YouTube video here: Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject (Part 3)
Welcome to Lecture 14 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing. In this lecture we will be covering subsection 3 of Chapter 6: Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. The focus of this lecture will be on the notions of Hegelian Subjectivity and its place within the Absolute, a topic that we will be building on our previous lecture focused on the relationship between the Spinozan and Hegelian Absolute.
To start this subsection titled “The Hegelian Subject” we start with the basic axiom of Chapter 6, which is, of course, regarding the status of the Absolute as not only Substance, but also Subject. In order to start this subsection Žižek thus seeks to triadically structure how Hegel thinks the Absolute as substance and also subject. First, we should note that the Subject is not merely a subordinated moment of Substance. In other words, when one attends almost any academic conference whatsoever, whether it be in science or philosophy or any other discipline, the subject is often a passive receptacle for information. In these environments the subject is subordinated to substance. The subject is simply supposed to sit there and absorb substance, whether that substance reflects on galaxies, solar systems, evolution of life, or social structures, and so forth.
Second, substance is not directly the Subject. This means that whatever the substance we cannot mistake this for the subject. In other words, whenever a physicist or a chemist or a biologist or a philosopher or any other thinker presents to you their identity structure, we cannot mistake the substance of their character or personality to be directly the subject. The subject is something other than the substance that they present to you.
Third, substance in actuality is nothing but the subject at work. What this means is that, in effect, the substance we are often subordinated to, or the substance that one presents to us, is ultimately not a substantial something, but rather the work product of a subject. The substance is something that was internalized and externalized by a subject. In that sense, even if substance comes first, and the subject comes second, as the mediation of substance, the substance we encounter is always already something being mediated by a subject. This takes us back to the basic Hegelian principle that to assert the barring of subjectivity for direct access to noumenal substance is missing the point, since whatever the Thing is that we want, it is something that is always already being mediated by the work of the subject. And at the same time, this Thing is not a subject, it is something mediated by a subject. That is the properly Hegelian point.
To quote Žižek (1):
“The Subject is always already related to some heterogenous content, it always comes second, as the negation or mediation of this content, as its splitting or distortion, and this secondary character should be maintained to the end, the subject should never be directly elevated into the grounding Principle of all reality.
This “restraining” of the subject — the idea that Hegel’s Substance = Subject works as an “infinite judgement” of two incompatible terms and not as a full subjectivization of Substance — […] is the move towards the full assertion of subjectivity […] [the subject] precisely [as] the moment of cut, failure, finitude, illusion, “abstraction”.”
Here we get the emphasis that just because the subject is included into the very becoming of the Absolute, this does not mean that the ultimate principle of reality is ultimately subjective, or a type of full expression of the subject’s identity or personality. The subject is not this total substantial sphere of fully realized identity, but a cut or a division or failure, something that is the very embodiment of negativity, of the very embodiment of the incompletion of substance. We will get this emphasis very strongly in the last chapter on the Hegelian thing-in-itself where we consider the movement of the subject or notional mediation as not just a subject consumption of substance, but also of the process of letting substance go, of releasing substance.
Now we can situate a better understanding of the difference between the place for the subject in the Spinozan Absolute and the place for the subject in the Hegelian Absolute. For Spinoza, the subject, or the signifier, is what is reflecting a perfect substantial multiplicity as a pure One. This means that the subject, also in Spinoza, is not the ground of all reality, but the reflection of such a ground. When we pass through Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, the ground gets gradually but fully subjectivized, most notably with Fichte’s “absolute I”. However, for Hegel, the move from substance to subject is not to fully ground the subject, but to identify the subject as the moment at which the substance is internally thwarted. In that sense the subject, or the signifier, in Hegel is what emerges from a self-blockage in substance; of the impossibility of perfect substance. This is why the first movement of the subject is so strongly oriented towards a perfect object (like God), and the second movement of the subject is to become disappointed at its impossibility (in nihilism), whereas the third act is to see the very lack of perfection as the opening for subjective becoming.
