Welcome to Lecture 16 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 5 of Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. In this lecture we introduce you to the elementary mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic in the process of sublation which starts in the subsection titled The Idea’s Constipation. The Idea’s Constipation introduces a metaphor that Žižek thinks reflects the basic mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic, and specifically in regards to sublation.
We start The Idea’s Constipation with a focus on a principle criticism of Hegel’s idealism: the criticism that Hegel elevates a narcissistic impulse to the highest movement of spirit. In this criticism of Hegel’s system we think that the whole point of the dialectic is to understand the way in which the human self sublates the whole of nature only to come face-to-face with its own image. To quote a passage by Fredric Jameson on this point (1):
“We thereby search the whole world, and outer space, and end up only touching ourselves, only seeing our own face persist through multitudinous differences and forms of otherness. Never truly to encounter the not-I, to come face to face with radical otherness […]: such is the dilemma of the Hegelian dialectic[.]”
In this criticism we may quickly reflect on two points. The first is that many philosophers, including perhaps the dominant philosophical powers today, may emphasis that this conceptual sublation of nature as a return to a self-image prevents us from understanding real life, of real material substance and the life flow outside of conceptualization.
The second is that this criticism of natural sublation towards the pure self-image is something that one can find covered in the first lecture of Chapter 3 titled Fichte’s Choice. If one properly understands Hegel’s idealist dialectic we cannot level either criticism at his axiomatic ground.
The crucial theoretical point here, and indeed it is a crucial point in relation to today’s philosophical landscape, is that conceptualization is not simply something which prevents us or gets in the way of us understanding reality in-itself. We are not better off without the fixed static categories of the understanding. This was perhaps best exemplified in recent times by a quite popular argument forwarded by the famed 20th century physicist Richard Feynman in relationship to an artist friend who argued that conceptual theory prevents us from appreciating the beauty of a flower, turning the pure life of the flower into a dull abstraction. Feynman responds by stating that (2):
“I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
In this quote we see that the often noted dualism between pure life flux of nature versus fixed conceptualization needs to be abandoned when we think within the context of the Hegelian dialectic. For Hegel, the power of conceptual understanding is, to quote Hegel himself, “the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power.” (3). For Hegel, the only or the principle problem of the conceptual understanding is that it pretends that its visions or schemas are really outside, externalized, instead of the internal workings of the self-limited spirit. This can be seen in its highest gesture with the notion of the Kantian thing-in-itself. The Hegelian point is that the Thing-in-itself, the Absolute, is not somewhere outside the spirit, but internal to the very process of spirit’s becoming. To quote Žižek:
“The problem with Understanding is rather that it does not unleash this power to the end, that it takes itself as being external to the Thing itself. […] We pass from Understanding to Reason not when this analyzing, tearing apart, is overcome in a synthesis which brings us back to the wealth of reality, but when this power of “tearing apart” is transferred from being “merely in our mind” into the Things themselves, as their inherent power of negativity.” (p. 395)
How should we think this on its most radical level? On its most radical level the Hegelian move inscribes epistemology into ontology. In other words, it includes our conceptual abstractions into the Thing-in-itself. There is no distance between the concrete reality and our abstractions, our abstractions are entangled with what we think of as concrete reality.
This means we should think of our conceptual abstractions in a totally other way. When we think of the conceptual schema of God, money or algorithmic processors, for example. All of these conceptual schemas are directly entangled with the Thing-in-itself, are a very part, at the very core of the Thing-in-itself, not at a distance from it. It is not that we remove God or money or algorithms and we get at the true natural real of a concrete universality. The Hegelian concrete universality must inscribe God, money and algorithms into the very becoming of universality. The truth of these conceptual schemas is in their universalization, of the fact that they have no borders, no limitations, they are infinite expressions of concrete universality.
