Kant on Zizek

From the preface to the first edition of Critique of Pure Reason:

It is true that Abbot Terrasson tells us that if the size of a book were measured not by the number of its pages but by the time required to understand it, then we could say about many books that they would be much shorter if they were not so short. On the other hand, if we are concerned with the [distinctness and] comprehensibility of a voluminous whole of speculative cognition that yet coheres in one principle, then we could just as legitimately say that many books would have turned out much more distinct if they had not been intended to be quite so distinct [that is, "clear" in the popular sense -- plenty of examples, etc.] For the aids to distinctness, while helpful in parts of a book, are often distracting in the book as a whole. They keep the reader from arriving quickly enough at an overview of the whole; and with all their bright colors they do cover up and conceal the articulation or structure of the system, even though that structure is what matters most if we are to be able to judge the system’s unity and sturdiness.

It amazes me that Kant was able to foresee the problems with Zizek’s body of work so perfectly.

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25 Responses to “Kant on Zizek”

  1. Amish Lovelock Says:

    Amazing what you can do from Konigsberg in the late 18th Century.

  2. Dave Belcher Says:

    Adam, this just struck me as I was reading this–is it possible that Zizek is just being disingenuous? That is, though he says he’s trying to make Lacan so easy your grandma can understand it, is it possible he is intentionally trying to “cover up and conceal the articulation or structure of the system, even though that structure is what matters most if we are to be able to judge the system’s unity and sturdiness.” This would of course be obscurantism (by Zizek’s own definition)–the use of clear and “popular” examples to delineate certain details precisely in order to evade the central meaning–but it would also make him kind of “postmodern” (again in Zizek’s own definition)…and that of course would be a bad thing. Of course, intentions aside, it could just be a tragic element of his work–as you seem to be somewhat pointing out. When reading Looking Awry for instance, I find myself getting so caught up in his–actually quite interesting–examples from literature, film, pop culture, I often completely forget what it was he was trying to explain–and certainly seem to continually forget where this is all going.

  3. Adam Says:

    I tend to think that it’s a tragic element rather than purposeful disingenuousness, if only because over time I have come to believe there actually is something specific “under the hood.” In essence, I think the man needs a co-author who can just work on organization, condensation, etc.

    The blurb from Adrian Johnston’s forthcoming book Zizek’s Ontology shows that Zizek himself is conscious of the problem: “It is always difficult to read books about oneself; with Johnston’s book, my anxiety was even stronger than usual. While reading it, I often had the uncanny feeling of being confronted by a line of argumentation which fits better than my own texts what I am struggling to formulate–as if he is the original and I am a copy. He certainly knows how to read me. The majority of my critics concentrate on popular culture, politics, and ideology in my work–Johnston goes directly to its transcendental-ontological nucleus. This is not a book on me, but a book, critical of me, on what both Johnston and I consider the core of our philosophical predicament. I thus advise the reader to forget about me and to enjoy the hard work of penetrating the obscure dimension of the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis.” (Johnston’s book sounds great, by the way — hopefully it will prompt a new direction in studies of Zizek.)

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Do you understand what people mean by transcendental materialism?

  5. Alex Says:

    I’ve always understood, in the way John Milbank once called it, being a sexy materialist. Yes matter is all there is, and hence matter is a transcendent above thought, the world etc. But I’m not a scientisitic git! Don’t worry!

  6. JD Says:

    Isn’t it just a way of saying that matter is the condition of possibility for thought, and that as such matter cannot be adequately reflected in thought?

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Except they are hardcore rationalists usually and live by the axiom that everything can be adequately thought. I think maybe less slogans and clearer statements would be nice.

  8. Alex Says:

    JD, but why should matter not be able to be adequately thought. Its not like we are talking something like God here where we have have to do a negative theology of matter. Matter is a pretty easy concept to grasp, no?

  9. JD Says:

    I was just inferring from what I know of Schelling for whom matter already “thinks” in an undetermined fashion, such that the real always precedes the ideal and can’t be adequately represented there because determined thought is determined.

  10. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    How is matter an easy concept to grasp? Not to get Heideggerian, but perhaps in its instrumentality matter is easy enough to understand, but there is a reason people still do physics and its not because they want to learn what everyone already knows about matter.

  11. discard Says:

    I always took the moniker as strategic, as in, we are concerned with conceiving the transcendental, abstraction is good, etc, but don’t assume from this that we are idealists or advocates of the transcendent, because we are materialists.

  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    So it is basically like Radical Orthodoxy?

  13. discard Says:

    Broadly speaking, or in this strategic sense, I’d say yes.

  14. Adam Says:

    Maybe they use “Transcendental Materialism” in order to avoid the embarrassment of Zizek’s own preferred “dialectical materialism.”

