Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zizek and Rorty on the Real

An interesting aspect in Slavoj Zizek’s writings is the way he says something about and uses the concept of “the Real,” yet the Real he describes is similar to the reality that Rorty describes which philosophers and other beings have tried to grasp. For Rorty the real or reality is a philosophically empty concept. We have different candidates for the Real: God, Matter, What Is, Truth, Nature, Knowledge, but the debates about it are inconclusive and it seems to just serve as an unknowable ultimate justifier for our beliefs. Rorty’s pragmatic solution is to stop talking about it.

Zizek’s Real from Lacan is a gap, lack or absence, in a way not there, yet it’s incorporated into a psychoanalytical-philosophical understanding that gives it a useful role in helping us to understand ourselves and the world. The Real as a lack or absence lay at the center of our symbolic order and is why we can’t create a finished intellectual system. It is that uncanny, indefinable attractive something that causes certain objects to attract and entrance us. It is the trauma around which we construct our selves and repeat our behavioral patterns which contradictorily both offer to resolve the trauma and help us to avoid confronting it.

So Rorty says reality as the really real is not there and not a good use of our time to think about. Zizek says yes, it isn’t there in the way people want – a substantial something, a graspable bedrock – but in its absence it is there and has a determining presence which we see in its effects. He analyzes its qualities of attractiveness and repulsiveness. It’s the psychology of what ultimately isn’t there but can’t be gotten rid of.

There’s an Eastern spiritual version of this. The ultimate stuff is paradoxical: The Tao, Nirvana, Atman, the Non-Dual are ineffable and yet named. We try to grasp It or surrender to It but the very effort to know It causes It not to be known. It is beyond conceptuality. But the Eastern practices do believe there is a final attainment or resolution, whereas Zizek and Lacan don’t think there is.


Canadian Pragmatist said...

Are you suggesting that there is a "Real" but only that it is beyond conceptuality?

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I was describing what Rorty and Zizek say. I'm not sure what I believe. It seems like the kind of thing you can't argue for conclusively, although those with a powerful experience of the Real (God, The Truth, etc) would say they know the Real (without argumentation).

I tend to be pragmatic about it and use the concept of reality when needed and have a high degree of skepticism about claims to know the Real. I've liked Rorty's pragmatic take on the uselessness of philosophical debates on reality. But lately I've liked Zizek's arguing for an absent Real which we know through its effects. That seems to give a role to the concept "Real" which could be useful and so pragmatically warranted.

I tend to like the Eastern spiritual view that you have to give up grasping or having or truly knowing the Real in order to be connected to what it is that we call the Real. So the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.

People use the Real poorly when they don't realize how problematic it is. Then you get some version of dogmatism and a limiting of others' views. But, on the other hand, those who are strongly attached to a view can create great insights because of their core blindness (which is their insight) like your friend Nietzsche.


Canadian Pragmatist said...

How do you mean with Nietzsche? I thought he would basically agree with Rorty.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


Yes, you're right about that agreement between Rorty and Nietzsche on the Real. I wasn't clear, I just meant that Nietzsche was someone who wasn't a dogmatist but had a very powerful view which created great insights but also caused blindness. But that's probably the case with any great thinker since they have to see it a certain way strongly in order to see it deeply in that way.

And maybe it's true with anyone with a view. The view requires that the world be seen in a particular way and so some of the world is not seen or is formulated poorly or unfairly.

cee stephens said...

Stumbled onto this site randomly. My 2cents. It sounds like what you are identifying as "the real" is a thing-in-itself, beyond us, transcendental, unknowable. Abrahamic religions might call it God or Allah or Yahweh. Maybe Daoists call it something else. Anyway, if this is what you are identifying I think this is something Rorty (and likely Zizek) are rejecting as part of the rationalist, enlightenment tradition. This probably wasn't what you were trying to say. What I am trying to articulate here is that I find that the opposition between postmodern (zizek, rorty) and modern (Kant, monotheism) worldviews is obscured in your analysis, for good or for worse. Interesting post anyhow, just thought I would share my immediate reaction

cee stephens said...

