Friday, June 22, 2012

The Meaning of “Less Than Nothing”

The new (July 12) issue of The New York Review of Books has the highly reputable philosopher John Gray taking on Slavoj Žižek, with particular attention to Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, which runs over 1000 pages. The title of the review is “The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek;” and, as might be imagined, Gray has a tendency to play up the irrationality of those visions. Thus, he concludes his article with the following “punch line” paragraph:

In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.
For my part I have never been particularly sure about how seriously to take Žižek. In general I tend to see in his texts the sort of prankishness that Friedrich Nietzsche seemed to admire (and recognized explicitly in Twilight of the Idols); but I agree that some of the extremes to which he carries his pranks can be more than a little scary. Nevertheless, Gray may have missed the point of Žižek’s book by associating it with the spoof article by Alan Sokal intended to put one over on the discipline of postmodern critical studies.

Basically, Žižek is trying to pull a metaphor out of one of the paradoxes of modern particle physics, which is the idea of surplus mass due to acceleration. Under this theory the electron has zero mass at rest, meaning that it only has mass when it is in motion. Žižek takes this as a metaphor for capitalism, because value is determined only through the “motion” of exchange. Thus, nothing “at rest” has any value (and may even have, as the book title suggests, negative value). It is hard to imagine that Žižek intended this as anything other than a metaphor to emphasize just how tenuous any “value metric” of capital itself must be.

There is nothing new about this. Niall Ferguson has said pretty much the same thing. He just said it in better mannered (and less rambling) language. On the other hand it is harder to chuckle when reading Ferguson as he moves towards taking himself more and more seriously. Žižek is definitely the right antidote for reading any author who takes himself/herself too seriously!

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