Welcome to Lecture 17 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 6 of Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. In this lecture we continue to explore the elementary mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic in the process of sublation. Thus we try to extend on Part 1 which focused on the basic dialectical mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic in relation to the process of sublation, and now we want to apply them to better understand Hegel’s “totalizing” system of nature and ideation or spirit.
Now if we can recall this past lecture, Lecture 16 focused on Part 1 of the “Idea’s Constipation”, we can recall that the process of sublation has two metaphorical components, a process of digestion and a process of excretion. In other words, the mind tends, in the first mode, to consume external nature, and in the second mode, to let external nature go. Here to quote Žižek on how the process of sublation ultimately tends towards a letting go of nature which then opens up a higher level of spiritual development (1):
“First, the released [Nature] is, precisely as discarded, the manure of spiritual development, the ground out of which further development will grow. The release of Nature into its own thus lays the foundation for Spirit proper, which can develop itself only out of Nature, as its inherent self-sublation.”
We can understand this in the motion of science as a system of knowledge in-itself. In the first motion of science the mind locks or latches onto nature fiercely, perhaps best represented in the idea of Newtonian absolute spacetime and the situation of all phenomenon in an analysis of spacetime. Then as science continues to evolve we realize that spacetime is relativistic and that there are phenomena which may escape the reductionist physicalist analysis, most specifically, in living and mental phenomena. Now, in the present, science is struggling to understand how it can possibly grasp the mind in-itself, consciousness as such, which escapes or evades any external gaze.
Now this brings us to the ultimate telos or tendency of sublation in the immediacy of the concept or idea as such (2):
“Second (and more fundamentally), what is released into its own being in speculative cognition is ultimately the object of cognition itself which, when truly grasped, no longer has to rely on the subject’s active intervention, but develops according to its own conceptual automatism, with the subject reduced to a passive observer who, without making any contribution, allows the thing to deploy its potential and merely registers the process.”
In other words, when we reach the highest level of the concepts becoming we encounter an in-itself which is deployed by its own automatism. This is what Freud called the “repetition automatism” of the symbolic order. On this level there is no system of human knowledge which can grasp and categorize the in-itself of the concept, the concept is free, and the subject is there as a void point of observation. Anyone who has had a transcendental experience could relate to this level of the phenomenal concept in-itself.
In understanding this telos or aim of Hegelian sublation we can clearly see where Hegel blasts beyond the Kantian understanding of the Thing-in-itself in a radical way (3):
“In Kant, the subject actively synthesizes (confers unity on) the content (the sensuous multiplicity) by which it is passively affected. For Hegel, on the contrary, at the level of Absolute Knowing, the cognizing subject is thoroughly passivized: it no longer intervenes in the object, but merely registers the immanent movement of the object’s self-differentiation/determination (or, to use a more contemporary term, the object’s autopoietic self-organization).”
Thus, for Kant we have an eternal antinomic struggle between the synthetic unity of the subject and the sensual multiplicity which escapes a true noumenal understanding. In Hegel, this true noumenal understanding is transposed back onto the side of the subject, and most importantly, transposed back into the immanence of the conceptual in-itself. What Kant thinks is the impossible noumena beyond our conceptualization is, for Hegel, the immanence of the concept as such, the power of the understanding as the most powerful force. Here it may be essential to also note Žižek’s connection between the height of Hegelian sublation with the contemporary academic jargon which frames living and mental activity in terms of autopoiesis and self-organization. For more on connections between Hegel and autopoiesis see Lecture 5 focused on Part 2 of Fichte’s Choice.
We can also situate Hegel here as overcoming both the Spinozan and Fichtean conceptions of system and freedom, or the age old understandings of determinism and free will. For Spinoza, we have the system as Nature as God in-itself, the deterministic realm of substance within which the subject finds itself as a part subordinated to a whole. For Fichte, we have the radical introduction of subjectivity as a fundamental principle that attempts to dominate objective nature, to overcome it as an obstacle to the fully expressed freedom of an autonomous will. Here we can say that the Spinozan metaphysics reflects the earliest conceptions of Newtonian science, and the Fichtean metaphysics reflects the earliest conceptions of modernist political freedom, of the fully expressed subject emerging as the victor of external objective otherness.
Hegel goes beyond this dichotomy of system and freedom by identifying that, in the process of sublation, the subject reaches a limit in Absolute Knowledge which ends productive self-assertion. The subject finds itself, in the end, letting go of the world, not for a passive reflection of objective nature, but rather a passive reflection of the objective concept as such. In this system freedom of the subject is not a fully expressed activity, but rather a realization that it is in the end overdetermined by the concept, which possesses an order that is purely in-itself.
