YouTube video here: Parataxis; Figures of the Dialectical Process (Part 1)
Welcome to Lecture 9 of Less Than Nothing focused on Chapter 5 – Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process. In this video we will be again splitting a chapter into two parts in order to cover this book in all of its incredible depth. This first part will be focused on the relationship between Newtonian ontology and Kantian ontology, as well as the the consequences of Kantian ontology in relation to the quartet of German Idealists focused on understanding the nature of human freedom.
We have a major structural turning point in the history of philosophical thought with the emergence of, first the Newtonian mechanical paradigm, and then second, the Kantian transcendental paradigm. In the construction of the Newtonian mechanical paradigm, we have what is perhaps the most successful philosophical advancement relevant to modern science with the ontological fixation on absolute spacetime as a container for all material motion. In this frame the entire physical world can be framed as within, contained within, the theatre stage of spacetime. To this day, even with all of the post-classical modifications to the Newtonian mechanical paradigm, many standard physicists are still ultimately working within the Newtonian ontology. This is to say that standard physics requires a minimum of background dependence on spacetime to describe motion. In this sense, physics is a paradigm that views spacetime as the most real, the most elementary categories for the understanding.
In contrast, to Newton, Kant was concerned with developing a philosophy that could be deemed worthy of the breakthroughs in modern science that stem from the Newtonian mechanical paradigm. From this point of view, what Newton did for science, Kant did for philosophy. Kant successfully re-imagined the whole of philosophy, not as starting from the study of the universal structure of being, but as starting from the study of the a priori frame of reference that structures any notion of space and time as fundamental categories of human perception. For Kant, spacetime were not natural categories out there in Nature. Of course, Kant’s philosophy puts Nature in-itself on the level of the unknowable noumena producing the antinomies of reason internal to our sphere of knowledge. Instead, space and time were ideal categories, whereas what was most real, became human freedom, the freedom, with the aid of the a priori frame of reference, to categorize Nature with active synthetic imagination, the work of the intellectual intuition.
What this division between Newtonian mechanical paradigm and the Kantian transcendental paradigm amounts to cannot be understated enough. Here we have a fissure that has still not been repaired in the Western intellectual apparatus. What is the status of spacetime today? What is the status of freedom today? Do we really have a deep understanding of these foundational gestures that ground modern knowledge? Answers to these questions remain open, but what is certain is that, whereas science has been content to continue its gradual accumulation of knowledge within the Newtonian mechanical paradigm; philosophy has been struggling with the problems set forth by the Kantian transcendental paradigm. This means that science, as is well known, has grounded itself within a paradigm that cannot really grasp observation or subjectivity. Whereas philosophy, in contrast, has grounded itself within a paradigm that cannot make any meaningful statements without considering the way in which such statements are always already the product of observation or subjectivity. The division is irreducible, the tension is irreducible. In the future, we must make sense of how our knowledge requires us to make sense of the entanglement of subject and object. What would a physics inclusive of freedom look like?
In order to put that in context here I quote from Žižek paraphrasing Kierkegaard on the ontological consequences of a real of freedom. This is, I find, an absolutely breathtaking passage, and extraordinarily relevant to think the future of subjectivity (1):
“The true trauma lies not in mortality, but in our immortality: it is easy to accept that we are just a speck of dust in the infinite universe; what is much more difficult to accept is that we effectively are immortal free beings who, as such, cannot escape the terrible responsibility of our freedom.”
Then let us dive headfirst into the Kantian epistemological break or short circuit. Žižek is quick to emphasize in this chapter that, for Kant, the intellectual intuition is not at all what we find in pre-critical metaphysics. Of course, Kant is the philosopher who was first and foremost concerned with breaking from pre-critical metaphysics, to build a rational modernist philosophy capable of confronting the futures horizon of our being. In that sense the Kantian intellectual intuition is not a passive receptor for the noumenal realm but an active constructor synthesizing the noumena. To quote Žižek (2):
“For post-Kantian Idealists, “intellectual intuition” is not a passive intuitive reception or vision of noumenal reality: on the contrary, it always designates an active, productive, spontaneous faculty, and, as such, it remains firmly rooted in the Kantian topic of the active synthesis of transcendental imagination.”
What this amounts to is the notion that we cannot just conceive our understanding of natural ontologies as given. We cannot just conceive of spacetime as self-evident given phenomena. In other words, Newton did not ground a rational ontology of nature in-itself where it is obvious that nature in-itself is operating within logical categories of space and time. Instead, we must think the way in which the human mind is actively creating ontologies of nature. We do not know the noumena in-themselves. We do not know what space and time are in-themselves, apart from the fact that we can say they are useful categories of reason. But we put these categories there. We use these categories. They are not there “in nature”. We don’t know this. Space and time are constructed by the transcendental imagination. Here, paradoxically, can we think of the grounding of modern physics as only possible because of the excessive irrational dimension of human freedom? Indeed, quoting Žižek (3):
“freedom is an inexplicable, “irrational”, unaccountable “fact of reason”, a Real which disturbs our notion of (phenomenal) spatio-temporal reality as governed by natural laws.”
This means we should not think of Newton as some hyper rational being that logically deduced the in-itself of space and time, but instead a being of a radical excessive irrational sense of freedom who actively constructed a radical ontology of noumena. A being such as Newton cannot be found within space and time, but instead can only be thought of as himself an irrational unaccountable excess of being which breaks any notion of reality grounded in spacetime. There are no natural laws that can contain a mind with an understanding of its true freedom. To quote Žižek on Kant again: “the key Kantian concept of schematization: a free act cannot be schematized” (4).
