YouTube video here: Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject (Part 1)
Welcome to Lecture 12 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing. After taking a break with the Interlude on Madness and historical cogito we are now going to focus on the nature of the Absolute in as rational a form as we can think the Absolute with Chapter 6 “Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject”. This is the famous Hegelian axiom of the Absolute that really differentiates Hegel’s philosophy from the philosophy of Spinoza as we will start to see throughout the course of the lectures focused on this chapter.
Žižek starts the chapter with a quote from Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (1996) (1):
“Hegel’s great originality is that he shows exactly how an interpretation that aims at nothing more than universality, that disallows any role for the singularity of the exegete, an interpretation, indeed, that refuses to be plastic, in the sense of both “universal and individual”, would be in reality particular and arbitrary.”
This is a profound quote and worth taking some time to reflect on. We see in this quote the important consequences of the Hegelian Absolute as substance but also subject for universal theory. As anyone who has spent time studying the philosophy of science will know, there is tendency of scientists to develop or at least to strive for a universal theory that is static and fixed, a universal theory that will explain everything forever. This can be referred to in the form of an evolutionary theory that explains everything or a theory of quantum gravity that explains everything, or some other Master form. However, what these attempts at universality always miss is the reality of historical spirit. What is historical spirit supposed to do once we have the grand unified theory of everything? Celebrate and rejoice that the university is resolved? This is only rational, this is only sensical, in a world that conceptualizes the Absolute as devoid of historical subjectivity. Once we accept the basic presupposition that historical subjectivity is a part of the Absolute in its own-most becoming we can no longer reasonably entertain the idea of an abstract representation that in-itself resolves the Absolute. The resolution of the Absolute will require the very becoming of all abstract representation. This is the nature of the Hegelian Concept. Thus, Hegel, far from being a philosopher of a static immovable perfection, as is sometimes thought, Hegel is the philosopher that sees every subjective truth in the dissolution of its fixed and static notions.
Thus, we can start to approach an understanding of the nature of “concrete universality” in contrast to abstract universality. Concrete universality as the universal in-itself as opposed to a particular abstraction is something that must inscribe within its becoming the irreducible contingency, particularity and partiality of any subject’s interpretation whatsoever. In that sense, the subject of science or the subject of religion is not a necessary universal totalizing view of the whole of reality, as if it is an observer outside the system it is analyzing. The subject is radically inscribed into the system, the subject is something that must be understood on the second order level of reflection. Indeed, in that sense, the fact that the subject of science or the subject of religion is contingent, particular, and partial is thus not a limitation in regards to its access to the concrete universal, but its very enabling function. Thus, what we may see as something preventing us from accessing the Absolute, our contingent historicity, our particular humanity, our partial view of the whole, is something that the Absolute requires for its revelation. Here is the minimal gap, the “division between division and non-division” that is not only generative of the subject’s own mystery, but the Absolute’s own mystery of itself.
In this way Hegel is against both historicist relativism and fixed universality. Historicist relativism is the idea that there is no Absolute, that every subjective position, in its irreducible contingency, particularity and partiality means that anything it says about the Absolute is ultimately historically relative. In this mode we do precisely see the conventional limitations to the Absolute as preventing the subject from getting any grasp of the Absolute. Perhaps this was best represented in Lecture 11 in relation to Foucault’s assertion that any notion of the Absolute can be reduced to a dispotif, to a regime of social power masking the real of madness.
In contrast, for the fixed universality, we imagine that the universal is not alive and thriving with historical subjectivity. For the fixed universality we are capable of conceiving a perfect immovable substance that exists from all time and will always exist independent of subjectivity. What this means is that whatever the Absolute is, it has no relevance to us, forms of historical subjectivity. It was here before our species emerges, before we were born; it will be here after our species goes extinct, after we die; and our action in history has no relevance to it. One may want to group some interpretations of the Platonic One into this concept of the Absolute. At least the Platonic One of the pure mathematical geometry, the Absolute which is reflected in the imperfect naturalist forms. Or perhaps one could think of the Deist One, the Absolute that starts the universe and then leaves the universe to develop in its own nature, as some conception of the fixed universal.
