What is “less than nothing” is what is lost in order to maintain the relationship between subject and object. This nothing sustains the dialectic, but it’s also the ground that is synthesized in Hegel’s dialectical project. But really, this nothing is also the “form” by which phenomenon is understood. That is to say, coming from Kant, understanding or the law of desire is the pure nothingness that imposes the order we see in the chaotic world.
It’s actually pretty simple. The universal, the a priori, is the emptiness that is lost in understanding the Real. This is because we can’t apprehend understanding directly; we can only see it through the empirical world. The closest we get to understanding itself, so to speak, is the petit object a, the pure signifier that is its own lack necessarily: without this particle of necessary being we wouldn’t be able to see being in the world at all. As Žižek says, for Heidigger, we wouldn’t have Sein without Das Sein.
Žižek goes to great lengths to demonstrate the post-structural condition: that how we read comes before what we read. Borrowing from Karen Barad, we can separate how we read from what we read, because we can use how we read to discover what we read — or we can use what we read to discover how we read – but we cannot discover their entanglement, that is the border between the two. To paraphrase him, in order to find out how the two go together, we need to realign the objects so that we, the viewing apparatus and the object in question, are tested against a third thing…which is impossible. There is no third point of view, in the theory of relativity. Results always come from the position of the viewing apparatus, as it cannot be outside itself. Philosophically, there’s no third view either. We may try to step out of this understanding, out of the metaphysician’s realm, but all attempts to determine the root of discourse find themselves mired in the failure to fully explain the framing of that discourse. To put it another way, Žižek notes that antiphilosophy is at the heart of philosophy. With each failure to explain antiphilosophy, we get more philosophy. With this line of reasoning, Žižek, as usual, goes through a huge nest of thinkers to demonstrate how their different philosophies circumambulate various centers of discourse:
The basic motif of antiphilosophy is the assertion of a pure presence (the Real Life of society for Marx, Existence for Kierkegaard, Will for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, etc.) irreducible to and excessive with regard to the network of philosophical concepts or representations. [. . .] The great theme of post-Hegelian antiphilosophy is the excess of the pre-conceptual productivity of Presence over its representation: representation is reduced to the “mirror of representation,” which reflects in a distorted way its productive ground (841).
Of course, Žižek wants to say that Hegel was the first to reach this irreducible ground, as the synthesis of consciousness – and he traces this through a variety of manners that is both entertaining and enlightening. But Barad’s point remains; whatever language Žižek adopts, we see the mysterious Presence continually being shuffled from point to point, which reduces all discourse to a manner of tautology:
The mistake resides in the fact that the limit pertaining to the form itself (to the categories used) is misperceived as a contingent empirical limitation. In the case of cognitivism: it is not that we already have the categorical apparatus necessary to explain consciousness (neuronal process, etc), and our failure to have yet done so pertains only to the empirical limitation of our knowing the relevant facts about the brain; the true limitation lies in the very form of our knowledge, in the very categorical apparatus we are using. In other words, the gap between the form of knowledge and its empirical limitation is inscribed in this form itself (284).
So while we understand the mysterious Real though our a priori categories, these categories give us an incomplete view. In order to mirror ourselves with the exterior, to be “appropriate” to reality, we create a standing social order, a consistency within discourses (or many discourses themselves) each of which approach the mystery of the world from another angle. These discourses are always defractions, which are in themselves incomplete, hinging on one another but only shuffling pure Presence about. Spoken through Fichte: this absence can be expressed as antoss, or as Lacan liked to say about the Self: “I think where I am not.” This can be unpacked to mean that the self is simply what mediates itself. In this way, Hegel remains for Žižek the genius that first notices how what we read is how we read:
In this sense, it is meaningless to call Hegel’s philosophy “absolute idealism”: his point is precisely that there is no need for a Third element, the medium or Ground beyond subject and object-substance. We start with objectivity, and the subject is nothing but the self-meditation of objectivity (144, original italics).
Unpacking this thought, lets realize that not only is the self “less than nothing” but “less than nothing” is also the pure Presence mediating the discourse itself. We get the symbolic reality through the loss of pure Presence. Its lack allows us to read through it to get discursive reality as a full blown immersive social environment of culture.
