Historical Vs. Dialectical Materialism

January 7, 2009

What do you guys make of the distinction Zizek makes between historical materialism and dialectical materialism (particularly in the introduction to The Parallax View)?  Am I wrong to think that this has to do with his distinction between historicism and historicity, respectively?

Does his (dialectical) materialism have to do with the way in which the conscious ‘Self’ integrates the material/physical (‘ontic’?) world into its own phenomenal frame of reference, such as in the way he differentiates between psychoanalysis and the cognitive brain sciences (in chapters 3 and 4 of Parallax)?

Put differently, does Zizek’s understanding of dialectical materialism have to do (precisely) with the Hegelian differentiation between substance and subject:  the brain is the fleshy substance in your skull, and consciousness is the phenomenal level of subjectivity?  Or, put differently, could it be argued that the differences reside, for example, in that the cognitive brain sciences can examine the ways in which a shock to the body can have some kind of neurological effect on the brain; but the brain sciences are still not capable of understanding how the conscious ‘Self’ makes sense of this shock, i.e, how the subject integrates it into her own field of subjective meaning?  This seems to suggest the relation to Hegel’s ‘phrenology’:  ‘spirit is a bone’.

I seem to recall something about this in Tarrying with the Negative.  Does anyone know the reference?


25 Responses to “Historical Vs. Dialectical Materialism”

  1. sonnyburnett said

    I’m really curious about something, US.

    I’ve noticed that you consistently use the feminine pronouns ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘herself’, etc to designate a markless, gender-neutral or gender-inclusive form in your texts.

    As in the above “…how the subject integrates it into her own field of subjective meaning?”

    Traditionally, it has been the masculine form that has been designated that role for male & female authors alike, altho there are those (more feminist minded?) writers that consistently use feminine forms for this role.

    Have you always done so?

  2. The Universal Singular said

    Only started doing so within the last year.

    I was asked the same question when I defended my copms in July.

    If you’ll notice, Zizek does the same in In Defense of Lost Causes.

  3. veiledphallus said

    We don’t have that problem in Persian. ‘او’ basically designates both genders.

  4. Joe said

    There is an amazing and lengthy discussion of historical and dialectical materialism in the first part (labeled “The Recommencement of Dialectical Materialism?” of Bruno Bosteels’ “Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject.”

  5. battleofthegiants said

    In the interview with Parker that I posted elsewhere Z talks about how the feminine is what he considers properly ‘the subject’ because it lines up with Hegel/Marx and the “substanceless Subject”.

    Is Bosteels’ paper in “Lacan, the Silent Partners”?

  6. Joe said

    It appears so, battle, though from a quick glance at the table of contents it seems that they reproduce only that section I mention. I found it in a much larger essay.

  7. The Universal Singular said

    So does anyone have any thoughts on my initial questions?

  8. battleofthegiants said

    I read the Bosteels piece, and there are a lot of things I disagree with in regards to Zizek. Part of the problem was that this was written in 2g1/2g2, and therefore doesn’t take into account Lenin or sublimation, and it is my contention that while Althusser focuses on the imaginary and the State as the realm of ideology, Zizek looks at the symbolic and Law and the economy (i.e. commodity fetishism).


    For what Zizek says on the subject, see Historical Materialism , 7, pp 181-97. See also the interview that opens Althusser’s Lenin in Philosophy . In the intro to Marx’s Early Writings there’s an Italian Marxist who describes how the division was invented my Engels, and he calls in to question the validity of making it. This author also, by the way, became very anti-Hegelian as time went on, so this may be part of the reason.

    The basic difference is that historical materialism is a way of doing history, while dialectical materialism is the philosophy of Marxism. (Zizek makes a further differentiation between dialectical materialism and a materialist dialectic somewhere in parallax view ).

    The way Bosteels talks about these two terms (HM and DM) follows the logic of “oppositional determination” (although Bosteels doesn’t use this term) where historical materialism is both a category and its own element. I.e. Historical materialism includes itself and dialectical materialism. (Maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t have it right in Front of me). He talks about it in the same way Zizek talks about being – it’s internally split and only in that split is it at all possible.

    I don’t quite grasp it myself, so that may not help much. I recommend peeking at the Bosteels piece.