To quote Žižek (5):
“What makes Hegel’s “concrete universality” infinite is that it includes “abstractions” in concrete reality itself, as their immanent constituents. To put it another way: what, for Hegel, is the elementary philosophy with regard to abstraction? It is to abandon the common-sense empiricist notion of abstraction as a step away from the wealth of concrete empirical reality with its irreducible multiplicity of feature.”
In other words, as has been stated in previous lectures, like for example Part 2 of this chapter Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject, the Hegelian Absolute is not merely the multiplicity of substance, but also the way in which this multiplicity of substance can only appear within, is constituted by, the singularity of a subjective element.
Here we can reflect on these subtle distinctions again. In this representation we see the classical or intuitive approach to relationship between concepts and “reality”. We tend to think that the subject is barred from accessing the pure positivity of the flux of reality, and that the subject tries to access this reality with a grey simplification of reality in theoretical abstractions (i.e. the subject’s “simple understanding”). We also tend to think in this mode that life or reality in-itself is colourful and vibrant, rich and full, a complex tapestry of inexhaustible wealth.
Indeed, when I recently visited a Buddhist temple this was the standard notional interpretation of the relation between concepts and reality. The first thing I saw when I went to the washroom was a sign that said “concepts are only in your mind”, and that we should try to let go of our concepts and cultivate a pure relation to nature independent of our concepts. Of course, the paradox of such an ontology was that the very temple was conceptually mediated by the concept of mindfulness which seeks to organize mind into a thoughtful engagement with the world. But this is still a conceptual mediation.
From this perspective the properly Hegelian distinction inscribes an irreducible entanglement between concepts and reality, and this reflexively inverts the standard intuitive conception of the relationship between concepts and reality. From the Hegelian perspective conceptual theory enhances reality, and does not make dull and gray. Concepts reveal new levels or layers of reality and make dimensions of reality come to life that you previously were unable to see, much like how Richard Feynman described his relation to certain scientific theories of nature. Indeed, one could think about nature before the intervention of Darwinian signifiers and nature after the intervention of Darwinian signifiers. After the intervention of Darwinian signifiers all of a sudden our minds could perceive patterns and relationships between living phenomena that were previously unexplainable and mysterious. All of a sudden we could understand the historicity of being and the meaning of the struggle which produces a diversity of forms.
It is for this reason that life without conceptualization is in fact dull, gray, flat and stupid. With the introduction of the symbolic order life gains a curvature, an intelligence and a vibrant colour in the understanding which previously did not exist at all.
To quote Žižek (6):
“Philosophical thought proper begins when we become aware of how such a process of “abstraction” is inherent to reality itself: the tension between empirical reality and its “abstract” notional determinations is immanent to reality, it is a feature of “Things themselves”.”
Thus philosophical thought proper can be situated on the level of symbolic knowledge, as such, the way in which our knowledge of things-in-themselves is a part of the becoming of the Thing-in-itself. One could frame this, as I attempt to in a recent lecture on “dialectical thinking”, under the term “map as territory”. In other words, the map has its own territory, and this territory brings to reality a new dimension that is essential for the Absolute revelation to itself, it is how the Absolute reveals itself to itself.
Thus we have a crucial addition to our approach to the infinite Thing-in-itself. In our standard conceptions of the infinite Thing-in-itself, whether that be the religious conception of God, or the physical conception of singularities (like the Big Bang), or in future visions of an immanent transcendence from our (apparently) dull and gray reality (like communist theory, or technological singularity theory), we always think of the Thing as an endless asymptotic approach. In other words, the fullness of the true Thing is always something ‘to come’, always something at a distance from us, always something that we can expect, but is missing at the moment. To quote Žižek (7):
“bad infinity is the asymptotic process of discovering ever new layers of reality — reality is posited here as the In-itself which can never be fully grasped, only gradually approached, for all we can do is discern particular “abstract” features of the transcendent and inaccessible plenitude of the “real Thing”.”
