A Note on Slavoj Zizek’s “The Persistence of Ontological Difference.”


In the face of so many portentous denunciations of Heidegger’s evil work, and without diminishing the import of the historical fact that Heidegger did indeed take on pro-Nazi, and hyper-Nazi, and anti-Semitic, and racialized positions (does not much matter that Heidegger’s racism may have been metaphysical rather than biological), it is refreshing to come across Slavoj Zizek’s “The Persistence of Ontological Difference” (in Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny eds., Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. Responses to Anti-Semitism, New York: Columbia UP, 2017, 186-200).   Zizek does not want to engage in moralistic casuistry on one side or the other. His question is rather whether Heidegger is an important thinker that merits study today (“one should insist that he is a true philosophical classic” [191]), in spite of his multiple errors of many kinds but also even in spite of whatever may be threatening today about his intelligence. It is of course rumored that Zizek initiated his thinking life with a certain enthusiasm for Heidegger, but those rumors will remain unsubstantiated for those of us who cannot read Slovene. In any case, it has been clear for years that, at a certain point, Zizek preferred to take on Hegel as the lasting target of his personal magnification (although he has never come to terms, to my knowledge, with the Heideggerian critique of Hegelianism, which has to do, in a nutshell, with the all-dominant emphasis on the experience of self-consciousness and on self-consciousness as experience as end of history, which Heidegger dismissed as so much clumsy delusion. Perhaps an emphasis on political agency, and insofar as we fail to change our own general or civilizational perspective on politics, no matter how much it has failed us already, requires a willful blindness vis-a-vis that kind of critique.) From Zizek’s therefore partial but significant rescue I simply want to rescue, in this brief note, what seems to me more relevant and astute in “The Persistence of the Ontological Difference.”

Let me start at the very end, and not just the end of the paper, but the final footnote of it: “Ontological difference is, from our perspective, the very difference between the existing multiplicity of entities and the barred One: the One is barred, it doesn’t exist, but the very void of its inexistence opens up the space for entities to arise. The illusion of metaphysics–the ‘forgetting’ of the ontological difference, as Heidegger would have put it–is to obliterate the bar that makes the One inexistent, i.e., to elevate the One into the highest entity” (225).   One could be forgiven for concluding that Zizek is too quick to take the forgetting of the ontological difference into the region of onto-theology, as if it were easiest to understand Being as God.   In that reading, the ontological difference would be merely some reaction to the Nietzschean, but perhaps already Hegelian, dictum concerning the “death” of God that comes to certify its non-existence. The Ex-istence of the One would have to be suppressed for an Ex-isting Multiplicity to arise, and in the same way perhaps an Ex-isting Multiplicity could be suppressed, and then the One would come into Ex-istence. Anybody could then be either a conditional monotheist or an equally conditional materialist atheist or both, depending upon perspective and a specific determination of ecstatic temporality–this could in fact be a more or less adequate reading of historical Hegelianism, even.

But that may be a poor reading of what Zizek meant to offer with his definition of ontological difference. What if, for example, the transcendental or radically subjectivist position were meant to stand in for the One? And is this not the Hegelian Absolute Knowledge as such, where substance is subject and subject is substance? The Barred Subject then creates space for objectivity, as actually ex-isting multiplicity, even as objectivity also creates space for the Barred Subject and for the Subject as Barred.  But even this could also constitute only a partial and therefore inadequate reading of what Zizek is proposing. It could be countered with an intriguing affirmation from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (that Zizek does not quote): “The ecstatic character that is attributed to everything ‘existential’ makes impossible from top to bottom every effort to conjoin an essentially subjectivistic ‘illumination of existence’ and the ‘existential analytic,’ which pertains solely to the question of being” (quoted by David Farrell Krell, Ecstasy, Catastrophe, Albany: SUNY P, 2015, 129).   If we take out of the equation any kind of subjectivistic interference in the understanding of the ontological difference, then issues of relative existence or belief in existence or illusions of existence become moot for its determination. We no longer care whether the big Other exists or not, etcetera.

There is perhaps a better definition of ontological difference in Zizek’s text, but let us preface it by quoting the heart of Zizek’s Heideggerian defense.   For him the attack on Heidegger is today not really, or not primarily, an attack on Heidegger and certainly not an attack on right Heideggerians or whoever out there is today pro-Nazi, hyper-Nazi, or anti-Semitic. It is, much more pedestrianly, an attack on left Heideggerians, or on people imagined to claim that tag for themselves, as an attack on theory. I remember when my old colleague Fredric Jameson used to say that all attacks on theory were really only attacks on Marxism–by delegitimizing theory the reactionaries in the US academy really meant to preempt any kind of return of Marxism. It may be a little late in the day to keep making that argument, which is not Zizek’s: rather, “the true stakes of the ongoing attacks on Heidegger” are “to get rid of the ‘French theory’ left by way of imposing on them a guilt by association” (190). With all my respect to those remainders of French theory that do not make recourse to Heidegger and never have, this is obvious code for deconstruction. Attacks on Heidegger today are functionally and politically attacks on deconstruction, even more, attacks on the people who claim the legacy of deconstruction, since it is not so simple to separate the dancer from the dance.   And why is that? Zizek’s answer is somewhat complicated, and it seems to me he claims too much in it:

