And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Monday, November 1, 2021

I'm in Heaven...

(Presumably) Leaked Slavoj Zizek Speech for "Conference on Zizek's Philosophy and Thought" in Nanjing University

Slavoj Zizek, "Heaven in Disorder"
An allegedly old Chinese curse (which has nothing to do with China – it was probably invented by some Western observer) says “May you live in interesting times!” – interesting times are the times of troubles, confusion and suffering. And it seems that in Western “democratic” countries, we are lately witnessing a weird phenomenon which proves that we live in interesting times.

One of Mao Zedong’s best-known sayings is: “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.” It is easy to understand what Mao meant here: when the existing social order is disintegrating, the ensuing chaos offers revolutionary forces a great chance to act decisively and assume political power. Today, there certainly is great disorder under heaven, with the Covid-19 pandemic, global warming, signs of a new Cold War, and the eruption of popular protests and social antagonisms worldwide naming but a few of the crises that beset us. But does this chaos still make the situation excellent, or is the danger of self-destruction too high? The difference between the situation that Mao had in mind and our own situation can be best rendered by a tiny terminological distinction. Mao speaks about disorder UNDER heaven, wherein “heaven,” or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today, we should talk about HEAVEN ITSELF as being in disorder. What do I mean by this?

In Divided Heaven (1963), Christa Wolf’s classic GDR novel about the subjective impact of divided Germany, Manfred (who has chosen the West) says to his love Rita, when they meet for the last time: “But even if our land is divided, we still share the same heaven.” Rita (who has chosen to remain in the East) bitterly replies: “No, they first divided the heaven.” The novel offers the right insight into how our “earthly” divisions and fights are ultimately always grounded in a “divided heaven”; that is, in a much more radical and exclusive division of the very (symbolic) universe in which we dwell. Today, the situation is not the one in which Heaven is divided into two spheres, as was the case in the Cold War period when two global world-views confronted each other. The divisions of Heaven today appear increasingly drawn within each particular country. In the United States, there is an ideological and political civil war between the populist alternative Right and the liberal-democratic establishment. In Europe, the Covid-deniers are becoming a true popular movement… paces for common ground are ever diminishing, mirroring the ongoing enclosure of physical public space, and this is happening at a time when multiple intersecting crises mean that global solidarity and international cooperation are more needed than ever. What is preventing global solidarity and cooperation?

Many Leftists in the West are so obsessed with the critique of neoliberal capitalism that they neglect the big change, the passage from neoliberal capitalism to a strange post-capitalism which some analysts call “corporate neo-feudalism.” When, due to the crucial role of the “general intellect” (social knowledge and cooperation) in the creation of wealth, forms of wealth are more and more out of all proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production, the result is not, as Marx expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labor into rent appropriated by the privatization of the “general intellect” and other commons. Let us take the case of Bill Gates: how did he become one of the richest men in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of what Microsoft is selling (one can even argue that Microsoft is paying its intellectual workers a relatively high salary), i.e., Gates’s wealth is not the result of his success in producing good software for lower prices than his competitors, or in higher exploitation of his hired intellectual workers. Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft imposed itself as an almost universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field, a kind of direct embodiment of the “general intellect.” Things are similar with Jeff Bezos and Amazon, with Apple, Facebook, etc.etc. – in all these cases, commons themselves - the platforms (spaces of our social exchange and interaction) – are privatized, which puts us, their users, into the position of serfs paying a rent to the owner of a common as our feudal master. with regard to Facebook, “Mark Zuckerberg ‘has unilateral control over 3 billion people’ due to his unassailable position at the top of Facebook, the whistleblower Frances Haugen told to the British MPs as she called for urgent external regulation to rein in the tech company’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.” The big achievement of modernity, the public space, is thus disappearing.

But what makes the situation really dangerous, pushing us into a new barbarism, is that these global privatized commons co-exist with a new wave of strong nation-state competition which runs directly against the urgent need to establish a new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change called by Peter Sloterdijk “the domestication of the wild animal Culture.” Till now, each culture disciplined/educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each epoch of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. The entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism, the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation of the ethical life within a state.

