Welcome to Lecture 20 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 2 of Interlude 3 — King, Rabble, War… and Sex. In this lecture we will be shifting our focus from the symbolic function of King to the irreducible dimension of Rabble and Sexuality which escapes the social unifying function of political entities.
Let us start with a meditation inspired from Jean-Pierre Dupuy (1). Here we can find that Žižek focuses on the fundamental transition that occurs between traditional societies and modern societies. In traditional societies structured by monarchical rule the issue of kingship was not a problem because what verified this kingship was its divine transcendental source. The king was the king because he was connected to God, uniquely granted the kingship by God. In modern societies this verification no longer holds and so the problem of who rules becomes a serious issue. How modern societies have attempted to resolve or overcome the issue of the divine right of kings is to banish the notion of God and to act on the principle that they are free peoples who can make free decisions and that their collective decisions will allow for an emergent rule or leadership. In this way, for modern societies, it is as if the collective body of peoples becomes incarnated spirit of God as opposed to it being embodied in one person, the King. The crucial similarity that cuts across both examples is the contingency at the heart of the process. In traditional societies the necessary king is totally contingent, the consequence of an unpredictable inheritance. In modern societies the necessary president or prime minister is also totally contingent, the consequence of an unpredictable election.
Here to quote Žižek on the strange irrationality at the core of modern societies (2):
“In the electoral process the moment of contingency is crucial: Fully “rational” elections would not be elections at all, but a transparent objectivized process. […] The moment of hazard has to remain operative in the electoral process, which is why commentators like to dwell on the “irrationality” of votes[.] In other words, democracy would not work if it were reduced to permanent opinion-polling — fully mechanized and quantified, deprived of its “performative” character.”
Žižek is here emphasizing the strange form of contingent necessity which rests at the heart of the symbolic order of historical civilization. It is not that traditional societies were irrational with formation of monarchy and modern societies are rational with democratic processes. Both traditional and modern societies have irrationality at their core, with a type of constructive performativity of kingship or leadership, and this is necessary for the contingency of an emergent necessity. In other words, there is no rational big Other, no transcendent source of guarantee that could oversee the process and guarantee its outcome. A king could be beheaded and replaced by a populous. A presidential candidate is subject to the whims and desires of a populous. In both situations the process is radically out of control vis-a-vis the center of action.
This impossibility of holding the center, of fully embodying Kingship or leadership can be seen clearly in the psychoanalytic structure of general discourse inherent to the symbolic order. In this section Žižek takes the time to analyze the structure of the four discourses from a uniquely Hegelian perspective to understand Hegel’s theory of kingship. According to Jacques Lacan’s four discourses we have the discourse of the Master, the University, the Hysteric and the Analyst. Of course, the Master’s discourse reigned supreme in the establishment of monarchy since the monarch, the King, was seen to have his power and control from a transcendental source, God, the monarch of the universe as a totality. In that sense the reason why a particular human could be accepted as leader of the whole society (an inherently irrational distinction) is only with recourse to supernatural presuppositions. However, the same applies for Master’s discourse in general. When we have the authority of a community, as a Father or a Professor or any other authority, we have here to be careful of the emergence of a tyrannical subject, of a subject who believes that he has his position because he is uniquely gifted or special. As mentioned in the previous lecture, this is a sign of madness and a general risk for the masculine symbolic position.
In contrast to the Master’s discourse, what Lacan refers to as University discourse is discourse which is emergent, based on democratic consent from a distributed body (‘the people’). In this sense the discourse that emerges and the discourse which is repeated is said to exist within a chain that is constituted by secular reason as opposed to be transcendent supernatural power. We can see this form of discourse as constitutive of many scientific practices, for example. In scientific practices, at least in their idealized meaning, no one figure has a divine power over the discourse, the discourse is structured by clear argumentation and agreed upon through a distributed mechanism of peer review and so forth. Such a structure is difficult to imagine in the structure of a monarchy. To quote Žižek (3):
“this passage from “natural” authority to authority justified with reasons is, of course, the passage from the Master’s discourse to the University discourse. The universe of the justified exercise of power is also eminently anti-political and, in this sense, “technocratic”: my exercise of power should be grounded in reasons accessible to and approved by all rational human beings, for the underlying premise is that, as an agent of power, I am totally replaceable, I act in exactly the same way everyone else would have acted in my place — politics as the domain of competitive struggle, as the articulation of irreducible social antagonisms, should be replaced by rational administration which directly enacts the universal interest.”
With that being said the Master’s and the University’s discourse does not exhaust discourse. For Lacan there is also the hysteric’s discourse and the analyst’s discourse. The hysteric’s discourse is the negation of all authority, whether it be in the form of the Master, the University or even the Analyst. The hysteric identifies the hole or the absence in being. The hysteric identifies that where there appears a King or a subject who is supposed to know (a big Other) there is in fact nothing at all, a void. The hysteric points this out without any apologies and without any self-censor, often to the embarrassment or discomfort of subjectivities who recognize the Master or the University or the Analyst as the truth with a capital T. To quote Žižek (4):
“[the hysteric recognizes that] the Master’s authority is a fake, that the Master is an impostor — it is only the fact that he occupies the position of a Master (that his subjects treat him as a Master) which makes him a Master.”