This has fundamental consequences for the difference between the Spinozan and Hegelian Absolute. For Spinoza there is subjective error but this is not a part of the substantial truth. In other words, the subject reflecting perfect substance can make errors in this reflection, but these errors are not a part of perfect substance. However, for Hegel, subjective error is a very part of the becoming of the truth, the very becoming of perfect substance is riddled with errors, failures, mistakes, and so forth. In other words, the truth of substance is only possible once it has first gone through the erroneous processing by a subject. If you are someone who has ever achieved anything great in life, then you will be able to relate to this basic Hegelian axiom. If one is to achieve anything great in life, one must first make mistakes, one must first confront setbacks and failures. It is only through making these mistakes, encountering these setbacks, trying and failing, that one then opens up the space for the right or the truth action. Here to quote Žižek (2):
“illusion is necessary, that it is inherent to truth: […] that is what the Spinozan cannot accept. What the Spinozan can and does think is the necessity of error; what he cannot accept is error or misrecognition as immanent to truth and prior to it — epistemologically and ontologically, the process has to begin with error, and truth can only emerge second, as a repeated error, as it were.”
This is true because error does not lie objectively in substance, apart from the fact that it is inherent to substance, but rather that the error lies in the very subject who recognizes it as error. In other words, when I am creating this channel, of course it is not perfect substance, it is in fact riddled with errors and mistakes, even if I try my best to make it as perfect as possible. However, the errors and mistakes in this channel are not necessarily objectively there, but only there in the gaze of the subject, either myself or the others who benefit from it and care about its development. If we remove the realm of subjects we also remove the errors in the substance since the errors are subjectively constituted from the gaze of the subjects. And at the same time, the subject exists here because of these failures. My job in creating these videos is to create the best possible channel I can, to create the perfect philosophy channel, and it is my attention and drive that allows me to create the informational order that could approach such a level.
Now, in this becoming of perfect substance, the Hegelian Absolute places at the height not the perfect eternal realization of this substance, but its immanent impossibility. Take a moment if you need to analyze the basic structure of this slide since I think it is very instructive to the nature of the Hegelian Absolute. Here we do not juxtapose finite multiplicities (human beings) with some infinite unity that exists independent of them, but rather juxtapose finite multiplicities (human beings) with their own internal impossibility for full realization. The Absolute is nothing but the difference that separates a finite identity from its own realization. In that sense all of the things that one may feel are external obstacles to this full realization are secondary effects of the primordial difference, the primordial abyss, separating a finite entity from its self-closure. To quote Žižek (3):
“At its most elementary, the Real is non-identity itself: the impossibility for X to be(come) “fully itself”. The Real is not the external intruder or obstacle preventing the realization of X’s identity with itself, but the absolutely immanent impossibility of this identity. It is not that X cannot fully realize itself as X because an external obstacle hinders it — the impossibility comes first, and the external obstacle ultimately just materializes this impossibility. As such, the Real is opaque, inaccessible, out of reach, and undeniable, impossible to by-pass or remove — in it, lack and surplus coincide.”
We can here again revisit the structure of this Absolute in the basic formula that captures the impossible identity, where A cannot equal itself; so it must pass into B. However, B, also, cannot equal itself, and so it must pass into C, and so on and so on. What this image does not capture is the Real in-itself, which is the very repetition of the impossible difference separating and identity from itself, the very place of the non-identity, the very place where all identities dissolve in their temporality, the black hole or vortex around which identities circulate. In order to discuss this Real Žižek resorts to putting Hegel into conversation with the type of Real identified by Lacan, as the Real that always already emerges as lost, and persists in return again and again to this loss. Here to quote Žižek (4):
“In Hegel, the beginning has the status of the Lacanian Real, which is always already lost, left behind, mediated, and so on, and yet simultaneously something we can never get rid of, something which forever insists, continues to haunt us. For example, jouissance as real is lost for those who dwell in the symbolic order, is never given directly and so forth; however, the very loss of enjoyment generates an enjoyment of its own, a surplus-enjoyment, so that jouissance is simultaneously something always already lost and something we cannot ever rid ourselves of. What Freud called the compulsion to repeat is grounded in this radically ambiguous status of the Real: what repeats itself is the Real itself, which, lost from the very beginning, persists in returning again and again.”
In this way we can make the distinction between the intuitive and common sensical tendency to obfuscate the incompletion of the subject by presupposing the Absolute as a perfect substance. In Spinoza this appears as the Real that holds a thriving multiplicity of substance, and in Descartes this appears as the Real of the self-certain cogito. Perhaps the Spinozan and Cartesian Real are two sides of the same perfect substance, one from the outside and one from the inside. However, in Schelling and Hegel, we have something remarkable, we have the recognition of an incompletion that is itself inscribed into the very becoming of the Absolute itself. It is only with this step, the step towards inscribing incompletion into the heart of the Absolute, which allows us to start down the long and difficult road of understanding the axiom of thinking the Absolute as not only substance but also as subject.
