Chapter 4 – Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? (Part 1)

Let’s find out!

YouTube video here: Chapter 4 – Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? (Part 1)

Welcome to Lecture 6 of Less Than Nothing. In this episode we will be diving head first into the Hegelian thing-in-itself: “Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?” As in the last chapter, where we separate “Fichte’s Choice” between Parts 1 and 2, we will be dividing this chapter into Part 1 and 2 as well, in order to make sure that we can start with a clear understanding of where Hegel stands in relation to contemporary philosophy. In the first lecture there will be more of a focus on Hegel’s relation to Marx; and in the second lecture there will be more of a focus on Hegel’s relation to Deleuze.

Thus, we officially start with Part 2 where we have gotten through the first phone call and we have had our first drinks. The road is now going to get much more intense; the quality of the depths we are entering are going to be a transition towards a new level. In order to appreciate this intensity, this quality, this depth, we needed to go over core concepts; we needed to understand Plato for today, we needed to understand Christianity for today, and we needed to understand how we could get to a Thing, a fundamental core of reality, that was radically subjective, radically historical, radically dependent on existence and drive.

I think that the first lectures, in that case, are a good preparation for the next dive, the next drive. In this next dive we are going to be asking the core question that will set us up for the rest of Part 2: Is It Still Possible to Be Hegelian Today? The question is an essential philosophical one. One may assume, especially philosophers today, that Hegel is old news. One may assume, especially philosophers today, that Hegel can be ignored; that there is nothing much left in the old idealist metaphysician who too much focuses on the human world of knowledge and an archaic understanding of a relation to the Absolute, where we are conceived as teleologically progressing towards a totalizing grasp of all being. How can we make progress by returning to these notions? Should we not, as Deleuze suggested, just pretend Hegel never existed?

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pre and post-Hegelian philosophy

The first thing to note here is that there are certain points of impossibility in phenomenological historicity; certain points of impossibility that represent irreversible historical events where one cannot simply pretend that a certain thinker or a certain movement did not exist. One cannot simply pretend as if Plato and Aristotle did not construct the foundation for our Western culture; one cannot simply pretend that Spinoza and Descartes did not open the possibilities of modern spirituality and science; one cannot simply pretend that idealist philosophy did not forever challenge our notion of the separation between subject and object. In this same way, for Hegelian philosophers, one cannot simply pretend that the post and post-post Hegelian philosophers did not happen. They too need to be worked through, as formulating knowledge within the cracks and antagonisms and gaps of the post-Hegelian philosophical edifice. However, in the reverse sense, post and post-post-Hegelian philosophers cannot pretend that their work is not directly reactionary; they cannot pretend that their work is not an attempt to negate Hegel, or in some senses, to pretend that Hegel did not exist, to pretend that we are not living in a Hegelian shadow that casts or manifests itself as a spectral remainder of the Absolute.

In that sense, when we are asking the question if one can still be Hegelian today we are not operating in the naive atmosphere of a contemporary thought that pretends that one can simply work through philosophy as if Hegel never happened. What happens when we do this? What happens is not that Hegel disappears, but rather Hegel becomes a hole; and a hole in the precise sense of quantum cosmological black holes.  Here philosophical matter ends up unconsciously circulating around its negative point of reference, the point of reference where spacetime itself breaks down; the endless circulation around the irreducible and indestructible point of negativity that continues to haunt us in the 21st century. Thus, when we read of a Marxist straw man of the Hegelian Absolute State, or a Kierkegaardian straw man of Hegel’s conceptual sublation as an idealization unable to hold repetition; or a Deleuzian straw man of the Hegelian identity as forbidding the possibility of thinking pure difference or otherness; we are dealing with violent simplifications which obfuscate the true dimension of the Hegelian break, the true dimension that requires us to once again work through Hegel.

In this episode, we are mostly going to be centering our question of contemporary Hegelianism within the context of Hegel’s relation to Marx. Our contemporary philosophical universe has little problem repeating Marx. Marxist discourse and communist discourse is in many academic universes the dominant discourse. Here we think that Marx was the truth of Hegel, Marx was the one who made Hegel truly revolutionary, as opposed to Hegel’s Statist reductions which strip the proletariat of their true role in the historical process. But is this really the case? Is it that when we move from Hegel to Marx we get the truth of history? Or is it that Marx (as a reactionary economic activist) misses the philosophical essence of Hegelian negativity?

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A Tale of Two Hegel’s

So let us first approach the difference that will be repeatedly analyzed throughout our meditation on the Hegelian thing-in-itself: the status of the Hegelian straw-man versus the status of the Hegelian iron-man. The Hegelian straw-man, we probably all know from common culture, is presented to us as the caricature of a figure who is an “absolute idealist”. We get a caricature of a figure who thinks that he “possesses the absolute knowledge”; that he understands the “transcendental structure of totality”.

In contrast to this figure we will be deploying a different Hegelian figure; a figure that we may find to be much more robust to post-Hegelian philosophy and also much more useful for our contemporary philosophical situation in the 21st century. This is a Hegel whose closure of absolute knowledge does not correlate to a total understanding of the transcendental structure of being, but rather a closure forbidding metalanguage that opens us up onto the pure speculative dialectical horizon of historical becoming. Thus, Hegel is not the caricature who “knows everything” but the caricature who dares us to think the impossible, to think how there is such an emergence of a subject who intervenes into history; whose speculative conjectures or interpretations retroactively transform being itself; to think how the idea or spirit has externalized itself only to return to itself. Here then absolute knowledge is precisely the opposite of what we tend to assume; absolute knowledge is the knowledge of speculative ideality, that everything hangs on our ability as limited agents, as agents who does not know the transcendental structure, to nonetheless participate in this absolute structure of becoming.  To quote Žižek (1):

“The hole left by this absence of Hegel is then […] filled in with the ridiculous caricature of Hegel the “absolute idealist” who “possessed Absolute Knowledge”. The re-assertion of Hegel’s speculative thought is thus not what it may appear to be — a denial of the post-Hegelian break — but rather a bringing-forth of that very dimension whose denial sustains the post-Hegelian break itself.”

