Welcome to Lecture 15 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing. In this lecture we will be covering subsection 4 of Chapter 6: Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. The focus of this lecture will be on the knowledge of the Absolute and the Absolute as knowledge, with its relevance to understanding many different spheres of human understanding.
Consequently we start with the subsection titled “Absolute Knowing”. The essential dimension of Absolute Knowing that Žižek wants to communicate in this section is related to the external standard for a judgement. Whenever we want to know something we tend to externalize the guarantee of this knowledge in some figure of the big Other. We want some big Other to tell us and confirm for us that something is true or is beautiful or is good. Even in Plato we have a figure of the big Other in the absolute eternal ideal which would ensure the truth, beauty, and goodness of a certain logical proposition.
To start we encounter the fundamental transition from Kant to Hegel which we have covered in previous lectures, most notably in lectures on Chapter 5: Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process; that of the shift from an a priori formal-transcendental frame as a measure or standard to the rejection of any such a priori formal-transcendental frame as a measure or standard. For example, although Kant achieved the shift from spacetime as a concept representing things-in-themselves to spacetime as a concept, whereas the status of things-in-themselves was transferred to an unknowable noumena; Kant still presupposed spacetime as an a priori formal-transcendental category that humans use to structure their experience of reality. With Hegel we have no such assumption since we merely have to consider the phenomena in-itself as the real of our experience.
To quote Žižek (1):
“we do not need to improve criteria, or to make use of our own bright ideas and thoughts during the course of the inquiry; it is precisely when we leave these aside that we succeed in contemplating the matter at hand as it is in and for itself.” (p. 387)
Towards this analysis of Absolute Knowing we first have to confront the often posited straw-man of Hegelian Absolute Knowing. In this straw-man we have the view that what absolute idealism means is that the notion of the subject is what creates reality and generates all content. In this view all of physical reality is imagined as being magically sustained by subjectivity and that if the subject disappeared so would the whole of reality. As mentioned previously, we also have the idea that an absolute knowing would include some type of background authorization, as if absolute truth, goodness and beauty can be correlated with the eternal ideal which exists in and for itself independent of the subject. Finally, we have the idea that human knowledge is a part of a progressive collective build up or telos towards a final end that would be represented as full knowledge. What these final two points miss is the fact that there is no background that would authorize knowledge (no figure of the big Other), and there is no already achieved final climax that we are tending towards that would allow for a full identity; there is simply the realm of incomplete subjectively mediated content which is purely in and for itself.
This brings us to the ‘Iron Man’ of Hegelian Absolute Knowing. When Hegel speaks of Absolute Knowing what he is attempting to do is communicate the idea that spirit measures content by its own standards. When we think something is good or true or beautiful this is not referring to anything that is objectively out there, it is referring to spirit in-and-for-itself. In this way and for this reason, there is nothing outside of spirit that makes something good and true and beautiful. This is subjectively or intersubjectively determined. Another way of saying this is that there is no external essence that the spirit can cling to to guarantee its own judgement. This is why, in the becoming of spirit, the development of self-confidence is of the highest importance. And finally, Absolute Knowing refers to the realization that subjectivity can never be a full identity, that being incomplete is inherent and constitutive of subjectivity. There is no possibility for a subject to reach a stage where it is full and complete and closed in on itself. This would equal the self-erasure of subjectivity.