If one recalls Lecture 2 “Vacillating the Semblances” one will recall that we worked through the ancient reflections of the One and related to them as the difference between One and Being and the Symbolic and the Real. Here we revive this relation to discuss the structure of the Hegelian Absolute. On the left hand side take note of the relation between One-Being and Symbolic-Real as historical relativist. What this relation signifies is that no matter what form of abstract universality, no matter what form of signifier function emerges in history, it has nothing to do with the Absolute because there is no Absolute, just a relativity of discursivity. In this structure the subject is barred from the Absolute in the sense that there is no Absolute, no relation that the subject could discover which would ground true speech.
On the right hand side we have the representation of fixed universality. For fixed universality there is a universal that is fixed in eternity for all time, but this time it is the subject who is barred from this universal in the sense that it does not effect this Absolute. To deploy the asymmetry between the two positions, on the left we have a pure multiplicity of historical subjectivity with no Absolute anchor; and on the right we have a pure one as an Absolute anchor which is unchanged in anyway by historical subjectivity. Of course, this structure in some sense mirrors the difference between pre-modern and post-modern subjectivity. For pre-modern subjectivity there is a God and we are Absolutely separated from this God in the natural-secular world. There is no symbolic link or connection that would allow us to reconnect with this Absolute. On the other hand, for post-modern subjectivity, there is no God whatsoever, just the historical becoming of free forms of subjectivity, and any concept of God or the Absolute is reduced to a mechanism of social power.
The Hegelian Absolute, in contrast, inscribed subjectivity into its very core. To quote Žižek, the (2):
“interpreter as the particular and contingent point from which the universality is perceived”
We get again the circle where the one-being, and the symbolic-real are in themselves linked and interconnected in such a way that they mutually require each other for their becoming. Here the free field of subjectivity and the Absolute God are entangled, the embodiment of pure contradiction, a formal twist internal to being, or the real as a formal twist. To quote Žižek on this point: “concrete universality is not true concrete universality without including in itself the subjective position of its reader-interpreter as the particular and contingent point from which the universality is perceived.” (3)
In that sense, from the perspective of the Hegelian Absolute, we could say that the pre-modern form of fundamentalist religiosity, is in-itself a part of God’s becoming in history, although not the Absolute final form of that becoming. And the post-modern form of atheist anti-religiosity is a mode where God loses himself, where the very structures erected as an expression of the Absolute are seen in their own temporality. However, in both cases, they are a part of the Absolute’s own self-revelation to itself, through the authenticity of the partial engaged form of subjectivity.
If we are going to understand the paradoxes of this entanglement of the subject with the Absolute let us play with the status of abstract and concrete universality in Hegel. This is a head twist. In the first mode we can tend to think that, for example, the universal objectivity is out there existing independent of us (“the actual state”), and our particular subjective cognition (“our notion of the state”), is independent of this. This is applicable in all fields, we can think about the universal medium as the mathematical object, as the religious object, as the political object and so forth; and we can think about the particular cognition as the mathematician, the religious subject, or the political subject. In this relation the universal medium is what has primacy and the particular cognition is merely reflecting this universal medium.
However, we can also reverse this relation between the notion and the actual state. We can say that the medium is a particular manifestation of a universal cognition. This is again true in the context of say mathematics, religion or politics. It is not just that the mathematician, the religious subject, or the political subject passively reflect in their notion the universal medium, but also, the universal cognition relates to this particular medium, and determines whether this medium is acceptable to it. For example, there are mathematical subjects, religious subjects and political subjects who transform the universal medium in their own notional determination. This is true when we see the rise of a great mathematician, a profound religious orator or interpreter, or a transformative political movement leader, and so forth.
To go into greater depth, take for example the mathematician Roger Penrose. The mathematician Roger Penrose is not just passively reflecting the absolute mathematical object, but in his own historical subjectivity, is twisting and changing and transforming this mathematical object, demonstrating its connections to the curved spacetime manifold, and in conceiving it in its universality, leaving it different then the way he found it in his youth. Or take for example the leading subjects of New Age religiosity, like a Terence McKenna or an Alan Watts; these thinkers do not just simply reflect the divine substance, but are themselves transforming the divine substance in their eloquent elucidation of its nature and structure, forever changing the way other historical subjectivities relate to this Absolute. Or take for example, the political subjects of a Bernie Sanders or even a Donald Trump. These subjects do not just passively reflect the actual state, but dynamically transform it, rip it apart, re-interpret its meaning. In this situation we can not think of the Absolute as something simply passively reflected, existing from all time and unaffected by subjectivity; nor can we think of the modern subject as devoid of an Absolute. In all of these situations we can only think of the Absolute as both substance and subject; where historical subjectivity must be inscribed into the very becoming of the Absolute in-itself.
