Interlude 2 – Cogito in the History of Madness

interlude 2
Are you ready to lose your mind?

YouTube video here: Interlude 2 – Cogito in the History of Madness

Welcome to Lecture 11 of Less Than Nothing: Interlude 2 — Cogito in the History of Madness. In this lecture we will be diving into a very crucial dimension of Less Than Nothing, with the engagement with the structure of post-modern philosophical discourse related to the status of madness and reason in our civilization. In order to fully approach this topic we will be analyzing the differences between Foucault and Derrida, as well as potential modifications to their disagreements with the aid of psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics.

We start here on what Žižek deploys as a crucial philosophical distinction between philosophy proper, and the externality of philosophy that emerges internal to philosophical critique. Philosophy proper is here demarcated as the “closed” circle of reason, the totality bounded by reason and discourse. This, of course, is the ground level of the dialectic, where we attempt to mediate with reasoned discourse the historical truth of reality. The externality of philosophy is here demarcated as a “divine Otherness” that breaks out of the “closed” circle of reason and discourse.

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In and Out

In this meditation Žižek places thinkers like Levinas and Foucault on the outside of the sphere of reasonable discourse, and thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida on the inside. Here Žižek clearly attempts to make the case that the attempt to break out of philosophy internal to philosophy is a move that should be avoided. To quote (1):

“It is crucial to note here that Derrida is not an antiphilosopher — on the contrary, Derrida at his best (say, in his detailed “deconstructive” readings of Levinas, Foucault, Bataille, etc.) convincingly demonstrates how, in their effort to break out of the closed circle of philosophy, to assert a point of reference outside the horizon of philosophy (infinity versus totality in Levinas, madness versus cogito in the early Foucault, sovereignty versus Hegelian domination in Bataille), they remain within the field they try to leave behind.”

This opening is meant to set the stage for a play between the discord between Foucault and Derrida, two philosophers who often get mentioned today as the height of the postmodern philosophical turn led by French intellectual elites. In the present these two thinkers are either deified for helping us to escape the hegemonic dominance of Western scientific modernity or vilified for leading an intellectual assault on the foundations of Western civilization itself.

To sum up the essence of their disagreement we can say that Foucault believed that Derrida’s program was too synergistic with the fundamental foundation of philosophy, namely that it reminded within rational confines of discourse with deconstruction and textual analysis. For example, Derrida would often engage with the most prominent thinkers in philosophy, attempting to analyze their texts and the structure of their discourse, attempting to elucidate connections and gaps and inconsistencies in their reason. However, this itself would be an attempt to save reason within reason through textual critique.

In contrast, Derrida believed that Foucault was too quick to assume that madness was not already internal to philosophy, as its own absolute reference point. For Derrida the choice was not between madness and reason, with madness existing outside of philosophy, and reason existing within philosophy, but rather that reason itself was grounded in a madness that was constitutive of philosophical thought. Foucault, however, believed that madness was what philosophy could never approach within discourse, which was always caught up in social and historical power games.

Let us analyze the structural logic of both Foucault and Derrida’s claims on the nature of modern philosophy. Both structural logics can be formulated in a triad of cogito, religion, and madness. To quote Žižek (2):

“[The] triangle of cogito, religion, and madness is the focus of the polemic between Foucault and Derrida, in which they both share the key underlying premise: that the cogito is inherently related to madness.”

The difference starts with Foucault’s assertion that the relation between cogito and madness is obfuscated by modern philosophy. Or to be more specific, the relation between cogito and madness is not internalized by modern philosophy, as it succumbs to the assumption that madness is not in-itself a form of knowing. For Foucault, then, even if modern philosophy in its actuality starts with madness, this madness is then repressed and what we get in its founding narrative is the absolute certainty of the cogito which then (in a return of the repressed) engages in the “madness” of rational system building.

In contrast, for Derrida, madness is always internal to philosophy, as a necessary precondition for the rise of the cogito. In that sense Derrida’s emphasis on deconstruction and textual analysis is not to destroy or undermine reason but to make philosophy more self-transparent to itself. If we as humans in logos, in the realm of discourse, have as our horizon the ability to reach the truth through rational discourse, then this rational discourse should itself be submitted to analysis so that we can be more clear about the nature of our own activity.

In this disagreement between Foucault and Derrida clearly the status of madness is central. Our culture has for a long time, of course, emphasized the status of reason as the highest form of the mind. However, for Foucault what our culture has forgotten is the respect we must have for the place of madness. Foucault argues that madness in the pre-modern world had its place, its place among prophets, visionaries and saints. These people were seen as mad, but they were not seen as “sick” or lacking knowledge. As Žižek states (3):

“[madness] was a meaningful phenomenon with a truth of its own […], [madmen] were treated with awe, as if messengers of a sacred horror.”

Of course, as has become common knowledge today, madness in the modern world came to be seen as a disease of the mind, something to be medicalized and cure by the rational scientific mind which, absolutely knows itself. There is a clear and practical message here that has real consequences for human life. How can we be sure that the “madman” is lacking knowledge, and how can we be sure that the “man of reason” has knowledge, and that the proper relation between the two is for the “man of reason” to be trying to cure or control the “madman”? In this relation, Foucault notes, the madman is treated by the scientist as a scientist would treat any other natural phenomenon. What follows is that the real human being loses an elementary level of dignity and become reduced to mechanisms of control and prediction.

