Slavoj Zizek’s dialectical materialism is derived, he claims, from our experience of “the occurrence of an insurmountable parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible” (4). It asserts “the inherent ‘tension’, gap, noncoincidence, of the One itself” (7).“‘All there is’ is the interstice, the non-self-coincidence, of Being, that is, the ontological nonclosure of the order of Being” (167).—The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006)

At first glance, this may seem a denial of what I call the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting (the God of process theism). But I think not.

This uniquely all-inclusive way is not a “neutral common ground.” It is not neutral, because its very all-inclusiveness introduces a “counter-tension” into the tensions that have arisen from prior ways of newly interacting (including its own prior tensions). And while its all-inclusiveness does involve some sort of commonality, that’s anything but a common “ground.” It’s not a resting place. It’s not resting—ever. That is, process theism easily affirms Zizek’s “ontological nonclosure of the order of Being.”

Process theism does insist that, without some sort of commonality, or relationality, there could be no confrontation or tension between two perspectives, nor could they be closely linked. But what Zizek seems to be denying is any sort of commonality that could mediate these tensions in a way that does not introduce further tensions. Tensions remain “insurmountable,” and invoking the God of process theism will not surmount them or make them go away.

To that extent I think I agree. Any way of newly interacting, divine or otherwise, involves a tension or noncoincidence with whatever came before. And there is no neutral common ground.

Is this tension inherently violent? That depends on how we think of violence or, for that matter, peace. If we think of peace as a tension-free, perfectly coinciding way of newly interacting, then we will think of this tension, this noncoincidence, as inherently violent. But there are no tension-free, perfectly coinciding ways of newly interacting (not even God’s way), and I think of peace as a practice of learning to welcome and live into the tensions involved in every way of newly interacting. Zizek fan Todd McGowan equates “an identity at odds with itself” with “the violence that animates all being” [Todd McGowan, Emancipation after Hegel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), p. 29]. I don’t equate the two. Neither did that apostle of non-violence, Martin Luther King: “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” The deepest peace I have ever known, however fleetingly, happens when I stop resisting and actually welcome the creative tension of being at odds with myself. For me, violence is a refusal to welcome this. I’m guilty of it, repeatedly. We all are. But there’s always a better way. McGowan would probably accuse me of failing “to see the ubiquity of conflict,” a charge he levels at Gilles Deleuze (p. 126). But his accusation is utterly circular: what’s supposedly wrong with Deleuze’s pre-conflictual difference is that … it’s pre-conflictual difference. But if you argue, “what’s wrong with X is that it’s X,” all that tells me is that you don’t like X; it tells me a lot about you but nothing about X. I think it’s McGowan who fails to see the ubiquity of pre-conflictual tensiveness, though I’m not arguing here, just sticking with how my being here seems to engage me. (Also, I’m not a “Deleuzean.” I’m not defending “pure difference”—how can difference be “pure”?—or a “univocity of being”—univocity is overrated.)

I also prefer to avoid speaking of any ultimate gaps. A “noncoincidence” is not always a gap, and a “tension” or “close link” is a connection, never a gap—the tension in a stretched rubber band only happens as long as the rubber band does not break. When it breaks, there’s a gap, but there’s no longer a tension.

As to whether we should call this noncoinciding ensemble of ways of newly interacting material or spiritual (or physical or mental), I consider that entirely optional. My position is a form of “nondualism” with (of course) a newly interactive twist: In some configurations reality interacts newly in ways that have been called material/physical, and in other configurations it interacts newly in ways that have been called spiritual/mental. (But with this outlook we might imagine a culture that never developed a this sort of binary.) So again, newly interacting remains the insurmountably tensive fundamental reality, and whether we call this matter or spirit is entirely optional.

Zizek can call his ontology a form of dialectical materialism, but his “materialism” looks pretty “spirited” and “spooky” to me, and it would look so to the majority of physicalists among professional philosophers.

On the whole, however, I find Zizek’s  way of phrasing things overly melodramatic. I tend to agree with John Caputo’s reaction: “Why inscribe … absolute contradiction … at the heart of things instead of ambience and ambiguity? Why chaos instead of the unsteady chaosmotic process of unprogrammed becoming? Why not see life as a joyful but risky business that may turn out well or badly …?” (More on Caputo here)

Fr. Charles