YouTube video here: Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx
Welcome to Lecture 8 of Less Than Nothing. In this lecture we are going to be able to cover the entirety of the content in one [transcript], since we are dealing with the first interlude in Part 2 of the Hegelian Thing-in-Itself. In this interlude we are going to be attempting to think through the universal dimension of capitalism, both from the perspective of Marx’s discovery of the gap that separates use and exchange value of spectral virtual capital, and in a possible way to rethink this dimension for today without the ideological dimension of presupposing the state of World Communism. In order to achieve this aim we are going to be putting Marx into retroactive conversation with Hegel.
We immediately start this chapter with a reflection on what Žižek thinks is a crucial turning point in Hegel’s political thought. The reason why this turning point is highlighted is because it represents a structural ideological formation that we should remember for today. According to Žižek, the young Hegel was obsessed with the “non-alienated” society of Ancient Greece. Hegel, in short, idealized the Ancient Greeks and thought that there community was an organic formation of authentic communal love as opposed to the contemporary modern world of autonomous egotistic individuals. For the young Hegel the modern world of autonomous egotistic individuals was “cold, abstract, objective” (1), whereas the ancient Greek world of organic communal harmony was a home where the subject could recognize itself in its true substance.
What were the consequences of this belief and why does Žižek emphasize that the transition away from this belief was a crucial development in Hegelian thought relevant for today? The consequences of this belief were that Hegel was not at first able to recognize the necessity of subjective freedom of modernity, but even more importantly, Hegel was able to shed the idea that we had lost a perfect unity and, consequently, that we should attempt to regain this lost unity. To quote Žižek (2):
“Hegel soon accepted that the subjective freedom of modernity has to be accepted, that the organic unity of the polis is forever lost”
However, there is a crucial twist here that is related to an important and some may think paradoxical interpretation of the role of capitalism in this modern individualistic drama. Hegel is still interested in the reconciliation of subject and substance, on what we may call the “State of Reason”. Here one may think that capitalism as a universal intermediary for the interaction of individuals is what actually drives individuals apart, what breaks apart the harmonious primordial communal unity. But what if capitalism as a universal force does precisely the opposite? With the emergence of capitalism we have the paradoxical phenomenon where autonomous egotistic individuals, by following their own best private interest, contributes to the welfare of the rest of society. Of course, we know this idea well in Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand”.
What Hegel is trying to capture with this reflexive move is to see the way in which one does not achieve reconciliation by way of a return to an idealized communal band or polis. One cannot achieve reconciliation by sacrificing the subjective freedom of the individual, and thus, the formation of a market economy in the modern world, Hegel assumes, must be a necessary stage or mediation in the development of the Absolute. To quote Žižek (3):
“It is thus not simply that one has to “overcome” the mechanical or external interaction of civil society in a higher organic unity: civil society and its disintegration plays a crucial mediating role, so that the true reconciliation (which does not abolish modern subjective freedom) has to recognize how this disintegration is in itself already its opposite, a force of integration. Reconciliation is thus radically immanent: it implies a shift in perspective with regard to what was first appeared as disintegration.”
Let us then take a closer look at the structure of thought in the “young progressive Hegel” versus the structure of thought in the “old conservative Hegel”. First one may note from Lectures 6 and 7 “Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?” the structure of Hegelian temporality and its transition from an ideological intuitive structure of harmonious perfection to a rational narrativistic structure of eternal division. What one finds here is that the “young progressive Hegel” thought of reconciliation of subject and substance in terms of the fall from a perfect One and a return to a perfect One. Here ancient Greek life represented the past perfect One and a future polis that re-actualized the ancient Greek life represented the future perfect One. Is this not the very elementary coordinates of the progressive political ideological apparatus? Is there not a structure in our minds that remembers an organic lost unity and directly posits the construction of a higher communal sphere capable of including all subjectivity in its immanent substance? Is there not a structure in our minds that experiences the radicality of modern individual freedom as an uncomfortable burden presenting to our consciousness antagonisms which seem impossible to reconcile?