In order to further analyze the Kantian Universe Žižek relies heavily on a book by Dieter Henrich: Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism. What Žižek is interested in is how Kant backed away from his own discoveries. If Kant is the philosopher who seeks to break the classical pre-modern ontologies of philosophy and religion, once he broke these ontologies, was he able to go all the way? Here Žižek is skeptical that Kant himself understood his own breakthroughs.
To support this let’s start with the fundamental structure of the Kantian universe. In the Kantian universe we don’t start with space and time but with a triad of cognitive capacity, or a triad of the Self. This is a triad that revolves around unity, synthetic activity, and emptiness. Are these categories self-evident? The first assumption is that the human cognitive apparatus or self is affected by noumenal things but that these noumenal things have no synthesis or unity in-themselves. What brings synthesis and unity is the active work of the human cognitive apparatus which organizes these noumenal sense perceptions. It is here that we have the crucial distinctions between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm. The noumenal things-in-themselves are off limits to us. It is only the phenomenal realm or categorical organization that we have access to, and is the product of our spontaneous cognitive work, which transforms noumena into a phenomenal unity.
However, the third element, emptiness, is here much more mysterious. What is this emptiness completing the Kantian triad? Or is it rather in-completing the Kantian triad? The notion of emptiness signals an irreducible absence. Is it an absence in us? Is it an absence in being? Is it an absence in both? Here Žižek is not direct but signals that it is related to freedom and whether or not Kant can really understand his own breakthrough.
As Žižek states, the only way to understand an ontology of the self, is to confront the real of freedom. In Žižek’s own words: “freedom unites the two worlds, and provides for the unity or coherence of the Self — this is why Kant repeated again and again the motto: “subordinate everything to freedom”” (5). In other words, it is only because the self is fundamentally constituted by freedom that we can explain the cognitive experience of humans. Humans are within the realm of the noumena, synthesizing the noumena, but what cannot be accounted for is the way in which we are free, we are free to make choices and give being its ontological constitution. In one of the most interesting metaphors Žižek deploys, freedom is here compared to an “umbilical cord”. I think it is worth giving this metaphor much more consideration which is why I have represented freedom here literally with the image of an umbilical cord. Is Nature giving birth to a monstrous abstraction that we have come to cherish in the modern world, the monstrous abstraction of absolute freedom? And our noumenal constraints? Our logical position, apparently, within some spacetime container, is this our Mother?
Žižek’s ultimate criticism of Kant can be found here. Kant is someone who was willing to accept the fundamental ontology of the self as requiring us to think freedom, but only the future idealists, from Fichte to Hegel, were able to think of freedom truly as a First Principle. In the same way that space and time were First Principles for Newton, the raw conceptual material from which he constructed his grand system of nature, we can say that the post-Kantian idealists were willing to go all the way, they were willing to work from the raw conceptual material of freedom, and construct an entire grand system around freedom.
Thus, we can see here that, for the post-Kantian idealists, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, freedom itself becomes a feature of reality beyond simply our phenomenal internal domain. Freedom is here built into reality itself, and we are in between the two. The noumenal is not some static fixed in-itself that is unaffected by our phenomenal synthesis, but something that is retroactively transformed due to the fact that reality is incomplete and open on both sides. This is only possible when one builds an ontology from the perspective that freedom is the most fundamental feature of reality itself.
To be fair to Kant, Žižek makes sure to introduce us to both the perspective of this move from the position of the post-Kantians and from the position of Kant. Why did Kant himself not make this move? For the post-Kantian idealists Kant was not willing to “pursue his project to the end, to draw all the consequences from his breakthrough” (6). This ultimately means that Kant was in some sense too conservative to really think the consequences of freedom, and he thus pulled back into the positive substantial world of more moderate ontologies. However, from Kant’s perspective, the post-idealists, perhaps, fell for a type of mystical enthusiasm that is unwarranted. For Kant we should not assume that a feature of our phenomenal experience is also a feature of the noumenal in-itself. Is it possible to think this deadlock? What really is the ontological status of freedom? Should we be conservative and think of freedom as an irreducible element of human being, or should we be more radical, and think of freedom as an irreducible entanglement of the phenomena and the noumena?
Here let us consider a formalization of the two positions, we can call the first Kantian and the second Hegelian:
The Kantian position: “Kant asserts the gap of finitude, transcendental schematism, the negative access to the Noumenal (via the Sublime) as the only one possible, and so forth, while Hegel’s absolute idealism closes the Kantian gap and returns to pre-critical metaphysics.” (7)
The Hegelian position: “It is Kant who goes only half-way in his destruction metaphysics, still maintaining the reference to the Thing-in-itself as an external inaccessible entity, and Hegel is merely a radicalized Kant, who moves from our negative access to the Absolute itself negativity.” (8)
The first Kantian position suggests that freedom is on our side, that it is the gap or space where we can even think to create a schematism like absolute spacetime. This is referred to as a negative access to the noumena since we do not have access to the in-itself of the noumena, but nonetheless we can still think it, we can think it but this only tells us about something internal to our sphere of knowledge, it does not tell us about the noumena in-itself.
