Blogging Žižek: Introduction

This post will serve as an introduction to and index of a series of posts where I blog though Žižek’s monumental new book, Less than Nothing.  I am doing this in conjunction with another series, Blogging Badiou, where I blog my way through Alain Badiou’s work, mainly Being and Event and Logics of Worlds.  This approach will allow me to (hopefully) notice and build connections between the works I might not have picked up otherwise.  Ambitious, to be sure, but even if I fail this should be a rewarding adventure.

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The Monstrosity of Christ

So I just finished reading The Monstrosity of Christ, a dialogue between Slavoj Žižek and “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank.  While the debate is ostensibly about what theologians call “christology” (the study of the nature of Jesus), in reality it ends up being of deeper metaphysical and philosophical significance.  Indeed, Jesus doesn’t really come up much at all.

For the uninitiated, Žižek is a Hegelian Marxist who uses Lacanian psychoanalysis, known for his cultural critique, counterintuitive arguments, and personal eccentricities.  I didn’t used to be a fan, but I’ve grown to like him more and more recently, especially as I’ve found myself more often having to defend a dialectical approach to philosophy as such against assaults by both outsiders (mostly scientistic “naturalists”) and crypto-liberals within the Marxist left.  In recent years he has taken an Ernst Bloch like turn, taking Christian theology and “inverting” it in order to develop his complex atheism.  For Žižek, “only an atheist can be a true believer.”

If Žižek ironically appropriates theology for communism and atheism, Milbank outdoes him in this arena of ironic intellectual borrowing.  Radical othodoxy is essentially a hyper-reactionary movement which wants to return to a feudal-esque state of affairs, where the Church is supreme and theology is “queen of the sciences.”  What sets Radical Orthodoxy apart from your typical idiotic troglodyte reactionary (such as the “New Natural Lawyers”) is that it uses radical, usually leftist (sometimes postmodern and sometimes post-postmodern/Marxist) critiques of contemporary civilization – liberal individualism, capitalism, the capitalist state – for the purposes of the other side of history.  It attempts to hijack the critical arsenal of those who are pushing towards the future mode of production (socialism) in the interests of one that has since passed (feudalism).

What Milbank does is attempt to set up a dichotomy between dialectics, represented by Žižek, and his own analogical metaphysics, a theological co-opting of materialism in the form of a fairly Thomistic metaphysics.  Milbank funnily enough what we’d call an orthodox Thomist (yet) inasmuch as he is a strong occasionalist, denying absolutely the ability of entities to interact at all without God.   Žižek rightfully calls Milbank out for adopting this stance, defending it with what is essentially an elaborate version of the “God did it” argument, as the hypocritical occasionalists of old also did.

In Milbank’s eyes, the Hegelian dialectic, despite its mystical shell, is the apotheosis of reason if separated from the transcendent – in other words, of secular reason.  It is thus crucial to Milbank’s project that he discredit it, and to do so, he funnily enough mobilizes Alain Badiou’s thought on multiplicity.  For Milbank, the paradoxical existence of God is one of absolute relation – it is the “something more” in the multiplicty of multiplicities .  Whether or not this is possible – whether a proper understanding of Badiou necessarily precludes God – is something I’ll deal with when I blog about Badiou at length.  The point is that Milbank thinks that the paradox which Badiou presents in Being and Event is sufficient to allow him to both destroy Žižek’s dialectics and to make the “transcendental leap” himself.

It’s very important to note, however, that Badiou’s paradox does not logically ground Milbank’s transcendent, and Milbank admits as much.  What Milbank does think, however, is that Badiou’s paradox doesn’t ground either his or Žižek’s position; it simply allows him to choose to believe in the transcendent.  The choice to adopt one position or the other must bring in other areas, primarily politics, history, and morality.  This is why Milbank usually argues for his position in these terms – because in his mind, neither atheism no God can be “demonstrated” purely ontologically.  Unfortunately for Milbank, this puts him in trouble, because it is exactly in these domains that Christianity, particularly Radical Orthodoxy, fails miserably compared to Marxism.  If Milbank is right about the choice between his position and Žižek’s ultimately being a matter of politics and history, then Milbank is doomed.  It is at these moments that Žižek savages Milbank, correctly pointing out and criticizing his “soft fascism,” his awkward and misunderstanding reading of the history of philosophy, and the like.  Milbank’s position just ends up degenerating into a theological imperialism, a disturbing, dogmatic, and ultimately near pseudo-intellectual dismissal of everyone who disagrees with him or the Catholic church.  As John D. Caputo, a postmodernist hermeneutic theologian puts it:

Milbank and the authors who swim around him in the “school” of “Radical Orthodoxy” flatter themselves with the insufferable conceit that the entire world may be divided into either medieval Thomistic metaphysicians — or nihilists!