What changes in the “old conservative Hegel” is that we recognize that the past perfect unity is first and foremost an illusion. Of course the ancient Greek mode of life was not a perfect harmonious communal polis. Of course there were dimensions of antagonism in the ancient Greek mode of life. Every imagined past unity, whether it is in the mode of the notion that the ancient hunter gatherers had a perfect life or whether it is in the mode of the notion that the early United States had a perfect life (i.e. “Make America Great Again”), what we are dealing with here is some seemingly fundamental cognitive structure that emerges in retrospect but does not represent some actual literal past.
What this means is that, for the “old conservative Hegel” we must read the divisions and antagonisms in the present as constitutive of the becoming of the Absolute’s narrativization. We are not falling from and returning to perfect unity as Absolute, but rather, we are the Absolute itself in its becoming where division internal to the Absolute is necessary for the Absolute’s self-revelation. The consequence is that we read the division of the modern individualistic society in its antagonism between the free subject and the objective social order as already providing us with the resources for reconciliation. To quote Žižek (4):
“insofar as civil society is the sphere of alienation, of the separation between subjectivity persisting in its abstract individuality and an objective social order opposing it as an external necessity limiting its freedom, the resources for reconciliation should be found in this very sphere […], not in the passage to another “higher” sphere.”
The perspectival shift at work here thus one between perfect harmony as constitutive of the Absolute and antagonistic conflict as constitutive of the Absolute. Here, of course, the mature or conservative mode is to understand antagonistic conflict as constitutive of the Absolute. In order words, it is not perfect harmonious idealization that brings people together, but rather the antagonistic conflict that brings people together. In Hegelian historicity the harmonious idealized times are the times of non-history within history, they are simply not inscribed into the Absolute. In this way struggle, failure, disruption, strife, antagonism, and so forth, is precisely where the real action is.
Žižek attempts to further demonstrate this with one of his many forms of the Rabinovitch joke that can be found throughout Less Than Nothing (5):
“There are two reasons modern society is reconciled with itself. The first is the interaction within civil society…”
“But civil-society interaction is a matter of constant strife, the very mechanism of disintegration, of ruthless competition!”
“Well, this is the second reason, since this very strife and competition makes individuals thoroughly interdependent and thus creates the ultimate social link…”
We are dealing here with classical perspectival shifts that are constitutive of Hegelian philosophy. What at first seems like the cause of a disintegration is in fact the very necessity of the Absolute self-becoming which produces new antagonisms which will only be possible to read in retrospect. In other words, it is not that, for example, the abstract individualism of the Christian Empire or Market Capitalism destroyed the organic unity of the Greek City State or the Ancient Commune (as in Epicurus and Marx); but rather the abstract individualism of the Christian Empire and Market Capitalism represent solutions to social antagonisms that were fundamental to the Greek City State or the Ancient Commune. In other words, and this is really ironic, what we think we lost as a perfect unity, is actually what we as historical subjectivity ran away from.
Thus it is true that antagonisms in our present are antagonisms that historical subjectivity may not have experienced, but nonetheless, these are emergent antagonisms constitutive of the new universality, and the new universality is something that emerged in order to reconcile divisions between subject and substance that were constitutive of these forms that we now think of as perfect harmonies. From this properly Hegelian dialectical standpoint it makes absolutely no sense to idealize the hunter-gatherer past, it makes absolutely no sense to idealize the ancient Greeks, or any other past historical form. Whenever we read the past in an idealization we obfuscate the antagonisms that were constitutive of the past and that were thus transcended by past subjectivity. In that sense Hegel helps us to escape from a naive romanticism that is all too often structuring contemporary political dialogue (6):
“The whole perspective thus changes: it is no longer that the organic unity of the polis disintegrates under the corrosive influence of modern abstract individuality in its multiple modes (the market economy, Protestantism, etc.) and that this unity should somehow be restored at a higher level: the point of Hegel’s analysis of antiquity […] is that the Greek polis itself was already marked, cut through, by fatal immanent antagonisms […] which belie its organic unity. Abstract universal individualism (Christianity), far from causing the disintegration of the Greek organic unity, was, on the contrary, the necessary first step toward true reconciliation between the universal and the singular. Market competition really brings people together, while organic order divides them.”