Finally the analyst’s discourse occupies the position of the void itself as a type of true authority or leader. The analyst does this because the short-circuit or illogic at the heart of the hysteric is in fact counter-productive: when one removes the Master and replaces it with pure transparency, one sees the spread of irrationality over the whole social body. Thus although the analyst recognizes that there is no substantial center for being, he nonetheless sees this insubstantial center or void as the place where identities work out the contradiction and antagonisms at their own core. In this sense the analyst is skeptical of speech in terms of pure and clear identification, but confident that speech is necessary to work out knots of identity as such as long as it is directed at another identity who is aware of the void in being. In this sense the ultimate message of the four discourses can be found in recognizing that someone must occupy the center, but that true wisdom can come from recognizing that this person occupying the center is just a regular normal human just like everybody else. To quote Žižek (5):
“one can admire a monarch not for his supposed real qualities, but on account of his very mediocrity, as a representative of human frailty.”
Here we see a representation of social totality, with images of the contemporary central structure of the United States of America, headed by president Donald Trump. In this structure, of course, the position of the Master does in fact risk madness if he believes that he holds this position because he is uniquely unique among all the other humans, a regression into pre-modern thinking which is supported by a transcendental guarantee. However, one can also make the case that many people in the United States, in fact, view Trump from the position of wisdom, from the position of recognizing that Trump is a normal regular human being who “tells it like it is” (from their point of view). This may be something we could justify with Hegel’s theory of monarchy, but Žižek also points out that Hegel missed an important element of the structural determination of monarchy: that of the position of the “rabble” (or what Marx would call the “proletariat”).
Thus when we think about the social totality, not in its internal unity, but in its constitutive and irreducible division or antagonism, we cannot help but include the role of the rabble. The rabble, in this context of the election of Trump, can be found in the explosion of counter protests that followed his nomination. The rabble stand for excess of discourse that the Master cannot clean up and integrate. This could include the University discourse, the Hysterical discourse, and the Analytical discourse. Of course the University discourse would suggest that Trump was not democratically elected due to external tampering, and is thus not a rational representative of the people. The Hysterical discourse would attempt to point out all of the flaws and inconsistencies and vulgarities in the discourse of the Master. And the Analytical discourse would attempt to point out all of the ways in which the entire structural apparatus is riddled with problems and tensions which require deeper reflectivity and meditation.
Now, again drawing on an example I wanted to explore in the previous lecture focused on Interlude 3: King, I would seek to demonstrate the way in which this dynamic also plays itself out in contemporary science and religion. In contemporary science we may say that the Master’s discourse is organized around evolutionary thinking, with Charles Darwin, the naturalist who discovered and best articulated the mechanism of natural selection, as the King of the discourse. Around the King of this discourse we have a field of figures who represent the social totality of evolutionary biology and scientific naturalism. However, this is the view of social totality only from the perspective of the Master’s and the University’s discourse. What about when we include the rabble, and the social totality as a whole as irreducible divided?
When we include the social totality as a whole we have to include the discourses which absolutely challenge the center and want to dethrone it for their own (typically religious) discourse. In the hysterical mode we may say many modern religious discourses say that evolution by natural selection is in fact false, a void, as opposed to a substantial truth, and thus the entire Darwinian edifice has to be replaced with a God-like mechanism, typically intelligent design. On the other hand we may have the analytical mode which says that the natural historical past is inherently unknowable and thus anything science says about what literally happened in the past is unrelated or irrelevant to what is going on in the real of existential history. From this perspective we can ask the totally authentic question: how can evolutionary science deal with the rabble? How can evolutionary science approach the fact that religious subjectivity continues to move? This is an idea that I deployed to start the series on Less Than Nothing if one wants to return to the opening lecture.
Now to quote Žižek on this structure of Hegelian theory of kingship and the existence of the rabble (6):
“Is not the excess at the top of the social edifice (king, leader) to be supplemented by the excess at the bottom, those who have no proper place within the social body, — part of no-part — and what Hegel called the rabble? Hegel fails to take note of how the rabble, in its very status as the destructive excess of the social totality, its “part of no-part”, is the “reflexive determination” of the totality as such, the immediate embodiment of its universality, the particular element in the guise of which the social totality encounters itself among its elements, and, as such, the key constituent of its identity.”
The most important notion communicated here is the idea that we cannot make sense of totality from the standpoint of a unified hierarchal leader. When we think about totality we have to think about it as riddled with antagonism and divisions that are a fundamental feature of totality itself. The rabble are the truth of the center. The rabble give us meaningful information about a lack that is inherent to those occupying central discourse. In that sense the rabble offer us the key to figuring out the future of discourse and structure.
Now let us see the enormous conceptual transition that Žižek points towards when he identifies the flaw in Hegel’s theory of kingship. For Žižek, Hegel was unable to see the way in which, because the King is occupying a central void, that this symbolic position is inherently flawed in its structure and thus produces an excessive dimension which, paradoxically, stands for totality itself: the rabble. For Žižek this excess is the symptom of identity, the impossibility of perfect identity. To quote Žižek (7):
“If Hegel had seen the universal dimension of the rabble, he would have invented the symptom (as Marx — who saw in the proletariat the embodiment of the deadlocks of the existing society, the universal class — did). In other words, what makes the notion of the rabble symptomatic is that it describes a necessarily produced “irrational” excess of the modern rational state, a group of people for whom there is no place within the organized totality, although they formally belong to it[.]”
It is for this reason, perhaps, why the modern era has been structured by the dissolution of monarchy and the rise of popular critique of power. The impressive thing about this historical transition is a very precise difference between the form of universality we typically see expressed in religion and science and the form of universality that emerges in the Hegelian dialectic proper. In the Hegelian dialectic we see the rise of the emphasis on singular universality. The notion of singular universality refers to the way in which the singular or the particular can fully embody the universal. To quote Žižek (8):
“the category of singular universality (a singular which directly gives body to a universality, by-passing the mediation through the particular).”
In this way we can think of the way in which the rabble embody universality as particular entities which, at first sight, appear to be peripheral entities.
