Friday, 28 November 2008

Adrian Johnston: Žižek's ontology

Those of you who are into Žižek (yes, I’m looking at you, Shane) will be interested in Adrian Johnston’s very fine new book, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (Northwestern UP, 2008). The book is a fascinating account of subjectivity and ontology, and it’s far and away the best and most interesting thing I’ve read on Žižek. (Actually, the best part of the book is Žižek’s humorous endorsement on the cover: he expresses some anxiety about the question whether Johnston “is the original and I am a copy.”)

To summarise Johnston’s argument very briefly: While Badiou wants to think subjectivity as something that can never emerge from being, Žižek tries to understand subjectivity as emerging from flaws that inhere in being. For Žižek, subjectivity occurs as a kind of monstrous mistake, a malfunctioning produced by the cracks and imbalances in being: “this malfunctioning occurs because substance is shot through with openings for possible deviations from its ‘normal’ functioning…. For Žižek, true subjectivity is a kind of catastrophic imbalance that shouldn’t exist, a monstrous ontological mutation that comes to be as an outgrowth of antagonisms and tensions immanent to the being of human nature” (p. 196).

This theory of subjectivity leads Žižek to rethink the very ontological foundations of materialism: “One of the most regularly recurring philosophemes in Žižek’s oeuvre … is the notion that being as such is ‘not all’. He repeatedly insists upon the incomplete and discordant nature of whatever constitutes the foundational substance of ontology. Žižek describes the Hegelian Absolute … not as a calm, serene, universal All peacefully at one with itself but, on the contrary, as at war with itself, as internally rent asunder by antagonisms and unrest…. A crack runs through being. Žižek identifies this crack as the subject” (p. 165).

On a related note, a reader of F&T has notified me of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Blackwell, 2008) – I haven’t seen this yet, but apparently it critiques the enthusiasm with which some theologians have tried to appropriate Žižek and Badiou. If you’ve read the new Eagleton book, I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.


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