In order to demonstrate a clear example of this ‘Iron Man’ of Absolute Knowing consider the following passage which suggests that a “portrait of a person can be ‘more like the individual than the actual individual himself’ (implying the subject can never be fully ‘itself’, does not coincide with its concept).” (2). This example captures a few crucial dimensions of Absolute Knowing related to the idea that the spirit can only measure itself based on its own immanent standard; there there is no background for subjectivity to correlate its judgement; and most crucially, that the subject can never be fully itself. What is constitutive of ‘the concept’ which constitutes subjectivity is a type of internal asymmetry which is purely a becoming in-itself, which is purely a becoming which generates its own content and background and idealization. In this sense every action of the subject is in relation to its own spiritual world which will retroactively transform its own spiritual world. For example, in creating this [blog] I try to present the most professional and articulate version of my self that I can. I try to demonstrate that I am a well-read and competent guide through Less Than Nothing that can help others in their quest to better understand philosophy. This is my own most idealization. In this quest there is no one out there (not even Žižek) who can act as a background guaranteeing the authenticity and usefulness of this content, and my own impossible idealization of completing myself in the creation of this channel, is a very opening function allowing myself to become right this moment.
To demonstrate how the spirit becomes in relation to nothing but itself we can look at the difference between pre-reflexive natural art and reflexive modern art. This difference captures the way the subject first tries to attach a background or a standard that would guarantee its knowledge. However, as the subject develops it realizes that everything that it attempted to capture ‘out there’ was posited ‘in here’ (through its own loop of positing the presuppositions). To re-emphasize this does not mean that the spirit creates reality out there but rather that what the spirit tries to get ‘out there’ is always-already in-and-for itself. From this understanding we can think the historical becoming of self-consciousness as coming to terms with its own-most fantasies, getting caught up in its own fantasies. There is no in-itself of nature that needs to be grasped by the spirit; nature is just a contingent background for the spirit’s own-most return to itself. In this sense Žižek emphasizes that the “subject becomes increasingly caught up in the web of its own phantasmagorias.” (3). In this sense I have always personally felt that the 20th century development of the humanities could have benefitted and still could benefit from a deeper exploration of surrealism over and above its emphasis on the social power real and deconstruction of symbolic orders which do not correlate with an externality. What the humanities can mediate in the 21st century is precisely the surrealistic emergence of novel spiritual worlds.
If we focused on the surrealistic becoming of spirit qua spirit then we would be on a confrontation, not with tyrannical social power regimes, but our inhuman excess materially inscribed or externalized into a totally new environment. Here to quote Žižek (4):
“What renders [art] uncanny are its eyes, which continue to stare at us, […] even when a painting depicts natural objects, it is always about spirit, the material appearing of spirit. There is, however, a privileged organ of the human body in which spirit reverberates most directly: the eye as the “window into the human soul”, as the object which, when we look into it, confronts us with the abyss of the person’s inner life. The conclusion from these […] premises is that, insofar as art creates natural objects which are “ensouled”, insofar as, in a painting, all objects become suffused with human meaning, it is as if the artistic treatment transforms every visible surface into an eye, so that, when we look at a painting, we look at a “thousand-eyed Argus”. The network thus becomes a monstrosity, a multiplicity of eyes staring at us from all sides — hence one can say that artistic beauty is […] precisely an attempt to cultivate, to tame, this traumatic dimension of the Other’s gaze, to “put the gaze to rest.””
What this statement highlights is the immanence of the web of phantasmagorias that the subject gets caught up in and surrounded by as it recognizes that the truth, beauty and goodness it looks for in some external standard is something that is purely in-and-for itself, its own-most externalization. The idea that resonates most profoundly with me is this idea of art as transforming or transfiguring natural objects with spirit, “ensouling” them, as Žižek states, bringing them to life in such a way that spirit can see itself reflected directly in them (as an other gazing back to itself). In this way, when we are at an art exhibit, it is not just we who are looking at art, but rather it is art itself (as the phantasmagoric externalization of spirit) that looks back at us, the materialized spirit of thousands of others who poured their soul into matter.
What does this tell us about the status of Absolute Knowing? Let us imagine that precise situation of being surrounded by a “thousand-eyed Argus”. What we are imagining in this situation is being surrounded by the web of our own externalized spirit (or the externalized spirit of the whole of humanity). Of course, in and for-itself we cannot know this externalized spirit. We cannot “know everything”. In that sense, as Žižek states clearly, Absolute Knowing represents an end-point in the mode of a limit, of a point in which the subject must be subordinated within its own phenomenal field. This is in line with many misinterpretations of Hegel from the straw-man to the iron-man, where the straw-man always imagines an complete fullness, and the iron-man always imagines the limitation and impossibility to such phenomenal visions.
