YouTube video here: Introduction — Eppur Si Muove
In this series we are going to attempt to go through chapter by chapter Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s major works Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012). The point of this overview and analysis is to open to a broader audience the main ideas and philosophical structure of Žižek’s thought because his books are very dense and complicated, and his public lectures are often only very loosely connected to the major themes of his professional written work. The hope is that by systematically analyzing Less Than Nothing argument by argument, and idea by idea, we will be able to better understand the subject of philosophy and its relevance to the future of thought today, including major scientific, humanitarian, and religious issues that our species will confront in the coming decades.
Throughout this works it is important to note that the major influences of the arguments are derived from German Idealist schools of philosophy and Freudo-Lacanian schools of psychoanalysis, where, ultimately, Žižek attempts to put philosopher Georg Hegel in conversation with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and Lacan in conversation with Hegel in such a way so that both thinkers re-emerge in the present as capable of helping the next generation of philosophers, theologians, psychoanalysts, and scientists think beyond the deadlocks of post-modernism towards a way of thinking that is capable of approaching the singularity of truth in a deeply phenomenologically engaged way.
I should offer a cautionary note that this overview will attempt to articulate the main themes of this works in all of its depths, and so will ask for a lot on the part of the [reader]. However, at the same time, with the aid of the fact that these [essays] will offer a condensed and hopefully also a precise reading with visual and auditory aids for difficult concepts, it is hoped that this video series will help other philosophers and general thinkers better understand this work, apply this work, and build upon this work for future generations. Please note that you will find potentially relevant literature in the description as well as my personal contact information. If you have any questions or comments I will try to be responsive in the comments and/or via email. Finally, I will also include citations in the description in relation to every quote I deploy.
Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher who probably needs very little introduction. He has been referred to by many as one of the greatest and most controversial philosophers of our age. In the popular media he is mostly known for his playful, unconventional and obscure cultural commentary on issues that range from sexuality, politics, economics, and religion. His first major work, The Sublime Object of Ideology, introduced a new generation and audience to the theories of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, specifically focusing on the concept of the objet petit a, the object cause of desire.
Throughout the rest of his academic career Žižek has maintained his focus on Lacan’s notion of the objet petit a and has proceeded to develop it into a highly complex philosophical structure that seeks to reframe the whole of philosophy from Parmenides and Democritus to Agamben and Badiou. However, the reason why I decided to focus on Less Than Nothing as opposed to any of his other many works is because this appeared to be his most sophisticated and his most ambitious works, and because he himself admitted that it was his (quote) “master work”, the work around which the rest of his philosophy is pulled together into some sort of grand synthesis.
General Structure of the Book:
Part 1: The Drink Before
Part 2: The Thing Itself (Hegel)
Part 3: The Thing Itself (Lacan)
Part 4: The Cigarette After
In this first lecture we will be starting with the Introduction: Eppur Si Muove, which of course means, “and yet it moves”. However, here I want to bring attention to the structure of the book outline as a whole. If you notice the main parts you have the titled “The Drink Before”, “The Thing Itself (Hegel)”, “The Thing Itself (Lacan)”, “The Cigarette After”. The interesting thing about the overall structural nature of the book is that it is structured as a classical sexual encounter on the cognitive level, and I think that is how Žižek intends it to be read. The first section being a warm up to the “real thing” with some light drinks and pleasantries, sharing some basic ideas before we really dive into the true action, what we really came for, which is of course the sex act itself (here signified as “Hegel” and “Lacan”). Then finally, you have the “cigarette after sex” where you are pleasantly exhausted by the real action and are now just having a discussion about the consequences of the real that you can no longer ignore.
Žižek opens the book with an introduction of the concept of the big Other, a central concept throughout the whole work. In order to understand the big Other the best example to think would be God, which stands as a Master Agent or Agency that perfects being itself. In Lacanian psychoanalytic terms the hypothesis of the big Other is that such an agency or entity can always be found in the symbolic order. In other words, there is always a Master Agent or Agency (whether that is God, the State, Capital, Science, a Guru), crucially it is some ‘agent that knows’; some agent that ‘guarantees the consistency and coherence of the symbolic order’.