For Hegel, the metaphysics of the noumena is an unnecessary assumption. Why assume the phenomena are being maintained by some noumena? Why assume some extra content inaccessible to our phenomenal sensation? The crucial dimension is here that, for Hegel, it is because we are self-limited that we can conceive the infinite noumena in-itself. That is why we have a redoubling of negation, where our negative access (conceiving of absolute spacetime, for example) is simultaneously our access to the absolute in-itself. Here we see the logical move that allows Hegel to conceive of the Absolute as substance but also as subject. The subject is inscribed into the becoming of the absolute noumena (9):
“Or, to put it in terms of the Hegelian shift from epistemological obstacle to positive ontological condition (our incomplete knowledge of the thing becomes a positive feature of the thing which is in itself incomplete, inconsistent): it is not that Hegel “ontologizes” Kant; on the contrary, it is Kant who, insofar as he conceives the gap as merely epistemological, continues to presuppose a fully constituted noumenal realm existing out there, and it is Hegel who “deontologizes” Kant, introducing a gap into the very texture of reality. In other words, Hegel’s move is not to “overcome” the Kantian division, but, rather, to assert it “as such”, to remove the need for its “overcoming”, for the additional “reconciliation”. Kant’s limitation lies not in his remaining within the confines of finite oppositions, in his inability to reach the Infinite, but, on the contrary, in his very search for transcendent domain beyond the realm of finite oppositions: Kant is not unable to reach the Infinite — what he is unable to see is how he already has what he is looking for.”
Here this crucial passage articulates how what happens with Hegel is not the addition of a positive infinity, but the subtraction of a positive infinity. What Kant presupposes as an impossible positively existing in-itself beyond our phenomena sensations, Hegel presupposes as an impossible negativity existing in-itself entangled between subject and object. Here we can think “absolute spacetime” as a particular conception by subjectivity of the noumenal which is part of the noumenal’s own reconciliation. It is not that the finite oppositions (between mortal subjectivity and the immortal noumenal) produce the antinomies of reason, it is that the finite oppositions are all that there really is and the immortal noumena as absolute spacetime is to be conceived as a negativity that is always-already with us. In that sense there is nothing to “overcome”, reality is itself contradictory to accommodate radical freedom.
From this perspective Žižek puts the “modern” Kantian universe into conversation with the “postmodern” Heideggerian universe where both philosophers are conceived of as different versions of the same problem for different eras of historical subjectivity. In Kant we have the finite subject and its impossible infinite background leaving us forever in unresolved and unresolvable contradictions due to our very finite nature. And Heidegger (or at least one dimension of Heidegger, but it is more complex) is a repetition of this problem with the articulation of Dasein or being-in-the-world as the ground for a philosophy of transcendental finitude, of the horizon of finitude as the absolute limit to human being. This means that any project of reason to grasp totality is thwarted from the start, caught in deadlocks that cannot be resolved, not because of a failure of our reason, but because of a failure that is fundamental to our very existential condition. There are antinomies, deadlocks, contradictions precisely because we are not immortal and infinite. Thus, there is no to-be-found final synthesis where, as if by magic, we would discover the truth of being, the truth of the infinite immortal noumena and then reason could be satisfied with itself and its position in the world. Here we are stuck, stuck in a reason that is unsatisfied with itself.
But, we must reflect, would we be free if we were immortal and infinite? Is not our finitude and mortality the very necessary condition for freedom?
Thus we repeat this structure where the sphere of our knowledge is internally riddled with contradictions and oppositions. There is nothing we can do about this. And, for as long as we are humans, the noumenal world is off limits to us. As finite particular subjectivity this knowledge is forever unknown to us. To quote Žižek: “[the] human subject caught in a constitutive deadlock, marked by an a priori ontological split or gap.” (10). One may say it is a pre-psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious. We are conscious of it, but we can never know it, it is a knowledge off limits to us.
But, of course, for Kant, there are no antinomies or contradictions as such. The noumena is not in-itself antinomic or contradictory. It is only our sphere of knowledge that is antinomic and contradictory. Here we get the comical image of the subject as in a state of “epistemological confusion between phenomena and noumena” (11). As soon as the subject forgets that its knowledge is only in-itself and not referring to an external outside we run into these problems of contradiction and opposition.
Why is Hegel here unique on this issue vis-a-vis the modernist Kant and the postmodernist Heidegger? The simple but complex move that Hegel makes can be framed as a parallax shift. Again, if we think of Kant as thinking a pre-psychoanalytic unconscious in the form of the impossible noumena forever outside of our sphere of knowledge then we are thinking of the noumena in terms of a “unknown knowns”. For Kant, is there not a little hidden mysticism with the noumena? Kant says he knows there are noumena, but at the same time says we cannot know the noumena. Is this not a philosophical magic trick that resembles a pre-critical mode of thought? As Žižek states Kant “smuggles […] a whole series of additional presuppositions and implications.” (12)
Instead of assuming this impossible noumenal outside Hegel instead inscribes such a presupposition as a product of the Kantian imagination, of the way in which categories, our a priori frame/cognitive apparatus, fundamentally involves itself in noumena. It is thus true that there are no antinomies or contradictions before our categories get involved with things-in-themselves, but the way in which categories get themselves involved with things-in-themselves is itself immanent to categories. Thus the strange thing about spontaneous human conceptualization is that it desires to get itself involved in a reality that it cannot experience directly. In this sense, when we think in a properly Hegelian way, we are thinking of human beings as themselves, in a sense, intergalactic space explorers constantly going into alien territory, constantly exploring domains that are beyond their grasp (13):
“Antinomies are not inscribed into categories themselves, they only arise when we go beyond the proper domain of their use (the temporal-phenomenal reality of our experience) and apply them to noumenal reality, to objects which cannot ever become objects of our experience. In short, antinomies emerge the moment we confuse phenomena and noumena, objects of experience with Things-in-themselves.”
