Welcome to lecture 18 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 7 of Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. In this lecture we conclude the chapter by focusing on the philosophical conception of the divide between the animal and the human.
We start the final subsection of Chapter 6, titled, The Animal That I Am. In this subsection we approach through a Hegelian lens the issue of the divide between humanity and the animal kingdom, a topic that has structured much of philosophy from its inception to the present day. In particular, in this analysis, we focus on the challenge of the human/animal divide presented by postmodern critics of modern and ancient philosophy, which focuses on problematizing or deconstructing this divide.
Žižek starts the lecture by neatly and concisely summarizing what he sees as the central problem of critics of the straw man Hegel, which is the Hegel of the Absolute Ideal, of the eating of all nature until we have a totalizing knowledge of nature. As covered in Parts 1 and 2 of the Idea’s Constipation, this motion does not capture the basic mechanics of the Hegelian dialectic. Thus Žižek states that (1):
“What the critics of Hegel’s voracity need is thus, perhaps, a dose of a good laxative.”
Here Žižek aims to approach the fundamental philosophical antagonism between Descartes and Derrida on the topic of the human/animal divide. What is a human being? What separates a human being from the natural order or the animal kingdom? In this mode of questioning it is clear that Žižek is clearly situated in helping us understanding the meaning of Derrida’s philosophical gesture. Descartes, of course, made the famous assertion of “I think therefore I am”, and in this assertion attempted to make a move from cogito to res cogitans, that is from mental reflectivity to mental substance. In this move the whole machinery of Cartesian dualism emerges where mind and matter are irreducibly separated. In contrast to this movement Žižek emphasizes that the human has no extra spiritual substance that would make it “more than the animal”. To quote Žižek himself (2): “
at the level of substantial content, I am nothing but the animal that I am. What makes me human is the very form, the formal declaration, of me as an animal.”
What this means is that Žižek is not registering the move from mental reflectivity to mental substance, he is not reifying the human animal as a spiritual substance, but instead noting this minimal difference that emerges with the human, the ability to recognize oneself as an animal.
In Derrida’s ironic stab at Descartes, The Animal That Therefore I Am, he seeks to introduce his tool or weapon of deconstruction to assert that this clear differentiation between “the animal” as a general category, and “the human” as a general category, should be itself re-examined and re-analyzed, questioned, submitted to a new analysis. Throughout the history of philosophy, in Aristotle, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, we have a clear trend and affirmation in identifying what makes the human human in a positive addition to a fundamental lack in the animal. For example, to quote Žižek (3):
“humans speak, while animals merely emit signs; that only humans respond, while animals merely react; that only humans experience things “as such”, while animals are just captivated by their life world; that only humans can feign to feign, while animals just directly feign; that only humans are mortal, experience death, while animals just die; or that animals enjoy a harmonious sexual relationship of instinctual mating, while for humans, [there is no sexual relationship]; and so on[.]”
To be precise, the Derridean tool of deconstruction in this context is not meant to be destructive in the sense of ignoring the issue of what separates us from the animals, but to problematize this issue on a deeper level (4):
“all these differences [between humans and “the animal”] should be re-thought and conceived in a different way, multiplied, “thickened” — and the first step on this path is to denounce the all-encompassing category of “the animal”.”
What Žižek offers in this Derridean gesture, as mentioned, is that the tendency in philosophy is to positivize the human and negativize the animal. Due to the influence of the Cartesian ontology, perhaps, we look for that res cogitans, that spiritual substance that would set us apart, as if, with the emergence of the human animal, the hand of God separated us from the animal kingdom making us special, giving us the ability to speak, to inhabit a world.
However, Žižek pushes further than Derrida and may flip Derrida back on his head. He is quick to point out that, the same gesture that Derrida critiques Descartes for, namely, the radical simplification of “the animal” as a general category capturing all the diversity of the multiplicity of animal forms in a negative-positive characterization, is something that Derrida himself does vis-a-vis modern philosophy. In this move he notes that Derrida reduces and simplifies the whole of philosophy to “phallogocentrism” or the “metaphysics of presence”. The properly psychoanalytic point here is that when something radically new emerges, like modern philosophy with Descartes, or like postmodern philosophy with Derrida, the Old all of a sudden loses its vital complexity, and is reduced to a brutal simplification.