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The (Im)perfect Circle

In that sense the Hegelian One is not closed but always-already returning to itself due to a break or gap or rupture or difference internal to itself. For Hegel the Absolute is nothing but what appears in this break or gap or rupture. Here, can we not situate post-Hegelian philosophy itself within this very break or gap or rupture? The very desire to break away from Hegel, to negate Hegel, is a paradoxical confirmation of Hegel’s dialectical ideational system; that philosophy itself is doomed, in its immediate repetitions of absolute knowledge, to repeat Hegel over and over. For Hegel the status of the absolute is present everytime we step foot within the symbolic order; everytime we enunciate; everytime we affirm our symbolic identity we are stepping away from our particular sensual life worlds and into the mediation of the absolute’s becoming.

If that is really the case is it even possible to go “beyond Hegel” as the post-Hegelian break assumes? Throughout Part 2 of this series we will see if it is possible to approach that horizon by working through not only Marx but also Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Heidegger, and psychoanalysis. What would a truly “beyond Hegelian” philosophy look like? What would a true negation of Hegel look like?

black holes
Absolute Negativity

In this quest let us start from the beginning. Hegel’s philosophical edifice rests on the dimension of absolute negativity. In a complete homology with Christianity, Hegel asserts that every form of consciousness can find its truth, not in an immortal and indefinite continuation of its presence in the world, but in its immanent annihilation, in its immanent destruction. There is no such thing as a Hegelian totality that is perfect, there is no such thing as a Hegelian totality that is capable of permanently closing itself and existing as a harmonious One forever. The Hegelian totality is one of absolute negativity, of tension, of antagonism. Or quoting Žižek (2):

“Hegel’s dialectical methods […] demonstrates how every fixed determinate shape finds its truth in its annihilation.”

This brings us a far way from pre-Kantian substantial Oneness, forcing us to confront its obverse, the black hole at the heart of human being.

Thus, in contrast to Christianity, Hegel does not assert that there exists an “Other” side; a world of full substantial totality where God awaits us; like the light at the end of the tunnel. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, only the absolute pressure of negativity. Or as Žižek has stated many times in public lectures: the light at the end of the tunnel is another train speeding towards us to annihilate our being. In that sense the historical manifestation of self-conscious beings who demand an “Other” side is nothing but the manifestation of a limited finite reality itself attempting to overcome itself. As we covered in the lecture on Fichte, the Other side, of an Absolute Being that would guarantee consciousness in eternity, is confusing Being with the Image. There are thus not two spheres: of our secular terrestrial world; and a transcendental spiritual world — there is only our secular terrestrial world; and its suprasensible imagistic becoming against a background of absolute negativity due to fundamental inclusion of subjectivity and its irreducible and inevitable relation to death. This is the Hegelian horizon of speculative historical dialectics. This horizon is a closure onto an opening of pure speculative thought, where no metalanguage, either naturalist or transcendentalist, allows us to escape our human loop of self-positing.

In some sense we have first received the bad news (sorry for not asking what you wanted first…). But what about the good news? The good news is, for Hegel, that the subject, in its full recognition that the core of its identity lies with negativity, has the knowledge that will allow it to develop its self-universalization. What does this mean? It means that when a subject spontaneously and intuitively rejects its inclusion in the symbolic order; when it refuses the sacrifices it must make in order to participate in the symbolic order; when it attempts to affirm its sensuous pre-symbolic substance as opposed to cutting into its being with the signifying chain; the subject is here seen as failing to recognize its truth; failing to recognize that the sensuous life world of the pre-symbolic substance is already lost, that the subject is an effect of a signifying chain, that its path towards universality is not to be found in an idealistic retroactive return to a biological naturalistic life world (as what happens in Rousseau); but to give itself to the absence, the gap, the crack, in the symbolic edifice; to fill the black hole which is its own truth. In that sense one should not fill in this hole with an image of the Other side where everything will be fine and everything will be reconciled. What Hegel would say is that one should renounce all images of the Other side and enjoy the cracks, the antagonisms, the fight and the struggle that is necessary for the becoming of the Absolute. Or, from our Lecture on Christianity: “Where There Is Nothing, Read that I Love You”. What happens when one does this, as Žižek makes clear, is a subtle parallax shift, that we renounce our pathological particularity, we stop clinging to our finite particularity, and, through the work of absolute negativity, we purify our self to the level of universality.

In the most extreme version of this purification to the level of the universal, one finds oneself working through a battle that is inherent to the becoming of the symbolic order: this is a battle between Master and Slave or Master and Servant. This is the battle that constitutes the dialectical machinery of the Hegelian totality. Of course, in order to become in this world we must in some sense become dialectically in relation to the Other. There is always an Other: a Mother, a Father, a Teacher, a Guide, a Boss. Such figures of authority represent limits, they represent obstacles in the way of our true desire to be the unlimited Master of our self-conscious domain. But we find this desire thwarted, that our substantive work, the work of our subjective spirit, must be mediated in a realm of other subjective spirits where all is not structured by truly free spirits; but social deadlocks. In this fight Hegel’s assertion of absolute negativity is (paradoxically) the subject’s best friend. Hegel claims that the working through of the Master-Slave relation with absolute negativity brings the subject to confront and overcome any subordination to a human Master, that through this work the subject comes to find that its true Master, its only Master, is an inhuman abyss. The human’s true Master can only be Death itself. Or to quote Žižek (3):

“the subject should recognize in the external Terror, in this negativity which constantly threatens to annihilate him, the very core of his (universal) subjectivity; in other words, he should fully identity with it. Freedom is thus not freedom from a Master, but the replacement of one Master with another: the external Master is replaced with an internal one.”

When the subject fully accepts its mortality, its finitude, its particularity; it is then, paradoxically, that the subject can rise to the level of the immortal, to the infinite, to the universal; only in relation to the fact that there is an unspeakable force, an unspeakable power, that is within it, but not it; an inhuman within, the inhumanity of Death (4):

“Hegel is well aware that there is no Other World in which we will be repaid for our terrestrial loses: transcendence is absolutely immanent, what is “beyond” finite reality is nothing but the immanent process of its self-overcoming. Hegel’s name for this absolute immanence of transcendence is “absolute negativity”, as he makes clear in an exemplary way in the dialectics of Master and Servant: the Servant’s secure particular/finite identity is unsettled when, in experiencing the fear of death during his confrontation with the Master, he gets a whiff of the infinite power of negativity.”

