Putting the Brakes on the Žižek Machine

Putting the Brakes on the Žižek Machine

2005-12-18

Eric Dean Rasmussen traces the contours of Hanjo Berressem’s rigorous, bi-tempo reading of Organs without Bodies, which finds Žižek’s philosophical buggering of Deleuze to be wanting.

In his Introduction to Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Slavoj Žizek offers two reasons for writing a book about Deleuze. First, Žižek notes, over the past decade the late French philosopher emerged as the central reference of contemporary philosophy (xi). Most ebr readers will find this claim plausible and many will concur with it wholeheartedly. After all, Deleuze’s emphasis on desire as an affirmative productive force, his distinction between affects, percepts, and concepts (with philosophy defined as the discipline concerned specifically with creating the latter), his vision of writing as an experimental machinic assemblage capable of producing lines of flight and, of course, his concept of the rhizome have long influenced the discourse about and the interdisciplinary work being done in the digital arts and humanities.

Minimal genealogical research is needed to discern the extent to which Deleuze’s philosophy has shaped up-and-coming fields such as film, electronic literature, and new media studies; influenced pathbreaking intellectuals (e.g. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Brian Massumi, Manuel DeLanda, Barbara Kennedy, and Steven Shaviro) and informed contemporary debates concerning a wide range of topics including: the problem of accounting for eruptions of the New within interdependent systems, the emergence of a networked multitude, the political status of nomadic and schizophrenic subjects, the brain’s ability to process and cognize moving-images, the impact of various technologies on our sense of time, and the contested relationship between the virtual and the real. Unfortunately - and this brings us to Žižek’s second reason for writing Organs without Bodies - most Deleuzians have misread their Deleuze.

By remaining overly faithful in reproducing and applying Deleuzian concepts, Deleuze’s followers have distorted what is truly innovative about this non-representational thinker’s philosophy. As a result, the popular, anti-Oedipal, pro-multiplicity Deleuze - who (along with Felix Guattari) made such an impact on contemporary academia and the anti-globalist Left - has overshadowed an even more intellectually radical philosopher, a Deleuze who is much closer to psychoanalysis and Hegel, a Deleuze whose consequences are much more shattering (xi). Focusing primarily on three domains - science, cinema, and politics - Žižek dismisses much of the Deleuzian work being done in these disciplines as modes of radical chic, which transform Deleuze into an ideologist of today’s ‘digital capitalism’ (xii). Coming from a theorist of Žižek’s intellect and stature, such charges cannot be ignored. For this reason, I asked Hanjo Berressem - a literary theorist whose writings draw extensively on both Lacan and Deleuze - to review Organs without Bodies and to assess its heretical account of Deleuze as a deeply Lacanian and Hegelian thinker.

Berressem responded generously to ebr ’s assignment, submitting not simply a review essay but a thoroughgoing critique of what, in his measured judgment, amounts to Žižek’s missed encounter with Deleuze. The rhetoric of the philosophical encounter, incidentally, is Žižek’s. He begins his book by noting and endorsing Deleuze’s famous aversion toward debate (ix). Since Plato, whose dialogues never involve a symmetrical exchange of arguments, (ix) philosophy has always been inherently axiomatic, not dialogic. Therefore, Žižek conceives of his project as an attempt to trace the contours of an encounter between two incompatible fields and, more graphically, as a Hegelian Buggery of Deleuze (48). Berressem, well versed in Lacanian psychoanalysis, accepts the basic terms in which Žižek frames his reading: a traumatic, resonating encounter that cannot be reduced to symbolic exchange (xi). Indeed, Berressem even does Žižek a favor by laying out a number of conceptual givens, i.e. the basics of Lacan’s topological thinking and the paradoxical Hegelian lesson - how something can come from nothing - at the core of its ontology based on a constitutive negativity/lack.

However, Berresem finds Žižek to be less gracious in his writing. Žižek neglects, for example, to acknowledge how Deleuze anticipated many of Žižek’s moves: the term ‘organ without a body,’ which seems to be another of Žižek’s clever reversals, is actually a Deleuzean term. More damningly, in staging his encounter between Deleuze and Hegel, Žižek neglects to take seriously the axiomatics of the Deleuzean project by refusing to engage, even provisionally, with Deleuze’s reasons for rejecting fundamental psychoanalytic and Hegelian premises. For Berressem, this refusal means that ultimately Organs without Bodies is a failed work.

A standard book review might be content to conclude with this critical assessment, coupled perhaps with an observation about what Berressem (no doubt playing off of Žižek’s references to his obsessive monitoring of videotaping to illustrate the phenomenon of interpassivity) dubs Žižek’s fast-forward rhetorical mode, his stylistic tendency to rush through the complex parts of the texts he is reading, to provide a pithy gloss rather than a detailed analysis. But Berressem’s essay does more, much more. One would like to slow things down a bit, Berressem writes - laconically reminding us that Deleuze, following Bergson, is concerned with how our experience of duration affects our ability to make sense of the world. Berressem’s text fulfills this wish.

Written to be read at two speeds - fast-forward or slow-motion- it systematically identifies and explains key components of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical assemblage - the plane of immanence, the sense-event, the intelligent matter, Dedekind cuts etc. - that simply cannot be sublated into a Lacanian-Hegelian model. [Take note of the reference to Guattari: Berressem refutes Žižek’s argument that fundamental tension exists between the Deleuze of The Logic of Sense (the incorporeal becoming of the Sense-Event) and the Deleuze and Guattari of Anti-Oedipus (multitude of Becoming).]

A fast-forward reading provides the basic contours of Berressem’s response to Žižek, while the slow-motion reading allows one to linger over specific passages from the Deleuzian oeuvre that Žižek would have done well to contemplate. Berressem asks and then provides answers to basic questions raised by Organs without Bodies: what is Žižek’s investment in the philosophy-as-buggery trope? What motivates Žižek’s desire to transform Deleuze into Hegel/Lacan? Is Žižek correct to identify the Deleuzian Virtual with both the Symbolic and the Real? In the process of addressing such questions, Berressem makes explicit fundamental - even aporetic - differences between Deleuze and Žižek. For instance, While Deleuze’s project is to think the relation between production and representation, Žižek’s project is to think an infinite representation. While Žižek aims at including ‘intelligent matter’ in his semiotics, Žižek wants to purify information by subtracting matter from it. Berressem’s review is filled with such insightful formulations. I encourage readers to actualize the creative potential contained in Berressem’s essay by taking the time to read it in slow motion, thinking through its insights thoroughly and unhurriedly.

Click here to go to Hanjo Berressem’s essay “ ‘Is it Possible Not to love Žižek?’ On Slavoj Žižek’s Missed Encounter with Deleuze.”

*Eric Rasmussen has an interview with Slavoj Žizek available on ebr; it can be accessed here.