The best examples of such a movement, where the New reduces the Old to a brutal simplification, can be seen in the (Hegelian) movement of historical spirit itself. When humans emerged into nature, with the ability to reflect on their animality, all of a sudden the animal was reduced to a violent simplification; and when Western philosophy or the Judeo-Greek legacy emerged in civilization, all other forms of civilization, from “the Oriental” to “the African” to “the American” were reduced to a violent simplification; and when Eurocentric Anthropology emerged with science, the demarcation between rational modernist humans versus irrational mystical humans solidified. In other words, when something New emerges, it delineates the otherness around it as a simplified external outside that can only be measured against the standards of the internal New.
Žižek is here, in a brilliant move, asserting that what Derrida attempts to deconstruct, is in fact a feature of the emergence of the New (5):
“But is not such a violent levelling a necessary feature of every critical move, of every rise of the New? Perhaps then, instead of dismissing en bloc such “binary logic,” one should assert it, not only as a necessary step of simplification, but as inherently true in that very simplification. To put it in Hegelese, it is not only that, say, the totalization effected under the heading “the animal” involves the violent obliteration of a complex multiplicity; it is also that the violent reduction of such multiplicity of animal forms is to be conceived as a series of attempts to resolve some basic antagonism or tension which defines animality as such, a tension which can only be formulated from a minimal distance, once humans are involved.”
This is so brilliant because it reveals, makes transparent, Derrida’s own hypocrisy.
Thus, what Derrida uses to critique the whole of philosophy, namely the fact that philosophers would reduce “the animal” to a violent brutal simplification; Žižek uses to critique Derrida, namely, that he reduces “the philosopher” to a violent brutal simplification. In this way, Derrida, in his relation to his own contemporaries, like Deleuze and Lacan, becomes a paradoxical figure of totalization. We normally think of modern philosophy as “totalizing” and postmodern philosophy as a liberation into a multiplicity of nuance. However, Žižek clearly demonstrates that Derrida’s own logical machinery can be flipped on him to show how Derrida himself operates on mechanisms of totalization. Whereas Deleuze or Lacan would engage with philosophers as individuals, each with a unique notional determination, Derrida would reduce all philosophers as engaging with “the animal”.
To repeat again Derrida’s basic totalizing movement can be found in the fact that he simplifies the whole of Western philosophy and culture. Derrida claims that Western philosophy and culture would universally view “the animal” in the same way and with the same mechanisms of differentiation, ignoring all of the differences in conceptualization internal to Western philosophy and culture.
Derrida achieves this feat with two basic operations: the first being the move claiming that Western philosophy is “phallogocentric”, meaning that Western philosophy deifies reason and language as the penultimate metaphysical presence; and the second being the deconstruction of all binary logic, which rips out the heart of the dialectical machinery where oppositional determination is fundamental. The consequences of such a move cannot but be conceived here as hypocritical in the sense that Derrida himself, in his own work, was phallogocentric, using language and reason to try to undermine language and reason; and using binary logic to undermine binary logic. This is why postmodernism tends often to unreflective hypocrisy, like for example producing self-loathing rich, white, bourgeois graduate students who hate their own culture and civilization.
In this way, when we engage dialectically with Derrida, in the properly Hegelian sense, we must approach the fact that binary logic may itself be necessary in the field of language and reason. When we are attempting to analyze the complexity of the world around us, the move of binary logic, to separate and make an inside and outside, is necessary for reason to make any progress in understanding itself and the world.
Moreover, what Derrida recognizes as a simple negativity of philosophers to subtracting from “the animal” and adding to “the human” is in fact a totalizing moment of historical truth. The ability of humans to reflectively identify “the animal” is a truth of the spirit. This is because there was no such thing as “the animal” before the rise of “the human”; “the animal” is a notional determination that could only exist because of the rise of “the human”, the proof of some monstrous new distortion in being.
To quote Žižek on Marx identification of “the animal” (6):
“Recall the well-known elaboration of the general equivalent from the first edition of Capital, Volume 1, where Marx writes: “It is as if, alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families, etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.”
