YouTube Video Here: Chapter 3 – Fichte’s Choice (Part 2)
Welcome to Lecture 5 of Less Than Nothing: Fichte’s Choice (Part 2) (Part 1: here). In this [transcript] we cover the second half of Chapter 3 focusing on how we can connect Fichte’s subjectivist life-mind philosophy with contemporary theories. To be specific, if the focus of the first half of this chapter focused on putting Fichte into conversation with Hegel, this second half offers to put Fichte into conversation with modern theories of autopoiesis in biology, modern theories of space and existence in psychoanalysis, and an articulation of how Fichte’s Thing-in-itself can be synthesized with Hegel’s in order come to some sort of conclusion on what Fichte’s philosophy ultimately attempted to achieve for the modern world. In this attempt we hope that Fichte’s philosophy, sometimes perceived to be obscure, if not totally unknown, can once again come to life in light of this new interpretation.
In this lecture we are in the final sequence of Part 1. Throughout Part 1 we have attempted to cover the initial base ground to Žižek’s core philosophy, which includes a tour of Plato and Christianity, and also the subjectivist gateway into German Idealism, with Johann Fichte. What we can say about this gateway is that it is fiercely and unapologetically a repetition of the core foundations of Western culture and civilization. Although this may seem unnecessary to some, Žižek maintains this commitment to a repetition of Western culture and civilization, not only because of his sophisticated understanding of the importance of repetition and truth, but also because Western culture and civilization are in some sense in need of serious revisiting, revisioning, and revival. In many ways the contemporary West does not understand the ground that it stands on, in terms of Platonic and Christian metaphysics, and also in terms of subjective pragmatic action. Thus, if one revisits these lectures, one should be able to find the depths of Western culture and civilization, as a necessary step into Hegel, in Part 2.
Now we start this lecture at a very important moment. We are attempting to put Johann Fichte and German Idealism into conversation with modern biology or the life sciences and the concept of autopoiesis.
To start let us contemplate a central concept for both Fichte and Hegel: the concept of limitation. The reason why this concept is so crucial for both Fichte and Hegel is that both philosopher are rebelling against the traditional pre-critical metaphysics that uncritically and unreflectively offers us a infinite and immortal substantial unity (the ultimate non-I as the highest mind agent). This is the basic presupposition under the philosophy of both Descartes and Leibniz, for example (the founders of modern science and mathematics). In some sense this infinite and immortal substantial unity is also the object of all philosophy and religion as an affirmation or a negation. The affirmation would be the traditional notion of God, and the negation would be the traditional notion of atheism, and also nihilism or liberation, depending on your view of the Absolute or God as as substantial unity existing in every and all possible universes.
However, for Fichte and Hegel, we must be able to think, not only the subject-object division, but the division between subject and its object (of desire). In this sense the I and the non-I co-produce each other as a mutually self-limiting determination. This division between the subject and its object of desire is what is experienced by the subject in its historically and phenomenologically constituted life world as a limitation, something that thwarts it from the inside, preventing it from unity with the Absolute. However, at the same time, this limitation is the world of the subject, and thus if you remove the non-I background that the subject perceives as a limitation, you take away the very reality of the subject. In the last episode we discussed this concept marking us in our irreducible finitude and mortality, as the Anstoss, the obstacle, the hindrance, the trans-subjective object internal to our phenomenal becoming. The Anstoss, the obstacle, the hindrance, is what prevents things from running smoothly, what prevents our symbolism from curving in on itself into a perfect circle, that prevents our self-identity, from fully realizing itself as a flawless infinite and immortal substantial unity existing from all time. Of course, what emerges from this Anstoss, is the impossible image, the Absolute in its self-actualization. In this way, in its most unreflective mode, Žižek refers to the subject’s practical relation to the Anstoss as a frustration, as its thetic, pathetic, or pathic relation.