Here a sublime passage from Hegel himself; a passage so important that Žižek can be found to quote it a few times throughout Less Than Nothing (5):

“For this consciousness was not in peril and fear for this element or that, nor for this or that moment of time, it was afraid for its entire being: it felt the fear of death, the sovereign master. It has been in that experience melted to its inmost soul, has trembled throughout its every fibre, and all that was fixed and steadfast has quaked within it. This complete perturbation of its entire substance, this absolute dissolution of all its stability into fluent continuity, is, however, the simple, ultimate nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure self-relating existence, which consequently is involved in this type of consciousness.”

What we get in this quote is an absolutely breath taking description of what one spirit may feel on confrontation with its own death; or on serious reflection with the abyssal nature of death itself. One here encounters the real “Other” or the real “Other side”. This “Other side” is not the light of an all-loving and all-knowing God, but an absolute erasure of particular pathological identity. One comes to realize that, all this time you thought you were in control, all this time you thought you were the Master, all this time you had your slice of the World, and you were King of the World, there was an Other as negativity; an Other that let you play for a while, that let you sing for a while, that you let you breathe for a while, but that this was nothing but your finite, particular temporality. The Hegelian edifice is thus built on a confrontation with this undeniable fact, this undeniable fact that we humans, no matter how hard we repress it, we are not in control of ourselves, we are at the mercy of the absolute negativity. What we have come to call Death (6):

“What, then, does the Servant get in exchange for renouncing all the wealth of his particular Self? Nothing — in overcoming his particular terrestrial Self, the Servant does not reach a higher level of a spiritual Self; all he has to do is to shift his position and recognize in (what appears to him as) the overwhelming power of destruction which threatens to obliterate his particular identity the absolute negativity which forms the very core of his own Self. In short, the subject has to fully identify with the force that threatens to wipe him out: what he feared in fearing death was the negative power of his own Self.”

All of this is essential for understanding Hegelian self identity, for understanding Hegelian essence; or the historical phenomenological process of essencing. Hegel’s point regarding identity is, as usual, subtle but crucial: which is that the finitude of the self, and the self’s inconsistency in relation to its desire, is fundamental. In that sense there is no such thing as a self that is independent of the constraints of finitude, there is no such thing as a self that is independent of inconsistent perspectival distortions. In that way we can see that Hegel turns on its head the straw man of an absolute knowledge where the self is fully transparent, where the self fully knows itself and its world and its complete transcendental structure. In contrast, the self is nothing but its finitude and its inconsistency; and thus absolute knowing is precisely this, recognizing that one can only lift oneself to the truth of its notional determination, by accepting existential limitation as existential liberation.

From this perspective one should be quick to note, and one should be reflective enough to meditate on the fact that what the subject projects as its obstacles, what the subject projects as its enemies (like death, for example), are in some sense secondary mediations of the self’s irreducible finitude and inconsistency. What does this mean? It is essential to know, and especially for today. What it means is that the subject can often be heard to structure its discourse in such a way that it imagines “if X obstacle” or “if X enemy” was “out of the way” if it “ceased to be” then I would be free or I would be happy or I would be reconciled with my substance. What the subject fails to recognize is that this is a secondary mediation of a more primary mediation of coming to terms with finitude and inconsistency itself. To quote Žižek (7):

“Hegel’s point here concerns the primacy of “self-contradiction” over the external obstacle (or enemy). We are not finite and self-consistent because our activity is always thwarted by external obstacles; we are thwarted by external obstacles because we are finite and inconsistent.”

In other words, there is no obstacle or enemy that could be removed so that the subject would be reconciled with its true substance or essence. The true substances or essences; the essencing of being; is nothing but its struggle with oppositional determination; with the realm of obstacles and enemies. Now with this in mind one has a precise formula for an ideological subject. An ideological subject is precisely the subject who is not capable of recognizing that its very self-identity hangs on obstacles and enemies, that if one were to remove the obstacle or the enemy in the way, one would simultaneously remove the subject’s identity itself. This is not to say that there are not legitimate obstacles and enemies in our way, there are; but rather a reflective shift, to recognize in one’s own opposite one’s own most intimate substance. Thus, if one is an unreflective anarchist, it could be that one’s own most intimate substance is hierarchal authority; if one is an unreflective Marxist, it could be that one’s own most intimate substance is the power that money can bring; if one is an unreflective Feminist, it could be that one’s own most intimate substance is the masculine gender expression, and so forth. In other words, as Žižek claims, often using anti-Semitic references, one’s external obstacle tends to being a “fetishistic objectivization” (8).

This thought structure brings us to another point which is general, a general tendency in Hegel that refuses any reduction to an idealized harmony, any reduction to a perfect symmetry or Other that would reconcile the Absolute. The Absolute is radically finitized, radically limited, radically inconsistent. In that sense when the subject, quite spontaneously, in the mode of the Beautiful Soul, proposes a totalizing reconciliation, one should be quick to be skeptical and critical of such conjectures. One should instead read in this perfect symmetry the obstacles and enemies that the subject has not yet come to recognize as a part of its own substance, its own essence. Furthermore, it is in this sense that one should read that Hegelian truth is the dissolution of a form of conscious identity, not its full actualization. It is precisely when one can let an obstacle or enemy go; or precisely when one can see that the obstacle or enemy in the way is something that emerges within, that one can achieve a purification to the level of universality. In that sense, could it be that the truth of anarchism would be our coming to terms with hierarchal differences; that the truth of communism would be our coming to terms of the inhuman force of capital; that the truth of feminism would be coming to terms with sexual difference? In what sense would radical egalitarianism in its actuality be a better or even a possible world? Throughout Less Than Nothing we will attempt to approach a new understanding of these dimensions, of hierarchy, capital, and sexuality.

Hegelian Subjectivity: Rose in the Cross of the Present

As mentioned Hegel is a philosopher that carries the wisdom of the Cross; the wisdom of the West; the wisdom of Christianity. We can then see why Hegel believes that a defeat will bring a subject to confront his truth. This is, after all, the central metaphorical symbolism of Christianity. Thus, one does not move from alienation to reconciliation by positing an idealistic absolute substance that would reconcile all opposites and achieve some permanent unity; but rather, one moves from alienation to reconciliation when one comes to see the inherent necessity of antagonisms and contradictions; when one comes to see that the mad dance of the historical play of opposites is fundamental to the historical becoming of the absolute. One does not have historical becoming without oppositional determination; one does not have historical becoming without antagonisms or contradictions; the pages of history in which there is no antagonism or no contradiction are, quite simply, not inscribed into the absolute. These harmonious times are “non-history” within history (not a hole around which everything turns, but, simply, a lack where nothing is).

