The Parallax View
“The Parallax View” is an approach by Slavoj Zizek to reconsider Hegelian Dialectics. Instead of sublation or overcoming, what if we can adjust perspective and the seeming antagonistic opposition (an insurmountable deadlock) can be seen in as “short-circuiting” – that is, providing an inherent explanation from a new point of view?
It is not synthesizing ideas (melding them into One) because the subject needs tension as part of its vital functioning.
- Parallax view and perspective in philosophy. (0:01)
- Dialectics, parallax view, and short-circuiting. (4:54)
- Philosophy, psychology, and symbolism. (9:34)
- Parallax examples with Lacan and Levi-Strauss. (13:55)
- Parallax view in philosophy and its implications. (18:36)
Slavoj Zizek uses parallax view to reconsider Hegelian dialectic
- 🧐 Perspective creates illusion of convergence between parallel lines
- 💡 Parallax uses multiple viewpoints to locate object against shifting background
- 🤯 Parallax gap is the minimal difference that divides object from itself
- 📐 Village inhabitants draw village map based on their perspective
- 💕 Love and belief appear irrational until you take the leap
- 🤖 We finally understand “I am Groot” as “I love you guys”
This episode covers Slavoj Zizek’s concept of “the parallax view,” which he uses to reconsider Hegel’s dialectical method.
The parallax view relies on perspective. Parallel lines seem to converge due to perspective, but there is always a gap between them. With parallax, the object is viewed against a shifting background from multiple viewpoints, allowing its position to be located via triangulation.
Zizek says the parallax gap is a minimal difference that divides an object from itself. It represents a pure difference, not reducible to properties.
He gives the example of how different village subgroups draw their village map based on their perspective and biases. This illustrates the gap caused by an underlying social antagonism.
Simple examples are given, like how faith and love seem irrational until you take the leap into them. Also, in Guardians of the Galaxy it takes three films before we understand “I am Groot” as “I love you guys.”
The parallax view enriches our understanding without needing to overcome contradictions via synthesis. It frees us from the binary while offering multiple contexts to view a complex subject.
Step 78: The Parallax View
Part 1: The Parallax (Definition)
The parallax view is all tied in with the perspective view, and parallels seemingly converge. So, parallel has two ll’s that run parallel to each other, while parallax ends with an X. So in the parallax view, the ll’s cross or converge, forming them into an “x.”
Now, this is where we can talk about perspective. Perspective typically has the shape of an “a” or an upside-down “v”. By that, I mean that you stand at 1 point, perhaps the base of a triangle, and if you’re looking at a set of train tracks, they seem to converge as they move into the horizon line in the distance.
However, we know they don’t, they just appear to.
So, perspective is an optical illusion of convergence. The gap will always remain between the tracks. This is important because when we consider ideas that cannot converge, there will always be a gap between them, and any synthesis of them is merely a philosophical or perspective illusion. What’s interesting about the parallax is that we take the convergence point, the object we focus on at the center, the center of the argument, but we look beyond it into the background.
The shape becomes an X.
In astronomy, “parallax” is used to figure out where a planet or a satellite is located by gauging the stars in the background from the viewing points. So, two distant observation stations, maybe a moon base and a planet, and they both look towards a planet, or maybe it is the death star, and to figure out where it is and it’s size, the observation stations gauge the position of stars in the background, and can then triangulate the location, and therefore scale, of the Death Star.
A simple example is an experiment you can probably do: hold your Handout with your thumb up in front of your face and then switch from left eye to right eye. And what you’ll notice is your stereoscopic vision shifts the background from the right to the left. So the planet, or your thumb, remains in the center of the X. But appears to be in a different position given the shifting background, which is the shifting point of view.
Slavoj Zizek makes this spatial orientation move quite often, which is to give us the shape of something (a geometric model) with which to understand a philosophical concept. He does it with the Mobius strip in “Sex & the Failed Absolute,” and we’ve done a whole episode on the shapes of antagonism, how you circle around each other moving while remaining opposite, or how you re-converge with your enemy other. You can even flip from interior to exterior along the way.
Zizek introduces the parallax view to re-consider Hegel’s dialectic, stemming from Kant’s antinomies. For simplicity, the dialectic is two points of view about one subject that are logically argued. But the Hegelian Dialectic is really about the process of achieving a synthesis, where you take two contradictory or antagonistic positions (thesis + antithesis) and “sublate” them into a third position.
When considered as ‘overcoming’ (such as overcoming a thorny problem) this new position is positioned as “higher.”