Thus the subject on the level of the Hegelian Absolute is not in a process of determination by nature, and neither is it in an endless process of overcoming nature. The subject on the level of the Hegelian Absolute starts to see that its own activity is a process of the concept’s release into Nature and ultimately in its process of returning to itself. The subject is caught between the two poles of this release and return. On the level of the release the subject tries to eat nature, to digest nature, and on the process of return, the subject let’s go of nature, excretes nature, and enjoy being reduced to this passive void point. In this context the absolute freedom for the subject, via the mechanism of sublation, is not a total eating or consumption of all nature, but of a letting it go.
Here Žižek attempts to make a connection between the culmination of the Hegelian dialectic with the well-known Heideggerian concept of Gelassenheit. Gelassenheit is often translated as a releasement and a letting things be, a radical openness of the immanence of the concept. In this sense the culmination of the dialectic is the subject coming to terms with the fact that its own will and desire must be subordinated to a higher order and force of the concept as such. The subject’s will and desire may not be totally illusory but it is at the same time not the highest principle of being. The highest principle of being is a conceptual order that the subject can be conceptualized as being de-centered in relation to. This is why Hegel states that “The Idea’s absolute freedom consists in [its resolution] to freely let go out of itself the moment of its particularity.” (4)
Now let us summarize this process of sublation from beginning to end in its most succinct categorization. In the first move the concept is released into nature and the subject finds itself attempting to consume external otherness. This is the speculative dimension of the concept, where it is exploring the nature of nature itself, a spiritual work on substance.
In this move we reach the second stage as the spirit work of the concept as such. In this stage the concept sublates substance through the understanding, coming to understand its place and relation to nature through its own determination and will.
In the final stage, the third stage of sublation, this spiritual work culminates in the return of the concept to itself. In this return of the concept to itself we encounter the immanence of the conceptual determination of the subject. This occurs on the side of the subject by a release or letting go of, and this occurs on the side of the concept by recognition that nature in-itself was always already mediated by the concept.
Here we will quote a passage by Hegel from the Science of Logic which corresponds to this triadic passage of sublation (5):
“Here is the key passage: “The Idea,… in positing itself as absolute unity in the pure Notion and its reality and thus contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form — nature.
But this determination has not issues from a process of becoming, nor is it a transition, as when above, the subjective Notion in its totality becomes objectivity, and the subjective end becomes life. On the contrary, the pure Idea in which the determinateness of reality of the Notion is itself raised into Notion, is an absolute liberation for which there is no longer any immediate determination that is not equally posited and itself Notion; in this freedom, therefore, no transition takes place; the simple being to which the Idea determines itself remains perfectly transparent to it, and is the Notion that, in its determination, abides with itself. The passage is therefore to be understood here rather in this manner, that the Idea freely releases itself in its absolute self-assurance and inner poise. By reason of this freedom, the form of its determinateness is also utterly free — the externality of space and time existing absolutely on its own account without the moment of subjectivity.”
Thus, from this remarkable passage, we can see that there is a way in which the Notion possesses a paradoxical determination that also allows for freedom. In this way it is not that nature is purely deterministic and we are regulated by it, or that we are free and determining nature, but rather that the concept freely releases itself in a process that has built into it a return, what Hegel refers to as “the Idea freely releases itself in its absolute self-assurance and inner poise.” From this fact we find a space of subjective freedom in sublation, which is why Hegel can justify the claim that “the form of its determinateness is also utterly free”. This is perhaps difficult to wrap one’s mind around, but it is worth deep contemplation because it is a dialectic form of thought that allows us to approach with nuance questions of determinism and freedom. The question of determinism is usually one approached within a naturalistic frame, whereas the question of freedom is usually approached within a transcendental frame. Hegel inverts this logic and plays with the coincidence of opposites in a more radical way. For Hegel, determinism is situated in a transcendental frame (the determinate nature of the concept in its release and return), and freedom is situated in a type of naturalistic frame (the freedom of subjectivity to play in the concept).
Here we can again situate the mechanics of this total process in a triadic movement between the universal, the individual and the particular. We tend to think of the universal as the totalizing otherness of nature, we tend to think of the individual as the human creature contemplating this universal otherness, and we tend to think of the particular as the subjective peculiarities and deviations that are in excess in regards to universality. However, for Hegel, all of these elements are situated as part of the externalization and return of the concept. The universal otherness is nothing but the concept in its externalization. The individual is the separation from this unity, where the space of freedom emerges from a play with the universal concept. The particular is where the universal thus return to itself in all of its particular excesses, and thus how the universal emerges paradoxically through the particular excesses. From this dialectical vantage point, what is first counter-intuitive, the coincidence of universality and particularity, all of a sudden becomes easy to think, the universal is, in the end, the multiplicity of subjective forms striving for absolute freedom.
