Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject (Part 2)

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YouTube video here: Not Only Ass Substance, But Also As Subject (Part 2)

Welcome to Lecture 13 of Less Than Nothing. In this lecture we will be focusing on subsection 2 of “Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also as Subject”. In this lecture we will be taking the time to explore the nature of the Spinozan Absolute and its relation to the Hegelian Absolute. In this exploration we will be focusing intensely on how Spinoza conceptualized substance, and then putting this conception into connection with how Hegel conceptualized subjectivity.

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Absolute, Substance/Subjectivity

We start the lecture focusing on the crucial distinction that Žižek will deploy throughout this section of Chapter 6: the minimal distinction between the Spinozan and the Hegelian Absolute. We can start to analyze this distinction with a recourse to how we ended the last section focusing on the Lacanian point de capiton, the Absolute subjectivization of the process with a brutal reduction: Yes or No! In Spinoza the Absolute is pure substance that expresses itself as a free multitude of interconnected phenomena. In Hegel, however, the Absolute is not only a substantial multitude, but also the way in which this substantial multitude becomes subjectivized in a singularity. In this shift we have the movement of the idea and the way in which the Absolute requires subjectivization in order to reveal itself to itself. In other words, we have the paradox that the substantial multitude of expressions can only be revealed in the appearance of a singular point which holds the substantial multitude in its phenomenal consciousness. As Žižek starts the subsection (1):

“Spinoza’s Absolute is a Substance which “expresses” itself in its attributes and modes without the subjectivizing point de capiton.”

Let’s give Spinoza’s Absolute some specific attention. For many contemporary philosophers and scientists Spinoza represents the highest expression of metaphysical thought precisely because he is capable of holding the Absolute in a secular determination, seeing Nature as the ultimate expression of the Absolute. Consequently, for many contemporary theorists influenced by either Deleuze or quantum physics or evolutionary theory, it appears Spinoza sutures their field, in the sense that we need no more metaphysical speculation beyond the Spinozan Absolute. What is the nature of this Absolute? For Spinoza, the Absolute is a pure univocal expression, meaning a pure multiplicity or plurality of interconnected or interrelating phenomena. The term “univocity of being” means simply the pure plurality of substantial identity.

What follows from the principle of the univocity of being is the Spinozan axiom “omnis determinatio est negatio” which can be roughly translated into “all determination is negative”. As Žižek is quick to point out, we should not be tricked into thinking that this axiom is Hegelian, on the contrary, this axiom is decidedly anti-Hegelian. Why? According to Žižek there are two main reasons: the first reason is that the axiom “all determination is negative” leads one into a specifically negative theology that every predicate or conjecture fails to grasp the essential identity of the Absolute. One may even situate this negative theology as properly Kantian, one that affirms the distance between human subjectivity and the Absolute. The second reason, is that this form of distance between human predicates or conjectures and the Absolute means that every identity will ultimately return to the chaotic abyss out of which it arose, there is no stable or fixed identity that we can find which will remain unchanged for an eternity. In this way the Absolute is conceived of in its negative determination, in its inherent temporality. In that sense we can quickly summarize the Spinozan Absolute as in-itself an essential positivity which is unknowable (negative) and temporal or unstable.

Now one may be properly confused. Why is an Absolute in which there is a gap between humans and essence, and in which the Absolute is temporalized, properly anti-Hegelian, one may think this is quite in line with what we have come to think of as the Hegelian Absolute. Before we jump too quickly to a conclusion let’s first identify that Spinoza’s Absolute is not simply a Heraclitean generation and corruption of all things but the very universalization of this process. In short, what Spinoza’s Absolute universalizes is the curvature of substance, classically referred to as a “fall”. What this means is that the Absolute is not a pure self-identical substance that exists eternally in-itself, but rather a substance that is always at a distance from itself, that is always and nothing but its own fall or curvature. In other words, there is not a primordial flatness which is then disturbed into a curved path, but rather, the only reason there is something is because there is a falling or a curvature; a movement. When we frame Spinoza in these terms, precisely, we get much closer to Hegel. We may even add that when we think in these terms, the difference between Deleuze and Hegel also gets reduced. We have a thought of the Absolute that is quite precise regarding what we think we can know of the in-itself, of what we think we can know of the non-human. We can also see why Spinoza’s Absolute is so popular among contemporary natural scientists from physics to biology, since the physical real is grounded in a fundamental curvature that we can think of as the distribution of matter-energy; and the biological real is grounded in a fundamental curvature that we can think of as a fitness landscape.