  9. battleofthegiants said

    I looked at it again (the Bosteels piece) and what he says is that historical materialism is systematized as dialectical materialism, and that at its kernel it contains historical materialism proper. So, the “Oppositional determination” is that Historical materialism is its systematization into a theory (dialectical materialism) and its original impetus…

    Which begins to raise problems for me, because Bosteels tries to outline the growth of this line of thought in the Althusserian vein – specifically Al himself, Badiou and Zizek. My worry is that this formulation may have spun into the “relative autonomy” of the theory from history, that history is only relevant “in the last instance” and, perhaps then, not at all…

    Which is something I always suspect Zizek of – he relies on the materialist work of Marx, Freud and Lacan (i.e. interacting with real stuff – the economy and people) to grow his theory, but I don’t think he could do a work of history. Which is perhaps why Tarrying, for instance, he completely ignores the economic circumstances that lead to the war in Yugoslavia, focusing instead on abstract formulations on Nationalism (which I largely think sound plausible…).


  10. sonnyburnett said

    If ‘there is no presupposition that is not previously posited’ as per the implication of not-all logic, does not this presupposition of ‘economic circumstances’ only come to be via a positing act by the subject that views the key to understanding the war in Yugoslavia in these terms?

  11. The Universal Singular said

    I’m in the middle re-reading the Boosteels article, and I haven’t quite formed an opinion of it yet… but I’d like to keep a pulse on this one… Please remind me if I don’t come back to it.

  12. battleofthegiants said

    Whereas Zizek uses Marx as the foundation of his thought, he “posits the presupposition” that historical materialism is the correct analytic approach to problems. This is what Parallax is in large part about – the question of historical and dialectical materialism; it’s not a mistake or simply an aesthetic choice that Lenin is on the cover.

    Whereas Zizek takes Lacan as the foundation of his thought, he “posits the presupposition” that the world is structured around a lack.

    The lack in Zizek’s analysis is that he never asks why the war started in the first place, a war that was not produced by nationalist hatred, but enabled nationalism to surface. It is clear to me this was precipitated by an economic crises that had severe effects in Yugoslavia.

    This is fully consistent with Z’s assertion that ‘society doesn’t exist’, that it is riven by antagonism, aka class struggle. Rather than an explosive Labour revolt taking hold of the region (which began to happen, but was quelled by the ruling Party) nationalism took its place. This is not unlike Germany in the thirties, which Zizek argues was the result of the displacement of class struggle onto race.

    The symptom, the thing that seems out of place in his analysis is (as I pointed out at our last meeting) that he talks about some mythical, inevitable global environmental crises as the coming potential for the end of capitalism (rather than a crises of capitalism per se) – it comes out of nowhere right at the end of the book. Rather than open up the question of the economic at that point, he closes his line of enquiry completely. It is, in addition, a description that is uncanny in its applicability to the current economic crises.

    The economic angle is a strange omission, given all that.


    • sonnyburnett said

      ‘Positing the presuppostion’ is NOT the final dialectical step Zizek takes. It is the first. If there is a “correct analytic approach to problems”, would it not be in the final step? The one in which we reach an analytic position?

  13. The Universal Singular said

    “Whereas Zizek uses Marx as the foundation of his thought, he “posits the presupposition” that historical materialism is the correct analytic approach to problems.”

    Doesn’t Zizek opt for Dialectical Materialism over historical materialism?

    Doesn’t historical materialism have to do with the positive historical elements in the dialectic, such as different modes of production? And doesn’t Dialectical Materialism, therefore, come closer to ‘tarrying with the negative’, with the lack/Void, around which the Symbolic is structured? And, isn’t ‘class struggle’ the name for this Void in the social-Symbolic order?

    That’s why ‘class struggle’ is the subject of history, whereas (I would argue) capitalism is the (or a) ‘substance’ of history. The subject is the Void in the structure. And Dialectical Materialism deals with the object (the substance) that ‘tickles’ (troubles, to some degree) the ‘subject’.

    I agree with SB that ‘Positing the Presuppositions’ is the first step in the dialectical approach’.

    Where does Zizek ever really practice a critique of political economy? His object of analysis is ideology. That’s why ‘nationalism’, and other such ideologies, figure so highly as his objects of analysis.

  14. battleofthegiants said

    U.S., you’ve just reproduced Zizek’s rhetoric (making statements that look like questions) rather than making an argument. So let me take you seriously here, and give you your message back:In what way does GM come closer to ‘tarrying with the negative’? The “therefore” doesn’t follow – it needs to be explained. If HM is the inspection of the mode of production, than what is DM? How is it you come to define it as ‘closer to tarrying with the negative’? And why do you distance DM from acutally tarrying with the negative by introducing it with the word “closer”?

