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On Žižek, Nothingness, & Original Sin

[1]4,950 words

On October 18, an essay appeared at Current Affairs entitled, “What is Žižek For? [2]” by Thomas Moller-Nielsen. As you might expect from the title, it is a takedown of the high-profile Lacanian-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

I found this to be an interesting read for a variety of reasons, the first of which was because of nomenclature. In online political circles, there is a lot of terminology floating around; on the Right, this means terms like “Nazbol,” “Wignat,” and so on, which exist as derogatory ways of distinguishing individuals by the tenets of their ideology and how these tenets are expressed.

On the Left, there was a genre of political commentary that had dubbed itself the “Dirtbag Left.” By this we were to understand a group of Leftists who did not subscribe to the tenets of neoliberalism (open borders, identity politics based on product consumption or gender, etc.).[1] [3] The synonymous term “tankie” came into greater parlance in order to signify old-school Communists who oppose foreign military interventions and who for the most part look at class as the primary issue, prior to considerations based on race, sexual orientation, political correctness, and so on.

Moller-Nielsen’s contribution on this topic is to give an updated name to the anti-tankie, neoliberalist position. This fortuitous act of denotation comes at the end of his opening salvo; the preferred nomenclature for neoliberals, we are nonchalantly told, is “Global Progressive.” I will make a few severe criticisms of Moller-Nielsen in this essay, but I want to start out with a point of praise. Thomas Moller-Nielsen (TMN) is a lucid and systematic writer. After reading “What is Žižek For?”, as well as a few other essays of his available online, it is safe to say that when it comes to expounding his theories, TMN is a logical machine. Politically and morally (for Global Progressives these are essentially the same thing), TMN speaks and embodies the ethos of Global Progressivism. There’s only one problem with his enunciation of the ideology, and it is that he seems unable to state its tenets in a positive way.

Moller-Nielson gives us occasional concrete instances of what actions the Global Progressive desires, beginning with his summary of Žižek’s 2016 book Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with our Neighbors:

In summary, Žižek believes, first, that the West bears significant responsibility for causing the refugee crisis; second, that Europe should therefore do the morally acceptable thing and open its doors to the refugees; and third, that to deal with the root cause of the crisis, Europe should ultimately cease its destructive economic policies and military adventures in Africa and the Middle East. All of these points are, of course, very standard things for a Leftist to say. (And I agree with all of them.)

Notice that TMN is making a subtle demarcation between the tankie position and the Global Progressive position by precluding the more traditional Leftist from agreeing with the first and third premises, but opting out from advocating for the second because it would irreparably disrupt the focus on immediate class distinctions and conflicts occurring in European countries prior to any migration.

Anytime TMN is trying to put forward what Leftists should do – insofar as these Leftists are worthy of the appellation by adhering to the tenets of Global Progressivism – he does so in terms of proscription.

I will come back to this point later because it is one of the keys to what is problematic in TMN’s project. But before I dive into this directly I want to briefly return to what is laudable about the essay, namely his lucidity and precision. The most novel aspect of TMN’s critique of Žižek is that he unwittingly repeats a criticism Rudolf Carnap brought against Martin Heidegger in his 1932 essay, “The Elimination of Metaphysics,” which was focused on Heidegger’s saying, “Das Nichts nichtet” (translation: “Nothing nothings”) in his 1929 work, What is Metaphysics?

Rudolf Carnap was the primary figure in the interwar-era Logical Positivist movement, which is often referred to as The Vienna Circle. Their primary focus was to realign philosophy with science and the scientific method. There were members of the group such as the Jewish philosopher Otto Neurath who tried to steer them towards Marxism and Freudianism,[2] [4] but for the most part the group was dedicated to making philosophical inquiry conform to the standards of scientific inquiry. Carnap, being the most scientifically- and logically-oriented member, took aim at metaphysics.