However, although Žižek criticizes the flaw in Hegel’s theory of monarchy, he is also quick to point out that Hegel does recognize the rabble has a place of importance and that this opening in Hegelian theory allows for a deepening of the conceptual problem of political totality (9):
“It is precisely those who are without their proper place within the social Whole (like the rabble) who stand for the universal dimension of the society which generates them. This is why the rabble cannot be abolished without radically transforming the entire social edifice — and Hegel is fully aware of this; he is consistent enough to confess that a solution of this “disturbing problem” is impossible not for the external contingent reasons, but for strictly immanent conceptual reasons.”
The point here is that if one is aware of the problem of a particular set of rabble, one cannot get rid of this rabble by tweaking or making minor adjustments to the social totality. The only way to get rid of a particular set of rabble is by totally transforming the totality as a whole. By totally transforming the totality as a whole one attempts to reconcile the problem which structures the existing totality producing the particular set of rabble which stand for this problem. At the same time, as suggested in this passage, the problem of rabble as such, is not a problem with a clear solution, and appear to be a feature of the concept becoming in history as such.
Here we enter a very important part of Žižek’s analysis for the present moment. In our present moment many progressivists or leftist political figures operate on presuppositions of a community totality where all antagonisms would be eliminated for a utopian unity. However, in Hegel’s dialectic we are faced with the problem of rabble as not a problem of poverty which could be solved by establishing a world of abundance (equitable distribution of resources, for example). In other words, the disturbing discovery of singular universality in the Hegelian dialectic is that there is no external contingent reason that could, if identified and solved, resolve the deadlock at the heart of the social edifice. Moreover, for Hegel, the main problem was never the real of scarcity over abundance, but its paradoxical obverse, the problem of abundance and self-limitation. In this way the problem of excessive figures of consciousness vis-a-vis the head of state or the king could not be solved by throwing money and resources at the problem. The problem of excessive figures of consciousness vis-a-vis the head of state was a problem related to subjective dispositions, the subjective disposition for universal recognition. To quote Žižek (10):
“Note the finesse of Hegel’s analysis: he points out that poverty is not only a material condition, but also the subjective position of being deprived of social recognition, which is why it is not enough to provide for the poor through public or private charity — in this way, they are still deprived of the satisfaction of autonomously taking care of their own lives.”
To continue with this important meditation on rabble, we can say that Hegel’s theory of state was capable of articulating a view of the relation between rights and duties or rights and responsibilities. For Hegel, rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, you cannot just have rights with no responsibilities, but you can also not have responsibilities without rights. In other words, if a subject has full rights, then the subject must assume full responsibility for self-action. Moreover, if we demand of the subject full responsibility for self-action, then the subject must also have full rights. Today we may emphasize that, in leftist discourse, rights are too heavily emphasized over responsibility; and in rightest discourse, responsibilities are too heavily emphasized over rights.
Now, we may also say that, with this entanglement of rights and responsibility, the rabble are justified in revolution if one of these dimensions tips out of balance. In other words, if there is a situation where members of society do not have full rights, then a revolution towards the universalization of rights is necessary and justified. Likewise, or alternatively, if there is a situation where members of a society are not enacting full responsibility, then we also need a revolution towards the universalization of responsibility as necessary and justified. No society without both rights and responsibility can function in a healthy way, and the consequence of an imbalance will likely lead to totalitarianism.
Of course, as explored in Lecture 8 and Interlude 1 — Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx, the influential communist theorist Karl Marx was extremely influenced by the Hegelian dialectic. Now for Marx Hegelian rabble is articulated or theorized as the proletariat. The proletariat stand for the part that does not fit within the social totality. The proletariat stand for the excluded negativity that is inherent to the social totality. In this way, Žižek claims, that Marx was more Hegelian than Hegel because he universalizes this excess as immanent to historical process. Marx believed that, in the totality of history, the proletariat would directly embody universality without the need for a Master elite class which controls production.
In this sense the Marxist edifice is structured by an anti-structure. The Marxist dialectic is structured by the immanence of the part that doesn’t fit within the structure. There is a historical structure overdetermined by people who concentrate wealth and resources in a minority of positions, but that this is unstable and ultimately doomed to complete dissolution because of the excessive insistence of singular universality. The prediction, a prediction which still haunts our discourse today, is the idea of a emancipated worker’s revolution where a utopian society of full rights and full responsibilities coincides with the universalization of the ownership of the means of production. Did this Marxist analysis supersede Hegel?
Žižek is himself clear that the limitations in the fully liberated proletariat have been clearly observed from the enaction of Marxist theory in the 20th century. Thus, Žižek claims that we should once again think the proletariat from the Hegelian lens, from the lens of the rabble. What is clear in Hegelian theory is that Hegel himself is sympathetic with the people who really do suffer injustices and whose rights are infringed by social power. However, Hegel is less materialist than Marx in the sense that Marx attributes most of the problems of the rabble on the level of material poverty. Hegel’s point is that objective poverty is not only about material conditions but also a state of mind. One can embody a mental state where one actually disenfranchise oneself. This is an exceptionally important point of view, because it is true today that many people who have more advantages and opportunities than ever before in human history, are convinced that they are marginalized and disenfranchised. In short, they are not objectively in poverty, but rather they are embodying an impoverished state of consciousness.
In this sense Hegel is less utopian about the rabble than Marx and more critical of people who do not want to take ownership and responsibility for their own action. Here we can repeat that, in the Hegelian dialectic, rights and responsibilities are fundamentally entangled. One may have all of the rights in the world but they are useless without self-responsibility. In that sense Hegel is convinced that the path forward for the rabble is not to simply criticize the state totality and to complain about universal rights, but also to reflectively take ownership of one’s life and secure one’s own life substance. This is the entrepreneurial Hegel.