  15. larvalsubjects Says:


    JD, but why should matter not be able to be adequately thought. Its not like we are talking something like God here where we have have to do a negative theology of matter. Matter is a pretty easy concept to grasp, no?

    In many respects, matter has been treated as the very opposite of the thinkable throughout the history of philosophy. Adorno does an amazing job of tracing this history in Metaphysics. I highly recommend this book, especially the first half. In the Aristotlean formulation, which persists throughout the subsequent history of philosophy, matter is always the surd that escapes thought (only form being thinkable). This, I think, is the central problem with Badiou. In his most recent work (Logiques des mondes and Theoretical Writings, he assimilates matter to mathematics. The problem as I see it is this misses the way in which there is always a contingency to material formations, to actualities, that cannot be deduced in thought (unlike mathematics), but which can only be encountered. As Johnston argues (his work is excellent, Adam), Badiou completely misses the experimental dimension of the sciences or the way in which the scientist has to go to the world. I think this is a serious problem with his ontology as well. What good is an ontology that is unable to capture the sense of being as existence?

    Anthony, would it be possible to call Deleuze’s ontology a transcendental materialism, just as it’s referred to as a transcendental empiricism? Here I have in mind the role that pre-personal singularities and relations or multiplicities play in the genesis of actualities. These are dimensions of material being (in Deleuze’s own unique understanding of material being), that are conditions of actual beings or which preside over their genesis. This, of course, would be a very different understanding of transcendental materialism than the facile one that Brassier seems to advocate in his scientism.

    I can’t recall if it was you or Adam who wrote a post months back asking why were supposed to be materialists. Echoing Alex, there does seem to be a way in which these terms are thrown around as sexy flags and secret codes for what is “good”, as opposed to substantial and well-developed philosophical positions.

  16. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Aristotelean formulation? it would seem to be more of a Cartesian(ist) formulation with its idiosyncratic insistence on the body-mind separation, wouldn’t it? a kind of “scientist” attitude then prevails in understanding “matter” as a “determined nature” vis-a-vis “free mind” – there comes your “absolute time” and “absolute space” Sir Isaac Newton and Herr Leibniz with his strange protests against such picture of reality in a way nods in the direction of Aristotle – Christa Mercer does a great job of articulating these Aristotelean influences in her <Leibniz’s Metaphysics – Deleuze then would be in the Leibniz’s tradition of “thinking (about) matter”?

  17. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    ‘Here I have in mind the role that pre-personal singularities and relations or multiplicities play in the genesis of actualities.’

    Yes, I suppose this could be called a transcendental materialism, (and Toscano, who is no joker on these matters, seems to want to make that point in his Theater of Production). I go back and forth on this, on the one hand I want some way of accounting for matter that isn’t eliminative or reductionist because it seems that those sorts of accounts lose both the realities of experience and the realities of matter freed from the bounds of human experience, but on the other hand I don’t see how this is especially materialist and I’m not sure I want to spend time fighting over the brand (so to speak).

    Why not call it a transcendental vitalism (Deleuze’s vitalism seems to me to be caught up what you describe above) or a transcendental relationality? I suppose transcendental materialism just seems more sexy, even if it is more safe.

    I agree with you on Badiou.

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Doesn’t matter just become the kind of epiphenomena of number?

  19. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    sorry, just couldn’t resist – what the hell is “epiphenomena of number”?

  20. larvalsubjects Says:


    I had in mind Aristotle’s subordination of matter to form in the form/matter relation. The form is, for Aristotle, what is thinkable in the matter. It is it’s intelligibility.

  21. Adam Says:

    Mikhail, You never cease to amaze me.

    An epiphenomenon is something secondary or derivative. If Badiou makes matter an epiphenomenon of number, he’s saying that matter is less real than number — you know, the whole thing where “mathematics is ontology”?

    For further information on the word “epiphenomenon,” you can check out Wikipedia or simply type the word into Google.

  22. Jonas Says:

    “Doesn’t matter just become the kind of epiphenomena of number?”

    Brings to mind a Bachelard quote from Le Nouvel Espirit Scientifique: “La matiére n’est que l’ombre d’un nombre”

    Bachelard seems to be a kind of godfather for all the different “materialisms” (applied, rational, dialectical, transcendental, etc.) that appear these days…….. Would probably be a good place to start investigating some of these questions (for instance, his book on Bergson looks interesting).

  23. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    You never cease to amaze me.

    thank you – i try so hard sometimes to be all edgy and rude but down deep i just want you to like me…

  24. Adam Says:

    If you think that making fun of “big words” on an academic blog is “edgy,” you also need to look up “edgy” in the damn dictionary.

  25. ben wolfson Says:

    Bachelard is an underappreciated figure in the philosophy of science, or so various people about my department claim.

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