Now we are in a position to think the Hegelian Absolute that is not in absolute contradiction or difference from Spinoza, but undoubtedly something different then what Spinoza is talking about. For Hegel, the phenomenologist of history, we cannot simply think about substance as a plurality of expression that is curved or falling in its irreducible temporality. We also have to think about the way in which this substantial Absolute is revealed in a multiplicity of a priori frames. In other words, Hegel is capable of taking the Spinozan Absolute and processing it through the Kantian revolution in which we must never think about the Absolute as an in-itself, but as something that is always already framed by a historical form of subjectivity.

What changes when we include the subject which is always already framing substance is that we do not just have a universal curvature but a curvature repetitively stabilized by cuts or ends that suture the field as a totality. Žižek claims that this is precisely where we should insert the Lacanian notion of the Master Signifier, the signifier that holds together a totality of substance, the signifier that can take a multiplicity of falling substance, and frame it as an “All”. The introduction of a Master Signifier transforms or interrupts a fall. Let us meta-reflectively consider this interruption of the curvature with Spinoza himself as representative of a “Master Signifier”. As mentioned, Spinoza is often seen in various fields in the symbolic order as the height of metaphysics, as how we should think of the Absolute in-itself. However, when we are thinking of the Absolute as substance but also as subject, we have to think about the way in which Spinoza as Master Signifier in a field, fundamentally interrupts the field and changes the direction of the curvature or the fall. In other words, we have to think about the multiple perspectival frames that held substance before the introduction of Spinoza’s signifiers, and we have to think about the way in which, after Spinoza introduced his signifiers, this Absolute was held differently. In other words, it is the very phenomenal historical intervention into the field by the real subject of Spinoza, which the Kantian to Hegelian philosophical passage aims to capture. In this sense we do not just have a pure plurality of substance, but also the way in which it is framed historically.

Is this move essential? How should those in philosophy and natural science think if we are to take the Hegelian Absolute seriously? The essential additional conception that Hegel would assert is the fact that the subject as a suturing element in the field of the Absolute requires us to think retroactivity. When a subject emerges, positing new signifying chains which can hold substance, we are capable of thinking the way in which the entire field of substance can be retroactively transformed after the positing of the presuppositions is inscribed into its very core. For example, when we have the beginning of the 20th century in physics as a temporal historical period in which the field of quantum mechanics was formalized as a revolutionary discipline, we are here thinking in terms of the Hegelian Absolute. Why? It is of course not the case that the physicists in the early 20th century which formulated quantum mechanics actually changed the in-itself of substance, but with the Kantian turn we are already philosophically barred from such thought, anyway. Instead, what Hegel is emphasizing is that after the early 20th century the way in which substance is stabilized by subjectivity is itself radically transformed. In that sense a contingent historical symbolic procedure becomes a necessary symbolic mission stabilized by networks of quantum physicists who become determined to understand the meaning of this signification. In that sense there is a fundamental retroactive restructuring of the entire field of substance. Or as Žižek states in regards to the way in which this field functions via the introduction of a Master Signifier enacting the point de capiton (2):

“the dotting itself, its cut, releases — sets free — meaning and interpretation: the dot always occurs contingently, as a surprise, it generates a surplus — why here? What does this mean? […] The final cut is then simultaneously the opening, what triggers or sets in motion a new process of endless interpretation. And, of course, the same goes for the absolute ending, the conclusion of Hegel’s system.”