We will encounter this idea of the big Other, or just ‘Other’ with a capitalized O throughout Less Than Nothing, where it is often deployed with a negativist logic in a double sense:
(1) “there is no Other” (which is a psychoanalytic approach to atheism meaning that there is no agent or agency guaranteeing the order); and
(2) “there is a non-Other” (meaning that the absence of the Other still exerts an overdetermining efficacy on human beings throughout history)
Here for those with a more advanced understanding of Lacanian and Žižekian thought you will notice that the double move of “there is no Other” to “there is a non-Other” mirrors the Lacanian theories of sexuation; namely “there is no sexual relationship” to “there is a non-relationship” which we will explore in more detail in the chapter on sexual difference. Here it is just important to note that the big Other is a central concept in Less Than Nothing, and it may be the central concept that allows Žižek to articulate his understanding of a theologically engaged atheism.
The central notion in the introduction regards a paradoxical twist in the classical Galilean story about motion:
“The legend has it that, in 1633, Galileo Galilei muttered, “Eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”), after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun: he was not tortured, it was enough to take him on a tour and show him the torture devices… There is no contemporary evidence that he did in fact mutter this phrase, but today the phrase is used to indicate that, although someone who possesses true knowledge is forced to renounce it, this does not stop it from being true. But what makes this phrase so interesting is that it can also be used in the exact opposite sense, to assert a “deeper” symbolic truth about something which is literally not true — like the “Eppur si muove” story itself, which may well be false as a historical fact about Galileo’s life, but is true as a designation of Galileo’s subjective position which he was forced to renounce his views. In this sense, a materialist can say that, although he knows there is no God, the idea of a God nonetheless “moves” him.” (1)
The reason why this quote is so essential is not only because it reflects the title of the introduction, and also not only because Žižek as stated that “eppur si muove” was another candidate for the title of the book itself, but because it identifies what I would call a “religious movement mediated by metaphorical images” that transcends deconstruction. Later in this chapter Žižek will emphasize clearly that his philosophical program’s main enemy includes schools of post-modernism that operate under the master signifier of deconstruction. Thus, what we see in this quote is that the symbolic order possesses an absolute meaning that transcends deconstruction, and that can be demonstrated in a purely materialist reading by observing ideationally mediated movement.
Let us consider this a little more closely with an example I am going to take the liberty of offering between the moons of Jupiter and the fundamentalist believer. Žižek in his opening offers this precise inversion between materialist movement of external physics and what he also refers to as the materialist movement of the symbolic order. Thus in this view we can say that in the same way that the moons of Jupiter revolve around Jupiter independent of any human belief system — like, for example, the geocentric model that was used by the Catholic Church at the same time of Galileo — we may also say that fundamentalist believers in God move around the metaphorical Image of the perfect Other independent of any scientific (Dawkins) or social (Hitchens) or literary (Derrida) deconstruction of God. In other words, there is a movement here that is in some sense “objective”. It is this strange objective movement of the symbolic order that Žižek is aiming at identifying in the first chapter of Less Than Nothing.
Of course, and again, the reason for identifying this movement is to transcend the contemporary philosophical discourses that are skeptical of the idea of an objective truth; either in a pre-modern religious notion or a modern scientific notion. This notion of objective truth is something that Žižek will work through with the help of Hegelian idealist and Lacanian psychoanalytic thought, as something that is more true than philosophies that keep a horizon that we may call pragmatic, or evolutionary, or relativistic.
With these opening thoughts there are three main dimensions being emphasized by Žižek:
(1) literal versus metaphorical truth
(2) materiality of the symbolic order
(3) reality of fiction
The first is the difference between literal and metaphorical truth. Truth in a literalist interpretation is often referred to as “what actually happened in the physical world”. However, metaphorical truth is a truth that can only be understood on the terms of conscious desire.