Thus, what we get here, in this limiting character and nature of self-consciousness, is a paradoxical overlap, a paradoxical overlap between limitation and what Žižek refers to as “true infinity”. Throughout Less Than Nothing Žižek juxtaposes “true infinity” with “bad infinity”. In a “bad infinity” we have a spurious or endless process, as in the presupposition that collective empirical knowledge of the natural world is an endless process with no conclusion, just a spiralling multiplicity of inquiry that can go on forever. Take, for example, physicist David Deutsch’s recent claim that the Enlightenment ignited the “Beginning of Infinity”. However, in contrast to “bad infinity” we have the “true infinity” of a circular process that curls or curves in on itself into a reflective self-relation. In that sense the process of knowledge or interpretation itself is infinite, producing in its limitation the reflection of infinity (as in David Deutsch’s imagistic “infinite understanding” of a knowledge process without end; his particular “non-I”).
In this sense, from the structure of Fichte and Hegel’s phenomenology, we get the image of life itself as irreducibly teleological and self-organizing. Here we mean that life is fundamentally, in its elemental structure, something of a relation to self that orients itself towards its own emergent ground. Take even the most elementary unit of life, like a cell. Before the emergence of a cell we do not have anything that organizes in a way that any ‘self’ autonomy or action can come into being. But with the emergence of a cell, we have the phenomena that is very much not only ‘in-itself’ but ‘for-itself’, acting in relation to ‘it-self’. Thus we have the basic level of what Hegel would call ‘positing the presuppositions’, of an entity that was not simply determined from the outside, externally according to rules or laws, but something that can, through its ‘true infinity’, posit its own presuppositions (as in a cell ‘self-positing’ to move towards a particular concentration of resources, or David Deutsch’s self-positing of the ‘beginning of infinity’ and thus moving towards a particular concentration of symbols (‘enlightenment symbolism’).
Now in order to put this philosophy in conversation with modern biology and the life sciences we have to ask ourselves a question that extends beyond a Darwinian environmental reduction. What does this mean? In traditional evolutionary theory, either the theory articulated by Darwin or the later theoretical extensions in the neo-Darwinian synthesis which included genetics and multi-level selection pressures, we have a theory based on reducing life to environments. What this misses, as was clearly articulated by thinkers like Francisco Varela, is that we have no answer for what life is in-itself and for-itself. We only have what life is for a given environment, we have cells that are adapted to a particular medium or background; we have birds or fish or lions or gazelles that are adapted for a particular medium or background. However, we do not have a general organizing principle for life itself. Thus the central question of a phenomenological life science, as articulated by not only Francisco Varela, but also thinkers like Humberto Maturana, Lynn Margulis, Alicia Juarrero, Evan Thompson, and Terence Deacon, is that the main problem of life does not have to do with selection to a contingent environment. The main problem of life has to do with how a self-relating entity emerges at all. In other words how does infinity go from a spurious “bad” infinite in-itself to a “true” self-relating infinity for-itself; self-production, self-creation.
In this way, Žižek claims, the concept of autopoiesis is a very Hegelian. Autopoiesis stands for a circular relational loop determining its own identity, an entity that can bootstrap itself in the mode of positing its own presuppositions. In Maturana’s own words (1):
“Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It’s specific to the cellular level. There’s a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organizing network of biochemical reactions producing molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which contains the network that produces the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what’s unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn’t require an external agent to notice it, or to say, “I’m here”. It is, by itself, a distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics.”
Here we have an image or representation of this autopoietic loop that bootstraps itself out of a soup of physics and chemistry and gains the ‘magical’ emergent ability to posit its own presuppositions. In this ability the ‘self’ is not only subject to contingent environmental conditions, but also the ability to act back on these contingent environmental conditions with its own self-posited presuppositions of the world. Here there is a loop that is not totally closed in on itself but open with self-limiting mechanisms that allow for a boundary between itself and the environment. In that sense the self is not determined by the environment but instead gains the minimal ability of overdetermination.
Žižek here attempts to transfer or demonstrate how the autopoietic language can be “Hegelianized” from the ‘self-environment’ boundary or the ‘I / non-I’ boundary with the rotary motion of the self-positing and the presuppositions. Here Žižek claims that (2):
“The One of an organism as a Whole retroactively “posits” as its result, as that which it dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes (i.e. the very multiple processes out of which it emerged). In this way, and only in this way, an organism is no longer limited by external conditions, but its fundamentally self-limited again, as Hegel would have articulated it, life emerges when the external limitation (of an entity by its environs) turns into self-limitation.
