From the Inside Out and From the Outside In, Research Time, 06/02/2014

I wrote yesterday about how our actions can destabilize and damage the very systems that are operating optimally for us before we act. In a way, this is also an example of how ontological phenomena can become epistemic, or at least be so deeply affected by epistemic actions that it becomes a hybrid of both. Philosophical conceptions of truth have been dealing with these ideas for some time, but I find that popular conceptions of truth are still basically correspondence: there is a world, about which we can learn, and we know the world truthfully when our representations mirror that world precisely.

Zizek’s concept of parallax is one critique of this terribly simple idea, though I have yet to explore it in detail. It appears in Living in the End Times as a brief note in a chapter about the ideological dimensions of architecture. Parallax is the simple phenomenon of the differences in the appearance of an object when viewed from multiple perspectives or directions. Zizek refers to a concept (which he develops in more detail in The Parallax View, which I have yet to read) of an object that includes its own multiplicity of perspectives.

A Zizek book is like a single conceptual lens through
which you can see (or perhaps smell) the world, one of
many possible lenses.
The arc of a Zizek book is composed with a structure of parallelisms: understanding disparate social phenomena with the same ordering concepts lets one experience the world according to those concepts. Thinking with parallelisms gives one practice in noticing parallels. It’s not so much that a parallelism appearing between different phenomena is the only correct way to understand it, to the exclusion of all others. But you are more enlightened about the nature of the phenomena when you apply the conceptual parallelism to it.

My approach to the revisions of the Ecophilosophy project proceed similarly, asking you to think about environmental issues and various physical processes underlying subjectivity in terms of a parallelism of process. And Zizek offers some lovely ideas about the nature of process. Essentially, understanding reality as process means that nothing can ever be complete and that’s okay. 

Now, this can be unsettling, because one of the profundities that a lot of people crave is completion, the feeling that everything in the world fits together as a harmonious whole. This is the feeling that underlies the belief of many religious people in God’s divine plan, that no matter what horrible things happen in the world, it’s all justified in God’s vision of the complete universe.

But if reality is process, then there is no completion because there is no point at which change is impossible. The world is always becoming, and so are we. And our actions affect how the world becomes. As I wrote yesterday, human actions in attempting to predict the future actions of a marketplace (or any future actions, really) affect the processes that will constitute that future such that my predictions are falsified by my own actions to adapt to those predictions. 

If you ever read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, this conceit is central to some of his core ideas there. The science of psychohistory could predict with relative certainty the future development of the world. But those predictions only held if the actors themselves had no idea what those predictions would be and how they would develop in the future. To act on knowledge of the future changes the future.

Now, because Zizek is speaking in the context of a discussion about Hegel and the nature of subjectivity, he frames the contingency of process in terms of how “the subject is the failure of its signifying representation.” In other words, subjectivity emerges from the inability of a human to reconcile all the contradictions and paradoxes of its existence. But my Ecophilosophy project examines the contingency of existence that process implies from a global perspective. Instead of simply thinking through the necessary incompleteness of the subject alone, I examine the necessary incompleteness of the world that constitutes the subject. 

Ultimately, I think this is the major difference between my own and Zizek’s approach to process thinking. Much of Zizek’s thinking concerns the subject and the processes that subjectivity generates. Where my Ecophilosophy project (and possibly my Utopias project, depending on what will eventually be emphasizes) starts from the world itself, and the ecological processes from which subjects are generated. He moves from the inside out, and I move from the outside in.

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