Second, the materiality of the symbolic order, which could be variously framed as the efficacy of the signifier or the concept in our material world as a type of force. This may be crucial because since the instantiation of the Newtonian worldview we have mostly come to understand the symbol or the concept as something that operates in relation to truth via the reflection-correspondence principle; which is to say that our words or signifiers reflect the objects or things in the physical world — like the signifier “moon” reflecting the object “moon” — but what a materiality of the symbolic order attempts to point towards is that the signifier has an efficacy and a truth that transcends any mere reflection of or correspondence with physical nature. Here it is important to think about the image represented above of the Signifier | signified algorithm proposed by Lacan as a modification of the algorithm proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure where the signifier and signified are represented as a fundamental symmetrical unity. For Lacan, in contrast, the signifier has a primacy over the signified which is why the top level “S” is upper case, and the bottom level “s” is lower case.
Finally, this leads us to attempting to understand the reality of fiction, or as Lacan noted: the idea that “truth is structured like a fiction”. The idea that reality is not only structured by fiction but is itself a fiction (i.e. the idea of an “objective reality” is something that requires the intervention of a subjective fiction); is another theme that will appear throughout this works. Here we cannot “remove fiction” for “objective truth” but rather must attempt to approach the “reality of the fiction” as perhaps the ultimate empowerment of the subject’s participation in the symbolic order over and above classical scientific notions of reality.
From this ground Žižek introduces a new concept into the ontology of his philosophical system: “Less Than Nothing”:
“Less Than Nothing endeavours to draw all the ontological consequences of this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move”, there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness.” (2)
To say this in another way, “Less Than Nothing” is the category that Žižek deploys to understand the epistemological nature of fiction as it relates to fundamental ontology. In order to do this Žižek generates the third category as synthesis of the classical theological debates about something and nothing. For example, we will often here that the ultimate metaphysical question is: “why is there something rather than nothing?”; but for Žižek the important question is precisely the opposite: “why is there nothing rather than something?” In other words, to phrase it in phenomenological terms: why is there Death in the World and not Immortality with God?
To push the Idea of “why is there nothing rather than something” further Žižek plays with the idea that in order to achieve “pure nothingness” (like the image of Death) you first have to be “something” (i.e. it is only a subject that can conceive of the pure nothingness of Death); and it is then his claim that because of this phenomenological fact we can say that the excessive visions and images of “something more” that appear internal to the symbolic order over and above “physical reality” (like those images offered in religions and many other metaphysical systems); signify that we must propose a third ontological category that breaks the dualism of something and nothing with the triad of something-nothing-less than nothing.
In this way the triadic relation between something-nothing-less than nothing structures the symbolic order because the “something” of our reality is overdetermined by the paradoxical nature of less than nothing (as in the triadic structure introduced above). Later in the work we will go into greater depth about the nature of this less than nothing. However, for now, we will say that reality as a totality, for Žižek, is not just “something” of material processes and “nothing” of the void; but also the “less than nothing” of virtuality which he claims has not yet been understood properly ontologically.
In terms of fundamental psychology Žižek attempts to locate this objective movement on the level of what Freud first identified as the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). The Death Drive was one of Freud’s most controversial assertions that there existed a fundamental mental principle beyond the regulation of positive attachment to pleasure and avoidance of unpleasure; and that this mental principle could be described as a death drive — a drive beyond the dualism of life and death; or in Žižek’s terms, in a drive beyond the dualism of something and nothing. Originally, Freud put forth the assertion of a death drive tentatively but later stated that he could “no longer think in any other way” as to the idea that the human mind did not remain regulated by pleasures.
In this way, the school of Freudian psychoanalysis and later Lacanian psychoanalysis cut from the view that the aim of analysis is to align one’s will or ego with the creative sexual life forces of Eros; but instead to come to understand a force within oneself that transcends the ego’s will; a force that moved independently of this will. In Žižek’s approach to the death drive in the introduction of Less Than Nothing he seeks to align the idea with the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit against the Buddhistic void’s negation of desire which he claims cannot stop the movement of the drive, and against the Heideggerian notion of will as the core of subjectivity which he claims does not take into consideration the discoveries of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Thus, Žižek believes that there is a fundamental psychic principle that transcends any individual subjectivity or will; and that this can only be understood when we take into considering that totality of subjectivity (including the paradoxes of the unconscious drives) within historical context which points towards the existence of one fundamental drive regulating historicity beyond self-conscious creation. The paradoxes of such a view are expressed throughout Less Than Nothing.