How are we to read the antagonisms of market capitalism or religious fundamentalism in this perspective? The first thing we can note is that not only do we need genuinely new thinking, thought that can really think a new universality that is possible to construct within the sphere of our contemporary coordinates (as opposed to the construction of a totally new “higher” sphere), but also, that we should be skeptical of any call to a return to something lost, that we should be skeptical of any call that would force us to sacrifice what we won in history: our abstract individualism as universality. Individualism as a source of subjective freedom is what we must work with courageously in order to forge a new level of reconciliation between subject and substance. One may thus see, potentially, some hints of the ways in which market capitalism is actually synergistic with many dimensions of the sharing or gift economy?
Although not mentioned in this chapter, we may be at liberty to make a connection here to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society where he argues that the sharing economy is merging with market capitalism and will come to predominate and outcompete the market in the future. In that sense we do not get a higher communal unity that outcompetes market capitalism but a re-imagining of market capitalism internal to and parallel with market capitalism. However, in attempting to think this dimension of a future political-economy, we cannot idealize the sharing economy, but instead read what antagonisms will potentially structure this field, holding its subjective elements in a strong social link. Reconciliation is not a perfect unity between subject and substance, but a fundamental change in substance, where the subject comes to fight a new challenge that is experienced as absolute.
In this quest let us understand deeper the theoretical discoveries of Marx that Hegel could not see due to historical limitations. What Hegel could not see is the full development of the capitalist notion, the way in which capitalism as a parasitic structure circulates in relation to itself. Here Žižek tends to emphasize the way in which Marx emphasizes the difference between use and exchange value of capital. In the difference between use and exchange value we have the difference between capital that serves real human utility and we have capital that serves its own exchange, its own circulation, its own reproduction, in a way that is even counterproductive to the benefit of real human needs. Or to quote Žižek (7):
“The ultimate root of the crisis is for Marx the gap between use-and exchange-value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people.”
In that sense we get the image of capital as a type of inhuman monstrous virtuality structuring social systems. This monstrous virtuality is not conceived as totally qualitatively novel in the sense that, of course, an inhuman monstrous virtuality also structures pre-capitalist social systems in various forms of religious and political and economic ideology. However, Žižek emphasizes that capital takes this virtual force or notion itself to a higher level of expression. And it is in this sense that, paradoxically, Žižek argues that it is not only that we should “push Hegel towards Marx” but “Marx himself should be radicalized” (8) towards what a Hegelian notional determination that Hegel himself could not see where the disembodied notion of capital overdetermines whole social structures, countries, etc.
Here Žižek tends towards a Lacanian distinction between reality and the real. Reality is what we know as the short comings of the capitalist system: the way in which it creates or engenders unsustainable ecological catastrophes, the way in which it can lead to an enormous divide between the rich and the poor, or the way in which it can cause the collapse of pre-modern forms of social life in the traditional world. However, the Real is the very way in which the spectral logic of capital overdetermines the coordinates of modern global society. In this gap, Žižek claims, there is the cognitive disposition to “really care” about the Real of virtual futures speculation and pay lip service, essentially, to the lives of real human beings. To quote Žižek (9):
“Do not phenomena usually classed as features of “virtual capitalism” (future trading and similar financial speculations) point towards the reign of “real abstraction” at its purest, much more radical than in Marx’s time? In short, the highest form of ideology does not involve getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending to address directly “real people with their real problems”.”
In that sense we find within the field of capitalism, not only the space of modern abstract individualism, but also the fact that this space of modern abstract individualism can only come at the expense of a type of virtual force that structures a divided sphere with clear “ins” and “outs”, those who actually benefit from the circulation of capital and those who must be sacrificed for the circulation of capital. Is it possible to overcome this antagonism, is it possible to keep abstract individual freedom and dispense with its virtual capital excess which anonymously and objectively divides haves from have nots? (10):
“Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use-value and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potential of this opposition is fully realized, the domain of exchange-value acquires autonomy, is transformed into the spectre of self-propelling speculative capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic crises from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money, this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in ever more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis is for Marx the gap between use-and-exchange value: the logic of exchange value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of people.”