For Hegel, true infinity does not stand for limitless expansion, but for active self-limitation (self-determination) in contrast to being-determined-by-the-other. In this precise sense, life (even at its most elementary, as a living cell) is the basic form of true infinity, since it already involves the minimal loop through which a process is no longer simply determined by the Outside of its environs but is itself able to (over)determine the mode of this determination and thus “posits its presuppositions” Infinity acquires its first actual existence the moment a cell’s membrane starts to function as a self-boundary.”
Thus we get the claim that, again, infinity is merely a virtual wave before the minimal emergence of self-relation, and this becomes embodied in a particular form that can act on its environment. We should here see in this emergence from the soup of physics and chemistry the first intellectual doorway from the world of physical determinism, to the world of overdeterministic processes, of process that cannot merely be reduced to its physical foundation as epiphenomenal; but instead, with the ability to act back on the physical foundation and retroactively change what is possible and what is impossible.
However, it is still the case that the life sciences and the theorists of autopoiesis all-too-often remain within the realm of the biological. Can they also join Hegel in the realm of self-consciousness? Here Žižek claims that we lose the horizon of the contemporary life sciences when we move into the realm of self-consciousness, where Hegel and the idealists have made more profound observations. The first thing to note is that, while biology and life, like self-consciousness, becomes frustrated by external objects or obstacles, of course, this biology and life is in no way reflectively aware of these limitations. In that sense autopoietic systems are simply self-limited; where self-consciousness gains the minimal level of awareness of this self-limitation. This minimal level of awareness of this self-limitations is a difference that makes a difference. Why?
What awareness of self-limitation produces is a far more monstrous non-I then anything in the biological or life world. As we have covered the non-I for self-consciousness is a frustration that takes a multiplicity of imagistic forms experienced as thwarting its infinite and immortal being. Take, for example, a finite mortal mind like Isaac Newton or Rene Descartes (as opposed to a cell or a gazelle). When we think of Isaac Newton we are dealing with a finite mortal mind that for-itself acted in relation to an infinite image of an absolutized spacetime geometry. In this sense the image produced by Newton was an image for itself that oriented his discursive mediation of the infinite and immortal absolute. Or for Descartes we are dealing with a finite mortal mind that for itself produced the image of the res cogitans (mental substance), the infinite immortal substance of the mind as the absolute around which we can all be certain that we are transcendental thought. This is precisely the evidence we need to assert that self-consciousness is marked, from the inside, by a failure to become fully itself, to fully become infinite and immortal. In that way, limitation takes on a totally other function for self-consciousness vis-a-vis biology proper (3):
“While an animal is simply/immediately limited, namely while its limit is external to it and thus invisible from within its constrained horizon (if an animal were to speak, it would not be able to say, “I am limited to my small, poor world, unaware of what I am missing”), a man’s limitation is a self-limitation in the precise sense that it cuts into his very identity from within, frustrating it, ‘finitizing’ it — and this prevents man not only from ‘becoming the world’, but from becoming himself. […] The object/obstacle cuts into the I’s identity itself, rendering it finite/frustrated.”
“In Fichte, the synthesis of the finite and the infinite is given in the infinite effort of the finite subject, and the absolute I itself is a hypo-thesis of the ‘thetic’ practical-finite subject.”
Can we not here see precisely the essential distinction between the Hegelian infinity and the bad infinity often conceptualized by the subject of science. The subject of science conceives of it self as the being of knowledge in relation to the infinite world around it self. However, the subject of science cannot understand that the infinite world around it self is a presupposition of it self and thus produced from within by a division internal to the subject. Thus the infinity all around it must not exclude the finite I that is incessantly working in relation to this non-I. Without including the subject as the entity that divides and cuts into the substantial reality we are not able to conceive the absolute (infinite, immortality) as substance and subject.
This brings us to psychoanalysis proper. The Fichtean non-I not only lifts us out of the biological limitation into the realm of self-consciousness and its limitations but also into various levels of presuppositions of what self-consciousness would refer to as the Other of itself through reflective psychoanalysis.