Even if we take Milbank at face value, I think he loses this one to Žižek.  Suppose we accept his notion that Badiou’s paradox “grounds” neither God nor atheism (which I don’t agree with, in fact – I think Badiou’s position implies a radical post-theist/post-atheist nontheism, not indecision, by necessity, which I will discuss when I blog at length about Badiou), which is where most of his intellectual heavy lifting is done.  Even if we accept this first stage of Milbank’s argument full-stop, we are then by his own admission forced to move to other considerations, areas where Milbank’s Catholicism just gets demolished.  It’s really impressive to see a figure like Milbank, who earlier in the book had seemed so intimidating with his extensive knowledge of contemporary philosophy as well as obscure philosophy, flounder when Žižek grabs his (wrong, in my opinion) dilemma by the horns and stares Milbank in the eyes.

Ranting about analytic philosophy

Analytic philosophy is so myopically obsessed with solving problems, that it doesn’t place sufficient effort into developing an understanding of the context in which the problem is embedded and the schema from which is emerges. Perhaps a problem can’t be solved by the schema that generates it?

In the case of atheism-theism, it couldn’t POSSIBLY be that the very schema which confronts one with a problem of whether this transcendent (usually, there are immanent theisms) being exists or not is itself problematic and needs to be abandoned. No, we should just keep publishing books! I’m sure the “market of ideas” will sort things out eventually!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to log in to PhilPapers to see what the current consensus is among analytic philosophers. I need to know what beliefs I should blog about next week.  *gasp* A majority of analytic philosophers specializing in philosophy of religion believe in God!  I’m having an existential crisis, I need to post this on freethoughtblogs.

By the way, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am attacking many popular sites and have no shame about doing so.

Marxism and materialism: part 1

Epicurus, the greatest ancient Greek materialist philosopher

Any Marxist knows that one of the key features of Marxism is that it is materialist, this word being used in the philosophical sense, i.e. not a shallow focus on material goods.  At one level this is a really simple idea  – “being causes consciousness” in the last instance, as the famous dictum goes.  But   at another level, this is really quite an ambiguous idea.  What does materialism mean?  And, just as importantly, what has it meant and what should it mean?

Marx’s writings don’t – at least explicitly –  give us a lot to go on as far as his idea of materialism is concerned.  We know that Marx was critical of what he called “contemplative” (what Engels calls “mechanical”) materialism, and we have a lot of negative/indirect resources in the form of Marx’s critiques of Hegel.  What can we glean from what we have concerning Marx’s view, which is not of course the end of the story, as Marx’s writings aren’t some kind if holy scripture.  Marxism is a living project.

There are, as I see it, three broad ways we can usually classify materialism through most of its history:

  • Practical materialism: Emphasizes concrete social practice, says that ideas emerge from such social practice.
  • Epistemological/methodological materialism: In the process of inquiry, operating under the assumption that all things have material explanations, in the last instance, such as in natural science.
  • Ontological materialism: The idea that everything that exists is constitutively “material” in its nature.

The most important materialism for Marx is historical materialism, his historiography and method of social inquiry, and inasmuch as this method is materialist, the emphasis seems to be on practical materialism, while Engels focused his attention on the latter two.  This isn’t to suggest that Marx wouldn’t have endorsed Engels’ philosophy, or that there is some radical break between the two thinkers, as is popular among many “academic Marxists.”  I am simply saying what implications can be drawn from that individuals’ authored texts.

A later photo of Karl Marx

Leaving aside several possible controversies for now (such as the extent of a real division between ontological and epistemological materialism), let’s move to Engels, where materialism as a philosophical view is treated much more extensively.  Engels is pretty clearly committed to ontological materialism, as he thinks materialism is an idea that applies universally (rather than particularly), and to reality itself.  This is a pretty clear answer to the classical ontological question, what is the nature of being? “Material, in the last instance,” replies Engels, with the “in the last instance” indicating the dialectical and non-reductive nature of that materialism.  Right now my goal is not to assess the relative merits of these various past conceptions of materialism, so let’s move on.