On another level we can imagine, when starring at the “thousand-eyes Argus” that this also represents the end of productive self-assertion vis-a-vis substantial reality. In other words, in the depth of creative movement, as an artist or as any spiritual activity whatsoever, we find the subject engaged in trying to assert its incomplete identity against the otherness that would determine it, of the subject trying to engage in reality with its space of freedom. However, on the level of Absolute Knowing, even this game is up, and the subject becomes subordinated to its own externalization. The dialectical twist here is precise and important to reflect on. The subject freely creates, asserting its identity; and this very motion does not end with the subject in the mode of full control and power, but its opposite, in its own externalization powerfully controlling it, reducing it to its most real status: a void point of subjectivity.
This leads to a different conception of the ‘in-itself’ in the sense that the ‘in-itself’ is not the full complete identity but rather its opposite, the totally abyssal incomplete non-identity. In other words, the in-itself is the void point of spirit as such, which is why every attempt to reach the in-itself by subjectivity is experienced as a Real perspectival distortion. To quote Žižek (5):
“The problem of the In-itself should be radically transformed: […] perspectival distortion is inscribed into the very identity of the thing. The Real is not out there, as the inaccessible transcendent X never reached by our representations; the Real is here, as the obstacle or impossibility which makes our representations flawed, inconsistent. The Real is not the In-itself but the very obstacle which distorts our access to the In-itself, and this paradox provides the key for what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing””.
Consequently, when we are reflecting on the Absolute in-itself in our own lives we should first think on the obstacles in our way, the obstacles in our path to realization, as the Absolute in-itself. In other words, the Real as the in-itself of an obstacle for me in creating this channel would be experienced as monetizing and sustaining my activity across time; or the Real as the in-itself of an obstacle for me in completing my PhD would be ensuring that my supervisor and my PhD committee are accepting of my output so that I can be approved to move to the next stage of my realization. Being able to see and relate to this obstacles as the Real in-itself maturely and self-confidence is a form of Absolute Knowing, for Hegel, and one that should be posited over and above any naive straw-man of Absolute Knowing as full and complete knowledge of the universe.
Now we can even inscribe this form of Absolute Knowing, as the Real of an obstacle rendering our understanding incomplete as opposed to the Real of complete understanding, into the Absolute itself with quantum mechanics. In the standard distinctions between objective reality and subjective reality we have objective reality on the side of the in-itself, and we have subjective reality on the side of for-us. In physics there has always been an attempt to understand the in-itself independent of any relation to for us (any relation to subjectivity). However, with the transition from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics we must inscribe the in-itself, not as an external outside independent of subjectivity, but as something that is in-itself mediated by the historicity of subjectivity. This does not mean, again, that subjectivity creates reality, but rather that whatever reality is, it inscribes into its own becoming a multiplicity of subjectivity. What this means is that Absolute Knowing recognizes that whatever the in-itself is, it is not something that the subject can get at independent of its own mediation, the subject is a very part of the in-itself. In other words, there is no metalanguage that would capture the other in full knowing. Recognizing this as a fundamental limitation and nonetheless engaging in the historical mediation of the in-itself is Absolute Knowing. Take again the example of this YouTube channel. In creating this channel I am not trying to come up with a language that everyone else would use that would represent some external outside that exists independent of any of you. On the contrary, in creating this channel I am trying to freely express my spirit as a part of the becoming of the in-itself, in such a way that it may catalyze another network of subjectivities to carry the light. Thus, it is not that the individual and collective realm of spirit is the only reality, but rather that the individual and collective realm of spirit is itself a part of mediating the in-itself of reality. The question for the abstractions of quantum mechanics is thus not whether they represent some grand unified theory of everything; but rather, attempting to understanding how our historical understanding of quantum mechanics plays its role in the mediation of historical subjectivity.