Foucault’s philosophical program launches itself from an analysis of Descartes as the rational founder of modern philosophy. However, Foucault notes, that this rational foundations required an absolute detour into madness. If one reads Descartes Meditations and specifically the infamous passages related to cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), then one finds a mind in search of absolute knowledge. The Cartesian cogito is a structure desiring certainty of knowledge. Furthermore, it is this cognitive structure that motivates and drives modern science.

However, Foucault claims, that the methods of Descartes search for absolute knowledge are themselves total madness. Descartes, as is well known, engages in the thought experiment that the whole world is an illusion or a delusion, that everything we can sense is nothing but something staged by an evil genius. The world is not the true reality but the curtain blinding us from the truth of our own self reflection. In this sense Foucault believes that when Descartes moves from this belief that the world is an illusion to the belief that self-reflective thought is true he obfuscates the very process whereby madness necessitates the emergence of reason. As Žižek states (4):

“Foucault’s objection here is that Descartes does not really confront madness, but rather avoids thinking it: he excludes madness from the domain of reason. In the Classical Age, Reason is thus based on the exclusion of madness: the very existence of the category “madness” is historically determined, along with its opposite “reason”[.]

The claims that Foucault derives from this analysis of Descartes and the origin of modern philosophy are far reaching and have had a profound impact on contemporary thought. The first, as we have covered now, is that philosophy cannot think madness itself and that this is by necessity the outside of philosophy. It is thus not that philosophy has not thought madness but that it cannot think madness, and thus philosophy is corroded from within by madness, its symptomal torsion.

The second, which is quite controversial, is that madness and reason are themselves historical oppositions determined by social construction. In this view reason and madness are not historical invariants of human cognition, with reason always representing the same thing, and madness always representing the same thing. Instead reason and madness depend on social construction, what one culture views as reason, or what one historical age views as reason, will not be what another culture or historical age view as reason; and the same goes for madness. In this sense Plato, for example, is not the eternal voice of reason, but a historical determination by a particular cultural constellation.

The third point, and this is perhaps Foucault’s most infamous and controversial claim, is that madness and reason are thus determined by social power relations. In Foucault’s ontology everything starts to revolve around power, because who has power determines what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. This can help us to explain why Foucault and his followers tend to view science with skepticism and cynicism, as the hegemonic structure of cognitive power that determines what is reasonable and what is not.

Derrida here is the anti-thesis of Foucault. In this sense, everything we just said about Foucault and his notions on madness and reason, can be inverted for Derrida. For Derrida, when reading Descartes passages on his journey to the cogito, we do not see the exclusion or the obfuscation of madness, but madness at work within reason, we see that the cogito is reasonable even in madness. To quote Žižek (5):

“Madness is thus not excluded by the cogito: it is not that the cogito is not mad, but the cogito is true even if I am totally mad.”

In this sense Derrida does not believe that madness/reason are historical oppositions determined by social power structures but fundamental eternal polarities of the mind that are constituted within philosophy. Or rather that philosophy itself exists and insists because of the relation between the polarities of madness and reason. Of course, reason without madness is lacking, and that also, madness without reason is lacking. The interaction and the interplay between the two, in their becoming within an individuated human mind seeking the truth, is eternal and universal, not relative to a discursive power regime.

However, it is true, in this relation, Derrida gives primacy to philosophy because he gives primacy to reason. Derrida is not saying that madness is useless or irrelevant or external to philosophy, but rather that the emergence of reason though madness is why we can have a philosophical discourse. To quote Derrida directly (6):

“Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness.”

Foucault, of course, does not here back down from Derrida’s critical denunciation of his claims of madness and its externality to philosophical discourse. The dialogue between the two is important to understand in its depths, since it creates so much polarization in our own contemporary discourse (even if ill-informed). In his response to Derrida Foucault claims that madness in-itself is not something that can be confronted within reason or tamed or controlled by reason. In order to demonstrate this point he contrasts a reasonable state in which one doubts perception (like in Foucault’s meditations on the cogito), and in a mad state where reason itself breaks down internally and one can no longer make sense of anything, either related to the self or the world. To quote Žižek on this point (7):

“When I suffer sensory illusions of perception or when I dream, I remain normal and rational, I only deceive myself with regard to what I see. In madness, on the contrary, I myself am no longer normal, I lose my reason. So madness has to be excluded if I am to be a rational subject.”

For Foucault, the fact that Derrida will not or can not think this fact of madness is proof, for Foucault, that Derrida refuses to leave the confines of philosophy, and venture into the outside of philosophy itself, the outside of pure madness. In this sense, Foucault ends up concluding that Descartes and his meditations on the cogito are not really true madness after all, but a rational consciousness attempting to be mad, or even pretending to be mad, but not actual madness, which could never be transcribed into a rational discourse.

Here we have the location then of Foucault’s own philosophical claims that no matter what philosophers do, they will remain trapped in Derrida’s textual analytic circles of reason. There is no way for philosophy to break the circle of reason and see the outside. They will remain forever trapped by reason and thus they will remain forever trapped within power and control structures. If one thinks on contemporary philosophy in institutions of social power, which, ironically, often deify Foucault, one may be quick to locate some truth here in what Foucault is attempting to communicate. One can also quickly see how and why Foucault’s message is both easy to misinterpret and also a dangerous message with long-term consequences that are still unknown and totally unpredictable. What would happen if our culture was brave enough to let go of the self-reflective circles of reasonable textual analysis? What would happen if our culture threw itself into the sacred dimension of divine madness, of absolute Otherness?