On a side note, the idea of the central importance of autonomy and self-responsibility is in fact also strongly emphasized by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The unconscious does not mean that we are not responsible for our action, on the contrary, it means we are more responsible for our action because we have to do the hard work of attempting to make our self and our actions transparent through confrontation with truth.
Returning to Hegel. Hegel’s deeper critical point about rights is that humanity can claim rights against society. In other words, we can demand a better society. But, importantly, we cannot claim rights against nature. In this point Hegel is identifying that we cannot conflate the grievances and problems we have with social structure with the grievances and problems we have with being or nature itself. Often times our demand for rights or a better world are stemming from the fact that we actually dislike the basic structure of being even if we present it to others as if we are complaining about the structure of society.
On a second point, Hegel also balances his sympathy with the masses demanding rights with the fact that many people lack self-respect for themselves. In that sense we can often get into a situation where we start demanding rights in gaps and holes in our own personal identity. To say this in another way, there are situations where people demand rights in the mode of a projection where instead there should be more critical self-analysis and understanding before making claims about how society should be improved.
This is, again, all very important for discussions today because university discourse is structured around a Marxist analysis and the notion of the proletariat. When we think about the notion of the rabble we are dealing with a more nuanced and complex concept because it is not so clear that Hegel is painting a picture of the masses in a universally positive light, where the evil rich people are terrorizing and taking advantage of the good poor people. For Hegel, the problem is much more difficult. For Hegel, we should look to our own subjectivity and see the way in which our own perspective is enslaving us, potentially enslaving us by getting our self entangled in projections against nature, against taking responsibility for our own actions, and against developing a sense of self-respect and self-confidence.
The question for Žižek is who is more functional for an interpretation of our contemporary sociopolitical constellation? Should we be thinking about the masses as the Marxist proletariat surging up for an actualized workers revolution that will emancipate historical struggle? Or should we be thinking about the masses as the Hegelian rabble as a confused and chaotic mess of unrealizable problematic elements which do not fit within social totality? Žižek asks this question in the context of his often framed problem with the ‘Post-Cold War’ and ‘Post-Fukuyama World’. In this world the horizon is liberal democracy as the end of history. In this world there is no way to challenge the basic contours of liberal democracy to move to something more common and more actualized. All we know for sure is that we are reaching the limits of these coordinates and that something new must emerge to meet the challenges of our era.
This is why Žižek suggests that there is “something unfinished or already crumbling within the edifice” of liberal-democratic welfare state. In the gap or hole in the failure of Marx and 20th century communism (which functions on a type of workers disenfranchised rage) there is an inability to think something new. Thus, as Žižek attempts to do in Interlude 1, he suggests that instead of reading Marx as the successor of Hegel, we should flip things upside down and consider reading Marx through a critical Hegelian lens. What would Hegel think about the idea of World Communism? What would Hegel think about the idea of the proletariat? Perhaps there are impossibilities internal to these notions with the Hegelian dialectic could think in a more productive form. Perhaps Marx was all too utopian and romantic, unable to think the foundation of Hegelian negativity.
In rethinking a Hegelian politics as opposed to a Marxist politics there are a few basic points that Žižek highlights as essential for our reflection. The first point is that Hegel is not a dialectical materialist who is articulating developmental teleological forms that succeed one another in a predictable set of phases. In other words, Hegel makes no assumptions about World Communism at the end of history, or makes no assumption about a final utopia that would reconcile the whole of being in complete synchronicity. For Hegel, identity is never full and complete and actualized, there is always a failure, a miss, a gap, an untimeliness. This is precisely what allows for a rupture that is totally unpredictable, to be determined by future spirit.
Together with this anti-evolutionary historical teleology, Hegel is also emphasizing that progress or maturity cannot be found in the emergence of a new stable form, but rather the disintegration of a particular form. In other words, Hegel would not only emphasize that we cannot know what will replace liberal democracy in advance, but that we will know that liberal democracy has succeed and has matured when it dissolves and becomes something different. This is based on a fundamental dialectical principle that identity is contradiction in its becoming and thus it is temporal and not meant to last forever and for all eternity. Here to quote Žižek on the connection between these two principles (11):
“[historicist evolutionism] conceives of historical progress as the succession of forms, each of which grows, reaches its peak, and then becomes outdated and disintegrates, while for Hegel, disintegration is the very sign of “maturity”, for there is no moment of pure synchronicity when form and content overlap without delay.”
Another crucial point and differentiation between Marx and Hegel has to do with the notion of interesting times. For Marx the interesting times would be when a revolution ushered in the communist revolution where class antagonisms would be erased and human utopia would be actualized. For Hegel the interesting times were never peace times, they were never times of unity and harmony, but rather times of unrest, war and power struggles. This is why Hegel is famous for stating that (12):
“The history of the world is not the theatre of happiness. Periods of happiness are blank pages; for they are periods of harmony, periods of the missing opposition.”
In that sense Hegel does not think of a build up to eternal utopia but the eternity of the struggle.
Thus in making the case for a Hegelian politics Žižek ultimately suggests universalizing rabble as opposed to universalizing the proletariat. In universalizing rabble there are two major questions that come up in our analysis vis-a-vis the gap or cracks in the liberal democratic edifice as it relates to immanent dissolution. The first real is that in (so-called) late capitalism we are encountering a situation that is generating new forms of social and political exclusion. It is too simplistic to say that we are operating under a bourgeoisie and proletariat dynamic where the proletariat are forced to work in factories. In these exclusions Žižek highlights specific problems of illegal immigrants, slum-dwellers, and refugees. Also, and perhaps more importantly, we are interesting into a world where what we used to think of as the proletariat are not even employable as workers at all. In this situation there are emergent leftist demands not for more work, but for subsistence free of employment (i.e. basic income). This can be seen as a basic reaction to automation and the threat of not being able to form a labour force that employs the least educated people in society. To quote Žižek (13):
“today’s rabble is denied even the right to be exploited through work, its status oscillating between that of a victim provided for by charitable humanitarian help and that of a terrorist to be contained or crushed[.]”