    The problem I began to pose was that perhaps the division between Historical and Dialectical materialism is a false problem that lets people forget the root: i.e. the material world and history.

    In the first chapter of SOI he argues that Kant only makes sense through Marx: i.e. its only the external beleif that is commodity fetishism that allows us to deduce the transcendental subject. (I’ll have to look up the page number a little later – I’m not at home).

    In Parallax you get something similar: Zizek looking at the brain sciences (i.e. the material world) – (but at a remove. I.e. he looks at the philosophy of mind surrounding the science rather than the science itself). He does this to save the cartesian subject and the unconscious (maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that was Kant’s transcendental subject…).

    But nowhere does Z approach the economy. That’s the problem. He more or less admits it himself, but projects it onto Jameson (in that interview that I posted from IJZS). I.e. political economy was acutally a tool for Marx, but Jameson doesn’t kow anything about the economy – and so he ends asking what it means to be a Marxist, and that while some might not think he is, he thinks he is.

    So yes, of course his project is ideology; but does he get to ‘the last step of the dialectic’in his own work? He assumes that Marx was right about the economy (though he’s uncertain about it – check out his interview in ‘soft targets’ – address below), and then completely ignores it, taking it as the accepted ground. Laclau takes him on this too, in their exchange in Critical Inquiry: he accuses Zizek of accepting the labour theory of value (i.e. the central role of the commodity form) as true (Laclau thinks it ain’t). Can he truly ‘posit presuppositions’ without dealing with his initial presuppositions? Even in DoLC he sticks to the idea that it is the economy that is at the root of it all (and like in FTKN he uses ‘oppositional determination’ to do it.) So, if it’s the economy, where is it in Zizek’s work? It is only assumed.

    Which is what I was pointing out RE: the end of Tarrying – rather than jump into the economic after looking at the ideological, he sews up the open end with some silly assertion about an ecological disaster as the answer. It would be there that we could actually talk about the relation of ideology to the economy, and of historical materialism to dialectical materialism.

    In “Lenin’s Choice” Zizek also calls for someone (i.e. not himself) to repeat Marx. That is, he says we need to do the same thing with intellectual property that Marx did with material property. He doesn’t do it. All this to me points out a major gap in Zizek’s thinking. He can say in his interview with Ian Parker that to talk about revolution one need to a true analysis of the economic relations between western labour and the rest of the world, but nowhere is it done…He sticks to his line on ideology without the economy.


    “This is a huge problem. I don’t have a real solution. Are we supposed to abandon the labor theory of value, or redeem it? People as different as Badiou and Fredric Jameson claim we already know how capitalism works, and that the real issue is the invention of new political forms. I don’t think we really know how capitalism functions today. The entire Marxist conceptual structure is based on the notion of exploitation. How does this concept function today? I don’t have an answer. All the terms used to describe the contemporary moment—”post-industrial society,” “information society,” “risk society” and so on—are completely journalistic categories.”

    • sonnyburnett said

      “Can he truly ‘posit presuppositions’ without dealing with his initial presuppositions?”

      The way to break this vicious circle of ‘positing the presuppositions’ & ‘presupposing the positing’ is by the subject presupposing itself as positing. Once this is experienced, there is no trouble with following his political commentary.

      99.99% of all criticisms of Zizek’s method ignores this ‘solution’. Why? Simple. These criticisms do not understand this ‘solution’ conceptually. Almost all criticisms make no comment on this ‘solution’. Yet Z has taken such pains at bringing this to our attention, beginning with SOI.

  15. The Universal Singular said

    “you’ve just reproduced Zizek’s rhetoric”

    If by ‘rhetoric’ you mean ‘rhetorical style’ then: NO SHIT!

    I’ll walk you through it:

    The way I understand HM has to do with the series of object’s (a, a’, a”, a”’, a””…) that occupy the place of the Real impossible Thing.

    The way I understand DM has to do with Void of the subject’s place in the Symbolic order ($). This Void/Gap (negative) still finds an expression in the Symbolic (as S1) which both generates material consequences, and is affected by the material world (this is one way of understanding how the Symbolic can have an effect in the Real).

    In other words, when the subject experiences a particular object as ‘not it’, she must account for this and move on to a new object. The trail that gets left behind is history (HM), the positive content of history, but the gap in the Symbolic order (DM) initiates this search (a search which is, in a sense, a search to find meaning).