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Cogito v Pharmakon

Žižek makes his attempt to jump into this discourse between Derrida and Foucault, on the side of Derrida. He cites Derrida’s core points on the relation between madness and reason that philosophy has always attempted to make sense of an outside madness internal to reason in reference to the relation between cogito (reason) and pharmakon (madness). In the history of philosophy the pharmakon is seen both as a “shadowy double” outside of reason, as well as its internal pre-history, the ground of its genesis. Here we get a notion of the relations of madness and reason that is spatiotemporally paradoxical, re-doubled, as both the ground and the outside of reason; and also something that can be discussed and analyzed by reason. What these points seek to address, vis-a-vis Foucault’s skepticism of the closed circle of philosophical reason, is that this closed circle of philosophical reason is not as closed as Foucault thinks. The circle of reason has a ground that is both an anti-closure and a precondition for reason, and also a circle that is not fully closed, but susceptible to gaps and antagonisms internal to its attempt for closure which can never fully conceal the outside madness. In that sense we need not abandon reason for madness, but rather understand their dialectical historical relation.

Here is a passage by Žižek introducing a core claim made by Derrida on Descartes in “Cogito and the History of Madness” (8):

“First, the cogito is related to its shadowy double, the pharmakon, which is madness. Second, madness is inscribed into the very (pre)history of the cogito itself, as part of its transcendental genesis: “the Cogito escapes madness only because at its own moment, under its own authority, it is valid even if I am mad, even if my thoughts are completely mad… Descartes never interns madness, neither at the stage of natural doubt nor at the stage of metaphysical doubt… Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum… even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if non-meaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think.”

What this passage seeks to do is not to negate madness or even tame madness, but to recognize that the nature of the cogito is still an absolute ground and frame of reference that our minds can use to center ourselves in reason.

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Core of Subjectivity

However, Žižek then attempts to bring his own views to the forefront with the assertion that there is indeed a meaningful break and difference between Descartes’s notion of the self-assured cogito and the tradition that stems from German Idealism. According to Žižek, what changes in philosophical thought between Descartes and Kant et al. is that the core of the subject is no longer seen as the “light of the self-assured cogito”. It is not that German Idealists deny the utility or existence or meaning of the “light of the self-assured cogito” but rather that its a priori darkness, its primordial ground, is further investigated in its reality, in its core anti-structure. This, according to Žižek, is what is missing in Descartes, and is also the cause of the discord between Foucault and Derrida vis-a-vis Descartes grounding of modern philosophy. In this structure the disagreement between Derrida and Foucault becomes a little easier to manage and mediate since we do not think of philosophy purely in terms of absolute reason, but also its core and ground as something that internally and externally eludes reason itself. From this perspective, the human mind, the cogito, the light of reason, is always broken, thwarted, cracked, non-All. This is because the true nature of the subject is the obverse of the light of the world, it is the underground, what Hegel calls the “night of the world”.

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Here is perhaps a more complete description that captures a meta-level of philosophy, a meta-level of the discursive disagreements between Foucault and Derrida. In this representation we present Lacan as the tentative synthesis of the two with the meta-level cognitive structure of the imaginary-symbolic-real triad. In this representation we thus capture the fact that the pharmakon, the madness, the paradoxical internal genesis and external outside of philosophy can be held by reason. What is thus identified in German Idealism, especially in Schelling and Hegel, as the pre-transcendental ground of reason, and what is identified in post-modern Foucaultian philosophy as the absolute transcendental outside of philosophy, is what Lacan calls, in its totality, the Real. The Real in Lacan is not the externality of our minds, Descartes illusory world, but rather the place of the emergence of the signifying chain, and simultaneously its extimate symptomal torsion, the place where it breaks down on its attempt (and failure) to realize itself, to fully become itself. Thus, we see that a psychoanalytic philosophy does not present to us a closed totality of reason, but rather presents to us a circle that cannot close, a circle that cannot quite suture itself in eternity, and this inability, this failure, is the eternity of the Real.

Žižek introduces his interpretation of this “Lacanian” structure (9):

“[There is] the tension between the Real — the hyperbolic excess — and its (ultimately always failed) symbolization[.] The matrix we thus arrive at is that of eternal oscillation between the two extremes, the radical expenditure, hyperbole, excess, and its later domestication. […] Both extremes are illusory: pure excess as well as pure finite order would disintegrate, cancel themselves out. Such an approach misses the true point of “madness”, which is not the pure excess of the “night of the world”, but the madness of the passage to the symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order onto the chaos of the Real. If madness is constitutive, then every system of meaning is minimally paranoid, “mad”. We should say: what is the mere madness caused by the loss of reason compared to the madness of reason itself?”

In this sense we have the Lacanian “reconciliation” of the triad cogito-religion-madness. For Lacan there is the madness of absolute doubt, the self-erasure of everything including the self; there is the cogito of absolute certainty, the elevation of consciousness to the level of true reality (which is, for Žižek, the subject of the unconscious); and there is the philosophy of reason which attempts to totalize the symbolic order. In that sense we can see a new relation between philosophy and psychoanalysis, we can see that philosophy, in its modern emergence under the Cartesian cogito, as an attempt to domesticate the excesses of the unconscious madness of absolute knowledge, of symbolic order that insists against the chaos of the Real. From this relation it is not that we should simply submit to endless circles of textual analysis, or submit to the divine Otherness of absolute chaos, but rather seeks to understand this movement of the unconscious which insists on symbolic totality internal to partial perspectival forms of self-consciousness. The universal here expresses itself through the particular, and this is irreducible, and also not problematic under the systematization of German Idealism, as we covered in the lectures of Fichte’s philosophy.