What this quote recognizes is precisely this Hegelian motion of totalization as truth (perhaps not surprising considering how influenced Marx was by the Hegelian dialectic). We can here see the dimension of totalization that Žižek is aiming at, which is that “the animal” says less about the multiplicity of actual biological organisms (lions, tigers, rabbits) and much more about humans, the fact that we are encountering our own oppositional determination out there, and attempting to define our selves against this background.
In this sense we need to think about the difference between “the actual” non-totalizable multiplicity of living forms; the lions, tigers, rabbits, and so forth; which may evade any brutal violent simplification; and “the virtual” (the concept) as the totalizing category of all living forms. “The virtual” (the conceptual) dimension of all living forms is not so much about the ‘in-itself’ of the actual non-totalizable multiplicity of living forms, but rather speaks to something that we should reflectively inscribe into the emergence of “the human” as such.
Here consider this observation in the following representation. When the history of philosophy can be conceived as the totalizing relation to “the animal” we have to think of what it means that human beings are doing relating to this virtual-conceptual determination. Žižek states that, insofar as it tells us anything, it is not that it is telling us about animals in-themselves, but rather, telling us that human beings are not human beings, but rather human becomings differentiating themselves conceptually from their natural background. But also…
Insofar as we can think about this determination from the perspective of “the animal” we should think about not what “the animal” concept means for the in-itself of the animal kingdom, but how the “spectral animal” (human “species-being”) appears to the animal kingdom. To quote Žižek (7):
“what man encounters in the Animal is itself in the oppositional determination: viewed as an animal, man is the spectral animal existing alongside really existing animal kinds.”
This brings us back to a discussion and a representation that we covered in Lecture 11, the last Interlude: Cogito in the History of Madness. Where deconstruction insists that we rethink the divide between “the animal” and “the human”, psychoanalysis offers a precise distinction. What psychoanalysis insists on is not the way in which animals appear from a particular historical human vantage point but rather the rupture or break of the human as such. In psychoanalysis the unconscious is not the realm of biological animal instincts and genetic regulations but a novel psychical territory of drives that escape reductions to biological programming. The unconscious is a virtual rupture with the biological that in its own becoming.
To quote Žižek (8):
“What this human/animal difference obfuscates is not only the way animals really are independently of humans, but the very difference which effectively marks the rupture of the human within the animal universe. It is here that psychoanalysis enters: the “death drive” as Freud’s name for the uncanny dimension of the human-in-becoming. This In-between is the “repressed” of the narrative form (in Hegel’s case, of the “grand narrative” of the world-historical succession of spiritual forms): not nature as such, but the very break with nature which is (later) supplemented by the virtual universe of narratives.”
In other words, what psychoanalysis adds is not a positive feature that separates humans from animals but rather the opposite, a radical negativity in the form of the death drive that is almost like a cutting or a breaking from nature. The human narrative is, after the cut, a call out to recapture or reclaim a unity with nature that is always already lost, and self-consciousness is the mark of this loss.
From this reasoning we find a psychoanalytic response to Derridean deconstructive approach to the animal/man divide in relation to the negativization of the animal and the positivization of man (9):
“The answer to Derrida’s claim that every feature attributed exclusively to “man” is a fiction could thus be that such fictions nonetheless have a reality of their own, effectively organizing human practices — that humans are precisely animals who become committed to their fictions, adhering to them scrupulously.”
This is the crucial ontological dimension of “less than nothing” that defines Žižek’s attempt to redefine philosophy. The fiction is not something, Spiderman, Star Wars and Batman do not exist empirically in the material real of nature. But at the same time, the fiction is not nothing, it has a virtual efficacy on human historicity. The strange existence of Spiderman, Star Wars and Batman organize the life practices of millions of people and the psychical universe of billions of people. In other words, psychoanalysis insists that we cannot merely denounce the fiction or dream or illusion as “just a fiction” or “just a dream” or “just an illusion”. The virtual-conceptual becoming of the human is something which has a real in and for itself.