To quote Žižek (6):
“What Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing” is the point at which the subject fully assumes this [dialectical] meditation, when he abandons the untenable project of taking up a position from which he might compare his subjective experience and the way things are independently of his experience — in other words, Absolute Knowing is a name for the acceptance of the absolute limitation of the circle of our subjectivity, of the impossibility of stepping outside of it […] Our knowing is irreducibly “subjective” not because we are forever separated from reality-in-itself, but precisely because we are part of this reality, because we cannot step outside it and observe it “objectively”. Far from separating us from reality, the very limitation of our knowing — its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character — bears witness to our inclusion in reality.”
In other words, the absence of the perfect knowledge and understanding is itself the opening that allows for historicity actors that are a part of the becoming of reality. If there were a perfect knowledge and understanding there would be no more history. And this is precisely what is often missed by physicists who search for a grand unified theory of reality.
Here we see a representation of the standard thinking on the grand unified theory or of a type of Absolute Knowing. In this representation we see that the subject is on the side for the for-us where its own abstractions cannot capture the wealth of reality in-itself. From this position we always seek to ‘deconstruct’ the subject’s abstractions because they are conceived of as weak or low level representations of the things-in-themselves. On the side of objective reality or the ‘in-itself’ we tend tot think of a complex reality that is too rich and excessive for our simple abstractions. In this sense we have the traditional Kantian divide between the subject’s knowledge for-us and the impenetrable noumenal in-itself that is forever a mystery.
However, Hegel’s form of Absolute Knowing takes a different structure. If Absolute Knowing is a recognizing of a Real as an obstacle which thwarts subjective completion, inscribing its irreducible incompletion, then on the level of conceptualization we should think of Absolute Knowing as the subject’s own self-relativization or limitation. In other words, owning the limitation of your abstractions as a positive feature, as I am trying to do in this YouTube series, is what directly situates one with the Absolute. On the other hand, on the side of the in-itself, you have an objective reality that resists any Absolute objectivization (in other words, you have a glitch or an obstacle that shines through the rest of reality) where the subject inscribes its motion. This structure is totally different and far more difficult to think then the structure in the previous slide. Indeed, the difference between the two slides is the difference between Kant and Hegel, but it is also the difference that separates our ability to make sense of the divide between sciences and humanities, and also the difference that separates our ability to overcome the challenges of post-modern epistemology. If we were to overcome this divide, the transition from Kant to Hegel, then we would be able to see the way in which science is grounded in an inhuman becoming, and we would be able to see the way in which a surrealistic engagement with history structures a type of transmodern psychoanalytically informed horizon.
The practically and theoretically important dimension of understanding this means that we do not conceive of the relation between the in-itself and for-us, the relation between objective and subjective, as something that is being approached asymptotically (as in the aforementioned structure of the Straw-Man of Absolute Knowing). Instead, the in-itself of objective reality and the for-us of subjective reality are always already being mediated, we are already united with the Absolute, we are already at the location of the objective in-itself, not on an asymptotic approach.
With that in mind, Žižek still feels that it is of extreme important to interpret the real meaning of the infamous Hegelian ‘end of history’, which is so often associated with a caricature of the Hegelian dialectical system. When we think the ‘end of history’ we may have this idea of an Absolute culmination or explosion of potential where identity is fully realized and expressed in its perfect order. Of course, we were at no such stage in Hegel’s time and we are at no such stage now. In this spirit Žižek references Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel which attempts to ask the question of Hegel’s own historicity. Does Hegel’s own system stand the test of time, is it capable of articulating the movement of spirit in an Absolute sense? Or does Hegel’s own system end up being a historically relative and contingent system that will be superseded by a more advanced system in the future? In order to approach or reflect on these questions Žižek references Hegel’s own conclusion in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, published towards the end of Hegel’s career, where he states “This is now the standpoint of our time, and the series of spiritual formations is thereby, for now, closed.” (7) The statement is crucial in the way in which it seems Hegel relativizes and historicizes his own system: ‘now’, ‘our time’, ‘for now’; which suggests that at some future ‘now’, some future ‘our time’, and some future ‘for now’, will be able to better understand the motion of spiritual formations. Žižek refers to this as a “triple historical relativization” and an “over-insistence” which suggests that Hegel was well aware that his system could be overcome by future spirit.