What metaphysics is and what it isn’t would be a whole book, or series of books, in itself. Briefly, for Carnap metaphysics was essentially mysticism and mumbo jumbo masquerading as philosophy:

I came in my philosophical development first to the insight that the main statements of traditional metaphysics are outside the realm of science and irrelevant for scientific knowledge, and later to the more radical conviction that they are devoid of any cognitive content.[3] [5]

In this assessment, he was continuing a line of thought initiated by David Hume two hundred years prior. Carnap spent a great deal of time deconstructing Heidegger’s “Nothing nothings” and came to the conclusion that it is nonsense. I’m not going to argue that Heidegger’s statement is or is not nonsense, however; I’m going to say that if we look at what is sketched out above not in philosophical terms but in psychological ones we can easily understand what is going on. Carnap, as a serious, scientifically-minded person with an aversion to arguments or texts that cannot be analyzed in logical, quantifiable terms on the one hand, and Heidegger, as an individual who seeks to express things about Being which go beyond scientific standards,[4] [6] says things like “Nothing nothings,” and writes dense tomes like Being and Time on the other – of course, Carnap is going to attack Heidegger. The statement “Nothing nothings” has nothing to do with it! The two represent polar opposites in terms of ways of doing philosophy insofar as the former wants philosophy to deconstruct life to the point where every hidden aspect is laid bare, and the latter believes that there is a certain degree of ineffability about the meaning of life that our language can articulate at times but which it is ultimate powerless to capture completely.

Essentially, this argument plays itself out again in “What is Žižek For?” TMN teaches at Oxford, specializing in the philosophy of science and quantum physics. Therefore, he is truly one of Carnap’s heirs. But this is unfortunate, because Carnap was basically a good and ethical person whose agenda was to perfect philosophy, not to use his philosophical ideal as a cover for making ad hominem attacks on individuals he disagreed with for non-philosophical reasons.

To be fair, Carnap did have a disagreement with Heidegger that bordered on the ideological. In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that authenticity is achieved by the subject when he apprehends his own death as being the only aspect of his being that is totally unique to him. In opposition to this, Carnap believed:

The fact that everybody knows that he will eventually die, need not make his life meaningless or aimless. He himself gives meaning to his life if he sets tasks for himself, struggles to fulfill them to the best of his ability, and regards all the specific tasks of all individuals as parts of the great task of humanity, whose aim goes far beyond the limited span of each individual life.[5] [7]

But this dispute, as primary as it is, did not motivate Carnap’s attack on Heidegger; it’s really only the icing on the cake. Carnap’s criticism of Heidegger became a trope by which “analytical” philosophers criticize “Continental” philosophers for hiding behind jargon and historical context. Every time this trope is repeated by an analytical philosopher (philosophers of science such as Moller-Nielsen are big-time analytics), the possibility that it is a trope is usually never mentioned by them, because they are, willfully or not, oblivious to historical context. TMN’s attack on Žižek as a “charlatan” is just the latest iteration of this trope.

When Moller-Nielsen attacks Žižek’s jargon, which he does frequently throughout his essay, it is done in the spirit of an ad hominem attack that is animated primarily by his political and moral disagreement with him. This is not to downplay the fact that Moller-Nielsen is not genuinely befuddled and enraged by his interaction with this material; I believe he is, but this essay would have never been written were it not for the status that Žižek has for Leftists and TMN’s desire to knock him off his pedestal.

When Moller-Nielsen attacks Žižek on the basis of trespassing into the realm of scientific jargon and rhetoric that is his own specialty, he has a legitimate gripe:

[T]ake the final chapter of Less Than Nothing, which is – to put it lightly – a catastrophically embarrassing foray into the philosophy of quantum mechanics (a topic I have experience teaching at university level). Here, Žižek fails to cite a single established contemporary philosopher of quantum mechanics, instead mostly relying on popular science books by Brian Greene and Steven Hawking, as well as a book on quantum mechanics by Karen Barad, a Professor of Feminist Studies, Philosophy, and the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In this chapter, Žižek ends up endorsing, with virtually no argumentation, a wildly controversial interpretation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics – which is, in itself, an extremely controversial position to adopt in the philosophy of quantum mechanics. (According to Žižek, the Copenhagen Interpretation claims that “it is the collapse of the quantum waves in the act of perception which fixes quantum oscillations into a single objective reality” [1392] – a position which, among other things, he appears to be unaware was famously mocked by the great physicist John Bell: “Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system . . . with a Ph.D.?”) Žižek also makes numerous crucial technical mistakes throughout the chapter (e.g., he confuses decoherence with wave-function collapse [1454]); and, in classic Žižekian style, he goes wildly – and I mean wildly – off topic.