We can further analyze Žižek’s point by taking the time to reflect on the relationship between Derrida and his own virtual Other. In postmodern philosophy we are often asked to reflect on a situation that Derrida recounts, a scene of encountering the gaze of his cat while he is naked in the shower. What this scene captures, according to Žižek, is the impenetrable impossible gaze of the inhuman “Other” within. The situation reverses the standard human/animal divide questions, as they tend to revolve on what animals lack and what humans possess. The situation Derrida is concerned with is the opposite, what are we humans to the animal gaze. Žižek claims that what we are to the animal gaze cannot be answered in-itself, but rather reflects back into the human inhuman gaze, that our ability to even think the inhuman gaze of the animal is the primordial gaze of the Other as such. To quote Žižek (10):
“The cat’s gaze stands for the gaze of the Other — an inhuman gaze, but for this reason all the more the Other’s gaze in all its abyssal impenetrability. Seeing oneself being seen by an animal is an abyssal encounter with the Other’s gaze, since — precisely because we should not simply project onto the animal our inner experience — something is returning the gaze which is radically Other.”
This brings us to a quote from Adorno that Derrida’s experience with the gaze of his cat should be universalized to philosophy as a whole: the human mind-body and its relationship to the otherness of the animal kingdom. In this situation natural animal others, their impossible distance from us, the impossibility for us to imagine their life worlds (as in Thomas Nagel’s infamous article “What is it like to be a Bat?”) stands for the primordial emergence of philosophy. Philosophy exists in some sense because we are a radical rupture from the animal, because there is some gap where the universe of narratives, the universe of self-consciousness, is looking for an answer to its own being.
Now in the history of philosophy the question of this gap has often been expressed as an inner suffering of Nature. In other words, the gap between the animal and human emerged because nature in itself was suffering, longing to be released from its muteness, to be released from its slavery to the present moment. With the emergence of logos, so the reasoning goes, nature was finally about to speak, nature was finally able to articulate its suffering, to articulate its sadness. Derrida here stands opposed to this reasoning, claiming that this idea that nature in-itself possesses a mute sadness or suffering which is rendered reflective and conscious by humans is yet another manifestation of phallogocentrism, yet another manifestation of a “teleological logocentric” reasoning. Now, as Žižek attempts to do throughout this chapter, he seeks to affirm Derrida, only to then flip Derrida himself upside down with the use of the Hegelian dialectic.
In this dialectical flipping of Derrida Žižek asks “What is language for nature?” (as opposed to the standard question of “What is nature for language?”). In other words, it is not that nature in-itself was sad and then logos emerges to redeem nature, but rather, how does the sadness internal to logos impact nature? Žižek claims that this is neither a teleological nor a logocentric question, but rather the absolute suspension of both teleology and logocentrism. The logical reversal is the same as the logical reversal of the Marxist reversal of the “anatomy of man as the key to the anatomy of ape” (a topic I attempted to cover in the first lecture of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex?).
What happens in this reversal is not a recognition that in language we are redeeming a sadness in nature, but rather that in language our belief that we are redeeming a sadness in nature is always already a feature of being in language itself. To quote Žižek (11):
“Following Benjamin, Derrida thus interprets this reversal as revealing that what makes nature sad is not “a muteness and the experience of powerlessness, an inability ever to name; it is, in the first place, the fact of receiving one’s name.” Our insertion into language, our being given a name, functions as a memento mori — in language, we die in advance, we relate to ourselves as already dead. Language is in this sense a form of melancholy, not of mourning: in it, we treat an object which is still alive as already dead or lost, so that when Benjamin speaks about “a foreshadowing of mourning,” one should take this as the very formula of the melancholy.”
This brings us to the consequence of asking the question “What is language for nature?” Žižek runs us through a number of thought experiments of the way in which language effects nature, of the way in which language can wrap itself up into the world of animals, whether that be with naming our pets, subordinating them to linguistic codes, or whether that be the way in which the symbolic order of the human universe invades nature, destroying environments and tormenting wild organisms. In this way we do not get lost in trying to understand “nature in-itself” but rather ask ourselves how our “language in-itself” transforms nature. This is why Žižek emphasizes that it is not “The Animal” which defines the becoming of philosophy that we should meditate on. After the deconstruction of this category we should be thinking of “The Spectral Animal” namely, the becoming of the concept as such.