To quote Žižek on this difference and passage from the Substantial Absolute to the Absolute inscribed with becoming subjectivity (5):
“The Real is opaque-indeterminate, abyssal, pre-logical Background that is always already there, presupposed by every properly dialectical process. […] The Hegelian wager is that the dialectical process retroactively posits this presupposed Background as a sign of its own incompleteness. […] It seems to repeat itself again and again: Oriental spirituality, Parmenides, Spinoza — all stand for the inaugural gesture of philosophy which has to be left behind if we are to progress on the long road from Substance to Subject. However, this beginning is not an obstacle pulling us back, but the very motif or instigator of “development”: the true development, the passage to a new level, occurs only through settling accounts with the inaugural gesture again and again.”
What this passage captures is the repetition of the One, the insistence of the One, which structures the whole of philosophy. The One of pure logical substance is something that repeats everywhere, bringing everything back to the start in the present moment. It is as if we can never totally start without inscribing it as the ground. We must first start with the One, and then we work from this One down the long road to its subjectivization. This appears as the basic operation and founding gesture of the signifying chain. Nonetheless, the character of this One changes in subtle and important ways. How?
Here Žižek offers his interpretation of the various forms of the One that have structured first Eastern thinking, second Western thinking, and then third, modern thinking. In the One of Eastern thought we have a One that is conceptually asserted but which is simultaneously thought of as unthinkable. In other words, there is a One on the level of Being, but not a One on the level of our Thought, the One transcends our Thought. In the One of Western thought we have a One that is asserted but that is also thinkable. This takes us down the path of philosophy proper, and is one of the reasons why Žižek claims that the inaugural gesture of Western philosophy with Parmenides is something that never actually happens in the East, denoting a historical cut of a unique and singular movement. To quote Žižek (6):
“Why is Parmenides, who asserts that only Being, the One, exists, not Oriental? Why is he the first Western philosopher? The difference is not at the level of content, but at the level of form: Parmenides says the same as the Orientals, but he says it in conceptual form. By stating that “Being is and non-Being is not”, by affirming the unity of being and thinking, he introduces a difference, a minimal formal mediation, into the One, in contrast to Oriental One which is totally abyssal, which neither is nor is not.”
In the One of modern thought we have the One that is not only conceptually asserted but also a One that is identified clearly as a container for multiplicity. In this One we can imagine that the multiplicity of being that we perceive around us is not just hanging in mid-air, as it were, but contained by a perfect sphere, a totalizing All that would guarantee its consistency and coherence above and beyond the multiplicity. This appears to be a One that is capable of holding modern science and Newtonian ontology, fairly comfortably, and perhaps one of the reasons why Spinoza is such a popular metaphysics for modern science.
This brings us to the absolute unique break that comes with Hegelian philosophy. Hegel does something which is not accomplished in Oriental, Parmenidean, or Spinozan Absolutes. In the first step we have the idea that a self-enclosed Substance does not allow for the emergence of the New, there must be an opening internal to the Absolute. What the opening internal to the Absolute allows for is the power of freedom, a power that Hegel refers to as absolute negativity, and which we may also think along the lines of the Freudian repetition automatization.
In the second step, we try to think the power of this negative unity, of the way in which every self-enclosed unity is destroyed, negated, in favour of the New. From this perspective the power of the negative unity is the power to destroy all particular determinations whatsoever. This is the opposite of the traditional absolute which asserts a particular determination which subsists and insists for all time, for eternity. However, what this notion of eternity cannot think, is the real of freedom, the real of subjectivity.
To quote Žižek (7):
“This self-relating negativity of substance, its self-contraction to an empty point, is singularity as opposed to particularity. The speculative point here is to think these two moves together: accidents of a substance can attain an existence of their own, cut off from their substantial Whole, only insofar as Substance itself reduces or contracts itself to the point of singularity. The gap, the loosening of the links, between Substance and its accidents (particular determinations) presupposes the radical “contradiction”, at the very heart of Substance itself, between its fullness and its void, between its all-inclusiveness and its all-excluded self-relationship, between S and
S (the subject as ‘barred” Substance, Substance dispossessed of its content).”