In discussion the dimension of rabble Žižek identifies a crucial kernel of Hegelian thought which Hegel himself could not fully think: the rabble. Furthermore, he argues that rabble as a fully developed concept could be more useful for the contemporary analysis of our social-political coordinates then the proletariat. Now, in a further turn Žižek claims that not only could Hegel not think the full dimensions of rabble, but he also could not think the full dimensions of sexuality. More importantly, Žižek claims that this unthought political dimension of the rabble and this unthought sexual dimension should be in fact thought together. In other words, we should think the non-universalizable dimension of the antagonistic and problematic political body, and this libidinal excess and drive that structures the ground of human relations. Here to quote Žižek (14):
“We should bring together here, as aspects of the same limitation, the two topics which Hegel fails (by his own standards): the rabble and sex.”
Towards identifying, precisely, where he believes Hegel could not think sexuality Žižek is quick to identify the paradoxical way in which sexuality is a way in which humans disconnect from nature. In other words, although Hegel was capable of identifying that humans do not only have sex for procreation but rather a complex process of seduction and marriage which is institutionalized in rituals and ceremonies holding together individuals, families, communities and whole societies; he was unaware of identifying or articulating the sexual excess, the part of no-part that explodes and disorients the human universe. This failure to identify sexual excess is in some ways surprising considering that Hegel is well aware of how strange the human species was vis-a-vis the human kingdom, that the human species represents a break from natural substance. What Žižek claims is that in this break we see a sexual passion that is totally other than anything we find in the animal universe, a passion which human subjects will die for.
What does this mean in properly Hegelian dialectical terms? What this means is that when the intense and deadly sexual passion enters existence what enters existence is a transformation of the very substance of sexuality. Sexuality is no longer merely a mechanism for the continuation of the species, for reproduction and so forth. Reproduction is its primitive evolutionary function, but sexuality becomes something so much more for the human universe. Thus, not only is this libidinal energy used by humans in cultural practices like marriage, but it is also becoming something so excessive that it explodes the coordinates of any cultural scaffolding making it impossible to contain and control. This is indeed something that is often highlighted in the work of Jacques Lacan vis-a-vis the concept of the lamella.
Here we are only at the frontier of speculations, as you may know if you are following along with the What Is Sex? lectures. Here Žižek offers a speculation which one may also find echoed in Lecture 4 of What Is Sex? which is that the becoming-cultural of sexuality is the location of metaphysics and religious institutions. Indeed, in Lecture 9 of What Is Sex? we also have the idea that the location of the sexual deadlock in human history is the same place as the emergence of metaphysical thought proper. Thus here Žižek is attempting to develop on similar concepts which could be summed up with the idea that religious metaphysical structures or spiritual structures in human history are attempts of humans to transforms sexual excess into cultural scaffoldings. The problem, also identified by Zupančič, is that this excess can ultimately always escape a particular traditional regime of order and manifest itself in a total otherness.
Here to quote Žižek on this strange sexual phenomenon (15):
“This excess of negativity discernible in sex and apropos the rabble is the very dimension of “unruliness” identified by Kant as the violent freedom on account of which man, in contrast to animals, needs a master. So it is not just that sexuality is the animal substance which is then “sublated” into civilized modes and rituals, gentrified, disciplined, etc. — the excess of sexuality itself, sexuality as the unconditional Passion which threatens to explode all “civilized” constraints, is the result of Culture. […] Civilization is not only the universe of the Day, of the rituals and honours that bind us, but the Night itself, the infinite passion in which the two lovers want to dissolve their ordinary daily existence — animals know no such passion. In this way, civilization/Culture retroactively posits/transforms its own natural presupposition, retroactively “denaturalizes” nature itself — this is what Freud called the Id, libido. This is how, here also, in fighting its natural obstacle, its opposed natural substance, Spirit fights itself, its own essence.”
First, one can also find more on this Kantian meditation of man needing a master in Lecture 11 on Interlude 2 — Cogito in the History of Madness. Here we may recall that Žižek locates the death drive and the inhuman excess as the undeconstructible dimension of the Master-Slave dialectic right at the separation of man and animal with the introduction of the logos, this obscene undead night of the world. This is a space of freedom from the natural chain of being that makes humans wild and monstrous in relation to non-human nature.
The additional point to meditate on in this passage is that this excessive dimension is something that Žižek claims is primordially associated with sexuality, something which excessively drives us to a merger with the other, to a desire for unification of two becoming one, or for an eternal drive in repetitive movement, and that this drive independent of our will is what is immanent to history. In relation to this phenomenon culture through subjective will and superego enforcement does indeed attempt to civilize and tame the excess but ultimately can never contain it completely. We may say that in the Day we have the appearances of containment, but in the Night we have to deal with the excessive sexual real in-itself which can ultimately never be put into a box and locked up, as it were. What we may meditate on in this relation is the way in which Žižek deploys the concept of the libidinal Id as the location of this sexual passion which the moralistic superego then attempts to naturalize but never fully, never completely.