In order to reflect on this paradox one can think on the famous science fiction novel Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. In this novel humans are externally forced into a classical utopian historical mode by alien observers where all antagonisms and contradictions are reconciled. What one should note is that the precise problem for these people was not excessive freedom, but excessive boredom. What would one do independent of antagonisms and contradictions? What would one do if there were no obstacles? This is the very ground of our essencing. From this perspective Žižek emphasizes that, from the standpoint of the Absolute, the retroactive insight of reconciliation realizes that “there never really was a serious conflict”, how the “two opponents were always on the same side” (9) and necessary for historical being.

However, in the same sense, since we are not supporting a disengaged mode of historical subjectivity, the unconscious dimension of reconciliation is a part of reality itself. This means that the spirit striving for its self-actualization, for its full immediacy in being, and the resistance of empirical reality, physical and social, is a part of reality itself. Consider, for example, transhumanists. Transhumanists are an interesting case of Hegelian subjectivity in the sense that they are waging a battle against Nature and Death itself. As opposed to anarchists, Marxists, or feminists who make demands of hierarchy, capital, and patriarchy to fundamentally change the social substance; transhumanists make demands of Nature itself and existential structure itself; with recourse to the big Other of scientific discursivity. And it is precisely these modes of subjectivity which are a part of reality, intervening into historical essence. Thus, somehow, we must make sense of this excessive striving for freedom which is not just a peripheral epiphenomenal activity, but the very central core of reality.

From this perspective it is not that we should move away from our particular human life worlds to understand the universal structure of being. This is a pre-Kantian move, a pre-critical move, a move that presents us with a fully substantial One independent of a subjective cut. For Hegel, the move to the One is a move that is always already reconstituting and re-reconciling itself in the symbolic order; this is the true dimension of the Absolute, and the true dimension of universality. Thus one cannot (at least not easily) eliminate this dialectical dimension of spirit’s striving for freedom, reality is structured in such a way that the becoming of freedom is a constitutive, or perhaps the constitutive element of reality. To quote Žižek (10):

“This is what is wrong with the notion of us being “imprisoned by the chains of natural determinism: we thereby obfuscate the fact that we are part of reality, that the (possible, local) conflict between our “free” striving and the external reality that resists it is a conflict inherent to reality itself. That is to say, there is nothing “oppressive” or “constraining” about the fact that our innermost strivings are (pre)determined: when we feel thwarted in our freedom by the pressure of external reality, there must be something in us, some desire or striving, which is thus thwarted, but where do such strivings come from if not this same reality? our “free will” does not in some mysterious way “disturb the natural course of things”, it is part and parcel of this course.”

In this relation between freedom and nature, the elementary structure of Hegelian subjectivity is one of “recognizing the Rose in the Cross of the present” (11) in the sense that one should see in one’s problems the elementary level of self-positing the presuppositions which upholds the circular motion of the unconscious drive. One should see that it is the way in which one relates to external problems that constitutes the reality of the subject. In that sense subjectivity, as finite and contradictory, cannot help but recognize that such a state is the very condition for its existence in the first place; and even the very condition for its essencing, where an alienating labour can paradoxically build the very character of the subject who denounces such labour.

However, Hegel does elevate beyond Kant and Fichte in the sense that the horizon of Hegel is not necessarily one simply constituted by the pragmatic ethical struggle with obstacles and enemies. Although Hegel admits the necessity of making this philosophical passage, to a philosophy that can handle the limited and local engagement of subjectivity with its practical ethical life world; one cannot simply stop philosophical analysis at this stage. In Hegelian philosophy we come to think the practical-ethical struggle as remaining within the realm of the spurious infinity, of endlessly approaching the impossible goal which can never be; we end up in a universe of endlessly repeating the motion of positing the obstacles and the enemies, and attempting to overcome them in order to reconstitute a new dimension of limitation.

In contrast, to this view the Hegelian subject is capable of letting things go, of letting things be; not in the sense of total disengagement with external reality but with being capable of recognizing its own pathological involvement in generating obstacles and enemies. When the subject is capable of doing this one becomes directly elevated to the level of symbolic universality; not in the sense of being cleansed of all problems; but in the sense of being cleansed of all particularity; one becomes a direct experiential agent of the absolute; understanding in the flow of becoming one’s own necessary essence. Thus, it becomes much easier for an anarchist, a Marxist, or a feminist, to see the ways in which they, as self-contradictory and limited subjects, in no way possess the solutions for symbolic universality, that they are as radically de-centered vis-a-vis the symbolic order as their oppositional determination.

Let us go further with what a subject must do to elevate itself to the level of symbolic universality, since it is an important message for today. Consider achieving any important task within the symbolic order, like for example producing a PhD, or running for political office, or testing a complex scientific hypothesis, or introducing a new social system organization. One cannot achieve these feats of human self-consciousness if one is infinite and immortal, one must be finite and mortal, one must be limited and contradictory. One must be immersed in its contingent local historical situation as an engaged subjectivity. However, one can still recognize the “rose in the cross of the present” and notice that it is not just an endless series of practical-ethical obstacles that one must overcome, like doing the necessary research to complete the PhD, or making the necessary populist connections to win an election, or verify a particular set of conjectures experimentally; but instead one is capable of recognizing that in moving with these sets of challenges, of letting the flow of one’s own set of presuppositions to actualize themselves, to actualize and exhaust their potentiality, that one is a part of the universal order of the symbolic. Indeed, without this action, there would be no absolute at all. In short, one is capable of being in the moment, but not the sense of an eastern Buddhist being in the moment, of constantly in meditative reflection, of constantly calling oneself to recognize that it is always Now (perhaps, by ringing a bell); but instead the much more radical losing oneself in the symbolic so radically that everything is always Now independent of this reflective recognition of it. Everything is always Now because one is in the truth of one’s notion, one has been elevated to the highest process of being.