However, in the Hegelian dialectic we have to think of the infinite Thing as something that is always already here with us right now in the form of our own becoming in concrete universality. As Alenka Zupančič has noted, we are not finite, we are ‘not-even finite’ in the sense that we are pathologized by an infinity that we cannot get rid of, that sticks to us, and derails us, disorients us (8). This is what Žižek means when he says that true infinity is the inclusion of abstraction into the Thing. There is not pure and perfect “true Thing” which we will one day grasp and experience, the “true Thing” is in-itself riddled with impurity and imperfections. As noted in the previous lecture on Absolute Knowing, the only thing that changes with Absolute Knowing is a perspectival shift, and not something inherent to reality in-itself.
Take for example the formulas I have previously deployed for the lecture on dialectical thinking which correspond to the Hegelian axiom of the “Spirit is a Bone” or A=B. What this captures is that Absolute Knowing is capable of internalizing and productively utilizing the contradiction or the antagonism at the heart of the thing-in-itself. Instead of imagining that we are on an asymptotic approach to a secure state, or a communist utopia, we must think the contradictions and the antagonisms internal to this ideal which undermine it and thus will ultimately dissolve it and corrode it from within.
Here to quote Žižek (9):
“The “Thing itself” is inconsistent, full of tensions, oscillating between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it “alive”. Take a particular political state: when it malfunctions, it is as if its particular (specific) features are in tension with the universal Idea of the State; or take the Cartesian cogito; the difference between me as a particular person embedded in a particular life world and me as an abstract Subject is part of my identity itself, since to act as an abstract Subject is a feature that characterizes individuals in modern Western society. Here, again, what appears as a conflict between two “abstractions” in our mind reveals itself as a tension in the Thing itself.”
In other words, we have here a description of A=B, of the contradiction at the heart of the thing. We may imagine a perfect state before we recognize that in deploying this notion it will encounter tensions, struggles with other notional ideals. Far from being a sign that our conception is flawed, this should make us realize that we are very part of the becoming of the concept, that the concept is very much alive, thriving in this tension and struggle.
And the same goes for self-conception. We may imagine ourselves as a perfect self, the res cogitans, the pure substantive entity of ‘I think, therefore I am’. However, in order to act in the world, in order to become in the world, we have to deal with the way in which we are a particular finite creature acting among other such creatures in an ever-present conflict and tension. In this precise sense the heart of the Hegelian dialectic is not the narcissistic self-relation but rather the non-identity of the real which thwarts and dissolves all particular identities.
In this matrix of ideals the function is not to make reality more gray and dull, flat and boring, in contrast to the sensual multiplicity, but rather to sharpen and orient the historical process as such. In other words, if the complex reality outside can never fully be grasped, the point of the notion is to take this complex multiplicity and to bring our attention to specific important features which will help us as a guiding light. Thus abstract universality would be coming to understand the notional determination of freedom, for example, and its concrete determination would be its historical enaction, in the tensions and antagonisms that are generated from the multiplicity of interpretations of the abstract universality of freedom. This can be seen in the French Revolution, of course, since the event that we now recognize as a fight for true freedom in the modern world was nothing except a bloody antagonism and struggle between a multiplicity of interpretations that were at war with each other. This is what Hegel means when he refers to the Absolute at war with itself. One can also see this same motion in competing religious traditions, all of which will claim to point the way to true freedom. How can we be sure which way is the true way to freedom? This is the precise difference between abstract and concrete universality, and the function of the ideal simplification. Depending on the frame of reference the observer in question will sharpen the multiplicity of sensations in a totally other configuration.
