A LIST. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel (Part 1)

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Making a List

YouTube: A LIST.  The Limits of Hegel (Part 1)

Welcome to Lecture 21 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 1 of Chapter 7 — The Limits of Hegel. In this lecture we will focus specifically on the conceptual limits of the Hegelian system as well as delimit the structure of the Hegelian system as relevant to our contemporary world.

We start with the section titled “A List” which opens us onto a field of concepts which, Žižek claims, bring us to the limits of Hegelian thought. In creating this list we must remember that its main aim is to bridge the gap separating the Hegelian Thing and the Lacanian Thing in-itself, allowing us to see what concepts are crucial to understanding an extension of the Hegelian dialectical tradition, as opposed to a simplistic deconstruction. To quote Žižek (1):

“one should be very precise about what Hegel “cannot do”: it is never a question of simple impossibility or inability. There is, in all these cases, a tiny, imperceptible line of separation which compels us to supplement the assertion of impossibility with a qualifying “yes, but…”.”

Before formally approach the list of concepts that Žižek claims bring us to the limits of the Hegelian edifice let us first note (once again) the difference between the Straw Man and Iron Man of Hegel (first discussed in Lecture 6 which opened Part 2 — The Thing Itself: Hegel). If we remember the founding difference between the Straw Man and Iron Man of Hegel has to do wit the status of the perfect circle versus the imperfect circle. This distinction is again what Žižek emphasizes in the last chapter focused on the Hegelian Thing In Itself.

In the standard description of the Hegelian description we think again of this asymptotic approach to total knowledge, some system of knowledge which could rule them all, as it were. In this system we think that if we describe the whole of being perfectly then we will finally have a grand unified theory of the whole of being and the concept will finally be reconciled with nature in a universal totality which remains the same for all time.

However, in the Iron Man of Hegel, the Hegel that Žižek has deployed throughout this section as a Hegel read through the lens of Lacan, is a Hegel that sees the irreducible hole in knowledge, that all sets of concepts are “non-all”. In this sense it is not the “Whole” in the sense of the “Whole of Being” which is the truth, but rather the “hole” in the sense of the “hole in being” which is the truth. It is because of this irreducible “hole in being” that there appears a subject, an operator of the signifying chain of concepts, which, when deployed in history, produce excesses and antagonisms that will never be perfectly smoothed out and reconciled.

Here to quote Žižek on the difference between the Straw Man and the Iron Man (2):

“[C]an Hegel think the notion which, according to Lacan, condenses all the paradoxes of the Freudian field, the notion of the non-All? If we take “Hegel” as the ridiculous textbook figure of an absolute idealist who, under the headline “the Whole is the True”, claims to integrate the entire wealth of the universe into the totality of rational self-mediation, then the answer is, of course, a resounding no. If, however, we take into account the true nature of the Hegelian totality — that it designates a Whole plus all its “symptoms”, the excesses which do not fit into its frame, antagonisms which ruin its consistency, and so on — then the answer becomes more blurred.”

We can see here that it is precisely related to the concept of “All” or “Whole” and “non-All” or “Hole”. Here everything “All” or “Whole” in terms of a set of concepts must deal with the “non-All’ or “Hole” which corrodes it from within, its repressed other.

Now in this list suggested by fellow Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, Mladen Dolar, we have a set of concepts that challenge us to think a horizon beyond Hegel. This list includes repetition, unconscious, overdetermination, objet petit a, matheme/letter, lalangue, antagonism (parallax), class struggle, and sexual difference. These are concepts that we may say represent the collateral damage of the Hegelian dialectic, and became the focus of much philosophical attention in the works of Kierkegaard, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, Deleuze all the way up to contemporary philosophers.

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Limits of Hegel

Now let’s take this list of concepts one by one and elaborate on Hegel’s notion plus his limitation.

First: repetition. The concept of “repetition” for Hegel is always understood under a rubric of sublation, which we could define as an “idealized repetition”. In other words, when Hegel is thinking a repetition it is always a repetition which becomes subsumed under a universal notional structure. Here one may think of something like marriage or the state as universal notional structures which are repeated as a consequence of sociosexual and sociopolitical activity. The limitation is that Hegel cannot think a “pure mechanical repetition”, something which actually appears in thinkers as diverse as Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida. The pure mechanical repetition is a repetition devoid of its sublated ideal, of a repetition which persists as real beyond idealization. Here Žižek claims, paradoxically, that Hegel’s inability to think this excess of repetition is correlated to his inability to think the emergence of the new. In this frame we can only think the emergence of the New when we get rid of the totalizing ideal, and give ourselves to a pure repetition.