Marx and Engels, together, as they should be

The next major theorist of materialism, in terms of real innovation, was Lenin, with his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks.  While there was a lot of important Marxist materialist work done prior to Lenin (Plekhanov, Kautsky, etc.), these were more elaborations and systematization of views found in Marx and particularly Engels than it was highly original work; Engels was doing most of the philosophical heavy-lifting prior to Lenin, at least in my view.  Lenin is focused particularly on epistemological materialism, materialism as a form of thought.  Again, this isn’t to say he wouldn’t have endorsed ontological materialism, but he was preoccupied in Materialism and Empirio-criticism with attacking empirio-criticism, (very roughly) a sort of positivism that was taking hold among some of Lenin’s comrades, such as Bogdanov.

The first edition cover of Materialism and Empirio-criticism, published under the pseudonym V.I. Ilyin.

It is after this that the debate surrounding the relationship between Marxism and materialism gets a lot more complicated.  In 1923, Georg  Lukács, a major Hungarian communist thinker, published the monumental History and Class Consciousness.  It is difficult to understate the importance of this book, for it inaugurated the tradition of “Western Marxism,” in part a reaction to “official” Soviet Marxism.  After the turbulence of the first decades of the 20th century for the communist movement (the failure of the German revolution and the subsequent isolation of the Soviet Union, among other events), Lukács emphasized the dialectical, Hegelian side of Marx against the materialist side which was emphasized in the Second and eventually Third Internationals.

An analysis of Western Marxism as a phenomenon could take up a whole book, and in fact has taken up an excellent such book, Considerations on Western Marxism by Perry Anderson, which I highly recommend.  Regardless, in the Cold War years, the investigation into Marxist materialism entered a foggy and relatively unproductive phase.  In “the West,” Western Marxism reigned, retreating into universities and flinging cultural criticism from the ivory tower, while in “the East,” a relatively mechanical and shallow view of materialism similar to that in Engels’ Dialectics of Nature prevailed (Anti-Dühring is infinitely superior in my opinion).  There were exceptions to this trend on both sides of the iron curtain.  In “the West,” Louis Althusser with his anti-humanist structural Marxism made many important contributions to our understanding of the relationship between structure and conjuncture, Marxism and science, and most crucially critiques of the extreme Lukács-derived humanist Marxism, Roy Bhaskar (trained as an analytic philosopher) made critical contributions to Marxist philosophy of science, which is particularly important for our topic here, as did the admittedly Hegelian Marxist Alfred Schmidt with his The Concept of Nature in Marx.

Louis Althusser

I also happen to think that though he is not in the full-on Marxist camp, Gilles Deleuze produced crucial work n Materialism, but anyway, moving on.  In “the East,” Mao Tse-tung’s On Practice was a crucial contribution to our understanding of “practical materialism,” while for ontological and epistemological materialism, the work of Soviet thinkers like Evald Ilyenkov remain sadly under-appreciated in Western academia.  But, to return to where we started, there was still a relative dearth of Marxist materialism answering the central question at the heart of all this debate, the elephant in the room; what does it mean for something to be “material?”

There are a few answers to this question that are immediately apparent which I think are inadequate.  These days, one of the most intuitive answers seems to be physicalism.  This isn’t the same as “physicalism” in economics, which is an important concept for Marxism.  This is a specifically ontological view, which says that reality is ultimately made of those entities described by fundamental physics, whatever they happen to be at the moment.  It is worth noting here that even though I reject physicalism, it is a view that is often misunderstood by idiot mystics who think that quantum mechanics is somehow problematic for materialism.  Unless we understand “matter” to mean “really really small balls of baryonic matter,” like in Democritus, quantum mechanics is completely unproblematic insofar as materialism is concerned (whether it is problematic for reductive, non-dialectical materialism is another question).

This view, physicalism, is overall dominant within Anglophone analytic philosophy.  It is essentially the idea that “the physical” is the ultimate nature of being qua being, and takes two major forms.  The first, which I find much weaker intellectually, is reductive physicalism, the idea that all things can be reduced to physical things, or, in obnoxiously analytic language (sorry everyone), that all propositions are ultimately reducible to physical propositions.  The non-physical is just the composite of the physical, and usually doesn’t have ontological status.  The second version, which I admittedly find stronger, is so-called “supervenience physicalism.”  Despite the fancy analytic language, it’s really a simple idea.  Basically, all the physical facts “fix” all the non-physical facts, but the the non-physical facts are not reducible to the physical facts.  That is, there cannot be a change in the set of non-physical facts without a corresponding change in the set of physical facts, but the former cannot be “dissolved” and are not mere composites of the latter.