Žižek here presents an elementary level of his philosophical understanding of transcendental philosophy where madness is constitutive of symbolic reason and philosophy is the horizon of this “maintained madness” (10):

“It is thus not enough simply to oppose “madness” and symbolization [reason]: there is, in the history of philosophy itself (of philosophical “systems”), a privileged point at which the hyperbole, philosophy’s ex-timate core, directly inscribes itself into it, and this is the moment of the cogito, of transcendental philosophy. “Madness” is here “tamed” in a different way, through a “transcendental” horizon which does not cancel it in an all-encompassing world-view, but maintains it.”

In one of the most brilliant passages in this interlude Žižek then makes the transition to understanding how psychoanalysis is already what Foucault is looking for. According to Foucault, he wanted humans to develop a way in which “madness itself” could speak outside of scientific discourse. Foucault wanted to know “madness in-itself” without the gaze of the scientific other. He did not want to know madness through science, but a science of madness. However, Žižek claims, that this is already the aim of psychoanalysis at its best. The point of symptomal torsion, where symbolic totality both expresses itself and breaks down, is the unconscious; and the study of this phenomena in-itself is psychoanalysis. The analyst does not try to get the analysand to conform to a pre-existing totality of reason, like scientific discursivity, but rather, simply lets the analysand deploy its symbolic totality and watch as its own internal contradictions and antagonisms implode from the inside. This is a process we will cover in much greater depths in the first chapter internal to the Lacanian thing-in-itself.

However, for now, we can say that what Foucault and psychoanalysis share, is the fact that they come to the same conclusion on the nature of man’s truth “outside of reason” or “extimate to reason”, which is “sex-as-the-ultimate-truth” logic. The central location of the subject’s own point of impossibility, the point where reason no longer curls or curves in on itself in a perfect circle, is sexuality, where reason can no longer contain the excessive libidinal enjoyment. This does not mean that sex is in-itself a chaotic excessive outside with no reason, but simply the location of a truth that we cannot understand, that breaks down any symbolic totality which attempts to fully grasp it from within. This is why Žižek claims that Derrida is much closer than Foucault to grasping the “outside” of philosophy, precisely because what Foucault thinks is “external” or “outside” to philosophy is in fact its “excessive inside” the extimacy that emerges internal to the symbolic totality. In that sense Žižek tends towards a formula of Derrida’s “there is nothing outside the text” with Lacan’s understanding of the intimacy of the symbolic, that is not a pre-symbolic substance but a symbolic inside that cannot be captured and brought inside to a symbolic totality.

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In order to better understand all of these philosophical differences and confusions about madness and reason, Žižek makes an appeal to the scientific distinction between biosphere and logosphere, or the biological order and the symbolic order. In contemporary anthropology it is common place to assert that divide between biological evolution and the unique emergence of language that marks humanity with a symbolic order or culture. The question is precisely of its emergence, how do we pass from a biological order or natural biosphere to cultural mediation in the symbolic order? If we understood this passage would it clarify crucial disagreements internal to philosophy regarding reason and madness?

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Deconstruction and Dispositif

As we discussed, for Derrida and Foucault, they often assert a horizon for philosophy of either deconstruction (on the side of Derrida) or dispotif (on the side of Foucault). What both of these horizons tend towards, as is common knowledge in contemporary philosophy, is a deconstruction of the very difference between man and animal; and or even more extreme, a reduction of this horizon to discursive power games of man privileging himself over nature.


Žižek attempts to delicately complicate this picture of the dominant scientific anthropological interpretation of the division between biology and language; and the dominant philosophical interpretation of the deconstruction of this difference with the assertion that the passage between the two is what we do not understand. To quote Žižek (11):

“How do we pass from the “natural” to the “symbolic” environment? This passage is not direct, one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator”, which is neither Nature nor Culture — this in-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on homo sapiens, enabling him to form his supplementary virtual symbolic environment, but precisely something which, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos” (p. 334).

This is one the most nuanced and complex dimensions of Žižek’s entire philosophy, and at the same time one of the most important dimensions of Žižek’s philosophy. The reason why is that it is the elementary ontological dimension where Žižek attempts to insert the knowledge of (first) German Idealism and (second) psychoanalysis into the division between modernist science and postmodern philosophy.

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Death Drive

Thus, here Žižek introduces in this almost impossible to symbolize and categorize dimension separating the biological and the symbolic the crucial domain isolated and studied by Freud and, later, in his “return to Freud”, Lacan. This dimension should not be conceptualized as the “eternal substantial” “collective unconscious” of Jung, but rather the “abyssal freedom” and “night of the world” first introduced by Hegel. Thus, what supports the symbolic order, the logos, independent of the biological order, is not some substantial God-figure, but rather the space of freedom, the space where the symbolic can emerge and gain an autonomy from Nature. It is this domain that, Žižek claims, we should isolate our understanding of what Freud identified as the “death drive” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In some sense there is everything here for the raw material of a tentative synthesis between modernist science with its clear distinction between nature-culture or biology-symbolic and the postmodern philosophy with its complications of madness and reason, of the genesis of reason and the excess of reason internal to reason. This is the impossibility of the symbolic order from closing in and completing itself; the space of abyssal freedom.