You can tell that he’s seething. However, the level of expertise needed for this kind of takedown does not really translate to his attacks on Žižek’s primary subjects: Marxism, German Idealism, psychoanalysis, and such on their own terms. His attack on this front revolves around the claim that Žižek repeats himself or recycles his sources:

In summary, the secret of Žižek’s prodigious output is not really that much of a secret at all: he sticks to the same authors and topics; he often engages in shoddy (some might even call it half-assed) scholarship; and, perhaps most crucially – and, strangely, as he himself has even openly admitted (“I am always writing the same book”) – he just writes the exact same things, repeatedly, over and over again. And, when that’s not enough, he simply repeats himself in one and the same book. Literally.

Besides mocking Žižek’s pretense of competence in tackling the intricacies of quantum physics, this part of Moller-Nielsen’s critique is the most salient. I think it’s reasonable to agree with TMN on this point, but I also think that it’s not that big of a deal. Anyone who’s tried to push through Sartre’s Being and Nothingness knows that repetition – especially repetition in the service of conveying a central insight – frequently occurs in philosophy. Žižek has always had a few key points that he consistently hammers away at, but that consistency is between him, his publishers, and his audience. Like his political complaints about Žižek, this criticism lacks the authority TMN commanded in his derision of Žižek’s use of physics, and that is because it falls into the realm of opinion; though I empathize with this opinion more than I do the political one.

Nonsense and Nothingness

There have been a few responses to Moller-Nielsen’s essay, and these have focused on how TMN misunderstands the core ideas of Žižek’s actual philosophy, because it is radically materialistic. Let’s look at the Žižek quote that TMN uses to open his essay:

What would be my – how should I call it – spontaneous attitude towards the universe? It’s a very dark one. The first one – the first thesis would have been – a kind of total vanity. There is nothing, basically. I mean it quite literally. Like, ultimately – ultimately – there are just some fragments, some vanishing things, if you look at the universe it’s one big void. But then, how do things emerge? Here, I feel a kind of spontaneous affinity with quantum physics, where, you know, the idea there is that the universe is a void, but a kind of a positively charged void, and then particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed. And I like this idea spontaneously very much, the fact that it’s not just nothing, things are out there. It means something went terribly wrong, that what we call creation is a kind of a cosmic imbalance, a cosmic catastrophe, that things exist by mistake. And I’m even ready to go to the end and claim that the only way to counteract this is to assume the mistake and go to the end. And we have a name for this, it’s called “love.” Isn’t love precisely this kind of a cosmic imbalance? I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world, universal love.” I don’t like the world. I’m basically someone in between I hate the world or I’m indifferent towards it. But the of whole of reality, it’s just it, it’s stupid. It is out there. I don’t care about it. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means, I pick out something, and you know, again it’s this structure of imbalance, even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person, I say “I love you more than anything else.” In this quite formal sense love is evil.

Moller-Nielsen declares this to be “insane gibberish.” But this statement, which was spoken impromptu at the beginning of the Žižek documentary, gives us an idea of how Žižek is pushing against our conventional ideas of “nothingness.” He is doing so in a radical way, one that overturns our conventional thoughts regarding love. Later, TMN uses a quote from Žižek’s magnum opus, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism to further his “insane gibberish” thesis:

Buddhism thus provides a radical answer to the question “Why is there something and not nothing?”: there is only Nothing, nothing “really exists,” all “somethings,” all determinate entities, emerge only from a subjective perspectival illusion. Dialectical materialism here goes a step further: even Nothing does not exist – if by “Nothing” we mean the primordial abyss in which all differences are obliterated. What, ultimately, “there is” is only the absolute Difference, the self-repelling Gap. (599)