Now this is essential for understanding capitalism and the notion of universality developed by Marx. Of course, as we all know, Hegel’s notion of the relation between abstract and concrete universality profoundly effected Marx’s own theories of capitalism and universal development. For Marx, the historical subjectivity was also something that must be inscribed into the Absolute’s own most becoming. In this articulation there is the rise of a relation in capitalism where a totally new universality mediates the exchange of particular subjectivities; and where particular subjectivities as universal cognitions interpenetrate within a particular medium. This is done, as Marx noted, in the exchange value of commodities. In this universality a particular cognition can develop actions with relevance to a universal medium; and also a universal cognition can embed itself within a particular medium; through the exchanging of commodities.
For example, in creating these videos as commodity I, as a particular cognition am expressing myself within the universal medium of capital (where you, as consumer, can value my work as a commodity with money). However, it is also true that I, as a universal cognition, attempting to become a part of the Absolute’s ownmost becoming, perceive the output, my commodity, as a particular medium that is an effect of my own universal cognition. In this sense we can view the capitalist Absolute from the perspective of the in-itself of a universal medium where particular cognitions share their labour; or we can view the capitalist Absolute from the perspective of the in-itself of a universal cognition where particular mediums are the very niche construction of the Absolute itself. In this precise sense we cannot understand the Absolute unless we also understand it as subject. Here to quote Žižek on Marx’s notion of the capitalist labourer as a new form of universality (4):
“only in capitalism, in which I exchange my labour power for money as the universal commodity, do I relate to my specific profession as one contingent particular form of employment; only here does the abstract notion of work become a social fact, in contrast to medieval societies in which the labourer does not choose his field of work as a profession, since he is directly “born” into it.” […] In other words, the very gap between a universal notion and its particular historical form appears only in a certain historical epoch.”
In this way Žižek aims to break with both historical relativity and fixed universality by denoting the very way in which the Absolute becomes in history. Here we never have a pure relativity of subjectivity; nor a fixed universal that never changes; but rather an Absolute that expresses itself through the individual subjectivity. In order to demonstrate this fact we can reflect on the irreducible differences between the traditional pre-modern form of life and the modern capitalist form of life. In the traditional pre-modern form of life we have a relation between abstract and universal that is totally different then the modern capitalist form of life which undermines it universally. From this perspective the universal in-itself and for-itself is like a qualitative intersubjective or extra-subjective vortex that is both produced by subjectivities and gains an autonomy and independence from subjectivities. Of course, without subjectivities there would be no traditional culture which sees in itself the reflection of the Absolute, but at the same time, the traditional culture gains an autonomy and independence from these subjectivities, presenting to them an objective (social) reality that mediates their very becoming as universal cognitions. And the same goes for capital.
Of course, there would be no capital without the emergence of historical subjects, but at the same time, capital gains a life of its own, mediating the emergence of particular formation of universal cognitions. In other words, if I were living in a traditional pre-capitalist culture, I would not be able to give my universal cognition to the medium as an abstract universality in the way that I am now; there would be no universal medium for my universal cognition to transform into a niche for a philosophy internet series. In the same way, if I were in a post-capitalist sharing economy, perhaps it would again change the way in which my universal cognition engaged with the generation of a particular niche within the concrete universality. What I am trying to get at here is the strange historically constituted loop between the particular subjectivity and the universal medium within which it is embedded; and the particular medium within which a universal cognition expresses itself as abstract universality. The interesting dimension that Žižek highlights is the irreducible asymmetry in these tensions of universality; that traditional culture universally undermined, say, primitive society life; and capitalist culture universally undermined, say, traditional cultural life. In the same way, we should be able to think, perhaps, the way in which this vicious Absolute vortex that emerges from historical subjectivity and retroactively constitutes historical subjectivity, will change us in the future.