“But the ultimate target is here a tendency within critical theory itself: the theoretical complex called “dialectics of Enlightenment,” with its basic premise according to which the horrors of the twentieth century (Holocaust, concentration camps, etc.) are not remainders of some barbaric past but the outcome of the immanent antagonisms of the project of Enlightenment. For Habermasians, such a premise is wrong: the horrors of the twentieth century are not immanent to the project of Enlightenment but an indication that this project is unfinished . . . We should make one step further here and recognize in this opposition between Enlightenment as an unfinished project and the dialectic of Enlightenment the opposition between Kant and Hegel: between Kantian progress and the Hegelian dialectic of immanent antagonisms” (190-91)

The unfortunate “Habermasians” stand in for those who still believe today that modernity is an unblemished, if unfinished, project for planetary mankind. Not Heidegger, and certainly not Adorno and Horkheimer, but, and this is where it gets a little excessive perhaps, not the Hegelians either!   And presumably including the Marxists. How is it possible to argue that all of those who believe in the “Hegelian dialectic of immanent antagonisms” also necessarily believe that modernity’s contradictions lead to an impasse? Is deconstruction the target of anti-Heideggerianism or is it still Marxism, even if it is a reconstructed and sui generis Marxism? Can Zizek, after all, stand in for the left Heideggerians?

Perhaps the crucial section of Zizek’s essay is the one entitled “Against the Univocity of Being,” whose hero is, paradoxically, Spinoza. Zizek will want to make an argument for infinite multiplicity, which is not necessarily what one associates with the marrano thinker. The key twist is the following: one is led to assuming or affirming a multiplicity of being in the same way that some people still believe it is forbidden to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil: “deficiency of knowledge” (193).   One does not know enough, and one confuses as the law or as an ethical duty what, from a larger perspective, is no more than a piece of advice or a cautionary word like “don’t cross the road unless you see a green light.”   Spinoza wanted to think a univocal Being opposed to Aristotelian ontology (where being is said in multiple ways) in order to pass from a sense of a universe unified by commands keeping or trying to keep chaos at bay to a universe defined exclusively by its own reality. Zizek’s account–moving towards the ontological difference–sort of turns the Spinozan intuition on its head:

“A is not just not-B, it is also and primarily not fully A, and B emerges to fill in this gap. It is at this level that we should locate ontological difference: reality is partial, incomplete, inconsistent, and the Supreme Being is the illusion imagined in order to fill in (obfuscate) this lack, this void that makes reality non-all. In short, ontological difference–the difference between non-all reality and the void that thwarts it–is obfuscated by the difference between the “highest” or “true” being . . . and its secondary shadows” (194)

But do we not have, again, a tendency to see the ontological difference too much on the side of onto-theology? Being is not another name for the God of theology, not for Heidegger. Whence the insistence? Yes, reality is not all for the human, Dasein cannot experience it in any kind of completeness (which is not structurally the case for the Hegelian Subject of Absolute Knowledge, by the way). But the ontological difference does not posit an illusion coming to compensate for subjective deficiencies!   Zizek is still within an understanding of ontological difference in the Hegelian sense of the difference between beings and the being of beings.   But Heidegger, at a minimum, points elsewhere: towards another difference, and a more decisive one from the point of view of rupturing metaphysics, the difference between being and the being of beings.   Does Zizek ever register it?

I think he does, but perhaps in spite of himself. But he does. This could be a matter of genius. At first, he conflates the Heideggerian ontological difference with the Freudian death-drive and dialectical negativity. We can only say no. It ain’t that. But then, at the end of a substantial engagement with Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound (2007), an anti-Kantian book in a sense, Zizek hits a plausible note or genius breaks through: “[the ontological difference] is beyond any transcendental horizon; it aims at reaching the In-itself. However, the In-itself is not ‘out-there;’ we do not reach it after we subtract from reality our subjective additions; the In-itself is ‘here’ in the very subjective excess to what appears to us as objective reality” (200).   It seems to me this observation, which flatly contradicts the two accounts of the ontological difference that have previously been noted in Zizek’s text (and also above), is on target, and perhaps not absolutely, but certainly in its very difference with the other two accounts. It is a relational definition of the ontological difference which refers to an In-itself perhaps better rendered as an out-there.   In any case, food for thought. Zizek concludes: “Nothing in the Black Notebooks changes the fact that Heidegger’s thought provides a key contribution to our dealing with this ultimate question” (200).











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