Sublation seems to overcome the two arguments (or positions) that seemed irresolvable initially. (Zizek posits them as Kantian antinomies.) In a fundamental example (which Zizek would say only obfuscates dialectical materialism), you could say something like “good and evil” are in a battle against each other, yet the concept of the yin/yang tries to put them into a dynamic order of balance, a oneness.
This is like the light and dark side of the force between Skywalker and Vader, and yet there is the “higher understanding” that light/dark or good/evil are merely points of view, which play out an oppositional game, but even the opposition itself is necessary for life to remain dynamic. (Ah, so enlightened.)
From this heightened perspective, we have sublated or overcome the oppositional character of our conundrum or antagonism. The problem is that good and evil continue to exist, and we really haven’t escaped anything; we just created a new position, a third position, to release the tension of the gap between these two, which does not solve the problem and should not relieve us of responsibility.
So, how do you proceed? Well, classically, you must dialectic more… you sublate that new problem into another higher position, and suddenly, we just keep adding more positions.
Now, Zizek points out that this is an incorrect or reduced understanding of Hegel’s dialectic. By using the Parallax view, we can see that gap between the positions (irreducible antinomy), just like the space between the railroad tracks, and not collapse everything, but instead realize the Subject itself, the center of focus, has always had multiple observation points (points from which to view it.)
Even before we realized it, it contained both contradictory points of view: we do not need a new position because that position was there all along… and not only that, but the contradiction is fundamental to its operation. (In even more of a twist, the alternate point of view only arrises because we have misunderstood the subject’s functioning and are attempting to restore balance.)
Step 78: The Parallax View
Part 2: From the Book
In Slavoj Žižek’s book, The Parallax View he brings up this idea of “short-circuiting.” (It is actually a series of books from MIT Press.)
One of the easier examples Is to think of somebody like Karl Marx and Engels, who took the idea of the industrial economy of capital, which was all about money and utility, a cybernetic functioning system making stuff, growing itself, and creating a new group of laborers and owners. They looked at this system and applied different logic to it.
They short-circuited the singular reading of capitalism with an alternate view, which is antagonistic to the existing order. There seems to be no neutral or middle ground between the two positions (Capitalism and Marxism as antinomies for world views).
It is similar to Freud’s psychology and Nietzsche‘s philosophy: they applied the unconscious libidinal economy as a primary source of motivation. They short-circuit the primary accepted narrative, offering us a new position from which to view it and argue about it. Which, in a way, deconstructs it. But in another way, is merely an addition to the knowledge of how to view this system, ideology, or subject that we are in the middle of.
To make his point in a spectrum of arenas, Zizek discusses Kant versus Hegel, Marxist historical dialecticism versus material dialectics (which we should do an episode on), and even quantum wave/particle phenomena. He even goes into neuroscience, and, of course, he’s a Lacan scholar, so those complex symbolic processes of desire and signifiers run throughout the text.
Almost all of these are systems for how we understand the world, and YET they all come from or show us impasses or antagonisms, incommensurate divides, from which there seems no possible overcoming. The points of view appear deadlocked and oppositional (how can you be both a wave and a particle? A Marxist and capitalist? A Kantian and Hegelian?)
One of the concepts Zizek brings up is that these points really cannot converge. Like the train tracks, there must always be a “minimal gap” between them in order to maintain what they are and their understanding. If the position is based on opposition, to remove the opposition is to remove the position: you can’t overcome it, it has to exist.
The larger question is, can we develop a “minimal” philosophy?
A way to think about this in a very, very simple manner is that if you have 2 eyes and you reduce both points of view into a single eye, so you’re a cyclops and you lose your depth perception.
The second point of view is necessary for depth. So, it’s not really an antagonism from an aspect of a deeper understanding.
Only when we back down into each position is our background view (our position) reduced again to a singularity, a flatness of motivation.
Example 1: Lacan
today, we are going to give a Lacan-based example because we have talked about him more recently. This is a quote from “the parallax view”
Materialism means that the reality I see is never “whole”—not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which indicates my inclusion in it. (Location 449) “Nowhere is this structure clearer than in the case of Lacan’s objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. The same object can all of a sudden be “transubstantiated” into the object of my desire: what is just an ordinary object to you is to me the focus of my libidinal investment, and this shift is caused by some unfathomable X, a je ne sais quoi in the object which can never be pinned down to any of its particular properties. L’objet petit a is therefore, close to the Kantian transcendental object since it stands for the unknown X, the noumenal core of the object beyond appearances, for what is “in you more than yourself.”
