Slavoj Žižek – Objects, Objects Everywhere: A Critique of Object Oriented Ontology

The core of object-ori­ented-onto­logy (ooo) developed by Levi Bry­ant1 can be summed up by the for­mu­la from sub­ject back to sub­stance. And, in so far as sub­ject is cor­rel­at­ive with mod­ern­ity (recall Lacan’s thes­is about the Cartesian sub­ject as the sub­ject of mod­ern sci­ence), we can also say that ooo fol­lows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s fam­ous book, We Were Never Modern—it endeavors to bring back the pre­mod­ern enchant­ment of the world. The Lacani­an answer to this should be a para­phrase of his cor­rec­tion of the for­mu­la “god is dead” (god was always already dead, he just didn’t know it): we were always already mod­ern (we just didn’t know it). The main tar­get of ooo is thus not tran­scend­ent­al philo­sophy with its subject/object dual­ism, but mod­ern sci­ence with its vis­ion of “gray” real­ity reduced to math­em­at­ic­al form­al­iz­a­tion: ooo tries to sup­ple­ment mod­ern sci­ence with a pre­mod­ern onto­logy which describes the “inner life” of things.

Bry­ant (who, before his engage­ment in ooo, was a Lacani­an psy­cho­ana­lyst) resorts to Lacan’s“formulas of sexuation” to artic­u­late the basic dif­fer­ence between tra­di­tion­al (or mod­ern) meta­phys­ics and ooo: meta­phys­ics fol­lows the mas­cu­line side of uni­ver­sal­ity groun­ded in a tran­scend­ent excep­tion (god or sub­ject who grounds or con­sti­tutes object­ive real­ity), while ooo fol­lows the fem­in­ine side of non­all without excep­tion (there is no tran­scend­ent excep­tion, real­ity is com­posed of objects who are all on the same onto­lo­gic­al level, and there is no way to total­ize this mul­ti­verse of objects since they are with­drawn from each oth­er, with no over­reach­ing object to total­ize them).2 This is why, when Bry­ant speaks about “the difer­ence between onto­lo­gies of pres­ence and tran­scend­ence and onto­lo­gies of imman­ence and withdrawal,”3 he couples the four con­cepts in an unex­pec­ted way: instead of bring­ing togeth­er immanence/presence and transcendence/withdrawal (which would be much closer to our spon­tan­eous intu­ition: Is pres­ence not by defin­i­tion imman­ent, is tran­scend­ence not with­drawn from our reach?), he brings togeth­er pres­ence and tran­scend­ence (the tran­scend­ent ground of being is fully self-present) plus imman­ence and with­drawal (there is no tran­scend­ent ground, all there is is the imman­ent mul­ti­verse of objects with­drawn from each oth­er).

In his deploy­ment of the onto­logy of immanence/withdrawal, Bry­ant begins by assert­ing the primacy of onto­logy over epi­stem­o­logy, and reject­ing the mod­ern sub­ject­iv­ist notion accord­ing to which, before we pro­ceed to ana­lyze the struc­ture of real­ity, we should crit­ic­ally reflect upon our cog­nit­ive appar­at­us (how is our cog­ni­tion pos­sible in the first place, what is its scope and lim­it­a­tion?). Fol­low­ing Roy Bhas­kar, Bry­ant turns around the tran­scend­ent­al ques­tion: How does real­ity have to be struc­tured so that our cog­ni­tion of real­ity is pos­sible? The answer is provided by the basic premise of ooo: “It is neces­sary to staunchly defend the autonomy of objects or sub­stances, refus­ing any reduc­tion of objects to their rela­tions, wheth­er these rela­tions be rela­tions to humans or oth­er objects.”4 This is why there is no place for sub­ject in Bryant’s edifice: sub­ject is pre­cisely a non­sub­stan­tial entity fully redu­cible to its rela­tions to oth­er entit­ies.

From the Hegelian–Lacanian stand­point, the ten­sion between the epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al and onto­lo­gic­al dimen­sions is resolved in a totally dif­fer­ent way: the object is inac­cess­ible, any attempt to seize it ends up in anti­nom­ies, and so on; we reach the object in itself not by some­how see­ing through these epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al dis­tor­tions but by trans­pos­ing epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al obstacles into the thing itself. Quentin Meil­las­soux does the same with regard to the exper­i­ence of facti­city and/or abso­lute con­tin­gency: he trans­poses what appear to be tran­scend­ent­al par­tis­ans of finitude as the lim­it­a­tion of our know­ledge (the insight that we can be totally wrong about our know­ledge, that real­ity in itself can be totally dif­fer­ent from our notion of it) into the most basic pos­it­ive onto­lo­gic­al prop­er­ty of real­ity itself—the abso­lute “is simply the capa­city-to-be-oth­er as such, as the­or­ized by the agnostic. The abso­lute is the pos­sible trans­ition, devoid of reas­on, of my state toward any oth­er state what­so­ever. But this pos­sib­il­ity is no longer a ‘pos­sib­il­ity of ignor­ance,’ viz., a pos­sib­il­ity that is merely the res­ult of my inab­il­ity to know . . . —rather, it is the know­ledge of the very real possibility”5 in the heart of the In-itself:

We must show why thought, far from exper­i­en­cing its intrins­ic lim­its through facti­city, exper­i­ences rather its know­ledge of the abso­lute through facti­city. We must grasp in fact not the inac­cess­ib­il­ity of the abso­lute but the unveil­ing of the in-itself and the etern­al prop­er­ty of what is, as opposed to the per­en­ni­al defi­ciency in the thought of what is.6

In this way, “facti­city will be revealed to be a know­ledge of the abso­lute because we are going to put back into the thing itself what we mis­takenly mistook to be an inca­pa­city in thought. In oth­er words, instead of con­stru­ing the absence of reas­on inher­ent in everything as a lim­it that thought encoun­ters in its search for the ulti­mate reas­on, we must under­stand that this absence of reas­on is, and can only be the ulti­mate prop­er­ty of the entity.”7 The para­dox of this quasima­gic­al reversal of epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al obstacle into onto­lo­gic­al premise is that “it is through facti­city, and through facti­city alone, that we are able to make our way towards the absolute”:8 the rad­ic­al con­tin­gency of real­ity, this “open pos­sib­il­ity, this ‘everything is equally pos­sible,’ is an abso­lute that can­not be de-abso­l­u­tized without being thought as abso­lute once more.”9