What thus happens in the minds of the subject attempting to understand the meaning of the Absolute is that a complex multiplicity of reality is reduced to a unary feature, a single dominant characteristic represented by what psychoanalysis would refer to as a Master Signifier. What this unary feature achieves is the radical contraction of a field of actuality to a possibility of something new, something different. In phenomenological terms, the whole of complex reality in these moments only becomes a blurred background for the central singularity organized by the unary feature. To quote Hegel directly regarding the function of unary feature (10):
“a concrete shape in which one determination predominates, the others being present only in blurred outline”
What this means ultimately is that the substantive multiplicity of phenomena becomes colonized or pathologized by a field of subjective singularities which are aiming for or orienting and organizing themselves towards some “deontological dimension” via notional determination. When a subject becomes a teacher or a father or a president or a doctor, the level of the idea has now been added to the Absolute which structures a new possibility. The subject will be held accountable for the actions which are being structured by this deontological dimension, of the subject’s responsibility to be a teacher, father, president or doctor. The possibility of the notional ideal is now internal to the subjective becoming of the Absolute. It is in this sense that we can make sense of the modern world, which has been structured by the notion of a desire for freedom in the world, for an attempt to understand what it means to be free and what possibilities exist therein.
In this path the precise Hegelian point is to learn and train ourselves, not to let go of concepts, but how to use concepts to properly sharpen our gaze towards the reality of the Thing, the reality of the situation at hand through a ‘mindful’ conceptual interaction. To quote Žižek (11):
“the reduction of the signifying ‘unary feature’ reduces or contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (Idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to fully be what it is.”
Thus it is not the subtraction of language which gives us access to the potential fullness of the Thing, but the addition of language. To quote Žižek again (12):
“When I call someone ‘my teacher’, I thereby outline what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as ‘chair’, I profile the way I intend to use it. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden or latently present in it. Potentiality thus appears “as such”, becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light (“posits”) its potentials.”
Now let us approach the dialectical mechanics of the Hegelian system. The metaphor that Žižek deploys here to approach conceptual sublation is the process of digesting and excreting, eating and defecating. As animals internalize and externalize substance biologically, so humans (or “self-consciousnesses”) internalize and externalize substance in the concept. To quote Žižek (13):
“Is the Hegelian Idea not effectively a voracious eater “swallowing” every object it stumbles upon?”
This rhetorical question is something that Zizek believes Hegelian philosophers should ‘pursue to the end’ and conceive of Hegel’s system as the ‘belly turned mind’, which may be why this subsection is referred to as the “Idea’s Constipation”. When we hold on too tightly to external objects in our understanding we are in a sense constipated. We want to eat all the external objects and hold them in our self. We want to transforms all the external otherness into a self-identity. This brings us back to the main criticism of the Hegelian dialectic, that it is a narcissistic process. Is this really so?
According to our standard approach of comparing the Straw Man and the Iron Man Hegel this is only true for the Straw Man version of Absolute Knowing. In the Straw Man version of Hegel we do have this narcissistic self-relation where the subject is conceived of as eating up all the external otherness in conceptual mediation and holding on to it on an asymptotic approach to Absolute Knowing. However, when we reflect on the Iron Man version of Hegel we see that the point of the conceptual sublation is not to hold on to all ideas for all time on an asymptotic approach to Absolute Knowing, but rather to internalize external substance that is relevant to the task at hand, and then to release when the task is complete.
To quote Žižek (14):
“The standard critical reading constructs the Hegelian absolute Substance-Subject as thoroughly constipated — retaining within itself the ingested content. Or, as Adorno put it in one of his cutting remarks (which, as is all too often the case with him, miss the mark), Hegel’s system “is the belly turned mind”, pretending that it has swallowed the totality of ingestible Otherness. But what about the inevitable counter-movement, Hegelian defecation? Is not the subject of what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing” also a thoroughly emptied subject, a subject reduced to the role of pure observer (or, rather, registrar) of the self-movement of the content itself? […] In this strict sense, the subject itself is the abrogated or cleansed substance, a substance reduced to the void of the empty form of self-relating negativity, emptied of all the wealth of “personality” — in Lacanese, the move from substance to subject is the move from S to
S, the subject is the barred substance.”
