Welcome to Lecture 23 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing focused on subsection 3 titled “Varieties of Self-Relating Negation” (in the book) in Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. This is a very complex subsection and a very technical subsection. I hope some of the images and formulas I have developed will help to make sense of this in greater detail. This is ultimately about the mechanics of the one and the very nuanced and complex way in which Hegel and psychoanalysis understanding the motion of the one as a historical phenomenon.
You can see on the left a basic intuitive model of how we normally think of “the one”. If you read Plato and if you’ve read The Bible, or studied Abrahamic traditions, the one is conceptualised as a fall and return. The logic is that there was an original one. In Plato this can be represented with the androgynous creature, the super-creature. In Christianity, there is God. Then you will have the fall from the one. There are various stories of this fall. It is a fall into multiplicity, fall into sensory phenomena. But then there is also a return to a one which is mediated by the intellect, mortality, and truth. These faculties are always represented as a one.
Now in contrast to this traditional metaphysics, Hegel and Freud, basically have a different understanding of the mechanics of this one. Most notably they feel it is not a fall and a return from a substantial one, but rather a fall from and return to “nothing”. This means that the the one is historical. This means the one is not this eternal substance existing independently of us, or on a collision course with, as a pre-determined oneness. The one is an active historical substance, and also subject. That is why the Hegelian axiom is that the absolute is substance but also subject. The complications of the mechanics of the one come from the historicisation of the one.
As you can see from the representation on the right hand side, you have a field of multiplicities which is the virtual void, but then you have the substance of the ones, which is you and I and all the other historical actors. You are a one, I am a one, and all the other historical actors are a one. But the way in which we interact take on a quality of self-relating negation where there is essentially the reason why we experience a dualistic world. In that sense there are some nuances of the one which is the point of this lecture.
In order to articulate the strangeness of these mechanics I am going to utilise a lengthy quote (1):
“Lacan repeats the classic argument against the dialectical triad, the return of the starting point back to itself through its self-mediation: “When one makes two, there is never a return. It never comes back to make one again, even if it is a new one.” It may seem that Hegel’s basic premise is that the two come back to One, even if we concede the key point that this One is a new One: not the One which was lost in alienation-externalization, but a new One “performatively” created in the very process of returning to itself. When a substantial unity dissolves into the multiplicity of its predicates, it is one of its former predicates which establishes itself as a new subject, retroactively positing its presuppositions. However, even this properly dialectical image of permanent transubstantiation remains misleading: to put it bluntly, for Hegel, there is no One at the beginning, every One is a return to itself from the two. The One to which one returns is constituted through return, so it is not that One splits into two — One is a Two of which one part is nothing. Here is how, in an extremely condensed passage, Hegel formulated the gap that separates the dialectical process proper from Plotinian “emanation”: “The simple unity, its becoming, is that sublation of all predicates — the absolute negativity; the coming-out is this negativity in itself — one should not begin with oneness and then pass to duality. Why not? Because the One is only constituted through the passage to duality, through its division. The unexpected consequence of this fact is that, contrary to the common notion that the number of Hegelian dialectics is 3, in other words that Hegel’s goal is to overcome all dualisms in a higher “synthesis”, to reconcile the opposites in an encompassing third medium, the proper number of dialectics is 2: not 2 as the duality of polar opposites, but 2 as the inherent self-distancing of the One itself: the One only becomes One by way of redoubling itself, by acquiring a minimal distance towards itself. This is why, when Badiou defines love as the construction of a world from the perspective of the Two, one should recognize in this definition an echo of the Hegelian dialectic: love brings the two together so that their gap is maintained [with no mystical fusion], the gap between the two is parallactic and as such unsurpassable.”
The crucial thing and the main point of this quote is that not only is there no original one, this is always a retroactive illusion posited by a self-distancing one in the present, but neither is there an immanent mystical fusion. So whenever the self-distancing one is historicising itself it always seems to stabilise itself through these past and future notions. We might even say in a psychoanalytic way that the historic one, the past one, the idea that there was a fall from a one, could be seen as a melancholic or depressive modality of the one; and the idea of a mystical fusion could come as a type of desire of the one, or an anxiety of the one. Of course, in Lacan’s work, the notion of desire and anxiety as deeply connected to one another, is often explored. I hope that gives a type of dynamical geometry that we are working with. It is essentially a one that is asymmetrically cut or divided within itself between not-one and nothing.