Thus, for Hegel, if we subtract the noumena away, what we get is nothing but the pure infinite and immortal structure of notional determinations in-themselves, of the way in which they insist on entangling themselves ontologically. This is in some sense more logical and more true to the Kantian break then Kant himself since we can logically hold the fact that the idea of the noumena has no standing outside of Kantian conceptualization or notional determination. The noumena are in a sense the low point of the Kantian edifice, the point at which Kant “smuggles” into philosophy the most unnecessary metaphysical presupposition. Thus, if Kant was the philosopher attempting to think a philosophy adequate to the Newtonian break, then is not this conservative move of refusing to think the in-itself of freedom not in some sense a conceding of the intellectual territory to physics? Perhaps this is why Kant is in most cases accepted by scientific epistemologies but post-Kantian idealists from Fichte to Hegel are often seen as subjectivist obscurantist?
Let us then attempt to summarize the basic distinction that Žižek highlights as so crucial to understanding the difference between Kant and Hegel. In Kant we have, not the ontology of science, but the ontology of the transcendental subject itself. Thus we are not thinking absolute spacetime but the way in which a transcendental subject can schematize absolute spacetime in its abstract understanding. For Kant, we must reflect on the crucial distinction of a subject that is capable of such a notion in the first place. However, due to the fact that the transcendental subject is capable of such infinite and absolute notions (caught up with the noumena) and yet remains finite and temporal, we are stuck in an antinomic contradictory realm.
In contrast, for Hegel, we again subtract we do not add. It is not that we must add this impossible noumena but that abstract reason in-itself is the transcendental subject in its infinite eternal notion. Here the infinite and eternal is not on the side of the noumena but on the side of the phenomena. For Hegel, what Kant cannot see is his own free intervention in history. For Hegel, what Kant cannot see is the way in which he himself projected his own transcendental excess into the beyond (14):
“Hegel’s point is that this move from categories of Understanding to Reason proper is not an illegitimate step beyond the limits of our reason; it is rather Kant himself who oversteps the proper limits of the analysis of categories, of pure notional determinations, illegitimately projecting onto this space the topic of temporal subjectivity, and so forth.
At its most elementary, Hegel’s move is a reduction, not an enrichment, of Kant; a subtractive move, a gesture of taking away the metaphysical ballast and of analyzing notional determinations in their immanent nature.”
Žižek then moves to a section titled “In Praise of Understanding” where we seek to understand the structure of the understanding in relation to reason. If Kant is claiming the horizon limits of understanding, and Hegel is claiming that such horizon limits of understanding form primordially in the domain of reason, then can we demonstrate their inextricable link, their inextricable entanglement internal to the mind, with reason on the side of positing and understanding on the side of presuppositions. To quote Frederick Jameson, whose book The Hegel Variations is literature that Žižek relies on throughout this section, states (15):
“the noumenon is not something separate from the phenomenon, but part and parcel of its essence; and it is within the mind that realities outside or beyond the mind are “posited”.”
Now let me take the liberties of structuring some features of reason and some features of the understanding that follow from reading this section. When we are thinking the Understanding we are thinking the positive presuppositions of the subject: what does the subject assume of its beyond? For Newton this was absolute spacetime. For Kant this was absolute noumena. For Darwin this was natural selection. For Plato this was perfect forms. For Descartes this was the res cogitans. And so forth and so on.
This understanding takes a “determinate form” that becomes a part of the Other in terms of the symbolic order. Thus we can have disciplines organized around Newtonian mechanics of spacetime, or Kantian philosophy of transcendentalism, or Darwinian evolution of selection pressure, and so forth. In this way the understanding becomes inscribed into the logos, becomes inscribed into the fundamental ordering force of the world. From this inscription into the logos we have the formation of ideological narratives, like Newtonian narrativization or Kantian narrativization or Darwinian narrativization that uphold the structure of physicists, philosophers or biologists. What are the consequences of this understanding? We can already see that there is a conflict here with the domain of subjectivity in-itself because the subject cannot be found in these understandings. The understandings always erase the subject and replace the subject with its own noumenal presuppositions, like absolute spacetime, noumenal things, or selection pressures and so forth. Thus, the understanding is not subjectivity in-itself, but rather the “self” of the symbolic order, the fictional construct the subjectivity deploys in historicity to become in its historical identity.
Now, on the side of Reason in-itself. On the side of Reason we are not dealing with the presuppositions but the very mechanisms of positing the presuppositions. Here positing precedes presuppositions in the strange loop of the subject. In this mode we do not have a positive substance but a subtraction, the subtraction of the subject into itself where it posits in its own formless chaotic realm that is pre-understanding, that is pre-symbolic order, that is pre-any totality of the understanding. This is the mythic in-itself of the subject. Here the positing is thus where we have the emergence of the radically new, the space where something like a Newtonian mechanics, a Kantian philosophy, a Darwinian biology, or a Platonic geometry can even emerge at all.
How does this emerge? It can only emerge from pure vision, the pure un-schematized vision of the subject, of the subject’s conscious visions. These visions then are the primordial realm, or closer to the primordial realm, of subjectivity, of Den, of Less Than Nothing. In this realm the subject is present, and in order to think the realm of subjective multiplicity we have to be able to think the totality of the in-itself of this realm. Thus when we think this totality we are not thinking of the totality we are used to thinking when it comes to the understanding. We are instead thinking the totality of a division. The subject of reason in-itself is what cuts things apart, what divides things up, what inserts distinctions. Whereas the understanding forms a unity or a background for the subject, reason is more violent, reason is more radical, reason is more antagonistic. And this is why, whereas we put the structure of the understanding on the side of the “Self” of the symbolic order, the side of the historical identity; we put the structure of reason on the side of the Real, on the side of the non-Self, the side of the subject that is never positively observed in our historical reality.