There are many problems I have with this view, not the least of which is my disapproval of analytic philosophy in general (I’m a recovering analytic philosopher myself, my background is originally in Quine, Wittgenstein, Frege, Searle, Dennett, Kripke, Strawson, Davidson, etc.).  While I won’t launch into detail here, I see no reason to accept physicalism.  The usual argument put forward usually boils down to an appeal to the history of science, where vital-force-type explanations gradually got replaced with explanations which can supposedly be reduced to physical ones.  Biology is reducible to chemistry is reducible to physics, so the usual hierarchy goes.  However, I have so many problems with the assumptions involved here that I don’t know where to even begin in building enough common ground from which to launch a critique.  First, I think the direction of reduction is totally arbitrary outside of the historical/institutional weight that physics carries (not to bash physics, I’m a student of physics myself).  From the perspective of an electron, why wouldn’t we say that their world is “fixed” by virtue of their organic relations to the totality, or at least organic system, of which they are a moment?  In other words, isn’t some physical entity, like an electron, defined partly through its relation to non-electrons?  It is what it is partly by virtue of what it is not.  This applies in general to the relationship between part and whole; one does not make sense without the other, and neither is “ultimate” in the last instance (Badiou’s notion of a multiplicity of multiplicities, “the one is not,” is crucial” here.)  This is basic dialectics, but arguing this to an analytic philosopher is usually futile.

Hegel, showing vulgar philosophers who’s boss since 1770

There is also the assumption that biology, chemistry, and physics exhaust “real science,” a corrosive and insidious positivism/scientism.  Lastly, there are problematic assumptions regarding the nature of scientific explanations.  Do not mistake me for an enemy of science here – I’m a scientific realist, not a postmodernist.  But there is often a conflating of “explanation” with prediction, of information in the probabilistic sense with knowledge/meaning, and a crude empiricism and/or falsificationism, the latter being especially prevalent.  Similar criticisms apply to conceptions of “the material” as “those sorts of things described by the natural sciences,” even if non-reductive.

In part 2, I will continue with my brief criticisms of various approaches to materialism that have been attempted both by Marxists and some others, and then lay out what I think is the best way to move forwards.

Dialectics, religion, and the new atheists

One of the debates which now rages intensely among different sections of the mainstream is that between atheism and theism, a debate that usually manifests itself in terms of naturalistic analytic atheists like Daniel Dennett, Alex Rosenberg, Keith Parsons, etc. squaring off against conservative Christian apologists who crank out medieval syllogisms.  As a recovering New Atheist/analytic naturalist myself, I remember how seriously people took this debate, as if the fate of the world rested on the outcome of some tussle over some minor point on page whatever of Aquinas’ Summa.

Now I’m of the opinion that most of what passes for “philosophy” in the mainstream English-speaking mainstream (think Quine, Putnam, Sellars, Kripke, Searle, etc.) is shallow and naive; clever versions of stupid arguments defending stupid ideas with a massive dose of lack of self-awareness on the side.  Really, you have to try to be as oblivious to the dialectic of text and context as most Anglophone philosophers are.  However, I can elaborate on my problems with most mainstream philosophy (I include the resurgent Christian conservatism as mainstream, since despite their claims of persecution and minority status, they sure get a lot of publicity, funding, etc.) in another post.  Here I’d like to focus on the more socially relevant atheism-theism conflict.

It hasn’t been long enough for me, when I stumble upon the writings of one of the figures associated with this debate, to not have my reflexive tendency to argue on my old analytic terms.  But in general, and deliberately, I am finding the whole debate sillier and sillier, because both positions are increasingly striking me as absurd in light of history.  On the one hand, the arguments put forth by the analytic theists of today, those triumphantly declaring the resurgent victory of God (usually a specifically conservative Evangelical or Catholic God, a God of the privileged individuals which this ideology serves)  are laughable.  They are paper tigers, naked emperors.  In the words of one of my favorite bloggers:

they use their medieval cleverness to mock those who understand the world better than they ever could.

They literally are more or less taking medieval scholastic syllogisms like the “ontological argument,” dressing them up in a bunch of unnecessary and useless formalism and/or a bunch of misleading citations of science and calling it knockdown and revolutionary!  It’s as funny as the declaration of Papal Infallibility; an expression of real weakness and growing irrelevance.  For indeed, far more powerful than any cute syllogism is the glacial force of history rendering one irrelevant, outmoded.  It’s the philosophical equivalent of the way neoclassical economics takes a bunch of relatively simple (failed) attempts to respond to Marx (think Boehm-Bawerk, Bortkiwiecz, etc.) and dressing them up in advanced mathematics.  It doesn’t make the ideas any better, just like the laughably bad and disingenuous attempts to co-opt information theory by creationists.  Just because you can say “Kolmogorov complexity” doesn’t mean Epicurus’, Hume’s, and others’ takedowns of design logic aren’t just as powerful.  In fact, if anything the attempts to respond to these various foundational critiques (of religion by philosophers, of Marx by marginalist economists) have gotten worse over time; Boehm-Bawerk is much better than a hack like Hayek (a “Hayhack,” if you will).