In that sense if there is a job for a future sharing economy to develop in parallel with market economics it needs to ensure that the exchange value of capital is re-directed towards the use value of capital, where the “Real” is structured around cycles of self-growth and not growth of capital for its own sake.
To push further with this distinction between reality and the real Žižek claims that a radicalized Marx would be able to see that the true antagonisms of capitalism are much more monstrous in their notion then he thought. Marx, of course, was a materialist who wanted to ground historical becoming in the materiality of the working class, in the real social energy of the proletariat. This is in reaction to the spectral in-itself of the life of capital. But Žižek claims that it is precisely this “disavowed gap” between our social reality and the virtual real of capital that is at the heart of the problems of contemporary capitalism, of the inability to imagine a world where this gap is obliterated, to imagine a world where human civilization can function without this parasitic virtual entity. In our contemporary universe it seems much easier to imagine a state where capitalism continues to circulate devoid of any friction even if the really existing human social fabric is in a state of increasing friction and antagonism.
In some of Žižek’s more popular documentary style monologues he here often makes reference to the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world then it is to imagine the end of capital. Here we could imagine an asteroid or some other natural catastrophe annihilating mankind, but yet capital in its disembodied virtuality would continue to circulate without any friction. The point of these provocations is to force the question of this virtual real, to call our attention to this inhuman within that seems like the ultimate point of impossibility (11):
“What if the problem of capitalism is not this solipsistic dance, but precisely the opposite: that it continues to disavow its gap with “reality”, that it presents itself as serving the real needs of real people? […] The paradox of this virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself.”
What this comparison between capitalism and quantum physics thus seeks to point out that Marx may have been all too quick to imagine a state where the “free liberated human subject” continued to achieve the same level of productivity in communist liberation independent of capital. In this formula the human subject is nothing but this virtual acceleration, this magical spinning, this excess of itself. Indeed, the human subject without this virtual acceleration, this magical spinning, this excess, is nothing at all. Take a moment to reflect on your own identity in this way. For example, I myself, my identity, my existential “mass”, is a symbolic formation that I generated by strategically accelerating my motion in the webs of capital that allowed me to pay for my existence. Of course, in this identity construction my main goal was not to maximize profit, but nonetheless, without capital I would not have been able to actualize my identity. In that sense, without my participation in webs of capital, what is my identity? (12):
“Marx’s famous thesis from The Communist Manifesto, that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air”, acquires a much more literal meaning than the one he had in mind, when our material social reality is not only dominated by the spectral or speculative movement of Capital but is itself progressively “spectralized” […] in short, when the usual relationship between solid material objects and fluid ideas is inverted (objects are progressively dissolved in fluid experiences, while the only stable things are virtual symbolic obligations) — it is only at this point that what Derrida called the spectral aspect of capitalism is fully actualized.”
In this quote it is very tempting to again find the link with free abstract individualism in the virtual internet economy and something like the emergence or transformation of market capitalism into the sharing or social economy. Here the post-industrial transition, where we move from an economy that relies on the production of material objects becomes an economy that relies on the production of virtual symbolic identities. On a meta-level is not this very video series such an example of this process that tethers us between the worlds of industrial age modernism and information age postmodernism. In a previous era I may have been a labourer in some industrial factory creating and trading concrete material objects, but now, in the current age, I find myself in a situation where the only way to create a stable identity is to engage in virtual symbolic creations and obligations. In that sense we are a far way away from the organic social harmony of Ancient Greece or the primordial commune, and instead tending towards the “spectralized” virtual real where, literally, our life identity itself becomes stabilized by speculative ideation.
