YouTube video here: Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today (Part 2)
Welcome to Lecture 7 of Less Than Nothing. In this lecture we will be covering Part 2 of Chapter 4: Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? In this section of Chapter 4 we will be radically shifting our focus from the ways in which Hegel’s philosophy can be put into conversation with Marxist thought to the ways in which Hegel’s philosophy can be put into conversation with Deleuze’s thought. This in some sense is a much bigger challenge since Deleuze sought to totally demolish the structure of Hegelian philosophy itself and pursue a direction that would abandon the Hegelian transition.
Now you may note that we are just at the very beginning of Part 2 of the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself. We have a lot of future ground to cover in regard to the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself and this opening chapter is necessary to work through if we are to eventually dive deeper into the realm of Hegelian philosophy.
Here let us pick up on a few themes we left off with in the last lecture. In the last lecture we emphasized how we can not ignore crucial historical events in philosophy as they represent irreversible processes where thought itself enters into new historical epochal disclosures. In Heideggerian terms we may say that different forms of philosophy represent the emergence of different metaphysical screens for being, different ways in which thought relates to being and conceives of its relation to being in the world. Here, in the same way as we find a post-Hegelian break with Marx-Kierkegaard-Schopenhauer-Nietzsche in the sense that we get an (apparently) radical break from the Hegelian dialectical ideal sublation; we also find a post-Hegelian break with Husserl-Heidegger-Deleuze-Foucault; in the sense that the 20th century turned much more to direct phenomenal experience independent of concepts and sought to question on a deeper level the nature of the concept and the nature of the virtual and the nature of the rational.
Of course, Husserl and Heidegger are the archetypal forms of 20th century philosophy that focus on existentialism and phenomenology; with Heidegger in particular being an interesting case of a philosopher who sought to rethink or make comprehensive the Hegelian system for the 20th century. However, with Deleuze and Foucault we have a more antagonistic relation with Hegel. Deleuze in particular represents the form of anti-Hegelianism, as he has specifically stated that we should do philosophy from the standpoint of the inexistence of Hegel. What we again argue in this episode is that when one ignores the existence of Hegel we do not get a lack, a space where nothing is, but rather a hole, a point in spacetime where everything breaks down and starts to circulate around its point of absolute negativity. The Deleuzian program seeking to escape the human universe in a multiplicity of forms may not have the necessary speed to escape the singular gravitational force at the core of human being.
Now we can say, of course, that a lot has changed since Hegel first introduced his dialectical system into the world. Can Hegel’s system really withstand the pressure of this change? Throughout Part 2 of the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself we will attempt to approach the historicity of the Hegelian system, the status of Hegel’s absolute knowing. How does the notion withstand the onslaught of technological progress and artificial intelligence; how does the state withstand the rise of democracy; how does the telos of history withstand the failure of communism; how does reason make sense of the horrors of fascism and world wars; how does Western philosophy make sense of multi-polar global order; how does the narrativization of being reorganize a coherent futures direction after the fall of communism-capitalism binary; and how are we to make sense of the contemporary constellation of opposites which may be ordered under the signifiers of secular liberalism and religious fundamentalism. Here the Western democracies emphasizing liberal secular individuality as universality, and the obvious antagonisms that this produces with various forms of collective theological fundamentalism. In this episode we may introduce dimensions and differences of the Deleuzian and Hegelian program that may be of utility for these problems and situations for human self-consciousness.
Let’s first consider core concepts and differences between these giants of 19th and 20th century philosophy. First we can say that Difference & Repetition is the book where Deleuze starts his explicitly anti-Hegelian program. In this program the concepts of “difference” and “repetition” are identified as precisely what Hegelian philosophy makes it impossible for us to think. This is because we give primacy to identity over difference, thus we obfuscate the process of becoming, we obfuscate the genesis of being, we assume the static perfection of form and being instead of its radical emergence from a virtual plane of differences. This is also because we give primacy to idealization over repetition, thus we obfuscate the persistence of the real and the temporality of the ideal. As we will explore in later lectures, with a fully Deleuzian program the real and repetition become very closely aligned. In this sense Deleuze is radically against any “ideal identity” that would seek to totalize the process of becoming which should be conceived as developing in a relation to pure difference and repetition.
Other core concepts for Deleuze, which logically follow from difference and repetition, include openness, multiplicity, becoming, virtuality, immanence. We can consider these concepts in turn:
With openness we are emphasizing that the plane of our being is has no container that would hold everything, no container that would prevent us from being something other.
With multiplicity we are emphasizing that the plane of our being is in fact structured by a multiplicity of multiplicities, that there is no relation to the one that would hold everything in, that would externally orient the whole of our being.
With becoming we are emphasizing that the plane of our being is in fact nothing but a becoming. There is no way in which we can stop our becoming, our identity is a becoming. There is no point in time or space where things stop, where things become fixed. All images that become fixed break down.
With virtuality we are are emphasizing that the actual is not all that there is, that every actual produces a set of virtualities, and that every set of virtualities are part of every actual.
Finally, with immanence, we are seeking to emphasize that that the plane of becoming is nothing but that, a plane of becoming. What is immanent to the actual is nothing but the plane of virtual difference. In that sense there is not build up to transcendence, there is no immanence of transcendence, there is simply the open spiralling multiplicity of immanent differences.
Of course, such a philosophy is directly opposed to the Hegelian edifice, where we find the concepts of identity, closure, singularity, being, actuality, and transcendence. In that sense we see that the Deleuzian edifice is in some sense a direct reactionary effort that spoke to the 20th century of philosophical thought. Was this, then, the truth of the 20th century? Was it the point at which the Hegelian dialectic lost its efficacy, lost its ability to understand the motion of historicity? Indeed, the 20th century was a century where we saw differences that were hardly thinkable to the 19th century mind; where we saw an openness to novelty that was never possible in other historical epochs; where we found a multiplicity of dreams, a multiplicity of other ideals, a multiplicity of becoming; where we found that the virtual spaces of our becoming took primacy over the actual life relations; where we found ourselves opened onto an immanence that did not culminate in a transcendence, but simply was an immanent in-itself.
