Idealist / Materialist “Options”

March 2, 2009


So I’m still thinking over that last paragraph before the section on “The violence of the imagination” (p.45 new edition) where Zizek goes over the idealist and materialist “options” in the form of questions, and I am still not sure if I’m getting what he means by each option, and further, if or how he moves beyond the two. I’ve written out the two options with some questions that arose for me while attempting to summarize. Sorry if my use of some of the terminology is a little rough to you veteran Lacanian/Zizekians, but hopefully my meaning is clear enough to stimulate some discussion.

Idealist and Material Options:

Idealist option: “is the monstrosity of the chaotic aggregate of phenomena just the extreme of our imagination, which still fails to convey the proper noumenal dimension of the moral Law?”

– Way to deal with this seems to be to attempt to better interpret and incorporate the noumenal dimension, i.e. to expand concepts to be more rational, more in line with this realm (less chaotic), as chaos itself is brought about by the imagination and can be fixed by the understanding? Or by Reason? Though I guess understanding and Reason are not the same…

– Here, imagination itself gives rise to the monstrous as it tears apart the seemingly unified prior state of the Real (pre-symbolic, pre-ontological).

Materialist option: “is the moral Law itself, in its very sublime quality, ‘the last veil covering the monstrous’, the (already minimally ‘gentrified’, domesticated) way we, finite subjects, are able to perceive (and endure) the unimaginable Thing?”

– Here it is not the imagination that gives rise to the monstrous, but the Real itself, imagination then functions to veil it and make it knowable and bearable.

– Is there recognition here that the monstrosity of the Real may have itself resulted from the work of the imagination? Or would this put us back in the idealist position?

The moments of going through the two positions might look like this:

Moment 1: world torn apart by imagination; ‘night of the world’; monstrosity thus seen as function of imagination acting on the world. (Out of curiousity, how does this relate to symbolic castration? It is the same thing?)

Moment 2: world as torn apart; the Real is understood as torn apart and as the monstrous itself that needs imagination to be made sense of or put back together. Is the “dismembered” Real understood from this position as original, in other words, as “naturally” monstrous and chaotic, though from the idealist position the experience of the Real as monstrous is itself a function of the negating imagination?

– Since it is inaccessible to the imagination, Kant tries to locate the monstrous in the noumenal Beyond. In the previous moment, when the “chaotic aggregate” is understood as a function of the imagination, the imagination is seen as failing to properly connect to the noumenal realm, or perhaps as failing to effectively or totally create order out of chaos. The second moment is where the moral Law of the noumenal realm properly enters the picture and can then adjust imagination (and understanding?) to “veil” the chaos or to make it more orderly/intelligible. In the second position, if we recognize this Law as a “veiling” – one that maintains the necessarily indirect access to the Thing – we are identifying the “chaotic aggregate” in the Real, in contrast to the first moment where we see that the chaos is imposed on to the Real via the imagination when it breaks the pre-symbolic, pre-ontological with the ‘night of the world’ or the splitting of the Real into material that can become symbolic.

A question: what the hell is the pre-symbolic, pre-ontological? Is it anything really, or no-thing, hence, creation ex nihilo? How are we to discuss it when our only access to it is from already within the symbolic order (Freud’s Wolfdude eg.)?

Main issues I want to raise:

The materialist position seems like an outgrowth of the idealist position, as it rearticulates the monstrosity created by the idealist imagination as belonging to the Real itself. It naturalizes what it has itself done before it could know what it was doing.

So what is the next step? The materialist position cannot be the final position, because here we suppose that the splitting/breaking/negating imposed by the subject’s imagination in relation to the Real is in the Real itself. But if we instead place it in the subject’s imagination, there we are in idealism again.

I think this calls for some rereading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, or maybe just the next chapter of Ticklish.

If both idealist and materialist options/moments are constitutive of the process of entering the symbolic order, is theorizing the next step only possible phenomenologically, i.e. in terms of moment after moment experience, in which case, what moment comes after the moral Law that veils the monstrous? Is there a way to understand that the imagination and the moral Law veil the monstrous, and that this monstrous that need be veiled is itself created by entering the symbolic order through imagination, without collapsing back into idealism? Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions, or framing them too narrowly with the idealist tendencies I have.

I need someone/thing to save me from this dialectical nightmare. The Big Other perhaps? Just throwing that out there, it’s not that clear to me yet.