Here, one should also estab­lish a link with the great con­flict about how to inter­pret inde­term­in­acy in quan­tum phys­ics: for the “ortho­dox” quan­tum phys­i­cists, this epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al inde­term­in­acy is sim­ul­tan­eously onto­lo­gic­al, a prop­er­ty of “real­ity” itself which is “in itself ” inde­term­in­ate, while for those, from Ein­stein onwards, who per­sist in clas­sic­al “real­ism-of-neces­sity,” the epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al inde­term­in­acy can only mean that quan­tum phys­ics does not offer a com­plete descrip­tion of real­ity; that is, that there are some hid­den vari­ables it does not take into account. To put it in a some­what prob­lem­at­ic and exag­ger­ated way, the Ein­stein­i­an crit­ics try to re-Kan­tian­ize quan­tum phys­ics, exclud­ing from its grasp real­ity In-itself.

Meil­las­soux is well aware that quan­tum phys­ics, with its uncer­tainty prin­ciple and the asser­tion of the role the observer plays in the col­lapse of the wave func­tion, seems to under­mine the notion of object­ive real­ity inde­pend­ent of any observer and thus give an unex­pec­ted boost to Kan­tian tran­scend­ent­al­ism. How­ever, as he points out, their sim­il­ar­ity is decept­ive as it obfus­cates a fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ence: “Cer­tainly, the pres­ence of an observer may even­tu­ally affect the effec­tu­ation of a phys­ic­al law, as is the case for some of the laws of quan­tum physics—but the very fact that an observer can influence the law is itself a prop­er­ty of the law which is not sup­posed to depend upon the exist­ence of an observer.”10 In short, while in Kant’s tran­scend­ent­al­ism the “observer”-subject con­sti­tutes what he observes, in quan­tum phys­ics, the observer’s act­ive role itself is rein­scribed into phys­ic­al real­ity.

Bry­ant may appear to have per­formed this same move: Does he not assert repeatedly how the with­drawal of the object from the sub­ject (i.e., the know­ing or per­ceiv­ing object) is sim­ul­tan­eously self-with­drawal, the self-split­ting of the object, the with­drawal of the object with regard to itself? “With­drawal is not an acci­dent­al fea­ture of objects arising from our lack of dir­ect access to them, but is a con­stitutive fea­ture of all objects regard­less of wheth­er they relate to oth­er objects.”11 Bry­ant draws here the par­al­lel between this uni­ver­sal onto­lo­gic­al struc­ture of the “divided object” and the Lacani­an divided/barred sub­ject, con­clud­ing that “all objects are akin to Lacani­an divided sub­jects, $”:

[N]o object ever actu­al­izes the sub­ter­ranean vol­can­ic core with which its vir­tu­al prop­er being is haunted. This vir­tu­al domain is like a reserve or excess that nev­er comes to pres­ence. It is not simply that objects are, in them­selves, fully actu­al and only with­drawn for oth­er objects relat­ing to them, but rather that objects are with­drawn in themselves.12

Bry­ant thus pro­poses a kind of uni­ver­sal­ized tran­scend­ent­al struc­ture: each object (1) per­ceives oth­er objects not the way they are in them­selves but as inter­preted through its own frame, and (2) this frame as such is also inac­cess­ible, so that the object does not see what it does not see (i.e., what it does not see is akin to Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”). This pan-tran­scend­ent­al­ism justifies him to apply the Kan­tian term “tran­scend­ent­al illu­sion” to cap­ture the way objects relate to one another:

The tran­scend­ent­al illu­sion thus gen­er­ated by the man­ner in which objects relate to one another is one in which the states “exper­i­enced” by a sys­tem are treated as oth­er objects them­selves, rather than sys­tem-spe­cific entit­ies gen­er­ated by the organ­iz­a­tion of the object itself. In oth­er words, the object treats the world it “exper­i­ences” as real­ity impli­citer, rather than as sys­tem-states pro­duced by its own organization.13

Bry­ant applies this notion of the impen­et­rab­il­ity of objects to the Lacani­an top­ic of the impen­et­rab­il­ity of the Other’s desire, to the enig­ma of Che vuoi?—what does the Oth­er want from me beneath all that he says to me:

Desire, it could be said, embod­ies our non-know­ledge with respect to the Other’s desire. Embod­ied in all inter­sub­ject­ive rela­tions is the sense that des­pite the fact that we are being addressed by the Oth­er, we non­ethe­less do not know why the Oth­er is address­ing us. Put dif­fer­ently, we do not know the desire that anim­ates the Other’s rela­tion to us. In this regard, the desire of the Oth­er closely mir­rors the phe­nomen­on of oper­a­tion­al clos­ure with respect to sys­tems. The Oth­er per­turbs us in a vari­ety of ways, but we are unable to determ­ine what inten­tions lie behind the Other’s inter­ac­tion with us.14

In a fur­ther rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion, Bry­ant includes in this series god him­self (if he exists):

[E]very entity, up to and includ­ing God if God exists, is like a Lacani­an divided or barred sub­ject, $, such that, regard­less of wheth­er or not it is related to another entity, each entity is with­drawn with respect to itself. Put dif­fer­ently, no entity is fully self-present to itself, but rather every entity neces­sar­ily con­tains blind spots or is opaque to itself. With­drawal here is the very struc­ture of entit­ies, not an acci­dent­al rela­tion of how one entity relates to another entity.15

