Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism
US: Oct 2014
Here, I’m an old Hegelian. Hegel is everything to me. For me, always it is Hegel, Hegel, Hegel Hegel, Hegel, Hegel
—@zizek_ebooks on Twitter
Two facts about the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as a lecturer hold true for his writing. First, no matter what topic he claims to be speaking on, he will always dive right into a dizzying array of circumlocutions, tangentially referring back to the supposed topic at hand every once in awhile. Many of his talks begin by him openly admitting he doesn’t want to waste any time plugging whatever book he is supposed to be promoting. Secondly, when Žižek gives public talks, he deliberately runs long over time, such that he doesn’t have to engage in Q&A sessions with the audience. The latter he is quite candid about; in more than one of his talks, he is happy to admit this antisocial strategy.
Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism is being billed by his publisher, Verso, as his “first major philosophical intervention since the highly successful Less Than Nothing.” That book, a 1,000 page examination of the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel, remains the most exhaustive thing Žižek has ever written. Next to that tome, Absolute Recoil—no breezy read by any means—feels much more digestible. But make no mistake: the aforementioned two features that remain constant throughout Zizek’s lectures and writings are alive and well in Absolute Recoil. Though the book is ostensibly a reformulation of materialism in light of what Žižek feels have been failed attempts to revive it, by the end of these 400 or so pages one will struggle to nail down the ultimate point of it all. Once the final page has been turned, it’s also hard to find what words to say. Žižek the writer and Žižek the lecturer both know how to shut an audience out with a deluge of idealist, Marxist, and Lacanian tropes and tricks.
Of course, those who know and enjoy Žižek’s brand of philosophizing and psychoanalyzing will be familiar with these moves. Žižek’s popularity remains something of a curiosity in an age when popular philosophy has taken on less prevalence. Sure, in lectures he brings up subjects like “Gangnam Style”, The Dark Knight, and, most bizarrely of all, Kung Fu Panda. But his philosophers of choice are the endlessly complex Hegel and the notoriously impenetrable French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, both of whom are quite difficult to package to the mass markets that Žižek’s books sell to. (That a book like the hefty Less Than Nothing can make the front display at a Barnes and Noble is no small achievement.) Nevertheless, while Žižek’s popularity may be an anomaly in the contemporary philosophical canon, it’s truly remarkable that he remains a noteworthy public figure, and Absolute Recoil is, for those willing to bear its quirks, another fine addition to his voluminous written legacy.
An important qualification has to be made here, however. Less Than Nothing is still being called Žižek’s “magnum opus” (a title that at one point also belonged to his 2006 work The Parallax View), and Absolute Recoil now supposedly marks its successor. But although there are works of Žižek’s that feel particularly definitive (1989’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, Less Than Nothing), his body of work is best viewed not as a collection of atomic units, but instead a latticework of ideas that frequently overlap. This can be seen manifest in a rather overt way in the recent controversy Žižek faced following accusations of “self-plagiarism” he committed in an article on ISIS for The New York Times. As blogger Jay Pinho points out, Žižek is a frequent “self-plagiarizer”, i.e. someone who frequently repurposes earlier work of his into new publications, be it in books or in articles.
Indeed, Absolute Recoil finds Žižek re-using some old ideas, sometimes straight-ripping them from previous works. A passage in the fantastic second chapter on the distinction between “truth” and “truthfulness” (104-105) is more or less identically said in his excellent 2008 short volume Violence. But aside from the fact that, as Žižek rightly said to Newsweek, the notion of stealing from oneself is dubious, this “self-plagiarizing” is consistent with his decades-long project of philosophy. (There’s an exception in cases where publishers expressly tell authors to not reuse material, but Zizek was not told by the Times of such a policy.) His books, taken in tandem, read like a decades-long tome, all saying similar ideas, always self-referential. In this way, Žižek is a “project” philosopher, a kind of thinker that can’t really be broken down into neat, easy pieces. His project is a messy one, to be sure, but as a book like Absolute Recoil attests, it’s a fun and enlightening one, if the reader is willing to put the work into it.
And it’s a good deal of work, to be sure. The titular notion of “Absolute Recoil” supposedly frames the book; that is, until one realizes that Žižek is going to digress as he always does. This notion comes from Hegel’s writing. Žižek opens the book by defining it this delightfully twisty passage:
...in a relationship of reflection, every term (every determination) is posited (mediated) by another (its opposite), identity by difference, appearance by essence, and so on—in this sense, “it proceeds from another.” When positedness is self-sublated, an essence is no longer directly determined by an external Other, by its complex set of relations to its otherness, to the environment into which it emerged. Rather, it determines itself, it is “within the absolute recoil upon itself”—the gap, or discord, that introduces dynamism into it is absolutely immanent. (4)
Predictably, things aren’t a whole lot easier to follow from there. Even in Absolute Recoil‘s best passages, such as Žižek’s inspired take on Immanuel Kant’s notion of the virtues resulting from collective and self deception, the prose remains jargon-heavy and serpentine in its sentence structure. Žižek is easy to enjoy for his identifiable tics (“and so on”, “or whatever” remain perpetual suffixes to his sentences) and his pop culture references (including an excellent take on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows), but his ideas remain lofty things that aren’t easily taken in one sitting.
