Welcome to Lecture 22 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 2 of Chapter 7 — The Limits of Hegel. In the section titled “Necessity as Self-Sublated Contingency” we encounter a concept which is absolutely central to Žižek’s metaphysical focus on reviving a Hegelian ontology for a universe of contingency. In our contemporary philosophical universe contingency has become universalized. Everything from the laws of physics to the structure of gender to the nature of religion is perceived to be contingent. This means that contemporary philosophy plays with the idea that everything from the laws of physics to the structure of gender to the nature of religion could be other. The eternal necessity of the pre-modern world is replaced with the eternal contingency of the post-modern world. However, Žižek notes that the proper Hegelian understanding of contingency and necessity is to dialecticize the process, where a natural contingency becomes necessary through its own processual becoming. This is what it means to think “necessity as self-sublated contingency”.
Here we immediately encounter Žižek’s commentary on a crucial philosophical interaction between Hegel and Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, Hegel is unable to really think contingency, subjectivity and becoming. This is because, according to Kierkegaard, Hegel cannot think contingency and transforms everything into an objective necessity of the Absolute Idea. In this sense Kierkegaard lays the groundwork for what will become the 20th century existentialist movement which focuses on individuality and experience from a perspective which cannot be totalized or globalized by any all-encompassing necessary determination.
Here we encounter a direct quote from Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” which articulates this idea that subjectivity is fundamentally open, unfinished, in a process of becoming, and thus can never be objectively closed, finished, and completed in an Absolute Idea (1):
“Whenever a particular existence has been relegated to the past, it is complete, has acquired finality, and is in so far subject to a systematic apprehension… but for whom is it so subject? Anyone who is himself an existing individual cannot gain this finality outside existence which corresponds to the eternity into which the past has entered.”
Žižek, in his characteristic way, then attempts to flip Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel on its head. For Žižek, it is not that Hegel is viewing process from the point of view of the deterministic end point of the Absolute Idea, but rather attempting to articulate the way in which the very “eternal past” which Kierkegaard is saying is objective and complete, is in fact itself produced through an irreducibly contingent process of becoming. In other words, what in the past appears as a necessary given background is in fact something that emerges in its own time and only gains the appearance of finality retroactively. In that sense Hegel’s “Absolute Idea” should be read in this sense, as something that in retrospect will appear to be a complete finality, it is not something that should be inscribed into our present, since, for Hegel, the truth is the unrealized notion, not the realized notion. In that sense necessity is only ever being constituted, necessity is only ever in its own process of becoming, as a type of self-sublated necessity. Here to quote Žižek (2):
“What if the wager of [Hegel’s] dialectic is not to adopt the “point of view of finality” towards the present, viewing it as if it were already past, but, precisely, to reintroduce the openness of the future into the past, to grasp that-which-was in its process of becoming, to see the contingent process which generated existing necessity? Is this not why we have to conceive the Absolute “not only as Substance, but also as Subject?”
From clarifying this common critique of the Hegelian dialectical process Žižek then is capable of articulating the way in which the German Idealist tradition, properly understood as running from Kant to Hegel (as explored in Lectures 9 and 10 Parataxis; Figures of the Dialectical Process); is capable of transcending the traditional Aristotelian ontology. This ontology is “structured around the vector running from possibility to actuality” (3) and basically realizes what is always already there. This ontology is in fact still present as a presupposition in the Newtonian worldview where there is no difference between past and future, making the future some already realized state of being, and making time some illusory epiphenomenon. For the German Idealist tradition this ontology is destroyed by reinscribing potentiality into contemporary actuality. Thus it is the German Idealists who could properly make sense of actuality in a state of radically open becoming, where a substantial eternity is properly dialecticized, transformed into virtual potentiality.
In this representation we can see the basic coordinates of the German Idealist ontology which “explodes” the Aristotelian ontology. To quote Žižek the German Idealist ontology is a “movement of restoring the dimension of potentiality to mere actuality, of unearthing, in the very heart of actuality, a secret striving towards potentiality.” (4) In this very dramatic sense the German Idealist ontology “unfreezes reality”. One can no longer merely conceive of reality as given being but given being as itself something that emerged in a becoming, and the present reality as itself still charged by a process of becoming. Again, the true is not the realized but the unrealized, the latest potentiality of the present moment. In every moment there is a latent potential that we can recede from or act upon.