In other words, the Hegelian dialectic, far from being a mechanism of narcissism, is the precise opposite. In Lacanian terms, Hegel was well aware of the narcissistic specular image and its desire to wrap up and consume all external otherness in its own self-image. However, once one has truly reached a state of enlightenment, and overcome the imaginary filter which situates the absolute goal somewhere on the level of a futural ‘to come’, one recognizes that the goal is already achieved and that the mechanisms of the narcissistic ego are only getting in the way of experiencing and living the true prize. Thus, the Hegelian dialectic has built into its very mechanics a relation to the ideal that, far from being narcissistic, express the exact opposite of narcissism, a letting go of one’s particular self-identity. It is only when one has let go of one’s particular self-identity that one can raise one’s identity to the level of concrete universality.
Thus, to reemphasize this motion, when we think of the Hegelian dialectic and the mechanism of sublation, we cannot just think about one side of the process, the eating or the digesting process where the circle of the idea closes itself around the external object. We must also think of the other side of the process, the excreting or defecating process where the external substance is released. According to Žižek (15):
“the idea, in its resolution or decision, ‘freely releases itself, and thus liberates it’.
This is purely a perspectival shift in regards to how one relates to knowledge. In the first phase the subject relates to knowledge as attempting to collect all of the ideas and to hold on to them for an eternity. I often conceptualized this process in my self by imagining a future version of my self in a giant library filled with all of the most important books in the world.
However, in the second phase, it becomes obvious that this weight of knowledge becomes too much of a burden and a useless burden. It is much better for the spirit to move through life lightly and to relate to the external reality only how it is necessary for the spirit’s actualization.
This motion can also be seen in the evolution of our societies education system. Throughout the 20th century we build education systems around the idea that we need to learn all of the information in a mechanistic memorization process. However, in the 21st century, while we are undergoing an information revolution, it is nonsensical to continue education in this form. Instead we need quick and sharp thinkers who are capable of abstracting precisely given a certain situational constellation. This requires real thinking, which is also the point of the thinking school.
In this context, we can quote Hegel directly, who states that “philosophy has, as it were, simply to watch how nature itself sublates its externality” (16). This suggests that, after Hegel, the role of philosophy is not to know everything but simply to watch as a passive observer, as nature becomes sublated by the motion of the ideal.
To quote Žižek regarding the process of sublation (17):
““First you eat, then you shit.” Defecation is the immanent conclusion of the entire process: without it, we would be dealing with the “spurious infinity” of an endless process of sublation. The process of sublation itself can only reach its end in this counter movement. […] True cognition is thus not only the notional “appropriation” of its object: the process of appropriation goes on only as long as cognition remains incomplete. The sign of its completion is that it liberates its object, lets it be, drops it. This is why and how the movement of sublation has to culminate in the self-relating gesture of sublating itself.”
In other words, when we think about the process of sublation it is not a cumulative ratcheting motion up to an impossible fullness. When I first started blogging about evolutionary anthropology my blog was titled the ratchet, which captured this cumulative build up of knowledge from pre-historical times to our modern information age. However, what this cumulative progressive movement misses is the fact that the impossible Absolute is present throughout the entire process itself. The Absolute is not a build up to a climax but something that is always already with us.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 16 of Less Than Nothing, focused on Part 5 of Chapter 6 Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. In this lecture we focused on the subsection titled “The Idea’s Constipation”, which is a subsection we will return to in the next lecture in order to better understand the process of sublation.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 394.
(2) Feynman R. Ode to a Flower. https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/ode-to-a-flower-richard-feynman/
(3) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 395.
(7) ibid. p. 396.
(8) Zupančič, A. 2017. To Infinity and Beyond. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2O7mrksb78&t
(9) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 396.
(10) ibid. p. 398.
(14) ibid. p. 399-400.
(15) ibid. p. 400.
(17) ibid. p. 400-401.