Here Žižek attempts to situate the difference between the Christian reaction to sexuality and the psychoanalytic reaction to sexuality, which demarcates the transition from the superego’s moral imposition on sexuality to epistemological attempts to understand the fundamental drives of the Id. The starting point for psychoanalysis here is that sexuality as substance is not an animal instinct that is controlled and regulated by cultured civilizations, but rather that cultured civilizations start to generate new sexual substance or essence which is unregulated by animal instincts. Zupančič discusses this in Lecture 8 of What Is Sex? with meditations on traditional culture as a machine for producing masculine and feminine essences with higher metaphysical values and aims. The consequence of this psychoanalytic presupposition is that human sexuality is not seen as something that chains us to the animal kingdom but rather something that structures an explosive novelty absent in the animal kingdom. This explosive novelty absent in the animal kingdom is furthermore a place of absence, a place of nothingness, where the subject (as Lacan would say) experiences itself as desire. This experiencing itself as desire is a mode of being where one feels separated, and the location of sexuality is the most intense and primordial attempt to reconcile this separation.
Žižek, logically, continues building on this idea that there is a coincidence between the sexual and the religious with the idea that sexuality and religion are in fact in direct competition with each other vis-a-vis transcendental merger or unification. In this sense it makes sense that many religions would put special taboos and restrictions on sexuality since it would divert attention away from the higher spiritual mission of attention to God as the highest unity. On the other hand when one gets obsessed and lost in sexual activity one may lose the attention and the dedication and self-control required to be a moral religious subject. The ultimate meaning of the entanglement between these two phenomena is not at all clear but the connection is related to the dimension of eternity or immortality as opposed to animal instincts. In sexuality meditated by the libido it as if we get a taste or a touch or a general sense of something beyond mere biological life. In sexuality we start to find ourselves close to something beyond our normal daily life, the Day of the world versus the Night of the world. It could be that when the deadlocks and antagonisms of sexuality become too intense, metaphysics and religion starts to transform the excess into some sort of meaningful cultural structure.
The question is what would a religion look like that fully acknowledged and identified with this coincidence with sexuality? For Žižek, this is pointed towards with reference to Plato and Simone Weil. Plato here can be seen as an interesting reference since his metaphysics of the One is the ground for much Christian tradition, and Weil is an interesting reference because she is not only a Christian but also the inspiration of Chapter 2 — Where There Is Nothing, Read That I Love You, covered in Lecture 3. For Plato the beautiful body is a step towards the Supreme, the Oneness of being. Plato of course developed a sexual mode of this step towards the supreme with the idea that the Gods had separated Man and Woman into two parts and that we were forever looking for our other half. Thus, for Plato, the mechanism of attempting to form a beautiful body, or the attempt of searching for a beautiful body, was the very location of this search on the level of vision. For Weil, on the other hand, and synergistically, the sexual in action is the striving for the Absolute itself. When we are in the sex act, perhaps, we are attempting to enact the most primordial level of being as a fundamental unity.
The question is then whether embodied deification of our highest relation to our body, coupled with mature sacred knowledge of the sexual is in fact something that religion can develop and work with in the future. Can religion develop new normative structures to help us deal with sexual deadlocks? In the past religion was indeed giving both descriptive and prescriptive recommendations for normative action vis-a-vis sex. Of course, the problem with sex, as identified also by Alenka Zupančič, is that these normative rules or logics start to short-circuit and disorient us. As a result of this disorientation the energy associated with the sexual body and action is something that many spiritual traditions attempt to sublimate towards a post-biological realm of pure spiritual essence. Žižek here gives no clear recommendations on these points but leaves the field open for future speculation.
Here Žižek elaborates on the paradoxical relation between sex and religion (16):
“Human sexuality is characterized by the impossibility of reaching its goal, and this constitutive impossibility externalizes it, as is the case in the myths about great lovers whose love persists beyond life and death. Christianity conceives this properly meta-physical excess of sexuality as a disturbance to be erased, so it is paradoxically Christianity itself (especially Catholicism) which wants to get rid of its competitor by reducing sexuality to its animal function of procreation: Christianity wants to “normalize” sexuality, spiritualizing it from without (imposing on it the external envelope of spirituality — sex must take place in a loving relationship and with respect of one’s partner and so on), and thereby obliterating its immanent spiritual dimension, the dimension of unconditional passion. […] In all these cases, the aim is to get rid of the uncanny double of spirituality, of a spirituality in its obscene libidinal form, of the excess which absolutizes the instinct itself into the eternal drive.”
What we find here is a complex meditation which is clearly against the superego’s moralization of sexuality over the eternal drive of the unconscious Id. Again, we get the idea that the eternal drive of the unconscious Id, and its sexual desire to merge with the other, is an immanent spiritual dimension. The question is, does this mean that we should be developing complex knowledge practices that help us to navigate the sexual real in more intricate forms? Does this mean we should totally abandon the moral presuppositions which structure so much of our mating and sexual patterns? By fighting the unconscious libidinal drive do we fight the most essential dimension of our being and existence? Or is there a higher knowledge, something developed through religious institutions, that can help us cultivate this energy and direct it in a more sophisticated form? All of these questions require more reflection today.
