Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2012).
by Adam Kotsko
First, the good news: the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has finally written the definitive statement of his philosophy. Žižek’s output over the last two decades has been prodigious, encompassing dozens of books that cover topics ranging from film to philosophy, from politics to science. The sheer volume is bewildering, and even though I know his work well, I have always had difficulty answering people who want to read Žižek but aren’t sure where to start. Now that problem is finally solved. If someone is really serious about understanding Žižek’s thought as a whole and seeing how the various parts fit together, there is only one possible answer.
Now the bad news: the book in question, Less Than Nothing, is over a thousand pages long, and it is an unabashedly academic work. Its primary focus, the German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, is one of the most impenetrable writers in the history of human thought. Žižek does not stop at Hegel, though, as his ambition in this book is to consolidate his decades-long project of synthesizing Hegel’s thought with that of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose writing style is baroque and whose concepts are famously paradoxical and complex. Along the way to its overarching goal, Less Than Nothing engages with contemporary scholarship on both figures and settles accounts with two other thinkers who have cast a long shadow over Žižek’s work: Martin Heidegger and Alain Badiou.
Why all these academic trappings? Why not cut to the chase and simply put forward his ideas directly, in his own voice? The reason is one of the central convictions of Žižek’s philosophy: truth emerges only out of conflict and contradiction. It is impossible to skip directly to the end goal—the process of working through the “wrong answers” is indispensible. Žižek explains this by means of a joke that becomes a kind of recurring theme:
Rabinovitch wants to emigrate from the Soviet Union for two reasons:
“First, I fear that, if the socialist order disintegrates, all the blame for the communist crimes will be put on us, the Jews.” To the state bureaucrat’s objection: “But nothing will ever change in the Soviet Union! Socialism is here to stay forever!,” Rabinovitch calmly answers: “This is my second reason.”
Using the terms of this joke, one could say that Žižek is so determined to bring together Hegel and Lacan for two reasons: first of all, he trusts that the project of “reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa)” will always provide him with whatever answers he’s looking for. When we object that surely they don’t really have all the answers, he would then respond: “This is my second reason.” It is only by pushing his project to the utmost limit that he can begin to see where it falls short.
Less Than Nothing does push his project to the limit, revealing him to be one of the most ambitious philosophers working today. His goal is nothing short of a Theory of Everything, a system of thought that can makes sense of every aspect of reality, from the loftiest ideas of Plato and Heidegger to the nitty-gritty realities of power politics, from the mysteries of the human brain all the way down to the bizarre and counterintuitive interactions of quantum particles.
Here again, the objection is obvious: surely a complete knowledge of everything is impossible! Žižek’s response to this is counterintuitive and powerful: yes, but that’s because there’s no such thing as “everything.” The common-sense view that it’s impossible to know everything assumes that there’s an “everything” to know—a self-consistent, complete body of reality, free of gaps or contradictions. What Žižek proposes is that reality is not complete, not self-consistent, that reality in itself is riven by gaps and contradictions.
This incompleteness goes all the way down—and all the way up. At the base level of reality, there is not a saturated field of cause and effect, but the indeterminate probabilities of quantum physics. This pattern repeats itself at every level of reality, including the political level, where every social order is engaged in an ultimately futile struggle to overcome the contradiction at its heart—which under capitalism is class struggle.
The political consequences of Žižek’s philosophy are a constant point of reference in Less Than Nothing. Most of the book, however, does not contain the kind of reflections on contemporary political events that have allowed him to reach (and in many cases baffle) a wide educated audience in recent years. Instead, he focuses primarily on the history of twentieth-century Communism (and to a lesser extent, the Fascist reaction to it). Here again, it is a question of working through the wrong answer to set up the conditions for the right one—in this case, working out precisely what went so terribly wrong in the sequence of events opened up by the October Revolution.
Only in his conclusion does Žižek directly address the contemporary political situation. Here, however, he does not so much lay out a political program as explain why he does not have one:
Faced with the demands of the [Occupy Wall Street] protestors, intellectuals are definitely not in the position of the subjects supposed to know: they cannot operationalize these demands, or translate them into proposals for precise and realistic measures. With the fall of twentieth-century communism, they forever forfeited the role of the vanguard which knows the laws of history and can guide the innocents along its path. The people, however, also do not have access to the requisite knowledge—the “people” as a new figure of the subject supposed to know is a myth of the Party which claims to act on its behalf… There is no Subject who knows, and neither intellectuals nor ordinary people are that subject.
What, then, is the role of the intellectual if it is not to deploy expert knowledge to tell the people what they should do?
Is this a deadlock then: a blind man leading the blind, or, more precisely, each of them assuming that the other is not blind? No, because their respective ignorance is not symmetrical: it is the people who have the answers, they just do not know the questions to which they have (or, rather, are) the answer…. intellectuals should not primarily take [the protestors’ demands] as demands, questions, for which they should produce clear answers, programs about what to do. They are answers, and intellectuals should propose the questions to which they are answers.
The answers that emerge from this process will not be the final answers, but they will be our answers, the answers to our contemporary dilemmas and deadlocks. Žižek’s theory dictates that the answers we come up with will inevitably produce their own dilemmas and deadlocks—but at least they will be new problems. A perfectly harmonious world may not be possible for Žižek, but a different one is. In this time of despair and ideological closure, that is much more than nothing.
Now, admittedly a thousand pages is a lot to read just to get to political conclusions that are fundamentally similar to those found in his shorter and more accessible books, like First as Tragedy, Then as Farce or The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. The payoff in Less Than Nothing is that here we finally get to see the whole picture, the deep presuppositions underlying his sometimes very idiosyncratic political views. Instead of piecing together the fragments found in his political journalism, we now have the opportunity—and critics now have the responsibility—to work through a systematic presentation and development of the whole range of Žižek’s philosophy.