There are numerous insights throughout Absolute Recoil that make the technical language worth sitting through. Take, for instance, the most concrete example of the “absolute recoil” in motion. First, Žižek outlines the dialectical process:
...an inconsistent mess (first phase, starting point) which is negated and, through negation, the Origin is projected or posited looking backwards, so that a tension is created between the present and the lost Origin (second phase). In the third phase, the Origin is perceived as inaccessible, relativized—we are in external reflection, that is, our reflection is external to the posited Origin which is experienced as a transcendent presupposition. In the fourth phase of absolute reflection, our external reflexive moment is transposed back into the Origin itself, as its own self-withdrawal of our decentering. We thus reach the triad of positing, external reflection, and absolute reflection. (149)
He then provides the example of this dialectical process of absolute recoil, “of a thing emerging through its very loss” (150), in the case of India pre- and post- colonization. Although, as he notes, the brutal colonization of India by the British was an unjust act, the notion of a “liberalized” India free from colonial oppression itself comes from the process of colonization. However, in becoming emancipated, the Indian people took what was a belief system (western liberalism) used to oppress them and actually held it more authentically than their oppressors. Žižek elaborates:
...first, there is the “indifferent multiplicity” of pre-colonial India; then the British colonizers brutally intervene, imposing the transcendental structure of a colonial order, justified in terms of Western universalism; then Indian resistance to colonization develops, pointing out how, in colonizing India, the West is betraying its own legacy of egalitarian emancipation. The anti-colonial struggle thus refers to the Idea of India as a secular democratic state, an Idea which originated in the West. The Indian version of this Idea, however, is not a “synthesis” of the Western secular-egalitarian spirit and the Indian tradition, but a full assertion of the egalitarian spirit by way of cutting the roots that ground it in the Western tradition and affirming its actual universality. In short, only when the Western idea is “ex-apated” by India does it achieve actual universality; when Indians embrace the European democratic-egalitarian Idea, they become more European than the Europeans themselves. (149-50)
This pattern is one Žižek also attributes to Malcom X, who in assigning himself “X” as his surname committed a similar act of adopting oppressive traditions and transforming them, in the process becoming more true to those ideas. “The point [of X as family name] was not to mobilize the blacks to fight for a return to their African roots, but precisely to seize the opening provided by the X—an unknown knew (lack of) identity engendered by the very process of enslavement that had ensured those roots were forever lost” (133).
For Žižek, the opportunities provided by a problematic past event, whether a colonial overtaking or an inefficacious economic policy, are not always good. He argues in the chapter “Evental Truth, Evental Sex”, “In the dialectical analysis of history… each new stage ‘rewrites the past’ and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one” (191). However, there are cases where the past can still overpower present attempts to redefine what came before it. Žižek is on point here:
Famously, when Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was, she snapped back: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies had adopted her basic economic policies—the true triumph is not victory over the enemy, but occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation for the entire field. (196)
History, for Žižek, is a slippery beast; just when we think we have defined an era, decades later we realize our whole view of it has changed. Or, in the case of Reaganite/Thatcherite economic policy, we believe we have escaped one economic era when in fact we are still stuck in the same ruts of the past. Ideas rise and then negate themselves, and then the negations are negated, “and so on”. These negations in Absolute Recoil often manifest in contradictory ways, but as Žižek crafitly asked The Guardian, “My thinking moves so quickly how could it not be full of contradictions?” Contradictions lie at the heart of his Hegelian understanding of history’s unfolding(s).
Like the windy process of history’s unfolding and (re)defining, Žižek himself remains a tricky philosopher to wrangle. As he always does, in Absolute Recoil he wants to find a new way of doing dialectical materialism, all the while diving into postmodern theology, political analysis, and literary theory. One wouldn’t be off-base in suggesting that Žižek’s eyes are bigger than his stomach, so to speak. Indeed, this review barely scratches the surface of the many theoretical crevasses this book dives into, only to then come back up again and dive down into another one. (Suffice it to say that were a review to really get at all of the arguments made in the book, it would be the length of a master’s thesis.) But for those already invested in the ever-growing project that is Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil is another notable addition to his bibliography. Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.
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