Žižek uses this ground to posit that the coordinates of contemporary knowledge can be broken by understanding the fundamental nature of the mental principle of the death drive.
In order to approach these coordinates he constructs the quadrant of scientific naturalism, discursive historicism, new age spirituality, and transcendental finitude. Žižek sees scientific naturalism, the first level of the quadrant, as dominated by the epistemological frameworks of cognitive science and evolutionary science; as opposed to the 19th and 20th century scientific epistemology dominated by theoretical physics. In this way we see that major speculations about the nature of reality are often framed in terms aligned with reductions of consciousness to neuronal mechanisms, and the reductions of reality to evolutionary processes.
In the second quadrant, discursive historicism is something that may also be called post-modernism, where reality is reduced to social constructions organized within different regimes of discourse or language games that ultimately have no transcendental correlation. For example, in pre-modern or modern systems we may say that our discourse was relating to some approximation of a “thing-in-itself” (like the Bible related to God, or Newton’s Principia related to Gravity); but in post-modern thought these are thought to be simple language games that are used to organize a multiplicity of power structures.
Third, the New Age spiritual thought is organized here under the umbrella term of Western Buddhism, which can be understood as the tendency of modern Western spiritualists to become heavily critical of the Abrahamic traditions and heavily aligned with Eastern traditions which are seen to be less oppressive and controlling, and more open and liberating to the expression of subjectivity.
Finally, transcendental finitude is organized broadly as the culmination of philosophical thought in the Heideggerian tradition of understanding the nature of our being in history with the idea that we are fundamentally finite and mortal. For Heidegger there is no getting outside of the horizon of our being under these coordinates; and that these coordinates fundamentally define what it means to be a human. In other words, there is the world of the finite and the mortal that regulates human life; and there is the inaccessible transcendental infinite and immortal which humans by definition can have no knowledge of.
Here Žižek deploys this quadrant in order to situate his own philosophical project which he claims can break down all four categories utilizing a psychoanalytically informed return to German Idealism.
This project is ultimately governed by the notion that what we seek in a “higher unity” of knowledge (some “absolute knowledge”) under the regimes of science, critical theory, spirituality/religion, or philosophy are all manifestations of a pre-transcendental gap/rupture that constitutes human subjectivity, as such. For Žižek this gap/rupture is the fundamental feature of the symbolic order; it is what prevents the symbolic order from closing in and completing itself, and which opens up the space for subjectivity to appear to itself. In this way the axiom “one divides into two” is the idea that the subject is nothing but its repetitive division from a memory of unity (say, in the Mother’s womb) that never really was.
Furthermore, this asymmetrical and irreversible division is what Žižek claims to be the core of modern (or postmodern) subjectivity in the sense that the old metaphysical structures of totality representing a complete and closed Oneness (like religion, the State, Capital, and so forth) are all either dead or resting on very fragile metaphysical grounds. In this way the modern subject finds itself in confusing and nihilistic states precisely because it is searching for the missing Other, or the missing unity that would guarantee the consistency of being. However, according to Žižek, there is no such unity to be found outside of the division of the subject itself. In this sense Less Than Nothing is the full affirmation of this negative unity, and thus the full affirmation of a repetitive drive regulated by the introduction of pure difference into being.
From this perspective, modern science, post-modernism, eastern spirituality, and transcendental philosophy all miss the way in which this paradoxical form of infinite-immortality cuts across the subject in its absence, subverting it from within as a spectral Otherness.
