Zizek on Deleuze

I always find Slavoj Zizek alternately (or simultaneously) enthralling and infuriating, and nowhere more so than in his new book Organs Without Bodies in which he takes on Gilles Deleuze.

Organs Without Bodies, like all of Zizek’s texts, is dense, digressive, funny, and filled with brilliant observations. And also like Zizek’s other books, it’s so all over the place, filled with digressions and non sequiturs, that it’s difficult to summarize. There are some sharp observations on Deleuze, but much of the book has nothing to do with him, as Zizek moves on to such topics as biotechnology and Hitchcock, not to mention Stalin’s forced collectivization of the farms and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, both of which Zizek seems to find admirable. (Not to mention amusing passages such as the one where Zizek explicates the Hegelian subtext of George W Bush’s verbal gaffes).
Basically, Zizek praises the Deleuze of Logic of Sense, who explicitly draws on Lacan, and disses the Deleuze who collaborated with Guattari, and critiqued psychoanalysis, in Anti-Oedipus and What Is Philosophy. Above all, Zizek endeavors to show that, despite Deleuze’s detestation of Hegel, he was in fact much more Hegelian than he knew.
Zizek is at his sharpest when he writes about Deleuze’s concern with the genesis of the New, and when he questions some of the real tensions within Deleuze’s own texts, particularly that between Becoming, or the Virtual, as an “effect” (in Logic of Sense, which for me, as for Zizek, is Deleuze’s best book), and Becoming as the ground of being, or of the Actual (in the work with Guattari). He links Deleuze’s difficult, and indispensable, notion of the quasi-cause with Lacan’s theory of the objet petit a (a link which, though Zizek does not mention this, Deleuze and Guattari themselves explicitly make, cf. Anti-Oedipus page 27).
[I lack the fortitude, and perhaps the ability, to explicate Deleuze's notion of the quasi-cause here; suffice it to say that I find acceptable, if not entirely satisfactory, Zizek's paraphrase of it as an "effect" which exceeds anything determined by its physical causes, and therefore as an expression of the indeterminacy, or always-incomplete determinacy, or (in Zizek's retelling) of the inevitable gap, in the realm of actuality; and hence as an opening to the Virtual, and as an occasion for the emergence of the New.]
Anyway, when Zizek says that Deleuze posits this quasi-cause one way in Logic of Sense (where it is equated with the notion of Event) and another way in Anti-Oedipus (where it is equated with the Body Without Organs, which itself is explained quite differently in Logic of Sense), he is pointing to an important and difficult nexus in Deleuze’s philosophy, indeed one which many of Deleuze’s more naive enthusiasts have altogether failed to notice.
But it seems to me to be just a cheap shot for Zizek to explain this nexus by saying that Deleuze fled in fear from his own subversive insights and joined with Guattari to retreat to a more simple-minded, and ultimately idealist, position.
Beyond this, Zizek’s attempt to annex Deleuze to Hegel is really a continuation of his usual anti-Kantian polemics, or more precisely his updating of Hegel’s critique of Kant in the Science of Logic. (You can find this in many of Zizek’s books, most notably, perhaps in The Sublime Object of Ideology). Again, this is an issue which I lack to ability to write about here, though I hope sometime to work it out in a more formally academic context (basically, I want to consider what Kant’s hypothetical rejoinder to Hegel might have been, and thereby to resist Zizek’s assimilation of everything to Hegel and Lacan).
Indeed, the overall problem with Organs Without Bodies (and more generally with all of Zizek’s work) has to do with his ultimate loyalty to Hegel and Lacan: quite literally everything gets ultimately framed in Hegelian/Lacanian terms, and this means that Zizek is not really able to encounter any texts or thinkers lying outside this orbit. Zizek begins Organs Without Bodies by pointing out how Deleuze himself found the idea of “dialog” between different points of view utterly worthless, due to its phony sense of us all being friends and everything being reconciled, and proposed instead the model of an “encounter” with alien forces, with something from Outside. Zizek says, therefore, that his own book will be an encounter with Deleuze, and not a dialog. But it seems to me that this encounter is precisely what never takes place, because for Zizek nothing can possibly be Outside, since his system is all-enclosing (which it can be because of its basic Hegelian claim that any seeming “outsiderness” is actually a gap or rupture – this is the meaning of castration – already inherent to what is “inside,” or “here and now.” Zizek always presents this claim as a crucial self-deconstruction of one’s own subjective position; but I am inclined to agree with Deleuze that it is actually an underhanded tactic for rejecting any sort of radical exteriority)
Every great thinker – Deleuze included – tends to reduce everything to his own singular insights, and therefore tends to find the same threads again and again, no matter what he/she writes about. In this sense, it is unfair to tax Zizek in particular, for the fact that whatever he writes ends up circling back to the same Lacanian “algorithms” (especially the one about the barred subject and the object of fantasy). Zizek’s Lacanianism, no less than any other philosopher’s formula, is justified by all the great insights it produces along the way. but still I find it suffocating that Zizek’s marvelous interpretive machine is not just a producer of sparks, but that the circle always has to be closed at the end, so that we always end up back with assertions about, for instance, the obscene supplement of superego enjoyment, or the price to be paid for denying castration.