In this chapter Žižek attempts to explore Deleuze through Meillassoux, who I will briefly mention here, but who will get far more attention in a future interlude in Part 3. Quentin Meillassoux is a 21st century philosopher who follows Deleuze with his project to reclaim the “great outdoors”. Deleuze and Meillassoux are both philosophers who find the relativity of subjective truth to be disorienting and seek to once again think a new outside objectively, to once again think the outside of human history independent of our conscious fantasms. From these efforts both are inspired by the knowledge of mathematics and its apparently special and unique ability to capture a true natural reality.
In that sense both philosophers are part of a pre-Kantian noumenal realm, who are sympathetic with the Spinozan Absolute substance (which basically follows a formula of “Nature = God”). Here the crucial dimension that is consciously disregarded in the Kantian turn is the idea that the subject is barred from the in-itself of the appearances. For Kant there is an irreducible separation between subject and object producing the antinomies of reason. In other words, we have the subject of representation vis-a-vis the appearances of being which are stabilized by the noumenal in-itself, but this noumenal in-itself, i.e. “what the moon really is in-itself”; is off limits to us in terms of representation. The wager of the Deleuzian program, and also the program of Meillassoux, is that we can once again attempt to approach the noumenal in-itself; to escape our historical relativity, to escape our subjective separation, to escape the limitations of our representations or concepts for the pure in-itself. Or to quote Žižek:
“For Deleuze, freedom: “isn’t a matter of human liberty but of liberation from the human,” of fully submerging oneself in the creative life flux.” (1).
Towards this program Deleuze does not emphasize the conceptual a priori, the Kantian a priori frame of reference which stabilizes the Hegelian Thing-In-Itself that conceptually “sublates time in eternity” (2), but rather the pure becoming of the vitalist life flux, under a type of life science Bergsonianism. From this perspective there is nothing but the constant change and the constant becoming of material nature, and this is the truth of the noumena. The truth of the noumena is not the a priori eternal frame that stabilizes them internal to itself, but rather the truth of the noumena is nothing but their pure becoming, their pure immanence of virtual differences. For Deleuze we humans can access the pure immanence of virtual differences when we take on the perspective of the “blind seer”. To quote Žižek, the “blind seer” is: “blind to actual reality, sensible only to the virtual dimension of things” which is stabilized with the metaphor of “a spider deprived of eyes and ears but infinitely sensitive to whatever resonates through its virtual web” (3).
Thus, when we think the “blind seer” we are approaching what Deleuze seeks to conceptualize as thinking “multiplicities of multiplicities” with no One that would hold them together, just a rhizomatic network of sensually and actually acausal virtuality. Here Meillassoux seeks recourse to the “Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One” (4). It is thus this non-totalizable web that the Deleuzian philosopher seeks to operate from, as one who does not see sensual reality with its actual identities, but one who sees the infinite virtual differences that are produced by actual identities and which stabilize the pure virtual plane of immanence in its unstoppable and indestructible becoming. From immersion in this infinite non-totalizable multiplicity of multiplicities one may be able to think the non-human, one may be able to think radically other than a historically constituted human may think.
In this way the Deleuzian program does not engage in the conflict of opposites for there is no unity to the opposites, no One that would hold them together. Consequently, when Žižek states that Hegel has “no problem taking sides (with an often very violent partiality) in the political debates of his time, […] always intervening, attacking, taking sides, and, as such, a long way from the detached position of Wisdom observing the ongoing struggle from a neutral distance” (5), we may contrast this with the Deleuzian program that thinks multiplicity of multiplicities with no One that would make a polarized engagement meaningful. Instead, the Deleuzian philosopher seeks a “wise” refuge in the virtual spider’s web, disengaged from any polarized field.
This brings us to the World of Deleuze. The revolution of Deleuze can be found in the way in which he attempts to articulate a relation between the actual and the virtual. For Deleuze actual things have identities but this obfuscates the virtual domain, the invisible domain of metaphysics that has evaded, according to Deleuze, a true understanding in philosophy. The virtual domain has no identity proper, it is a realm of pure difference, a realm where nothing has collapsed into an identity but instead exists in a space of indeterminate pure becoming. However, Deleuze is here not emphasizing a virtual philosophy that is disconnected from the actual, but rather seeks to identify the way in which the two realms dynamically interact.
Deleuze thus frames this enterprise as anti-Platonic in the sense that Plato’s “virtuality” would be conceived as a static transcendental realm of fixed perfect forms; and also frames this enterprise as anti-Hegelian in the sense that Hegel’s “virtuality” is a concept whose identity “becomes what it already is” which for Deleuze speaks to an a priori identity that precedes pure difference. In this way Deleuze is the philosopher of open identities, of the view that there is no totality which overdetermines the scene, that every identity could have been otherwise, that every identity could have been a multiplicity of alternative beings, and that every future identity is subject to the same process in relation to the virtual plane of immanence.
Thus in this Deleuzian matrix we must emphasize, as Žižek notes, that it is “only through the changes in actual things which express Ideas, since the entire generative power lies in actual things” (6). Here we should be entertained to think of the concept of God or the concept of the State. The concept of God or the concept of the State do not have an efficacy independent of actual things (people). If people did not believe in God or did not believe in the State there would be no such virtual frames overdetermining the structure of history. God and the State are there because we put them there. Could they be otherwise? How different could things be? If we rewound the historical clock would God and the State appear there just the same? Are these concepts part of “the Concept”, are they within a virtual spatial identity that precedes the actuality of the people? For Deleuze this was properly non-sensical. The Concept is not a spatial totality including identities that need only be discovered by the people actualizing or expressing them, but an anti-container of pure multiplicity that has no structure that could be identified as an identity that precedes the actuality of the thing. Deleuze is the virtual Spider, the virtual Weaver of Worlds as an infinite multiplicity of multiplicities, the singularity as a multiverse of conscious spheres.