Here Žižek juxtaposes the quadratic coordinates of contemporary thought with the quadratic structure of German Idealism in what he calls “the basic coordinates of the unbearable density of thought: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel”. In this structure Kant is the thinker of the philosophical consequences of Newtonian science where he attempts to formulate a philosophy that is capable of living up to the breakthrough of modern science. Fichte is the thinker relating to the fundamental rupture in politics pre-and-post French revolution where the nature of monarchy is systematically challenged and replaced with desires for democracy and freedom from external tyranny. Schelling is situated on the level of the philosopher who thinks through the consequences of art as a higher form of absolute expression than philosophy itself, and thus a more direct way to access eternity. Finally, Hegel completes the quadrant as the philosopher who develops the dialectics of Love with the Law of the Heart; and thus, as the philosopher who makes the most substantial contribution to understanding the nature of a historically and phenomenologically grounded absolute.
Let’s relate in turn to each figure which structures Žižek’s thought throughout Less Than Nothing.
Kantian philosophy is often seen as the true breakthrough in philosophical thought with the introduction of the a priori frame which structures being.
Žižek here takes the time to introduce what he identifies as the crucial dimension of the consequences of Kant. The first dimension identified here is that before Kant there is philosophy which is the study of universal being; in contrast to science which studies particular phenomena within being. In this sense philosophy before Kant was purely positivist. Secondly, before Kant there is the often noted distinction between appearances and reality; like, for example, in Plato we have appearances and true Ideas; and in science we have appearances and objective reality.
However, after Kant this project is no longer philosophically tenable because we cannot just remain satisfied with understanding a particular historical “disclosure of being” but rather the conditions of possibility for the appearance of that being itself; its “transcendental genesis”. In other words, understanding the contemporary representations of physics, chemistry, or biology is one thing; but understanding why contemporary physics, chemistry, and biology appear as they do to the contemporary mind is a totally other question that is irreducibly philosophical.
Perhaps the biggest practical dimension of such a “Kantian” move can be related to the origin of the universe itself in big bang cosmology. For example, if we understand how the big bang occurred in terms of its mechanisms for the genesis and separation of the forces of nature that is one thing; but understanding why being unfolded in such a way, and understanding why being is disclosed in such a way at this historical moment is a totally other question.
In order to communicate this difference in another way Žižek gives the example of the way in which Aristotle attempts to describe life in his Physics as a being that is moved by itself, as a being that causes its own movement (perhaps what we would today refer to under the concept of autopoiesis). However, a first order description of life still does not get at the reality of living beings; the way in which being appears to them and the conditions of possibility for their appearing that way.
In short, we can refer to the Kantian philosophical turn as the “reality of appearances” and the mystery of why reality would appear to itself at all. To quote Žižek:
“The path from illusion to critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, not just accidents. (3)
The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.
The critical “system” is the systematic a priori structure of all possible/thinkable “errors” in their immanent necessity: what we get at the end is not the Truth that overcomes/sublates the preceding illusions — the only truth is the inconsistent edifice of the logical interconnection of all possible illusion…” (4)
Žižek then moves to a crucial distinction that exists between Kant and the other German Idealists (Fichte-Schelling-Hegel) who are not only lesser known in the anglo-saxon tradition but also perceived to be obscure subjectivists who cannot be reconciled with the reality of modern science. He spends little time going into details of Fichte’s work in the Introduction but emphasizes that Fichte’s work, influenced by post-revolutionary French freedom and terror, is characterized by two fundamental aims: to understand engaged subjectivity in-itself and to think the trans-subjective ground of pure freedom. For now, we can avoid going deeper into Fichte’s thought except to keep in mind that Žižek later attempts to revive Fichte’s work as a crucial link connecting German Idealism to psychoanalysis, and to the ability to think an Absolute independent of modern science.
In contrast to Fichte, Žižek spends much more time highlighting the major contributions of Schelling to German Idealism who he puts on a level close to Hegel in terms of his significance to identifying the nature of the Absolute. In this analysis he places a high level of importance on Schelling’s Ages of the World works which identifies a realm of pre-logical or pre-conscious drives as the “ground” of being and the “heart” of God which is fundamentally inconsistent and incoherent. The focus on this pre-logical or pre-conscious realm is a realm often totally ignored by most scientific analysis as a necessary pre-cognitive realm that gives birth to both logic and self-consciousness and cannot be eliminated by logic and self-consciousness but must be integrated with both.
