Philosophy proper, for Žižek, begins with Kant. He accomplishes a great breakthrough in thought but leaves in its wake a nagging problem that Žižek gnaws at with the persistence of a dog with a juicy bone.
Kant has given us the transcendental horizon – mind-moulded frames of reference that structure reality for us – but what has been left open is the ontological question that Kant deemed impenetrable and ultimately unknowable: what is the core reality that lies behind appearance?
Žižek, in an interpretation of Hegel that he has made his own, does not blithely provide an answer. Instead, in ways that define his greatest contribution to philosophy, he seeks to establish the necessary coordinates and insights that allow for the question to be explored.
The transcendental horizon is a given and it might be thought that he would embrace similes like the one provided by the author of a recently published book, “The case against reality”: objects that we see around us are like our computers’ file icons – handy for negotiating our way in the world but hiding the complex arrangements of ones and zeros that create them.
Such similes would be severely qualified by Žižek because they suggest there exists, hidden behind the transcendental horizon, a fully constituted reality that objectively accounts for everyday reality.
The Hegelian step is, instead, to insist that the gap between everyday reality and something else has to be situated within the order of being itself.
The gap goes all the way down to an inconsistent, proto-reality of quantum oscillations.
This spectral reality only becomes ordinary reality when it is stabilized and ‘quilted’ by the human subject. The process of registration by the subject is seen as homologous to the collapse of then quantum physics.
Readers familiar with Žižek’s work over the last ten years will recognise the territory he is traversing in the first two-thirds of “Sex and the failed absolute”.
In many ways, the book is a distillation of what he has been saying over three decades. What remains refreshingly engaging and hugely impressive is his acrobatic ability to hold in balance radical ideas from philosophy, psychoanalysis and quantum science.
Over the years, the Möbius strip has been used more than once in Žižek’s explications and he returns to it with renewed vigour as a way of explaining why new life has to be injected into the term ‘dialectical materialism’. His argument is presented with lucidity but its intricacy is daunting at times, especially with his fiendishly convoluted employment of the image of the Klein bottle.
“Sex and the failed absolute” is a work of genius in the way that it grapples with absolutely fundamental questions about the nature of reality. The Lacanian death drive, the circular movement that repeatedly misses its object, is for Žižek a Hegel-weighted category that points towards the absent foundations of every ontology. But the drive never ceases – and nor does Žižek.
“Sex and the failed absolute”, by Slavoj Žižek, is published by Bloomsbury.