This post is a bit anachronistic, considering our recent focus on #OWS. It’s something I wrote as a reflection on a reading of Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, from our postmodern philosophy course, one of the last I took as a senior at Kalamazoo College. It’s been on my hard drive for quite a while and I’d like finally to put it up. So here goes. Warning: it’s fairly short, but dense. For a more exciting Žižek text related to this, scroll to the bottom; I link to an article there. . .

People use Hegel’s dialectical triad to describe numerous phenomena, perhaps most notably the history of modernity: modern thought progresses through (1) a premodern attachment to a supernatural or metaphysical essence, (2) a modern, hyper-rationalist attachment to scientific paradigms, and (3) a postmodern, qualified rationalism which understands its limitedness.

Žižek distinguishes these three stages based on their different qualifications of the concept of “form:” each ideological paradigm is characterized by its attachment to a particular relation between a stated form or prototype (e.g., a literary genre, scientific paradigm, or political ideology) and (2) that which is said to characterize the form. This ideological change, mapped onto the history of modernity, is the movement as follows: form / essence, form / matter, and form / content.

First, an entity posits a simple notion, a form “in itself,” one with no other source of verification; this is the couple form / essence, in which form is determined tautologically by an a priori essence, an eternal or Platonic ideal that precedes even the existence of the form — it “is,” because it should be.

Second, the notion sees itself reflected in an external material reality that challenges the assumptions of its original “essence;” this is the couple form / matter, according to which the notion seeks to determine its form based on an a posteriori empirical (usually scientific) investigation of the material truth of its premises, which it revises based on evidence.

The third and final movement is determinate reflection, in which the notion posits itself as a manipulation of matter, not a pure representation of it; this is the couple form / content: instead of using empirical evidence to provide a substantial ground for itself, the notion realizes that this material reality can never be captured “in itself,” can never be accounted for in its totality by form, is always subject to the limitations of the presuppositions of the formal operations used for studying material reality, and thus matter only serves as the manipulable substratum through which the form posits a particular content that is always an incomplete representation of the underlying matter.

Content is the “oppositional determination” of form; it is the misstep which indicates the incompleteness of the form: content and form are two sides of the same coin. It is because form is able to manipulate matter, the purely empty universal, existing beyond any formal appropriation of matter, that content exists at all. The “pathology” of any purportedly closed system of ideology — capitalism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, etc. — is that the form itself never comes into question; we simply continue the search for a truest possible content that would revise the form to match a better picture of reality, rather than analyzing the form itself as a limitation beset with flawed presuppositions.

Modern ideologies tend to operate at this second stage, the level of form / matter: we can avoid capitalist financial catastrophes by discovering a safer way to invest in the market; we can avoid racism or ethnocentrism by showing the cultural-historical or genetic similarities of all human beings; we can avoid sexism by showing that males and females are equally smart and capable. All of these rely on the second type of formal relation; they make use of science to investigate material reality in order to develop a closer and closer formal approximation to that reality. The problem with this, as Zizek points out, is that these systems don’t challenge their own presuppositions. What if, after all, the market can’t function without wild speculation, or races and ethnicities really do have discreet genetic or cultural-historical markers, or the sexes really do differ in major ways?

There is no guarantee out their in the world that our ideologies or paradigms are sound. The fact that we seem to go on forever finding a better picture of things shows that we run up against a deadlock when it comes to understanding material reality: there is always something that, despite our best efforts, eludes our grasp. What is the best economic system? What is the best way to think of race and ethnicity, or national identity, or sex and gender? These things are inherently ungraspable. The Lacanian point is that any system of knowledge (the Symbolic order) will always run up against the Real, the deadlock of explanation.

This facet of human existence — uncertainty — is that which separates (and distinguishes) us from the rest of the universe. We are more than things, because we reflect on our situation (we can never grasp the world outside of thought; we don’t have the immediate sensation of “being” that an unthinking animal has); but we are not gods, because thought is always flawed (the Understanding simply can’t grasp all potential phenomena; we can’t conceive of the entirety of the universe like a deity could). Rather, we are stuck in the middle ground.

Ideology is false inasmuch as it denies this fact: it takes as knowable that which we can’t ever know. Think of these two examples: on the one hand, we have scientism or logical positivism, which tries to hold up human intelligence/rationality (pure thought) as the ultimate authority, as a god; on the other, we have deep ecology, spiritualism, or Zen, all of which try to hold up the un-thought (pure being/nature) as the ultimate authority. This is a false dichotomy. It is stuck at the level form/matter, instead of form/content. We need to get to the point where ideology becomes comical and ironic.

One of the quickest and most exciting reads on this is an article on Kierkegaard and belief in which Žižek discusses the paradoxes of human existence by giving two different readings of Antigone — one tragic, the other comic.

In homage to #OWS, let me say that I think the protestors are breaking out of the vicious cycle of the second type of relation, form / matter; the form itself is under interrogation.