However, if we take into account that all philosophers have to grapple with the paradoxes that arise from rationality, we will see that this is the work of a man who is taking certain historically-established ideas as starting points; i.e., Kant’s critique of Anselm’s Ontological Argument (the claim that existence is not a predicate), Hegel’s method of dialectical reasoning, and the Structuralist theory that our lives are constituted in the same way that fiction is. These are Žižek’s intellectual antecedents, and by acknowledging them, we can grant his jargon a certain amount of leeway. This is not to say that he hasn’t jumped the shark or that he’s not repeating himself (his last decent book, in my opinion, was 2009’s First as Tragedy, then as Farce), but we can’t dismiss him simply because Moller-Nielsen does not recognize the philosophical validity of these antecedents.

With that being said, the commentators who defend Žižek on the grounds that Moller-Nielsen is not taking Žižek’s historical antecedents into account, or doesn’t understand them, are wrong. In his essay, TMN refers to Lacan as a charlatan, and we would have to assume that given his scientific orientation, he would be equally dismissive of Hegel; he just doesn’t say it in the essay because it would be excessively inflammatory.

Moller-Nielsen does briefly ridicule the Structuralist notion that, at the core of our being, our lives are structured as narratives, but neglects to address the corresponding theory that a name marks the absence of the thing. The most famous iteration of this idea comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman who, in The Gay Science, asks: “What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”[6] [8] In Moller-Nielsen’s case, the title “philosopher of science” marks the absence of science: Not science as a rhetoric, or as a tool for tenure, or as a medium for grants, but science as an academic endeavor. TMN is not someone who practices science; he practices theology, and that’s cool. The pretense of the scientific method combined with a certain political and moral certainty or desired endpoint; that racism must be avenged is something TMN has in clear sight. Žižek, as befuddled as he is by jargon, has nothing in sight – and this irks TMN.

The Metaphysical Stain of Racism Conceived as Original Sin

One of Žižek’s most famous ideological criticisms goes like this: “The problem with such and such is that it doesn’t go far enough.” This particular Žižekism is not addressed in TMN’s essay. On Žižek’s behalf, let’s apply this critique to TMN’s own political ideology, which is basically animated by the idea of racism as original sin. What are we talking about exactly when we talk about the concept of “original sin”? In his book, Philosophical Myths of the Fall, Stephen Mulhall gives this exegesis on the concept:

The Christian doctrine of original sin is, of course, the subject of multiple interpretations, disputations, and reformulations across two millennia of theological and liturgical conversation and controversy; but at its core is the conception that human nature as such is tragically flawed, perverse in its very structure or constitution. Human beings are not only naturally capable of acting – even perhaps disposed to act – sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.[7] [9]

Anyone who would consider themselves a Global Progressive, even if they identify as nominally Christian, would view the theology of original sin as anachronistic. A fundamental aspect of their psychology entails that the belief in original sin is antiquated; they have moved beyond it. But in reality, these people have dissimulated this belief into their political ideology; and since the belief has not been eradicated, the attitude regarding how to remedy the condition is merely a secular variation of the Christian strategy of repentance: “For the Christian, we are, if anything, the self-originating source of sin; hence, our only hope of regaining any contact with goodness is by dying to ourselves.”[8] [10]

Recall the refugee scenario laid out at the beginning of the essay. TMN says that Žižek agrees with all three premises, but that he does so for the wrong reason: Žižek believes that the Muslim migrants are unassimilable with European culture and that the migrants must be tolerated to guarantee them a “dignified survival.”[9] [11] This is the blood in the water that instigated Moller-Nielsen’s essay: the idea that there is a non-equivalence between the two groups. What is crucial for TMN is that the European people pay a penance for colonialism (or whatever other reasons TMN might have to assign blame to European people) by taking migrants into their homelands, while simultaneously telling themselves that these people are exactly the same as them.[10] [12]

The religious endeavor that stipulates racism to be the original sin has two primary tenets: that racism affects everyone negatively except for white people, and that challenging or studying racism is a multi-tiered, ongoing effort that cannot ever resolve itself. TMN is fully onboard with the first tenet, but because of his scientific and logical background, he cannot engage the second tenet effectively; by this I mean he cannot state it explicitly.