From understanding this ontology Žižek is then quick to demonstrate how this ontology played a huge role in structuring the metaphysical groundwork for the Marxist historical dialectic which say in the present moment the potentiality for radical change and transformation. The world was no longer a static given but something to be transformed by a radical form of subjectivity. To quote Žižek (5):
“Apropos the French Revolution, the task of true Marxist historiography is not to describe the events the way they really were […] the task is rather to unearth the hidden potentiality (the utopian emancipatory potential) which was betrayed in the actuality of revolution and in its final outcome[.] [The point is] to explain how these betrayed radical-emancipatory potentials continue to “insist” as historical “spectres” that haunt the revolutionary memory, demanding their enactment, so that the later proletarian revolution should also redeem (lay to rest) these past ghosts.”
This is a provocative statement and points towards ideas we covered in Lecture 8 focused on Interlude 1 — Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx. The crucial point to remember is that in the German Idealist ontology the future is not already determined. This means that the Communist Utopia is not a state of being that is something we are just inevitably acting out. The future is to be determined by subjectivity in the present moment. But in the present moment there is this ever-present mysterious “potentiality” which “cries out” for actualization or realization. This “potentiality” can often be conceptualized as a higher state of being, specifically a higher state of social being where human coordination is realized without friction or injustice or suffering. This idealization will likely continue to haunt us as a “spectre” until (as Žižek suggests) we “lay to rest these past ghosts” (the unrealized or failed revolutions of the past).
In order to understand essence in this ontology we have to first make a distinction between the external essences and the internal essences. For Hegel freedom is always central which is why the potentiality of the present is always emphasized and universalized. However this freedom of self or spirit is what is responsible for transforming its environment into an objective necessity. This is the location of “internal essence”. To quote Žižek (6):
“We are partially, but not totally, determined: we have a space of freedom, but within the coordinates imposed by our objective situation. What this view fails to take into account is the way our freedom (free activity) retroactively creates (“posits”) its objective conditions: these conditions are not simply given, they emerge as the presuppositions of our activity. (And vice versa: the space of our freedom itself is sustained by the situation in which we find ourselves.) The excess is thus double: we are not only less free than we think (the contours of our freedom are predetermined), we are simultaneously more free than we think (we freely “posit” the very necessity that determines us).”
In this quote we see the dialectical difference between external essence and internal essence. External essence predetermines the coordinates of our freedom. This of the physical or social world in which we are born. We did not choose these essences, they were determined for us by processes outside of our space of freedom. However, these determinations are not absolute in the sense of fixed-givens. There is also a space of virtual potentiality where free spirit can constitute its own essence. Here we can think of the various beliefs and desires that structure our intentions and actions in the world. For example, the essence of God or America are not external essences existing before the emergence of human free spirit, they are rather internal essences that exist because human subjectivity freely posited them and attached to them across a temporal duration.
The ultimate theoretical point to grasp here is the spiritual reversal between spirit discovering a contingently created essence and spirit creating a necessarily discovered essence. Here we can refer back to a theoretical point that opened this series in Lecture 1 focused on the Introduction: Eppur Si Muove with the idea of God moving subjectivity even if God does not exist as a transcendental ideality. When early scientists discovered the structure of the solar system they were not creating the solar system in its essence. The essence of the solar system was contingently created by processes that have nothing to do with human observation. Scientists merely discovered the mechanics of essence that pre-existed human observation. However, when it comes a phenomena like the Christian or the Islamic God, this God did not preexist religious subjectivity. It is rather that religious subjectivity created and sustains God as an absolute ideality. In this way spirit creates a necessarily discovered essence. As one may be able to tell this difference between the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity is absolutely essential to understand if we are to think the division between science and religion.
Here to quote Žižek on the mechanics of this dialectical reversal (7):
““What, then, is the central insight of the Hegelian dialectic of necessity and contingency? Not only does Hegel (quote consistently with his premises) deduce the necessity of contingency — namely how the Idea necessarily externalizes itself (acquires reality) in phenomena which are genuinely contingent — he also [..] develops the opposite and theoretically much more interesting thesis, that of the contingency of necessity. That is to say, when Hegel describes the progress from “external” contingent appearance to “inner” necessary essence, the appearance’s “self-internalization” through self-reflection, he is not thereby describing the discovery of some preexisting inner Essence, something that was already there (this, exactly, would have been a “reification” of the Essence), but a “performative” process of constructing (forming) that which is “discovered”. As Hegel himself puts it in his Logic, in the process of reflection, the very “return” to the lost or hidden Ground produces what it returns to. It is then not only inner necessity that is the unity of itself and contingency as its opposite, necessarily positing contingency as its moment; it is also contingency which is the encompassing unity of itself and its opposite, necessity; that is to say, the very process through which necessity arises out of necessity is a contingent process.”