At the same time, the Virtual, in its radical impotence in relation to the actual, still exerts what Deleuze referred to as a quasi-cause. The quasi-cause is not causality proper but a type of efficacy that persists retroactively, in a pure virtual past, an efficacy that persists only because the actual is embodying a virtuality. For example, it is true that God or the State do not exist independent of actual things (people), but nonetheless, can we not say that the virtual concepts of God and the State do not exert a paradoxical quasi-causality on the motion of people in history? How else can we explain the Crusades? How else can we explain the United States? And so forth. Or as Žižek states (7):
“Think of a group of dedicated individuals fighting for the Idea of communism: in order to grasp their activity, we have to take into account the virtual Idea. But this Idea is in itself sterile, it has no proper causality: all causality lies in the individuals who “express” it.”
However, in the Deleuzian program, we are asked to break from historical virtual forms and understanding the pure space of virtual multiplicity that is accessible to our imagination, to our minds. What is the virtual space of science fiction? What is the virtual space of fantasy? What is the virtual space of pure otherness? How can science further explore the virtual? How can religion further explore the virtual? How can politics further explore the virtual? As we discussed in the last lecture, it need not be that World Communism overdetermine our teleological horizon as the structure we must think of as the true utopia. Can we think a multiplicity of different utopias? How flexible, how dynamical, is the actuality of the concept?
The flexibility or dynamism of the concept brings us to the issue of potentiality versus virtuality. How much potential does the virtual concept possess? Is the potential truly endless or infinite? Are we dealing with a conscious multiverse, a pure multiplicity of multiplicities? Here Žižek puts Meillassoux into direct conversation with Deleuze. To be specific, Meillassoux makes the distinction between the potential and the virtual explicit and clear. For Meillassoux the potential includes “non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law” (8) (p. 229). In that sense the potential of an actual phenomena are its degrees of freedom, the potential actual trajectories that can be explored by an actual entity. This can be de-limited by physics, chemistry, biology, language, society, and so forth. In contrast, the virtual includes “the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibilities” (9). This is again to make the connection between the Deleuzian virtuality and the Cantorian infinite multiplicity. Here we do not have a realm that can be de-limited at all, it is truly open, truly a becoming, truly a realm where something New can emerge; something that is not covered in any way. Here anything can happen. Is this the true nature of the virtual concept? Is the concept not something that is merely a potential, like the idea of communism, with its potential to be actual given the de-limited conditions of historical reality? Or is it that the concept is something far more radically open to being other, like a future political project that is not even thought of in the present? With no totalizing idea like communism which would cover its potential?
Here Žižek emphasizes the importance of Meillassoux’s formula for the New (10):
“the New arises when an X emerges which does not merely actualize a pre-existing possibility, but whose actualization creates (retroactively opens up) its own possibility.”
Thus, to think of the truly New in a Deleuzian way, we must be able to think how a virtual rupture in being itself can give rise to something that was unthinkable by any human before its emergence. Here again Žižek quotes Meillassoux (11):
“If we maintain that becoming is not only capable of bringing forth cases on the basis of a pre-given universe of cases, we must then understand that it follows that such cases irrupt, properly speaking, from nothing, since no structure contains them as eternal potentialities before their emergence: we thus make irruption ex nihilo the very concept of a temporality delivered to its pure immanence.”
We thus again must emphasize the difference between the Deleuzian virtual plane of immanence under a mode of pure becoming and the Hegelian atemporal concept that represents an eternally broken One, a divided One, a One that circles itself in the present in a polarized, asymmetrical relation. For Deleuze the One of a vitalist pure life flux annihilates any conceptual oppositions in a pure multiplicity. In this conception there is no pre-existing order or matrix as One that can overdetermine the virtuality, since the virtuality is, as mentioned “the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibilities” (12). Here left and right, man and woman, science and humanities, religion and secularism, are not part of the One in its binary antagonism, but a observational user’s illusion of history that should be overcome in favour of a pure becoming independent of any One. Or more in a mode of affirmation, the pure becoming should be in relation to the nothing but the pure One of the Life flux. Deleuze thus thinks of his program as a true break from traditional metaphysics, with Kant and Hegel in some sense still succumbing to the thought structure of a God that would represent a transcendent Order or Power that regulates historicity independently of the substantial creative force of living desire.
In this way Deleuze thinks a time that is radically different, a time that is spatialized in terms of the emergence of the new. Here we have regular three dimensional space constituted by its positive object relations, and we have the extra dimension of time, where new positive object relations can emerge independent of any totalizing container. Time is thus not the moving image of eternity that contains all perfect forms, as in Plato, but something like an infinite virtual web of difference without any positive identity or form. Here we conceive of being as not something that is determined in any way. As mentioned, there is no space for determined identity in Deleuze, there is no space for thinking a universe where anything was necessarily the case. This is true for atoms or planets or biology or humans. The universe could have been otherwise, since it is not a reflection of an immutable perfect being but is a radical becoming in relation to this infinite virtual web that is not covered by existing sets of possibilities. In this universe, if we re-ran the clock of temporal becoming, we would get something totally other. In the same way, logically, when we run the clock into the future, we will not get a repetition of the same, but something totally other. The space of possibility is not overdetermined by anything. What this opens up is the “inconclusive”, the fact that our material causal network is not-All, that material reality is structured in such a way that something new can emerge in the chaos of becoming (13):
“A “miracle” (whose formal definition is the emergence of something not covered by the existing causal network) is thus converted into a materialist concept: “Every ‘miracle’ thus becomes the manifestation of the inexistence of God, insofar as every radical rupture of the present in relation to the past becomes the manifestation of the absence of any order capable of overseeing the chaotic power of becoming.”
This brings us to one of the most interesting dimensions of the Deleuzian program for today. In Deleuze’s ontology there is nothing like the traditional physics concepts of deterministic natural laws that necessarily exist from all time. In this way the fundamental laws of physics are themselves contingent, themselves subject to the process of becoming. The ontology of fundamental physics here falls to the ontology of historical evolutionism. Darwin becomes the new Newton, and universal evolutionary logic becomes the new universal spacetime logic. Indeed, spacetime as we know spacetime is conceived as a contingent becoming.