Today, things are getting even worse. Instead of civilizing (the relations between) cultures, the ongoing privatization of commons undermines the ethical substance within each culture, pushing us back into barbarism. However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on a Spaceship Earth, the task that urgently imposes itself is that of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities. There is no higher historical necessity that pushes us in this direction, history is not on our side, it tends towards our collective suicide. As Walter Benjamin wrote, our task today is not to push forward the train of historical progress but to pull the emergency break before we all end in post-capitalist barbarism. In recent months, the often alarming ways in which the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic is intertwined with ongoing social, political, climatic, and economic crises are increasingly apparent. The pandemic must be treated together with global warming, erupting class antagonisms, patriarchy and misogyny, and the many other ongoing crises which resonate with it and with each other in a complex interplay. This interplay is uncontrollable and full of dangers, and we cannot count on any guarantee in Heaven to make the solution clearly imaginable. Such a risky situation makes our moment an eminently political one: the situation is decidedly NOT excellent, and that’s why one has to act.

I think it is only against this background that we can understand what is going now in China. The recent Chinese campaign against big corporations and the opening of a new stock exchange in Beijing dedicated to the promotion of small firms can also be seen as moves against neo-feudal corporatism, i.e., as attempts to bring back “normal” capitalism. The irony of the situation is obvious: a strong Communist regime is needed to keep alive capitalism against the threat of ne-feudal corporatist post-capitalism… Consequently, I follow with great interest the writings of Wang Huning, the leading ideologue of the Chinese Communist party, a current member of the party's Politburo Standing Committee, and the director of Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization. Wang is correct in emphasizing the key role of culture, of the domain of symbolic fictions. The true materialist way to oppose the topic of the “fiction of reality” (subjectivist doubts in the style of “is what we perceive as reality not just another fiction?”) is not to strictly distinguish between fiction and reality but to focus on the reality of fictions. Fictions are not outside reality, they are materialized in our social interactions, in our institutions and customs – as we can see in today’s mess, if we destroy fictions on which our social interactions are based, our social reality itself begins to fall apart.

Wang designated himself as a neo-conservative – what does this mean? If one is to trust our big media, Wang is the brain against the recent new orientation of Chinese politics. When I read that one of the measures lately imposed by the Chinese government is the prohibition of “996”, I must admit my first association was a sexual one: “69” means in our slang the position in which man performs on the woman cunnilingus and woman on the man fellatio, and I thought “996” refers to some more perverted sexual practice becoming widespread in China and involving two men and a woman (since there is a lack of women there). Then I learned that “996” means a brutal work rhythm imposed by many corporations in China (a workday 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week). But in some sense I was not totally wrong: the ongoing campaign in China has a double target: more economic equality, inclusive of better conditions of work, and elimination of the Westernized popular culture focused on sex, consumerism, and fandom.

So what does being a neo-conservative mean in today’s conditions? In mid-October 2019, Chinese media launched an offensive promoting the claim that “demonstrations in Europe and South America are the direct result of Western tolerance of Hong Kong unrest.” In a commentary published in Beijing News, former Chinese diplomat Wang Zhen wrote that "the disastrous impact of a 'chaotic Hong Kong' has begun to influence the Western world," i.e., that demonstrators in Chile and Spain were taking their cues from Hong Kong. Along the same lines, an editorial in Global Times accused Hong Kong demonstrators of "exporting revolution to the world": "The West is paying the price for supporting riots in Hong Kong, which has quickly kindled violence in other parts of the world and foreboded the political risks that the West can't manage. /…/ There are many problems in the West and all kinds of undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Many of them will eventually manifest in the way the Hong Kong protests did." And the ominous conclusion: "Catalonia is probably just the beginning."

Although the idea that demonstrations in Barcelona and Chile are taking their cues from Hong Kong is far-fetched, these outbursts exploded into a general discontent which was obviously already there, lurking, waiting for a contingent trigger to explode, so that even when the particular law or measure was repealed, protests persisted. The Communist China discreetly plays on the solidarity of those in power all around the world against the rebellious populace, warning the West not to underestimate the dissatisfaction in their own countries – as if, beneath all ideological and geo-political tensions, they all share the same basic interest in holding onto power… But will this defense work?

In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Jürgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate Left Fukuyamist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best one possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, we should not challenge its basic premises. This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future. As he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just “rectifying” or “catch-up” (nachholende) revolutions, their aim being to enable those societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed; in other words, to return to the West European normality.