    Put differently, DM has to do with the incorporation of traumatic elements, making sense out of them, and HM is the series of positive meanings that have been left behind by the flow of history.

    The thing with the brain sciences is a good example. The traumatic encounter is when, after I look behind the skull and only find this fleshy meat, I begin to question how this piece of meat actually thinks: ‘is this all I am? A piece of meat?’ This traumatic encounter with the material world has to be incorporated into the subject’s own field of meaning. The history of previous understandings of the mind fall out into the flow of history, or the content of history, but the ‘tarrying’ itself, the incorporation of the material element into our understanding of the mind is the function of DM.

    It is this self-reflexivity that makes it dialectical!

    And to be clear, the reason why this isn’t idealism is because, with idealism, the example/material world is made to conform to the Notion, whereas with materialism, the example troubles the notion: it becomes a traumatic encounter for the Idea, one which forces changes to the Idea itself. Dialectical Materialism has to do with these traumatic encounters in the material world that force changes in the Idea, and historical materialism is the set of past Ideas.

    So if you want to identify each with a Lacanian matheme it would be: HM as the series of “a, a’, a”, a”’…”; DM = $.

  16. battleofthegiants said

    Now Matt, that is an argument. Good to see that I struck a chord, mr no shit.

    And while I think your explaination works for me, I’m not sure it applies to Zizek. I.e. That the examples disturb the notion. The Thing got in a fight over Zizek at a party I was at, and a few weeks later I asked the dude why he hated Zizek and it was because he “got his history [on the cultural revolution] wrong”. I.e. Zizek makes nice theory, but it’s not always clear that his examples actually correspond to anything in history or in the contemporary world. Which suggests that he might be dangerously close to making history conform to what he wants to make of it. Which is why I keep asking “could he write a book on an historical moment?”

    And I’m still not clear how “the subject presupposing itself as positing” solves anything. Does this mean it gets to make up whatever it wants? I always understood that to mean the subject ‘chose’ the conditions that enabled it to act. I.e. If you presuppose that Marx is something to build on, Marx actually has to have a purchase on reality for you to accomplish something. Otherwise you fail. Had Lenin chose economism, he would have waited around for ever for the revolution to happen. He chose politics, and there were material consequences because it was the right choice… It seems to me that Zizek’s questions about the role of the economy point to a falter in his thought.

  17. The Universal Singular said

    I think that here it’s important to bring in the relation between positing, external and determinate reflection (and I’m a little shaky on these so please correct me if necessary… SB, this is a call to you!).

    With ‘positing reflection’, the subject assumes that the world is pre-given. In ‘external reflection’, something challenges this ‘givenness’ of the world (the example Zizek gives in SOI is of multiple interpretations of a text… this causes the subject to squirm and yell: ‘so which is the correct interpretation?’). So in the move from positing to external the subject encounters a deadlock (perhaps a ‘traumatic’ deadlock/discord between ‘possible’ and impossible’). In determinate reflection, this deadlock is reflected into the object (external appearance) itself (again, I’m shaky on these, so help please!). With the redoubling of determinate reflection into ‘reflexive determination’ the subject assumes this external deadlock in the object as something internal to the subject herself. This kinda sounds like the thesis from Parallax View.

    There are two versions of ‘positing the presuppositions’ that I understand: the first has to do with the level of positing reflection: in a gesture of a primordial (forced) free choice, the subject chooses what is ‘given’ – that is, the subject freely chooses the series that will determine the ‘objective’ world (this interpretation is perhaps best explained in Parallax when Zizek talks about ‘commodity fetishism’… don’t have my book in front of me so I can’t help with references) – this, as I understand it, has to do with the formation of the fundamental fantasy, and the tying of the symptomal knot, the sinthome, and posits the Thing as an actual empirical (i.e, possible) object; the second sounds more like ‘presupposing the positing’, which I take as the level of ‘formal conversion’, when the subject recognizes herself as the ‘One’ who freely posited the presuppositions… the next step is ‘subjective destitution’ and taking responsibility for this allows the subject to posit the (new) presuppositions for her act.

    In other words, before an act can be accomplished, the Symbolic co-ordinates which enable her to do so must be reset. In SOI, Zizek even says that the act itself is not the empirical activity of the subject, but the positing of the presuppositions which enable her to accomplish this ‘activity’ (but I think he changes his perspective in later books).

    In this sense, I take ‘choosing politics’ to mean choosing to first change/re-set the co-ordinates for a political act, after which real (in the sense of the ‘real economy’) changes can take place.