Now that we have a basic reflection on the coordinates of reason and understanding in-themselves on the side of positing and presuppositions, we can now again revisit the crucial distinctions that are the consequences for our conception of temporal historicity. As has been a fundamental feature of our dive into the Hegelian thing-in-itself we get a distinction between linear and circular temporality. Now the human mind in terms of understanding can well think a linear temporality. There is no problem here. The spontaneous ideology of the understanding is to think a past-present-future, as Newton thinks this, with an infinite past and an infinite future being held by absolute spacetime. Indeed, in our contemporary universe of big history or cosmic evolution we can well think of a temporality where we conceive of the whole series of past events, physical evolution, biological evolution and symbolic evolution in a linear series teleologically pointing towards the future.
However, when we think of reason in-itself, we cannot help but start to curl or curve in on ourselves. All of a sudden the linear temporality breaks down and we must confront the circular nature of the positing of the presuppositions, since any presuppositions are primordially posited by the subject who becomes the agent structured by presuppositions. Thus we see the violence of reason, we see how everytime reason sets itself to work there is the chance for an obliteration of previous presuppositions, we can see that previous unities or totalities of the understanding can be ripped down and replaced, retroactively changing our basic ontological coordinates. In this way we can no longer think of a linear temporal series but a repetitive series of totalities that retroactively change what we think of as the past linear temporal series. Consider, for a moment, the relation between Biblical historicity and Scientific historicity. In Biblical historicity the past series of events is structured around a transcendental genesis with a specific temporal unfolding. However, through the work of Reason, we structure an alternative understanding of the past, where we construct a Scientific historicity of physical, chemical, biological evolution where there is no more role for a supernatural genesis. Here the past is retroactively changed on the level of the understanding. In this mode the task is not to question whether our discovery of science literally changed the past, but rather to think the way in which future reason will not tear down and replace our contemporary understanding. Is it not possible that future reason will not reveal that what we now think of as the literal past is not totally different, totally other? This possibility becomes all the more possible when we consider that future mind could be totally other to our contemporary mind.
In order go deeper into the importance of understanding temporal retroactivity let us consider the structure of the symbolic order that is discovered with Hegelian phenomenology of history. Let us imagine the symbolic order before modern European colonization. In this realm the symbolic order is locally constituted by peoples in the Americas, peoples in Europe, peoples in Africa, and peoples in the subcontinent of India and East Asia and so forth. Of course, we are already in the mode of retroactive distortions since past Americans and past Africans and past Indians did not conceive of themselves in this way, this is already a retroactive Europeanization of the symbolic order. But nonetheless we see the point that we have symbolic orders that are locally constituting different temporalities, that are locally constituting different understandings of past, present and future. As we all know, there are a multiplicity of mythological temporalities in different early civilizations and cultures.
However, once we enter into the realm of European colonization, we can only think the past-present-future from the perspective of the European symbolic order. The American, African, and Asian past-present-future can only be conceived of as part of the past-present-future of the European colonial drama, whereas the in-itself of their actual pre-colonial past-present-future becomes a formless chaotic ahistorical nothingness. As Žižek states (16):
“The “formlessness” should also be understood as a violent erasure of (previous) forms: whenever a certain act is “posited” as a founding one, as a historical cut or the beginning of a new era, the previous social reality is as a rule reduced to a chaotic “ahistorical” conundrum — say, when the Western colonialists “discovered” black Africa, this discovery was read as the first contact of “pre-historical” primitives with civilized history proper, and their previous history basically blurred into a “formless matter”.”
In this way, from the Hegelian standpoint vis-a-vis the postmodern standpoint, the task is not to revive the multiplicity of ancient narratives that populated the pre-colonial symbolic order, but to think the way in which a future narrative will retroactively transform our contemporary notion of past-present-future. In the same way that pre-colonial Americans, Africans, and Asians were violently ripped from their pre-modern life worlds, is it not possible for us modern globalists to be violently ripped from our modernist life worlds? Is it not possible that our contemporary understanding of temporality is itself primitive? Is it not possible that our understanding within the symbolic order is itself a particular historical constitution of being that will be retroactively obliterated by future reason and understanding?
In this way we escape the unbearable political correctness of postmodern discursive relativists who insist that we make room for alternative marginalized historicities. When we regress back to alternative marginalized historicities we do not help the marginalized peoples of the contemporary symbolic order but only make it more difficult for peoples to become a part of the universal expression of the symbolic order. That is not to say that European modernism uniquely stands for universality, but rather, that a particular historically embedded culture that happened to be located in Europe, discovered a qualitatively unique form of universal knowledge that becomes authentically expressed elsewhere. This is why Žižek always emphasizes that it is not only the French Revolution that signals the universal spirit’s necessity of historical freedom, but also the Haitian revolution, and so forth. Or why Žižek always emphasizes that the truth of communism is not in its actual state failures in the 20th century, but on the universal structure of the notional determination that manifested itself in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and so forth.
What should be becoming evident in the structure of the Hegelian thing-in-itself is thus the structure of temporality where we can no longer conceive of an evolutionary teleology. As Žižek states (17):
“If one misses retroactivity of such positing the presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch.”