This long meditation is necessary to spend time reflecting on because we see a complete description of this dialectical reversal between contingency and necessity. Hegel’s point is that all essence is contingent, could be other, but at the same time becomes necessary through self-positing. That means that once a network of selves contingently posit something as necessary it gains a life of its own and then prefigures the actuality of the next series of potential beings.
Here let us explore the true significance of what Hegel really achieved by trying to visualize the relationship between epistemology (our knowledge) and ontology (natural being). As Žižek notes this achievement can be found in the introduction of the Phenomenology of Spirit. In the above representation we see a pre-critical representation of metaphysics which basically employs an ontology that can be found in Aristotle through Spinoza. This is an ontology that cannot think the inscription of historical subjectivity, or as Hegel notes in the Phenomenology, our cognitive knowledge as itself a part of the becoming of the truth. In this ontology the “absolute being” already exists and our minds and knowledge are merely reflecting or discovering this truth. In other words, human minds and human knowledge play no real role in the constituting of the absolute being.
However, with the introduction of Hegel’s Phenomenology we have to totally rethink the creation of eternal being as something that is unrealized, something that depends on human minds and human knowledge. Thus Hegel manages to articulate a dialectic where human knowledge (epistemology) is inscribed into absolute being (ontology). In this way we can not only explain and transcend the emergence of temporal religions and other social structures which posit an eternal being but also to the radical openness of eternal being itself. What is the absolute is to be determined by temporal human knowledge structures.
To quote Žižek (8):
“Hegel’s central idea […] that our way towards truth is part of the truth itself […] only if the encompassing unity is contingency can we claim that the subject’s discovery of necessary truth is simultaneously the (contingent) constitution of this truth itself, that, to paraphrase Hegel, the very return to (rediscovery of) eternal Truth generates this Truth.”
In other words, to put it simply, when the subject appears to discover an eternal truth, it is not that this eternal truth existed before the subject discovered it. What the subject discovered was created in the very moment of its discovery. This can be applied to many different phenomena in our suprasensible world, including psychedelic experiences, religious experiences, and other genius insights in many fields of science, music, philosophy and art. In this sense Hegel articulates the eternal dialectic of chaotic contingencies which gives rise necessary order through a type of autopoietic self-limitation. This idea of the connection between autopoiesis and the Hegelian dialectic can also be found in our exploration of Lecture 5 which focuses on Part 2 of Chapter 3 — Fichte’s Choice.
From this precise articulation of the relation between contingency and necessity in Hegel we can re-approach the problem with the standard critique of Hegel (proposed at the beginning of this lecture with the critical quote from Kierkegaard vis-a-vis becoming and subjectivity). In the standard critique of Hegel we have an idea that Hegel is the philosopher of the closed system, the over-arching totality that prevents the emergence of anything radically new. Of course, in this critique, nothing radically new can really emerge because everything already exists in the eternal Absolute Idea which exists from all time. This critique may function against Plato but it does not function against Hegel who does not essentialize eternity.
What in fact Hegel does achieve in his dialectic is to introduce possibility into actuality, to see the way in which the eternal idea is unrealized and moves in a dialectical motion of openness and closedness. In this dialectic what appears to be closed logical necessities (like the laws of physics or historical gender categories or the existence of God) are in fact only appearances of closed logical necessities in retrospect (once they have been posited). Before their positing by self-sublation they are open contingencies to be determined by subjectivity.
From this understanding we can say that the level of the dialectic of the idea is a process where a Thing (like the laws of physics, gender categories or religious structures) become “what it always already was” through the self-sublated positing of a necessary ideal. In other words what we think of as a necessary idea is in fact something that forms in the process of an open and contingent process of becoming. This in some sense allows philosophy to also transcend the standard Hegelian critiques levelled by Deleuze, among others.
At the same time, what this understanding highlights or forces us to confront is the importance of retroactivity. This was emphasized in Lecture 7 focused on Part 2 of Chapter 4 — Is It Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today? In this work we identify that what is reified essence is in fact the work of notional necessity in the present moment. The work of notional necessity sets for itself a past (and a future) that is virtually constituted.
Now we can connect the traditional Aristotelian ontology which develops and is maintained throughout the history of classical philosophy and classical philosophical understanding of the concept, or human historical epistemology. In the standard philosophical understanding of language we must start with the contingency of our native “false” language and work our way through the historical contingencies to the absolute truth of a language that is purified, that has a precise and true absolute meaning. This is what psychoanalysis would refer to as a “metalanguage”, a language which reified pure essence in eternal concepts. Here we logically start with all of the different languages that exist in the world, with all of their idiosyncracies, and then, through the hard work of notional determination throughout history, teleologically work towards the one true language that we can all share. This logic is still at work in many different scientific and religious communities today.