The second tenet is dogmatic, not scientific, and it is awfully similar to the Communist practice of “self-criticism.” This is probably the only aspect of Marxist thought that has made its way into the Global Progressive agenda. So, to paraphrase Žižek: The problem with Thomas Moller-Nielsen’s critique is that it doesn’t go far enough. TMN postulates that the refugees are equal to Europeans and that Europeans should gratefully acknowledge this, as well as the refugees’ presence, as a form of penance, when he should be postulating that they are superior to the Europeans.

What would it look like if TMN pushed past his hang-ups and was explicit about his ideology?

First off, I assume Moller-Nielsen is white and therefore precluded from engaging in such an analysis, or at least that’s what I am led to believe by Lauren Michele Jackson’s piece in Slate titled, “What’s Missing from ‘White Fragility’ [13].” There are probably countless articles like this, but this one is worth citing because it does an excellent job of tracking the movement of Marxist self-criticism as it has evolved in the Global Progressive milieu; specifically in the sense that non-whites like Tim Wise, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Franchesca Ramsey, and so on need to be brought in as agents of interrogation.

The theme of Jackson’s essay is White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and how she is the latest incarnation of “Whiteness Studies.” Readers of this site will immediately know the purpose and motivation of such “studies.” Though Jackson is critical of DiAngelo, her article is not an attack of the same caliber as TMN’s because Jackson sees DiAngelo as essentially meaning well but still failing to adequately inculcate guilt among white people. Near the end of her essay, Jackson muses:

DiAngelo preempted so many approaching concerns I eventually stopped anticipating the pitfalls. When she gave us her long but abbreviated list of “racial accountability practices,” including “accountability partners” of color who are paid for their time and expertise, I could not help but think, dangerously, What a wonderful world it would be if she could be cloned. It is hard not to be enamored with the white person who refuses to call themselves an ally or who speculates, contrary to so many white women today, that if she’d been born a century earlier she probably would not have bucked her religious upbringing to become a suffragette.

For Moller-Nielsen, Žižek is an enemy of the Global Progressive agenda and must be derided (and essentially eliminated) from discourse, whereas for Jackson it seems like DiAngelo has the correct intentions but needs to be kept in line. As Jackson traces the contours of White Studies, she begins with Peggy McIntosh’s theory of “white privilege” and then proceeds to examine earlier criticisms of whiteness such as James Weldon Johnson’s, or W. E. B. DuBois’, who in his essay “The Souls of White Folk” wrote:

Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know.

The fundamental problem in Whiteness Studies, as Jackson sees it, is that white people are critiquing themselves and not invoking the minorities they have oppressed for the necessary authority for condemnation, therefore the white-on-white critique is insufficient:

And though scholars such as Frantz Fanon and Toni Morrison show up in White Fragility (the former relegated to a curious endnote), DiAngelo doesn’t really consider black studies a disciplining force in the direction of her work. “The voice that’s missing for most white people is looking at what it means to be white,” she said. “I see whiteness studies as white scholars responding to [scholars of color] saying ‘Stop looking at us, because, in fact, you are our problem.’” But I am hard-pressed to imagine an accurate account of our world that doesn’t include the rigor of those who analyze blackness as dutifully as DiAngelo attends to whiteness. If DiAngelo willfully permits an absence here, it is one her core audience permits as well.

This makes a lot of sense, because both the Marxist and the Global Progressive versions of self-criticism, if left to their own devices in white hands, is pointless. It will condemn itself for being-itself and then ask, “Now what?” Outside of a few practical choices, this leads to big, ineffable quandaries, much like the quandaries Heidegger ran up against in articulating Being. In this system of white guilt – I mean, Whiteness Studies – you need a foreign agent to make certain concrete demands; i.e., white people must be displaced, white people must lose any sense of value connected to their sense of self, white people must pay reparations, and so on. Jackson comes very close to demanding these things outright; it is only circumspection that prohibits her from outwardly doing so. On the other hand, Moller-Nielsen can’t, because he’s still hung up on the “Now what?” part. He will agree to all of what Jackson wants, but he will never acknowledge it as the solution. He is haunted by ineffability, by nothingness.