In evolutionary teleology we have the structure of past-present-future where we think of a causal chain where past events caused the present condition and we think of this causal chain as a universal determination.
But when one considers retroactivity there is no such way to conceive of this evolutionary teleology. How can we actually describe the real of history by considering a linear past-present-future when we already know that there were various series of pasts-presents-futures that become totally annihilated from the historical understanding due to violent conflict and competition, and so forth. Here we have competitions between linear narrativizations and this competition between linear narrativizations needs to be inscribed into the thing-in-itself.
Thus, we may approach a Hegelian understanding of colonial history if we think of time in this structure attempting to capture retroactive symbolic totalizations. Here we can see that in the pre-colonial local universes we have a temporality being held in the present where subjects of each ideological narrative sphere hold locally competing notions of past-present-future and thus locally competing notions of causal chains determining their present.
Then we entertain the colonial universe where a new symbolic totality forms in reason that violently erases the pre-colonial local universes and introduces a new causal chain of events that necessarily overdetermine the symbolic space. Now the American, African and Asian historical temporalities can no longer stand on their own, they must become retroactively reinvented under the gaze of the European temporality that structures its relation to dynamics.
Finally, we have the post-colonial global universe of modern technology and communications where all human subjects are a part of an interconnected whole with a new emerging narrative ecology of competing frames. Here we see how liberal ideological narratives of universal freedom and states rights compete with religious fundamentalist narratives of universal return to simpler pre-modern times of communal love and so forth. In the post-colonial universe the violent erasures of the past are not the same structure as the colonial universes violent erasures, but instead something that is sorting itself out through a new media ecology (18):
“This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicated”. What this means is that, although presuppositions are (retroactively) posited, the conclusion to be drawn is not that we are forever caught in this circle of retroactivity, so that every attempt to reconstruct the rise of the New out of the Old is nothing but an ideological narrative. Hegel’s dialectic itself is not yet another grand teleological narrative, but precisely an effort to avoid the narrative of illusion of a continuous process of organic growth of the New out of the Old; the historical forms which allow one another are not successive figures within the same teleological frame, but successive re-totalizations, each of them creating (“positing”) its own past (as well as projecting its own future).”
This brings us to the third member of the quartet of German Idealists: Friedrich Schelling. For Schelling the task was not to construct a totalizing narrative for the understanding but to narrativize the emergence of logos itself out of the pre-mythical real. In other words, we are once again focused on this gap between the subject of Newtonian narrativization and the subject of Newton himself who constructed such a universal narrativization scheme. In our understanding we can easily understand Newtonian absolute spacetime, but it is much harder to conceive how such a subjective constitution is itself possible.
When we are thinking about this subjective constitution we are confronting the creation of something out of nothing. The subject in-itself is the location of creation, the location where something (a transcendental schematization) emerges, seemingly out of nothing, the abyss of self-relating subjectivity. Thus we flip Kant on his head. For Kant we have the “unknown knowns” of the noumena which we “know” but we can “never know”. However, with Schelling we are attempting to understand how consciousness of noumena can arise out of phenomenal consciousness? This is the location of the psychoanalytic unconsciousness: not the “unknown known” but the “known unknown”. The psychoanalytic unconsciousness is not an “unknown positive reality that we know” (as in Kant) but a “known negative reality that we do not know” (as in Freud). In other words, we all know that there are dimensions of our own consciousness that are a well structured knowledge, but a well structured knowledge that we do not know about. This is how Žižek often thinks of Schelling (and also Fichte, in different ways) as articulating a true precursor to the properly psychoanalytic nature of the unconscious.
In that sense, when Schelling turns Kant and Newton on their heads we are thinking of how, when we are approached with a totalizing understanding, like that of Kant and Newton, we are being approached with an “unconsciousness” that emerged into the consciousness of a subjectivity. The function of this “unconsciousness” is to force the subject to confront its own annihilation. As Žižek states: “the fantasmatic narrative, always involves an impossible gaze, the gaze by means of which the subject is already present at its own absence” (19). For Kantian noumena or the Newtonian spacetime there is no subject, the subject is instead “present at its own absence”. But what Schelling calls attention to is the way in which these narratives are the very essence of logos, and the way in which these narratives emerged out of an unconsciousness internal to the subject.
In this sense, Schelling never grounds his own unconscious totality of the narrativistic understanding. This makes Schelling at once more honest and more difficult then either Newton or Kant. Whereas both Newton and Kant make their unconscious transition from the Real abyss of their own self-relating reason to the self understanding of the symbolic order giving to history absolute spacetime and noumenal reality, Schelling recognizes that one cannot give a narrative of this very process of transformation. The transition from the Real to the Symbolic is irreducible. Irreducible to what? Irreducible to the action of unconscious subjectivity. One cannot narrativize the radical freedom of the subject, one cannot narrativize the radical transition from the unconscious drives repetitively positing to the self-conscious historical presuppositions held by the understanding that create an eternal past. As Žižek states (20):
“The line of separation between materialism and obscurantist idealism in Schelling thus concerns precisely the relationship between the act and the proto-cosmos: idealist obscurantism deduces or generates the act from the proto-cosmos, while materialism asserts the primacy of the act and denounces the fantasmatic character of the proto-cosmic narrative.”