Thus the difference in the gap that appears in sublation, the difference of the absolute nature and the absolute idea is nothing but a parallax shift, a shift in perspective. Nothing changes and everything changes. What was once conceived of as the external otherness of nature all of a sudden becomes the internal otherness of the concept in its externalization. Upon returning to itself this concept all of a sudden becomes our otherness, what is moving with a logic of autopoietic self-organization independent of our will and subjectivity.
From this perspective Nature is not this all-powerful externality but ultimately something that will be dissolved by the inherent movement of the concept. Or to quote Žižek in regards to this crucial distinction vis-a-vis Kantian metaphysics (6):
“Kant insists on a minimum of materialism (the independent of reality with regard to notional determinations), while Hegel totally dissolves reality in its notional determinations”.
Thus we can see a clear metaphysical difference with the Hegelian view and the dominant metaphysics of our age, which we explored in Lecture 15 on Absolute Knowing. For Hegel the being of nature is the lower form of existence, not a higher richer substance, but just the concept in its most distant externalization. Consequently, for Hegel, the notion of the concept is the highest or richest existence, the truth of the infinite Thing in-itself and something which is revealed to the subject in the return of the concept. In this process of sublation, the subject’s feeling of finitude is the mark of this passage. In the phase of externalization the subject finds nature to be infinite and finds itself to be finite, but in the process of the return of the concept, the subject finds that nature is finite and it is already with the infinite concept.
The dialectical maturity of Hegel’s logic can be further explored when we compare Hegel’s idealism to the classical ontological argument proposed by St. Anselm for God’s existence. For St. Anselm God is the beyond of the totality of ideal perfections. In other words, there exists the totality of perfect ideals in the minds of humans, and God is what is beyond the totality of these perfect ideals. As Žižek notes, Hegel’s argument for God would turn St. Anselm upside down by suggesting that St. Anselm is not conceptual enough (7):
“the existence of material reality bears witness to the fact that the Notion is not fully actualized. Things “materially exist” not when they meet certain notional requirements, but when they fail to meet them — material reality is a sign of imperfection.”
In this context it is the process of sublation that signals imperfection, and also what signals the space where the subject can be free, to exert its will and agency. Thus, it is not that there is a realm of our perfect ideals which are all pointing towards a God beyond our comprehension, beyond our notional determination, but rather that there is a realm of our perfect ideals which appears in the gap or the antagonism internal to the concept itself. This is why Hegel insists that all we need to do is enact a perspectival shift vis-a-vis our perception of perfection and the concept (8) (p. 403):
“What if, for Hegel, the point is precisely not to “resolve” antagonisms “in reality”, but just to enact a parallax shift by means of which antagonisms are recognized “as such” and thereby perceived in their “positive” role?”
This discussion on God brings us once again to the crucial differences between Kant and Hegel (which one can explore more in Lectures 9 and 10 focused on Chapter 5: Parataxis; Figures of the Dialectical Process). In this difference we are focusing closely on the difference between their notions of notion and reality or thought and being. For Kant we have the thought-notion of Jupiter (for example) and we have the true deeper real-being of unknowable Jupiter in-itself. On this level we think of the the weakness of the idea and the strength of nature in its impenetrable otherness. However, for Hegel, the situation is difference between what Kant thinks of as unknowable nature of real-being in-itself, is for Hegel nothing but the notional determination of the concept itself. On this level the divide between our concepts and the thing are reflectively transposed back into the concept.
Or to quote Žižek on the same point (9):
“A lack of (a certain mode of) being is always also an inherent lack of some notional determination — for a thing to exist as part of material reality, a whole set of notional determinations have to be met (and other determinations to be lacking).”
It is in this frame that Žižek then seeks to challenge the Kantian metaphysical structure in its understanding (or lack of understanding) vis-a-vis the notional determination of God. Here we may see the same metaphysical structure as the structure proposed by St. Anselm, where our thought of God (the perfect ideals) are seen as at a distance or a pointing towards a beyond where there exists an unknowable God. However, for Hegel, when we transpose the lack in the ideal back into the ideal itself, as something inherent to conceptual sublation, then all of a sudden the distance collapses and our own lack of knowledge becomes a feature of God as such.
This is why Žižek poses the rhetorical question (10):
“Does Kant really possess a (fully developed) concept of God?”
What Žižek thus hints at is that Hegel can think a fully developed concept of God precisely because Hegel is able to think the gap, the antagonism, inherent to conceptual becoming, not as a lack in our knowledge of God, but as a feature of God itself. To summarize Hegel’s basic point on this dialectical reversal between thought-notion and real-being, quoting Žižek (11):
“for Hegel, the truth of a proposition is inherently notional, determined by the immanent notional content, not a matter of comparison between notion and reality” (p. 405)
It is this paradoxical move by Hegel which brings us back to the crucial mechanics of sublation as a process that holds and controls content only to let it go in the end. In his public appearances Žižek often states that only someone who has been through atheism can believe in God. What he means by this is that belief in God does not mean holding tightly to the concept of God until you die. Belief in God can be achieved precisely when one lets go of the concept of God, when one is free to move in one’s notion without having to precisely control its content. This may be a critical distinction today when rethinking God post the new atheist movement. The new atheists challenge fundamentalist religion but they do not approach the sublation of notional ideation in the Hegelian sense. When we approach the sublation of notional ideation in the Hegelian sense we have to contend with the autopoietic self-organization of the notion as such, which includes a letting go of control and mastery of the concept. The concept, in other words, in order to become what it always already is, does not need or mastery and control of it.