This tending towards full spectralized economics is Žižek’s main aim in this section, the phenomena where money itself becomes a “purely virtual point of reference” as an “indestructible spectral presence” with no “material existence” (13). In order to demonstrate or precisely formalize this process Žižek attempts to describe the pre-capitalist mechanics of C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity) with the capitalist mechanics of M-C-M (money-commodity-money). In the first pre-capitalist formula of C-M-C we have the logic where the commodities themselves are the primary object or purpose of exchange. To quote Marx: “The simple circulation of commodities — selling in order to buy — is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants.” (14). However, this process is reversed in capitalism proper where C-M-C becomes M-C-M, where one invests money in something, not to get a specific material commodity, or set of material commodities, but in order to create more money. Zizek refers to this as the “eternalization of circulation” (15). To quote Marx again: “The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.” (16).
Here it is again important to make a pragmatic link to the actual lives of people in the world today when we are thinking truly beyond the sphere of the “eternalization” of circulation of capital. When we think about the transition from capitalism to a sharing economy-like structure, we have to think the actuality of this virtual indestructible circulation. Are we actually, in our life force, accumulating money? Are we investing money in something so that we can accumulate more money? In that sense we are contributing to the further eternalization of capital. However, when we can also invest money in something to break the virtual circle of its own propagation. Is this the way to read the potential to undermine the sphere of capital from within? Here we try to develop our free modern subjectivity without recourse to a higher communal totality, and also at the same time use capital against itself.
Here, perhaps, we can make a connection between the self-positing the presuppositions covered in Lecture 5 Fichte’s Choice (Part 2) where we have the emergence of “good infinity” (or “true infinity”) through self-limitation. The “good infinity” if one recalls is the idea of a process that curves or curled in on itself and thus acquires the minimal level of positing its own presuppositions, of engendering its own actuality as opposed to being a simple effect of an external causal chain. In that sense both the self and modern capital display this overlap in good or true infinity in the sense that both the self and capital can curl or curve in on themselves and engender their own presuppositions. In the same way that the self can, through high levels of reflection, come up with their own presuppositions of ideal spectrality (like me, for example, deciding to make this YouTube series); so can capital, through its incestuous relation to itself, come up with its own series of speculations that transform actual reality. This is what Žižek refers to as the “self-engendering speculative movement of Capital” (17). In this sense capital (just like the self in German Idealism) is not imagined as a passive medium but as an active medium that overdetermines all process (18):
“Instead of just passively assuming the two different forms of its actual existence (money – commodity), it appears as the subject “endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own”: it differentiates itself from itself, positing its otherness, and then again overcomes this difference — the entire movement is its own movement In this precise sense, “instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters… into private relations with itself”: the “truth” of its otherness is its self-relating, in its self-movement, capital retroactively “sublates” its own material conditions, changing them into subordinate moments of its own “spontaneous expansion” — in pure Hegelese, it posits its own presuppositions.”
The interesting dimension of this quote is that we get a deeper analysis that hopefully prevents us from underestimating or being naive about the structural nature of virtual capital. We are in a real virtual sense dealing with an entity that is self-engendering, a real invisible monster that is both a necessary structure liberating us from the pre-modern world (the invisible hand) and also the limiting structure that divides humanity from within due to its own self-propelling motion preventing the possibility of all humans from being fully self-actualized.
In that sense we reach what we may think of as Žižek’s main claim as to the mistake of Marx in his analysis of capitalism and communism and the main dimension that should focus future analysis. For Žižek, the mistake of Marx was his idea that we could keep the “unleashed productivity” that we gain with capitalism even when we get rid of capitalism. To quote (19):
“the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough — that is, insofar as the fundamental capitalist thrust of unleashed productivity survived in it”.
What changes, according to Žižek, in the “two fantasmatic species” of capitalism and communism, is that in capitalism we have the formula of M-C-M where the subject of capital throws money into circulation for the main purpose of maximizing profit, of generating more virtual capital; whereas the subject of communism thinks that it can maintain these dynamical effects of capital not through exchanging commodities but through exchange of pure communal social nature. In that sense we trade in the fundamental unit of the commodity that maintains capitalism and we replace it with the commune. In the fantasy of the commune we have the idea that pure social harmony can be achieved independent of its parasitic virtual supplement. From this perspective the desire for communism may be formulated by thinking that the “good infinity” of capitalism (its capability of pure inward self-relation) can be replaced with the “good infinity” of communism (of the capability of pure inward communal relation). However, the problem with these presuppositions is that they may miss the crucial dimension of the nature of capitalist subjectivity.