To quote Žižek (5):
“Capitalism is not just universal in-itself, it is universal For-itself, as the tremendous corrosive power which undermines all particular life worlds, cultures, and traditions, cutting across them, sucking them into its vortex. It is meaningless to ask, “is this universality genuine or merely a mask for particular interests?” This universality is directly actual as universality, as the negative force of mediating and destroying all particular content.”
In that sense, in the same way that traditional cultural life worlds view the modern capitalist real as a destructive force undermining their way of being; perhaps we should be able to think the way in which alternatives to capitalism, could be seen as a destructive force undermining the capitalist way of being. There is here no peace and harmony in the Absolute; we should think of the Absolute as constitutively violent, disruptive, antagonistic, internally thwarted and unable to fully realize itself. This is life.
To continue with Žižek (6):
“In short, a universality arises “for itself” only through or at the site of a thwarted particularity. Universality inscribes itself into a particular identity as its inability to fully become itself: I am a universal subject insofar as I cannot realize myself in my particular identity — this is why the modern universal subject is by definition “out of joint”, lacking its proper place in the social edifice.”
Thus, when I say that the Absolute emerges from a particular realm of historical subjectivity and retroactively is enacted as a universal medium for historical subjectivity, we should not think of this universal medium as some extra substance, some extra something that is added to the historical subjectivity; it is a universal medium that is only constituted by other historical subjectivities which any particular subjectivity will experience as an objective part of its reality. Moreover, the emergence of any particular subjectivity that expresses the universality as a for-itself, like we demonstrated with the mathematical subject of Roger Penrose; the religious subject of Alan Watts; or the political subject of Bernie Sanders; this is something that emerges only in its own self-impossibility. Indeed, historical subjectivity is in-itself, as the frontier of the becoming of the Absolute, the very site at which points of impossibility manifest most intensely. When we think in this way there is no mystery of a historical subjectivity like Donald Trump, the very becoming of Trump can only be understood against the backdrop of his inability to be a fully realized capitalist subjectivity, that the task is never complete, and task is never closed, there is always more money to be circulated in and for itself, there is always more ways in which circulation can be propagated and so forth. This problem, however, goes deeper for the modern subject, as we will see.
Here we enter the level of psychoanalysis. When we must think the Absolute as substance but also subject we must think the complex network of historical subjectivities which are all the time becoming more complex and attempting more and more to assert their identities against the background of nothing but their own impossibility for self-realization. This is true for feminist subjectivity, ethnic subjectivity, enlightenment subjectivity or Islamic subjectivity; for example. Let us think each form of subjectivity in turn. For feminist subjectivity as universal cognition there is the seeming impossibility to assert the full feminine identity, to fully realize the category of woman, and that this inability to realize feminine identity and the category of woman is seen to be blocked or thwarted by the very structure of patriarchal civilization as such, or the category of man, which is always in the way, blocking full realization. Or take for example the ethnic subjectivity as universal cognition with the “black lives matter” movement, where there is a seeming impossibility to fully assert black identity, and the category of blackness, undistorted from the surrounding whiteness which always already transforms blackness into something for whiteness. Or take for example enlightenment subjectivity as universal cognition with “rational secularists”, where there is always seen to be an impossibility of convincing the irrational supernaturalists that there is no Other with which one can ground one’s positing of the presuppositions, where every rational secular argument is always countered and out maneuvered by the subject of religion and mysticism. Or finally, take the example of Islamic subjectivity, where there is always a seeming impossibility to ground a religious law in the secular world that is capable of holding God’s will.
What all of these forms of subjectivity have in common is that they can only maintain their consistency and coherence in relation to the “objective antagonism” that provokes them and is perceived as an obstacle to their full realization. The paradox, of course, is that they are only this impossibility, there is no way in which any of these forms could fully realize itself, since if the obstacle were removed, their very identities would disintegrate. Therein lies the crucial dimension of the Hegelian Absolute. Or to quote Žižek (7):
“within a given social order, a universal claim can be made only by a group that is prevented from realizing its particular identity – women thwarted in their effort to realize their feminine identity, an ethnic group prevented from asserting its identity, and so on.” (p. 362).