In this precise sense the Hegelian subject is not disengaged or detached from external reality but has already recognized that the obstacles and enemies in the way of the external goal miss the true point of historical subjectivity. The true point of historical subjectivity, indeed, the subject constituted by the eternal idea or notion, is to enjoy the very rotary motion around the goal, as opposed to directly attempting to achieve the goal itself. This is a central theme that Žižek will continue to emphasize, that will be crucial to work towards the deepest interpretation of Hegel possible. Thus, one should not detach from external reality, but instead detach from the idea that would close in on itself, that would complete itself in eternity. One here must engage in a parallax shift in regards to eternity. When one is in a mode of completing and closing the infinite goal, one can no longer see the rose in the cross; one can no longer see the beauty of the moment; and one’s reality becomes coloured only by things in this way, the things that would prevent one a full self identity. Or as Žižek remarks regarding Hegel throughout Less Than Nothing, true evil is found in the perception that sees evil everywhere.

In this precise sense, the mature Hegelian subject recognizes that the absolute goal is already realized. The victory is already here. The game is already won. Or to quote Žižek (12):

“Reconciliation is […] simultaneously both less and more than the standard idea of overcoming an antagonism: less, because nothing “really changes”; more, because the subject of the process is deprived of its very (particular) substance.”

This is very important and subtly different then eastern spirituality or deconstructionist philosophy would lead us to believe. In eastern spirituality or deconstructionist philosophy one would say that the goal of the notion is an illusion, that desire of a notion is a false lure, and that one should either become reclusively internal in a pre-symbolic mental state, or debilitatingly and annoyingly hyper critical of all constructive symbolism. In contrast to either mode, Hegel would emphasize that such modes come to predominate when one is unaware of how to elevate one’s subjectivity to the universality of the symbolic order; when one is unable to recognize the necessity of constructive symbolic motion; when one is too fearful to confront being ripped from one’s immediate sensual life world; and to move in relation to a truth that sublates all particularity in a repetition in and for itself. From Žižek’s perspective this is misunderstanding the core message of the phallic metaphor in regards to “true meaning”. The phallus can inseminate, the phallus can also urinate. For eastern spirituality or postmodern deconstruction, the phallus is only an instrument of urination, but only because they do not know how to use the phallus properly for insemination; that one cannot be direct, one must be indirect to inseminate, one must be indirect to be elevated to heights of the Absolute. In other words, if one goes too explicitly and directly to the goal, then one ends up confusing his idea for a naive absolute knowledge, instead of recognizing one’s limitations and the rose in the cross of the present.

This also leads us to a crucial distinction between Hegel and Marx. As we all know, Marx criticizes philosophy for being too focused on interpretation and not enough focused on transforming or changing the world. For Marx, we may say that he was not a philosopher at all, but an activist. In Marxist theory we grab the most idealistic image we can think, and we uncritically act in relation to this image as if it were absolute knowledge; we try to endlessly approach the highest social goal possible in a very direct and explicit style: the achievement of World Communism. In that sense, for the Marxist, the goal is never realized, the goal is never here; and totalitarianism becomes its dark actuality. In contrast to Marx, Hegel emphasizes how one’s entire universe can be transformed via a minimal difference, by introducing a new interpretation; like, for example, when one sees ones own essence in the impossible obstacle of building the communist state, and when one sees ones own essence in the impossible enemy of the bourgeoisie capitalist. In that sense Hegel is not against transformation but rather emphasizes that the transformation one seeks is within, in an interpretational structure or frame that overdetermines the coordinates of one’s approach to being itself. This is why in many popular videos Žižek turns Marx around, asking us once again to think before we act; to interpret before we change. One does not simply act in the world or change the world independent of deep reflective thought and interpretation.

Here consider an overview of the mature Hegelian subjectivity in relation to the goal (13):

“Within the finite order, we cannot experience or see that the goal is truly achieved. The accomplishment of the infinite goal resides only in overcoming the illusion that this goal is not yet achieved.


The final reversal of the dialectical process, […] is a purely formal turnaround, a shift in perspective: the only thing that changes in the final reconciliation is the subject’s standpoint — the subject endorses the loss, re-inscribes it as its triumph. Reconciliation is thus simultaneously both less and more than the standard idea of overcoming an antagonism: less, because nothing “really changes”; more, because the subject of the process is deprived of its very (particular) substance.”

Hegelian Retroactivity

This brings us very close to understanding Hegel’s theory or notion of temporality. In Hegel we do not find a temporality that is structured in our intuitive common sense structure, around a past, a present, and a future. In this intuitive common sense structure of temporality we imagine that we are falling from a perfect unity that divided into a multiplicity; that we are now within a problematic multiplicity of phenomena; and that we are heading towards a reconciliation with the perfect unity in the future, some telos that would guarantee being.

This thought structure is very general and many different examples can be given of its basic intuitive mechanisms. For example, we find the past-present-future structure of temporality in modern cosmology where we start with the big bang, a mysteriously ordered unity or symmetry, that broke for some unknown reason and started to differentiate into a multiplicity of phenomena like stars, galaxies, planets, and in our local region, life and mind; but also tends towards central points outside of itself through the power of gravitational attraction (like black holes) which are mysterious unities or singularities outside of the geometrical structure of spacetime itself.

One can also see this structure on existentialist terms. In existentialist terms we have a memory of a primordial unity, of being in the Mothers Womb, and then we have a division from this unity as we enter the complex world with a multiplicity of phenomena, and then we become future oriented throughout our biological and cultural and social development towards a horizon where we project dreams of a secular or a transcendental nature that help us to navigate back to a newly constituted unity. Indeed, on existentialist terms, as we will explore later, such a past-present-future structure is the very basic temporal mechanism for many political projects, including foundational communist theory.

However, as mentioned, Hegel’s theory of temporality is different then this intuitive structure. For Hegel, we have a time that is all circled up into the present. In that sense it is not that we have an objective past of what really happened (like the big bang, or like your birth) but rather a pure virtual past that is being constituted and reconstituted in the present (like when we think about the genesis of spacetime; or when we think about the genesis of our experience). Here to quote Žižek (14):

“we are thoroughly passive, determined by and dependent on the past, but we have the freedom to define the scope of this determination, to (over)determine the past which will determine us.”