Now Žižek returns to an essential domain of philosophical difference where Descartes “ridiculous” assertion of what separates spirit-body or mind-matter dualism is the “mediator” of the pineal gland; and where Nicolas Malebranche (a contemporary of Descartes) asserts that what separates spirit-body or mind-matter dualism is the “mediator” of “God”. Here we can interpret Descartes and Malebranche’s dualisms with the contemporary dualism of biology and culture or natural and symbolic orders. Whereas contemporary anthropology may not really articulate anything that “mediates” between the two except for the gradual cumulative build up of evolutionary process; and whereas contemporary philosophy may not really articulate anything that “mediates” between the two since “binary” and “dualistic” thought is “deconstructed” as a “dispotif” of a social power regime; Žižek seeks to play in this domain with the revolutions of German Idealism and psychoanalysis.

In order to articulate this Žižek compares Malebranche’s God with the Lacanian Other or “non-Other”, the ontological void of extimate intersubjectivity that mediates the dialectical domain of self-consciousness. To quote Žižek (12):

“If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the proximity of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemic against Aristotle in “Television”, the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two. Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrariness of the signifier,” for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks[.]”

Thus, in Lacan’s ontology it is never simply the mind and the body, of my self-conscious awareness and my physical bodily reality and their interconnected relation. Instead, it is the way my self-conscious awareness and my physical bodily reality are being mediated by the Other, which can take many forms and has taken many forms throughout historical reality.

For example, in the pre-modern world the mediation between the mind and the body literally was God, the transcendental absolute that structured the cosmos and human society for eternity. In that sense when someone structured their life praxis it was not simply something structured in a relationship between mind and body, but a relationship between mind-body and the Other, of what God wanted for my mind and body.

And in the modern world, as was perceptively recognized by Giorgio Agamben, God did not die, he was turned into money. In that sense what mediates the life praxis of a modern individual is not simply a relationship between the mind and the body, but a relationship between mind-body and the Other, of what is possible within the coordinates of Capital.

And now, in the post-modern world, in the world of (so-called) late capitalism, we can say that money itself is breaking down, perhaps, and being replaced with the virtual Other of the Internet and its digital machinery. In that sense it is not just my mind-body relation that is making me move right now, mediating my life praxis, but my mind-body relation in relation to the Other of the virtual web of the Internet Otherness.

Žižek here inscribes a point that he brings up frequently throughout his work, that of the ambiguity of the future of virtuality cyber space, of the way in which future subjectivity will be effected by the development of the Internet. Here the Other, of the mediator between mind and body, of biology and culture, must itself be inscribed in its own immanence (13):

“For this reason, it is crucial to keep open the radical ambiguity involved in how cyberspace will affect our lives: it does not depend on technology as such but on the mode of its social inscription. Immersion in cyberspace can intensify our bodily experience (a new sensuality, a new body with more organs, new sexes…), but it also opens up the possibility for someone manipulating the cyberspace machinery to literally steal our own (virtual) body as to “one’s own” […] One can see, again, how the prospect of radical virtualization bestows on the computer a position strictly homologous to that of God in Malebranchean occasionalism: since the computer coordinates the relationship between my mind and (what I experience as) the movement of my limbs (in virtual reality), one can easily imagine a computer which runs amok and starts to act like an Evil God, disturbing that coordination — when the mental signal to raise my hand is suspended or even counteracted in (the virtual) reality, the most fundamental experience of the body as “mine” is undermined.”

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Lacan and the Other

What this brings us towards is that the virtual mediator between my body and mind is what Lacan referred to as the Other which mediates reality for us. In that sense, to be meta-reflective, right now you (as mind and body) are sitting and reading on your computer a screen of a written lecture on Žižekian philosophy. In this situation, in its totality, there is an Other, me, which is structuring your reality, arranging the symbolic order in such a way that should resonate as true or real, or else, why would you be reading? Moreover, my text, what you are reading this moment, is not really “mine” but always already “in the Other” since I am not literally writing right now, only a virtual replication of my text is displaying itself right now. Thus we clearly can locate the “third” between mind and body, since the autonomous character of this virtual third gains an incorporeal disembodied existence.

Now, in terms of the deep psychoanalytic structure of this Other, Lacan attempts to articulate the triad of alienation-separation and drive in his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Alienation occurs when we realize that the Other does not fulfill our desires. In other words, when we realize that structuring our life under God or under Capital or under the Internet does not bring us complete satisfaction. Separation occurs when we realize that not only can we not achieve our full desire in the Other, but that the Other itself is inconsistent and barred from the Truth. Finally, the drive is where the subject engages in a parallax shift, and attempts to fill in this gap internal to the inconsistent and incomplete Other. In other words, take the elementary dimension of my own performativity in representation. I (my mind-body) is not being driven primarily by God, or Capital, or the Internet (although I have struggled in alienation and separation from these dimensions of the Other), but by the pursuit of truth in philosophical knowledge. In my pursuit of truth in philosophical knowledge it is only the mode of the drive that helps me to fill in this lack in the Other, to (hopefully) provide the structure within the Other (symbolic order) that enables the Other to fill itself out, to bring it closer to completion and coherence.