In this sense, from the psychoanalytic perspective, there is an important double move regarding the status of the Absolute. The first move is to recognize that there is no Other, no Other that will be able to completely close and complete your desired identity and fully realize your being; in the second move there is a non-Other, that there is a movement that persists despite the fact that the full realization is impossible. Here, is it possible that there is a third twist, a reconciliation of the Absolute in the Hegelian sense, where all subjectivity dissolves itself in its particular historical constitution? Where there is in fact some deeper structure that unites, say, feminist, ethnic, enlightenment, and religious subjectivity? If one looks throughout Less Than Nothing this may be the dimension where Žižek attempts to situate the Lamella and the phenomenon of the living dead.
This notion is not to invoke some higher substance, some transcendental third, but rather a cut that precedes the emergence of a universal subject, and ignites an unconscious pure repetition. For example, if one takes the time to look up the historicity of Slavoj Žižek himself, his own unconscious pure repetition in philosophy is stimulated by the failure, by the scar, of an impossible failed love, which then could only be supplemented by the universality of absolute knowledge. This is why, to quote Žižek (8):
“Every universality that arises, that is posited “as such”, bears witness to a scar [cut] in some particularity, and remains former linked to this scar [cut].”
In this sense the cut or the scar is the real where a signifier comes to express its abstract universality. Thus what is concrete in universality for psychoanalysis is, again, not some higher substance, but a gap or a lack where the subject embodies an open wound in vision and voice (and possibly also smell). Here we may even be invited to think the figure of consciousness of Žižek as a vision and voice that calls for the Absolute Knowledge in its actuality, as the gap within the gap (the division between division). If one wants to think this gap within the gap, or the division within division, one can think of the most impossible vision of realization that one can think, perhaps the actuality of someone like Doctor Million in the Watchmen, of an entity that can go anywhere in all of space and all of time, of an entity that knows the total past and the total future. This image, this impossible image, where a vision and voice constitute their self, is the subject of the unconscious, located in the gap within the gap, the division within the division.
Now, here we come to an essential formula for understanding what Hegel is referring to with the historical constitution of the Absolute in terms of the becoming of identity. For Hegel, identity is never full within itself, but always constituted internally in relation to its own most impossibility. In other words, A (in this situation, the Church) cannot fully become A, cannot fully realize its ownmost identity. The Church, in that sense, cannot fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. If the Church were fully realized then we would already be on the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; this is its own most impossibility of identity internal to itself. In that sense the Church is not just an identity constituted by a spurious infinity of differences (A1, A2, A3, and so on forever) but an A that is constituted by its ownmost non-A (the fact that we do not live in a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth).
Thus, in this way, A gives rise to B. In other words, the impossibility of A, once it has run into and exhausted its own historically constituted deadlocks and antagonisms, gives rise to a new identity, an identity that is still constituted by its own most impossibility, but with a new form and a new mechanism. In this situation A as the Church becomes B the State, with B’s ownmost internal impossibility as secular utopia. In this form, the identity of B’s most radical expression could perhaps be conceptualized as communism, where the State identity in its full realization would cancel itself, “withering away”, to use the Marxist terminology. Now, the question is, are we at the limits of B? Are we at the limits of B’s ownmost impossibility? Can B as a structural universality contain the desires and demands of modern subjectivity? Do we really believe in the State apparatus as a mechanism capable of secular utopia? In this situation we have to think a new identity, with a new point of impossibility. Is this not what is being called for in modern leftist thought? Here I would ask, can we think the Commons? What would the point of impossibility of a Commons be?
This formula can be applied to on the micro level. In the same way that the macro state identities is constituted by impossible identities, so too can individual micro identities be constituted by impossible identities; where A cannot equal A, where the religious subject cannot equal its own notional ideal. Thus, when the religious subjectivity exhausts its own notional ideal, it undergoes a radical transformation, a transformation to the modern subjectivity, which is also thwarted in its own notional ideal. Here we could say that the religious subject puts as its highest notional ideal the symmetry between its own action and God’s desire or will (and of course, God’s desire or will itself undergoes transformations in relation to the religious state). On the other hand, we can say that the modern subject puts as its highest notional ideal the symmetry between its own action and the secular good (and of course, the secular good undergoes transformations in relation to the political state). All of this is made more complex by the fact that there are fundamental holes in the notion of the modern subjectivity, and so it is difficult to see how, on the macro and the micro level, we transition to a new form of subjectivity. If the macro level could be speculatively thought as the commons, what would its micro-level counterpart be represented as?