That is why Žižek states that (12):
“The matrix of the dialectical process is not one of appropriation followed by the excremental content; on the contrary, it is one of appropriation followed by the excremental movement on dropping, releasing, letting go. What this means is that one should not equate externalization with alienation: the externalization which concludes a cycle of dialectical process is not alienation, it is the highest point of dis-alienation: one really reconciles oneself with some objective content not when one still has to strive to master and control it, but when one can afford the supreme sovereign gesture of letting this content go, of setting it free.”
Now, interestingly, as we can apply these dialectical mechanics to religion, we can apply these dialectical mechanics to our contemporary understanding of ecology. In our contemporary world, and throughout the modern world, humans have tried to control and dominate nature as our other, to bring it under the human gaze. However, as the world becomes more complex, and as our understanding that nature is far more complex then we could have ever imagined, we must confront the process of letting nature go, of realizing that nature follows its own course independent of our activity. This may seem paradoxical in the face of so many speculations on the nature of the anthropocene, where we think in terms of the human impact on the earth. The Hegelian point in regards the anthropocene would be that the human impact on the earth is the movement of spirit in its ownmost actualization, but that this spiritual movement is purely for itself, and that it will never correlate with a perfect symbiosis between our presence and our Earthly otherness.
To quote Žižek (13):
“Hegel unexpectedly opens up a space for ecological awareness. For him, the drive to exploit nature technologically is still a mark of man’s finitude; in such an attitude, nature is perceived as an external object, an opposing force to be dominated; adopting the standpoint of Absolute Knowing, however, the philosopher does not experience nature as a threatening other to be controlled and dominated, but as something that should be left to follow its inherent path.”
In other words, even when we have all of the data on global warming and its predicted extrapolations, we have to remember that we cannot predict the future of nature. All we can do is minimize the chances that we will undermine the stability of our own foundation, but in the end, we have to let nature follow its own “inherent path”. There will never come a time where our technological solutions allow us to precisely control the rhythms of natural order.
Now this brings us to the materialism of Hegel’s idealism. Žižek here attempts to argue that the major criticisms of Hegel’s dialectical machinery, whether that be the post-modern critique of Hegel as producing magical synthesis, or the Marxist critique of Hegel as erasing all antagonisms, or the Althusserian critique of Hegel as a subjective idealist teleology. Žižek spends most of his time combating the Althusserian critique by claiming that, in fact, Hegel’s dialectical machinery is the most radical system of a “process without a subject”. This means that Hegel’s dialectics does not require a subject controlling and dominating the process, the process follows its own inherent ideational path. This may seem to point towards the direct and clear synergy with Lacan, who ended his psychoanalytic investigations with the claim that there was “no subject”. The point is that there is no meta-agency controlling things, there is just the realm of subjective multiplicity and the ideational self-movement of the concept. No one human or group of humans control the ideational self-movement of the concept, the concept is purely in-itself.
To quote Zizek (14):
“This is why it is a mistake to treat Hegelian self-consciousness as a kind of meta-Subject, a Mind, much larger than an individual human mind, aware of itself: once we do this, Hegel can only appear as a ridiculous spiritualist obscurantist, claiming that there is some kind of meta-Spirit controlling our history. Against this cliché, one should emphasize how fully aware Hegel is that “it is in the finite consciousness that the process of knowing spirit’s essence takes place and that the divine self-consciousness thus arises. Out of the foaming ferment of finitude, spirit rises up fragrantly.””
In order to reflect deeper on this structure recall the previous slides articulating the structure of the universal, individual and particular. We need no higher agency or substance outside of the concepts externalization and return to itself in the individual self-consciousness.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 17 of Less Than Nothing, focused on Part 6 of Chapter 6 Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. In this lecture we once again focused on the subsection titled “The Idea’s Constipation”. This will now bring us to face, finally, the last subsection of Chapter 6, which will bring up some topics related to postmodern philosophy vis-a-vis the human-animal divide.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 401.
(4) ibid. p. 402.
(5) ibid. p. 402-403.
(6) ibid. p. 404.
(7) ibid. p. 405.
(8) ibid. p. 403.
(9) ibid. p. 404.
(11) ibid. p. 405.
(14) ibid. p. 406.