In that sense Žižek makes the comparison between Lacanian psychoanalysis and The Matrix. The Matrix is a very popular cultural reference today precisely because it attempts to work through the philosophy of the Other. Take for example the use of The Matrix as the founding metaphor of The Red Pill movement where the blue pill is represented as progressive illiberal reality and the red pill is represented as the conservative true reality beneath the operations of the symbolic machinery of the Other. This movement can thus be formulated in Lacanian terms as the first two stages of relating to the Other: alienation in the Other and then separation from the Other. In alienation we realize that tricks of the machinery and in separation we separate from the very machinery itself.

However, the Lacanian Other is much more abyssal than the metaphor of The Matrix would suggest. In the metaphor of The Matrix we think that there is objective substantial reality behind the deceptive appearances or the curtain of reality. But in Lacanian psychoanalysis there is no objective substantial reality (like a collective unconscious) beneath the deceptive appearances, there is only what we put there, only our abyssal freedom. In that sense the only thing that can “fill in the Other” the only thing that can “bring truth” to reality, is our own drive, our own free self-posited necessity.

To quote Žižek on this absence of the true reality behind the scenes (14):

“the films idea is that it is so because the Matrix obfuscates the “true” reality behind it all. The problem with the film is that it is not “crazy” enough, because it supposes another “real” reality behind our everyday reality sustained by the Matrix.”

Here Žižek moves into some very complex territory where he discusses the historical understanding of freedom in German Idealism. In order to articulate this dimension of freedom he starts with Kant and then works his way to Hegel. What Žižek emphasizes is that there is a “primordial unruliness” or “excessiveness” that is constitutive feature of the weird psychoanalytic space that is both “de-naturalized” and “pre-logos”. We discussed that this space is essential for Žižek’s ontology in previous slides. What this “de-naturalized” “pre-logos” space is is the monstrosity of real freedom, of a real independent of genetic programming and instinctual mechanism, where there can be a real act.

What inserts itself into, what becomes in, this space of real freedom is the logos, through education and law. The paradox for Žižek, identified well in his reflections on Kant’s notions of education and teaching, is that in order to learn, in order to be taught, in order to have a Master, one must first be free. Thus, in the formula of Love and Law, in the formula of madness and reason, in the formula of Freedom and Logos; love, madness and freedom precede law, reason, and logos. The law, reason, and logos emerge through the pacification of the excessive spirit into a higher mind by recourse to the Other as Master. In that sense, even if God, and Capital, and the Internet are inconsistent and incoherent Others, they still work to structure and guide and discipline self-consciousness in its historical reality. Here there is an interesting and politically incorrect passage that Žižek quotes from Hegel on Hegel’s reference to pre-historical man in Africa. For Hegel pre-historical man in Africa was human spirit in a state of nature, both ‘de-naturalized’ and ‘pre-logos’. To quote (15):

“[Africans] are described as a kind of perverted, monstrous children, simultaneously naive and corrupted, living in a pre-lapsarian state of innocence, and, precisely, as such, the cruelest of barbarians; part of nature yet thoroughly denaturalized; ruthlessly manipulating nature through primitive sorcery, yet simultaneously terrified by raging natural forces; mindlessly brave cowards.”

It is from this state of ‘de-naturalized’ mind and ‘pre-logos’ mind that Hegel articulates the space of the world historical narrativization of being. This state is what gets ‘repressed’ by the narrative and returns in various repetitions in historicity. In this ontology there is a primordial break with nature that receives a supplement of the virtual universe of narratives that becomes the phenomenology of history.

Here let us spend some extended time on crucial passages from Žižek’s mediation on the discovery of monstrous freedom from Kant to Hegel (16):

“For Kant, discipline and education do not directly work on our animal nature, forging it into human individuality: as Kant points out, animals cannot be properly educated, since their behaviour is already predestined by their instincts. What this means is that paradoxically, in order to be educated into freedom (qua moral autonomy and self-responsibility), I already have to be free in a sense much more radical, “noumenal”, monstrous even.

The Freudian name for this monstrous freedom is, again, the death drive. It is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose a moment in human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal but also not yet a “being of language”, bound by symbolic Law; a moment of throughly “perverted”, “denaturalized”, “derailed” nature which is not yet culture.”

Continued (17):

“This brings us to the necessity of the Fall: given the Kantian link between dependence and autonomy the Fall is unavoidable, a necessary step in the moral progress of man. This is to say in precise Kantian terms: the “Fall” is the very renunciation of my radical ethical autonomy; it occurs when I take refuge in a heteronomous Law, in a Law experienced as imposed on me from outside.

Every parent knows that the child’s provocations, wild and “transgressive” as they may appear, ultimately conceal and express a demand for the figure of authority to set firm limits, to draw a line which means “This far and no further!” thus enabling the child to clearly map what is possible and what is not possible.”

Can we not find in this line an exceptionally wise kernel of knowledge relevant to the present progressive political scene? When we think about the contemporary provocations on reason, on law, on logos; which perhaps reaches its height in Foucaultian philosophy, are we not seeing a primordial dramatic emotional outburst unconsciously calling for reason, law and logos? In other words, are we not looking at an unconscious call for limitation that is necessary for true freedom and love?