However, the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) in France, the protests in Spain, and other similar protests today are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody what one cannot but call a profound dissatisfaction with the liberal-democratic capitalism. However, what is new is that the populist Right has proved to be much more adept in channeling these eruptions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the gilets jaunes: “Tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge”—all that moves (makes unrest) is not red. Today’s populist Right participates in a long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist. China seems to have chosen here the neoconservative side: to control the potentially-destructive dynamics of modern global economy with a strong Nation-State that emphasizes patriotism and traditional values. Where is the limit of such an approach?

Carlo Ginzburg proposed the notion that a shame for one’s country, not love of it, may be the true mark of belonging to it. A supreme example of such shame occurred back in 2014 when hundreds of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors bought an ad in Saturday’s New York Times condemning what they referred to as “the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine”: “We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch,” said the statement. Maybe, today, some Israelis will gather the courage to feel shame apropos of what the Israelis are doing on the West Bank and in Israel itself – not, of course, in the sense of shame of being Jewish but, on the contrary, of feeling shame for what the Israeli politics in the West Bank is doing to the most precious legacy of Judaism itself. “My country right or wrong” is one of the most disgusting mottos, and it illustrates perfectly what is wrong with unconditional patriotism. The same holds for China today. The space in which we can develop such critical thinking is the space of the public use of reason. In the famous passage of his “What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant opposes the “public” and the “private” use of reason: “private” is not one’s individual space as opposed to communal ties, but the very communal-institutional order of one’s particular identification; while “public” is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason:
“The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.”
This is why Kant’s formula of Enlightenment is not “Don’t obey, think freely!” is not “Don’t obey, think and rebel!” but: “Think freely, state your thoughts publicly, and obey!” The same holds for vaccine doubters: debate, publish your doubts, but obey regulations once the public authority imposes them. Without such practical consensus we will slowly drift into a society composed of tribal factions, as it is happening in many Western countries. But without the space for the public use of reason, the state itself courts the danger of becoming just another instance of the private use of reason. The space for the public use of reason is not the same as democracy in the Western liberal sense – in his last active year, Lenin himself saw the necessity of such an organ embodying the public use of reason. While admitting the dictatorial nature of the Soviet regime, he proposed to establish a Central Control Commission: an independent, educational and controlling body with an ‘apolitical’ edge, consisting of the best teachers and technocratic specialists monitoring the ‘politicized’ CC and its organs. In “dreaming” (his expression) about the kind of work to be done by the CCC, he describes how this body should resort “to some semi-humorous trick, cunning device, piece of trickery or something of that sort. I know that in the staid and earnest states of Western Europe such an idea would horrify people and that not a single decent official would even entertain it. I hope, however, that we have not yet become as bureaucratic as all that and that in our midst the discussion of this idea will give rise to nothing more than amusement. Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility? Why not resort to some humorous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?”

Maybe, China needs a similar Central Control Commission. Its first task would be to notice the profound structural homology between the Maoist permanent self-revolutionizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of State structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism. I think Wang is silently aware of this. I am tempted to paraphrase here Bertolt Brecht’s pun »What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?«: what are the violent and destructive outbursts of a Red Guardist caught in the Cultural Revolution compared to the true Cultural Revolution, the permanent dissolution of all life-forms necessitated by the capitalist reproduction? Today, the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward is repeating itself as the comedy of the rapid capitalist Great Leap Forward into modernization, with the old slogan “iron foundry into every village” re-emerging as “a skyscraper into every street.”

Some naïve Leftists claim that it is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism in general which acts as a counter-force to the unbridled capitalism, preventing its worst excesses, maintaining a minimum of social solidarity. What if, however, it is exactly the opposite that is the case? What if, in a kind of unintended and for this reason all the more cruelly ironic way, the Cultural Revolution, with its brutal erasure of past traditions, was a shock which created the conditions for the ensuing capitalist explosion? What if China has to be added to Naomi Klein’s list of states in which a natural, military or social catastrophe cleared the slate for a new capitalist explosion?

The supreme irony of history is thus that it was Mao himself who created the ideological conditions for the rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society. What was his call to the people, especially the young ones, in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do, you have the right to rebel! So think and act for yourselves, destroy cultural relics, denounce and attack not only your elders, but also government and party officials! Swipe away the repressive state mechanisms and organize yourself in communes! And Mao’s call was heard - what followed was an explosion of the unrestrained passion to de-legitimize all forms of authority, so that, at the end, the Army had to intervene to restore order.

