The Problem with Zizek’s Defense of the Cartesian Subject


“Perhaps Zizek’s most radical challenge to accepted theoretical opinion is his defense of the modern, Cartesian subject. Zizek knowingly and polemically positions his writings against virtually all other contemporary theorists, with the significant exception of Alain Badiou. But for Zizek, the Cartesian subject is not reducible to the fully self assured “master and possessor of nature” of Descartes’ Discourses. It is what Zizek calls in “Kant With (Or Against) Kant”, an outofjoint ontological excess orclinamen. Zizek takes his bearings here as elsewhere from a Lacanian reading of Kant, and the latter’s critique of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. In the “Transcendental Dialectic” in The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant criticised Descartes’ argument that the self guaranteeing “I think” of the cogito must be a thinking thing (res cogitans). For Kant (as for Zizek), while the “I think” must be capable of accompanying all of the subject’s perceptions, this does not mean that it is itself such a substantial object. The subject that sees objects in the world cannot see itself seeing, Zizek notes, any more than a person can jump over her own shadow. To the extent that a subject can reflectively see itself, it sees itself not as a subject but as one more represented object what Kant calls the “empirical self”, or what Zizek calls the “self” (versus the subject) in The Plague of Fantasies. The subject knows that it is something, Zizek argues. But it does not and can never know what Thing it is “in the Real”, as he puts it. (see 2e) This is why it must seek clues to its identity in its social and political life, asking the question of others (and the big O Other (see 2b)) which Zizek argues defines the subject as such: che voui? (what do you want from me?) In Tarrying With the Negative, Zizek hence reads the Director’s Cut of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner as revelatory of the Truth of the subject. Within this version of the film, as Zizek emphasizes  the main character Deckard literally does not know what he is a robot that perceives itself to be human. According to Zizek, the subject is a “crack” in the universal field or substance of being, not a knowable thing. This is why Zizek repeatedly cites in his books the disturbing passage from the young Hegel describing the modern subject not as the “light” of the modern enlightenment, but “this night, this empty nothing …”

It is crucial to Zizek’s position, though, that Zizek denies the apparent implication of this that the subject is some kind of supersensible entity for example, an immaterial and immortal soul, etc. The subject is not a special type of Thing outside of the phenomenal reality we can experience, for Zizek. As we saw in 1, e above, such an idea would in fact reproduce in philosophy the type of thinking which he argues characterises political ideologies, and the subject’s fundamental fantasy. (see 3a) It is more like a fold or crease in the surface of this reality as Zizek puts it in Tarrying With the Negative, the point within the substance of reality wherein that substance is able to look at itself, and see itself as alien to itself. According to Zizek, Hegel and Lacan add to Kant’s reading of the subject as the empty “I think” that accompanies any individual’s experience the caveat that, because objects thus appear to a subject, they always appear in an incomplete or biased way.”

The above quote succinctly expresses Zizek’s attempted revitalization of the Cartesian subject and simultaneously points out the problems inherent in it.

“To the extent that a subject can reflectively see itself, it sees itself not as a subject but as one more represented object …”

This is, of course, the fundamental flaw in the subject-object split, the “I-subject” in its ethical or theoretical observation of the Self contradicts itself, if it is identified with the Self, by simultaneously viewing the Self as subject and object. This inevitably results in the alienation of the self-conscious Subject noted most fully by Hegel.

The error in Zizek’s reformulation of the Subject lies in the following statement:

“According to Zizek, Hegel and Lacan add to Kant’s reading of the subject as the empty “I think” that accompanies any individual’s experience the caveat that, because objects thus appear to a subject, they always appear in an incomplete or biased way.” (italics mine)

The italicized phrase is not questioned in either Kant, Lacan or Zizek, although it is definitely rejected by Hegel.  Phenomenologically the I-Subject in fact does not accompany every or even most experiences, it only accompanies experiences preceded by the “step back” that one takes from involvement in order to assess a situation ethically or theoretically.  Of course since those conceptualizing the I-Subject were in the first place by definition in that theoretical mode, the simple observation that when involved or engrossed in something the I-Subject vanishes was missed.

The “step back” itself, while familiar phenomenologically, has not been clarified at all as to what it is and what it accomplishes.  We use a phrase implying movement, and all change is movement, but what is either moving or changing in this act is entirely unclear. With nothing else necessarily present,  however, the Self has to be  undergoing the change.

The change involved in the  “step back” is accomplished as recursive action that creates an I-Subject capable of observing the Self in the process of decision, something necessary for the Subject to perform ethical or theoretical judgment.   When acting on that decision, however, the Self becomes re-involved with the matters at hand and the I-Subject is discarded.

This temporary, invental nature of the I-Subject created in response to evental necessities clarifies Zizek’s contention that

“the subject is a “crack” in the universal field or substance of being, not a knowable thing. This is why Zizek repeatedly cites in his books the disturbing passage from the young Hegel describing the modern subject not as the “light” of the modern enlightenment, but “this night, this empty nothing …”, but that simultaneously “the subject is (not) some kind of supersensible entity for example, an immaterial and immortal soul, etc.”

The I-Subject is not a nominal “thing” because it is an action, the effect of a recursion that only subsists as long as the recursion is actively functioning.  Not only do we usually discard the Subject when acting, we in most cases have to, otherwise our actions become stilted, awkward, due to simultaneous self observation.  It’s no accident that “self-conscious” means “awkward” at well as the more literal meaning.

The re-positing of the Cartesian Subject is a failure to understand the final movement of Hegel’s phenomenology, where the Self ceases to perceive itself (by means of the I-Subject) and reality as everything over against that Self, and begins to perceive itself as reality.  Ironically, this reality is the simple actuality that is hidden in Lacan’s mysterious ‘Real’, the predominantly shared Self that Zizek posits as parallax reality.

Quotes above taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

http://www.iep.utm.edu/zizek/#SH3a

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s