However, as reflected in the transition from Aristotelian ontology to German Idealist ontology, we cannot conceive of the eternal concept in this way. To quote Žižek (9):
“The starting point of a philosophical thought has to be the contingency of one’s own language as the “substance” of one’s thinking: there is no direct path to universal truth through abstracting from the contingencies of one’s “natural” tongue and constructing a new artificial or technical language whose terms would carry precise meanings.”
Instead in the above representation we see that the identity of the eternal concept is always already present as opposed to a teleological end point that we are tending towards, like a light at the end of the historical tunnel. However this eternal concept always has gaps or cracks which is why there is possibility inscribed into actuality. Our actual present is not just a static eternal concept that is fixed for all time, but rather an actual present that is simultaneously one, and filled with a potentiality of an otherness. One may think of this precisely in terms of the actual real of history where one can always find groups of people who have a “one” which is both always already in competition with alternative fields of “ones” and which changes in time into a different form the the “one”. This does not mean that we should simply “deconstruct the one” but rather “temporalize the one” as a “one” that is itself in a radical process of becoming through the forms of historical subjectivity. This is again the meaning of thinking the Absolute as substance but also as subject.
Here to quote Žižek the meaning of this epistemology for a true speculative thinker who is capable of thinking the “one of his time” (10):
“The path from the contingency (of one’s natural language) to the necessity (of speculative thought) leads through the redoubled contingency: one cannot escape thinking in one’s language, this language is one’s unsurpassable substance; however, thinking means thinking against the language in which one thinks — language inevitably ossifies our thoughts, it is the medium of the fixed distinctions of Understanding par excellence. But, while one has to think against the language in which one thinks, one has to do so within language, there is no other option. This is why Hegel precludes the possibility (developed later especially in the Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy) of purifying our natural language that would faithfully reflect conceptual determinations.”
The very important theoretical point that is highlighted here is the fact that, in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical and scientific tradition, we do have this pre-German Idealist epistemology which implicitly assumes that a pure and true language reflecting eternal essence can be constructed. This may be one way to interpret the tradition which subscribes to logical positivism, for example. The problem with thinking in this way is that one represses or ignores the eternal possibility and eternal dialectic and the eternal movement. Language can never complete ossify itself in an eternal static-fixed form. That is why Hegel’s formula for the concept was to correlate it precisely with temporality itself.
In other words, when we think about the symbolic order we can never pretend that we are or we will ever inhabit a conceptual determination or a metalanguage that is pure and complete and consistent. We can never pretend that we have the metalanguage to reconcile all of being. This is the fundamental trap of a pre-modern epistemology. To use the psychoanalytic jargon, the Other is always lacking, inconsistent or idiosyncratic. There are always holes and gaps and this is necessary for historical subjectivity. If the Other were full and complete there would be no historical subjectivity. Thus the persistent desire for a metalanguage is a persistent desire to eliminate the persistence of the existence of subjectivity itself.
The important analytic point is that when we are thinking in a properly Hegelian epistemology which can also add the interventions of psychoanalysis we have the existing of an irreducibly imaginary irrational field where all sorts of interesting dimensions of language emerge that escape a metalinguistic notional determination. These paradoxically are not preventing us from accessing the Absolute, but precisely those dimensions which give us direct access to the Absolute. For example, to really make sense of “one’s own time” in “the one” (or the eternal concept) one should full explore this inconsistent and idiosyncratic realm of metaphor, word-play, dreams, symptoms, theatre, play, double meanings, slips of the tongue, music, jokes, indirect conjecture. It is this domain of language which is the locus of the birth of new thoughts and new paradigms and new ways of seeing the Absolute. Žižek refers to this as a “redoubled” irrationality and contingency. To quote (11):
“Hegel precludes the possibility […] of purifying our natural language[.] […] Where, then, in language itself, can we find some support for thinking against it? Hegel’s answer is: where language is not a formal system, where language is at its most inconsistent, contingent, idiosyncratic. The paradox is that one can only combat the “irrationality” of language on behalf of the immanent notional necessity if this necessity itself relies on what is most “irrational” in language, on its redoubled irrationality or contingency.”
Thus we can clearly see that in the Hegelian system we never have the eternal concept that eats or sublates everything, eliminating all contingency, as was covered in great detail in Lectures 16 and 17 focused on the Idea’s Constipation in Chapter 6 — Not Only As Substance But Also As Subject. The necessity which is the self-sublation of contingency does not mean that all contingent otherness is overcome but redoubled. That what becomes necessary in time is the product of an irreducibly contingent otherness. To quote Žižek (12):
“there is always a remainder of contingency, of particularity, which cannot be [sublated], which resists its conceptual (dis)integration.”