Today we live in a strange era. Religious and national fundamentalisms are rising, at the same time that cynical disbelief is rising. In such a moment, we should make a step back and, instead of just analyzing the content of today’s ideologies, we should focus on their more formal features. What do we mean when we say that we believe or not in an ideology? Today, more than ever, we should bear in mind that there are beliefs which function socially, even if no-one really believes. I remember, from my youth, in the Socialist Yugoslavia, the official ideology was not taken seriously even by the state apparatchiks – and in this way it functioned perfectly. The apparatchiks got in panic when someone took the official ideology too seriously – this was for them the first the first step towards becoming a dissident. But this didn’t mean that individuals simply didn’t believe – they acted as if they believed, and this was what mattered. They believed in and through their activity.

Niels Bohr provided the perfect example of how belief works in ideology: seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to what Bohr snapped back: „I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!“ This is why, when a certain ideology is enforced, one should always closely analyze how this enforcement actually works. In my youth in Socialist Yugoslavia, the Socialist education de facto miserably failed: most of the pupils just ignored it, their reaction was: “Don’t take it seriously, just enjoy your life.” However, an old Communist explained to me that this apparent failure really was a success: those in power wanted a population which ignored official ideology and just mechanically took part in the official rituals. So when, as I hear, today in China pupils are again told to read Marxist classics, my question is: how is this injunction really meant?

The space of ideology, of customs that regulate our daily interactions, is ambiguous and inconsistent. There are prohibitions we are expected to violate, but discreetly, not in public. And the obverse, there are freedoms that are given to us, on condition that we don’t use them – we are given a free choice if we make the right choice. (For example, in my country, if I have a diner with my friend who is poor, when the bill arrives he is expected to insist that he will pay his share, but I am expected to insist that I will pay, so he quickly accepts that I will pay.) We have prohibitions which are themselves prohibited, i.e., which cannot be publicly announced. For example, in a hard Stalinist regime, it was of course prohibited to openly criticize the Leader, but it was also prohibited to publicly announce this prohibition. Nobody publicly said that it is prohibited to criticize Stalin, and the one saying this publicly would instantly disappear. This is what I would like to know about China: how does this complex texture of explicit and unwritten rules function there?

To analyze further such a complex interplay between what is said and what is not said, which un-said is implied in what is said, let me turn to a wonderful dialectical joke in Ernst Lubitch’s film Ninotchka : the hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream; the waiter replies: “Sorry, we have run out of cream, but we still have milk. Can I bring you coffee without milk?” In both cases, the customer gets coffee alone, but this One-coffee is each time accompanied by a different negation, first coffee-with-no-cream, then coffee-with-no-milk. There is a political equivalent of these lines: in a well-known joke from Socialist Poland, a customer enters a store and asks: “You probably don’t have butter, or do you?” The answer: “Sorry, but we are the store which doesn’t have toilet paper; the one across the street is the one which doesn’t have butter!” This is what Hegel called “determinate negation” as opposed to abstract negation: plain coffee, coffee without milk, and coffee without cream are in reality the same coffee, but in our symbolic universe, they are different, they embody a different negation (or no negation). And does the same not hold for politics? A situation gets politicized when a subordinated person or group experiences its social position not just as a simple identity but as a “determinate negation.” A woman becomes a feminist when she experiences her position as “without” (without freedom, without economic power…). We cannot change the past reality, but we can and should make it appear as stigmatized by what it negates. After a woman experiences her identity in a patriarchal society as marked by a “without,” all the past is changed: we learn to discover traces of oppression and exploitation in what was previously experienced as an organic stable social order. What this logic of determinate negation implies is the retroactivity of meaning which was nicely formulated by the great English conservative poet T.S. Eliot:
“what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. /…/ the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”
Let’s take the example of Shakespeare: a great staging of Hamlet today is not just a new interpretation of the play, it in a way fills the lacks of Shakespeare’s original itself – when writing it, Shakespeare didn’t know fully what he is saying, the play is full of inconsistencies, open towards the future. And the same holds for politics. When, in 1953, Chou En Lai, the Chinese Prime Minister, was in Geneva for the peace negotiations to end the Korean war, a French journalist asked him what does he think about the French Revolution; Chou replied: „It is still too early to tell.“ In a way, he was right: with the disintegration of the East European “people’s democracies” in the late 1990s, the struggle for the historical place of the French Revolution flared up again. The liberal revisionists tried to impose the notion that the demise of Communism in 1989 occurred at exactly the right moment: it marked the end of the era which began in 1789, the final failure of the revolutionary model which first entered the scene with the Jacobins. The battle for the past goes on today: if a new space of radical emancipatory politics will emerge, then French Revolution was not just a deadlock of history.