In the difference between nature and language, in the emergence of the spectral animal, we see the emergence of an important centering phenomenon which was clearly identified by the Hegelian dialectic. With nature it is clear that its center is outside of itself and that its entire temporal deployment is a circling and striving towards this center outside of itself. However, with language, or what Hegel referred to as the concept, we have the emergence of a phenomenon where the center is inside of itself. In other words, the minimal difference between “the animal” or nature, and “the human” or “the spectral animal”, is a minimal difference between the formation of a center towards which the phenomenon acts in relation to. The spectral animal, the human, should be conceived as pure in-itself, as striving for a center of its own world and its own realm. The spectral animal will never get to the real of nature in-itself, the spectral animal will never know the inner world of “the animal”, but is in a sense “doomed” to circulate around its own center, its own extimate inhuman other.
This can be represented or approached with the distinction, not between the mind and some mental substance, but between mind and the abyssal otherness within that cannot hold a determinate substantial content. This is the abyssal otherness of the symbolic order, the center within that calls for our action. It is this logic that allows Žižek to, throughout this subsection, flip Derrida on his head. To quote Žižek (12):
“What if the perplexity a human sees in the animal’s age is the perplexity aroused by the monstrosity of the human being itself? What if it is my own abyss I see reflected in the abyss of the Other’s gaze […] Or, in Hegelese, instead of asking what Substance is for the Subject, how the Subject can grasp Substance, one should ask the obverse question: what is (the rise of the) Subject for (pre-subjective) Substance?”
This was a perspective that was eloquently approached by one thinker, the Christian theologian G.K. Chesterton, who Žižek frequently references throughout Less Than Nothing (13):
“Instead of asking what animals are for humans, for our experience, we should ask what man is for animals — […] Chesterton conducts a wonderful mental experiment along these lines, imagining the monster that man might have seemed at first to the merely natural animals around him: “The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.””
What Chesterton manages to achieve in this remarkable passage is to narrativize the inhuman gaze, the alien Other within. When we look at the human animal, the spectral animal, from this point of view, we are looking at ourselves as if from the outside. When we do this it becomes obvious that the real question is not what the animal lacks, but rather, what does the human lack? Why is it that the human animal seems like a rupture and break with nature? Why is it that the human animal appears as something that does not quite fit in the natural world?
This topic brings us back to the rise of the New and its consequent violent simplification of the Old. When we think about the emergence of humans, what gets violently simplified is the realm of the animal which now has to deal with the consequences of the realm of language, the symbolic order. With the rise of Christianity or the Judeo-Christian heritage, the rest of humanity has to deal with the violent simplification into pagans and the consequence of the monotheist religion and the normative-rituals that structure this worldview. With the rise of the modern West and scientific modernity, the rest of humanity has to deal with the violent simplification of being pre-modern mystical and irrational beings and the consequences of the technological architecture that emerges. The question that Žižek asks here is not a moralistic cultural relativistic that seeks to demonize this monstrous rise of the hegemonic new, but rather an inquisitive psychoanalytic question, of trying to understand how the Old perceives the New? And how should “we”, the inheritors of the human, the Christian, and the Modern, think the possibility of such a violent simplification if it is to emerge in the future?
Consider the recent picture of an isolated Amazonian tribe encountering the emergence of a modern technological artifact in the form of a flying helicopter. By all appearance this encounter should be as shocking as if we were to be visited by an alien extraterrestrial. However, what Žižek wants us to think is that we are ourselves this Other (14):
“Therein resides the horror of these pictures: we see the terrified natives observing an inhuman Other, and we ourselves are this Other. How, then, do we humans affect nature?”
This brings us to the lecture, the end of subsection “The Animal That I Am”, and also the end (finally!) of Chapter 6, Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. This chapter took 7 lectures but I hope that it was worth the journey. Throughout this chapter we got a very thorough look at many crucial features of the Hegelian program, including the meaning of concrete universality, the relation between Spinoza and Hegel, the status of subjectivity in Hegel’s Absolute, the nature of Absolute Knowing, and the dialectical machinery of sublation (1 and 2). In the next lecture we will move onto to Interlude 3 focused on politics and sexuality.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 6 – Not Only As Substance, But Also As Subject. p. 408.
(4) ibid. p. 408-409.
(5) ibid. p. 409.
(6) ibid. p. 409-410.
(7) ibid. p. 410.
(10) ibid. p. 411.
(11) ibid. p. 412-413.
(12) ibid. p. 414.
(13) ibid. p. 414-415.
(14) ibid. p. 415-416.