Here let us consider the nature of the self-positing I. Since modern thought has deprived this self-positing I of God we are left with a vacuum. Do we simply fill this vacuum with naturalism? This would create a situation where the absolute ground for the self-positing I is the physical world or the external environment. However, this does not allow us to properly integrate the properly pragmatic philosophy that Fichte introduces in his distinction between the Kantian transcendental subject framing all world knowledge and the pragmatic engagement of a particular life world that is stimulated by a primordial obstacle or hindrance from within. In this sense the subject or the loop of self-positing cannot be forever correlated with the physical world since the physical world emerges as a non-I retroactively due to a problem internal to the rotary motion of a symbolic chain.
The same logic applies to the intersubjective environment. In other words the self-positing of the I cannot forever ground as its other another I. This is because there exist other I’s for precisely the same reason that there exists an I, namely, that the I is thwarted from within, thwarted from being fully one. In that sense we have to move further backwards into the extimate Other within, the environment that first emerges internal to the loop of self-positing as a formless irreducible alien other within. To state it again, this formless irreducible alien other within is not the external environment of the physical world, nor is it the intersubjective environment constitutes by other I’s, but some internal virtual Other that is the precondition for any loop of self-positing capable of grounding a non-I as the external world or the subjective other.
Here we may consider a passage by Fichte himself on the status of the non-I that cannot possibly be grounded in either nature or an other subjectivity, but something irreducibly within internal representations (5):
“If I am to represent anything at all, I must oppose it to that which represents [the representing self]. Now within the object of representing there can and must be an X of some sort, whereby this object discloses itself as something to be represented, and not as that which represents. But that everything wherein this X may be is not that which represents but something to be represented, is something that no object can teach me; for merely to be able to posit something as an object, I have to know this already; hence it must lie initially in myself, that which represents, prior to any possible experience. And this is an observation so striking that anyone who fails to grasp it and is not thereby uplifted into transcendental idealism, must unquestionably be suffering from mental blindness.”
Now moving from this we can furthermore apply a crucial logic that appears throughout Less Than Nothing: the logical distinctions between the Other as “not human” “human” and “inhuman”. Of course, we all know, that in physical naturalism we have an “otherness” (of physics, chemistry, biology, and so on) that is “not human”. This is simple and straight forward in the sense that nobody actually thinks that physics, chemistry, and biology are the way they are because of humans. They simply appear there on our horizon. They are what the subject of science correlates itself with in order to understand nature.
However, the Other, as we have already covered, cannot be simply reduced to what is “not human”. There is also the otherness that “is human”. Indeed, the entire sphere of intersubjectivity is what we denote, not as nature, but as the “social” or the “cultural” or the “sociocultural”. The “sociocultural” is mediated by the realm of self-consciousness, as its irreducible subjective otherness. Here we have the common sense distinctions between science and humanities, or physics and experience, or object and subject, or matter and mind, or nature and culture, observed and observer, or any other distinctions you may want to apply.
However, again, there is an even deeper level of the Other. This deeper level is not what is “not human” and is not “human”, but rather what “is inhuman”. The “is inhuman” is the irreducible otherness within of the subject that primordially constitutes the subject before the subject engages with another subject or the world. This “is inhuman” is the space to the dream world, for example, the space of psychoanalytic investigations. When we fall into the dream we are presented with dynamical virtual scenes, and where do these virtual scenes get their constitutions? From self-consciousness? No, they are (properly and precisely) “unconscious”. They are a knowledge, they are an order, that is radically other to self-consciousness, that self-consciousness has little-to-no awareness of. This “is inhuman” is precisely a knowledge that does not know itself within self-consciousness.
Now we can push deeper with the history of philosophy. How has philosophy come to discover and describe this irreducible otherness or non-I? We can here articulate the logical developments that occur between Kant, Hegel, and Lacan. When we think of Kant’s noumena we are thinking of a non-I as a positive objectivity that exists outside of the I, or outside of self-consciousness. This is a non-I that is perfectly comfortable for the scientific form of subjectivity concerned with the physical world. However, here a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the development of Kantian ontology proves to allow us to admit that Kant himself did accept reflections on the possibility that the noumena, although outside of us, outside of our sphere of knowledge, did also appear for us. In other words, quoting Kant, “we cannot know these objects as things in themselves [i.e. the noumena, but], we must yet be in the position at least to think them as things in themselves.” (6) Now, what are we to make of this extreme Kantian statement? What Kant is saying is that scientific subjectivity or naturalist subjectivity, although unable to get at nature in itself is nonetheless still attempting to think nature as an in itself.