Despite his best intentions, TMN would probably fall into the category of “white progressives”:

“White progressives,” as DiAngelo describes in her book, are the group most responsible for the social exhaustion that people of color experience on a daily basis. They are the hair touchers, the “you go, girlfriend!” cheerleaders, the “not even water?” inquirers, the “this is not my America” mourners. They are so finely parodied during two iconic garden party scenes – in The Boondocks and Get Out – that they might fail to recognize themselves. They might ask, with feigned naivete, what you thought of this whole Jussie Smollett situation. “White progressives are my specialty,” DiAngelo told us during the workshop. She was smiling but not kidding.

What white Global Progressives don’t understand is that by subscribing to the doctrine of racism as the original sin, they are placing themselves in this political bind where even your “good” intentions need to be critiqued in order to achieve a more perfect state of obsequiousness.

Further proof that Moller-Nielsen doesn’t go far enough in the enunciation of his agenda is the fact that he mentions free speech a few times in his article, and even though he wants to rid the Left of Žižek, he still thinks that he can banish him through sound argumentation. This is in stark contrast to Jackson, who just assumes that dissident voices will be silenced; she can’t even imagine a space in which they could justifiably exist.

It has been argued that the mainstream Right shuns its extremists, whereas the mainstream Left accommodates its extremists. On a superficial level I think that “What is Žižek For?” is demonstrative of a certain kind of infighting, but it’s an infighting that is trying to masquerade as sour grapes. Moller-Nielsen asks repeatedly, “Why is this guy so revered by Leftists?” This angle is believable to a certain extent; for the last twenty-five years, people have wanted to know what Žižek thinks about everything from 9/11 to Jordan Peterson. That is the milieu Žižek carved out for himself: Applying critical theory and philosophy to the pop-cultural ephemera that circulates around us. Moller-Nielsen can correct our lay views on the Higgs Boson, but no one is waiting to hear his take on the philosophical significance of the latest Star Wars film.

On a more primal level, though, this has to do with the Global Progressive need to exorcise the ghost of Marxism, which is ironic, since Marxism was an Enlightenment philosophy that promised liberation. But this was liberation for the proletariat, and this is a goal the Global Progressive has transcended; he just doesn’t know it yet.


[1] [14] For a Leftist analysis, see “This is Neoliberalism [15]” from Medium.

[2] [16] See “The Intellectual Autobiography of Rudolf Carnap” in Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1963) for a broader picture of the social dynamics at work in the Vienna Circle.

[3] [17] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] [18] Please note that I specifically say “scientific” here and not “logical.” Heidegger taught courses on logic and was well-versed in the topic. He understood that the difference between scientific or mathematical discourse and logical discourse is that the former necessarily entails an ontology or an existence of something, whereas the latter does not; nothing needs to exist in order for you to employ logic.

[5] [19] Ibid.

[6] [20] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), Section 125. Other notable instances would be Jean Baudrillard saying that nature preserves are erected as monuments, or tombstones, to the disappearance of nature or, more recently, the holding of campus “free speech” events where the Q&A is abruptly cancelled so that certain issues are not brought up for debate.

[7] [21] Stephen Mulhall, Philosophical Myths of the Fall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 6.

[8] [22] Ibid., p. 7

[9] [23] Moller-Nielsen doesn’t say it, but we can deduce from his decrying of Žižek’s claim that Trump’s presidency would be a “disaster” that will trigger radicalism on the Left that he knows Žižek sees this as an influx of heterogeneity that will speed up a class-conscious socialist revolt.

[10] [24] This not to imply that TMN ignores other Global Progressive causes: He makes a point of complaining that Žižek has expressed concern that the “LGBT+ struggle can be co-opted by mainstream liberalism against the ‘class essentialism’ of the Left.” Obviously, by citing this as a point of contention, TMN is marking himself as part of this “mainstream liberalism.”