We may put Deleuze into conversation with contemporary physicist Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Unger, who have recently argued that the (so-called) eternal laws of physics are not so eternal and may not even be laws in the way in which physics conventionally thinks of laws. Instead, what contemporary physics frames as natural laws may be mere habits or regularities that acquire the appearance of eternal laws relative to our observational point of view and our temporal existence at this moment of the universe’s history. In this way, we can think of the universe itself as radically other, we can think of the universe itself as part of the process of becoming, where contingent twists and turns in the course of material change could have allowed for the emergence of something different then what we observe today.
Thus, we may also say that, as Žižek clearly notes, the Strong Anthropic Principle in cosmology, is “false” (14). The Strong Anthropic Principle, explored most extensively by physicists like John Barrow and Frank Tipler, attempts to explain why we find ourselves in a universe with the existence of conscious observers and conclude that the universe must be structured in such a way by a totality of pre-existing sets of possibilities that require the emergence of conscious beings. This is another way of saying that the universe must be finely tuned in some unknown way for the emergence of something like human beings as conscious observers otherwise we would not have emerged. If one considers again the Deleuzian notion of virtuality as an infinite non-totalizable field of difference then one can see why the Strong Anthropic Principle must be false. For Deleuze, there is no possible unknown totality that guarantees our existence and fate outside of our conscious fantasms, there is only the radical contingency of our appearance in the world, of the necessarily contingent emergence of observers who either could have been otherwise (as we see radical others as biological observers), or could have been a different order of observer (as unknown to us, i.e. aliens, unimaginable X), or could not have been at all (i.e. a universe with no observers).
Does the Deleuzian cosmology allow us to observe cracks in the ontological edifice of probabilistic reasoning itself? In classical Newtonian mechanics we think in a deterministic logic, where the actual universe that we observe was the only necessary possibility, where the motion of being is only unknown due to a lack in our knowledge, and if we had perfect knowledge we would know exactly every motion (as if it is a giant clockwork fixed in its being, or a giant supercomputer programmed in its being). But already in the mechanics of modern quantum field theory, for example, we instead think of the world as a pre-existing totality of possibilities, represented as the temporal Schrödinger wave function where actual phenomena are a function of probability amplitudes, where things could have been otherwise within a limited structure.
However, Schrödinger himself felt that this probabilistic approach to nature misinterpreted the nature of time, and that there must be some underlying deterministic model that would save the classical world and correct the logical recourse to an indeterministic probabilistic reasoning. Thus, to repeat the logic from above, the classical deterministic view suggests that the limits in our knowledge are not the limits of being. However the probabilistic view suggests that the limits of our knowledge are in fact the limits of being, which suggests that the limits of our knowledge is not a negative lack in us but a positivity (our ability to think this lack in being). We may here suggest the divergent binary opposition between Albert Einstein, the deterministic general relativist who developed the field equations for spacetime, and Niels Bohr, the probabilistic quantum mechanist who developed the most robust interpretation of quantum phenomena. Einstein insisted that “God does not play dice” (i.e. does not ‘play with probabilities’), and Bohr responded “Don’t tell God what to do” (i.e. indeterminacy of God as self-choice where God himself lacks full knowledge of being, as suggested by the abstractions of quantum field theory).
In regards this ontological confusion we surely know that the tendency to classical deterministic reasoning would not suite Deleuze, who clearly favoured a Bergsonian indeterminacy, of pure choice of the One of a life flux. But is a Bergsonian indeterminacy the same as quantum probabilistic logic? Indeed, in the same way that Einstein disagreed with Bohr vis-a-vis deterministic and probabilistic logic, Einstein also had an infamous debate with Bergson on the scientific versus the philosophical nature of the mechanics of time. However, it is also clear that Deleuze’s Bergsonianism does not think a temporality that can be reduced to probability amplitudes, and thus, Deleuze cannot be situated in the classical or the quantum view of mechanics. Here we are challenged to think a temporality of a radical cut or break with the past. This is not a temporality where things are determined from all time like a moving image of eternity, and this is not a temporality where things can or can not be in relation to an a priori set of possibilities, but instead a time where something totally New can emerge, something that could never have been found in a pre-existing set of possibilities, like a probability amplitude or a deterministic telos. Or as Žižek states (15):
“the rise of the New cannot be fully accounted for by the set of its pre-existing conditions” and that “this does not mean that we have encountered a limitation of our knowledge, our inability to understand the “higher” reason at work here, but, on the contrary, that we have demonstrated the ability of our mind to grasp the non-All of reality.”
In this way we can see why Žižek would be sympathetic with Bohr’s reaction to Einstein vis-a-vis God’s knowing, i.e. we should not assume that God himself is certain of the structure of being. Indeed, did not God himself, the Absolute substance, transform himself into an individual human subject, precisely so that there could be a space of freedom, where there could be a space for the emergence of something radically New?
Thus, from the Deleuzian perspective, what science or common sense misses in regards physical nature, is the underlying non-All of virtuality. It is not that what we empirically observe, what we sense, is a necessarily logical All overdetermined by a pre-existing totality of potentiality. In this situation the physical order we know, the biological order we know, and the symbolic order we know would be determined to be the way that they are by some higher order of reason. What Deleuze is emphasizing is that underlying any order of appearance, underlying any order of sense, is the non-sense of virtual multiplicity. What we cannot see or sense is the infinite virtual web of difference. Thus, the emergence of the physical order could have been otherwise, the emergence of the biological order could have been otherwise, and the emergence of the symbolic order could have been otherwise. Indeed, could it be that a physical order, a biological order, and a symbolic order are in-themselves not necessary orders but radically contingent becomings? What other possible orders of appearance are possible within the non-All of virtual multiplicity? Is it possible for us to even think this? Given how little we know about the emergence of alternative orders in nature we must leave this as a philosophical question currently without clear logical answers.
However, we are now going to switch our focus. In the past few slides we have been focused on the radical nature of general Deleuzian virtuality vis-a-vis potentiality. But when we think Hegel, we are not thinking this Deleuzian virtuality, but rather the nature of potentiality, the way in which a particular set of virtual structures deploys its inherent potential. Thus is it possible that we can find synergies between Deleuzian virtuality, which may find a general application to cosmology and nature, with the Hegelian notion of potentiality, which is uniquely situated in its application to the human universe?