Thus, how do we get from this unconsciousness to consciousness? Žižek states that for Schelling the essence of the unconscious is a knowledgeable action that does not know itself but which necessarily stabilizes itself by ejecting itself into the past via the mechanism of self-consciousness. Here a multitude of irrational drives contingently become a unified consciousness and the unified consciousness retroactively comes to see these irrational drives as its necessary unconscious history (21):
“To quote from Schelling’s Weltalter: “The primordial deed which makes a man genuinely himself precedes all individual actions; but immediately after it is put into exuberant freedom, this deed sinks into the night of unconsciousness. This is not a deed that could happen once and then stop; it is a permanent deed, a never-ending deed, and consequently it can never again be brought before consciousness. For man to know of this deed, consciousness itself would have to return into nothing, into boundless freedom, and would cease to be consciousness. This deed occurs once and then immediately sinks into unconsciousness.””
How is it possible to think this unconsciousness? One can think this unconsciousness by, again, simply flipping Kant on his head. If Kant’s unconscious is a noumenal reality that exists independent of subjectivity, Schelling’s unconscious is a noumenal reality that primordially forms independent subjectivity. Thus the unconscious of Schelling is not the absolute spacetime of Newton or the noumena of Kant but the unconscious gesture that stabilizes the totalizing understanding of Newton and Kant (and any other subjectivity whatsoever). There is always, as Žižek states, a “vanishing mediator” (22) a primordial unconscious act that precedes the given self-conscious form that confronts you as a structure of understanding.
In order to think this in our contemporary universe let us apply Friedrich Schelling to big history. Big history is a subject that attempts to ground a totalizing grand narrative of understanding of the physical universe. This is presented in the form of complexity science where the universe is seen to undergo phase transition of complexification from the big bang to the present.
However, when we are affirming fully the Kantian universe and its ontological consequences with Fichte, Schelling and Hegel we have to complicate this simplistic picture which is all too Newtonian in its presuppositions. In a version of “Schelling’s big history” we can only think of the “big bang to modern civilization” narrative as part of the unconscious drives of the noumenal understanding. Thus the question is not about the literal historical past, i.e. is the causal chain of events determining our present really exactly what modern science says and how big history narrativizes these facts? The question is rather how present forms of self-consciousness engages in an unconscious primordial act that retroactively structure a necessary past determining our present in the present. Thus the “big bang to modern civilization” narrative is something that is always already being upheld by forms of subjectivity that are attempting to stabilize their conscious logic of phenomenal reason in the present.
However, we can also look at it in another way. In the same way we can view the big history narrative as a symbolic form in the present that emerges from a formless unconscious real, we can also ask what this symbolic form of the present is stabilizing as its formless real? The trick of thinking of time retroactively is that the understanding is not just a structure to be deconstructed but also a necessary feature of historicity, of the way in which we can read in this understanding the sensations of a free historical subjectivity orienting itself in the world, being-in-the-world. To approach answering this question we can say that the formless real that emerges from the introduction of the symbolic narrativization of big history is some murky future transition state that could either by positive or negative, utopian or dystopian, depending on the way in which free forms of self-consciousness act now.
Now let us summarize some of the these opposing features of the understanding and of reason. First let us consider the understanding. With the understanding we have something that possesses an “absolute power” in the sense that it generates its own necessary unity. Consider again any great thinker in history, from Plato to Descartes to Spinoza to Newton to Darwin and so forth. With these thinkers, when we inquire to their understanding circulating within the symbolic order, we have presented to our minds a unity that is absolute. This absolute does not pre-exist their notion but rather is itself their notional determination.
Now, second, we have the fact that the understanding tends towards a trans-rational Beyond. This means that what emerges internal to understanding in the presuppositions is that it assumes something more supporting the phenomenal appearances. Here the appearances cannot stand on their own as a chaotic incoherent multitude but must be structured by some universal principle that holds everything together. The forms cannot just be in themselves, they must be reflections of absolute transcendental form. The material change cannot just be changing in-itself but must be held by some absolute spacetime container. Our thought cannot just be our finite cogito in-itself but must be some res cogitans, some transcendental God substance.
Thus, third, the understanding tends towards the construction of some external ‘true reality’, some background that would guarantee the coherence and consistency of the world. This is yet another figure of the big Other. The understanding solidifies or fixes itself in order not to confront its own abyssal unconscious grounding. The understanding thus cannot think its own construction because in order to think its own construction it would have to admit that what it thinks holds it was simply something put there by it, something that was produced in the strange loop of positing the presuppositions.
Now to Reason. What are the principle features of Reason? The first thing to think when we think Reason in-itself is that it is not a positive addition to Understanding but a subtraction. Thus, when we think of any great thinkers positive understanding, in order to think Reason, we have to think about the abyssal Real where this Symbolic understanding emerged. The understanding’s illusion was created from the primordial reason. In other words, to think reason we have to think of Newton before absolute spacetime, we have to think Darwin before natural selection, we have to think Plato before the perfect forms, and so forth.
In this sense or perspective we can see Reason as “higher” or “deeper” than understanding, in the sense that the naive understanding is too naive and soft to its founding gesture. One can easily see this at any conference for a well-founded discipline. If one is at a conference of a well-founded discipline one is being shown an illusion of the understanding and all or most of the subjects at the conference will be “under this understanding” so to speak. Thus these subjects not only do not care about the radically violent cut that founded the discipline itself but are not willing to entertain other radical violent cuts which would poke holes and cut through the understanding that they are themselves working under.
The consequences of understanding reason then, is to be skeptical of any understanding that is static and fixed since reason is in-itself always moving and cutting and dividing. Whenever someone presents to you a fixed and static understanding the first move of pure reason should be to tear it down and poke holes in it, to find its flaws and contradictions. From this activity Reason produces something new. And it is the case that every genuinely novel understanding is something that emerges from a productive cut internal to Reason.