Second: unconscious. Hegel of course wrote at a time well before the emergence of psychoanalysis. According to Žižek the most basic coordinate of Hegel’s inability to think the Freudian unconscious is the coordinate between a formal-transcendental unconscious versus an unconscious structured by contingent associations and links. The example of the difference between these two structures can be found in the difference between the enacted truth of every moment in language (Hegel’s formal-transcendental unconscious) versus the truth which may undermine one’s enacted truth in every moment of language in appearances outside of one’s own psychical control.

Third: overdetermination. Hegel’s form of overdetermination involves the classical dialectical logic of the triad where two opposing identities find truth in their contradictory dissolution and resolution into a third term offering a new clear path forward. However, this triadic structure gets complicated with the introduction of the unconscious, which is a far more complex web or network of relations which cannot necessarily be situated in structures of oppositional determination. In these complex webs or networks of relations there is less a synthetic third term offering a clear way forward, and more a series of pragmatic and opportunities compromises related to the fact that no one identity can really make sense of the field as a whole.

Fourth: objet petit a. The notion of the objet petit a, Žižek claims, does appear in Hegel in the form of a contingent singularity of necessary desire which a rational totality clings. This could be an important person in a social system, like a marriage partner or a monarch. What appears in psychoanalysis, and specifically the work of Lacan, however, is the objet petit a as the real of spirit which transcends its own rational contradictions. What we might say is that Hegel could see the objet petit a as the imaginary singularity of desire, but could not see the real of the singularity in the mode of the drive. This, in turn, could be related to Hegel’s inability to think repetition and the new.

Fifth: matheme/letter (science/maths). For Hegel he saw both maths and science as abstractions which explode into a spurious infinity, an endless series of material differentiation. What Hegel could not see is what emerges with thinkers emphasizing that this spurious infinity turns in on itself in the form of paradoxical self-referential paradoxes in enacted knowledge. In other words, Hegel could not see the way in which science and maths can internalize their externalization.

Sixth: lalangue. With this concept we are dealing with the coincidence of the emotional level in language. For Hegel, he can think lalangue in terms of an enjoyment beyond pleasure, an enjoyment which he claims can be thought of as the goal and purpose of religious rituals. However, Hegel cannot think what emerges in psychoanalysis as jouissance as real, which we may refer to as the place or location where truth and the real diverge. In other words, when it comes to jouissance (an enjoyment beyond pleasure) the level of the fiction takes primacy as the real over the level of truth in a simplistic sense.

Seventh: antagonism. In Hegel’s system antagonism is irreducible and thus inherent to any rational totality. We can thus never understand any system as a perfect system, but instead a system riddled with contradiction of identity. What brings us to the limit of this logic is the full dimension of the antagonism as such. Instead of thinking about the system riddled with antagonism, post-Hegelian thought tends towards thinking the full dimension of the antagonism in-itself (in psychoanalysis, for example, the level of trauma).

Eighth: class struggle. In the Hegelian system the capitalist system is tamed and pacified to the level of rational dialectical motion. This may be seen to be somewhat more aligned with the views developed by Adam Smith (a distinction one can find more about in Lecture 7 of Zupančič’s What Is Sex? titled the “Invisible Handjob”). However, the advance that Marx makes in his analysis is recognizing the monstrous dimension of capital which functions with an automatic life of its own independent of subjectivity. This is a dimension which Žižek often explores with the paradoxical and contradictory concept of the living dead.

Finally, sexual difference. In the Hegelian system, as we covered in Lecture 20 “Rabble and Sex”, Hegel thinks of sexual difference under the dialectical sublation of marriage, the ethical link of the social substance necessary to form the next generation of free subjectivity. However, after Hegel, and specifically in psychoanalysis, we have a much more sophisticated development of our understanding of sexuality, specifically with formulas of sexuation, and the identification of a sexual excessiveness which cannot be sublated into an ideal notional unity.

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Nature and Ideas

Now that we have covered the List which neatly organizes the conceptual limits of the Hegelian system, we can once again revisit the foundational structure of the Hegelian system. First we start with Logic to Nature: Hegel deduces materiality of nature from the notion or ideal categories which present nature to us. Or rather, notional ideals hold nature as a presupposition which it is deducing. These notional ideals are not a higher ontological realm (as in Plato) but rather a pre-ontic virtual wavefunction (a realm of shadows) that appear independent of any sensual materiality. Second, Hegel deduces the motion of spirit in the sublation of notional ideals where nature as a presupposition ultimately vanishes or is negated in the motion of the self-mediation of the notional ideals. Third, the notional ideals become as an absolute positivity only in the motion of this negativity, as the notional ideals sublation of nature.