Žižek, using this model, proposes counter-intuitive notion “divided we stand, united we fall”. When the one goes either for this mystical fusion in the past or future you are basically freezing your self. You are no longer the historical one. You can affirm the division within yourself. You can take this reflective step of realising this mechanism inside of yourself. In the first analysis of this self-negating one you can analyze traditional historical society. Traditional historical society is a one. Sometimes people who embody traditional historical society often romanticise the past, imagine some time when traditional historical society was actually actual in our lives. You can also find this yearning for a return of traditional historical society in the future, where we are in some sense trying to create a retrotopia.
In traditional society, the idea of how this structure forms, according to the Hegelian dialectic, the family, the nuclear family or patriarchal family, tries to form itself as a one. But its inability to be one, all of its problems, tensions, and antagonisms end up generating its opposite in the form of the state. This structure holds society together. So because the family as a unit of the traditional world isn’t able to in-itself maintain itself, there is a higher order structure necessary to clean up these tensions and antagonisms. But the family and state together, as a failed one and a zero, make up traditional society. This could be one way of understanding or analysing the way in which people deeply embedded in traditional society have a negative view of the state in the sense that they would emphasize an ideology of personal responsibility and accountability and local organization and local charity over state welfare and things of this nature.
The next structure we can analyze would be capitalist society. In this sense you could say the proletariat is a failed one. You have the idea of the positivist idea of a united working class, who are empowered, who own the means of productive, who are capable of self-generating and self-creating their own livelihoods. In the failure of this affirmation you have the nothing of the bourgeoisie. But the totality of this strange asymmetrical relationship is capitalist society. In that sense, in both situations, with traditional family and the proletariat, this negative one or failed one, is a one that constantly attempts to affirm itself, and the oneness of it is nothing but this failure, and yet it keeps moving. You may have the nuclear family or working class continually trying to assert itself, to realise itself. In the capitalist situation this is why the bourgeoisie is always seen as negative, always seen as oppressing and exploiting, always seen as something to abolish. This is again the mechanics of self-relating negation.
Finally, in terms of sexuality, which is perhaps the primordial ground of the one, the most intense form of the one. You can see here man and woman. Man tries to affirm himself as man, and in his failure, there is woman. This is politically incorrect. But there are some interesting dynamics at play here, especially in difference in sexuation identified in psychoanalysis, where you could maintain theoretically, that all human subjects start out in a type of mode of phallic signification, and sexuation precedes along an asymmetrical relation to this failed phallic signification. Lacan would obviously frame this in terms of the masculine side as not-being (the phallus), and on the feminine side the not-having (the phallus). This is another example of how the one is a historical phenomenon. You can analyse the one on the traditional level, the capitalist level, or the sexuated level.
In terms of a proper psychoanalytic interpretation of the historicisation of the one, on the level of fundamental principles, you can here see the proposed motion of phallic signification. In this representation you have the one attempts to affirm itself in the signifier or with the signifier. You could again insert the traditional family, the proletariat, or the man, and this signifier is trying to recapture the lost part, what the signifier perceives it has lost. The reason why this happens would be that its opposite is nothing. So the lost part is the very condition upon which the affirmation can take place. The affirmation can only take place because there is a lost part. At least in the first mode of affirmation, the form of consciousness or the figure of consciousness, does not necessarily understand this on a reflective level. This all happens on an unconscious level. Thus in some sense the family holds itself together on the condition of an absence which it sees as threatening, or which it sees as potentially disturbing, or a threat to its dissolution. On the second mode you have a more reflective relationship to the void. Or if in classical logic you have either the 1 or the 0, you can say in the quantum logic that you have both the 1 and the 0. This is in some sense the level of the negation of the negation. This logical process is the central motor of the Hegelian dialectic. On the highest level you affirm even though the signifier is missing or lacking, eppur si muove, and the missing or lacking void is seen in its positive dimension.
Zupančič notes, in What Is Sex?, that the formal cognitive structure for the stability of the masculine form of sexuation is belief, whereas the feminine side is masquerade or pretence. On the first motion of the signifier there is this absolute belief: “I believe in the family”, “I believe in the proletariat”, “I believe in the man”. Now in the historicisation of the one this will occur with its opposite, of those who don’t really believe: “I don’t believe in the family”, “I don’t believe in the proletariat”, “I don’t believe in the man”. In terms of negation of negation what occurs is that “I really believe without knowing I believe”. You might have someone say “I don’t believe in the family/the working class/the man”, but there is a motion that believes for the subject on the level of the unconscious. This is a very strange form of consciousness that we do not understand very well. But it is definitely something to give some thought (2):
“Let us take [negation of negation] in the guise of man’s abandonment of God: there is no happy ending here; in the “negation of negation” we are no less alone and abandoned as before, all that happens is that we experience this abandonment in its positive dimension, as the space of our freedom. […] This “negation of negation” […] [suggests] what [we] thought to be [our] own perplexity [of God] reveals itself to be the perplexity of God himself. This brings us again to Lacan’s key motif of the lack in the Other, best rendered by Hegel’s famous remark that the secrets of the Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves; the secret of God is also a secret for God himself.”