First, let’s consider the Deleuzian Straw Man of Hegel. For Deleuze, Hegel was the ultimate madman that pretended to know everything. Here we can think of Hegel as embodying the big Other itself, as the Other guaranteeing the consistency and coherence of the symbolic order itself, the philosopher who would seek to convince us that the tree of knowledge would close the circle of becoming. Of course, in this conception we must somehow accept that one mind through self-reflection had been capable of deducing the whole of reality in logical procedures generated by the self-movement of his own ideation or conceptualization. In this system we would be in a situation where there was nothing really new under the sun, we would be in a situation where everything is already known, the end of history in the idea is already determined, and all we need to do is actualize its necessity. Surely the most convincing hypothesis for such a series of conjectures would not include the affirmation of this totalizing frame, but rather the presupposition that this totalization masked a personal traumatic truth that became a constitutive feature of Hegel’s own self-identity. However, as we have already attempted to demonstrate in the first lecture of this chapter, this Hegelian Straw Man can be combatted with recourse to the Hegelian Iron Man.
Indeed, the Hegelian Iron Man is well aware of the inconsistency and incoherence of the big Other, aware that every set of knowledge, every totalizing system of ideation, is doomed to disintegration. The Hegelian Iron Man is aware that the only Master within the human universe is Death itself, which situates Hegel firmly on the side of abyssal negativity over a naive totalizing ideational sublation.
With the Hegelian Iron Man we are instead invited to think the real of virtual potentiality. This real of virtual potentiality is organized under the regime of the atemporal concept, or the atemporal matrix, which is radically limited by certain existential conditions that are fundamental to the nature of human beings.
Here we must pass from the infinite multiplicity of Deleuzian contingent virtuality to the infinite singularity of Hegelian necessary potentiality. Or, to quote Žižek (16):
“Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? […] This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.”
In other words, whereas Deleuze emphasizes a virtuality that allows us to think the radically non-human realm of contingent multiplicities, Hegel seems to emphasize the way in which this virtual multiplicity becomes internalized within the human universe as a necessary singularity. Thus, here Žižek is emphasizing that the difference or antagonism between Deleuze and Hegel is in some sense related to Deleuze’s reliance on Spinozan Absolute substance as opposed to the way in which Hegel radically subjectivizes the Absolute (a topic we will cover in great detail in a later lecture).
However, if we are willing to accept the nature of a radically subjectivized Absolute, an Absolute that radically hinges on the contingent emergence of a self-posited necessity, then we are capable of thinking the way in which Hegel knew that the big Other operated in its absence, the way in which Hegel knew that the absence of the One was the constitutive overdetermining feature of the One. Here we do not have a simplistic relation between deterministic process or probabilistic process. The radicality of overdetermination is that a One, a self-consciousness, can in its individuality, embody the whole universe and retroactively transform its coordinates. This is the Hegelian conception of Christ. In the same way that Christ was a singularity that transformed being, Hegel conceived of Christ as the highest manifestation of the general Concept. The Hegelian Thing is thinking the entire field of such beings, the entire field where self-relating Ones can overdetermine history with the concept. It is in this way that an infinite virtual multiplicity becomes, via the unique nature of human conceptual potentiality, an infinite actual singularity on the horizon of speculative dialectical historical becoming.
Now, since we have taken the time to consider Deleuze’s World, let us take the time to consider Hegel’s World. In Hegel’s World there is no history proper in Nature. Whereas Deleuze conceives of the Absolute as a historical evolutionary phenomena in its totality with no distinction between substance and subject; Hegel conceives of the Absolute as becoming radically divided with the emergence of the subject which introduces an atemporal or eternal dimension into the pure evolutionary temporality of being. Thus, when Darwinian critics of Hegel suggest that Hegel could not think the Darwinian universe of evolutionary forms they completely miss the point of Hegelian historicity. The point of Hegelian historicity is not that the pre-human or non-human world does not change over time, the point of Hegelian historicity is the exact opposite, that it is with the emergence of the human world that the eternal Thing becomes a feature of evolutionary becoming. For Hegel, there is no history in evolutionary biology precisely because the biological order as a whole is not at stake, that there is a perfect circle of life and death, the circle repeats itself endlessly until its physical support disintegrates (as in life on Earth will end only when the Sun itself implodes). As Žižek states (17):
“Life eternally repeats its cycle and returns to itself: substance is again and again reasserted, children become parents, and so on. The circle here is perfect, at peace with itself.”
However, with the emergence of the human world, the entirety of the symbolic order is at stake, eternity is at stake. Thus, any recourse to the human symbolic universe as metaphorically similar to an ecology of diverse biological forms totally misses the Hegelian dimension of history. Lions, tigers and bears are not similar to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Lions, tigers and bears are not China, United States and Russia. Lions, tigers and bears are not similar to quantum field theory, string theory and loop quantum gravity. Once again, when we consider the multiplicity of symbolic forms, the totality of the symbolic order is at stake. To quote Žižek (18):
““life doesn’t have history because it is totalizing only externally” — it is a universal genus which encompasses the multitude of individuals who struggle, but this unity is not posited in an individual. In spiritual history, on the contrary, this totalization occurs for itself, it is posited as such in the singular figures which embody universality against its own particular content.”
In this way, the difference between Hegel and evolutionary biology is the focus on the way in which the subject totalizes the whole of nature, embodying universality of a process as a singular necessity. Here we find a space where figures of consciousness as seemingly different as Jesus Christ, Donald Trump, and Ed Witten are conceived as part of the same Absolute process of symbolic totalization.
This form of singular universality is not a new higher substance, like a Platonic One, or like God, but instead the subject’s own abyssal circularity. The subject is what spirals in on itself, spirals in on its own freedom, on its own space where it can overdetermine the course of universal history. Here, somehow, we are dealing with a paradoxical phenomenon where a universal becomes embodied in a particular. How else are we to explain the emergence of Buddha? How else are we to explain the emergence of Jesus? How else are we to explain the emergence of Plato? How else are we to explain the emergence of any great figure of history, or indeed, any figure of consciousness whatsoever?