And in the same way that we have the power to change the past through reflective mediation in the present, the same goes for the future. It is not that we have some objective future that already exists or is determined from all time as a substantial unity; or an immanent necessity, but rather that the future is always something that is constituted in the present by our conceptualizations, by the idea’s notional determination, which transforms a contingency to a necessity. We can never forget the way in which our own action, our own intervention into the normal run of things, will transform the future present (like how Marx could never have foreseen how his theories could have transformed the 20th century into a Cold War).

This is why Žižek maintains an emphasis throughout Less Than Nothing on a Hegelian Absolute that can handle errors and failure; that in order to intervene into the future one must be fully able to accept that, due to one’s limited and finite historical position, one is doomed and destined to make mistakes and errors; but that if one is brave enough to do so, the space for the true decision will emerge. If one is constantly waiting for the “right time” to revolutionize oneself into a perfect being, the time will simply never come.

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Retroactivity II

This naturally leads to a different conceptualization of the conflict between the opposites. In our intuitive picture of time the conflict between the opposites is unreflectively antagonistic where one side wants to annihilate or eliminate the other. Take for example the elementary structure of capitalism versus communism, or conservatism versus liberalism, or atheism versus theology, or evolution versus creationism, or feminism versus patriarchy, or any other major oppositional determinations. In these struggles we have oppositional determinations that each feel that there is a different fall from and return to unity that requires the elimination of the other.

In other words, the subject thinks, if only the other were removed as an obstacle or enemy, then the true state of being would be immanent. For example, in atheism we have a purely secular fall, and a purely secular future relation to the Earth where, through science and technology, we will be capable of constructing a utopian society in reasonable harmony. However, what stands in the way of this situation are people who believe in theological conceptions of the world, people who believe that our fall is a transcendental fall, and people who believe our future is a transcendental future, a fall from God and a return to God. In this situation more theologically inclined people are not aligned with the idea that our past was purely secular, constituted by nature, and not aligned with the idea that our future is purely secular, and thus cannot participate in the truly secular utopian project committed to the reasonable use of science and technology.

However, in Hegelian temporality, where past and future are curved up into the present, the conflict between the opposites are seen to be mutually reinforcing oppositions that require each other for any essential existence. In other words, from the Hegelian point of view, if you removed theology you would not get the fully unleashed potential of the atheist identity structure capable of ushering in secular utopia and a comprehensive understanding of our natural past. Instead, you would get the total dissolution of the atheist identity structure since its very formation hinges on the negation of theology. In that sense the atheist and the theological conception of the world become historically constituted phenomenal frames that co-determine each other in opposition at this particular moment of the becoming of speculative conjectures. The same logic can be applied to other oppositional determinations.

This means that, ultimately, the Hegelian past and the Hegelian future, in-themselves, that is, outside of the present conflict of the oppositional determination, are nothing but pure virtuality, a pure spectral void of potential. In our intuitive conception of time we have a past and a future that are fully substantial, fully known. But this conception must fall if both past and future are co-determined in the present. How radical of a notion is this conception of temporality? Is Hegel really saying that there is no literal interpretation of the past as it really was? No. However, for Hegel, this literalness of the past independent of our present day presuppositions is not something known to us or knowable to us since we are forever caught in the loop of positing the presuppositions. If we were to think that we had a literal understanding of the past and the future, this, for Hegel, would be constituted as a meta-language, which is what is precisely at the status of an impossibility.

Moreover, what the literal understanding of a noumenal in-itself obfuscates is the way in which past and future are frames for present action. In that sense we should think of the way in which the past and future orient our action in the present and also the way in which we can, in our free action, retroactively transform the way in which we think about the past and the future. In Hegelian time there is no past or future unity; just their pure spectral virtuality within a divided unity of the present.

In order to demonstrate how these conceptions are synergistic with Deleuzian temporality and psychoanalysis, Žižek quotes Deleuze who writes “my wound existed before me; I was born to embody it”. This is an intelligent strategic move by Žižek to make the point that Deleuze’s program is synergistic with a Hegelian metaphysics and Freudian psychoanalysis where the One is in division, and trauma precedes what the subject believes empirically caused the trauma as an event. Here we have a theory of temporality that in some sense eternalizes the division, eternalizes the trauma, eternalizes the absence, or the gap, or the hole, that simultaneously allows me to be human, all too human. If there were no absence, no gap, no hole; then the Absolute would already be One and we would not be projecting and reflecting. But since the Absolute is divided internal to itself, then the past and the future become subject to retroactivity; of positing the presuppositions. We get to pick our trauma, but we do not get to pick trauma itself. In that sense Deleuze’s project of liberating humanity from the human was a task that may once again be a metalanguage, a vision of a world where the trauma was not constitutive of being human.

This quote captures how Žižek attempts to deploy the temporality of retroactivity, of the way in which our past (and future) are fantasmatically constituted (15):

“The retroactivity of a gesture which (re)constitutes the past itself […] In our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper involves the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual “transcendental” coordinates of its agent’s being — or, in Freudian terms, which not only changes the actuality of our world but also “moves its underground”. We have thus a kind of reflexive “folding back of the condition on to the given it was the condition for”: while the pure past is the transcendental condition for our acts, our acts not only create new actual reality, they also retroactively change this very condition.”

Continued (16):

“The key philosophical implication of Hegelian retroactivity is that it undermines the […] condition of linear causality where the sum of past causes determines a future event — retroactivity means that the set of (past, given) reasons is never complete and “sufficient”, since the past reasons are retroactively activated by what is, within the linear order, their effect.”

Hegel’s State: Idea v Actual

Thus the nature of the Idea is to retroactively determine its past, to retroactively determine what was necessary. Let’s then apply this logic to Hegel’s Theory of the State. For Hegel there is the eternal idea of the State, the perfect State as such, which only forms in relation to a historically constituted problem, the problem of historical social organization. As we all know, throughout the historical process human beings had to struggle with the problems of social organization when our populations expanded from a few hundred individuals in bands and tribes to thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of individuals. Thus, the idea of the state had to manifest itself in different actual solutions to the same problem.