Here to quote Žižek (8):
“One thing is sure here: Hegel definitely applied also to himself the well-known lines from the “Preface” to his Philosophy of Right: “As for the individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thought. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time [.] If a theory transgresses its time, and builds up a world as it ought to be, it has an existence merely in the unstable element of opinion, which gives room to every wandering fancy.”
“We must be content with what we can, in fact, comprehend at present. There is plenty that cannot be comprehended yet.””
This certainly displays Hegel’s own self-awareness of his position in temporal becoming of spirit, and once again reflects the difference between the Gaelic Rooster and Owl of Minerva referenced in lecture 8 focused on Interlude 1 — Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx. It is thus clear that Hegel cannot be interpreted as the common Straw-Man that represents an always already known future, since what spirit can never know is its own future, since spirit’s own future depends on spirit’s own action. Thus the point of Absolute Knowing in dialectical context is more for a type of navigation or steering in history, a type of processing the Absolute in its own most temporal becoming.
Thus, again, if we think of the end of history as the full actualization of the historical process, some future immanence that we cannot think, we must inscribe the dialectics of the immaturity and incompletion and emergence of the historical forms which are far from their maturity, completion and emergence. In Hegel’s own words from the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History he states that America and Russia are (quote) “countries of the future, and its world-historical importance has yet to be revealed in the ages that lie ahead,” (9). As we know, in retrospect, both America and Russia as historical forms shaped the 20th century with the deployment of capitalist and communist ideological structures that warped the structure of industrial production. We still do not know the ultimate consequence of these countries of the future, or whether or not other historical forms will come to shape the future. Of course, here, China and Brazil and India and the European Union come to mind as big players in the 21st century, alongside America and Russia. What will we know in retrospect about the actualization of these historical forms? How can we process their dialectical becoming?
If we recall from our discussion on Absolute Knowing as the Real of an obstacle and self-limitation then we approach the idea that what Hegel’s system offers to us is not a complete knowledge of the immanence of historical forms, but rather the inscription of self-relativization into the system itself, our lack of knowledge in its positive determination. To quote Žižek (10):
“What if there is no external opposition between the ‘eternal’ System of Knowing and its historicity (self-)relativization? What if this (self-)relativization does not come from outside, but is inscribed in the very heart of the System?”
What this means is that each epoch of spirit must once again figure out the position of Absolute Knowing for its time. In other words, when it comes to eternal knowing and temporal knowing there is a pure coincidence of opposites on the level of self-relativization and limitation. It is precisely when we accept self-relativization and limitation as an internal necessity when we reach the eternal Absolute in its temporality. Here to quote Žižek (11):
“[we need to distinguish] between the actual, historically limited Hegel, and […] the “eternal Hegel”, by which [we mean] not a trans-historical eternal truth of Hegel, but, rather, the way each post-Hegelian epoch has to reinvent the position of “Absolute Knowing” to ask the question: how would Hegel have conceptualized our predicament, how can one be Hegelian today?”