Here we move to Hegel, quote: the “veil of appearances is only what the subject puts there” (7). In other words, Hegel is not willing to accept Kant’s noumena as a positively existing thing-in-itself, but rather a paradoxical projection from Kant, something that is only there as a presupposition of the limited and mortal Kantian being; as the infinite non-I within that ignores practical or pragmatic ethical positing. What this introduces is not a noumenal positivity but a noumenal negativity or a something which is not nothing but less than nothing.
In Lacanian terms we have here a nothing that becomes positivized. Consider Kant reflectively. There is a nothing beyond the appearances. But nonetheless, Kant insists on noumena. This a void, something missing from our human reality of appearances, the appearances cannot just stand on their own, and Kant grounds them in the logical notion. For Lacan, this is the square root of -1, this is the absent unity which enables the self-positing subject to spin itself into existence against a background of its own positing, or choosing. Here we can even dare to put Lacan into conversation with Kant directly, who can be found to say that the abstract logical entity (like his noumena) is an entity to a “square root of a negative number” (8). How deep can the future of philosophy push this understanding? What are the connections here between philosophy and psychology? Between philosophy and mathematics? Between philosophy and physics? This is a frontier, this is a territory in need of exploration.
In some sense, for Žižek, the whole of philosophy can be framed as turning around this identification (9):
“One should risk the hypothesis that this is what changes with the Kantian revolution: in the pre-Kantian universe, humans were simply humans, beings of reason, fighting the excess of animal lust and divine madness; only with Kant and German Idealism does the excess to be fought become absolutely immanent, located at the very core of subjectivity itself.”
Thus, when we are thinking the frontier of phenomenal historical mind we are thinking this paradoxical frontier where the Other is not Nature, where the Other is not another Subject, but where the Other is an Extimate within. Here the Other is not “not human”; where the Other is not “another human”; but where the Other is “inhuman”; an “extimate inhumanity” that trans-subjectively structures the realm of human becoming, objectively. There is no going back, this is how we must think the thing-in-itself; this is the monstrosity that exists after Kant, after Kant helped us to think a philosophy worthy of the post-Newtonian universe.
Thus, we can situate more clearly the distinction and connection between Kant and Fichte. Whereas Kant recedes from this a priori conceptual revolution, positing the noumenal realm beyond the frame; Fichte accepts fully the consequences of the break and inquires as to the local pragmatic self-positing of the Thing itself. This means that the Thing is not some independent objectivity, independent of our sphere of human knowledge, but rather the Thing is radically localized in the abstractions of self-positing beings practically engaged in the world (not stuck in the static theoretical abstractions of the pre-Kantian philosopher). As Žižek, states, with Fichte’s practical philosophy the Thing “becomes for the first time a part of epistemology” (10) and not just a mysterious ontological given independent of us and our historical knowledge.
This means that the Thing gets the first hint of its future psychoanalytic instantiation: namely, that it becomes a “sensuous auto-affection” (11). In other words, according to Fichte, if we are to get rid of the Thing as a haunting externality this can never be done independently of including the feelings and emotions of the historical action of subjectivity that give rise to such a Thing (like a noumena or a God) in the first place. Thus, where do we get the union, the singularity, of the subject and the object in a synthesis? According to Fichte, we get this in the sensuous auto-affection of the subject. Do we not see here the clear passage, the clear necessity, also mentioned in the first lecture, between the transition from Kant to Fichte, and the transition that opens up the door for a psychoanalysis proper? It is in sensuous auto-affection that the subject is capable to know itself, to measure itself, against its own immanent transcendental standards, by nothing outside of itself, but through its inhuman within (12):
“If this is feasible, then there is no longer the need to posit, behind the transcendental I’s spontaneity, the unknowable “noumenal X” that the subject “really is”: if there is genuine self-affection, then the I is also able to fully know itself, that is, we no longer have to refer to a noumenal “I or he or it, the Thing that thinks,” as Kant does in The Critique of Pure Reason.”
