Ryan Haecker on Slavoj Žižek’s Vanishing Contradictions

by Ryan Haecker, from his blog Transhuman Traditionalism, December 7, 2015

Slavoj Žižek repeatedly gestures to a medley of differences, ‘absence’, ‘gaps’, ‘splits’, ‘otherness’, ‘parrallax’, and ‘decentring’ as various instances of “irreducible contradictions” that pervade cognition. (cf. Less than Nothing 2012, 77) He detects the negativity of difference and contradiction already in Descartes’ epistemological turn to the possibility of subjective knowledge; finds it foreshadowed in Kant’s sublime dualism between the phenomenal and noumenal realms (1989 261-2); but finds its most revealing expression in Hegel’s famous ‘night of the world’ passage in the Jenaer Realphilosophie (1805-6):

“The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity – an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him – or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here – pure self – in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears.”  (Quoted in The Parallax View2009, 42)

Žižek connects this night of empty nothingness that contains all the world’s representations with Schelling’s “pure night of the Self”, from whence free human subjectivity may emerge unfettered by objective constraints. (Rex Butler 2014, 107-108) But following Hegel’s radicalization of Kant’s antinomies, Žižek also makes contradictions into ‘real contradictions’ that are inherent in the things themselves. He thus seems to suggest every ‘real’ object of cognition is contradictory. Yet classical logic abhors a contradiction: according to the principle of explosion, any consequence may follow from a contradiction; and if every thought were contradictory, then it would seem that every statement could be true, and no statement could be false. Then no statement – however ludicrous – could be falsified; all distinctions between truth and falsity would collapse; and everything must be admitted. This is no mere tangential remark, but the decisive point upon which appraisals of Žižek have turned. Last week, I posed this question to Žižek during the third lecture of the Hegel Battles lecture series, which was hosted by the Birbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.

Ryan Haecker: Yesterday you described the “ABCs of Hegel’s dialectic” as the objectivity of contradictions in the things themselves that result in the gaps of irreducible contradictions inherent in the normative self-adequation of concepts. As I am sure you know, in classical logic any unresolved contradiction results in a trivial inference because, since any consequence may follow from a contradiction, no single determinate consequence may be inferred from irreducible contradictions. Yet you clearly wish to infer some determinate third position Hegel interpretation and politics, partly by eternally presupposing the virtual and vanishing mediation of the ‘Christian moment’. To avoid triviality, should you not more radically also affirm that the gaps of every contradiction should be resolved in and through the absolute paradox of the Trinity, which, as Hegel suggest, opens gaps and resolves contradictions within itself.  Slavoj Žižek: First, I know what Hegel claims, this opening gaps and resolving contradictions and so on, but here, as you know, one has to be better than me very precise. Could you just repeat that point, maybe I didn’t get it, about that triviality?  Ryan Haecker: Yes, so the Principle of Explosion, of Psuedo-Scotus, says that if there is ever a contradiction in an inference then any consequence may follow from it.  Slavoj Žižek: Ah, you mean this one. I thought so. No, I would say, here I don’t have time to go into it, but you know for, again, for Hegel, what he calls contradiction is not just a general statement, in the sense of, you know, you can say anything: this is white and black; this is white and cold. No, contradiction in Hegel, I claim, means something very precisely that occurs at the singular moment of a system, or whatever. Let’s call it a symptomal point. So that it is not that you can say everything about it. It’s a very precise intervention… I am well aware that one way to redeem Hegel, by some analytic philosophers and others, close to common sense, is to try to do other subtle distinctions, claiming that what Hegel means by contradiction is not, in this naïve sense, radical contradiction that you can claim whatever you want about opposite things. They try to save Hegel in this way claiming that in a deeper sense Hegel nonetheless respects the Aristotelian A = A, and so on… You see what I mean, this is a very specific reversal that I call contradiction, when a thing, by pursuing a thing, up to its end, its logic, it turns into its opposite… You don’t end up in any kind of trivial state where you can say anything. Again, its a very specific point in the system.

[Click here to listen to an audio recording of question and answer:]

Žižek responded to the challenge of triviality by restricting contradictions to the “singular moment” of a “symptomal point” within a system: he seems to deny that contradiction applies to propositions, in which “you can claim whatever you want about opposite things”; as well as to terms, in a way that “respects the Aristotelian A = A”; but, rather, affirms that contradiction only applies to “this very specific reversal” of the psyche, in which “by pursuing a thing, up to its end, its logic, it turns into its opposite.” His intermittent... more here