In this way Žižek attempts to emphasize that we must consider a paradoxical Absolute when we make the jump from Spinoza to Hegel, we must consider a paradoxical Absolute that includes a type of fictional or fantasmatic mediation of substance. In Spinoza there is a subject working with substance, but no distinct subject as such, the subject of a radical abyssal cut or interruption in natural substance. Or as Žižek states, the human subject is “anti-nature” (3), a tremendous force of negativity that cannot be harmoniously balanced with natural life cycles. The human subject, in other words, is not just another objective plurality expressing its substance in the light of the transcendental unity of nature; but, on the contrary, a radical break with objective plurality and substantial positivity, a singular punctual invasion or division that is precisely something that emerges because of a failure inherent to substance itself, a failure to be fully substantial.

From here we have the idea that, logically, Spinoza in the history of philosophy affirms the primordial falling substance, but failed to make the next secondary jump, to the way in which this falling substance has become subject, that it has become redoubled, subjectively mediated. There are two ways in which Žižek attempts to think this process: the first is the way in which substance is always already subjectively mediated; and the second is the way in which the subject always paradoxically comes second, only after the fact of substance. In that sense, if we can think both ways of thinking substance and subject, we can think of the paradoxically redoubling of the Absolute.

At the same time we can delimit here a horizon of the Absolute that will echo our analysis of the distinction that separates Kant and Hegel. First, Spinoza is in some sense wrong to posit the idea that the Absolute is only a “beyond” in the gap that separates human subjects in the mode of a direct predicate (i.e. his “negative theology”). For Hegel, this is wrong because substance is something that only takes a determinate form in its subjectivization, and in that sense the notion of a “beyond” of the Absolute is something internal to the subject’s own mediation of substance. To quote Žižek (4):

“If the limit has priority over what is beyond it, then all there is is (phenomenal) reality and its limitation. There is nothing beyond the limit, or, more precisely, what is beyond the limit coincides with the limit itself; this coinciding of the limit with its beyond means that the Beyond has always already passed over into the process of becoming which generates determinate (phenomenal) entities.”

We can think this in terms of any historical notion of God. God, in Hegel, is not an Absolute beyond existing in its transcendental eternal positivity, but rather the signal of a phenomenal limitation internal to subjectivity. God is the Master Signifier that sutures the field of substance which is inherently lacking or incomplete; God is the place where what is beyond coincides with its limitation. To put it in another way, if the subject could totally mediate substance, if the subject were “one” with substance, then there would be no need for the “Master Signifier” of God which sutures the substantial field of many historical phenomenal subjective entities. To quote Žižek (5):

“What is beyond the limit, beyond the screen which denies us (protects us from) any direct access to the In-itself? There is only one convincing answer: what is “really” beyond the limit, on the other side of the screen, is not nothing, but rather the same reality we find in front of the screen.”

In other words, when monotheists posit the beyond of God, they do not positively posit something which corresponds to an actual divine reality, but rather produce as an effect of an absolute negativity the screen which protects them from the real of the lacking in-itself.

Let us analyze this distinction from substance to subject more precisely. We can think of this in contrasting “pure being” with the form of subjective “becoming” that is identified by the Hegelian dialectic structured by being and nothing. When we think of being or substance, this being or substance is always something that appears against the background of nothing. However, this nothing is not a void without consequence, but precisely the motive force that allows for the subjective becoming. If substance was full, if substance was pure being, then there would be no becoming. The only way in which there can be a becoming is if this becoming occurs against the background of a void which is internal to positive substance. One can here modify the atomistic materialistic view of the universe that emerges with Democritus, since atoms are not simply “flat ones” nor simply “curved ones”, but “curved ones in a void” which allows for a movement.

Thus, the fantasmatic screen of an Absolute beyond is a signal of the lack in being, the signal of the way in which the Absolute is being mediated by the singular hole of a desiring subject. Again, let us here think Absolute “re-doubling”. On the first level of the Absolute we have lacking substance, a substance that is only its curvature, only its fall. However, on the second level of the Absolute we have subjectivization, the space where the lack in substance is transformed into a reflection of itself, where substance is held by its fantasmatic desire for reconciliation and completion. Here, in order to capture this re-doubled dimension of the limitation where an insubstantial fantasmatic screen posits a beyond which would reconcile being, Žižek deploys the metaphor of a theatrical stage (6):

“Think of a theatre stage and all the machinery behind it used to generate the staged illusion: what really accounts for the latter is not this machinery as such but the frame which delimits the “magic” space of the stage from the “ordinary” reality off-stage; if we want to explore the mystery of the illusion by going backstage, we will discover there exactly the same ordinary reality as exists in front of stage.”