Do we see what Fichte is doing? It is subtle, but if one catches it, we see that what Kant proposes as the Thing (the noumena) as an objective container of all subjectivity producing the antinomies of reason, is in fact, nothing but the inhuman Other of Kant’s sensuous auto-affective activity in history. This distinction is so crucial that we would be careful to internalize this as deeply as we can when we reflect on our own real, on our reality, on our own irreducible otherness, whatever that otherness may be (13):
“The Fichtean subject is precisely the paradoxical conjunction of these two features, finitude and freedom, since the subject’s infinity (the infinite striving of its ethical engagement) is itself an aspect of its finite condition.”
How else could it be? We have a Thing radically at play in history. Indeed, it is not every subjectivity that correlates itself with Nature, as in a reaction to the Newtonian Thing. Kant was a reaction to the Newtonian Thing, and nothing more, in his historical constitution. But what about the Thing in-itself? What about the reality of historical constitution? For this we need to understand that all humans pragmatically engage with the Thing in their own way, whether that be as a marriage or as a state or as a science or as a religion or as a art or all of the above. The Thing is nothing but the finite subject’s infinite striving, the Thing is what marks the subject as a finite being, the Thing is the inhuman Other that is primordial in the constitution of the subject.
From this analysis we can break down the nature of the Thing from the Fichtean perspective. Here we see another foreshadowing of the psychoanalytic Thing in the sense that we can introduce here dynamical asymmetrical poles of masculinity and femininity. Let us first note that we can articulate these distinctions around the self as an obstacle to itself, as divided and thwarted from within by its own symbolic motion in the world; and the Thing or the negative One, as the impossible image that constitutes the identity from within.
Following from our knowledge of psychoanalysis we may say that in the pragmatic sexuation of the historical phenomenal human species the self-obstacle first emerges (as Freud knew well) on the side of the masculine pole; as constituted in relation to the absent unity, to the primordial substantial whole, which is of course the feminine pole, the Mother. This is the beginning of our understanding of Oedipal subjectivity.
This indeed gets articulated in traditional metaphysics with the principles of the “active” and the “passive”. What must change in this Fichtean turn, which is not a traditional metaphysics but a metaphysics that can withstand the brutal criticality of Kantian philosophy; is this irreducible entanglement of the active and the passive. Of course, the “I” or self/obstacle can be active or passive; and in correlation; the “non-I” or Thing can be active or passive. However, crucially, the determination or the overdetermination of whether the “I” as self/obstacle is active or passive or whether the “non-I” as Thing is active or passive, is asymmetrically determined in history by the “I” as self/obstacle (as discussed in the last lecture). It will take a deeper dive into the Hegelian thing-in-itself to move further than these distinctions.
Furthermore, as also discussed in the previous lecture, we can place Fichte and Lacan into a homology; with Fichte placing the anstoss (hindrance) on the level of the self-obstacle, and the Absolute Ideal (for Fichte, Absolute Being) on the level of the Thing; whereas, for Lacan, we have on the level of the self-obstacle, the objet petit a, the impossible image as partial object guaranteeing the absolute unity of the opposites, and the Other as the Thing, the inhuman within that is the true trans-subjective correlative of subjectivity. How do these structures of the Thing function in sexuated history? (14):
“The Fichtean notion of the activity of the non-I as strictly correlative of the I’s passivity brings us directly to Otto Weininger’s notion of woman as the embodiment of man’s fall: woman exists (as a thing out there, acting upon man, disturbing his ethical stance, throwing him off the rails) only insofar as man adopts the stance of passivity; she is literally the result of man’s withdrawal into passivity, so there is no need for man to actively fight woman — his adoption of an active stance automatically pulls the ground out from under woman’s existence, since her entire being is nothing but man’s non-being.”
This leads us into politically incorrect territory to say the least. When we move from a scientifically acceptable Kantian metaphysics to a psychoanalytically acceptable Fichtean metaphysics, we may lose a naive naturalism, and we may gain a mature understanding of historical sexuation. Any naturalism is a sublimated Woman, naturally. The Id and its energies must become transferred somewhere. But here we see an open door, an open door to a Thing-in-itself that is something that we can only wait to approach when we fully dive into a future chapter on the ontology of sexual difference. Here I will say, simply, that in our contemporary ideological discourse structured by the idea of gender as a social construction; what this misses, is in fact the Fichtean notion that the Thing is actually also epistemological; that the Absolute is substance but also subject. In that sense, Thing itself is metaphysically sexuated; but in a radically asymmetrical formula.