In regards to the nature of subjectivity and communist fantasy, a crucial comment by Žižek can be found in this regard when he claims that “neither Marx nor Freud are really able to think antagonism: ultimately, they both reduce it to a feature of (social or psychic) reality, unable to articulate it as constitutive of reality itself, as the impossibility around which reality is structured” (20). In other words, when Marx posits the fantasy of communism he assumes there is a way in which, if class relations were abolished as the fundamental historical antagonism (a “communist revolution”), we could exist within a reality without antagonism. However, Žižek, claims that this misses the way in which both particular forms of psychic and social antagonism precede their historical manifestation (as “psychic traumas” or “class relations”). Indeed, in this way we may think of the way in which “reality” is something that can only appear to itself through a thwarted substance (traumatic, divided substance), and it is this very thwarting of substance where we get the hole of a subject where things can appear, where substance can be reflected. If substance was not internally thwarted then there would not be a subject positing its own presuppositions.
Thus, Žižek attempts to make clear how by reading the nature of the subject as fundamentally divided from its substance we can see that the main goal of a revolutionary project is not to be fully reconciled in our substance, that this would co-overlap with our own disappearance (where the Idea or Notion consumes the whole of reality). In other words, we cannot be “one in substance” with our social reality, we cannot be totally transparent to ourselves and know ourselves. Since the subject is fundamentally internally de-centered from itself we have to see the way in which our self-alienation is also the alienation of substance, and this is reconciliation. Or in Žižek’s language reconciliation amounts to the subject recognizing that “its alienation from substance” is simultaneously “the separation of substance from itself”.
What we can make of this is a political-economy of the impossible. The political-economy of the impossible would not be a world where we all live in harmonious communes but a world where we all recognize the point of impossibility within ourselves which stimulates our drives or motion, and that we derive an enjoyment from this drive or motion. For example, the naive idealistic notion for myself may be that I conceive of myself fully actualized by making this YouTube series, that I conceive of myself as being recognized by the greatest scholars or that I conceive of myself being recognized by millions of viewers around the world, and that I imagine that in this state my subjectivity would be fully recognized in its substance, fully one with its substance, fully known and transparent to myself. However, the truth is that this illusion or distortion in no way represents an actuality of full substantial harmony. The truth of my identity in fact nothing but recognizing that I am already reconciled in my substance through narrativizing my separation. I am already operating in relation to my point of impossibility. I am not in a mode of approaching the impossible goal and being one with substance, I am operating in relation the point of impossibility in the present and enjoying this rotary motion.
In that sense can we think of a horizon outside of capital that is capable of generating a frictionless or at least a reduced friction, not of capital in the contemporary global oligarch economy, but in the motion of engendering self-impossibility. The point to emphasize is that we are not interested in a harmonious communal reconciliation. Utopia is anti-human. Instead we are truly interested in finding our own motion with an inhuman point of impossibility internal to ourselves. When I am a free modern subjectivity creating in relation to the highest notion I can conceive, I am already reconciled. The problem is to conceive such a world that is in-itself universal, where the “de-centered subject” without recourse to a return to substantial nature or substantial commune or substantial God; is capable of becoming with its point of impossibility. To quote Žižek (21):
““Reconciliation” between subject and substance means the acceptance of this radical lack of any firm foundational point: the subject is not its own origin, it comes second, it is dependent upon its substantial presuppositions; but these presuppositions also do not have a substantial consistency of their own but are always retroactively posited.”