Žižek furthermore claims that it is thus redoubling of substance as a staged presentation to itself forces us to abandon the univocity of being (7):

“the field of (what we experience as) reality is always traversed by a cut which inscribes appearance into appearance itself.”

What we get then is not an Absolute as a plurality of substance, but rather an Absolute that appears as a suprasensible Idea of perfect substance. In other words, the “highest” reality is not the substance nor the appearance of substance but the “appearance as appearance”.

This brings us to the central topic separating Spinoza and Hegel in terms of understanding the Absolute. For Spinoza, as we have covered, there is not substance without its falling or curvature. What Spinoza obfuscates is the way in which this fall or curvature is organized around a void or a lack in being. The question that Žižek now reflects on is if we can determine what is primary: curvature or void? Does this philosophical question of the Absolute not reflect also of the distinction that separates general relativity and quantum mechanics? Is not general relativity what absolutizes the curvature; whereas quantum mechanics is what absolutizes the void? In psychoanalytic terms Spinoza’s substantial curvature and the Hegelian void is what is identified on psychical terms as the drive, what falls without recourse to a future perfect substantial reconciliation, but which is simply in-itself a curvature around a lack. In this relation there is not necessarily a priority but simply an incomplete circle that generates itself, where curvature can generate lack and lack can generate curvature.

Thus, instead of privileging curvature or privileging void we can think the way in which curved substance is always around something framed in a void of self-relation. This is what Hegel achieved with the axiom of Absolute as substance but also as subject. Hegel’s curvature is not simply a fall, but a fall organized around a void of desire. In this we can arrive at a precise lesson of the psychoanalytic drive, which is that what one desires is not the full achievement of dreams, the final goal, or the light at the end of the tunnel, but the ability to keep on dreaming, to keep on positing goals and circling around them, to see the light as the suprasensible appearance as appearance and allow it to structure one’s motion. Such a structure of the Absolute may be more difficult to think then a purely substantial universal Spinozan Absolute, but the advantages to adding the subjective mediation, is that one can properly ground the way in which substance seeks to return to itself in its subjectivization. Here Žižek offers a concrete difference in the two forms of the Absolute in his identification of the different ways to read capitalist modernity (8):

“The example of alternative modernities will help make this clear: for a Spinozan, the plurality of modernities expresses the productive power of the capitalist social Substance, while for a Hegelian, there is a plurality of modernities because the capitalist social Substance is in itself “perverted” antagonistic.”

In other words, for the Spinozan substance is not lacking, there is no fundamental negativity at the heart of substance, substance is simply curved because it is curved; whereas for the Hegelian, substance is curved because it is lacking, because it is organized around a void at the heart of its becoming.

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Hegel and Lacan

We can naturally find a synergy here between Hegel and Lacan, and Žižek makes it clear that we should see Lacan here working within an extension of the Hegelian Absolute. Although Žižek also makes it clear we should not privilege negativity or curvature but think of them in their co-generative modality, he also emphasizes that curvature with no lack or void is something that leaves open the question of how we get something out of nothing. For Žižek, the answer to the question how we get something out of nothing requires the formalization that Lacan presents with his $-a structure. In Lacan’s formulation of the subject as barred and desiring in the mode of a partial object, a formless form which can take any form, we have here conjoined the couple of void and curvature. What is the void is the subject itself, the empty self-relating negativity, and what is curvature is the space of desire encircling its fantasmatic object which would bring unity. Thus, where the subject encounters partial objects which structures its phenomenal horizon, we can here assume the presence of the absence of the negative one, the fact that substance is fundamentally lacking. To quote Žižek (9):

“What if the two dimensions are brought together in Lacan’s formula S-a, which conjoins the void or negativity of the subject and the stain that blurs reality? Ver stands for the anamorphic distortion of reality, for the stain which inscribes the subject into reality, and nein is the gap, hole, in reality. They are two sides of the same coin, or, rather, the opposite sides of a Mobius band: the correlation of the empty place and the excessive object.”