Here the emphasis is not on the perfect idea, but on the actual manifestation which transforms a ineffective and impotent spectral virtuality into a divided unity that is held together by its historically constituted antagonisms and tensions. In this way the true revolutionary thought, according to Žižek, is not to think the true manifestation of the ancient republic (as in Plato), or the true manifestation of the modern democracy (as in democratic materialism), but to drop the very actual form of modern democracy and try to think of a new idea that would coordinate a new actual state, which would require a new actual tension or antagonism. The question thus becomes whether or not we can say that modern democracy has exhausted the potential of its idea, whether or not we can say that modern democracy no longer fits the coordinates of the actual struggle between the opposites? Are there cracks in the present that signal that this idea no longer holds together the divided unity?

Thus, we again here can repeat the same temporal structure applied to the idea of the State. In the intuitive version of past-present-future temporality we may apply this structure to contemporary United States where we have a major conflict between the opposites of Left and Right. Here the Left is an oppositional determination pointing towards a future fully united United States in a utopian freedom from any conservatism; and the Right is an oppositional determination pointing towards a past fully united United States in a utopian freedom from any progressive liberalism. However, the trick with retroactivity is to read both oppositional determinations, not as pointing towards a real past or a real future; but to curve them up into the present between a spectral pure virtual past and a spectral pure virtual future. In that sense it is the form of the modern democracy itself that is producing this past-future antagonism or tension; and that if we drop the very structure of this idea, both pasts and futures in the popular imaginary would dissolve back into their virtual spectrality.

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Higher State

Can we then think an actual higher state? In order to think an actual higher state we have to think, not of a perfect substantial unity that would hold itself forever. Instead we have to think about the generative antagonisms and tensions (the absolute negativity) that would hold together an alternative edifice. Or as Žižek states (17):

“A problem is thus not only “subjective”, not just epistemological, a problem for the subject who tries to solve it; it is stricto sensu ontological, inscribed into the thing itself: the structure of reality is “problematic”.”

In that sense, if the virtual problem is of a higher communal or a higher social organization then we must think what in actuality needs to exist in order for the idea of such an entity to become manifest. The generative power of the idea or the virtual requires the actual, requires embodiment, requires a sensual reality.

Marx Theory of State Development

Here we apply this to the difference between Marx and Hegel’s theory of the State. In Marx the theory of the State revolves around its material grounding in a literal past and a literal future. Here we know that there was a utopian harmony in our pre-historical order where we did not have to deal with the antagonisms and tensions that structure class relations in history proper. This is pre-historical primitive communism. Furthermore, we know that in the future there will be, from an immanent processing of class struggle, the realization of a utopian post-historical harmony where we are once again freed from class struggle in a communal egalitarian order. Here we can easily read in this theory the intuitive structure of temporality of the idea, where we have a process of becoming hanging between a fall from a One and a return to a One, and that it is only a matter of the processing of the temporal opposites for these divisions to be eternally reconciled.

Hegelian Theory of the State

However, in Hegel’s theory we cannot be sure of either the hypothesis of harmonious utopian primitive communism, or the harmonious utopian future communism. Instead we have the virtual past where contemporary subjects organize facts to support their presupposition that pre-history was harmonious and utopian; and we have the unknown virtual future where contemporary subjects organize their understanding of social logic towards a higher level communal horizon. However, in actuality, in our present, we have this Marxist thought structure as one pole in an antagonistic couple with an alternative conservative or capitalist pole which absolutely negates it. For the capitalist we are pulling ourselves via capital from a horrible brutal nature where life was short and difficult; where tribal warfare was common and constitutive of life. For the capitalist it is our contemporary world, inclusive of its class antagonisms, which is the best of all possible universes that we have known. What is the real consequences of processing this antagonism between historically constituted subjectivity? For Hegel, we cannot know this future, and for those who say that they do, we should be here capable of applying our understanding of the structure of Hegelian subjectivity and temporality to understand the elementary nature of ideology. Thus, when Hegel’s dialectical development suggests that things “become what they are” we are not dealing with an idea or concept that is already substantially actual as a pre-determined necessity, but rather as a idea or concept that comes to be what it is through the actual work of historical subjectivity (18):

“There is no place in Hegel for the Marxist-Stalinist figure of the communist revolutionary who understands the historical necessity and posits himself as the instrument of its implementation. However, it is crucial to add a further twist here: if we merely assert this impossibility, we are still “conceiving the Absolute as Substance, not as Subject” — we are still surmising that there is some pre-existing Spirit imposing its substantial Necessity on history […] to be consistently Hegelian, we must take a crucial step further and insist that historical Necessity does not pre-exist the contingent process of its actualization, that is, that the historical process is also in itself “open”, undecided.”

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Hegelian Totality

Now let us attempt to formulate a general structure of temporality in the symbolic order in as simplistic a way as possible, or as simple as possible but no simpler. What we are trying to say here about time in history is that we do not just simply have an evolutionary historical flow, but an evolutionary historical flow plus an atemporal conceptual structure that holds this historical flow in a virtual retroactive constitution. Here the idea or the concept takes a linear flow and curves it in on itself, attempting to hold all substance in its present. This is what Hegel means when he talks about the Absolute as substance but also subject. The subject of the notion holds substance, or attempts to hold substance as a totality. Thus when Žižek states that a “truly new artistic phenomenon not only designates a break with the entire past, but retroactively changes this past itself” we should apply the same to political phenomena or sexual phenomena or scientific phenomena. In this way when the French and Russian Revolution happened they not only broke with traditional monarchy and capitalism, but they also changed the way in which people viewed monarchy and capitalism themselves. What this type of thinking calls us to do is think about the way in which our own notions of history and our own notions of the future are historically constituted in the present by an atemporal idea. The real dimension of Hegelian thought is thus to think this matrix of the atemporal idea itself and the way in which it is moving though all natural and social mediations.

Owl of Minerva

This elementary structure of Hegelian totality, of a symbolic order that includes its own past and future, is the difference between what Žižek refers to as the Owl of Minerva and the Gaelic Rooster. Here the Gaelic rooster stands for French Revolutionary thought that believes that it holds the true idea, that believes that it holds the absolute necessity, that believes that it knows the destiny of historical being. In contrast the Owl of Minerva stands for German contemplative thought, which is aware of the nature of temporal retroactivity, that no subject can embody the idea of the absolute, that no subject has access to the transcendental structure of reality, that there is no science of politics, that there is no way to predict the future of human social organization. In short, the difference between the Owl of Minerva and the Gaelic Rooster is that the Owl (in this case Hegel) “leaves reality the way that it is” (19), it does not pretend that it can make reality conform to its ideal notion.