When we think about the nature of figures of consciousness, we are dealing with the nature of entities that hold in themselves the whole. This whole did not exist before their emergence, but rather, the whole as substance becomes reflected in the singularity of a hole, a rupture in spacetime where substance comes to reflect on itself as totality. Or as we quoted from Deleuze noted in the last lecture: “my wound existed before me; I was born to embody it”. Thus, when we can only think the Absolute as substance we only have a system where life transforms itself from substance to substance, where child becomes parent; but with history as Hegel conceives history, we are dealing with the process of substance to subject, where a child may not necessarily become a parent (indeed, both Buddha and Jesus did not engage in the cycle of reproduction), but it may become a reflection of the totality of being.
There is, in this process of substance to subject, something that is very difficult to think. And yet Hegel is the only philosopher in the German Idealist quartet who seems capable of thinking it: that is the fundamental abyssal circularity that must be articulated when thinking the Absolute as substance and also as subject. This abyssal circularity is difficult to think precisely because we must conceive of the fact that there is no final ground, no final entity, that would guarantee the totality of the process. In other words, if the Absolute is substance and subject, we must accept that there is no Absolute subject, there is no mega or master Spirit that would close and complete the circle, or that would function as a coherent and consistent background. Instead we find a historical process that is nothing but the play of de-centered subjectivity where contingent figures of consciousness find themselves, temporarily, at the center. Consider this very process that is occurring at this moment with the reading of Less Than Nothing. What is occurring is that a figure of consciousness, Slavoj Žižek, is attempting to articulate the totality of the Absolute as substance and subject. In this situation he is occupying, temporarily, the position of a center. However, then another subject, in this situation me, your narrator, attempts to take the baton and continue the process of the Absolute becoming, and in this sense, temporarily, occupy the position of a center. But, of course, neither Žižek nor myself, can become the Absolute subject, the subject that would bring consistency and coherence to the symbolic order, that would provide a background for the abyssal circularity of your subjectivity or the subjectivity of any form of other consciousness whatsoever.
Indeed, this paradoxical play of temporal forms of consciousness is the Absolute becoming, a becoming that is a pure repetition of eternally incomplete closure, of a repetition that persists beyond idealization. Here we must be quick to remember it is this dimension that continues to move independent of a naive understanding of sublation, that continues to move due to an internally generated singular necessity, that continues to move because there is a non-Other. Or as Žižek states (19):
“In a subjective process, there is no “absolute subject”, no permanent central agent playing with itself the game of alienation and disalienation, losing or dispersing itself and then re-appropriating its alienated content: after a substantial totality is dispersed, it is another agent — previously its subordinated moment — which re-totalizes it. It is this shifting of the center of the process from one moment to another which distinguishes a dialectical process from the circular movement of alienation and its overcoming; it is because of this shift that the ‘return to itself” coincides with accomplished alienation (when a subject re-totalizes the process, its substantial unity is fully lost). In this precise sense, substance returns to itself as subject, and this trans-substantiation is what substantial life cannot accomplish.”
In other words, there is nothing like a process of re-totalization in the present in the biological order. This is why we may say that the biological order has no center, proper. In contrast to the biological order, the physical order has a center outside of itself (like for example with black holes); and we may say, that the symbolic order has a center inside of itself, a center that manifests in the actualization of a singular necessity that attempts to re-totalize substance. What is here “growing” in the symbolic order? What is here the consequence of this “individuation” within the symbolic order? This may seem like a central question for the future of Hegelian philosophy.
Now we must consider a strange phenomenon that is in some sense the opposite challenge to the contemporary negation or supposed Deleuzian overcoming of Hegel as the Straw Man Absolute Idealist. This is the image of the “deflated Hegel”. Žižek here claims that this notion of Hegel is the image presented by the “Pittsburgh Hegelians”, an image of Hegel that tames Hegel to the evolutionary historicist universe. With the “deflated Hegel” we have a Hegel that is situated as in some sense subordinated to the contemporary scientific moment. In other words, we have a Hegel that is subordinated to the moment of complexity science and evolutionary science.
From this perspective the truth of the Hegelian view is nothing other then the self-reflective structure of human becoming. In this frame we focus on the interesting nature of categorical reflection, that we may say that categorical reflection is something that emerges at a particular level of complexity and organization. Here human beings are part of a general process of complexification and organization within a material evolutionary view. We can easily see here how Žižek would see this as a hopelessly simplistic and deflated Hegel, a Hegel whose true revolutionary dimension is ignored. Here to quote Žižek directly (20):
“far from describing an ontological or cosmic process through which an entity called Notion externalizes itself in nature and then returns to itself from it, all Hegel tried to do was to provide “some manageable account of the nature of the categorical […] necessity for spirit-concepts in making sense of what these [human] organisms are doing, saying, and building.” This kind of avoidance of full ontological commitment, of course, brings us close to Kantian transcendentalism.”
What we miss when we merely think about Hegelian dialectics as a passive reflection on being in this dimension is the connection between human epistemology (our concepts or notions) and ontological materialism (evolution of nature). In other words, we miss the epistemological consequences of ontological evolutionary materialism; or the general consequences of human epistemology. Human knowledge constructs to not merely passively reflecting being in a Newtonian reflection correspondence, but instead, radically invade into being, suggesting that the hole in our knowledge is a part of a hole in being itself. Without this radical epistemological-ontological connection Žižek is right to claim that there is no difference between a passive reflective deflated Hegel and simple standard evolutionary materialism where philosophy should, indeed, simply disregard Hegel in favour of Deleuze (21):
“The point should fully and explicitly accept the gap which manifests itself in the incompatibility of the two stances [i.e. evolutionary materialism or speculative idealism]: the transcendental standpoint is in a sense irreducible, for one cannot look “objectively” at oneself and locate oneself in reality; and the task is to think this impossibility itself as an ontological fact, not only as an epistemology limitation.
In other words, the task is to think this impossibility not as a limit, but as a positive fact — and this, perhaps, is what at his most radical Hegel does.”