You see here a type of dialectical analysis of the one in our societies relationship to God. You have the first motion being our societies belief in God, you have the second motion as the disbelief in God, and then you have the negation of the negation, where this absence or void is not experienced as a negativity but as a positivity, it is a positivized negativity. This is the indestructible unconscious motion of the phallic signifier. In this mode human society is going to play out the historical drama without any a priori guarantee of an absolute container that holds our subjectivity. There is no big Other, but there is a non-Other. This is the negation of negation, and a central dimension of the main thesis of Less Than Nothing.
Now let us use this logic to understand the negativity of the absolute void. This can be explored with Žižek’s central metaphysics of epistemological limitation and ontological impossibility. In terms of metaphysics of science, science does not necessarily need a sophisticated metaphysical framework in order to do science. Nevertheless there is an implicit metaphysics to scientific materialism. This implicit metaphysics is that our symbolic is limited, our symbolic structure is limited in relation to external reality. We can’t get to the things-in-themselves, but we are still trying to understand the things-in-themselves (e.g. Higgs boson, quasars, big bang). We have to accept this imperfect relationship to being. Our symbolic knowledge is in-itself, being is in-itself, and this relationship will play out, but we will never get the real thing-itself.
What changes with psychoanalysis is not that the symbolic is somehow full or this infinite-all-thing, but it is limited as a relationship to an internal outside. Freud’s first object was the dream, as this extimate realm. The symbolic is limited, you cannot get at the dream in-itself. There is something illusion and unconscious about it, which is why it is mysterious. But nonetheless there is something interesting in the way we are entangled with this extimate field. There is a way in which our symbolic is dynamically producing the extimate realm and vice versa, the way in which a dream affects you. This paradoxically is the real thing-in-itself. The real thing-itself is experienced in this realm but it is just unconscious and we don’t pay full conscious attention to it as much as psychoanalysis says we should.
In regards to fundamental philosophical metaphysics you can compare the above examples with Spinoza to Hegel. Spinozan metaphysics is often used to instantiate scientific metaphysics. Spinoza is taking about an absolute perfect substance, a type of model of God as Nature. This is a metaphysical naturalism. For Spinoza, our knowledge is imperfect but nature is perfect in-itself. However, with Hegel, nature is besides the point. Nature is just there, this given being, but what is real, what is real for our spirit, what is real for our symbolic order, is the abyss of freedom. Thus nature is a type of backdrop or world stage for the dramatisation for the void of freedom. That is what our symbolic knowledge is revolving around. In some sense this is obvious when you think about what people are striving for in their clumsy unconscious ways.
Thus in the Hegelian sense the most fundamental Real is not a pre-symbolic substance, this going back to a time before the symbolic order was in operation, this shutting down of the symbolic order for a more authentic and engaged relationship with non-symbolic substance. For Hegel, there is no non-symbolic substance because the absolute is both substance and also subject. The most fundamental real here is more the indivisible remainder of the symbolic. The symbolic is moving as a repetition automatism, and its failure to reach substance, produces a remainder, this virtual excess. This virtual excess is what Lacan called the objet petit a, this partial object, the crucial object for the stabilisation and repetition of a desire. This is the location of the most intimate, the most disturbing, the most excessive dimensions of our subjectivity. This is what we experience as the most real. You may situate this as in relation to the Freudian stages of the oral, the genital, the anal, or even Lacan would add the vision and the voice as figures of objet petit a.
What Žižek would insist, is this shift from desire to drive. This fundamentally transforms subjectivity, this difference between desire and drive. This is a difference between the way in which the subject will engage with the one. In desire we have this intuitive structure in our minds of a fall from and return to; and in the mode of the drive we accept the lack and the void, and we are nonetheless the one. The difference with that is that the desire for life has this love of materiality, the absolute substance; whereas the drive accepts this is already lost and that basically in this mode, your love for the void, allows you to transform your identity, with no guarantee of what is going to happen. There is no way to know how your identity will change. But nonetheless something unbelievable can emerge from this process. Literally unbelievable, in the sense that your older self could not believe what you would transform into, but you love this process itself. You believe in love.
This brings us to the end of Lecture 23 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 3 of Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel – covering the mechanics of the self-relating negativity that structures the historicisation of the one.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. p. 473-4.
(2) ibid. p. 476.