(Incid­ent­ally, such a notion of god who is opaque to him­self was elab­or­ated by Schelling, who wro­te about the impen­et­rable ground of god, that which is in god more than god him­self.) This vis­ion of the non­all pluri­verse in which “objects have no dir­ect access to one another and that each object trans­lates oth­er objects with which it enters into non­re­la­tion­al relations,”16  without any total­iz­ing agent which would be fully self-present, is not lim­ited to abstract onto­lo­gic­al con­sid­er­a­tions: Bry­ant derives from it a series of per­tin­ent polit­ic­al insights. One of the inter­est­ing implic­a­tions of the notion of “demo­cracy of objects,” of our real­ity as the mul­ti­verse of act­ants, is to render prob­lem­at­ic the stand­ard notion of “demys­ti­fy­ing  cri­tique”:

An act­iv­ist polit­ic­al the­ory that places all its apples in the bas­ket of con­tent is doomed to frus­tra­tion inso­far as it will con­tinu­ously won­der why its cri­tiques of ideo­logy fail to pro­duce their desired or inten­ded social change. Moreover, in an age where we are faced with the loom­ing threat of monu­ment­al cli­mate change, it is irre­spons­ible to draw our dis­tinc­tions in such a way as to exclude non­hu­man actors.17

Bry­ant provides here a con­vin­cing and per­tin­ent example of eco­logy in our cap­it­al­ist soci­et­ies: why do all ideo­lo­gi­co-crit­ic­al calls fail to mobil­ize people, why is the large major­ity not ready to engage in ser­i­ous action? If we take into account just the ideo­lo­gic­al dis­curs­ive mech­an­isms, this fail­ure becomes inex­plic­able and we have to invoke some deep pro­cesses of “ideo­lo­gic­al mys­tific­a­tion.” But what if we widen our focus and include oth­er act­ants, oth­er pro­cesses in social real­ity that influence our decisions, like biased media reports, eco­nom­ic pres­sures on work­ers (the threat of los­ing employ­ment), and mater­i­al lim­it­a­tions, so that the absence of engage­ment becomes much more under­stand­able? One should also men­tion Jane Bennett’s descrip­tion18 of how act­ants inter­act at a pol­luted trash site: how not only humans but also the rot­ting trash, worms, insects, aban­doned machines, chem­ic­al pois­ons, and oth­ers each play their (nev­er purely pass­ive) role. There is an authen­tic the­or­et­ic­al and ethi­co­pol­it­ic­al insight in such an approach.

There is another twist which enables the rul­ing ideo­logy to sur­vive: its prop­er geni­us is dis­cern­ible in how ideology’s obscene under­side works. We are deal­ing here with what we may call the logic of inher­ent trans­gres­sion: the affected sub­ject, the asub­ject addressed by an ideo­lo­gic­al edifice, does not take ideo­lo­gic­al injunc­tions ser­i­ously. He mocks them, dis­mis­ses them cyn­ic­ally, but this very “res­ist­ance” is in advance taken into account and serves the repro­duc­tion of the ideo­lo­gic­al edifice. Suffice it to men­tion two cases from com­mun­ist regimes: polit­ic­al jokes were defin­itely a kind of “res­ist­ance” to the rul­ing ideo­logy, but a “res­ist­ance” which gen­er­ated obscene enjoy­ment that made accom­mod­a­tion much easi­er. Sim­il­arly, com­mun­ist edu­ca­tion miser­ably failed; instead of pro­du­cing sub­jects ded­ic­ated to the build­ing of Social­ism, it pro­duced cyn­ics who dis­trus­ted polit­ics and were prone to with­drew into private life, and who were as such ideal sub­jects of the com­mun­ist regime.

It is at this level that we should also loc­ate the phe­nomen­on of mis­in­ter­pel­la­tion elab­or­ated by James Martel.19 Mis­in­ter­pel­la­tion works in two directions—a sub­ject recog­nizes him/herself in an inter­pel­la­tion that was not even effect­ively enun­ci­ated but just ima­gined by him/her, like the fun­da­ment­al­ist who recog­nizes him­self in a call of god (how­ever, one can argue that this case is universal—does the inter­pel­lated sub­ject gen­er­ally not ima­gine the big Oth­er [god, coun­try, . . .] which addresses him/her?), and a sub­ject recog­nizes him/herself in an inter­pel­la­tion which did not tar­get him, as in the well-known anec­dote about how Che Guevara became min­ister of eco­nomy (at an inner circle meet­ing imme­di­ately after the vic­tory of the revolu­tion, Fidel asked “Is there an eco­nom­ist here among you?” and Che quickly replied “Yes!”, con­fus­ing “eco­nom­ist” with “Com­mun­ist.”) A more per­tin­ent example is here the inter­pel­la­tion of indi­vidu­als into sub­jects of human rights: when black slaves in Haiti recog­nized them­selves as the sub­jects of human rights declared by the French Revolu­tion, they of course in some sense “missed the point”—the fact that, although uni­ver­sal in their form (“all men . . .”), human rights effect­ively priv­ileged white men of prop­er­ty; how­ever, this very “mis­read­ing” had explos­ive eman­cip­at­ory con­sequences. This is what Hegel’s Cun­ning of Reas­on is about: Human Rights were “really meant” to be accep­ted only by white men of prop­er­ty, but their uni­ver­sal form was their truth. It was thus the first inter­pel­la­tion which was wrong, but the true inter­pel­la­tion could only actu­al­ize itself through the false one, as its sec­ond­ary mis­read­ing.