Perhaps we can no longer think in terms of projecting our identity out as a fundamental symmetry between our action and the social state? Perhaps we have to think on the meta-level of this impossibility of our own identity, and the impossibility in the other? Perhaps the flaw in modern subjectivity is that it spends too much of its existence poking holes in the failure of the other as opposed to meta-reflectively engaging in the mode of the drive where the point of impossibility is seen in its liberating dimension? In other words, the meta-reflective trick in moving from desire to drive is to think: would it really be so great if we were really in the Kingdom of Heaven? Would it really be so great if we were really in the secular utopia? Wouldn’t it be boring? What would we even do? In that sense, as Žižek notes in public lectures, we have to think the real of the eternity of the struggle, and this eternal struggle is first and foremost a self-struggle. For example, in making these videos and lectures, I am not in a perfect symmetry, and I do not always live up to my own ideal. However, my identity enjoy this gap, this distance, this struggle. It is hard to represent high level philosophy, it is hard not to please everyone with content or reflection, it is difficult to be at a distance from one’s own highest ideal. But nonetheless, this seems obvious that this is the very condition for self-growth, that I can become an even deeper person by giving myself to this struggle, emerging on the other side with new knowledge and depth of perspective.
Now let us think this structure on a deeper level, in this mediation between the micro particular and the macro universal, and their irreducible entanglement. It is clear on the level of human phenomenology that when we think the Absolute as substance but also subject that we are dealing with a situation where the universality and the particular co-exist in their ownmost contradiction. In contrast to the realm of biological order, in the symbolic order, the universal is itself at stake through the becoming of particular individuals. One can see this fact if one watches any debate whatsoever; argumentation and critical thinking, as a constitutive feature of modernity, thus signals the fully opening of this contradiction. The interesting thing here to think is, as mentioned earlier, there can be no one without the other of the one. There can be no mathematical absolute without Roger Penrose crazily speculating away about the nature of the mathematical absolute; there can be no religious absolute without Terence McKenna crazily speculating away about the nature of the religious absolute; there can be no political absolute without Bernie Sanders crazily speculating away about the nature of the political absolute, and so forth. Here there is, apparently, no synthesis, no reconciliation in the intuitive sense.
Imagine, for a moment, that there comes along a mathematician who totally resolves the contradiction, that an individual is to capture the absolute in its totality; or likewise, a religious or political subject, who close all contradictions between particular individuality and religious and political totality. Even though mathematicians, religious subjects, or politicians will often speak as if they are reconciling the absolute, it is hard to imagine it in its actuality. Or imagine, for example, when someone proposes a grand unified theory of everything, why is it never reflectively inscribed into the process the consequences for the total body of the symbolic order. What would it actually look like if there is a complete and closed theory of quantum gravity, for example, that reconciles our entire understanding of the physical world. We just never think this, and it is the Hegelian Absolute which brings this problem to our attention, since we must also inscribe subjectivity.
The formula to approach this can be represented here as U (Universality), I (Individuality), P (Particularity). In this Žižek is clear that it is not that universality and particularity are oppositional determinations in which one needs to be reconciled or synthesized, but rather to see the way in which the particular in which the universal is expressed can eradicate the ‘otherness’ of the universal. For example, in the becoming of the notion a form of subjectivity can feel as if its universal medium stands opposed to it or other that it. For example, the individual subject can feel like God is its absolute other; or that the State is its absolute other. However, this is not yet at the level where the subject sees that in its particular individual notional determination, as Žižek puts it “universality and particularity immediately coexist” (9). If one is to think this concrete universal where the universal and the particular are one thing, one need only think about a subject actualized at the height (or depth) of its own most notion. When a subject is actualized at the height (or depth) of its own most notion then there is no more difference between the two. Here I get images of a great artist, like for example Jean-Michel Basquiat, in the real of his notion, expressing his notion to the fullest actuality of his possibility. In this motion everything disappears except the pure determination of the notion. For me, I personally relate to this idea when I am making these videos, or when I am in the flow of writing my own philosophical theory. In these moments my entire environment in its otherness can disappear and I am purely in the flow of my own most notion.