What all of this means in as simple of terms possible is that we should attempt as best as we can to discard of any impossible reconciliation as a substantial in-itself. These can manifest as a substantial reconciliation with nature, with community, with the supernatural and so forth. What Žižek is trying to communicate is that these impossibilities need to be read as purely in-themselves, as a type of virtual field of the subject that is constitutive for the becoming of the subject. In that sense reconciliation or liberation is recognizing and enjoying the abyssal play of this pure field that is open to presupposing your own impossibility. Again, to use my self as as self-reflective example, in creating this YouTube channel I am not actualizing a potential that was already substantially there, but something that emerged from my own presuppositions as an impossibility for my self-realization. However, if I analyze my identity structure from my early development to the present, it is nothing but a becoming in relation to these retroactively posited points of impossibility. This is true for the version of myself that wanted to be a superhero, to the version of myself that wanted to be a sports star, to the version of myself that wanted to understand the origin of humans, to the version of myself that is talking to you now. The subject is nothing but this process of becoming in relation to points of impossibility (22):
“The task of contemporary theory is thus double: on the one hand, to repeat the Marxist “critique of political-economy” without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard; on the other hand, to imagine really breaking out of the capitalist horizon without falling into the trap of returning to the eminently premodern notion of a balanced, (self-)restrained society (the “pre-Cartesian” temptation to which most contemporary ecology succumbs).”
In that sense we can revisit the difference between the young progressive Hegel and the old conservative Hegel as the difference between Marx and Hegel. For Hegel the future is unknowable in-itself since the mechanism of positing the presuppositions must be extended to the future also. This is again the difference from Lecture 6 between the Owl of Minerva and the Gaelic Rooster, where the Gaelic Rooster is the agent of absolute knowledge who pretends to know the future independent of his own subjective interventions; and the Owl of Minerva is the agent whose absolute knowing is inclusive of this limitation, that the absolute is only accessible as a particular partially engaged entity that can only know itself retroactively. This difference should not paralyze us in our action, but rather, should help us to understand that any action we engage in should never be disengaged from the necessity of repetitive deep interpretation since we will never be able to predict the ways in which our own interventions in social reality will transform social reality (23):
“Our thinking wants to “jump ahead of its time” and project a future; [Hegel’s] point is that such thinking is always and by definition “ideological”, mistaken: its intervention into Being generates something unexpected, totally different from what was projected. Therein resides the lesson of the French Revolution: the pure thought of universal equality and freedom, imposing itself onto social Being, generated the Terror. […] Present antagonisms are not readable in their own terms; they are like the Benjaminian traces which are readable only from the future.”
Here recall the Absolute Being or the Absolute Substance that emerges at the dawn of philosophy. What does the Hegelian reading of the Absolute force us to conclude? In this structure of Absolute Being or Absolute Substance we have the image of reconciliation. In our intuitions we can imagine the pureness of this being, that there are no contradictions or antagonisms, that it is eternal peace and eternal rest. This, in short, is our intuition of a heavenly divine state. However, what philosophy can no longer think after Hegel, is precisely this state of Absolute Being or Substance, since Hegel’s Absolute must also inscribe the subject of its becoming, where the Absolute Being or the Absolute Substance appears.
To quote Žižek (24):
“The result is thus that there is, at both extremes of the process, a failure or negativity inscribed in the very heart of the entity we are dealing with. If the status of the subject is thoroughly “processual”, this means that it emerges only through the failure to fully actualize itself. This brings us again to one possible formal definition of the subject: a subject tries to articulate (“express”) itself in a signifying chain, this articulation fails, and in and through this failure, the subject emerges: the subject is the failure of its signifying representation.”
This precise passage points to the fact that the signifier most pure and clear expression is that of Absolute Being, of a reconciliation. But this process of signification that closes itself, has the status of an impossibility. The “Absolute circle” (from Lecture 7) becomes redoubled as the Hegelian “circles of circles” or Lacan’s “inside-inverted eight”.
What this means, to revisit the images we analyzed in the Lectures 4 and 5 on Fichte’s Choice, is that the Absolute Being comes to be only through its loss. The poles of the extremes of the process of the subject are not firm eternal identities. There is only the firmness of an anti-identity or non-identity, the void of death. All fixed identities, to repeat the elementary mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic, “finds its truth in its annihilation” (25). This is why Žižek is so committed to dispelling the notion that Hegel’s dialectic is a logical all-consuming identitarian monstrous notion, but the precisely opposite, of letting all objectivity free of its identity (as natural spacetime, supernatural God, World Communism) since notional necessity is about the free becoming of self-identity.