Bry­ant applies this mod­el to ideo­logy: we can effect­ively ima­gine ideo­logy as an autopoi­et­ic sys­tem which encoun­ters a prob­lem when extern­al per­turb­a­tions became so strong that they can­not any­more be inter­preted with­in its framework—say, the situ­ation in Rus­sia in early 1917 was such that it was no longer pos­sible for the rul­ing ideo­logy to integ­rate (or to account for in its terms) the “extern­al” (nondis­curs­ive) per­turb­a­tions (the costs of war which was more and more per­ceived as mean­ing­less; the dis­sat­is­fac­tion of peas­ants without land). The Bolshev­iks imposed a totally dif­fer­ent ideo­lo­gic­al frame which suc­ceeded in integ­rat­ing and account­ing for these pre­dis­curs­ive per­turb­a­tions. Hitler suc­ceeded in a sim­il­ar way in early 1930s, impos­ing a new ideo­lo­gic­al frame­work which accoun­ted for nonideo­lo­gic­al per­turb­a­tions that affected Ger­many at that time (eco­nom­ic crisis, mor­al dis­in­teg­ra­tion, etc.). The les­son of these examples is that although one should include into ana­lys­is extern­al (tran­sideo­lo­gic­al) per­turb­a­tions, the cru­cial factor is how these per­turb­a­tions will be accoun­ted for (sym­bol­ized) by an ideo­lo­gic­al edifice. In the struggle in Ger­many, Hitler won over the altern­ate com­mun­ist read­ing of the crisis; his vic­tory was, of course, also a pro­duct of extraideo­lo­gic­al factors (the brute state for­ce was mostly sup­port­ing him; he had much more access to finan­cial resources, for example), the cru­cial moment was achiev­ing ideo­lo­gic­al hege­mony.

Why does ooo ignore the key role of this “total­iz­ing” sym­bol­ic ges­ture, of what Lacan called “quilt­ing point”? For Bry­ant, each autopoi­et­ic sys­tem is self-enclosed in the sense that it select­ively inter­prets extern­al per­turb­a­tions, so that the In-itself remains its inac­cess­ible blind spot: how­ever, in the case of sub­ject, this struc­ture is dif­fer­ent, the blind spot is not simply the mark of the inac­cess­ib­il­ity of the tran­scend­ent In-itself, but the inscrip­tion of the per­ceiv­ing sub­ject itself into reality—the hole in real­ity is not simply the excess of the In-itself. But is this not also the claim of ooo? Does ooo not emphas­ize that an organ­ism is doubly lim­ited: objects that affect it are inac­cess­ible in their tran­scend­ent core, plus the very inter­pret­ive frame which con­strains the approach to objects is inac­cess­ible as such? It is not only that there are aspects of objects that I do not see, I also do not see what I do not see; that is, I am unaware of the very lim­it that sep­ar­ates what I can see from what I can­not see:

Because inform­a­tion is premised on a pri­or dis­tinc­tion that allows events in the envir­on­ment to take on inform­a­tion value, it fol­lows that sys­tems, in their rela­tion to oth­er objects, always con­tain blind spots. What we get here is a sort of object-spe­cific tran­scend­ent­al illu­sion pro­duced as a res­ult of its clos­ure. As Luh­mann remarks in Eco­lo­gic­al Com­mu­nic­a­tion, “one could say that a sys­tem can see only what it can see. It can­not see what it can­not. Moreover, it can­not see that it can­not see this. For the sys­tem this is some­thing con­cealed ‘behind’ the hori­zon that, for it, has no ‘behind.’” If sys­tems can only see what they can see, can­not see what they can­not see, and can­not see that they can­not see this, then this is because any rela­tion to the world is premised on sys­tem-spe­cific dis­tinc­tions that arise from the sys­tem itself. As a con­sequence of this, Luh­mann else­where remarks that “[t]he con­clu­sion to be drawn from this is that the con­nec­tion with the real­ity of the extern­al world is estab­lished by the blind spot of the cog­nit­ive oper­a­tion. Real­ity is what one does not per­ceive when one per­ceives it.”20

The last sen­tence effect­ively sounds like a vari­ation of Lacan’s motif of the Real as impossible. How­ever, it is pre­cisely this appar­ent prox­im­ity which enables us to draw a sharp line of dis­tinc­tion. In ooo, the dis­tinc­tion is the one between an object’s vir­tu­al inner essence (what Har­man calls its “vol­can­ic core”) and its qual­it­ies actu­al­ized in the object’s rela­tion to oth­er objects. Let us ima­gine a brand new elec­tric shav­ing machine which by mis­take falls into a man­hole and is left there to dis­in­teg­rate slowly. Its poten­tial to shave would remain a purely vir­tu­al prop­er­ty of the object in itself, nev­er actu­al­ized in a rela­tion to oth­er objects. One can, of course, argue that such examples are weak: the prop­er­ty to shave did depend on the machine’s rela­tions with oth­er objects since it was pro­duced for that pur­pose. But the main point is that this divi­sion is still a divi­sion between some­thing and something—between the rela­tion­al appear­ing and the inac­cess­ible “vol­can­ic core” of an object—so in what sense can it be said that it implies the self-with­drawal of the object, not just the with­drawal of its vir­tu­al core for oth­er objects which inter­act with it? In some (very impre­cise) sense, it can be said that the object’s inner virtual“volcanic core” is with­drawn from the sur­face of its rela­tions to oth­er objects, but this inner core is still fully there, not with­drawn from itself in any sense. Such self-with­drawal is only com­pat­ible with the self-divi­sion of the Freu­di­an sub­ject if we con­ceive of this lat­ter divi­sion as the divi­sion between the sur­face of the con­scious subject’s self-aware­ness (what we call “Self”) and the sub­stan­tial “depth” of the subject’s uncon­scious trau­mas, desires, and so on. If there is a self-with­drawal, there has to be a Self from which its own sub­stance is withdrawn—and one can­not in any mean­ing­ful sense call the actu­al rela­tions of an object to oth­er object this object’s Self.

How, then, are we to read the pas­sage from Luh­mann quoted by Bry­ant? “The con­nec­tion with the real­ity of the extern­al world is estab­lished by the blind spot of the cog­nit­ive oper­a­tion. Real­ity is what one does not per­ceive when one per­ceives it.” It can be read in the stand­ard ooo way: real­ity In-itself is the inac­cess­ible vir­tu­al core of objects, and it is in this sense the blind spot of our see­ing, what we do not see in what we see. Or we can read it in a more com­plex Lacani­an way and dis­cern in it an addi­tion­al reflex­ive twist: the Real is not the In-itself of objects bey­ond our per­cept­ive reach, it resides in the very “sub­ject­ive excess” which dis­torts our access to real­ity.

