it could have been, not as it was”).
In this regard, I’m not in disagreement with Zizek about the status of the (Cartesian) subject. Among the greatest accomplishments of the Enlightenment was an evacuation of all substantial content (identity) so as to encounter it as a void or emptiness (in my Lacano-Sartrean jargon, anyway). Enlightenment cleared the way to creating a maximal distance between the subject and the ego (identity) paving the way, in my view, for emancipatory politics. When, in so much contemporary theory, we encounter endless critiques of “the subject”, what we’re truly encountering is not a critique of the subject, but rather of the ego or the thesis that identity is a substantial property of the subject. This critique wouldn’t be possible were subject not, above all, void.
The first chapter of The Democracy of Objects is entitled “Towards a Finally Subjectless Object”. This title was chosen advisedly as a reference to Badiou. Badiou wrote an article entitled “For an Objectless Subject”. The aim of this chapter is not to abolish the subject in the name of the object, but rather to open a space, as Badiou does for the subject, for a thinking of the object that isn’t a correlate of the subject or the positing of the subject. I do this not in the name of rescuing the object from science, nor of re-enchanting nature, but because I wished to breech a space where we might think of the role that material beings play in social and political life, exercising all sorts of power and constraint upon us (in addition to the role that more traditional role that semiological agencies such as ideology, practices, and the signifier play in our life). To do that, I believe, we need to open a way to talking about objects that doesn’t reduce them to how they signify according to our categorical schemes (as opposed to Baudrillard’s approach to objects in The System of Objects). In this regard, I think that in addition to something like Lacan’s unconscious structured like a language, there’s a material unconscious that’s scarcely registered in political theory outside of media studies and ecotheory.
Third, it’s notable that Zizek targets me on a point that I actually draw from him without noting that I draw this point from him. Zizek writes, “[f]ollowing Roy Bhaskar, Bryant turns around the transcendental question: how does reality have to be structured so that our cognition of reality is possible” (56)? He continues, “…he transposes what appears to transcendental partisans of finitude as the limitation of our knowledge (the insight that we can be totally wrong about our knowledge, that reality in itself can be totally different from our notion of it) into the most basic positive ontology property of reality itself” (56). In other words, my thesis at this time– I don’t know that I still hold it –is that the barrier to knowing objects is not an epistemological barrier as Kant had it, but rather is a feature of objects themselves. It is an ontological feature of the being of beings. This is an argument I draw directly form Zizek’s reading of Hegel’s critique of the concept of the in-itself in the Phenomenology. I try to transform what appears to be a transcendental incapacity of knowledge into the things themselves and use this move to get beyond the endless transcendental analysis of how we posit beings (Kant’s famous thesis that the conditions for the possibility of experience are the conditions for the possibility of the objects of experience). This is a move I draw from Zizek in Tarrying With the Negative. In this regard, it seems significant that it would be here that he chooses to engage me without mentioning that it is his own move.