How can we make sense of this statement? Here let’s again consider Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, as someone who stands within the symbolic order as an evolutionary biologist, will boldly endorse the view that the totality of being can be described with evolutionary concepts. However, what this misses, for Žižek’s Hegel, is the fact that his own intervention into history as a singular necessity attempts to claim totality of the symbolic order itself, seeking to annihilate all religion from the face of the earth. In other words, we have to think, not the actuality of evolutionary materialism, but the way a singular necessary force of Richard Dawkins is itself an ontological fact of the Thing, how his own knowledge constructs seek to reconcile a hole in being itself, where the contemporary state of collective understanding is seen as “problematic”, “inconsistent”, “incoherent”, and so forth.
Thus, moving towards a conceptualization of the Absolute as both substance and subject we may here attempt to explore a figure that captures this notion. Here we do not just have a teleological evolutionary materialism moving from something like big bang to global civilization. The idea of a progressive teleological evolutionary materialism may situate something like the deflated Hegel as merely reflecting the becoming of material process. However, if we are to situate the Hegelian Iron Man in an image we must attempt to capture the way in which human epistemology or knowledge constructs directly signal the emergence of an overlapping void between our own being and substantive being itself. Categorical reflection is not just something that emerges at a particular level of complexity and organization, but rather signals the failure of substance itself, the necessity of subjectivity to reconcile being itself.
Here the Hegelian “circle of circles” is set in motion to articulate Hegel’s nuanced understanding of closure and the symbolic differentiation of the Absolute with the emergence of subjectivity. Thus we do not just have a perfect circle of life where child becomes parent becomes child becomes parent but a process where the totality of substance itself becomes reflected into particular subjectivity which leads to the essentialization of the concept. This essentialization of the concept runs the totality of the curved surface of the circle of circles in the realm of its externalization in the substance of being, and back again in the realm of its internalization in the subject of reflection. In that sense, when we consider any subject whatsoever as part of the Absolute becoming, we should not only think of the way in which the concept is mirroring or corresponding to some externalized set within substantive being, but also the way in which this concept is emerging from and returning to an internalized subjective reflection which is the a priori mysterious X that frames the substance. In other words, the problem of substance could always have been viewed otherwise, could always have been acted in relation to otherwise, could always have been reconceived. Indeed, throughout the totality of motion of subjective becoming, this is in fact what does happen. Thus, the popular identity structure of Richard Dawkins as the evolutionary biologist seeking to annihilate religion, for example, is only the manifestation of an identity structure reflecting the substance of being in a particular problematic frame seeking reconciliation at this particular moment of the identity structures becoming. In this sense it is not that Dawkins is too evolutionary, on the contrary, he is too eternalist, not seeing within his own identity structure the temporal play of figures of consciousness, of the way in which he is a part of the becoming of the Absolute.
Here Žižek is quick to point out that any conceptualization of Hegel as articulating an Absolute as a perfect circle does not understand the Hegelian dialectic. The reason why the circle of circles, or the inside-inverted eight is a more accurate representation is because we here capture the repetition of closure, and thus the irreducibly repetitive dimension of sublation. Any closure, any sublation, that was actually a complete closure, a complete sublation, would obviously not repeat itself, but would close in on itself and end time itself. To quote Žižek (22):
“The problem with [a] full circle is that it is too perfect, that its self-enclosure is double — its very circularity is re-marked in yet another circular mark. In other words, the very repetition of the circle undermines its closure and surreptitiously introduces a gap into which radical contingency is inscribed: if the circular closure, in order to be actual, has to be re-asserted as closure, this means that, in itself, it is not yet truly a closure — it is only (the contingent excess of) its repetition which makes it a closure.”
From this Žižek notes an important connection between the Hegelian Absolute as substance and subject with the fact that Lacan also frequently references a figure eight as constituting the structure of subjectivity. Indeed, as we will cover later in the series, Lacan explicitly utilizes the geometry of Möbius band/strip in order to think the paradoxical way in which the subject flips from the dream to the world. When we think of the subject in this way we can easily conceive how both Hegel and Lacan are capable of thinking the finitude and mortality of the subject, while simultaneously not reducing the subject to this finitude and mortality. The subject, in its fundamental limitation, is self-finitized, and self-mortalized, in a sense, but is in-itself the totality of an infinite and immortal structure that is, properly, unconscious, not capable of being totally conscious of this totality. Indeed, if it were totally conscious of this structure as totality it would not be able to introduce a cut, a distinction, a division, a repetition; and thus, would not be a barred subject of the signifying chain.
It is in this sense in which Lacan thinks of the subject as irreducibly separated from its own Cause. When the subject attempts to close the symbolic order, as for example when Richard Dawkins repetitively insists that evolutionary materialism explains the totality of being and religious fundamentalism should be totally abandoned, we have the structure of the subject attempting to close on itself, to realize itself, to merge with what Lacan refers to as the objet petit a, the virtuality that would reconcile all oppositional determinations in a singularity of being. The trick here for a historically minded philosopher is understanding the motion of all such reconciliations, of all such demands for an end to the mad dance of oppositional determinations. One figure of consciousness cannot close the binary of liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism. Of course, it is the very critique of liberal secularism that it is too individualist, that it cannot handle the excess of the community of Love, or the Holy Spirit.
Thus, we can also attempt to conceptualize this “circle of circles” in its process of becoming in relation to the totality of history. Here we start, simply, with the perfect circle of life substance repeating itself in cycles of birth and death. However, life as such is not reflective on the nature of death. For life, death simply is, a biological form simply is finite and mortal, and not reflective of this finite and mortal status as such. There is, thus, no conflict between something of substantial being and nothing of insubstantial non-being. It is only with the emergence of spirit that this perfect circle is disturbed from within. In this way spirit is not an addition to substance, but a subtraction from substance, a radical hole in substance itself, a radical failure of substance to fully totalize itself. This is where we must think the nature of the subject that repetitively attempts (and fails) to re-totalize substance within the symbolic order. There is symbolization, there is a totality of symbolism stabilizing the meaning of the subject, precisely because substance has failed to fully become itself.