The main trap to be avoided apro­pos the Lacani­an Real is to “Kan­tian­ize” it, that is, to read the Lacani­an dis­tinc­tion between the Real and real­ity as a new ver­sion of Kant’s dis­tinc­tion between the nou­men­al Thing-in-itself and the phe­nom­en­al real­ity. When, in his sem­in­ar on the Eth­ics of Psycho­ana­lys­is, Lacan dwells on the subtle dif­fer­ence between Ding and Sache in German,21 he res­ists the obvi­ous solu­tion that Ding is a bru­tal raw Real out­side of or pre­ced­ing the Sym­bol­ic, while Sache is already a thing sym­bol­ized, the mat­ter that is to be debated (this is why we talk of die Sache des Den­kens, a “mat­ter of thought,” not of das Ding des Den­kens). While con­ced­ing that die Sache is a sym­bol­ic­ally medi­ated thing, “the work of all and every­one,” not the thing-in-itself, inde­pend­ent of us, but the “thing itself,” what we are all strug­gling with, he adds that das Ding is (in one of its ori­gin­al mean­ings, at least) even more “social” than die Sache: it names the assembly itself, the gath­er­ing of those set to debate die Sache. In Iceland, for example, par­lia­ment is called Allth­ing (“the gath­er­ing of all”), in remem­brance of the ancient yearly gath­er­ings of the rep­res­ent­at­ives of all groups in order to debate and make key decisions about their com­mun­al life. So we should not oppose Ding and Sache as real and sym­bol­ic, or Ding and objet a as the Real which is totally extern­al and pri­or to the Sym­bol­ic (to human com­munity) versus what remains of the once the sym­bol­ic uni­verse is here (objet a as the remainder of the pro­cess of the sym­bol­iz­a­tion of the Real), as the Real which is extern­ally intern­al to the Sym­bol­ic. Con­sequently, we should also not oppose das Ding and inner-worldly things of extern­al real­ity (“real things out there”) as the Real rad­ic­ally extern­al to the Sym­bol­ic, rad­ic­ally out­side the scope and grasp of our uncon­scious desires and fantas­ies, and the Real which is already sym­bol­ized, struc­tured and per­ceived through a net­work of sym­bol­ic determ­in­a­tions, as well as libid­in­ally inves­ted. For Lacan, the Real qua das Ding is not only defin­itely not the same as real­ity-in-itself, things out there inde­pend­ently of us, with no rela­tion to us; das Ding is, on the con­trary, a weird thing whose status is thor­oughly libid­in­al. It is a purely fant­as­mat­ic notion of the abso­lute-inces­tu­ous object that would fully sat­is­fy our desire or that would bring full jouis­sance. (This is why Lacan says that the ulti­mate Ding is mother.) In oth­er words, das Ding as rad­ic­ally extern­al to the Sym­bol­ic is sim­ul­tan­eously rad­ic­ally intern­al to it; it is a specter of abso­lute Oth­er­ness gen­er­ated by the dis­tance from the Real intro­duced by the Sym­bol­ic. The only things “out there” inde­pend­ently of us are par­tic­u­lar mater­i­al things (if we can con­struct how they are inde­pend­ently of us); das Ding as the abso­lute point of ref­er­ence behind and beneath these things is pre­cisely what the sub­ject adds to things, its fant­as­mat­ic projection/construction.

So, again, why does ooo ignore this reflex­ive twist? Accord­ing to the flat onto­logy pro­posed by Bry­ant, all objects are situ­ated on the same plane, pos­sess­ing the same real­ity; how­ever, lan­guage and a pro­cess in mater­i­al real­ity are not at the same level, there is no point of dir­ect con­tact between the two. While lan­guage “mir­rors” the entire real­ity, it is con­strained by its own hori­zon, by what is vis­ible from with­in this hori­zon, so that when we are inside, we don’t see this lim­it­a­tion, we don’t see the out­side. But does this not hold for every object, does not every object per­ceive (relate to) its environs in a select­ive way, from with­in a con­strain­ing frame? So where is the mis­un­der­stand­ing of ooo’s cri­tique of Lacan, of Lacan’s alleged unjustified priv­ileging of the sym­bol­ic as the ulti­mate gen­er­at­or and hori­zon of our exper­i­ence of real­ity?

To put it suc­cinctly, ooo reads the priv­ilege of the sym­bol­ic asser­ted by Lacan as a form of tran­scend­ent­al excep­tion: everything in lan­guage comes from con­tin­gent empir­ic­al sources, everything except the form of lan­guage itself. There are good reas­ons to read Lacan in this way. Lacan fully assumes the fact that every lan­guage is embed­ded in a par­tic­u­lar life world and is as such tra­versed by its traces: lan­guage is not a neut­ral tran­scend­ent­al frame of real­ity; it is fully penetrated/distorted by con­tin­gent his­tor­ic­al forces, ant­ag­on­isms, desires, which forever twist and per­vert its pur­ity.

Recall Wal­ter Benjamin’s essay “On Lan­guage in Gen­er­al and Human Lan­guage in Par­tic­u­lar,” in which the point is not that human lan­guage is a spe­cies of some uni­ver­sal lan­guage “as such” which also com­prises oth­er spe­cies: there is no actu­ally exist­ing lan­guage oth­er than human lan­guage, but, in order to com­pre­hend this “par­tic­u­lar” lan­guage, one has to intro­duce a min­im­al dif­fer­ence, con­ceiv­ing it with regard to the gap which sep­ar­ates it from lan­guage “as such.” The par­tic­u­lar lan­guage is thus the “really exist­ing lan­guage,” lan­guage as the series of actu­ally uttered state­ments, in con­trast to the form­al lin­guist­ic struc­ture. This Ben­jamini­an les­son is missed by Haber­mas, who does pre­cisely what one should not do—he pos­its the ideal “lan­guage in gen­er­al” (prag­mat­ic uni­ver­sals) dir­ectly as the norm of the actu­ally exist­ing lan­guage. Along the lines of Benjamin’s title, we should describe the basic con­stel­la­tion of the social law as that of the “Law in gen­er­al and its obscene super­ego under­side in par­tic­u­lar.” The “Part” as such is thus the “sin­ful” unre­deemed and unre­deem­able aspect of the Universal—in con­crete polit­ic­al terms, every polit­ics that grounds itself in a ref­er­ence to some sub­stan­tial (eth­nic, reli­gious, sexu­al, life­style, etc.) par­tic­u­lar­ity is by defin­i­tion reac­tion­ary.