In this sense Schelling can be conceived of as one of the main pre-psychoanalytic philosopher to speculate about the nature of unconscious drives which receive a much more precise understanding after the development of Freudian psychoanalysis. From this understanding Schelling is here conceived of as a “post-romantic” or “non-naive romantic” philosopher who understands the terror of the nature of human freedom as something that allows for the turning against being itself.
In this way Schelling does not conceive of God as a totalizing unity that safely houses the realm of Being but rather as a totalizing division that resists all external totalizing unity. Here the crucial dimension that Schelling introduces, and which becomes echoed in Hegelian philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, is the idea that the human being is a pure negation of given being, that the human being introduces a pure nothingness as a desire for the transcendence of given being:
“Schelling’s “negative philosophy” begins with the affirmation of a negation, of a void, but this void is the affirmative force of the will’s desire: “all beginning lies in an absence; the deepest potency, which holds fast to everything, is non-being its hunger for being.
From the domain of logic and its a priori notions, we pass into the domain of actual life, whose starting point is a yearning, the “hunger” of a void to be filled in by positive actual being. […] In order to really pass from being/nothing to actual becoming which results in “something” positive, the “nothing” with which we begin should be a “living nothing”, the void of a desire which expresses a will to generate or get hold of some content.” (5)
Here before introducing to you what Žižek considers to be the climax or pinnacle of German Idealist thought, the work of Hegel, he offers what he calls an “alternative reality” or “different path”. This alternative reality is what some philosophers have speculated could have been taken down the lines of Friedrich Hölderlin as opposed Georg Hegel as the pinnacle of German Idealist thought.
Hölderlin and Hegel approach the same problem, but slightly differently: that being the problem of Love as Absolute Oneness and the reality of a subjectivity seemingly divided from this Absolute Oneness in the mode of a subject-object division opening onto a multiplicity of phenomena. For Hölderlin the structure is a lost and found unity, that there was an Absolute-Oneness with God and now we are at a separated distance from this state; and there is a desire to return to the Absolute-Oneness with God; but how?
In this mediation on the fundamental relation between multiplicity and the One Hölderlin imagines its structure in the dualism of substance and subjectivity, or being and reflection; where substance and being are on the side of the object, and subjectivity and reflection are on the side of the subject. What Hölderlin suggests as the mediation of Absolute Oneness is the narrative path; or as the structuring of a story from beginning to end that is capable of holding the oscillation between primordial lost unity and future found unity. In this way the story can be conceived of as a temporal orientation mechanism capable of structuring our fall and our return while we are in time.
In contrast to Hölderlin, Hegel proposes a radically different answer to the same problem. For Hegel, division from the Absolute in the subject-object manifestation is necessary for the emergence of the Absolute, as such:
“The narrative is not merely the subject coping with its division from Being, it is simultaneously the story Being is telling itself about itself. The loss supplemented by the narrative is inscribed into Being itself, which means […] the narrative already does the job of intellectual intuition, of uniting us with Being. […] It is the narrative path [not intuition] which directly renders the life of Being itself.” (6)
Thus Hegel offers a perspectival shift on the same approach to Absolute-Oneness. In Hegelian philosophy it is not that we are a multiplicity oscillating between two poles, of a lost and a found unity, of a fall from and a return to unity; but rather that the falling and the returning in the division between subject-object is the very necessary condition for the Absolute to appear at all. In other words, it is the very totalizing narrative articulation that the Absolute reveals or manifests itself in history.
The crucial difference here between Hölderlin and Hegel is that we avoid requiring to posit a full Absolute-Oneness that is capable of “holding itself” as a totalizing singularity. In this way there is nothing but the story of loss and the find, the fall and the return, without the transcendental beyond of an actual infinite-immortal singularity that is coherently closed and completed within itself. What this brings attention to is the fact that our self-differentiation, or self-becoming is the highest form of the Absolute, and thus Hegel grounds us in the absolute narrativization of being in the here-and-now, or what Hegel calls the Phenomenology of History.