In this dimension we may put German Idealism into direct conversation with psychoanalysis. If Foucault is looking for madness itself to speak, and psychoanalysis is looking to re-establish a dialogue with madness, then modern Foucaultian philosophy can learn a lot from the lessons of the psychoanalytic practice vis-a-vis the becoming of reason in history. What is essential in psychoanalytic context is that the analyst cannot directly function as the Master of discourse, cannot directly function as the man of reason who knows, cannot directly embody the big Other. This is all done indirectly. The reason why this must be done indirectly is that the subject must discover the absence of the Other themselves; but more importantly, since there is no Other, they must discover that real freedom and real love can only be achieved through self-responsibility. This is why the contemporary revival of conservatism is to be located precisely in this dimension of self-responsibility for one’s own action. When one has gained the right space to act freely, the truly difficult task has only just begun, and that difficult task is in understanding that to be truly free, is to be truly self-resonsibyiltiy for one’s own action. To quote Žižek (18): “I myself have to set the limit to my natural ‘unruliness’”. Or rather, “I myself have to set the limit to my monstrous freedom”. Monstrous freedom in-itself will lead to self-destruction; but self-limitation will allow for a space of freedom that the subject cannot ever begin to imagine before it freely sets forth the hard task (the impossible task) of achieving self-realization.

What the horizon of the drive and what the lack in the Other ultimate means then, is that free self-limitation is the ultimately mature act of a human in a mode of true self-realization (19):

“In this precise sense, a truly enlightened “mature” human being is a subject who no longer needs a master, who can fully assume the heavy burden of defining his own limitations. The basic Kantian (and also Hegelian) lesson was put very clearly by Chesterton: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”

Now, for the next two slides I will be analyzing the pages between 340-350, which are the crucial dimensions of Hegel’s formula for true freedom in reason over the risk of madness. This starts with self-limitation. If one can do anything or if one thinks one can do everything; then one will essentially be able to do nothing at all, and one will be a mad unlimited child. A subject that does not take on the hard or impossible task of self-limitation, then, does not become a subject at all; but simply a wild excessive pure potentiality with no capacity for real action.

In order to self-limit, one must, logically, engage in self-posited habituation. When one makes a habit out of a desired action or state then one has “depersonalized the will” by integrating it into one’s being. There is thus a translation process between one’s will and one’s being. The term that I like to describe habit in this context is “mechanized emotion”. We typically think of emotions as the opposite of mechanization, but when one develops necessary habits for self-realization, we are taking states that we desire, taking states that we want to be a part of our being, and we are building these states into our very being, so that we no longer have to think about these states as desires, since they simply are a part of us. They become mechanized emotions.

Now, what is truly essential to understand Hegelian dialectics and Hegelian totality is that these ideas lead us into a universe of two crucial conceptual determinations: this is an objectivity that is subjectively enacted; and that of a contingent accident transformed into universal essence through necessary self-positing. These two dimensions are so crucial for Hegelian totality that they may well definite the Hegelian totality in its quest for freedom. In this sense we have to think hard when we are in our becoming towards true freedom about what is our objective necessity, because what we decide as our objective necessity, what we habitually mechanize into our being, is what will be (retroactively) our universal essence. For example, if I posit as my objective necessity becoming a philosopher trying to making great works accessible for the 21st century, then this is something I am positing as my objective necessity. Moreover, when I posit this as my objective necessity, I am positing something that can eventually become objectively a part of the Other as a universal essence. Thus, when you are listening to this lecture, this is a lecture that is an essence in language that can diffuse universally. Any mind can reflect on this lecture and relate to its contents. It is inscribed into the narrative becoming of the Absolute. If I were mad, if I had lost control of logos, then there would be no such inscription into the Absolute’s becoming. And finally, there is no secret in the creative production of this lecture series, the only secret is the repetition of habit necessary for self-realization, and the hard work of attempting to internalize and externalize true knowledge. It is only through these processes that the space opens up for me to express my creative spirit in the form of participating in philosophical discourse. Thus we have a paradox, a paradox where spiritual creativity, something that is often perceived to be the opposite of mechanization, is something that opens up to us once we pass through mechanization. Our culture would do well to learn this lesson if it is to avoid the trap of an unconscious return to primordial madness.

In this objective self-positing of universal essence, that is constitutive of Hegelian totality, can Hegel think madness in the becoming of reason? For Hegel, the threat of madness is always a possibility, it is always a risk of the becoming of reason. Although, against Foucault’s affirmation of madness and privileging its own speech, Hegel does not believe that madness is something that we should lose ourselves in unless we want to be erased from the narrativized history of the Absolute. This is why Žižek opts instead for the idea that the reason of symbolic totality is itself a form of madness which must be maintained via habitual self-determination.

In this becoming of reason, the problem for the subject is that it is constantly haunted by its “noumenal” self. The “noumenal” self can be thought of as the space of its potentiality, the space of everything that it could potentially be, but is not. Moreover, the distance between what it could potentially be and what it actually is, requires such a devastatingly intense level of self-responsibility for action that it is often something that the subject will shy away from in actuality. Nonetheless, when one talks to a subjectivity deeply, and one brings to self-consciousness the space of its possibility, one will see that this self-consciousness is being deeply effected by its noumenal self, and there is a desire that emerges in the subject from this engagement with the noumenal self.

