Let’s begin with a story. Oh, yeah, I bet plenty of you saw “Žižek” in the headline and are rarin’ to see if this is a FOR or AGAINST essay, but slow your roll, folks: We need to talk semiotics first.
Three super-basic semiotics terms are relevant to this essay: the ‘sign’, the ‘signifier’, and the ‘signified’. The ‘sign’ is usually first taught as something concrete–a literal instance of a table, for instance. The ‘signifier’ is then what I use to identify that sign. (In this case, that’s the word ‘table’, referring to something with the quality of tableness–but I could also use a gesture, or a picture, or another object as my point of reference.) And the ‘signified’? Well, the ‘signified’ is a mess. It can be both what I imagine when I say ‘table’ and what you imagine when I say ‘table’. And those can be very different indeed.
That messiness only worsens when we move beyond Semiotics 101, Lesson 1, to consider signs that are not concrete objects. Not tables, but, say, twoness. Or justice. Or the person who was 100% in the right the last time my friend and I argued.
You know, absolute objective truths.
Except, wait a second–how do we know these absolute objective truths exist? Well, I guess we look for concrete signs of them, right? And then those concrete signs can act as signifiers thereafter–a kind of shorthand for the next time someone doubts the existence of the abstract sign. For instance, if you’re confused about ‘twoness’, I could point to a pair of socks, a couple cookies, a set of twins, until the idea sticks. Likewise, if you’re confused about ‘justice’, I could point to court rulings that seemed unquestionably fair to me. And if you don’t know whom I mean when I say ‘the person who was 100% in the right the last time my friend and I argued’… I can point you to our mutual friend, who will 100% tell you it was me. I was right.
Absolute objective truth.
Now, all of the above are also signs unto themselves–with their own signifiers, and their own signifieds–but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be used as representations of other, more-difficult-to-articulate abstract concepts.
Which, sure, means there’s always the threat of circularity in semiotics. When we can only ever identify signs in relation to one another, we quickly bump up against the ‘incompleteness’ of language systems: the inability for their ‘truth’ to be verified internally, just as mathematical systems cannot be internally verified.
But even if we could definitively prove the objective reality of a given sign, we’d still have problems. After all, how do we guarantee that everyone is interpreting the same ‘signified’ from those concrete signs that we’re now using as ‘signifiers’ for our abstract concepts? How do we know, for instance, that others aren’t looking at the same examples and thinking, “Well, that’s more an example of 1.99 than 2…” Or: “What are you talking about? Those are horribly unjust verdicts!” Or: “Our mutual friend wasn’t present, so their agreement with you doesn’t count!”
I think you get my drift. Sure, semiotics starts out super-simple: Three terms! Easy to define and memorize!
But very quickly each of those terms reveals gaping philosophical quagmires, of which we’ve barely scraped the surface here. How do we know if there are any perfectly objective signs? What if everything signifies something else? And what if there’s no way to guarantee that two people will interpret any given signifier the same way?
And that’s sort of what I want to discuss today. Not the quagmires themselves, but our fixation on all these gaps.
Is it radical? Is it progressive? Is it enlightened?
Or is it–for all the obscure academic discourse it can yield (as seen above)–just a more loquacious manifestation of our species’ tribalist concerns?
A Secular Bugbear: That Which Is Unknowable
The term “God of the Gaps” is more commonly used to critique how Young-Earth Creationists react to counters to their arguments from incredulity, along with other similar spiritual claims that “Nothing but God can explain [X]!” When such an alternate explanation does arise–for instance, the evolution of morality as evidenced in its abundant and environment-specific variation across the animal kingdom, as well as across human history and culture–some spiritual folks either ignore this other explanation’s existence, or else switch gears to focus on other gaps that scientific research has not yet fully explained.
But oh, we dear sweet enlightened secular-types: While shaking our heads at all the fallacies on the ‘other’ side, we do tend to forget our own fallability as critical thinkers.
In a great deal of sociopolitical and philosophical discourse, for instance, this same stubborn refusal to revisit basic premises can manifest as a fixation on gaps in meaning.
Imagine, if you will, a teenager telling her mum, Ugh, you don’t understand how hard it is for me right now, with school, and this break-up, and these so-called friends of mine! and the mum replying, Well, actually, I was in high school once, too, and I went through a break-up, and I found out who wasn’t a real friend around the same time as well. To which the teenager, refusing to be assuaged, insists, No, mom, that’s not at all the same! That was a completely different era, you–you didn’t even have TikTok! You can’t possibly understand!
Dramatic example? Indubitably.
But not as different as we might like to think from the assertions of many who stumble upon philosophy, linguistics, cultural studies, and similar humanities disciplines, and then get so caught up in what the likes of Jacques Lacan (mirror stage) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (beetle in a box) suggest about hard limits to accessing one another’s experiences of the world, that they might as well confess to believing that ancient Atalanta will never reach the end of a path because she must first walk halfway down that path, then halfway down the remainder, then the halfway down the remainder again (forever verging on, but never quite reaching her goal).