To go deeper into this relationship consider the above representation which captures the irreducibly contingent excess of metaphor, word-play, dreams, symptoms and so forth, and the internal formation of the necessary concept which attempts for clarity in understanding. The relationship between these two is what Hegel is dialectizing as the deployment of the historical one. To quote Žižek again (13):
“not only does necessity express itself in the appearance of contingency, but this necessity itself does not pre-exist the contingent multitude of appearances as their ground — it itself emerges out of contingency, as a contingency […] elevated into the necessity of a universal concept.”
Here the same relationship can be expressed in the relationship between universality and particularity. The particular excess external to a conceptual universality is necessary for the formation of conceptual universality. This process of sublation is itself the eternal motion in the present and not a teleological tending towards a final sublation that would end all process. In that sense Žižek claims the standard critique of Hegel always misses the fact that Hegel’s necessary sublation is always a redoubled process where necessary sublation neither precedes contingent particularity nor eliminates contingent particularity precisely because it require contingent particularity in order to form its internal organization. To quote Žižek on sublation (14):
“This brings us to the Hegelian sublation as a movement through which every contingent particularity is sublated in its universal notion. The standard argument against sublation is that there is always a remainder which resists it, which persists in its immediate idiocy. What if, however, this is the very point of the truly Hegelian sublation, of the “negation of the negation”? The direct attempt at sublation is the initial “position”; it is “negated” in its failure, in the element that resists it; the “negation of the negation” is then the insight into how this resisting element, this obstacle, is in itself a positive condition of possibility, the sublation has to be sustained by its constitutive exception.”
Žižek then goes on to claim that the meaning of sublation means that we have to see from the perspective of the Absolute itself. If we are capable of seeing from the perspective of the Absolute itself we see that (what we see as) loss itself and failure itself must be celebrated. When our egos see loss and failure as a catastrophe this is only from our historical individual human vantage point. But if we were capable of seeing from the vantage point of the Absolute itself we would see that loss and failure are in fact the triumph to be celebrated. The example he gives to demonstrate this relation is the difference between the individual human lives that were lost during the Peloponnesian War and the immortal work of by Thucydides which we gained from these deaths. Of course on the humanist level we cannot make the argument that we privilege the book over the human lives, but Žižek claims, on the level of the Absolute we actually do privilege the book over the lives. The loss and failure of the lives were absolutely necessary for the book. And that this pattern can be found throughout history itself. It is a pattern of sacrifice for the Absolute.
Žižek also gives the example of different historical eras, for example, the struggles and vicissitudes of the Elizabethan era were structured by an enormous pain and suffering (as is every era), but that the absolute result of these pains and sufferings was the work of Shakespeare’s plays, stories and poetry. The lesson here, perhaps, if we are to transcend our actual mortality and finitude, is that we must self-posit as necessary the pain and struggle that is required by the Absolute for a true gain. Indeed, this central motif is expressed in Christianity with the symbol of Jesus on the Cross, the crucifixion of the worst pain and suffering which leads to the resurrection, of the immortal gain.
And this brings us to a culmination on the precise point of necessity as a self-sublated contingency. This is perhaps one of the most important mechanisms to understand in the transition from pre-modern metaphysics to modern metaphysics proper. Zizek here would situate Plato and Christianity against Hegel and Heidegger with the temporalization of eternal essence. In that sense the true modern passage is capable of understanding the dialectics, the coincidence of the opposites, of temporality and eternity. This is done by realizing that the eternal essence does not exist in its complete fullness but is rather radically open and incomplete, in a process of becoming, and only as a process of becoming. To quote Zizek on how Heidegger understood this essence as a process (15):
“In [Heidegger’s] reading of “essence” (Wesen) as a verb (“essencing”), Heidegger provides a de-essentialized notion of essence: while, traditionally, “essence” refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing, for Heidegger, “essence” is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language as the “house of being”. The expression “Wesen der Sprache” does not mean “the essence of language” but the “essencing” done by language.”
This brings us to the end of Lecture 22 on Žižek’s Less Than Nothing focused on Part 2 of Chapter 7 — The Limits of Hegel — covering an essential dimension of Hegelian necessity as a process of self-sublation.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. p. 463-464.
(2) ibid. p. 464.
(6) ibid. p. 465-466.
(7) ibid. p. 467.
(9) ibid. p. 470.
(12) ibid. p. 470-471.
(13) ibid. p. 471.
(15) ibid. p. 472.