Archives for posts with tag: Hegel

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.


I was inspired to write this after reading one of Zizek’s articles on, titled “Deleuze and the Lacanian Real.” I think it’s the clearest thing Zizek has ever said about the Real, mostly because he’s focusing on it and illuminating it by reading Deleuze and Hegel side by side.

The Real is the minimal gap between the appearance of one and the same thing at time N compared to some later time. We patch over the gap so that, ontologically, the house we see today appears to be the same house tomorrow, even though, since we see them at different times, they are not strictly identical.

It gets more interesting when we consider that the minimal gap gets filled in by the subject, who renders it as object a; repetition is the process by which the stubborn Real gets patched over by an X, just as mathematics puts an ‘i’ to stand in for an imaginary number (since such a number doesn’t actually make any sense).

So, with regard to trauma/repression, it is not the case that, as Freud proposed, ‘that which we cannot remember, we are doomed to repeat;’ rather, it is only after we repeat something that we can forget it, because only then does the thing acquire an ‘existence of its own’ outside any particular instance of it; only after repeating the thing can the two instances, side by side, support a third, middle term that mediates between the two instances of the act or object, relieving the subject of the burden of creating a virtual screen/supplement for the thing in its bare, meaningless actuality.

In other words, the middle term swallows up the minimal difference between the two instances such that, regardless of what those instances actually were or will be, the middle term becomes and remains an elusive ‘je no se qua,’ or, in Lacanian terms, the object petite a.

Thus only if a thing is repeatedly encountered can the subject forget about it, in the sense of enjoying it via the virtual screen/supplement of object a; otherwise, the thing is laid bare, absent any significance. Conversely, forgetting is impossible when the thing is utterly unique: it is this uniqueness which is traumatic, haunting the subject as if the encounter with the thing must be repeated so that the subject can turn it into an object of knowledge, a thing with sense, versus the non-sense of bare, inhuman(e) reality (to be clear, this is a reality in which any one instance appears to be the result of a purely mechanical, unnecessary succession of events with no actor, lacking the support of the (virtual) depth of meaning, the supplementary object a, provided by a human being, the only being capable of ‘virtualizing’ reality, adding meaning where there is none).

When we cannot repeat our gesture, that is the truly traumatic thing: without repetition, the thing can’t be processed by the subject, since, without the gap in time, there is no second version of the object that could be compared with the first, the both being absolutely crucial for the time ‘in between,’ the third term, to become the minimal distance between the two versions of the identical object. This ‘distance’ can then be translated into object a and therefore rendered enjoyable.

But in order to avoid a direct encounter with the traumatic kernel of the Real in everything (the object a or das Ding that we posit), which, up close, turns into excessive enjoyment (jouissance) and threatens our ability to comprehend/enjoy, the subject repeats the same appearance/gesture over and over in order to, as it were, see the self-posited object a from all possible angles, swirling around it by repeating the confrontation with the Thing in as many new contexts as possible, in order to avoid directly encountering it (it seems a bit like centripetal force). I think David Cronenberg’s Crash would be a good source to look to for a representation of this return/repetition.

Also, Zizek makes it very clear in the same article that the Lacanian Real is not the same as the notion of a great Reality beyond any of our modes of grasping it, an infinite depth. In fact, it is nearly the opposite: the Real is, again, a minimal content, a minimal difference; and it is just this gap itself, not something beyond the gap of which the gap shows us merely a glimpse; essence is appearance.

Interestingly, Zizek uses Badiou’s terms to help illustrate this minimal difference. Badiou explains that Hegelian negation involves two parts, first destruction, then subtraction. Negating a positive social order does not mean the rejection of the entirety of that order. It is the move away from the standard form in which the social order is maintained (Badiou’s example is the invention of atonal music, which, while still working with music per se, worked with it in a different form than the previous standard, tonal music). Subtraction is negation’s mature self-becoming, the move from in-itself to for-itself. Badiou calls this subtraction because the negative force (e.g., atonal music) becomes a movement of its own, which, as a definitive movement, can be isolated as the equation of the normal symbolic order minus all that was before in the standard form. In other words, after subtraction, we’re left at the fringes of the symbolic order, the eye-sore that the symbolic fails to acknowledge.

This failure of knowledge is the same as in the above case in which the Real is patched over with signifiers and perceptual-representational anomalies, like object a. Zizek says that this exposed fringe of the symbolic threatens to directly represent the minimal difference that keeps the symbolic working. The Real is less than its representation; it is the ‘kernel’ that, as we’ve agreed, is never shown directly. But because negation approaches the level of the absolute minimal difference (since its actor is merely the sum left after the subtraction from the symbolic of the standard form of that which the symbolic struggles to represent) the position of the actor in negation is a good way to think of the Real.

The important thing to see is that, even in subtraction, negation is still part of the symbolic (it never actually is the Real). Zizek makes this clear when he uses another quasi-analogy, the difference between sacrilege and profanation. Sacrilege is the breaking of religious rules, the failure to follow customs. Although this example isn’t quite apt, I’m thinking particularly of the inept mishandling of a sacred object or ritual by, say, a young, inexperienced member of the clergy. The point is that this is simply a failure to live up to ideals that aren’t themselves challenged — in fact, they’re reinforced. In music, it would be the equivalent of writing tonal music, but writing it poorly or incorrectly.

Atonal music, on the other hand, is more similar to profanation; profanation involves the perfect execution of the law, except it takes place in an unexpected, even unwanted, context (just think of taking high culture to the streets, ‘vulgarizing’ it not by poorly representing it, but by representing it in the wrong kind of place, to the wrong kinds of people).

So whereas sacrilege still stays within the framework of positing reflection (that which comes before negation), profanation is reflexive in the way that only negation can be; it is something absolutely true of the symbolic, but which is formally disavowed. As such, it is the act that threatens to reduce the symbolic to the Real, the minimal difference, which can only occur after an act’s repetition in multiple contexts.