This brings us to the Fichtean version of the drive. In Kant we have a noumena that forever eludes subjectivity, hanging forever out of reach as an absolute desire to be in the future. Imagine a subjectivity that is actually capable of understanding, of holding in its infinite understanding, the whole of noumenal reality. This is for Kant strictly and formally impossible, and yet the condition for our knowledge, the condition for our drive, the condition for our ethical commitment to reality, as opposed to religious pre-critical substantial unity of God. One can see why Fichte would be unsettled by such a metaphysics, unable to give Kant the distinction of a noumenal outside that is independent of the transcendental I. For Fichte, it is the transcendental I that is not only destined for Absolute Being, but that is, via the I qua I-form, the necessary constituents of Absolute Being.
Here Fichte’s drive is more radically abyssal than Kant’s. For Fichte we do not have noumena, but nothing but the infinite indeterminateness of a striving to become a perfect self-object. For Fichte, a perfect self-object in the mode of the drive would not need any noumenal outside, because the noumenal outside is always already the positing of the I qua I-form. In this way the totality of infinite strivings, the totality of the infinite drive, is the transformation of historically constituted subjective appearances into the Absolute Being. We see here how the external outside vanishes, and the forms of subjectivity start to turn radically inwards, radically into the realm of their own drive and its objective products. In the words of Fichte (15):
“What begins as indeterminate striving becomes determinate, once it is an object of thought. We may well wonder what this object is which simultaneously has the nature of striving.”
In psychoanalytic terms, the field of this energy, is nothing but the libido, the libidinal force that circulates around its perfect object, that seeks absolute unity, that seeks to reconcile all objects in a totalizing synthesis. Here we get closer to the nature of subjectivity, we get closer to the object of psychoanalysis, which becomes nothing but the drive, nothing but the drive of subjectivity, not as an Absolute Being in Fichtean terms but as a paradoxical infinite immortality.
Here from Žižek on the Lacanian insights into the Freudian libidinal field (16):
“Fichte’s conception of drive, striving is posited as such (i.e. in its limitation-determination), [but] the drive for Freud is always irreducibly linked to a partial object. Lacan really did not know what to do with this drive before Seminar XI; prior to this date he reduced drive or “libido” to the scientific objectification of the authentic intersubjective reality of desire. Only with Seminar XI was Lacan able to think the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object.”
Thus, when we are thinking about the objet a, the object-cause of desire as a drive, we are not thinking about Fichtean subject or the absolute being as its infinite immortal correlate, but as the synthesis of such notions as nothing but the formal curvature that forms the drive around a primordial void. This is something that will be essential to remember when we discuss the Hegelian absolute as substance but also subject.
This brings us back around in a circle. We started Part 1 of this lecture on Fichte’s Choice with the issue of the nature of the Absolute after Kantian metaphysics. In this post-Kantian world we can no longer correlate the self or the I with an absolute substantial unity existing from all time, or God. Thus we must ask ourselves (17):
“How can one conceive the Ground of the Self without betraying the basic insight into the I’s self-positing?”
(What we covered with Fichte’s structures of self-positing and obstacle to full identity). In other words, we cannot approach self-consciousness externally, we cannot objectify it in a religious or a scientific procedure, we must accept that self-consciousness includes within it the irreducible dimension of positing and the presuppositions that is in-itself. Here a quote from Dieter Henrich whose book on Kant and Hegel is cited extensively by Žižek throughout this chapter (18):
“The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and doe snot know what he wants.”
Thus, for Fichte, this ground was to be reconciled with the I qua I-form which, in its historical constitution in the realm of subjective appearances, existed in a fall from and a return to Absolute Being, where the I qua I-form played the essential link or constitution of the Absolute Being. Here we must assume that Fichte conceived the obstacle or non-I as something objectively in the way of the I qua I-Form, something that eventually would be removed and constituted by the I as Absolute Being. Did Fichte know what he wanted? Did he really want Absolute Being? Or was he missing something crucial? This is the question that must be involved in any future meditation on the connections between Fichte and Hegel.