Of course, then, Žižek opts for the Hegelian path over the “alternative reality” of the Hölderlin path. In choosing to follow this route in his philosophical analysis, he posits that the pinnacle of German Idealism is the Hegelian metaphysical edifice which is the highest form of the narrativization of being, of the story of the Absolute’s revelation to itself in a series of broken unities, or inconsistent totalities that each have a contingent but necessary logical structure as a part of the Absolute’s process of returning to itself which is nothing but its becoming.
The major philosophical move that Hegel makes is thus the ability to think simultaneously epistemology or knowledge as a part of the absolute thing of ontological reality. What this means is that we can never think of the “absolute thing” as a pure ontological reality independent of our knowledge constructs (as in scientific objective reality; or Kant’s noumenal in-itself); it is the appearance of our knowledge constructs which are necessary for the revelation of being to itself. This is what Hegel means when he emphasizes that the division from the Absolute (in the subject-object relation) is what allows us to know the Absolute as a division (our feeling of separation and distance from unity). Žižek refers to this paradox a “redoubled division”: quoting him now “the ultimate is not Subject-Object division, but the very division between division (of Subject-Object) and unity. This is furthermore expressed in the formula “division between division and non-division”; or in the repetitive emphasis that the Absolute is both substance and subject; both being and reflection.
Furthermore, for Žižek, the return to Hegelian philosophy is just as crucial today as in the past for two main reasons. The first reason is because contemporary philosophy is in some sense plagued by relativistic deconstruction-oriented philosophies that are skeptical of totalizing first order systems that propose to abstract a universal structure of being in a pre-Kantian mode, as we covered these are systems that attempt to understand the whole of being without reflectively understanding the becoming of the subject or self-differentiation as a fundamental element in that process. However, in the Hegelian edifice there is no conflict with philosophies of totality, because they are part of the becoming revelation of the Absolute itself through a self-differentiation that mirrors the whole, which, for Hegel, is the highest form of Love. In other words, for Hegel, the entire series of self-differentiation mirroring the whole is totality in itself; where the universal moves through the particular.
The second reason is because Hegel is a philosopher that can most easily negate the contemporary philosophical triadic tendency to contingency-alterity-heterogeneity. This is another way of saying that contemporary philosophy focuses on:
(1) the “random accidents” of the universal structure of being where human beings and our historical reality are ultimately reducible to pure chance; contemporary philosophy focuses on
(2) the otherness of being, i.e., what is being independent of human observers and human knowledge constructs, what is being in-itself before humans were present and after humans are gone; and contemporary philosophy focuses on
(3) the difference of being, how there exists a seemingly inexhaustible multiplicity of diverse phenomena that are seemingly irreducible to one law or one principle or one reality or one axiom.
In contrast to the contemporary philosophical triad of contingency-alterity-heterogeneity Hegel attempts to understand necessity, self-realization, and unity. What this means is that the Hegelian hypothesis of the Absolute as non-unity of substance and subject is that there is an overall structure of being that is necessary and not merely contingent, that is radically dependent on self-differentiation, in terms of the becoming identity of the Absolute, as opposed to the otherness of the self (or the non-I); and unity in terms of the fundamental division internal to the core or heart of the one as opposed to a pure multiplicity of being:
“For Kant, the process of truth emerging as our critical denunciation of the preceding illusion belongs to the sphere of our knowledge and does not concern the noumenal reality which remains external and indifferent to it, while, for Hegel, the proper locus of this process is the Thing itself. (7)
The most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth).” (8)
Here Žižek finds the psychoanalytic tradition to be the proper bridge in the 20th century to what he identifies as the true philosophical break in German Idealism. For Žižek the truth of 20th century psychoanalysis can be found in the initial discoveries of Freud of the unconscious, and its repetition in Lacan, or what Lacan called his infamous “return to Freud” (as opposed to the Jungian path which breaks with Freud).