This brings us closer to philosophy. To designate such complex interplay of opposites, Hegel uses the unique term “absoluter Gegenstoss“(recoil, counter-push, counter-thrust, or, why not, simply counterpunch): a withdrawal-from creates what it withdraws from; the speculative coincidence of the opposites in the movement by means of which a thing emerges out of its own loss:
"Reflection therefore finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind. /…/ the reflective movement is to be taken as an absolute recoil [absoluter Gegenstoss] upon itself. For the presupposition of the return-into-self – that from which essence comes, and is only as this return – is only in the return itself.”
Absoluter Gegenstoss thus stands for the radical coincidence of the opposites in which the action appears as its own counter-action, or, more precisely, in which the very negative move (loss, withdrawal) generates what it “negates.” “What is found only comes to be through being left behind,” and its inversion (it is “only in the return itself” that what we return to emerges, like nations who constitute themselves by way of “returning to their lost roots”) are the two sides of what Hegel calls “absolute reflection”: a reflection which is no longer external to its object, presupposing it as given, but a reflection which, as it were, closes the loop and posits its presupposition.

Apropos the British colonization of India, there is first the “indifferent multiplicity” of the pre-colonial India; then the English colonization brutally intervenes, imposing on India the structure of a colonial world, and justifying colonization in the terms of Western universalism; then Indian resistance to colonization develops, pointing out how, in colonizing India, the West is betraying its own legacy of egalitarian emancipation. The anti-colonial struggle refers to the Idea of India as a secular democratic state, an Idea which originated in the West; the Indian version of this Idea, however, is not a “synthesis” between the Western secular-egalitarian spirit and the Indian tradition, but the full assertion of the Western egalitarian spirit by way of the cutting off the roots that ground it in the Western tradition and affirming its actual universality.

There is nothing there prior to the experience of a loss – of course there was something before the loss (in the case of India, a vast and complex tradition), but this tradition was a heterogeneous mess that has nothing to do with that to which the later national revival wants to return. This holds in general for all processes of lost and regained national identity. In the process of its revival, a nation-in-becoming experiences its present constellation as that of a loss of some precious origins, and strives to regain these origins, to return to them – however, there are no origins which were lost, the origins are constituted through the very experience of their loss and return to them. This holds for all “return to origins”: when, from 19th century onwards, new Nation-States were popping up in Central and Eastern Europe, their return to “old ethnic roots” generated these roots, producing what Eric Hobsbawn called “invented traditions.”

But is it not that such a retroactive movement can only happen in our cultural and symbolic space, while reality is just what it is? Here, I think, quantum physics enters - how are we to interpret the so-called “principle of uncertainty” which prohibits us from attaining full knowledge of particles at the quantum level (to determine the velocity and the position of a particle)? For Einstein, this principle of uncertainty proves that quantum physics does not provide a full description of reality, that there must be some unknown features missed by its conceptual apparatus. Heisenberg, Bohr, and others, on the contrary, insisted that this incompleteness of our knowledge of quantum reality points towards a strange incompleteness of quantum reality itself, a claim which leads to a breath-taking weird ontology. When we want to simulate reality within an artificial (virtual, digital) medium, we do not have to go to the end: we just have to reproduce features which make the image realistic for the spectator’s point of view. Say, if there is a house in the background, we do not have to construct through program the house’s entire interior, since we expect that the participant will not want to enter the house; or, the construction of a virtual person in this space can be limited to his exterior – no need to bother with inner organs, bones, etc. We just need to install a program which will promptly fill in this gap if the participant’s activity will necessitate it (say, if he will cut with a knife deep into the virtual person’s body). When we simulate a virtual universe, the microscopic structure of objects can be left blank, and if stars on the horizon appear hazy, we need not bother to construct the way they would appear to a closer look, since nobody will go up there to take such a look at them. The truly interesting idea here is that the quantum indeterminacy which we encounter when we inquire into the tiniest components of our universe can read in exactly the same way, as a feature of the limited resolution of our simulated world, i.e., as the sign of the ontological incompleteness of (what we experience as) reality itself. That is to say, let us imagine a God who is creating the world for us, its human inhabitants, to dwell in – his task
“could be made easier by furnishing it only with those parts that its inhabitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earth’s interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss.”
The idea is that God who created-”programmed” our universe was too lazy (or, rather, he underestimated our – human – intelligence): he thought that we, humans, will not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of our universe only to the level of its atomic structure – beyond it, he simply left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC game. Is, however, the theologico-digital way the only way to read this paradox? We can read it as a sign that we already live in a simulated universe, but also as a signal of the ontological incompleteness of reality itself. In the first case, the ontological incompleteness is transposed into an epistemological one, i.e., the incompleteness is perceived as the effect of the fact that another (secret, but fully real) agency constructed our reality as a simulated universe. The truly difficult thing is to accept the second choice, the ontological incompleteness of reality itself. That is to say, what immediately arises is a massive commonsense reproach: but how can this ontological incompleteness hold for reality itself? Is not reality defined by its ontological completeness? If reality “really exists out there,” it HAS to be complete “all the way down,” otherwise we are dealing with a fiction which just “hangs in the air,” like appearances which are not appearances of a substantial Something… But the ontological implication of quantum physics seems to be that material reality is already in itself incomplete, open towards future.