Thus, the way we can approach this today is by gazing at the contemporary constellation of historical forms — America, Russia, European Union, China, India, Brazil, and so forth — and attempting to deduce the antagonisms and tensions which structure or overdetermine their relation to each other as an Absolute non-relation. What political-economic obstacles bind these historical forms in a Real antagonism which will require deep resolution? This approach allows us to overcome the naive ‘eternal Hegel’ as a form of ‘knowing everything’ and also the relativized ‘evolutionist Hegel’ as a form of pure temporal becoming. The Real as an antagonism, as a non-relation structuring the field of relations, means that we have a pure coincidence of eternity and temporality, not in the form of a higher positive metaphysical eternity and the realm of material relationality, but in the absence of a higher positive metaphysical eternity (a fundamental negativity) and the realm of material relationality.
In the coincidence of the opposites of Absolute Knowing, the coincidence of eternal ideality and historical relativity, Hegel thus articulates a form of knowing that forces us to internalize the way in which we are ‘condemned’ to Absolute Knowing. Since history is only ever moved by our engaged partial knowledge, that there is no way a subject can get an external objective gaze in the naive sense, we have no choice but to enact our Absolute Knowing.
Another way to think this coincidence of the opposites is the coincidence between openness and closedness. In Hegel both appear simultaneously. Of course, the historical relativist position often claims openness, and the eternal ideality is often posited as a closedness. In the form of Absolute Knowing as a self-limitation and an obstacle to realization, we get both, we get the openness of historical action that is abyssal and indeterminate, and we get the closedness that our own temporal ideality is the Absolute’s own becoming.
These coincidences, between eternity and temporality, between openness and closedness, is one way to demonstrate the paradox of the Hegelian axiom: “the Spirit is a Bone”. We will confront this axiom again later, but for now, we can say that “the Spirit is a Bone” is the way in which the pure spirit of the ideal must be transcribed into the materiality of historical temporal process, and that this can only be done through self-limitation, since we, by definition, are not in an eternal perfect ideality. As is common throughout Less Than Nothing, Žižek attempts to capture this axiom through yet another variation of the Rabinovitch joke (12):
“I possess Absolute Knowing” /
“But that is absurd, no finite being can posses it!” /
“Well, Absolute Knowing is nothing but the demonstration of that limit!”
In this way, when we reach an internal closure, an internal realization that we can never reach an objective metalanguage, that we are irreducibly entangled with objectivity, it is only at this point, where the journey really begins. Why? The journey really begins here because we realize how open the future really is, how objectivity depends on our own engaged action, how the background is itself ready to be filled in by our own drive. We merely need to own it.
To quote Žižek (13):
“All one has to do here in order to pass from the “lowest” to the “highest” is to displace this difference between the universal and the particular into the particular itself: “dialectical materialism” provides another view on humanity itself […] it introduces topics like the death drive, the “inhuman” core of the human, which reach beyond the horizon of the collective praxis of humanity; the gap between historical and dialectical materialism is thus asserted as inherent to humanity itself, as the gap between humanity and its own inhuman excess.”
Here we see perhaps the most important dimension of understanding the structure of the Hegelian Absolute. In the Hegelian Absolute we do not have an external universal that is disconnected from the particular. The journey really begins when we realize the way in which the universal is inscribed into the particular, when we realize the way in which the universal is expressed through the particular. Perhaps we can say that this requires mediation right now most forcefully in evolutionist topics of universal evolution or cosmic evolution. It is not that the universal evolution is outside of us, but rather, with the emergence of universal evolutionary abstractions, evolution itself is embodied by a particular entity that is determining the future of the universe itself.
And this brings us to the end of Part 4 of Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also as Subject — where we focused on the subsection “Absolute Knowing”. In this section we explored a dimension of the Absolute that is directly related to our knowing and the immanence of our knowledge in history. This knowledge has direct relevance to many different forms of knowledge today, including science and especially quantum mechanics, as well as political economy and art and religion.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 387.
(4) ibid. p. 388.
(5) ibid. p. 389.
(6) ibid. p. 389-390.
(7) ibid. p. 390.
(8) ibid. p. 390-391.
(9) ibid. p. 391.
(11) ibid. p. 392.
(12) ibid. p. 393.
(13) ibid. p. 393-394.