Also, I very much see Rorty's philosophy as close to confucius but not Taoism. Rorty banishes the ineffable from philosophy, he rejects the idea of something escaping description, something quasi-transcendental like the Tao. Like Confucius, he is largely a quietist on metaphysical questions, and turns instead to socio-political questions. Both Confucius and Rorty are fundamentally humanists and moralists, and put themself in opposition to the speculations of metaphysicians, priests and mystics, whether western or eastern.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


Good to hear from you. A few things regarding the first post: Yes, I'm emphasizing the Real as the un-directly-knowable. I think Rorty would say the concept is only useful in everyday situations and that we can do without it in philosophical discussions. Zizek would say yes, it's unknowable itself, but it's effects are knowable and so it does serve a useful everyday and philosophical purpose. I think of the Abrahamic traditions as not thinking of the Real as the unknowable. Certainly the exoteric Judeo-Christianians think the Bible is God's word, so while interpretation might be difficult, God is not ineffable since he's "effing" in the Bible. But there are probably esoteric, mystical Judeo-Christians who would go along with the ineffability and ultimate unknowability of God. Taoism seems more straightforwardly to advocate the ineffability of the Real, the Tao, but unlike Rorty, they would see it still playing a role in spiritual philosophy, practice and development.

I'm not sure of what the obscuring is that you mention between modern and postmodern. (Not that I'm not doing it, I just need more information to understand your point.)


Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Yes, I see what you mean. Rorty just isn't interested in the ineffable, if there's nothing to say about something that ends the conversation. Yet the Taoist's, while saying the Tao is ineffable, are still very interested in it. I don't know enough about Confucius say anything, but what you say about him sounds like the impression I've gotten secondhand of the Confucian view.

cee stephens said...

Thanks for responding. You've got me thinking more about the difference (and overlap) between Taoism and Monotheism. I think you are right about their substantial difference. The god of the bible can't literally be unknowable, and practicing christians believe in a personal god who can be known. The eternal Tao, as you said, is different from God in this respect.

At the same time, christians do rely on the idea that God is "mystery" and beyond human comprehension. The tradition of negative theology in particular stresses this.

But I still think Taoism and Christianity in agreement in a way that Rorty and Confucius would not. The western idea of God is of something not *empirically* knowable, not a possible object of scientific study. Like Kant's "thing in itself", god is a transcendent being, seperated from his creation, not a part of nature but literally super-natural.

In the same manner, what you correctly identify in Taoism as "the real", which must always escape categorization or description, seems super-natural in the same way the judeo-christian god is conceived to be.

What I am trying to say is that what Rorty (and pragmatists) call "the real" could never belong to a super-sensible or transcendent realm. I believe they see reality in a more hum-drum, everyday and ordinary sense, not in the sense of something which always escapes from sight.

This begs a question about Taoism which I do not know the answer. Is the eternal Tao part of nature? If it is always beyond human experience, then it starts to sound close to an eastern analogue of what Westerner's call God.

SubjectionOf said...

This article you wrote spoke to me on a lot of levels. Found it after I'd taken Seminar in Political Thought in grad school. I definitely want to read your updates on here.

I liked Lacan's quote "The Real is the object of anxiety" which maybe would be the poetic form to:

These WOW lines from your post: The Real as a lack or absence lay at the center of our symbolic order and is why we can’t create a finished intellectual system. It is that uncanny, indefinable attractive something that causes certain objects to attract and entrance us. It is the trauma around which we construct our selves and repeat our behavioral patterns which contradictorily both offer to resolve the trauma and help us to avoid confronting it.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Cee,

Yeah, I think you're right about Rorty (and probably Confucious, I don't know) that the Real or reality are just not useful concepts philosophically and so better dispensed with. While with Taoism or certain negative theologies, while the Real cannot be named, it has a big presence and importance.

But I don't think the Taoist Tao is so supernatural. Tao is also translated as the Way. It is also a way of being and doing (or non-doing) and is something that can be conceived or experienced as always here or in all things. Perhaps this could be a form of pantheism. But I think the Taoists would want the Tao conceived of as right here, but probably, even better, not conceived of at all and instead lived.