Here we can already guess where Hegel stands. For Hegel, there is nothing but the process of infinite self-relation; of the self’s fall and return to nothing but itself. There is no Absolute Being, no God, that would ground the self absolutely. The self is abyssal in its correlation. What the self posits as its correlate is always already a correlate of a presupposition that comes from the self. For Hegel, this is irreducible (19):
“The only solution is for self-consciousness (the I) to be incorporated into this ground rather than only being an effect of it”.
In that sense God is nothing but spiritual life, nothing but the self-relation of spirit to itself in history.
We can say that Fichte may have been missing some conceptual tools that later emerge in psychoanalysis. In trying to take a step forward he ended up taking a step back. What Kant tore down Fichte put right back up in a convoluted circular historical return. What was the concept that Fichte was missing? Here Žižek posits that it was related to the strange virtual less than nothing of the Other. The Other is not the natural world, the Other is not the subjective other, but rather the Other that is the “ground” of self-consciousness that exists only by the work of “all and everyone”. This is not the Kantian noumenal realm, but the Kantian noumenal realm upheld socially by Kantian philosophers. This is not the religious God, but the religious God upheld socially by Christians and Islamists and so forth. This is the domain that Lacan came to nominate as the big Other. In that sense Fichte can be saved, not by adding something that he missed, but by subtracting something that he did not need to posit. The subjective idealist can be reclaimed by once again affirming the subjectivity of the Absolute itself.
The future of a Fichtean philosophy, for us, then involves two moves, according to Žižek. Žižek posits that what Fichte could not think, and thus, what we must think, is first and foremost the fact that there is a deep necessity in the inexistence of Absolute Being. If, in fact, the Absolute is radically abyssal, where we can only conceive the Absolute as a Ground of the Self’s ownmost freedom, then there is a radical openness, not just in our knowledge constructs, but in being itself. Being is not a full unity, but organized around a void. The second thing we must think is that this freedom in being, this hole, is filled with subjects, and irreducibly so. How does an Absolute ground populated with other selves, with a multiplicity of selves, recursively constitute itself. Žižek is confident here that Fichte’s horizon cannot answer these problematics, that when we assume Absolute Being, we leave no real space for the necessity of freedom and the multiplicity of selves.
Thus, let us reflect on last time on Fichte’s Absolute. In Fichte’s structure we have the start with a full substantial God. We have the fall from this full substantial God into the spiritual self-relation in the I-qua-I-form, and we have the return to this full substantial God in the Absolute Being. This dynamically puts the Absolute into a circular motion.
However, with Hegel, we subtract, we do not add. We take the Absolute Being away and in its place we put freedom. What is to come of this universalized freedom? When we think universalized freedom we cannot just think a traditional vision of nature. But instead can we think what will nature be for freedom? Will it be even recognizable once freedom has its say? In this sense the work of spirit is radically incomplete, and radically open… (20):
“The Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only a permanently “posited” by subjects. [For Hegel] “the extreme to which spirit tends is its freedom, its infinity, its being in and for itself. These are the two aspects; but if we ask what Spirit is, the immediate answer is that it is this motion, this process of proceeding from, of freeing itself from, nature; this is the being, the substance of spirit itself.”
We now reach the end of Part 1 of the Drink Before. Are you ready for the Thing in itself? Next week we will be diving into the Thing in itself with an episode on the possibility of being Hegelian in the 21st century. What would it mean to be a Hegelian in the 21st century? What can Hegel, the philosophy of history, offer subjectivity in a world that has changed so much since the introduction of his speculative philosophy? What can Hegel say after the Cold War? After technological globalization? After the rise of scientific materialism? After the death of God? We will seek to answer these questions, or at least start to play with them, next week. Hope to see you there!
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Fichte’s Choice. p. 157-158.
(2) ibid. p. 158.
(3) ibid. p. 158-159.
(4) ibid. p. 164.
(5) ibid. p. 165-166.
(6) ibid. p. 168.
(9) ibid. p. 166.
(10) ibid. p. 171.
(11) ibid. p. 168.
(12) ibid. p. 169.
(14) ibid. p. 169-170.
(15) ibid. p. 178-179.
(16) ibid. 179.
(17) ibid. 182.
(18) ibid. 181.
(19) ibid. 182.