Calculus, of course, made quick work of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, but even though Wittgenstein dismissed inner truth’s import (poor noumenological Kant–and Aurelius, and Plato!) by arguing that sociolinguistic contracts can/must be built only upon what is collectively knowable, he just kicks the problem a little further down the lane. What is collectively knowable? How do we know it’s collectively knowable? Mere linguistic functionality can’t be enough, or all the times we’ve just judiciously said “Ah, I see” even when we really, really didn’t understand the other party would somehow constitute a successful sociolinguistic paradigm.
Further, let’s go back to Plato, from whence many of Immanuel Kant’s ideas extend: In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave a prisoner is set free, then forced to return to that world of shadows that all his fellow prisoners still believe to be real, because they’ve never known the world outside. Only this released and returned prisoner has knowledge of light, and it’s the lesson of nevertheless learning to lead inside the cave, when his fellow men will mock any attempt to explain what they have never known firsthand, that underpins the crux of this story in The Republic.
So is any sociolinguistic paradigm really bereft of a role for inner truths? Can it be, when we carry our private understanding of the cosmos into every public discourse?
I’m not striving to answer these questions. I’m just outlining what I will call here the “rapport paradox” (after Zeno’s dichotomy paradox): the seeming impossibility, that is, of humans ever understanding one another–at least, if we delve too deeply into the theory of language itself–contrasted with the blatant fact that, theory be damned, somehow we humans still manage acts of mutual comprehension every day.
And the border-world between these two realities–that agonizing tension between meaninglessness and meaning–is where the problem of Slavoj Žižek so nicely fits in.
The Steeze of Žiž
I was quite amused the other day when I came across an essay in Current Affairs that asks “What is Žižek For?”.
My amusement didn’t come from disagreement, though, with any of the author’s criticisms of the famously prolific and infamously enigmatic king of popular philosophy. I too find Žižek’s writings racist, repetitive, reductive, routinely incoherent, rife with poor argumentation, relentlessly shorthanded to discount non-Western formations of moral philosophy, and above all else, reactionary for the sake of reaction.
But, oh, that last is so important–because what amused me, when reading that Current Affairs hit piece, was how its author, for all his railing at Žižek, never quite arrived at the answer to his titular question. At least, not in the content of his piece.However, the moment you start railing against Žižek, you’ve gone and satisfied for a great many people who pay attention to him (academics and average citizens alike) precisely why he exists and perhaps even why he needs to exist. And they’ll feel this affirmation instinctively, without ever being able to put that conclusion soundly to words.
Because Žižek is, in essence, a God-of-the-Gaps. As Thomas Moller-Nielson notes through samples in the aforementioned article, for instance, Žižek’s Hegelian-philosophy-meets-flimsy-pop-science relentlessly insists that the only objective reality is not the Nothingness from which Something was created, but rather the tension between the true nothing-burger underpinning existence, and the moral depravity of our every, inevitable attempt to impose meaning upon it.
And sure, there’s a bit of coherence to that. When Žižek says that even the Nothing we imagine existed before Something is nothing, he’s invoking a basic semiotic anxiety that the signifier (word) we ascribe to a sign (the thing the word described) has no coherent signifieds (meaning), because the sign itself doesn’t actually exist. The only thing that exists is the anxiety itself about what does and does not exist, as well as what does and does not matter.
Yet despite this assertion of the vacuousness of all of Somethingness, then Žižek goes and writes book after book filled with Somethings–sex, immigration policy, film analysis, Hegelianism, 20th-Century fascism and Communism, 21st-Century populism, Western/Christian history, the occasional spurious bit about Buddhism, and bits and pieces about physics and technology and progress–all of which amount to an utter hodgepodge of cultural upchuck that collectively states something to the effect of: Look how absurd and morally depraved are all the layers we attempt to cast over the fundamental (Lacanian) disconnect between our desire to articulate the true nothingness of existence, and the impossibility of ever achieving so much as a syllable in the right direction!
To which critics more or less retort: “But that’s just sophistry, Žižek! A whole bunch of circular yet often also intentionally provoking bloviation about the meaningless of our every attempt to articulate human experience! My teen could just as easily describe the same in poems using the words shards, glass, hearts, broken, blackness, and void!”
…And to which Žižek’s advocates–especially those heartened by the rallying cry of tribelessness they read in his words–reply with the utmost satisfaction and matching, triumphant grins:
Overdetermined Signs and Signifieds around Joker (2019)
But as fascinating as the conflict is between Žižek’s defenders and his critics, where frustration towards such tribes of tribelessness comes to especially dangerous fruition might best be seen in reactions to Joker (2019), a movie that cannot be seen in isolation from the immense cultural discourse surrounding ideas of what a film like this might give license to.
Here, we have a literal set of cinematic events (the ‘sign’ that is the film itself) depicting a man’s journey from the cusp of a precarious social safety net, through relentless instances of abuse, into a heavily politicized run of murders against people (concrete signs) who can be read as signifying many different concepts, too (abstract signs).