The Christian God is many things depending on the tradition. It's the Big Guy upstairs who controls everything. It's the Big Guy who set it all in motion and then bowed out. It is a more amorphous spirit who is in our hearts or in all things. It's embodied in the flesh of Jesus. It is (as you say) a mystery.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi SubO,

Glad you liked the post. If you want more of that Slavoj Zizek's "The Sublime Object of Ideology" brings Lacan alive and is well-written. He really wants you to understand what he's saying.

I wrote a book that might be of interest (but maybe not) called "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other articles at in the reading room section under my name. There's a nice exchange on the Arab/Israeli Conflict which - not surprisingly - I think I'm right about.

Also I have a radio show (I noticed you like music). The shows are archived at WMFO. My show is called The Ruminator and runs Wednesdays 7AM-8AM. Its got spiritual, philosophical, political commentary and music.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Cee,

I guess it's been awhile since you posted here, but I just saw a book on the new book shelf entitled: "Rorty, Pragmatism and Confucianism: With Responses by Richard Rorty." Pertains to our discussion.


Tusar N Mohapatra said...

If you specifically don’t include the teachings of The Mother & Sri Aurobindo, then the generic phrase, “Eastern practices” becomes a bit misleading. As per their thinking it is never “a final attainment or resolution,” but rather participating in the perpetual evolution and consciously pushing its frontiers. [TNM]

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


Yes, "Eastern practices" is undoubtedly too broad and you would know better than me whether it applied to Sri Aurobindo.

But certainly in Buddhism and certain forms of Hinduism there is a Final Liberation.

Thanks for the corrections.

Simon said...

I wouldn't conflate Žižek and Rorty just that quickly. Žižek has a very precise idea of the Real and what you described to me looks more like a version of 'the master signifier' in Lacanian theory (I don't know it that well though, I may be wrong).

Žižek's position isn't as simple as 'reality' being an empty signifier. And I think that for him something being an empty signifier doesn't mean it's 'a waste of time to think about' since it still structures the way we perceive.

btw. here is an interview Josephina Ayerza (a Lacanian psychoanalyst and the editor of the Lacanian Ink where Žižek prolifically publishes) did with Richard Rorty in 1993, perhaps you'll find it interesting.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


Thanks for the informed comment.

My entry says that Rorty’s “reality” and Zizek’s “Real” are similar and then describes what they share and what they don’t share.

Yes, you’re right about the difference between Rorty’s “reality” and Zizek’s “Real. Rorty thinks it’s a useful concept for practical purposes: We say: “That makes sense but is that the reality of the situation?” But it isn’t useful to do metaphysics to nail down the nature of reality. For Zizek the Real cannot be nailed down, but it is a useful concept for constructing a social-psychanalytical understanding of our way of being human.

For both, “reality” is illusory, but Zizek (interpreting Lacan) adds something extra, which is “The Real”. But it’s not there in the way we like to think of reality as being there, i.e. as the bedrock to our knowledge or what we run up against whether we want to or not.

The concept “reality” for Zizek is the illusory world we construct in order to seek and avoid the Real. The scientist thinks reality is the material world. The idealist philosopher thinks reality is immaterial. The ordinary person thinks reality is what’s right there in front of you. The Communist thinks reality is History. The mystic thinks reality is Consciousness.

I never thought about it but isn’t it the case (I’m not just being rhetorical here but asking) that “the Real” in Zizek’s version of Lacan is a master-signifier? In Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (which I’m reading with a study group right now) a master signifier is a meaningless signifier that organizes other concepts into a coherent understanding. Examples of master-signifiers that Zizek gives are Communism, God, the Law. He says a master signifier is an empty signifier (i.e. no signified or meaning) yet in its transcendent place in an ideology it organizes all the other signifiers. For example, Communism has been a master signifier which, through its presence, creates a certain kind of sense for the concepts: class struggle, commodity, ideology, alienation, etc.