This is related to two different theories on the relation between being and thought, and thought and being. In these formula we get the elementary distinction between the way in which Marx and Hegel differed in terms of the use and nature of philosophy itself. For Marx, as already mentioned, philosophy had spent too much time interpreting the world and not enough time changing the world. Thus, we may say that Marx conceived of philosophy as something that must become more active, that thought itself must constitute new being by predicting the future state of affairs. However, Hegel is more conservative, claiming that philosophy is right to place primacy on the interpretive stance, and to recognize the way in which thought is sublating being retroactively, that there is no need for thought to get caught up in future manipulations of being towards its ideal notion, but rather that thought should attempt to reflect as best as it can the movement of actual being as it unfolds itself. Thus as Žižek states (20):

“Hegel’s opening towards the future is a negative: it is articulated in his negative/limiting statements like the famous “one cannot jump ahead of one’s time.”

Thus, we can say that the difference between Hegel and Marx is the difference between free retroactivity and deterministic teleology. For Hegel, the idea becomes what it becomes, but we can only know this retroactively, we can only know this after the idea has been constituted by our free acts; whereas, for Marx, we know what the idea is becoming and we know how we should actualize it. In that sense the future is already written and we just need to make it real. The difference that separates Hegel and Marx is the difference that separates the idea of communism and the actuality of communism in the 20th century. For Hegel, as already mentioned, there is no place for the type of deterministic teleology that enabled the existence of totalitarian states in Russia and China. The truth of Marx is that his ideas must be, retroactively, understood as a failure of a particular ideal to impose onto the whole of being its own absolute, in an unreflective agent of historical necessity.

We should thus consider retroactivity very reflectively when thinking of mediating future political projects, we should let our thought do its best to interpret and interpret and interpret the structure of our projects as they unfold, with the idea firm in our mind, that we do not know the historical necessity (21):

“The impossibility of directly borrowing from the future is grounded in the very fact of retroactivity which makes the future a priori unpredictable: we cannot climb onto our own shoulders and see ourselves “objectively”, in terms of the way we fit into the texture of history, because the texture is again and again retroactively rearranged.”

And here consider this logic in its religious context (22):

“In theology, Karl Barth extended this unpredictability to the Last Judgement itself[:] ‘God is not hidden from us; He is revealed. But what and how we shall be in Christ, and what and how the World will be in Christ at the end of God’s road, at the breaking in of redemption and completion, that is not revealed to us; that is hidden. Let us be honest: we do not know what we are saying when we speak of Jesus Christ’s coming again in judgement, and of the resurrection of the dead, of eternal life and eternal death. That with all these there will be bound up a piercing revelation — is too often testified in Scripture for us to feel we ought to prepare ourselves for it. For we do not know what will be revealed when the last covering is removed from our eyes, from all eyes: how we shall behold one another and what we shall be to one another — […] upon what divisions and unions, what confrontations and cross-connections the seals of all books will be opened; how much will seem small and unimportant to us then, how much will only then appear great and important; for what surprises of all kinds we must prepare ourselves. We also do not know what Nature, as the cosmos in which we have lived and still live here and now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then’.”

All this does not mean that we should avoid political engagement since our actions will have unintended and potentially catastrophic consequences. The point is that when one attempts to engage a meaningful project that cuts into history we should be prepared to end up in places that were unintended. It is in this sense that Hegel was open to the future. The fact that the absolute knowledge in its naive deterministic and teleological sense is closed to us, is the very condition for us to engage with an open future.

Here God’s Plan and Human Freedom coincide. It is the very absence of God, the fact that He turned himself into a particular human individual to die on the cross, that opens up our freedom (the rose). The fact that the Absolute Knowledge cannot be known, that the background of our historical actions are abyssal, without a big Other who would guarantee their success, which makes history worth the experience and the effort. If everything were known, if everything were transparent, then there would be nothing like we know of history.

Towards this end Žižek emphasizes that we must today think the historical constitution of the contemporary constellation of oppositional determination. In our post Cold War landscape, we have opened ourselves onto an oppositional determination that finds itself structured between formal Enlightenment skepticism and fundamentalist substantial belief in God. Within this constellation, are there the germs of a reconciliation that can think a new social order?

For Žižek the liberal humanist stance emphasizes human rationality and freedom; whereas the traditional fundamentalist stance emphasizes the raw energy of unconditional commitment and belief. In this synthesis Žižek suggests that a Christian or theological materialism would be able to rethink these opposites. The materialist dimension includes a negation of the Other, that there is no substantial transcendental Otherness that knows; and the Christian or theological dimension includes the unconditional ethical commitment to a better or higher world. In this synthesis can we think the actual states that may be necessary, not for world communism, but for a more liberating and free state of actual being? (23):

“What would Hegel have made of today’s struggle of liberalism against fundamentalist faith? One thing is sure: he would not have simply taken the side of liberalism, but would have insisted on the “mediation” of the opposites.”

This brings us to the end of the Lecture 6 and the first lecture of Part 2: Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? I hope that the first part of this whirlwind of a chapter has been a good introduction to some very difficult concepts. I feel like it is necessary to understand some of these concepts in detail in order to properly situate the difference between Hegel and some of contemporary social theory that is grounded in Marxism and Communism. I think that by working through these differences we can have a higher level understanding of the future of philosophy. And I hope you come back for next week where Part 2 will focus more on the relation between Hegel and Deleuze.

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Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S. 2012.  Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?  p. 194.

(2) ibid.  p. 195.

(3) ibid.  p. 196.

(4) ibid.  p. 197-198.

(5) ibid.  p. 198.

(6) ibid.

(7) ibid.  p. 200.

(8) ibid.  p. 201.

(9) ibid.  p. 204.

(10) ibid.  p. 212.

(11) ibid.  p. 201.

(12) ibid.  p. 204.

(13) ibid.  p. 203-204.

(14) ibid.  p. 212.

(15) ibid.  p. 214.

(16) ibid.  p. 213.

(17) ibid.  p. 215.

(18) ibid.  p. 217.

(19) ibid.  p. 220.

(20) ibid.  p. 221.

(21) ibid.

(22) ibid.  p. 221-222.

(23) ibid.  p. 226.


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