The film ends with a celebration of that descent into chaos, and the construction of a tribe out of people who felt tribeless in this grim take on the already incredibly grim real-world-U.S.A. cipher of Gotham City.
Now, personally, I thought this was a film that could easily have been used to support inclusivity, social responsibility, and other critical aspects of 21st-century humanism. Good gravy, was my take-away: If this is the way the world could look when we don’t support a functional social safety net, I hope to heck other viewers are inspired to improve the social safety net!
But a striking thing happened instead.
For many liberal-leaning activists, possibly performing the sort of small-c conservative activism I discussed in my last essay, the semiotics of this film were determined from the outset. Many saw “angry white man” (an abstracted sign) behind the signifier of Arthur Fleck, our protagonist, and so they felt that Arthur Fleck, as a specific embodiment of the “angry white man” in this film, would only serve as a dogwhistle for incels and white supremacists. Arthur would thereafter become synonymous, these folks felt, with a call to arms that could only end in more real-world violence.
To make matters worse, the director didn’t do much to dissuade folks from this view. In a Vanity Fair article on Joaquin Phoenix (who plays Arthur with tremendous acting chops in Joker) we get this murky interweaving of signs and signifieds:
Phillips, who directed the comedies Old School and the Hangover series, pitched the idea of a Joker movie to Warner Bros. as a kind of anti-superhero film, with practically no CGI effects or cartoonish plots, but instead a dark realism drained of heroics. Phillips had found it increasingly difficult, he says, to make comedies in the new “woke” Hollywood, and his brand of irreverent bro humor has lost favor.
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he says. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
And, sure, as you can see, there’s a lot here that absolutely would resonate with the sort of men many liberal-leaning activists worried would be inspired to do greater harm–especially since the Joker has a long history of doing in the DC universe the sort of thing that Žižek does in popular philosophy. The Joker, too, is a secular God of the Gaps.
As such, no matter how much we might want to insist that our shared humanity is stronger than our momentary discords and our abiding individual differences… the Jokers and Žižeks are never quite going to be persuaded. Their respective ideological frameworks require them to keep pointing to the social tensions that remain: the chaos that will always be a part of our collective press towards a better-synthesized societal whole.
Tribes of Tribelessness
Now, as atheists, we should probably understand on a more fundamental level than most just how weird this all is. After all, atheists, by and large, are also a tribe united by our tribelessness. That very term, ‘atheist’, refers to what we are not, where we do not belong–and yet many folks have turned it into a signifier to celebrate, a term for our base-condition that signifies a locus for pride, community-building, and collective action for or against a variety of social causes.
A tribe of tribelessness can’t be all that bad, then, can it?
I mean, it’s… sort of working for us?
And yet, I know I prefer to be called a secular humanist precisely because this latter term signifies, for me, less a tribe opting out of something, and more a tribe opting in. Some atheists will disagree, of course, because some take for granted that atheists are intrinsically empirical and rational–instead of, well, people. People who for any number of reasons don’t believe in the existence of a god, or an afterlife, or a related supernatural realm. People, too, who might nevertheless still believe in astrology, or alien conspiracy theories, or the benefits to the working class of trickle-down economics.
Likewise, I’ve grown immensely leery over the years of how much we covet that wisdom which is given to us in obscure and lofty packaging. There’s something… a touch more honest, and direct, about a teenager insisting that her mom will never understand her; that the similarities in her mom’s teen experiences will never be as important as the differences between them… than forms of tribalist anxiety that need the signifier of a whole, rambling, heavily name-dropping essay just to impart the following signifieds:
- That the ‘rapport paradox’ can’t be solved as easily as Zeno’s dichotomy paradox was with calculus.
- That some people are more focussed on the rapport paradox than others.
- That one is, in fact, philosophically superior if they choose to fixate on the rapport paradox. And lastly,
- That if others are frustrated by the obscurity of discourse surrounding the rapport paradox–in its Hegelian configuration, or its Arthur-Fleckian social consequences–then GOOD! The willingness of such poor, unwitting fools to articulate that they don’t understand your grievance just proves how important the grievance was all along!
And yes, yes, “whole, rambling, heavily name-dropping essay” could easily serve as a signifier for this essay, too.
So let me spell out what I hope this piece also signified for you: Namely,
- That where we focus our philosophy is never a neutral decision.
- That there is self-fulfilling danger in drawing too-singular a connection between signifiers and signifieds (as many folks did with Joker this year, when they could have chosen to claim it for liberal causes just as easily). And most of all,
- One way or another, we do get to the end of Zeno’s path, and we do communicate our personal experiences with remarkable success on whole. So while there is a time and a place for exploring all the ways that genuine rapport (both one-on-one and through broader infotainment messaging) should theoretically be impossible in this nothing-burger of a cosmos, we must not halve each other out of the humanistic wonder of also–somehow! paradoxically!–still arriving at a better understanding of our shared humanity, one mucked up signifier at a time.