This remarkable passage captures in an instructive way the relationship between imperfect substance as the condition for the emergence of free subjectivity. The more substance “loosens its links” (perhaps, we could think, the more substance escapes from its lawful regulation) the more space there is for a movement that breaks away from any substantial unity. In this view we get the image of subjective freedom breaking through the cracks of substance, struggling to emerge from its substantial bondage, almost like a baby chicken emerging from an egg, though the cracks and the holes. Here the egg could be seen as the “fullness” (the perfect sphere) and the cracks can be seen as the “void” (the location of free subjectivity). What is immanent in the relation between substance and subject, of course, is the void, the space where the free subject must determine its own content since there is no existing substance that would satisfy its desire; every desired object is always already lost.
To capture a representation of this Absolute in which the subject and its desires for freedom must be inscribed into its very core of the Absolute let’s first consider a representation that may be thought of as Spinozan. In this representation we can think of the subject as reflecting some perfect desired substance that is contained by the world substance. Here the world substance as a background is not effected by the introduction of the subject and its desires because we do not need to think of the Absolute as substance but also subject. However, what this does not capture is the way in which this desired substance is itself a part of the Absolute. In order to think this, we need to break the perfect circle of substance.
You see here there is no overall containing world substance, but rather two subjectivities which overlap with their desired state which is inscribed directly into the circular motion of the Absolute’s becoming. Here we do not need to think the container of substance since the container of substance is itself the radical singularity of the subject, a contracted singularity into itself. The real correlate of the subject thus is not the world but its fantasmatic desire, what Lacan formulated as barred subjectivity and the objet petit a, the object cause of desire. To quote Žižek (8):
“the subject is the correlate of a (partial) object, of an organ without body.”
The organ without body is a notion that we will come back to again and again, especially in the Lacanian section of Less Than Nothing, so we can dive into its precise meaning later. However, for now, we can say that what it captures is the idea that, for a subjectivity, there is always a minimal level of disembodiment in the process of becoming, something attached to the body and won’t let go. In other words, the subject is not fully grounded in its body, but constantly pulled by a partial object which in some sense dangles the subject’s body and constitutes subjectivity. Or to quote Žižek again (9):
“the subject emerges out of […] the violent reduction of the […] body to a partial object.”
In the footnote of this page Žižek elaborates on this idea by insisting the ways in which the partial object helps us to think out of naive holism for a type of “hole-ism” (10):
“the Freudian notion of the “partial object” is not that of an element or constituent of the body, but of an organ which resists its inclusion within the Whole of a body.”
This is a precise inversion from Spinoza to Lacan, from a holistic unity to a negative hole. In Spinoza we are thinking of the Absolute as a perfect container for a multiplicity of substance; and when we move to Lacan we are thinking of the Absolute as a multiplicity of perfect partial objects which erode any totalizing container. It is here where we should view any Spinozan metaphysics as yet another figure of the big Other which does not exist.
Now we reach the depths of the Absolute that requires further links with Lacanian psychoanalysis. Žižek here starts to make the link between the inversion of a One as an external container of multiplicity, and a One as a singularity of subjectivity that frames a multiplicity of phenomena. In this we do not think of the One as a perfect external sphere out there, but as an impenetrable density that is right here and right now insisting on our perfection. Quoting Hegel directly this is referred to as a “impenetrable atomic subjectivity” (11) which is actually a claim on the nature of subjectivity grounded in materialist atomism, where we think of the world in terms of atoms and void. Hegelian philosopher Mladen Dolar has said that the minimal level of Hegel is this realization that the subject is not simply the indivisible atom but also the void which allows for movement. The void as the location of subjectivity as something that no pre-Hegelian philosopher could think. In this homology the subject is the final division, the point at which one cannot divide anymore, and the introduction of the subject into reality or into the real is what introduces an indivisible remainder, the objet petit a, the partial object which constitutes a form of subjectivity. Here if we are thinking atoms in the void, the objet petit a is nothing but the curvature of the atoms in the void, the twisted movement. This partial object is thus, paradoxically, not a psychological entity but an entity dependent on the introduction of psychological entities. The most interesting dimension of the emergence of this singularity of subjectivity is that it must occur under the guise of its oppositional determination. When Spinoza, who ultimately allows for a philosophy like that seen in Deleuze, opens us onto a multiplicity of phenomena, what is obfuscated is the fact that this multiplicity must appear within a pure singularity. In that sense the Absolute horizon of first Hegel and then Lacan is the horizon constituted by a multiplicity of such conceptual singularities which are themselves the determinants of the Absolute horizon. From this perspective we can easily see the confusion and the antagonism that emerges between Deleuzians and Lacanians. For Deleuzians there is a pure multiplicity in temporal becoming; but for Lacanians we must focus on the conceptual singularities (inclusive of Deleuzian philosophers) who structure the atemporal matrix of the symbolic order. This is the difference between thinking the external non-human and thinking the extimate inhuman. These singularities are what Žižek refers to as a “pure schema” of reality. Thus when scientists or any other subjectivity attempt to develop a pure schema of substance independent of our subjective errors, we should not think of this as the in-itself of substance, of yet another attempt to get into the great outdoors, but instead in relation to the pure in-itself of abstract schematization, and its ownmost relation to the real as a non-identity, as a difference that prevents an identity from full realization. This is the location of what Hegel called “impenetrable atomic subjectivity”; to which we can add the absolute non-identity of the void, and the curved movement of the objet petit a.