Thus, we have a paradoxical relation between Understanding and Reason since the Understanding pretends to know it all and the Reason knows it does not know it all, and it is from knowing that one does not know it all that one produces something new. Thus Žižek suggests that the relation between Understanding and Reason is a relation between insight and blindness where the Understanding insists on its insight and Reason insists on its blindness. To quote Žižek (23):
“The act of abstraction, of tearing apart, can also be understood as an act of self-imposed blindness, of refusing to “see it all”.”
In this way, Žižek claims that this paradoxical overlap between Understanding and Reason is what is always operative when one reads Derrida’s “deconstructive” texts. When Derrida “deconstructs” a famous philosopher what he is essentially doing is breaking apart a particular historically constituted form of understanding and showing to the reader its holes and contradictions, showing that it is non-All when the original philosopher’s understanding would perhaps have wanted you to believe it is All. In this sense it is the Hegelian dialectic which temporalizes this relation between the Understanding and Reason by situating the very motion of forms of consciousness as a play of subjectivity that reaches its climax in absolute negativity, of the dissolution of all forms of understanding.
Now to conclude let us consider how we should think of Understanding and Reason from the perspective of Hegel. In the Hegelian climax of Idealism we are ultimately asked to consider the possibility that “less is more”. The trick to a good thinker is not to add some impossible positive entity, like God or Noumena or Perfect Forms, but rather to take something away. In Žižek’s words (24):
“The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations — only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.”
This great lesson of the Hegelian dialectic and of the cunning of reason is still more than applicable to today in the realm of fantasmatic narratives that would convince us of an impossible something more. In the same way that Kant projects an impossible noumena, are not contemporary scientists projecting impossible noumena in the form of multiverses, parallel many worlds, future super artificial intelligences, and so forth. What is obfuscated when we are confronted with this “Understandings” of the symbolic order? What is obfuscated is the Real of the Thing in-itself that is not somewhere outside of us but right here, right now looking at us with its impossible gaze. The real task of thought today is not to think the positivity of these impossible projections but the way in which this impossible projections signal the negativity at the heart or core of moderns subjectivity. To re-quote Zizek (25): “the fantasmatic narrative, always involves an impossible gaze, the gaze by means of which the subject is already present at its own absence”.
Recall that Schelling himself noted that this unconscious action of subjectivity could not be stopped, it could not be stopped unless the subject were to return to boundless freedom. As long as the subject emerges, it emerges because it is constrained, bounded, finite, limited. If it were not bounded, it would be nothingness, the pure abyss of self-relating negativity. And is this not what Hegel ultimate deduces in the structure of the historical dialectic? That the subject does not return to a higher positive substance but to the abyss of its own self-relating negativity? In this sense when we “turn the circle” of the Hegelian thing we are not turning the circle between positive substantial poles of absolute substance but between a negative insubstantial abyssal nothingness. The thing is nothing but its fall and its return from nothing.
However, what happens when we pass through this Hegelian logic is that we always get parallax shifts where we do not add positive substantial content but rather see positive substantial content we already know in a different way, in a different frame. Thus, the Kantian noumena gets transformed from a “mere notion of the thing-in-itself” to “notion as the very core of the thing”. In other words, the point is not to “deconstruct Kant’s Understanding” but rather to see the way in which the Understanding of Kant was a particular logical historical manifestation of the Understanding that was necessarily part of the mediation of the Thing, mediation of the Absolute. Thus we also move from Kant’s noumena as a “merely subjective distortion” to a “subjectivity as a mediation of the objective”. The same goes for Newton or any other thinker whatsoever. This is the essence of the Hegelian parallax shift. Absolute spacetime is just a notion, Absolute spacetime is just a subjective distortion; but at the same time Absolute spacetime is a notion at the core of the thing, and Absolute spacetime is a subjective mediation of the objective!
Thus, we move from Kant’s Understanding to Hegel’s Reason, and from Hegel’s Reason back to Kant’s Understanding. Nothing changes and everything changes. We do not add new content, we simply read old content in a new way, by introducing a parallax shift. Less is more (26):
“Hegel does not overcome the abstract character of Understanding by substantially changing it (replacing abstraction with synthesis etc.), but by perceiving in a new light this same power of abstraction: what at first appears as the weakness of Understanding (its inability to grasp reality in all its complexity, its tearing apart of reality’s living texture) is in fact its greatest power.”
And this brings us to the end of Lecture 9 of the Less Than Nothing, Part 1 of Chapter 5: Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process. Here I hope you benefitted from this detailed overview of some of the core divisions internal to the development of idealist thought and its relationship to modern science. As we dive deeper into this chapter we will try to further elucidate the relationship between Kant and Hegel with our sights on better understanding the Hegelian Absolute.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 5 – Parataxis; Figures of the Dialectical Process. p. 266.
(2) ibid. p. 265.
(4) ibid. p. 266.
(7) ibid. p. 267-268.
(8) ibid. p. 268.
(9) ibid. p. 267.
(10) ibid. p. 268.
(13) ibid. 268-269.
(14) ibid. 269.
(15) ibid. 271.
(16) ibid. 272.
(18) ibid. 272-273.
(19) ibid. 273.
(20) ibid. 274.
(21) ibid. 274-275.
(22) ibid. 275.
(23) ibid. 278.
(24) ibid. 279.
(25) ibid. 273.
(26) ibid. 280.