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Two Vacuums

Here Žižek attempts to bring the foundation of Lacanian psychoanalysis into closer conversation with quantum physics in order to attempt to propose an underlying physicalist structure which can explain the coincidence of the opposites in regards void and curvature; or the subject and the separation which allows for a desire. In this structure there is a homology identified with what is referred to as the two vacuums in quantum physics; the “false” vacuum and the “real” vacuum. This notion of the two vacuums captures the minimal structure of imbalance inherent to the universe, the reason why the universe cannot hold itself in a perfect substantial identity. Thus in the gap where the universe cannot hold itself in a perfect identity there is a fundamental ontological dislocation; where perfection is not just a lack in our knowledge but a lack in nature itself. Here Žižek also attempts to make a connection to Derrida and the notion of différance. In this connection we can equate the “false vacuum” with the “utopian goal” and the “true vacuum” as the “circular motion” of the desiring process. In that sense, the idea would be that any utopian project, whether that be sexual, political, scientific, and so forth, is doomed to be a local and unstable phenomena; whereas the circular motion of desiring process, what keeps the ultimate goal at a distance, is ultimately global and stable. This physically informed and psychoanalytically grounded understanding allows us to again reflectively think about how we approach the sexual and political field in the 21st century. If we are to wager a bet on how human beings should approach sexuality and politics in the 21st century we should say that all utopian goals of a perfect harmony should be cast aside in favour of focusing deeply on our own internal circular motion in the present moment. If we learn anything from the 20th century it is that the naivety of utopian goals should be overcome. We have already demonstrated clearly that any hope of a perfect harmony in sexuality and politics is a fools goal, doomed to local unstable fluctuations which collapse back into the abyss. In contrast to this path, we should not give up on the ideal but rather understand the patience of the ideal, and the importance of repetition in the present moment, the way in which we always already have what we are looking for. This is again the essential difference between the Marxist subject and the Hegelian subject.

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Two Vacuums (again)

In this sense Žižek attempts to demonstrate how what Spinoza posits as the absolute One of Substance; of the eternal fall or curvature of materiality must be supplemented or replaced with the properly Lacanian distinction of the Real which functions as a divided void. The difference between the One of Substance and the Lacanian Real is that the Lacanian Real is a non-identity, an impossibility around which a field of Ones gain identity and circulate in their curved motion. Here to quote Žižek (10):

“there is no Substance, only the Real as the absolute gap, non-identity, and particular phenomena (modes) are Ones, so many attempts to stabilize this gap. (What this also means is that the Real at its most radical is not a contingent encounter: the encounter is how the Real — the Real of the absolute gap — returns within the constituted reality as its symptomal point of impossibility.)”

In that sense we can see the way in which Žižek attempts to employ the two vacuums of quantum physics as an underlying structure which prevents identity from fully closing and completing itself. This structure then is how we can think of what Lacan notes as the fundamental nature of the subject as a circular symbolic entity materially grounded and structured around a fantasmatic distortion. The circular symbolic motion is the curvature, the clinamen, the fall of an identity that cannot fully be itself; the fantasmatic distortion is the imaginary-real, the point around which the subject conceives of itself as reconciled with substance.

Here to re-quote directly since it is worth taking the time to reflect on this underlying structure of the Absolute (11):

“So it is not enough to say, in a radical reading of Spinoza, that Substance is nothing but the process of its clinamen [curvature] — here, Substance remains [positive] One, a Cause immanent to its effects. Here we should take a step further and reverse the relationship: there is no Substance, only the Real as the absolute gap, non-identity [negative One], and particular phenomena (modes) are Ones, so many attempts to stabilize this gap. (What this also means is that the Real — the Real of the absolute gap — returns within the constituted reality as its symptomal point of impossibility.)”

Again we can say that the crucial distinction that Hegel introduces to the Absolute and what Lacan then continues to develop with psychoanalysis, is the fact that what we see, the materiality of substance, is not All, it is an All organized around a non-All; a curvature organized around a void. It is thus wrong to think that this curvature could be flattened in an equilibrium that would eradicate all differences; the difference is absolute, a gap that ensures every identity, every one, is at a distance from itself.