This, how­ever, is not all—and we should give to this “not all” all the weight of the Lacani­an pas-tout. The fact that not-all of lan­guage is tra­versed by social ant­ag­on­isms, scarred by traces of social patho­logy, does not mean that there is an excep­tion, an aspect of lan­guage (in this case, its form) which can­not be reduced to social real­ity and its ant­ag­on­isms since it provides the a pri­ori frame through which we relate to real­ity. It is pre­cisely because there is noth­ing which escapes social medi­ation that non­all of lan­guage is socially medi­ated: what escapes social medi­ation is not some­thing exemp­ted from it but the meta-tran­scend­ent­al social medi­ation of the very lin­guist­ic frame through which we per­ceive and relate to real­ity. When we con­ceive lan­guage as a mir­ror which is always already distorted/ tra­versed by the patho­logy of social ant­ag­on­isms, we ignore the way this mir­ror is itself included into real­ity as a mode of its dis­tor­tion. Lan­guage is not only tra­versed by antagonisms/traumas—the supreme trau­ma is that of lan­guage itself, of how lan­guage bru­tally destabil­izes the real. The same goes for individual’s rela­tion to lan­guage: we usu­ally take a subject’s speech with all its incon­sist­en­cies as an expres­sion of his/her inner tur­moil, ambigu­ous emo­tions, and so on. This holds even for a lit­er­ary work of art: the task of psy­cho­ana­lyt­ic read­ing is sup­posed to be to unearth the inner psych­ic tur­moil which found its coded expres­sion there­in. Some­thing is miss­ing in such a clas­sic account: speech does not only register or express a trau­mat­ic psych­ic life; the entry into speech is in itself a trau­mat­ic fact (“sym­bol­ic cas­tra­tion”). What this means is that we should include into the list of trau­mas speech tries to cope with the trau­mat­ic impact of speech itself. The rela­tion­ship between psych­ic tur­moil and its expres­sion in speech should thus also be turned around: speech does not simply express/ artic­u­late psych­ic tur­moil; at a cer­tain key point, psych­ic tur­moil itself is a reac­tion to the trau­ma of dwell­ing in the “tor­ture-house of lan­guage.”

It is in this sense that the non­all of lan­guage is tra­versed by social ant­ag­on­isms: lan­guage is not only a medi­um exposed to social (and sexu­al and . . .) ant­ag­on­isms, one has to include the way lan­guage itself is ant­ag­on­ist­ic in its very form; this sup­ple­ment makes the total­ity not-all, incon­sist­ent. Or, to put it in another way: one can­not include lan­guage into real­ity since what appears to us as real­ity is already tran­scend­ent­ally con­sti­tuted through a hori­zon of mean­ing sus­tained by lan­guage. We have to intro­duce here the dis­tinc­tion between the tran­scend­ent­ally con­sti­tuted phe­nom­en­al real­ity and the Real: the way to be a con­sequent mater­i­al­ist is not to dir­ectly include sub­ject into real­ity, as an object among objects, but to bring out the Real of the sub­ject, the way the emer­gence of sub­jectiv­ity func­tions as a cut in the Real.

And this, finally, brings us back at our start­ing point, to the rela­tion­ship between sub­ject and sub­stance. Sub­ject is not a sub­stance which withdraws/appears; sub­ject is appear­ance (appear­ing-to-itself) which auto­nom­izes itself and becomes an agent again­st its own sub­stan­ti­al­ity. The subject’s self-with­drawal or split is thus much more rad­ic­al than the self-with­drawal of every object split between its appear­ance (in inter­ac­tion with oth­er objects) and its sub­stan­tial con­tent, its with­drawn In-itself: sub­ject is not just split like every object between its phe­nom­en­al qual­it­ies (actu­al­iz­a­tions) and its inac­cess­ible vir­tu­al In-itself; sub­ject is divided between its appear­ance and the void in the core of its being, not between appear­ance and its hid­den sub­stan­tial ground. It is only again­st this back­ground that one can under­stand in what sense sub­ject effect­ively “is” an object. This, then, is the Lacani­an answer to the object-ori­ented-onto­logy: yes, sub­ject is also an object, but which object? The object that sub­ject “is” is what Lacan calls objet a, a strange object which is not only lack­ing, nev­er fully here, always elud­ing the sub­ject, but is in itself noth­ing but the embod­i­ment of a lack. That is to say, since sub­ject is the self-appear­ing of noth­ing, its “object­ive cor­rel­ate” can only be a weird object whose nature is to be the embod­i­ment of noth­ing, an “impossible” object, an object the entire being of which is an embod­i­ment of its own impossib­il­ity, the object called by Lacan objet a, an object whose status is that of an ana­morphos­is: a part of the pic­ture which, when we look at the pic­ture in a dir­ect front­al way, appears as a mean­ing­less stain, acquires the con­tours of a known object when we change our pos­i­tion and look at the pic­ture from aside. Lacan’s point is even more rad­ic­al: the object-cause of desire is some­thing that, when viewed front­ally, is noth­ing at all, just a void. It acquires the con­tours of some­thing only when viewed side­ways. The most beau­ti­ful case of it in lit­er­at­ure occurs when, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Bushy tries to com­fort the Queen, wor­ried about the unfor­tu­nate King on a mil­it­ary cam­paign:

“Each sub­stance of a grief hath twenty shad­ows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blind­ing tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like per­spect­ives, which rightly gazed upon
Show noth­ing but con­fu­sion, eyed awry
Dis­tin­guish form: so your sweet majesty,
Look­ing awry upon your lord’s depar­ture,
Find shapes of grief, more than him­self, to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shad­ows
Of what it is not.”