On the other hand you have the New Atheists, who are basically doing the same thing with Hume and/or the French materialists like d’Holbach.  Feuerbach was infinitely better than these guys, and Marx’s views grew partly out of an effective critique of Feuerbach!  Hell, Marx is still considered one of the better interpreters of Epicurus (in his doctoral dissertation), one of the earliest thinkers in the tradition into which I’d place the New Atheists (though, if I were being a nitpicky academic type I might say most of them are now closer to Democritus in their views, e.g. reductive physicalist ontologies).

Now, what does this have to do with the dialectics I mentioned in my title?  Well, though I should probably detail this a lot more in a paper, I basically think a total nontheism – a post-theism as some commentators call it – is the necessary and correct position to take.  What do I mean?  Basically, theism-as-such has a ton of premises and assumptions built into it, concerning the nature of argument, the nature of being, the nature of cause, the understanding of language, etc.  The very fact that atheism-as-such can engage the arguments of philosophical theists so directly shows that the two positions are much closer than they think.  Atheism-as-such is in a way just inverted theism.  To be differentiated merely over the purported existence or non-existence of some entity means the two positions must share enough common basis to be differentiated solely by this question.  The atheist-as-such takes saying “there is no god” to have roughly the same function that saying “there is a God” does, just with “not-god” being God.  It shares theism’s truth table while flipping all the truth values.

This is a unity of opposites, and we need a way to resolve the contradiction, the tension, between these views, and that synthesis is to move wholly beyond the theistic way of thinking in the first place.  The atheist-as-such answers the question “does god exist?” with a no, but we should reject the question.  This is what Marx seems to do in his Theses on Feuerbach; Feuerbach’s humanist atheism is the antithesis of theism-as-such, but there are still tensions within the view (internal contradictions) and tensions between it and theism-as-such that are unresolved.  Marx thus transcends the dichotomy of the two purely passive views.  It is worth noting that this is not the same as pitiful “agnosticism,” arbitrary compromise.  For indeed the banal notion that “we should just move closer to the middle” is a symptom of liberal ideology.  This post-theism (and by necessity post-atheism) is far more radical in its rejection of the “theologising[sic] intellect,” to quote Marx, as the atheist-as-such is at the end of the day nothing more than an atheologian.

Moral outrage and honest learning

In my defenses of various historical events pertaining to communism – Mao’s China, the Russian Revolution – I unsurprisingly encounter the usual banal opposition.  At least some non-communists are willing to learn, to journey with me into the historical work and debates surrounding these events.  I’ll of course reference historians like R.W. Davies, J. Arch Getty, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Mobo Gao, and others.

But what infuriates me is when people aren’t really interested in learning at all.  They just know that Mao killed absurd numbers of people, and any attempt to argue otherwise is met with indignant scoffing, as if Holocaust denial and serious analysis of the history of the 20th century communist movement were at all comparable (of course, liberals are at pains to push fascism and communism together under the vague and ineffectual term “totalitarianism”).  They somehow feel proud of themselves for resisting actual history and upholding their mythology.

Of course, those who are opposed to communism would try to dodge the successes of the movement, but what is actually much more infuriating is the attitude betrayed by the fact that by the same token, they have little interest in a serious analysis of the failures of the movement so far.  In this way, even their “moral” outrage is disingenuous, for instead honestly investigating what failures occurred and why (such as the human disaster during agricultural collectivization in Stalin’s USSR) so that we can avoid them in the future, they just want to discredit communism.  Opposing communism is first in their mind, and “moral” outrage and claimed desire to avoid failure and suffering in the future is at best secondary or at worst completely feigned.

As a communist, I want to take a nuanced look at, say, the millions of deaths during soviet agricultural collectivization, not just to counter absurd comparisons of the USSR to Hitler’s Germany and ridiculously inflated death toll claims, but to learn what went wrong so it won’t happen again.  Those who reject such serious inquiry could at heart care less about saving and improving lives, but just want to crush the red menace.