--- In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T.S.Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. Lenin did this with regard to traditional Marxism, Mao did this in his own way, and this is what has to be done today.


Today, we have TWO ends of philosophy. The first one takes place in positive sciences slowly occupying the field of old metaphysical speculations. In the last decades, technological progress in experimental physics has opened up a new domain, unthinkable in the classical scientific universe, that of the “experimental metaphysics”: “questions previously thought to be a matter solely for philosophical debate have been brought into the orbit of empirical inquiry.” The properly “metaphysical” propositions tested are the ontological status of contingency, the locality-condition of causality, the status of reality independent of our observation, etc. This is why, at the very beginning of his The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking triumphantly proclaims that »philosophy is dead.” With the latest advances in quantum physics and cosmology, the so-called experimental metaphysics reaches its apogee: metaphysical questions about the origins of the universe, etc., which were till now the topic of philosophical speculations, can now be answered through experimental science and thus empirically tested… The prospect of a “wired brain” is a kind of final point of the naturalization of human thought: when our process of thinking can directly interact with a digital machine, it effectively becomes an object in reality, it is no longer “our” inner thought as opposed to external reality.

On the other hand, with today’s transcendental historicism, “naïve” questions about reality are accepted precisely as “naïve,” which means they cannot provide the ultimate cognitive frame of our knowledge. For example, Foucault’s notion of truth can be summed up in the claim that truth/untruth is not a direct property of our statements but that, in different historical conditions, different discourses produce each its own specific truth-effect, i.e., it implies its own criteria of what values as “true”:
“The problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which are neither true nor false.”
Science defines truth in its own terms: the truth of a proposition (which should be formulated in clear explicit and preferably formalized terms) is established by experimental procedures which could be repeated by anyone. Religious discourse operates in a different way: its “truth” is established through complex rhetorical ways which generate the experience of inhabiting a meaningful world benevolently controlled by higher a higher power. So if one were to ask Michel Foucault a big metaphysical question, like “Do we have a free will?”, his answer would have been something like: “This question only has meaning, it can only be raised within a certain episteme, field of knowledge/power which determines under what conditions it is true or false, and all we can ultimately do is describe this episteme.” For Foucault, this episteme in what in German it is called Unhintergehbares, something behind which we cannot reach. Is there a way out of this debilitating deadlock?


1. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen calls for urgent external regulation | Facebook | The Guardian.

2. Quoted from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/21/asia/china-hong-kong-chile-spain-protests-intl-hnk/index.html.

3. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader, New York: Penguin Books 1995, p. 5.

4. V.I.lenin, “Better Few, But Better” (1923), quoted from Better Fewer, But Better (marxists.org).

5. I owe this reference to Alenka Zupancic.

6. T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” originally published in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922).

7. Hegel’s Science of Logic, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press 1969, p. 402.

8. See Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012.

9. See Nicholas Fearn, Philosophy. The Latest Answers To the Oldest Questions, London: Atlantic Books 2005, p. 77.

10. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press 2007, p. 25.

11. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, New York: Bantam 2010, p. 5.

12. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings, New York: Random House 1980, p. 118.

No comments: