A Very Brief Statement on Subject-Oriented Ontology, Cultural Relativism and Absolute Truth.
Slavoj Žižek’s talk at last december’s conference with the title “PARALLAX – The Dependence of Reality on Its Subjective Constitution” lured an unusually huge audience to the HfPh and gave us the chance to observe one of the most dazzling personalities in contemporary philosophy up close. In the course of the conference, to which his concept of a parallactic gap between “the infinite judgement of a reductionist materialism and experience as lived” seems to have been name-giving, Žižek presented parts of his subject-oriented ontology (a materialist account he developed throughout the last decades in which he revives the Cartesian subject in the context of the theory of subjectivity in German Idealism – especially the works of Kant, Schelling and Hegel – and Lacanian theory).  Later in the day, his opponent in conviction, object-oriented ontologist Graham Harman (also a conference speaker) spoke at the bookstore-café “Lost Weekend” around the corner and the two rediscussed their differences on stage. After this rather relaxed public evening debate Žižek agreed to follow us to a quiet corner and answer two quick questions before smoothly escaping into the crystal- clear night…
Our magazine’s next issue will be on classical ideals: the good, the true, the beautiful. The ontology you propose restricts us to our subjectivity and goes hand in hand with the disenchantment of a perfect world in-itself. Also, as you have stated in the past, we are largely determined by ideologies which precede our beliefs. Where do absolute ideals still have a place in this? Do they at all?
Žižek: A paradoxical phenomenon today can be found in, let’s call it: cultural relativism. Claiming that there is no absolute good, that everything is relative is precisely the predominant ideology of our western societies. The paradox is, that this ideology has the form of critique of ideology. If you say “absolute truth”, you are told: “this is ideology, this is fundamentalism”. But here I want to be very specific: I think, we should, in some sense, return to absolute truth. Not absolute truth in the sense of „valid for all times“, but in every social moment, in every social totality, there is, I believe, one truth. Also, although I’m an atheist, I believe in the irreversible project. I think, for example, that something has happened in European modernity which changes everything – we cannot simply return to premodern traditional paganism. Something happened with Christianity and we are at a point from which we cannot return. The traditional theism is over, the lesson of Christianity is: God dies, we cannot simply rely on a good father, up there, in the clouds. What I am saying is that today the task is precisely to break out of this multicultural relativism in which there is no truth, everything depends on context, and so on. As I said: even if everything depends on a context, this context has its absolute truth.
Remember the example I developed today. [Author’s summary: If in an argument we tried to defeat an Anti-Semite by pointing out that his accusations – say, that Jews engage in romantic relations with other groups or exploit them financially – are untrue in most cases, we operate on his level and attack his conviction in the wrong way. The Anti-Semite is not wrong because Jews don’t, in some cases, do what he accuses them of – not because his claims do not really match social reality, but because he traces certain persons’ behaviour back to their being Jewish. Even if a few, even if all of them did what he accuses them of, his holding would still be wrong. ] Anti-Semitism is absolutely wrong. Okay, of course this truth is valid only for situations where there is Anti-Semitism, but nonetheless, in so far as there is Anti-Semitism, you cannot relativize it. I am not in this sense, a postmodern relativist. I think that in today’s situation, and I am not afraid to say this – and I am not alone, although we are opposed, I and my friend Alain Badiou, even Graham Harman, agree – we want, in a way, to return to the absolute. The only thing that remains as an effect of modernity is, that there can often be tensions between these notions.
Let me give you an example: I believe, in a very Hegelian way, that art is not just about pleasure. Art is about experience of truth in the sense that a work of art brings out truth. Now, and that’s the whole problem of modern art. Can truth, artistic truth, be still combined with beauty? Isn’t the whole point of modernity that to be truthful in a work of art you must violate at least the standard forms of beauty? You must be apparently destructive, brutal, and if you don’t do this, it’s not art, it’s kitsch.
But couldn’t one argue that this is then also a matter of subjective perception? That this brutality is relative to the observer’s view and the violation serves only to create value for this specific observer?
Žižek: No, I am even more totalitarian here – I think it’s wrong, it’s already too much of subjectivism to claim that art should speak to our feelings, senses and so on. If you support this, you already relativise it – because feelings and senses change. I am very much a traditional in this, I would almost say, an idealist. In the sense that there are unconditional truths – they can be relativised only in the sense that they are truths over certain historical conditions, but they are absolute within that horizon. No, I don’t buy this idea that we cannot judge. We can judge.
So, if there is such thing as absolute truth: how do we experience it? How do we escape our ideology, this relativism, how do we still experience our freedom?
Žižek: I didn’t succeed to do this in the morning, but here my idea is that we should focus not on forgetting our subjectivity and open ourselves to reality the way it is, but to ask the question: “How can something like our subjectivity explode in reality?”. And there again, in some sense – we step out of subjectivity. Because the subject is something which happens in reality, as a very traumatic change, a radical cut, an instability and so on – “die Nacht der Welt” – already the mystics knew this.  When this happens, it’s a zero point, we are out of ideology. We can escape ideology, absolutely, but not by standing on our own shoulders, by looking at us from the outside, but by analyzing inner inconsistencies of ideology.
As I said: every ideology in some sense, lies, but not in the sense that it claims something and in comparison with reality it’s not like that. It lies in the sense that you can immanently detect its failure – like in the example of fascist Anti-Semitism. It’s a lie, not because Jews are not like that, it’s a lie because it serves a deeper social lie. Why do you need a Jew? To maintain the fiction that our society is an organic whole, destroyed by the external intrusion by an enemy, so in this sense, no, I totally believe that we can break out of ideology. I am not claiming in this postmodernist way that everything is ideology and the greatest ideology is that we can break out of ideology. We can break out in an immanent way, by analyzing its inner inconsistencies.
 A summary and critical comment on Slavoj Žižek’s ontology can be found in: Johnston, Adrian (2008). Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. Northwestern University Press.
”The night of the world/Die Nacht der Welt” is a Hegelian notion from his Jenean years to which Žižek often refers in his books, the most representative examples to be found in “Žižek, S. (1999). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London: Verso” and “Žižek, S. (2006). The Parallax View, Cambridge, MA./London: The MIT Press”. He uses the notion to describe as an ontological necessity that the process of human subjectification is an exit from a state of madness and pure negativity; “its inner kernel, the gestures that opens up the space for the for the light of logos, is an absolute negativity, the “night of the world”, the moment of sheer madness[…]” (Žižek 1999).
Picture: Max Fesl.