L’objet petit a can thus be defined as a pure parallax object: it is not only that its contours change with the shift of the subject; it exists—its presence can be discerned—only when the landscape is viewed from a certain perspective. > More precisely, objet petit a is the very cause of the parallax gap, that unfathomable X which forever eludes the symbolic grasp, and thus causes the multiplicity of symbolic perspectives. The paradox here is a very precise one: it is at the very point at which a pure difference emerges—a difference which is no longer a difference between two positively existing objects but a minimal difference which divides one and the same object from itself—that this difference “as such” immediately coincides with an unfathomable object: in contrast to a mere difference between objects, the pure difference is itself an object.
Another name for the parallax gap is therefore minimal difference, a “pure” difference which cannot be grounded in positive substantial properties.The Parallax View, Zizek
Example 2: The Village Map
To ground this a bit more, Zizek offers an example from Lévi-Strauss, who discusses a village, and when asking the villagers to draw a diagram of the village they draw it as a circle. But for one village group, they draw a circle within a circle, that is, concentric circles. For another group, they draw the circle split in two by a dividing line.
Here is the quote from the text:
… a member of the first subgroup (let us call it “conservative-corporatist”) perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second (“ revolutionary-antagonistic”) subgroup perceives his or her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier. . . .
The point Lévi-Strauss wants to make is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer’s group-belonging: the very splitting into the two “relative” perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant—not the objective, “actual” disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to “internalize,” to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole.
The two perceptions of the ground plan are simply two mutually exclusive endeavors to cope with this traumatic antagonism, and to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure.The Parallax View, Zizek
Step 78: The Parallax View
Part 3: How it works
I will round this out with two minimal examples, not nearly as dense as most that Zizek works through in his text, and then offer some thoughts on this positioning problem.
Zizek talks about Faith and love as parallax: He essentially says, inspired by Kierkegaard, that you must take a leap.
On the outside, all faith looks ridiculous. It looks insane and irrational. But once you are inside of faith and have chosen to believe, all of a sudden, the contradictory arguments fall into place, making sense, and you can see how everything becomes answered.
But you cannot understand this until you are in it: until you change your position.
This is one of those dramatic shifts of position between rationality and faith. Zizek says we cannot have only faith or only rationality, but there must always remain a gap between them, the parallax gap. But in a very real way, it will change your outlook on the entire world as you jump from one position to the other.
Another example by Julian de Medeiros. He brings up the guardians of the galaxy. In the third movie, there is a moment of parallax at the end. In the previous two movies, Groot can only say, “I am Groot.” As the audience, all we hear is “I am Groot,” yet the team members seem to be able to translate it into multiple phrases or meanings. This is humorous, yet there is a lack of understanding we have of what’s going on.
At the end of the 3rd movie, Groot says something different. He says, “I love you guys.”
What this implies is not that Groot has said something different. It means that we are finally able to understand him. As the audience, after going through 3 movies together and the hardships, we are finally part of the family. And with our new faith and belief, an understanding comes over us in which we are in the circle and can now understand “I am groot” as “I love you guys.”
So… the question is, can we ever go back to not understanding now that we have shifted? how does the “Parallax view” really play out?
We have multiple ideas or frameworks when we look at something like history, capitalism, or psychology. Each subversively short-circuiting the other but working to expose the core.
Each offers insights that correlate and survive with the times within an episteme or paradigm, having resonance and descriptive power.
We can -given our propensity- choose between them to make competing points, to choose sides, and yet in understanding them and how they enrich/complicate the overarching subject, say- our understanding of the self or capitalism- we can find ourselves paralyzed with choice overload: unable to decide because we can’t choose the position from which to react.
Our ability to see broadly deeply doesn’t overcome us as much as freezes us. (choice overload)
So, instead of sublation, the parallax positions and offers context. All without overcoming, without needing an antithesis-synthesis to come to a new, singular position: the parallax allows you to stay at ground level, moving between ideas, that is, “positions,” without jumping to a superior stance that diminishes the antagonistic tension. (In this sense it is minimal rather than additional.)
And perhaps, like understanding Groot, you cannot un-know a position: you will always be able to translate it, understand it, and have sympathy for it.
And this- finally- may be how the binary is dissolved, but towards what end?
Step 78: The Parallax View
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Zizek, The Parallax View
Julian de Mederios (has a whole series on zizek)
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