I can admit that Zizek – as brilliant and original as his writing is – does have a slight tendency to copy himself. Certain jokes, certain passages tend to repeat every now and again through the ranks of his books. I will even go so far as to say some of his books are simply random collections of things Zizek felt like commenting and that have been published just because it’s Zizek.
Absolute Recoil is not one of these books. In fact, this title is a cornerstone of Zizek’s system, one of the most comprehensive and concise formulations I have encountered so far. The title is taken from the writings of Hegel and is meant to describe the moment when one polar extreme immpiedtaly gives rise to its exact polar opposite, and that “moment/movement” itself, the moment of “absolute recoil” is the very thing that gives coherence and meaning to the two polar opposites in a larger sense. I should probably mention that this takes places on a level of what is ultimately deep human psychology.
I will not claim to fully understand “absolute recoil” or some of the other more abstruse points of Hegelese, this is quite simply my understanding of what I have read.
Zizek is a proponent of “dialectical materialism” a rich vein of philosophical thought whose’ philosophical insight has been only grown in proportion to its lack of political success. The idea of “dialectical” or “the dialectic” harkens back to Plato and Socrates, but was given its more modern interpretation by Hegel. The idea behind the dialectic, at its deepest, most fundamental point is that Rationality (again, in it’s fullest, most complete majesty) is comprised of an ongoing, moving tension. Based on Plato’s idea that true wisdom emerged through rigorous conversation, I like to think of “dialectical-ness” as the formal recognition that the means are an end to themselves. The unity of opposities, the idea that tension is the only constant, the idea that the cycle or the change is the reality all stem from ‘dialectical thinking.’ Anytime a logic of “two sides of the same coin” are at work, you are in dialectical thought.
Materialism is the idea that all is grounded in a tangible, tactile reality. It’s best to think of Karl Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure when thinking about materialism: there is the way humankind makes and produces its food and shelter (the base) and the superstructure is everything else, which results from the way we go about producing what we need. In this light, the internet’s obsession with cats has more too do with neoliberal office methods/stresses of work than with any sort of natural cuteness of cates. Obviously, this is a powerful way of seeing the world; it often dismisses ideology and the power of ideas out of hand.
You might be able to tell from reading the above paragraphs that “dialectical materialism” is a bit of a paradox in itself; it points both towards the lofty realm of idealism bordering on eastern mysticism and the brutal, realpolitik ground that dismisses that same idealism as an illusion generated by systemisation of power drawn from modes of production. Upon reflection however, and in true “dialectical” tradition, the unity of these two opposites capture a much higher standard of rationality which escapes the narrow, small mindedness of positivism and the abyss of moral relativism that deconstructionism leads to.
With this book, Zizek is attempting to restart this great tradition. It’s an attempt to put a much maligned and even more misunderstood way of thinking back on the map. Will it be successful…?
We can only hope.