And this is related to the fact that there are questions that Zizek never asks: particularly, questions about affect. Zizek follows Lacan and Hegel in considering such questions to be epiphenomenal at best, if not completely illusory. Everything has to do with the limits of cognition, with the impossibility of knowing oneself. A deadlock is constitutive of human thought, according to Zizek. And I entirely agree, but I think the consequence one should draw from this is to shift our questions away from those of cognition and belief, understanding and ideology, onto the level of emotional (affective) investment – attractions and repulsions, qualitative bodily transitions, and the like. This is also where you will find a level of being/becoming that is outside of, and irreducible to, the (Cartesian) Subject, without for all that being objective or universal. But, though Zizek lukewarmly praises Deleuze for opening up such dimensions to investigation, he ends up returning to his insistence on an inverted Cartesianism, the barred or empty subject instead of qualities/affects that precede or exceed the subject. I think this is a symptom of overestimating cognition, understanding, and comprehension as mental activities – an overestimation that Zizek oddly shares with cognitive science.
Indeed, Zizek explicitly discusses cognitive science in this book. He’s especially good when he takes on Steven Pinker (in another one of his digressions which has nothing to do with Deleuze). Pinker dismisses art and philosophy, among other things, as activities that have no Darwinian survival value, and that exist merely as “biologically pointless” byproducts of how our brains evolved. Zizek rightly points out that “the specifically human dimension” is precisely equivalent to this biological pointlessness, i.e. to activities that are irreducible to “goal-oriented activity aiming at our survival.” He adds, rightly, and Freudianly, that human sexuality in particular is one of these “biologically pointless” activities, since in human beings it has been so utterly separated from the biological goal of procreation. Perversity is the defining mark of humanity. More, he adds, rightly and Lacanianly, that language is in the same way “biologically pointless,” since its autonomy, and capacity to proliferate and mislead, instead of communicate, is anything but utilitarian.
When Zizek criticizes Pinker on human cognitive limits, he writes in a Kantian spirit. Where Pinker says that human minds cannot understand ultimate philosophical questions for reasons of inherent biological limitations, just as monkeys cannot understand quantum mechanics, Zizek points out that this is a poor analogy, because monkeys do not ask questions about quantum mechanics in the first place, whereas we are always asking the metaphysical questions that we are unable to answer. (Zizek adds, brilliantly, that in a real sense human beings cannot understand quantum mechanics either: physicists can comprehend it in the mode of mathematical formalization, but they are as unable as the rest of us to comprehend it existentially).
All this is quite wonderful; but Zizek never pushes the argument in the direction of looking at other dimensions than the cognitive one. Affect is (programatically and deliberately) missing from his account. Instead, he ends it all up with another one of his Hegelian/Lacanian internalizations: in this case, a grandiose declaration of the alleged universal animosity between male and female – something which, to my mind, domesticates his previous claims by reigning in their excess. Because such an account is heterosexually normative, and because it actually allows for the return of Pinker’s claims for biologically-based differences between “male” and “female” minds. Zizek becomes an essentialist in spite of himself, as always when he talks about gender.
(I myself would link the “biological pointlessness” of human behavior and mentality to Bataille’s expenditure more than, or rather than, to Freud’s narrative of sexual development).
And one other thing (to end this overly long and overly convoluted posting with my own cheap shot): after calling attention to “the extraordinary amount of factual mistakes” that crop up in readings of Hitchcock’s movies, including detailed formal descriptions that are “simply false”, and to all of which Zizek of course accords great symptomatic importance (pp 151-152), Zizek himself makes a similar error, not in regard to Hitchcock, but in regard to Jim Carrey: he identifies the wonderful scene in which Carrey attempts to beat himself up as taking place in Me, Myself, and Irene (page 173), when in fact – as any ardent Carreyan ought to know – the scene is actually from Liar, Liar. (At least I think it is; I haven’t had the opportunity to check. In fairness, Zizek also approvingly quotes Stanley Cavell, who said of similar mistakes in his own accounts of Hollywood films that he fully stands by his mistakes).

One Response to “Zizek on Deleuze”

  1. The Weblog says:

    Unelectable / Zizek

    Also, check out this review by blogger Steven Shaviro of Zizek’s new book on Deleuze. Here’s a snippet….