Continued (12):

“This notion of two vacuums, however, brings us back to Hegel, to the gap between Substance and Subject hinted at in the famous formula about the Absolute being “not only a Substance, but also a Subject”. The Hegelian totality is not the ideal of an organic Whole, but a critical notion — to locate a phenomenon in its totality does not mean to see the hidden harmony of the Whole, but to include in a system all its “symptoms”, antagonisms, and inconsistencies as integral parts. On this reading, the “false vacuum” designates the existing organic Whole, with its deceitful stability and harmony, while the true vacuum integrates into this Whole all the destabilizing excesses which are necessary for its reproduction (and which ultimately bring about its ruin). The Hegelian dialectical process thus functions as a repetitive undermining of a “false vacuum” by a “true” one, as a repetitive shift from Substance to Subject.”

We could then furthermore see why the Hegelian philosophy and psychoanalysis function so well together. In psychoanalysis we can find the counter force to the humanist psychology tendency to a type of self-actualized utopianism where we imagine the human subject fully reconciled in its substance. In psychoanalysis, in contrast, the catastrophe is universalized, and the death drive refers to the way in which the subject actually enjoys the loss of the perfect harmony, as opposed to unreflectively insisting on its immanence.

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Absolute Structure

Žižek then seeks to further play with his repetitive attempt to demonstrate the crucial difference between Buddhist spirituality and historical dialectics and psychoanalysis. Here we can again structure this analysis with the underlying structure of the two vacuums. In Buddhism we have the structure where the false vacuum, as is well known, is the appearances of reality (perspectival illusions); and the true vacuum, as is well known, is the void where a consciousness can find peace and harmony and symmetry with itself. In contrast to this form of spirituality Žižek claims that historical dialectics function on a different formal structure. In historical dialectics the false vacuum is the void of peace and harmony and symmetry; and the true vacuum is the Real as an absolute difference or self-repelling gap, that which provokes incessant movement: eppur si muove. What this again seeks to demonstrate is the way in which the appearances are not just a flat appearing, but appearances re-doubled so that one does not focus on the self-relating void, but the way in which symbolic motion continues even after one has reached the void. The Real as a non-identical self-repelling gap ensures that nothing can stop the movement, because nothing can fully be itself.

To clarify this point consider the following quote (13):

“In order to grasp the radical link between the subject and nothingness (the Void), one should be very precise in reading Hegel’s famous statement on substance and the subject: it is not enough to emphasize that the subject is not a positively existing self-identical entity, that it stands for the incompleteness of substance, of its inner antagonism and movement, for the Nothingness which thwarts the substance from within, destroying its unity, and thus dynamizes it — the notion best rendered by Hegel’s remark, apropos the “unrest” of substantial unity, that the Self is this very unrest. This notion of the subject still presupposes the substantial One as a starting point, even if this One is always already distorted, split, and so on. And it is this very presupposition that should be abandoned: at the beginning (even if it is a mythical one), there is no substantial One, but Nothingness itself; every One comes second, emerges through the self-relating of this Nothingness.”

What this means is that we should again not think of the One as a fall from and a return to. What we fall from and return to is nothing at all, and the notion of a One is a retroactive emergence which stabilizes a realm of curved falling substance.

This brings us to the end of subsection 2 of Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also as Subject. In this lecture we hope to clarify some fundamental concepts in Spinoza and Hegel that will be crucial for further exploring the rest of Chapter 6. In the next lecture we will focus more on the nature of Hegelian subjectivity as it pertains to the fundamental structure of the Absolute.

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Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S.  2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 367.

(2) ibid.  p. 369-370.

(3) ibid.  p. 373.

(4) ibid.  p. 374.

(5) ibid.

(6) ibid.

(7) ibid.  p. 375.

(8) Ibid.  p. 376.

(9) ibid.  p. 377.

(10) ibid.

(11) ibid.

(12) ibid.  p. 377-378.

(13) ibid.  p. 378.


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