After presenting to us this sexual dimension which Žižek claims Hegel has missed, or cannot fully think, he nonetheless feels that it is of high importance to fully explore the Hegelian theory of marriage. In this theory we find an attempted synthesis between the contract theory of marriage and the romantic theory of marriage. The problem or the deadlock between the contract and romantic theory of marriage is one that emerges precisely between the problem of passionate love and duty or responsibility to family and children. As is intuitive, passionate love is something that is wild and free and uncontrollable, but at the same time unstable and unsuitable for long-term connection and bonding, and thus unfit as a form of connection that could allow for family building and children. In this mode the romantic theory of marriage would see marriage as a structure that forms an obstacle to free love. However, and on the other hand, the passionate love of free subjects may be better served and more maturely expressed if it were sublimated into a higher ethical substance which could maintain itself across time. In this mode the contract theory of marriage sees marriage as a necessary and useful mechanism for the development of love. Here to quote Žižek on the way in which Hegel approaches a synthesis (17):
“Hegel’s theory of marriage is formulated against two opponents: his rejection of the contract theory is linked to his critique of the Romantic notion of marriage which conceives its core as the passionate love attachment of the couple, so that the form of marriage is at best merely the external registration of this attachment and at worst an obstacle to true love.” (p. 443)
From this Hegel attempts to work towards a higher dimension of both romantic and contract theory with a theory of marriage. In this higher dimension Hegel sees the fundamental limitations of passionate love but also ethical substance. Thus he wants to take into consideration both the deadlocks of passionate love of free subjects which structures romantic attachments and the higher ethical substance that is necessary for family building and having children. For Hegel this is a dialectical process where the solution to the deadlock is located in the fact that the mature truth of a marriage structure is not its embodying of passionate love forever nor its eternal ethical union but rather its dissolution as fulfilling the future of subjective freedom. In other words, the mature truth of a marriage structure is precisely to form so that it can help the next generation of human beings reach a level of free autonomy and then it can dissolve. In that sense, at least in theory, we can have our passionate free love and our higher ethical substance at the same time since they serve totally different ends. Here to quote Žižek (18):
“The first lesson of marriage is that the ultimate goal of every substantial ethical unity is to dissolve itself by giving rise to individuals who will assert their full autonomy against the substantial unity which gave birth to them.”
In other words, we should not confuse the two processes. Passionate free love is passionate free love. Marital ethical substance is marital ethical substance. The two should not be and perhaps cannot be mixed in an intimate way across the whole of a lifetime.
One can easily see here why Žižek would think that Hegel, although identifying the necessity of forming an ethical symbolic link which would reach maturity in dissolution, at the same time missed this excessive dimension of passionate love. As we will revisit Žižek states that (19):
“apropos sex, [Hegel] overlooks the excess as such” (p. 449)
Hegel focused to a higher degree on the necessity of sublating raw attraction and lust because it would interfere with the higher universal ethical substance necessary for the continuation of meaningful human life: the next generation of freedom. In this way the partner has to be de-sublimated otherwise the whole process would be too disorienting and unable to hold a clear organization. Thus for selecting the partner the key point is not the abyssal contingency of the decision to marry one person but rather its reversal into the absolute necessity of freedom via subordination to a symbolic link: the marriage contract (which should be thought of as mature when it dissolves having guaranteed the future of freedom). Here to quote Hegel directly (20):
“The more ethical way to matrimony may be taken to be the former extreme or any way at all whereby the decision to marry comes first and the inclination to do so follows…”.
Moreover, this process teaches higher values and principles for the subject that are necessary for the cultivation of spirit because it requires the highest level of self-restriction (the self-restriction of the libido). As was also covered in Interlude 2, Hegel strongly emphasizes the importance of self-restriction as freedom. In other words, Hegel is against the idea that freedom is the freedom to do whatever you want (endless series of romantic loves, for example). For Hegel, freedom is the recognition of a necessity that will require auto-limitation as absolute in order to find higher expression of spirit. In that sense marriage represents such an auto-limitation, and a path that offers the spirit a challenge which cannot be found in a low level passionate attraction which dissolves very quickly in time. Again, in this path Hegel always selects for the ethical path over the romantic path. Here to quote Žižek with another direct reference to Hegel (21):
“What the Romantic view […] misses is that marriage is “ethico-legal love, and this eliminates from marriage the transient, fickle, and purely subjective aspects of love.” The paradox here is that, in marriage, “the natural sexual union — a union purely inward or implicit and for that very reason existent as purely external — is changed into a union on the level of mind, into self-conscious love”: the spiritualization of the natural link is thus not simply its internalization; it rather occurs in the guise of its opposite, of the externalization in a symbolic ceremony.”
This may well be an important conservative note for reflection today since many people view marriage as a romantic undertaking where they aim to sustain a high level of desire for eternity. Of course, this is impossible and totally unrealistic, and according to Hegel, not even the point of marriage: which is an ethical commitment to freedom, not a passionate attachment based on desire.
Now with this in mind Žižek comically elaborates on the ways in which the marriage contract and passionate love are fundamentally at odds with one another. If one opts of the married life one cannot also hope to sustain a passionate attachment for decades on end:
“True formula of marriage is therefore not “You don’t love your partner? Then marry him or her, embrace the rituals of a shared life, and love will emerge by itself!” but on the contrary: “Are you too much in love with somebody? Then get married, ritualize your relationship in order to cure yourself of the excessive passionate attachment, to replace it with boring daily customs — (22) […] In Lacanian terms, marriage subtracts from the object (partner) “what is in him/her more than him/herself”, the objet a, the object-cause of desire, it reduces the partner to an ordinary object. The lesson of marriage which follows Romantic love is: you are passionately in love with that person? So marry [him or] her and you will see what he or she is in everyday life, with his or her vulgar tics, petty meanness, dirty underwear, snoring, and so forth. One should be clear here: it is marriage whose function it is to vulgarize sex, to take all true passion out of it and turn it into boring duty.” (23)
One can thus here guess that what Žižek feels that Hegel overlooks is the immanence and the potential future of this passionate love. Here we could again ask ourselves many speculative questions about the coincidence between sexuality and religion, and the future of cultural structures. Is there a higher ethical substance or directive in human history then the marriage contract and the marriage union? Is there a way for the passionate love we feel in sexual union to be sustained for longer with a better knowledge of our selves and others? As Žižek alludes in previous slides, this excessive dimension of sexuality is immanent to history, this desire for two becomes one, or perhaps in its more mature form, the eternal drive in the present.