What emerges here, and this is where madness is always a possibility, is the contradiction between the totality of a systematized consciousness (imagined by the noumenal self) and the particular determination (the actuality of the subject). For Hegel, temporal identity (that is all identity whatsoever) is a contradiction, so one should not opt against actualization because of contradiction, because one cannot actualize independent of contradiction. This deepest contradiction between the totality of a systematized consciousness (say the dreams of being a philosopher for the 21st century) and a particular determination (my local daily habits and actions), are nonetheless difficult to reconcile. The only way to navigate this paradoxical terrain without becoming totally mad is to engage in endless self-reflection, and endless self-criticism. This action allows me to integrate the necessary habits for the actualization of my noumenal self and ground my partial particular engaged position in the becoming of the Absolute. The fact that the self is riddled with contradictions in its becoming is not a short-coming of reason where we should choose madness over reason, but a necessary feature of the deployment of reason. If reason were really non-contradictory then it would simply be actual God. And if madness was really the true alternative option against reason then we never would have left the ‘de-naturalized’ and ‘pre-logos’ space of primordial man.

Here to quote Žižek in order to summarize the relation between habit and madness, and the essence of integrating habit into one self in order to become in logos without avoiding the ever-present possibility of madness (20):

“Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as “normal” subjects, which means that “normality” can only arise as the overcoming of this threat.


We can now see in what precise sense habits [relate to madness]. […] In a habit, the subject finds a way to “possess itself”, to stabilize its own inner content in “having” as its property a habit, not a positive actual feature, but a virtual entity, a universal disposition to (re)act in a certain way. Habit and madness are thus to be thought together: habit is a way of stabilizing the imbalance of madness.”

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Philosophy Reconsidered

What we thus get in this analysis, to come full circle within reason, is the realization that the anti-logos and anti-reason, a constitutive tendency to madness in postmodern Foucaultian philosophy is ultimately an unnecessary turn, and also a feature that is internal to the becoming of philosophy itself. Philosophy, as the ultimate becoming of the logos, is always risking a fall into madness. Throughout its history there are always those who seek to provoke the order of the logos, to pike holes in it and to demonstrate that it is lacking. And to become a philosopher means to become at the highest levels in logos, to be alone, ultimately. This means that one can always be tempted by the divine Otherness that one may feel is outside of philosophy, in religion, or in madness, since one can be well aware of the holes and gaps internal to reason. However, this trap is to be avoided if we are to continue our quest for the truth in a dialectical form, that is, the quest for the truth in a reasonable discursive mediation.

One can, instead of turning to madness, engage in a discourse with madness, and this in turn requires a knowledge of psychoanalysis. I, for example, have encountered absolute madness. I do feel that this madness is internal or extimate and also tempting to lose myself within. However, I still think the true path is within the dialectics of reason since one still furthers the discourse of history and becoming of the domain of others. Furthermore, when one has a knowledge of psychoanalysis one can well see the gaps and holes in the Other, and simultaneously, not lose faith in reason. On the contrary, one’s faith in reason can be strengthened for the simple reason that the gaps and holes in the Other are a call for one’s own self-realization. If there were no gaps and holes internal to reason then one would not be able to self-realize in reason. We could just rest our faith in the already complete, the already consistent Other.

Indeed, this state where the Other is closed and complete, according to Žižek, is true madness (21):

“The impossible point of “self-objectivization” would be precisely the point at which universality and its particular content are fully harmonized — in short, where there would be no struggle for hegemony. And this brings us back to madness: its most succinct definition is that of a direct harmony between universality and its accidents, of a cancellation of the gap that separates the two — for the madman, the object which is his impossible stand-in within objectal reality loses its virtual character and becomes a fully integral part of that reality. In contrast to madness, habit avoids this trap of direct identification thanks to its virtual character: the subject’s identification with a habit is not a direct identification with some positive feature, but an identification with a disposition, with a virtuality. Habit is the outcome of a struggle for hegemony: it is an accident elevated to an “essence”, to universal necessity, made to fill in its empty place.”

In this way Žižek offers a Hegelian recipe for the dialectical mediation of madness (as the total complete, closure of the Absolute beyond Logos) and reason (as the habitual self-determination of subjective realization). In this sense, one can well experience madness and still be left in the realm of open, incomplete and incoherent reality. If one is in this situation, then the point of this video is to call one back to reason, and back to the hard work of self-realization. For it is only through the hard and mature work of impossible self-realization that one can become with the Absolute. It is in this sense that Žižek’s central thesis involves transposing epistemological failure into the Thing-in-itself. Thus, when one reaches the limits of one’s own epistemological constructs, one is at the very horizon of the Thing.

With this, we have now completed and closed this chapter of Less Than Nothing, bringing us a deeper insight into the structure of Hegelian totality, in and through its relation to a critical issue in postmodern philosophy. In this lecture I hope we were able to elucidate some connections between postmodern philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Hegelian totality. I also hope that we were able to offer some crucial distinctions that are necessary to internalize for self-becoming.

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interlude 2
Stay True to Logos!

Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S.  2012.  Interlude 2: Cogito in the History of Madness.  p. 327.

(2) ibid.  p. 328.

(3) ibid.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.  p. 329.

(6) ibid.

(7) ibid.

(8) ibid.  p. 330.

(9) ibid.

(10) ibid.  p. 331.

(11) ibid.  p. 334.

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.  p. 335.

(14) ibid.  p. 337.

(15) ibid.  p. 339.

(16) ibid.  p. 338.

(17) ibid.  p. 339.

(18) ibid.  p. 340.

(19) ibid.

(20) ibid.  p. 349-350.

(21) ibid.  p. 358.


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