Žižek notes that Lacan almost comically saw himself as an “anti-philosopher”, anti in the sense that he was against institutional philosophy (and institutional psychoanalysis); but comical in the sense that you will find many philosophical references throughout his work, most notably references to Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger.
In focusing on Lacan, Žižek attempts to render through a ‘psycho-analysis’, what we can say about the truth of knowledge within a radically dialectical frame that grounds itself in historical becoming. The point of such a practice or exercise is to bring us to the core of our own being and the core of our own desire, which is situated on the level of emancipation from historical social relations that function on the basis of an external obstacle of the figure of the Master, or what is one of the many manifestations throughout this work, of the figure of the big Other.
Throughout Žižek’s references to Lacan himself and to a Lacanianized Hegel, we will find that removing the figure of the big Other from our social relations is not only difficult but perhaps one of the most traumatic if not the most traumatic intellectual exercise we can undertake as human beings.
In order to give proper credit to the tradition of thought we are entering I should mention that Žižek considers himself to be a part of an intellectual troika of other philosophers and analysts that include Alenka Zupancic and Mladen Dolar. Both Zupancic and Dolar teach through the European Graduate School network and you can find their videos on YouTube. Žižek will cite them and engage with them throughout Less Than Nothing so I wanted to highlight them here, depending on how close you plan to follow and engage with this series, you may want to familiarize yourself with their work, as they will help also to understand this exercise.
What unites the three of them into a strange unity is their belief that in order to develop a new horizon for philosophy we must first fully assume the radicality of Lacanian thought and attempt to push beyond the late stages of Lacan’s work where they claim he failed to properly solve the issues of the subject vis-a-vis its desires and drives.
I am sympathetic with the idea that one would ask what is the point of this work? What is the point of diving head first into the depths of philosophy? Here I would try to reflect on some of the main reasons that attract me to this philosophy in the hopes that it will capture the central reasons why such a work will be of use to you in the longer term.
(1) The first reason is that this is a philosophy that focuses on the highest level of self-differentiation as possible: how to assert yourself against the appearance of in some sense false “Others” as Masters who attempt to contain or constrain your development. The philosophy of Less Than Nothing is ultimately a works that attempts to work through the absence of the Other in the most dramatic way possible, asserting that collective self-differentiation is the only reality, and that our access to this reality is a part of the becoming of the Absolute. We are the authors of the Absolute in the deepest sense of the term.
(2) Second, the overcoming or the working through of any Other is at the same time the ability to get full control over your own voice and your own discourse as opposed to becoming a mouthpiece for an Other. In this sense Žižek work here is useful in the meta-sense, not in the sense of a meta-language (as Lacanians, we know that is impossible), but that his own writing style and his own expression is a unique singularity of the highest order that can open others into a world of philosophy that is often impenetrable and impossible to organize coherently.
(3) Third, of the higher level philosophers, we are focused on overcoming the horizon of deconstruction as some absolute unchallengeable assumption. In order to achieve this the hypothesis of Less Than Nothing is that working through Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis offers a path towards this possibility; as opposed to the dominant constellation of thought which has been unable and unwilling to approach totality in any meaningful way. In this we are attempting to identify a fundamental psychic drive where a singularity appears internal to the becoming of the subject; and in this sense working through this works is an attempt to identify this infinite-immortal singularity within oneself.
If you are still with me thanks for your attention and I hope that this [essay] does justice to the Introduction of Less Than Nothing. In the coming weeks I will be exploring the other chapters in full details and I hope you will join me for this work! Another reminder that you can find the works cited below in relation to specific quotes used throughout.
(You can also help this effort by becoming a supporter on Patreon).
(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Introduction: eppur si muove. p. 3
(2) ibid. p. 4.
(3) ibid. p. 10
(4) ibid. p. 10-11.
(5) ibid. p. 12-13.
(6) ibid. p. 15-16.
(7) ibid. p. 11.
(8) ibid. p. 17.
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