This brings us to the frontier or edge of Hegelian theory, a place where we of course get closer to Lacanian psychoanalysis. The overall message of this tour and exploration is that Hegel, although capable of recognizing the importance of the rabble and sex, could not fully think either dimension of historical process. To quote Žižek (24):
“It is easy to see the parallel between the rabble and sex here: Hegel does not recognize in the rabble (rather than the state bureaucracy) the “universal class”; likewise, he does not recognize in sexual passion the excess which is neither culture nor nature. Although the logic is different in each case (apropos the rabble, Hegel overlooks the universal dimension of the excessive/discordant element; apropos sex, he overlooks the excess as such, the undermining of the opposition nature/culture), the two failures are linked, since excess is the site of universality, the way universality as such inscribes itself into the order of its particular content.”
The ultimate point is that, in the case of the rabble, there is an element of the social edifice which cannot be totalized or consumed by the King, by the Master Signifier. The rabble is a free floating mass of elements which are an immanent excess to social-political life. On the other hand, in the case of sex, no formal structure can erase and contain the excess. Indeed, any formal structure may kill the excess in relation to the other in which it manifests itself, but one cannot stop the excess from being expressed and exploding in other dimensions. In both cases what we must think is the fact that true universality, singular universality, emerges and is immanent on the level of particular individuals. The universal moves through the particular as a state of pure freedom. It is this pure freedom, perhaps, which the auto-limited subject is attempting to attain through self-control and self-responsibility.
However, Žižek is quick to remind us that the historical limitations of Hegel, being unable to think the rabble and sex, are not a problem when we think on the higher levels of the dialectic, with the principle of absolute negativity. What the Hegelian dialectic introduces is not the subject who consumes substance up to the full sublation of substance as a fully realized reality. For Hegel, the end is not a full synthesis but a dissolution and disintegration. In that sense, for both the State apparatus as unity, and the Marriage structure as unity, both forms find their truth in dissolution not in eternal harmony of a utopian state or a utopian marriage. Here to quote Žižek (25):
“The standard “Hegelian” scheme of death (negativity) as the subordinate or mediating moment of Life can only be sustained if we remain within the category of Life whose dialectic is that of the self-mediating Substance returning to itself from its otherness. The moment we effectively pass from Substance to Subject, from Life(-principle) to Death(-principle), there is no encompassing “synthesis”, death in its “abstract negativity” forever remains a threat, an excess which cannot be economized.”
In this precise sense we should never imagine that we are going to be finally in peace and pure bliss. We will always be “tarrying with the negative” as it were. This is as true for politics as it is for sex.
The “positive” solution to this situation of underlying negativity is that we must change our perspective vis-a-vis the untying of social links. We tend to think, perhaps in a mode of the ego or superego, that the building and eternal stability of social links (in either the state or marriage) is the best of all possible solutions to our underlying negativity. But from the underground perspective of the immanent Id, the opposite is true. The breaking of a social link opens up the space for new decisions and options that help us to move forward. This means that we should not give up on the old categories of Man-Woman in sexuality or Left-Right in politics, but to untie from them so that we can see new spaces for their immanent conceptual possibilities. We should remember that these categories are not transcendental archetypes reflecting a truer more real reality but rather conceptual structures which emerged contingently in history to meet immanent and necessary problems of psychical desire and drives. For this reason the state and marriage are not structures meant to be essentialized or substantialized in their innermost essence, but seen as structures which deal with and tarry with an innermost essence that is negative in relation to their positive appearance.
Thus the ultimate and most sophisticated conceptual jump that occurs between religious or traditional thinking and modern psychoanalytic thinking is the shift from sublation into permanent stability (utopian state or marriage) to sublimation into impossible thing (enjoyment in tarrying with the eternal negativity of the drive). When one, in the mode of desire, reaches the level of an impossible thing, one should not drop this impossible thing in favour of something more realizable or possible in order to save oneself from the brutal harshness of the real. Instead, one should form a relation and embody this very impossibility and attempt to see it in new ways, to see how one could form new repetitive relations with this impossibility. From this act one can reach new levels of spiritual growth.
Here to quote Žižek on these topics of absolute negativity (26):
“The persistent threat that radical self-relating negativity will threaten and ultimately dissolve any organic social structure points towards the finite status of all such structures: their status is virtual-ideal, lacking any ultimate ontological guarantee, always exposed to the danger of disintegration when, triggered by an accidental external intrusion, their grounding negativity explodes. The identity of the opposites here does not mean that, in an idealist way, the inner spirit “generates” external obstacles which appear as accidental: external accidents which causes wars are genuinely accidental, the point is that, as such, they “echo” the innermost negativity that is the core of subjectivity.”
This brings us to the end of Lecture 20 focused on the second half of Interlude 3— King, Rabble, War… and Sex. Thus we are at the end of all three interludes related to the Hegelian thing-in-itself, and in fact, will be now facing the last chapter of the section focused on the Hegelian thing-in-itself.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Interlude 3 – King, Rabble, War… and Sex. p. 428.
(3) Ibid. p. 429.
(4) Ibid. p. 430.
(6) Ibid. p. 431.
(9) Ibid. p. 432.
(10) Ibid. p. 433.
(11) Ibid. p. 439.
(13) Ibid. p. 440.
(15) Ibid. p. 440-441.
(16) Ibid. p. 442.
(17) Ibid. p. 443.
(18) Ibid. p. 442.
(19) Ibid. p. 449.
(20) Ibid. p. 445.
(21) Ibid. p. 444.
(22) Ibid. p. 446
(23) Ibid. p. 448.
(24) Ibid. p. 449.
(26) Ibid. p. 453.