What does this all mean for concrete discussions on the nature of the One? What do we lose when we lose the One as an external container for a multiplicity of substance? Here Žižek presents us with two different options: the first option is that we do not have a One because there are others. In other words, what prevents substance from being fully one is the fact that there are others who objectively exist and thus open a pure multiplicity of schemas that will never be conceptually integrated but will spiral out forever in their pure difference. This is in some sense most closely aligned with a Deleuzian view of the future where there is no integration, no future one, that will bring all the others together. The others are view as immanent in the sense of a virtual plane of becoming.
However, in the second option, we have the reverse, there are Others, other conceptual schemas, because the One is internally impossible. This means that the failure of the One precedes Others, as opposed to Others preceding the failure of the One. This second option thus places much more emphasis on the way in which the One is something simultaneously impossible and also something we can never really get rid of, it is the impossible correlate that allows for becoming. How can we tell the difference between the two options? How can we tell whether the One is not because there are others; or if there are Others because the One is inherently impossible?
Žižek claims that the answer hangs on whether or not we wish to “save the Real” in the sense of saving the opportunity for philosophy to identify a Real common to all subjectivities, common to all subjective schemas (12):
“The only way to “save the Real” is to assert the primacy of the inner split: the primordial fact is the One’s inner impediment; the heterogenous Others merely materialize, or occupy the place of, that impediment — which is why, even if they are annihilated, the impossibility (of the One reaching its full self-identity) remains. In other words, if the intrusion of heterogenous Others were the primary fact, the annihilation of these external obstacles would allow the One to realize its full self-identity. It is not only that every identity is always thwarted, fragile, fictitious; identity itself is stricto sensu the mark of its opposite, of its own lack, of the fact that the entity asserted as self-identical lacks full identity.”
Here this means that, in the end, the difference between the two options can be boiled down to a simple conjecture. If the One is not because there are Others, then, logically, if one eliminates the Others then the One is capable of holding itself. When I even for a moment reflect on this it seems to me highly unlikely. And at the same time, it seems to be the way the most ideological forms of subjectivity enact their motion in history. When a tyrant wants to form a perfect One he will first and foremost attempt to ensure that any Others who do not see his One are eliminated from the field. But this never, ultimately, works, it is not possible to form a coherent and consistent One even if you eliminate the Others.
On the other hand, if the impossibility of the One is primary then it is the very location where All Others find their identity structure, against the background of the absolute non-identity or difference which simultaneously separates and unites them with the One in its negativity.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 14 on Less Than Nothing focusing on Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also as Subject. In this lecture we covered the subsection on Hegelian Subjectivity and attempted to get a deeper understanding of an Absolute itself constituted by subjective becoming.
Now, if you are still with me, and you benefitted from this work, please consider the following simple ways in which you can help me continue to build my work into the future:
- Share this work with a friend interest in philosophy!
- Share this work with a philosophy department interested in better understanding the structure of idealism!
- Subscribe to this blog (there is a button on the right hand bar)
- Subscribe to this YouTube channel (and hit the bell for notifications)
- Leave a comment, like the video, or email me (any questions / comments / feedback are always welcome and I will definitely attempt to respond )
- And if you really appreciate this work please consider becoming a Patreon (even $1 per month is very much appreciated)
(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 379-380.
(2) ibid. p. 380.
(3) ibid. p. 380-381.
(4) ibid. p. 381.
(6) ibid. p. 382.
(7) ibid. p. 383.
(8) ibid. p. 384.
(12) ibid. p. 386.