Absolute Recoil: A New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism

Reviewed by Mat

Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: A New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso, 2014), 436 pp., $19.95

Slavoj Žižek’s output is prodigious. Since 2012, he has published seven books, of which two are monumental. These two aim at nothing less than “a new foundation of dialectical materialism” – the subtitle of his present book, which follows Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Clearly, the events of 2011, which inspired his The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, have impelled Žižek to affirm communism, more explicitly than ever, as the best term to designate the goal of human emancipation and as the best means of achieving that end. This has furthermore led Žižek to declare unequivocally that dialectical materialism is the most adequate description of the philosophical premises upon which communism is to be founded – or, in the present historical context, reinitiated, given the legacies of communist revolution in the twentieth century. That this task is devilishly complex goes without saying.

Not only does communism as concept suffer from its associations with parties and regimes, but dialectical materialism carries with it the baggage of Stalin’s interpretation, which was from 1938 the official “world outlook” of all Marxist-Leninist parties. Indeed, while Marx has been partially rehabilitated since 2008 thanks to his capacity to predict capitalist crisis, and historical materialism has established itself as a legitimate principle for historians (e.g., Hobsbawm and Braudel), dialectical materialism is still viewed as, at best, an anomaly, and at worst, a failed ideology, unworthy of serious consideration by philosophy or natural science. What Žižek asserts to the contrary is that dialectical materialism is the sole legitimate heir to philosophy as such, more specifically, to the philosophical revolution inaugurated by Kant upon “awakening from his dogmatic slumbers” due to the shock of Hume’s skepticism. The result was German Idealism, the work of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, with Hegel not only its apogee, but its most determined critic – that is, until Feuerbach critiqued Hegel, and Marx famously critiqued both Hegel and Feuerbach, leading to the founding of what others (notably, Josef Dietzgen) anointed dialectical materialism.

It is especially noteworthy that Marx wrote one of the most concise descriptions of philosophy in general and Feuerbach and Hegel in particular in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. This text substantiates Žižek’s claim that dialectical materialism, far from being a caprice of Marx or the property of political parties, is the ineluctable result of the great conflicts that founded philosophy in the first place. These originate, as Žižek correctly states, with the Parmenidian challenge comprised in the statement: “what Is, is; what Is not, does not exist.” In other words, “Being Is; for to Be is possible, whereas Nothingness is not possible.” Parmenides thereby set off a great debate: how then, could motion be explained? Indeed, how could opposites – motion, rest, the same and the other – be accounted for, let alone accurately assessed? The challenge was taken up first by Heraclitus and then by Democritus. Heraclitus stated, “In the same river, we both step and do not step, we are and we are not,” foreshadowing dialectics in the necessary movement of mutually dependent states of Being and non-Being, where nothingness and Being presuppose and are, in fact, each other. Democritus (and his teacher, Leucippus) proposed atoms and the Void, an infinite manifold of invisible “uncuttables” (Leucippus’ description of the irreducible atom) set in motion by the Void (or, as Hegel summarized: “This vacuum, the negative in relation to the affirmative, is also the principle of movement of atoms; they are so to speak solicited by the vacuum to fill up and negate it”). The Void is thus not static, “empty space,” allowing atoms to move; the Void necessitates the motion of matter. In a profound sense, atomism predicts Einstein who not only proved the existence of actual atoms but whose famous E=MC2 is a way of saying: motion is matter and matter is motion.

By returning to their foundations, Žižek interrogates dialectics and materialism not only for their historical content but for their bearing on contemporary disputes. Inevitably, these disputes involve the status of philosophy and science, separately and in relation to one another. Žižek begins with Engels’ famous dictum regarding the necessity for materialism to change in accordance with scientific breakthroughs. He further cites Lenin’s failed attempt to account for such breakthroughs in Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Instead of retreating in the face of that failure or of what some view as philosophers’ intrusion into the domain of science, Žižek dives into current debates arising in physics, cognitive and neurosciences, biogenetic research and numerous other fields. Žižek begins (and ends) his book with a provocative reading of Democritus’s conception of atoms and the Void, whereby a third term is interjected into the dyad of being and nothingness. This is the neologism den, apparently coined by a sixth-century Greek poet to designate “less than nothing” and reiterated, in German as “ichts,” the positive articulation of “nichts” (nothing). Less than nothing, therefore, refers to a state upon which being and nothingness depend; “the void in its positive/generating dimension – the nihil out of which every creation proceeds.”  A sequence should therefore be properly defined as: othing-Nothing-Something, or as Žižek interprets the Big Bang, “it is not that the causes are so tiny that we cannot perceive them; much more radically, the fluctuations take place at the level of not-fully-existing (pre-ontological) virtual entities which are in a way ‘less than nothing’…” This is a result of a fundamental asymmetry between two events: “the Big Bang is the explosion of an infinitely compressed singularity, while broken symmetry involves the collapse of an infinite field of potentialities into a determined finite reality.” The significance of this asymmetry is registered in the oppositions found between relativity and quantum cosmology, and idealism and materialism, for example. But that is not all. Asymmetry – as opposed to balance, harmony or a static unity of opposites – characterizes the “non-All” universe; eternally incomplete, open-ended eruption.