Thus we have the connection between Hegel and psychoanalysis in the sense that knowledge is what guards a primordial trauma at the core of being itself. In this way, when God provocatively claims that one should not eat from the tree of knowledge against the tree of life, should we not read this as the structure of the unconscious itself where truth and knowledge diverge; or in a scientific world where knowledge is the same as truth, perhaps we should read this as where truth and the real diverge? If this is a useful direction, one should always be aware of the way in which essentialization occurs against the background of the abyss of the real truth, within the overlapping void between our knowledge and being itself.
In this structure we have a balancing act that cannot fully balance itself, a balancing act between the something of a life force and the nothing of a death drive. Here where the life force is on the side of future generations, the death drive is on the side of the dissolution of life. However, this being on the side of the dissolution of life is not in favour of the pure abyss of nothing, but in favour of the affirmation of an immortal Truth that lifts itself in and for itself, that would cancel homeostatic biological functioning. Thus we find a tension that is fundamental to biology and culture, between life and the concept or the idea. We may think of this process as balanced between the two sides of the subject, or rather, the side of the personality attempting to maintain itself in the world, and the side of the subject, which is in-itself not of the world, but of the void of its own self-relation. If the subject is structured like an inside-inverted eight, or a Möbius band/strip, then we may say that Love for Life (Something) is on one side, and the Love of Death (Nothing) is on the other side. In this process we may say that the totality of the process tends towards Truth, tends towards the essentialization of the concept, for the contingent multiplicity of being to transform itself into the singular self-necessity of the concept. What is thus immanent to this process is the total break down of biological repetition, what is thus immanent to this process is thus the (patient) notional mediation of reality, of a spiritual repetition that is purely for-itself (23):
“If life is a substantial universality, is not then what inserts itself in the gap between its Notion and the Notion’s actualization, and what thereby breaks the substantial circularity of life, death? To put it bluntly: if Substance is Life, is the Subject not Death? Insofar as, for Hegel, the basic feature of pre-subjective Life is the “spurious infinity” of the eternal reproduction of the life substance through the incessant movement of the generation and corruption of its elements — that is, the “spurious infinity” of a repetition without progress — the ultimate irony we encounter here is what Freud, who called this excess of death over life the “death drive”, conceived it precisely as repetition, as a compulsion to repeat. Can Hegel think this weird repetition which is not progress, but also not the natural repetition through which substantial life reproduces itself? A repetition which, by its excessive insistence, breaks precisely with the cycle of natural repetition?”
Can we once again revisit the central concepts that structure the tension or antagonism between Deleuze, the anti-Hegelian, and Hegel, the philosopher of history? To start we considered the possibility that Deleuze is the true philosophical successor of Hegel, that Deleuze was capable of thinking a realm that Hegel could not think due to his insistence on identity and sublation over difference and repetition. However, upon deeper reflection on the Iron Man of Hegel, is this really the case? Can we really say that Deleuze was capable of “going beyond” Hegel?
We saw that the Hegelian identity was not a closure that prevented the emergence of radical difference; we saw that the Hegelian identity was not a formation that prevented the emergence of the radically new; we saw that the Hegelian identity was not a formation that negated multiplicity, but rather affirmed the unique historical appearance of singularity; we saw that Hegelian historicity was not something that negated the Deleuzian attempt to think the non-human in-itself, but rather was something that sought to explore the way in which the concept actualized itself towards transcendence of the inhuman in-itself, or the spiritual. Is there, then, a way for us to connect Deleuze and Hegel? Is there a way for us to think a Deleuze that was grounded in thinking the non-human externality and at the same time think a Hegel that was grounded in thinking the inhuman within? What would a philosophy look like that was capable of thinking both Deleuze and Hegel?
Here we may see a representation that starts to think this. In this representation we revisit the Deleuzian cosmology which shows us that every positive dimension of being, every positive order of sense, is in fact something that came into being in relation to a pure field of virtual differences. In that sense the physical order could have been other wise, and the biological order could have been otherwise. Thus we have physics and biology, we have non-human phenomena, as part of a Cantorian infinite multiplicity, as part of Meillassoux’s “non-totalizable sets of possibilities”. However, with the emergence of the symbolic order, with the emergence of an Absolute as substance but also subject, we have the introduction, not of non-totalizable sets of possibilities, but instead, “eternal sets of possible totalizations”. This is to say that with the emergence of the symbolic order we have a phenomenon that attempts to lift the in-itself of contingent substance in relation to an infinite virtual field to the for-itself of spirit in relation to its own infinite singular core which subtracts itself from being. Here is not the “blind seer” as the infinite virtual spider Weaver, the Weaver of a multiverse of possible worlds, not the very form of subjectivity in-itself prior to its true actualization for-itself?
Indeed, if this is the case, we have covered that the way in which this transformation from substance to subject occurs, from an infinite multiplicity of possible worlds, to the infinite singularity of an actual world, is through the abyssal circularity of free self-positing which takes a contingent substance (one of the possible virtual structures) and lifts it via notional mediation to an absolute necessity. Here we must think, as we will revisit in the last lecture of the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself, the logical move from “It is so because it is so” (as in the brutal facts of physical nature) to “It is so because I want it so, because I decided it so!” (as in the brutal facts of the symbolic order). It is from this stand point, perhaps, that we should attempt to think both Deleuze and Hegel together.
This brings us to a closure of Chapter 4-Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? In this chapter we started our dive into the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself by properly confronting some core Hegelian concepts related to negativity, subjectivity, and the Absolute. We also, perhaps most importantly, attempted to differentiate the Straw Man and the Iron Man of Hegel, and then sought to put this Iron Man of Hegel into conversation with both Marx (in Part 1) and Deleuze (in Part 2) in order to engage the ways in which we might rethink Hegel in contemporary philosophy. Hopefully this two part treatment of Chapter 4 was a helpful companion to reading the chapter itself, and its introduction to the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? p. 212.
(2) ibid. 226.
(3) ibid. 215.
(4) ibid. 227.
(5) ibid. 226.
(6) ibid. 216.
(8) ibid. 229.
(11) ibid. 229-230.
(12) ibid. 229.
(13) ibid. 230.
(15) ibid. 231.
(17) ibid. 233.
(18) ibid. 233-234.
(19) ibid. 235.
(20) ibid. 237.
(21) ibid. 230.
(22) ibid. 236.
(23) ibid. 240.