In that sense there is no way in which we can, as it were, directly penetrate the oneness of the Absolute, either into Nature or God, or into Intersubjectivity. When Elon Musk develops the neuralink, we will not all be magically trans-substantiated beyond language into a direct mind-to-mind harmony. We are facing the abyss of Absolute Freedom. It is this abyss of Absolute Freedom, this void, where our subjective field becomes organized around points of impossibility. Reconciliation is thus not the full appropriation of this cause but in our submission to its impossible to be pinned down and completed. That our freedom is the recognition of a totally open necessity. There is no big Other to save us, which is why Žižek’s “theology” is an atheistic theology, a theology that draws on the authentic energy of an unconditional ethical commitment transforming a contingency to a necessity.
Here, towards the end of the chapter, Žižek starts to introduce us to the subtle distinctions that separate Spinoza and Hegel. For Spinoza the Absolute is the pure naturalism of knowledge embedded in chains of cause-and-effect. In this sense when we posit a God we are really just filling in a gap in our own knowledge (the “God of the Gaps”). However, with Hegel, the Absolute is not only the pure naturalism of cause-and-effect but also the subject impossibly de-centered from its own cause, that can never locate itself in the world. In that sense when we posit God we are not just locating the gap in our own knowledge, but a gap in Nature itself, that the absence of God is the very condition of our free positing. To quote Žižek (26):
“God — insofar as he is the name for a desiring/lacking Other, for a gap in the Other — who gives freedom: I am not free by being the creator and master of all reality, when nothing resists my power to appropriate all heterogenous content; I am free if the substance of my being is not a full causal network, but an ontologically incomplete field. This incompleteness is (or, rather, can also be) signalled by an opaque desiring God, a God who is himself marked by imperfections and finitude”
This Hegelian conception of the Absolute has consequences for the subject of absolute knowing. The subject of absolute knowing paradoxically knows that it does not know, the subject of absolute knowing knows that its projected ideality of the perfect state is not a positive actuality but a less than nothing that, when enacted, will transform being in ways that it cannot know in advance. The absolute is, again, only accessible as a partially engaged, and historically limited subjectivity. In that sense contingency as an unknown otherness is inscribed into the heart of notional necessity as a subjective determination. Thus, the symbolic position of absolute knowing is a position that accepts its limitations and repetitively interprets or gauges the situation in its own loop of self-positing (27):
“There are in French two words for the “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for the future as the continuation of the present, as the actualization of tendencies which are already present, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present — avenir is what is to come, not just what will be. For example, in the contemporary apocalyptic situation, the ultimate horizon of the “future” is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of ecological breakdown, global economic and social chaos, etc. — even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the future catastrophe is through acts which take upon themselves the risk of giving brith to some radical Otherness “to come”. We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it designates not the impossibility of change, but precisely what we should be striving for — to break the hold the catastrophic “future” has over us, and thereby open up the space for something New “to come”.”
We now reach the conclusion of Interlude 1 — Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx. I hope that this gives a nice extension to the first chapter of Part 2 which introduces us to some of the core logic and some of the core concepts of the Hegelian philosophical structure. Here we should now be more familiar with the differences between Hegelian and Marxist subjectivity, temporality and historicity.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Interlude 1 – Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx. p. 241.
(3) ibid. p. 242.
(5) ibid. p. 243.
(7) ibid. p. 245.
(9) ibid. p. 244-245.
(10) ibid. p. 245.
(11) ibid. p. 246.
(12) ibid. p. 247.
(13) ibid. p. 246.
(14) ibid. p. 247.
(16) ibid. p. 246-247.
(17) ibid. p. 249.
(18) ibid. p. 249-250.
(19) ibid. p. 257.
(20) ibid. p. 250.
(21) ibid. p. 258-259.
(22) ibid. p. 257-258.
(23) ibid. p. 259-260.
(24) ibid. p. 259.
(25) Chapter 4 – Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian today? p. 195.
(26) Interlude 1 – Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx. p. 264.