What Žižek proposes is a more philosophically nuanced and scientifically rigorous adaptation of both Heraclitus and the atomists in opposition to modern day Parmenideans, especially those gathered under the umbrella of “materialism.” Žižek refers to four such materialisms, namely, vulgar, reductionist materialism in various guises, from cognitivism to neo-Darwinism; “new wave” atheism, from Dawkins to Hitchens; “discursive materialism” – that is, reference to a particular interpretation of Foucault; and Deleuzian “new materialism,” especially influential among popular movements in Europe. In so doing, Žižek builds his case on three pillars: first, a forceful championing of Hegel, second, a defense and foregrounding of psychoanalysis, especially that of Lacan and, finally, the determined insistence that dialectical materialism is the sole, legitimate inheritor of the breakthrough inaugurated by Kant. It follows that this has to pass through Hegel to reach Marx and Freud, on the one hand, and Einstein, Gödel, and Heisenberg, on the other. That is, Hegel must be grappled with to understand all subsequent philosophical, scientific, artistic and political developments. In so doing, Žižek makes a triple move: Marx via Hegel, Lacan via Freud and dialectical materialism via quantum cosmology, by way of Democritus’s den. The details are what it has taken Žižek two large tomes (altogether 1500 pages) to articulate. 

One may disagree with Žižek. I don’t share his enthusiasm for psychoanalysis, for example. But I would argue that Žižek’s project is precisely what he claims it is, i.e., a new foundation of dialectical materialism, and for those of us concerned with human liberation, this has to be of signal importance for at least two reasons. The ruin of philosophy in the Twentieth Century was a result not only of scientific breakthroughs or of art’s assertion of its autonomous, avant-garde function in human affairs. It was also the result of philosophy’s disavowal by revolutionaries, especially the Communist Parties that came to power in the wake of World Wars I and II. Based on a misreading of Marx’s famous statement: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it,” politics became the arena to which radical thought was confined, disregarding the fact that Marx was himself a philosopher and that his statement referred to philosophers, not philosophy. This misinterpretation was furthermore bolstered by Freudian psychoanalysis, which made medical science the proper domain for the study of consciousness and Nietzsche’s elevation of the poet to a position occupied formerly, and destructively, by Plato and philosophy. Nietzsche attacked philosophy, as such, seeking to rid humanity of the “Plato disease” while claiming that the future belonged to the poet and freedom to the poetic imagination. To a greater or lesser extent, all movements and revolutions, artistic, scientific or political, joined in the burial of philosophy, and the results have been nothing short of catastrophic. In the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher Restoration, however, a meticulous excavation, examination and renovation began. Over the subsequent thirty-five years, Žižek and others, notably Alain Badiou, have been in the forefront of efforts to restore philosophy as both a method of inquiry and an indispensable tool in the emancipation of human consciousness.

The second reason Žižek’s project should be of vital interest to all, is that it directly bears on the question of communism as a goal toward which humanity should strive. Far from arcane argumentation of interest only to academics, the issues with which Žižek is dealing are of paramount importance to social movements, political organizations, in short, to anyone concerned with the crisis confronting humanity today. His style, characterized by lengthy digressions and frequent reference to popular films, novels and music, can be annoying or amusing depending on the reader. This is nonetheless part of a strategy Žižek has successfully employed, making him a formidable figure in contemporary political conflict. If anything, Žižek has forced the issues of communism and dialectical materialism onto the agenda in a manner no political party presently constituted ever could. These themes are not therefore “respectable” in the bourgeois sense; instead they are, once again, “spectres haunting Europe” and the world.   

Reviewed by Mat Callahan Author, The Trouble with Music Bern, Switzerland info@matcallahan.com