In order to give further demonstrations of this process in the history of philosophy Žižek moves to the historical subjectivities of Descartes and Kant. In the notional determinations of Descartes and Kant we have the idea at its heights or depths of its own most expression, where the universal in its otherness has been mediated and founded in its particular interiority. For Descartes this was expressed in the Cartesian cogito; the pure rational I of self-assured thinking. For Kant this was expressed in transcendental apperception; the thing that thinks stands alone and in-itself opposed to all otherness. What the pure I of the cogito or the apperception thus achieves is, to quote Žižek, “an absolute negation of all determinate content” (10). In this situation the pure I stands alone with itself atop of its own mountain of existence and being disappears as a low level insubstantial illusion. What was one seen as hard and impenetrable and impossibly large and grandiose, disappears as a fragile inconsistent semblance produced due to lack of internal self-knowledge. Hegel referred to this state as a “miracle” (11):
“this pure universality emptied of all content is simultaneously the pure singularity of the “I”; it refers to myself as the unique evanescent point which excludes all others, which cannot be replaced by any others — my self is, by definition, only me and nothing else.”
To relate to the universality of this particular notional determination I can say that this “miracle”, the heights of what we may call the Cartesian cogito or the transcendental apperception is something I myself have experienced in states of pure eternal bliss. In these states there is nothing to worry about, there is nothing to fear, there is no more problem, there is no more antagonism or difficulty. The I in its miraculous in-itself simply is as a pure notion, on top of its world and its world is symmetrically reflected in it as its own most. There is no otherness to speak of because I am everything. If one wants to also read another passage of this state, I would strongly recommend the first pages of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature where Emerson experiences this state and describes it in one of the most sublime passages in human literature. I will also recommend the description to my own experiences on ayahuasca where I have experienced my self as on the thrown of the world, in a state of pure transcendental freedom. Indeed, modern science and modern psychology have little to say about these states, as miraculous and as absolutely central as they are to philosophy and self knowledge. In this sense, to think the Hegelian Absolute, we should not fear a science that is worthy of these states, that can think the in-itself of the pure cogito, of the transcendental apperception.
Here to quote again some passages from this crucial section of Chapter 6 (12):
“The pure I is just such an absolute negation of all determinate content: it is the void of radical abstraction from all determinations, the form of “I think” emptied of all determinate thoughts. What happens here is what Hegel himself refers to as a “miracle”: this pure universality emptied of all content is simultaneously the pure singularity of the “I”; it refers to myself as the unique evanescent point which excludes all others, which cannot be replaced by any others — my self is, by definition, only me and nothing else. The I is, in this sense, the coincidence of pure universality with pure singularity, of radical abstraction with absolute singularity.”
From these extended reflections I would now provoke and ask, if science is to think these states, can we not draw on homology with physics or complexity science for inspiration in modelling such states of consciousness? In physics we do have objects, in the form of black holes, which cannot be observed from the outside. We can only infer their reality by the way in which matter is moving around them. In the same way perhaps this is how we should think about the subject. The subject’s movement is like that of a de-centered movement around a black hole which is in some sense its own point of impossibility, its own impossibility to objectify itself, to see itself reflected in a transcendental apperception.
Thus, when we think of the all of the forms of modern subjectivity which seem impossible, their very identities hanging on a mediation between particular and universal in their otherness, we have to think how to turn these subjects inside out, to see the way in which they are internally de-centered. In this way we may also have a formula for overcoming the deadlocks of the modern forms of subjectivity and the state, which rest all too much on their externalization in a secular worldly context. Perhaps it is instead the mediation of a notional determination in every particular individuality that is the crucial dimension of becoming. Perhaps it is cultivating a relationship to transcendental apperception and the Cartesian cogito that is essential for the future of philosophy. Are these divine miracle objects not the state of the pure I that we all seek through desire in our selves. When we are in such states, is there any lack in love? Of course, as Žižek emphasized in Lecture 3, there is an excess of the in-itself that persists even after one has achieved a ‘centering’. One cannot hold this center, and the excess that emerges as its consequence, is religion. In that context, how to make sense of the collective attempt to center ourselves with the absolute where we must deal with the contradiction of the universal and the particular?
