Book Review: Less Than Nothing, Zizek 2013

The text of my Amazon review of Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” Verso Books 2013. I know I could post a link, but Amazon has enough power already! If you are interested in the book, here is a link to it and other reviews of it.  Here is a recent blog post of mine on Antirealism and Realism inspired by  Zizek and other reading like this article on Antirealism from SEP.

 

This is a sweeping review of Hegel’s “dialectical method”, its application in his history and phenomenology, and then its outworking in the thought of Hegel’s contemporaries and successors. All of this is Zizek applying Hegel (beginning with the genesis of Hegelian-ism in Kant) to [mostly] continental philosophers influenced by Hegel, which comes out to just about everybody in the European antirealist tradition that Kant began. Besides Hegel Lacan takes up the most consideration but beyond him there are many many others to numerous to name.

Philosophers never declare themselves for “realism” or “antirealism”, a division always reflected in their thought. Zizek is an acknowledged heavyweight in the antirealist domain and his dominant interests, psychology, and political history, reveal themselves in all the threads of this book. He covers these and many more subjects (and philosophers) as he interprets them through Hegel. Sometimes he notes where he thinks their thought “goes wrong” (relative to Hegel) but more often he uses their material to illustrate the added insights they bring to the subject matter via their Hegelian influence.

It is impossible to cover this book in detail, but I can describe its broad structure. Imagine a wheel with a hub and spokes, perhaps a bicycle wheel. Zizek begins at the hub with a theme “truth has the structure of fiction”, almost his opening line. His writing spirals around the hub in tight circles outward toward the rim. On the way, he crosses the same spokes which in this analogy stand for both discrete subjects within the universe of his interests (and they are broad) and the philosophers whose thought he uses to illustrate his point. Round and round he goes touching the same spokes again and again each time adding more or new context with which to understand the particular subject and philosopher involved. Throughout the book, Zizek weaves together his own commentary with extensive quotes from dozens of philosophers from Kant to Meillassoux. As he crosses each spoke over again their thought is re-illustrated, re-applied to the subject matter at hand whether it be language, sex, politics, economics, history, or quantum mechanics.

I am a realist philosopher and it has been a long time since I’ve read Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Freud, Nietzsche, or Marx. I’ve not read Lacan, or any of the many other continental antirealists of the later 20th century Zizek uses here. Zizek’s vocabulary, evolved over two centuries of antirealism, is dense, obscure, and difficult for me. But as the many subjects are touched on again and again his meaning became clearer. Thanks to the enhancing repetition, retouching each spoke, his central arguments became clearer. Was Zizek’s repetition solidifying my impressions, or was I just getting used to the lingo? Probably some of both.

There is probably more than one legitimate way to interpret Hegel, Lacan, and the rest. Zizek’s authoritative grasp of this material certainly makes his interpretation one of them, an approach to be taken seriously. He runs into trouble only when he crosses into the subject of science, represented by the association between quantum mechanics and cosmology, where he seems a bit out of his depth. His description of the relation between the Higgs field and the “true and false vacuum” (the next-to-last chapter) quotes Paul Steinhardt and is clear enough, but then Zizek goes back and casts this phenomenon in Hegelian, Lacanian, and even Freudian terms! None of this could be more than poetic metaphor, but Zizek doesn’t seem to take it that way. To me (and I opine here because I’ve read so much physics and cosmology) quantum physics as described by modern physicists, can only be understood in realist terms. If I understand antirealism properly nothing in the corpus of antirealist thought can possibly be about (signify) the quantum world which is washed out long before the point where the external horizon appears to phenomenal experience.

Although I am not an antirealist, I enjoy reading Zizek. This book is long and dense, but his enthusiasm and humor reveal themselves throughout. I enjoy reading philosophers who are passionate about their work and at the same time refuse to take themselves too seriously. It’s hard to tell if Zizek takes himself too seriously. I don’t think so, but this ambiguity coupled with a little self-deprecating humor (where do you see that otherwise in philosophy these days) is all a part of the book’s charm.

To finish this review, I do want to give kudos to the publisher (Verso Books)! I recently read a 125 page Kindle book priced at $40 (greedy publisher who shall remain unnamed). This book is 1000 pages long and only $11! Very reasonable! Highly recommended for Zizek fans and anyone interested in a forcefully argued interpretation of Hegel and much of antirealist thought from Kant to Meillassoux.

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