Here to quote Žižek on this dialectical structure (3):

“The notion “has its complete external objectivity in nature”: there is no “other” objective reality, all that “really exists” as reality is nature, spirit is not another thing that adds itself to natural things. This is why “it is only as this return that the concept constitutes [its] identity”: there is no spirit pre-existing nature which somehow “externalizes” itself in nature and then re-appropriates this “alienated” natural reality — the thoroughly “processual” nature of spirit (spirit is its own becoming, the result of its own activity) means that spirit is only (i.e. nothing but) its “returning to itself” from nature. In other words, “returning to” is fully performative, the movement of the return creates what it is returning to.”

What this attempts to communicate is that we should not think about some higher positive realm above the spiritual becoming in nature (like the Platonic ideals). The movement of spirit in history is the highest process and the highest reality. This is one of the essential contributions by Hegel to the history of philosophy.

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Contingency and Necessity

Here we can analyze another essential structure identified by the Hegelian system. The first structure starts with Nature as a contingent necessity. Here nature appears in the spiritual becoming of history and it has a particular structural determination. The question for spirit is: why does nature have this particular structural determination? Why does nature move in this way? Why does it appear regulated by these laws and not others?

The second move is to the level of freedom, which appears as the opposite of nature. Whereas nature is the contingent necessity; freedom is a necessary contingency. Freedom is taking a particular contingent situation and transforming it via notional sublation into an absolute necessity. What this means is that the freedom of spirit is the ground out of which self-action introduces new form into being.

Third, when we consider the totality of this motion we approach the idea that spirit in its encounter with natural contingency sublates and develops its own necessity, posits its own forms which would not have existed had it not been for the spiritual becoming of history. And finally, we have a synthesis of the Hegelian system with the recognition of this loop as a whole between contingency and necessity.

Here to quote Žižek on the transformation of contingency into necessity as the becoming of freedom (4):

“Contingency is thus not externally opposed to necessity, it is the result of necessity’s self-relating: when necessity loses its immediate-natural character and reflects itself as such, it acquires freedom which, in its immediate appearance, is contingency, the abyss of “It is so because I want it so, because I decided it so!” This reflection-in-itself equals the inscription of the enunciation into the enunciated content: as we saw earlier, when the Hegelian monarch announces “So be it! I want it so!”.”

Thus we see that the horizon of the Hegelian totality is this abyssal freedom, this “So be it! I want it so!”. In this way, when one is contemplating one’s own most subjective engagement in history, for Hegel, this is the location of the true Absolute.

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Philosophy of Nature

Finally, we can say that this Hegelian dialectical structure is still just as powerful today as it was when it was first proposed. Žižek claims that the critics of Hegel’s philosophy of nature are wrong to denounce this as a false path due to Hegel’s inability to think contingent otherness. Against these critics Žižek affirms that Hegel’s very name of contingent otherness was nature itself. For Hegel, nature is totally heterogenous and contingent, a pure field of differences that appear there for no specific reason. The dialectical motion inclusive of the notional ideal, however, introduces the idea that this form of nature is the primordial idea, that nature is not only otherness, but the idea as its own otherness. In this way the development of science is a crucial development in the history of the spirit’s own becoming, in the sublation of nature in the idea. Furthermore, in articulating the nature of the motion of this ideal, Žižek claims, Hegel anticipates both spatial curvature (a landmark post-Hegelian discovery in physics) in the negation; and autopoietic self-referentiality (a landmark post-Hegelian discovery in biology) in the spiritual real.

Žižek here describes these basic natural discoveries of negation and self-unity in the Hegelian dialectic (5):

“Nature at its zero level is space: not only the Otherness of the Idea (the Idea in its Otherness), but Otherness with regard to itself — a coexistence of points (extensively side-by-side), with no content to it, no difference, the same throughout in its pure extensive in-difference. Far from being the “mystery” of something containing objects, space is literally the most stupid thing there is. And it does not get “sublated” in the sense that it is no longer there: natural objects which “sublate” space remain spatial objects! Where spatiality is negated is in chemist, magnetism, and then organism, where objects are no longer dead composites of elements-parts, where we get an “eternal” ideal unity which cannot be located at a certain point in space: there is no “center” of an organism at some point in space.”

Thus the “metaphysical” picture developed by the Hegelian system may seem remarkably contemporary with theories of physics and biology.

With this meditation we come to the end of Lecture 21 on Less Than Nothing focused on Part 1 of Chapter 7 — The Limits of Hegel.  In this lecture we overview the structure of limitation in Hegel’s conceptual edifice and the structure of his metaphysics relevant for the present day.

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A List

Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S. 2012. The Limits of Hegel. p. 455.

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid.  p. 459-460.

(4) ibid.  p. 461.

(5) ibid.  p. 462.


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