I rather enjoyed this lengthy and inspired book. To be brief, Žižek does philosophy to hide the fact that philosophy no longer works, that in Heidegger’s language, philosophy has been suspended while capitalism contemplates itself. In this sense, capitalism tries to say what reason cannot (in this sense, capitalism occupies the same position as Art for Kant, that of a second nature). No wonder then that Žižek says philosophy stopped with Hegel, that the many guises of Hegel are in fact not-Hegel or a stunted Hegel so that we can continue on with postmodernism, with the avant garde, because we haven’t learned Hegel yet… so we hide him away while we continue on in endless jouissance. So to cut to the chase:
In every discourse, in every sense-making, we either sacrifice completeness or we sacrifice contingency. Master discourses (like that of Gods) generally sacrifice contingency to create completeness, to wrap us in universals, to guarantee the universe be stable for us to live in. But in all of these cases (and you can go on ad infinitum), you will end up asking, why is there necessity? As in is there a “necessity particle” that makes existence be (as existence itself is without cause)? Why are things even necessary? Is there pure being somewhere? Žižek’s answer is to locate the split of symbolic reality (necessity) and the Real together within the subject, that only through a split subject do we get contingency as the only necessity. Our ability to understand is then only supplemented through both Reason and an encounter with the Real that stands in to verify the completeness of discursive truth. For Žižek the subject’s being split is another way of saying that necessary to subjectivity is the provision of what needs to be included within its view, of what cannot be compromised. Žižek provides the example where some Christians replied to Darwinism by insisting that the world was 4,000 years old, that fossils were placed in the Earth to test faith. Žižek doesn’t believe this to be true but he cites this example to show that the “grain of truth” in the Christian example is their
impossible-Real objectal counter-part which never positively existed in reality – it emerges through its loss, it is directly created as a fossil. [T]he exclusion of this object is consistitutive of the appearance of reality: since reality (not the Real) is correlative to the subject, it can only constitute itself through the withdrawal from it of the object which “is” the subject [. . .] What breaks up the self-closure of transcendental correlation is thus not the transcendent reality that eludes the subject’s grasp, but the inaccessibility of the object that “is” the subject itself. This is the true “fossil,” the bone that is the spirit, to paraphrase Hegel, and this object is not simply the full objective reality of the subject [. . .] but the non-corporeal, fantasmatic lamella. (645).
This is another way of encountering the symbolic Real, the meaningless floating signifier that would guarantee completeness, that is the subject in its actualization. Be this ontology, money, or joy, fear, anxiety, love, mana or luck, such signifiers often allow discourse to hinge on these terms in order for that discourse to continue to be relevant, a kind of antiphilosophy in the heart of philosophy or antilaw at the heart of law. Žižek writes:
Every signifying field thus has to be “sutured” by a supplementary zero-signifier, a “zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains.” This signifier is “a symbol in its pure state”: lacking any determinate meaning, it stands for the presence of meaning and such in contrast to its absence, in a further dialectical twist, the mode of appearance of this supplementary signifier which stands for meaning as such is non-sense [. . .]. Notions like mana thus “represent nothing more or less that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought. (585, original italics).
So is there any way to get out? The only meaningful answer is no, as to escape pure Presence is to fall into non-sense, or at least a difference sense that is non-sense from where we current are. Even attempt to transgress the limits of the law end up invoking the law in its transgressed form, simply because those forms are how we understand. This is how the Real becomes mirrored within the symbolic as the pure form of the symbolic. The symbolic Real, which is what Žižek would call meaningless encodings necessary to moor our consistency (our discourse, so to speak), operates through the contingencies qua Real, a maneuver of the subject to mediate itself and actualize.
At this point, to recognize a new thing, like a new world order, or a solution from our capitalist dilemma, means coming to new coordinates, a new phenomenon, a new axis. Žižek locates this between drive and reason, to have the two come together. You can read this like the unification of money with language, but he leaves it open, because after all, these are metaphysical terms. Directly speaking, such terms are always beyond our understanding, lacking substance, even as they are always within the area delineated by our pure understanding, but completely impotent to interrupt our world and realign it. All we need is the right content to come along, the right void to allow us to rename it, and recognize it as the new event, in the language of Nietzsche, “the eternal return.” With that, we could have a new epoch, a new pure Presence emerging from nothingness itself, and that new Presence would be a new world order, a new symbolic Real to realign our world, to remake our world. Compared to anything in or current state it would be more than anything, a new nothing from which there would never be any possibility of return as we would irreparably be someone else.