3 Responses to “Idealist / Materialist “Options””

  1. battleofthegiants said

    SB and I were at a Lacan reading group the other night and I kept bringing up the question of whether, in relation to the mirror stage and the creation of the ego, the symbolic came first first rather than second, i.e. rather than coming after the imaginary in a linear childhood-development vision it exists for the child beforehand.

    One of the people there pointed out that the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch (which both Z and Lacan mention, Zizek using it as an example of the night of the world, adding that his work came about at the same time as the modern subject) are in fact puns translated into pictures. It seems to me that HB’s work demonstrates that the symbolic, when passed through the imaginary, appears to us as Real – which to me says that the “pre-ontological” is the symbolic you’re thrown into, one you can’t understand so you begin to tear it apart (which is the work of the imagination)…

    I think your reading of the “order of operations” is more or less what I read from CH1 – first the imagination destroys, then it creates – in a way that appears to be ex-nihilo.

    The difference between idealism and materialism is how you read the sublime in relation to these moments: the idealist says the sublime is our imagination’s inability to put the infinite together at the behest of reason, that we can’t put it together because we are finite, but the moral law (Kant’s ‘God the postulate’, the soul and heaven) guarantees that such a putting-together is possible. I.e. there is a noumena, if only we could work infinitely to get to it (which is what heaven is – the place where your soul gets to continue the work).

    The ‘materialist’ option is that the world is incomplete, that there is no noumena, that the ‘fantasy frame’ that held the sublime at bay was just that – a fantasy. Where I think Zizek takes it is that in place of a belief in God, the materialist ‘identifies’ with the inconsistencies of the fantasy, rather than trying to find one that will actually cover-over or complete the gap through which shines the sublime. This identification is some sort of self-authorization that needs no reference to a big Other.

    I think this is bang-on: The materialist position seems like an outgrowth of the idealist position, as it re-articulates the monstrosity created by the idealist imagination as belonging to the Real itself. It naturalizes what it has itself done before it could know what it was doing., with the clarification that it is the imagination that created the real through its (the imagination’s) relation to the symbolic (the Hieronymous stuff I said above).

    In the first chapter of Sublime Object Zizek tries to work out how Kant in some sense got it right, but only when you read Kant through Marx and the commodity form. Which is to say that the materialist position is dependent on the Idealist position, as you say, but takes it to its logical extreme.

    Which I think it what the 1st chapter of Tarrying… was about too – each of Descartes’ two “I’s” (I think therefore I am) plays a different part: one is the void of the subject, the other covers this void. Z’s argument is that Kant’s take on Descartes opens up the possibility of approaching the empty subject, but quickly covers it up again…


  2. battleofthegiants said

    Okay, I’m waffling on this pre-ontological shit. Given the quote that VP referred to, the night of the world is the creation of the work of the imagination upon itself. (Which I think you said above) This makes more sense from a starting-from-a-baby-who-knows-nothing perspective, especially when read with “The Mirror Stage” – the primary aggressivity he writes about could very well be the destructive work of the imagination; and this aggressivity is later projected out into something that is not the self (i.e. the nebenmensch), and stands as the beginning (or a further moving forward) of one’s differentiation from the world.

    That said, it seems to me that what the imagination works on is the stimuli that comes from within and without, from the ‘psychic apparatus’ as well as the ‘perceptual apparatus’, none of which the baby knows what to do with yet… in that sense, that which is being torn apart could be a symbolic that it can make no sense of (i.e. HB paintings).



  3. sonnyburnett said

    It is a ‘dialectical nightmare’, isn’t it? Having to decide between two options that in themselves seem to offer a solution of sorts to Lacan’s ‘there is no sexual rapport.’ But the crucial thing is that it is a (transcendental) choice & the experience of it as such allows us to avoid coming down hard on one of the options.

    Zizek formulates this ‘solution’ always using the same logic. You find it everywhere. Take Parallax p. 20ff where he shows how Kant overcame the Empiricism vs. Rationalism antinomy through his ‘transcendental turn’ – the gap ‘as such’ between the two options must be experienced as irreducible.

    So with the above, the option between a phenomenal/noumenal ‘external-transcendent’ split (idealism) or a strictly ‘internal-immanent’ split within phenomena (materialism) is a false one, in that one cannot come down on one option & say ‘this is the way it is’.

    Strange, I actually read your post as if you had materialist tendencies, but since this stuff is so confusing, I might have been reading into that a bit.

    These issues that endeavor us to articulate Zizek’s ‘final word’- if we can call it that – are really the only thing that interests me with Zizek. I guess just saying it as such puts me in the ‘idealist’ camp, always trying to pin down the ‘noumenal’ of his word.

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