This is objet a: an entity that has no sub­stan­tial con­sist­ency, which is in itself “noth­ing but con­fu­sion,” and which acquires a defin­ite shape only when looked upon from a stand­point dis­tor­ted by the subject’s desires and fears—as such, as a mere “shad­ow of what it is not.” Objet a is the strange object which is noth­ing but the inscrip­tion of the sub­ject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is ana­morph­ic­ally dis­tor­ted by the subject’s desire. The extraordin­ar­ily mod­ern defin­i­tion of poetry from Midsum­mer Nights Dream, V/1, points in the same dir­ec­tion:

“The lun­at­ic, the lov­er and the poet
Are of ima­gin­a­tion all com­pact:
One sees more dev­ils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the mad­man: the lov­er, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beau­ty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine fren­zy rolling,
Doth glance from heav­en to earth, from earth to heav­en;
And as ima­gin­a­tion bod­ies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy noth­ing
A loc­al hab­it­a­tion and a name.”

Indeed, as Mal­larme put it cen­tur­ies later, poetry talks about “ce seul objet don’t le Neant s’honore.” Shakespeare deploys here a tri­ad: a mad­man sees dev­ils every­where (mis­per­ceives a bush as a bear); a lov­er sees sub­lime beau­ty in an ordin­ary face; a poet “gives to airy noth­ing a loc­al hab­it­a­tion and a name.” In all three cases we have the gap between ordin­ary real­ity and a tran­scend­ent eth­er­e­al dimen­sion, but this gap is gradu­ally reduced: the mad­man simply mis­per­ceives a real object as some­thing else, not see­ing it as what it is (a bush is per­ceived as a threat­en­ing bear); a lov­er main­tains the real­ity of the beloved object, which is not can­celed, but merely “tran­sub­stan­ti­ated” into the appear­ance of a sub­lime dimen­sion (the beloved’s ordin­ary face is per­ceived as it is, but it is as such elevated—I see beau­ty in it, as it is); with a poet, tran­scend­ence is reduced to zero, that is, empir­ic­al real­ity is “tran­sub­stan­ti­ated” (not into an expression/materialization of some higher real­ity, but) into a mater­i­al­iz­a­tion of noth­ing. A mad­man dir­ectly sees god, he mis­takes a per­son for god (or Dev­il); a lov­er sees god (divine beau­ty) in a per­son; a poet only sees a per­son again­st the back­ground of Noth­ing­ness.

How is such an entity which func­tions as the appear­ance of noth­ing to itself pos­sible? The answer is clear—such a non­sub­stan­tial entity has to be purely rela­tion­al, with no pos­it­ive sup­port of its own. What hap­pens in the pas­sage from sub­stance to sub­ject is thus a kind of reflect­ive reversal: we pass from the secret core of an object inac­cess­ible to oth­er objects to inac­cess­ib­il­ity as such—$ is noth­ing but its own inac­cess­ib­il­ity, its own fail­ure to be sub­stance. There­in resides Lacan’s achieve­ment: the stand­ard psy­cho­ana­lyt­ic the­ory con­ceives the Uncon­scious as a psych­ic sub­stance of sub­jectiv­ity (the notori­ous hid­den part of the iceberg)—all the depth of desires, fantas­ies, trau­mas, and so on—while Lacan de-sub­stan­tial­izes the Uncon­scious (for him, the Cartesian cogito is the Freu­di­an sub­ject), thereby bring­ing psy­cho­ana­lys­is to the level of mod­ern sub­jectiv­ity. (It is here that we should bear in mind the dif­fer­ence between the Freu­di­an Uncon­scious and the “uncon­scious” neur­o­lo­gic­al brain pro­cesses: the lat­ter do form the subject’s nat­ur­al “sub­stance,” that is, sub­ject only exists in so far as it is sus­tained by its bio­lo­gic­al sub­stance; how­ever, this sub­stance is not sub­ject.)

Sub­ject is not some­how more act­ant than objects, a mega-act­ant act­ively pos­it­ing all the world of fun­da­ment­ally pass­ive objects, so that again­st this hubris one should assert the act­ive role of all objects. Sub­ject is at its most fun­da­ment­al level a cer­tain ges­ture of passiv­iz­a­tion, of not-doing, of with­drawal, of pass­ive exper­i­ence. Sub­ject is “ce que du reel pat­it du sig­nifiant” (Lacan), its activ­ity a reac­tion to this basic fea­ture. So it is not that ooo does take into account sub­jectiv­ity, merely redu­cing it to a property/quality of one among oth­er objects: what ooo describes as sub­ject simply does not meet the cri­ter­ia of sub­ject—there is no place for sub­ject in ooo.