    • sonnyburnett said

      US, you’ve given me quite the assignment.

      The advice I’ll give is to NOT read his first demonstration of Hegel’s reflective logic in SOI (the one where he talks about differing reflective stances of the Antigone text) because in the very last entitled section of the book (‘Presupposing the Positing’), the first sentence is:

      ‘There is, however, one crucial weakness in what we have just articulated: our presentation of the process of reflections was oversimplified at a decisive point which concerns the passage from positing to external reflection.’

      He goes on for the remainder of the book detailing his ‘final’ word on the subject in a sustained manner. It should answer all your questions on the matter. Follow this & NOT the previous Antigone text example. The latter is where all critics concentrate & are thus severely mislead when it comes to their understanding of Zizek’s topography.

  18. The Universal Singular said

    Basically, this is how I understand it:

    Positing Reflection: the world is given (the presuppositions are posited as simply given).

    External Reflection: something (object) disturbs the ‘givenness’ of the world.

    Determinate Reflection: this deadlock in the external appearance (of the object) is the essence of the object.

    Reflexive Determination: the deadlock in the object is inherent to the subject herself (who posited the presuppositions… the subject can now ‘presuppose the positing).

    Does this jive?

    • sonnyburnett said

      The main critique I’d make on the above would follow from the fact that

      Positing Reflection is to Positing the Presuppositions as
      External Reflection is to Presupposing the Positing (or the Enumeration of the Presuppositions of the Posited content).

      So it isn’t so much that “the subject can now ‘presuppose the positing'” within the Determinate Reflection (altho he does so), since this is already accomplished in the External Reflection.

      The crucial turn is that the subject, in a Determinate Reflection, presupposes itself as positing.

  19. The Universal Singular said

    “The crucial turn is that the subject, in a Determinate Reflection, presupposes itself as positing.”

    I’m not disagreeing with this – and this is where I get confused – I always thought that it was the ‘redoubling’ in ‘Reflexive Determination’ that the subject presupposes itself as positing.

    If you’re saying that this occurs in ‘Determinate Reflection’, then what is the difference between ‘DR’ and ‘RD’?

    “Positing Reflection is to Positing the Presuppositions as
    External Reflection is to Presupposing the Positing (or the Enumeration of the Presuppositions of the Posited content).”

    Would it be completely absurd to suggest that there is a ‘speculative identity’ between the two (positing the presuppositions and presupposing the positing) in ‘Determinate Reflection’? In ‘DR’, is there a speculative identity, i.e., ‘overlapping of the two lacks’, in the the ‘presupposing’ and in the ‘positing’? And again, my understanding is that, with ‘DR’, this speculative identity is located in the object, and then the ‘redoubling’ into ‘RD’ locates it in the subject.

    • sonnyburnett said

      I’d have to think about this idea of ‘redoubling’ and a ‘speculative identity’ between PR and ER. My first impressions is that I don’t see any reason why not. It’s been awhile since I played with this logic at any length.

      My personal test or method to see if I got a new understanding of things ‘correct’ is if it jives with everything I subsequently read on the matter. A long-ass process, but I don’t see any other way.

      What I can answer is the diff. bet. DR and RD: the latter is the element which embodies again or gives a positive form to the entire movement of sublation of all positivity. So it is in my mind an object, versus the DR which I conceive as a movement.

      Ok, I just farted around in SOI for a few minutes and Z’s yapping about the ‘redoubling movement’ of DR. So sure, that looks good.

      Not sure how you conceive your final questions, like ‘located in the object’ or ‘locates it in the subject’ since I kinda mesh all this reflective logic into his reading of the Absolute (Subject), the ‘Substance as Subject’ and all that jazz, as he teaches us to do so at the end of SOI.

  20. The Universal Singular said

    Werd (as in ‘werd up!’)!

    I’m now looking at the theory of Judgment stuff in FTKNWTD… I think that this all has to do with the way he conceives the diff. between HM and DM: ‘positing the presuppositions’; the theories of reflection; the theories of judgement; ‘substance as subject’; Universal-Particular-Singular (what did I forget?… oh, historicism vs. historicity).

    But at the end of the day, I think that the best way to conceive the diff. (apart from what I’ve already mentioned above) is with HM dealing with Substance and DM dealing with Subject. And I guess the way to think through this in Lacanian/Psychoanalytic terms, is to think through the relation between this and the triad: Real-Symbolic-Imaginary.

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