Žižek describes this dimension of notional mediation as what Hegel referred to as the “bad news” that accompanies the “good news” of the Notion’s return to itself. It is true that Hegel describes a process where the notion first externalizes itself in nature, only to return to itself, to see that everything in the external mode was a reflection of one’s own self. However, in returning to one self, the process does not “end”. One is merely, on a meta-level, aware that the externalization of the idea was the very condition for the creation of an “I-form”. In other words, the externalization gave one a shape, a structure, within which one could be an actor in the world. In returning to one self one thus has a new challenge, how can one, instead of externalizing oneself in nature, create one self from nothing but one’s own most I-form. This is the level of the Hegelian dialectic where the subject cannot simply be reduced to nature, but must be something conceived as adding something to nature. This is the emergence of the new, the emergence of the new emerges out of the singular necessity of the self-actualized I-form. For example, after I experienced the heights or depths of my cogito in transcendental apperception, I was still left upon returning in my particular individuality. The task of actualization or realization was still before me. It is not as if in finding oneself as the ground of existence, that the task of existing in the world is any easier. On the contrary, it could be more difficult, since one no longer has the illusory background as a stable other for meaning. Instead, one finds that the only way to secure meaning, the continued presence of the depth of meaning which makes life worth living, one can only find this in one’s own most notional determination.
To quote Žižek (13):
“Individuality is not only the return of the Notion into itself; but immediately its loss”; that is, in the guise of an individual I, the Notion not only returns to itself (to its radical universality), freeing itself from the otherness of all particular determinations; it simultaneously emerges as an actually existing “this”, a contingent empirical individual immediately aware of itself, a “being-for-self”: “Through individuality, where the Notion is internal to itself, it becomes external to itself and enters into actuality… The individual, therefore, as self-related negativity, its immediate identity of the negative with itself; it is a being-for-self. Or it is the abstraction that determines the Notion, according to its ideal moment of being.”
On this level of the Absolute Žižek references Badiou, and specifically Badiou’s Logics of Worlds, to understand the nature of the self-actualized on the horizon of the becoming of the Absolute. In this realm we are trying to think the real of subjective determination, where a new dimension of the Absolute emerges as its own form of self-relating negativity. Throughout this lecture I have referenced diverse figures of consciousness like Roger Penrose, Terence McKenna, Bernie Sanders and so forth; and these are subjects who are the products of their own radical self-determination, their own willing to become something the world has never seen before. For Penrose this was to revolutionize general relativity; for McKenna this was to revolutionize our understanding of the transcendental experience; for Sanders this was to revolutionize socialist politics, and so forth. These are all figures irreducible to anything outside of their self, they are all figures of the Absolute becoming.
For Badiou this level is thus irreducible to the formula of “It is because I will be so”. For example, in making these videos and in deciding to make this blog, its emergence as something radically new in the academic ecosystem, cannot be reduced to anything but my own particular I-form. I sit in myself and I decide: how do I want to participate in the becoming of knowledge? How do I want to express my universality in the world, in its own most particular determination? This act cannot be formulated in any more elementary a sense then the formula “It is because I will be so”. Such an act, according to Badiou, draws on the Lacanian point de capiton, the point of a yes or a no. For example, when I decided to start my PhD program, or when I decided to study human evolution, or when I decided to write a thesis on the idea of singularity, all of these moments of determination have to in the end boil down to a point de capiton, a point where the multiplicity of options, the field of potential, must be radically narrowed with a “Yes!” or a “No!”. The totality of such radical collapses is the very structure of the I-form and the notional determination of a particular form of the universal. In this structure one cannot help but notice the parallels between the point de capiton and the collapse of the wave function, where a field of potential restructures itself as a determinate entity.
And with that reflection we come to the end of this lecture covering Chapter 6 of Less Than Nothing. As mentioned at the beginning I want to take more time on each chapter of Less Than Nothing and so this chapter will take at least 5 lectures before we can compete it in its entirety, but I think the time will be well worth it. Again, there is a real wisdom in understanding the patience of the concept.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 359.
(4) ibid. p. 360.
(5) ibid. p. 361.
(6) ibid. p. 362.
(9) ibid. p. 365.
(11) ibid. p. 366.
(12) ibid. p. 365-366.
(13) ibid. p. 366.