Here we encoun­ter the mis­take of Althusser and oth­ers who reduce sub­ject to the ima­gin­ary illu­sion of self-recognition—the idea is that “sub­ject” is an effect of ima­gin­ary mis­recog­ni­tion, of a short-cir­cuit which gives rise to the illus­ory self-exper­i­ence as a free autonom­ous agent, obfus­cat­ing the com­plex pre­sub­ject­ive (neur­on­al or dis­curs­ive) pro­cesses which gen­er­ate this illu­sion. The task of the the­ory of sub­jectiv­ity is then to describe these pro­cesses, as well as to out­line how one can break out of the ima­gin­ary circle of sub­jectiv­ity and con­front the pre­sub­ject­ive pro­cess of sub­ject­iv­iz­a­tion. The Hegel­i­an (and Lacani­an) coun­ter-argu­ment is here that “sub­ject­iv­iz­a­tion” (the form­a­tion of the sub­ject­ive space of mean­ing) effect­ively is groun­ded in an clos­ure of the circle of self-recog­ni­tion, in an ima­gin­ary obfus­ca­tion of a trau­mat­ic Real, of the wound of ant­ag­on­ism. How­ever, this “wound,” this trau­ma, this cut in/of the real, is the sub­ject itself at its zero-level, so that, to para­phrase the fam­ous line from Wagner’s Parsi­fal, the sub­ject is itself the wound it tries to heal (note that Hegel says the same about spir­it). This “abso­lute con­tra­dic­tion,” this rad­ic­al coin­cid­ence of the oppos­ites (the “wound of nature,” the loss of “organ­ic unity,” and sim­ul­tan­eously the very activ­ity to heal this wound by way of con­struct­ing a uni­verse of mean­ing; the pro­duc­tion of sense with a trau­mat­ic core of non­sense; the point of abso­lute sin­gu­lar­ity [of the “I” exclud­ing all sub­stan­tial con­tent] in which uni­ver­sal­ity comes to itself, is “pos­ited” as such) is what defines and con­sti­tutes sub­jectiv­ity. One of Hegel’s names for this abyss of sub­jectiv­ity that he takes from the mys­tic tra­di­tion is the “night of the world,” the with­drawal of the Self from the world of entit­ies into the void that “is” the core of the Self, and it is cru­cial to notice how in this ges­ture of self-with­drawal (in clin­ic­al terms: the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of all “world,” of all uni­verse of mean­ing), extreme clos­ure and extreme open­ness, extreme passiv­ity and extreme activ­ity, over­lap. In the “night of the world,” extreme self-with­drawal, cut­ting of the links with real­ity around us, over­laps with our extreme open­ness to real­ity: we drop all sym­bol­ic screens which filter our access to real­ity, all pro­tect­ive shields, and we risk a kind of total expos­ure to the dis­gust of the Real. As to its con­tent, it is a pos­i­tion of rad­ic­al passiv­ity (of a Kan­tian tran­scend­ent­al sub­ject sus­pend­ing its con­sti­tu­tion of real­ity), but as to its form, it is a pos­i­tion of rad­ic­al activ­ity, of viol­ently tear­ing one­self out of the immer­sion into real­ity: I am utterly pass­ive, but my pass­ive pos­i­tion is groun­ded in my with­drawal from real­ity, in a ges­ture of extreme neg­at­iv­ity.

It is in this sense that the “demo­cracy of objects” in which sub­jects are con­ceived as one among the objects-act­ants obfus­cates the Real of sub­jects, the cut that IS the Real. And the cru­cial point to be noted here is that every dir­ect access to “sub­ject­less objects” which ignores or bypasses this cut/wound that “is” the sub­ject already has to rely on tran­scend­ent­al con­sti­tu­tion: what it describes is a pluri­verse of act­ants is formed by a cer­tain tran­scend­ent­al vis­ion of real­ity. In oth­er words, the prob­lem with sub­ject­less objects is not that they are too object­ive, neg­lect­ing the role of sub­ject, but that what they describe as sub­ject­less world of objects is too sub­ject­ive, already with­in an unprob­lem­at­ized tran­scend­ent­al hori­zon. We do not reach the In-itself by way of tear­ing away sub­ject­ive appear­ances and try­ing to isol­ate “object­ive real­ity” as it is “out there,” inde­pend­ently of the sub­ject; the In-itself inscribes itself pre­cisely into the sub­ject­ive excess, gap, incon­sist­ency that opens up a hole in real­ity. This gap is missed both by ooo and by tran­scend­ent­al­ism in all its con­tem­por­ary ver­sions, from Heide­g­ger to Haber­mas: although the two are big oppon­ents, they both retain the tran­scend­ent­al hori­zon (the his­tor­ic­al dis­clos­ure of being in Heide­g­ger, the a pri­ori of sym­bol­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion) as the ulti­mate hori­zon of our think­ing.


  1. See Levi Bry­ant, The Demo­cracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Human­it­ies Press, 2011). Bry­ant reads ooo as object-ori­ented onti­co­logy (to dis­tin­guish it from meta­phys­ic­al onto­logy).
  2. A some­what simplist­ic tran­scend­ent­al argu­ment again­st ooo would have been: Where does Bry­ant speak from when he elab­or­ates his onti­co­logy? If all objects are autopoi­et­ic­ally con­strained, is then his own descrip­tion of the pluri­verse of objects not also con­strained by the sys­tem-spe­cific per­spect­ive prop­er to human objects?
  3. Bry­ant, The Demo­cracy of Objects, 269.
  4. Ibid., p. 26.
  5. Quentin Meil­las­soux, After Finitude: Essay on the Neces­sity of Con­tin­gency (Lon­don: Con­tinuum, 2008), p. 56.
  6. Ibid., p. 52.
  7. Ibid., p. 53.
  8. Ibid., p. 63.
  9. Ibid., p. 58.
  10. Ibid., p. 114.
  11. Bry­ant, The Demo­cracy of Objects, p. 32.
  12. Ibid., pp. 281–282.
  13. Ibid., p. 160.
  14. Ibid., p. 187. There is another option here: even if com­mu­nic­a­tion is inter­pre- tation, so that the expli­cit mes­sage that cir­cu­lates and is inter­preted by the receiv­er is always a dis­tor­tion of what the sender really meant, what if the expli­cit mes­sage is more import­ant than its with­drawn core, what if there is more truth in mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion than in what is with­drawn? Ima­gine a dia- logue between a Chinese and a US cap­it­al­ist man­ager: undoubtedly each of them will miss the cul­tur­ally spe­cific back­ground of the other’s mes­sage— how­ever, this back­ground is irrel­ev­ant with regard to what is at stake in this com­mu­nic­a­tion (the exchange of com­mod­it­ies will go on smoothly in spite of this con­tinu­ing mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion).
  15. Ibid., p. 265.
  16. Ibid., p. 27.
  17. Ibid., p. 24.
  18. See Jane Ben­nett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010).
  19. As to this notion, see James Mar­tel, “A Mis­in­ter­pel­lated Mes­si­ah,” Paper pre- sen­ted at The Actu­al­ity of the Theo­lo­gi­co-Polit­ic­al, Birk­beck Col­lege, Lon­don, May 24,
  20. Ibid., p. 160.
  21. Jac­ques Lacan, The Eth­ics of Psy­cho­ana­lys­is (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1992), p. 44.

    Text copied without author­iz­a­tion from Sla­voj Žižek and Dia­lect­ic­al Mater­i­al­ism

    See also:
    Sla­voj Žižek: A Cri­tique of Object Ori­ented Onto­logy and New Mater­i­al­ism (lec­ture)