Formal aspect
Form reflects content

YouTube: The Formal Aspect. Zizek’s Less Than Nothing: Chp. 7, Pt. 4.

This subsection is entitled “The Formal Aspect”. Here we attempt to elucidate the limits of Hegel’s philosophical system as it comes into contact with notions of Deleuzian repetition and the Freudian unconscious. Here Žižek is first concerned with emphasising the way in which Hegel’s system must be repeated and worked through with the minimal difference of Lacan’s system which includes within it the objet petit a, as the manifestation of an unconscious repetition compulsion sustaining the death drive, a difference that makes all the difference to salvaging the essence of Hegel’s philosophical gesture (1):

“Can Hegel think the excess of the death drive (of love as the lethal passion) which persists as a kind of “indivisible remainder” after the dialectical resolution of the process in a rational totality? And if he cannot, are we really dealing with a fundamental systemic failure? […] The difference that separates Lacan from Hegel is […] a minimal difference, a tiny, barely perceptible feature which changes everything. It is not Hegel versus another figure, but Hegel and his spectral double — in the passage from Hegel to Lacan, we do not pass from One-Hegel to another One-Lacan. They are not two, but the One-Hegel plus his objet a. This brings us back to the relationship between repetition and minimal difference: minimal difference is something which emerges in pure repetition.”

One plus objet a

Here we can see this minimal difference represented here in the point of the closure and convergence of a rational totality which fails to totally close and converge on itself. In this representation the circle of the rational totality is the actually embodied repetition of a symbolic self-identity, the fundamental motion of a subject attempting to objectivise its own singular engagement with the natural world. However, the location of the fact that the subject ultimately fails to close and complete itself, to fully objectivise itself produces an excess partial object, what Lacan nominates as the objet petit a, the essentialized lost-object. This is what every rational symbolic totality repeats as a pure virtual difference, as an otherness internal to its own motion, and is perceived as “possibility qua possibility”.

This minimal difference has consequences for how we can interpret the meaning of the emergence or rise of the new, a topic approached in Deleuze’s system in difference and repetition. For Deleuze difference is opposed to identity and repetition is opposed to idealization. What this leads to is an emphasis, not on the actual change of content, but rather on the change in a virtual frame. In Deleuze’s system you can have a change in actual content (identity A to identity B) but this may not represent real change or the emergence of something really new if the ideal virtual frame remains unchanged. For Deleuze, in order to have real change you can have the actual content remain the exact same, but can have a virtual frame change that reflectively changes the actual content. In other words, sometimes real change or the emergence of something really new is not perceptible since it is occurring on the level of the virtual frame which changes the actual perceptible content. For Deleuze, both Plato and Hegel’s system does not allow for real change since the actual content is always already under the regime of an eternal ideal (either ahistorical, as in Plato; or historical, as in Hegel).

However, Žižek still attempts to put Hegel into deeper conversation with Deleuze’s notion of the emergence of the new with a nuanced understanding of Hegel’s historical idealism. In Hegel’s repetition which is always a mode of ideal sublation, you can still have the emergence of something really new because the ideal itself can change in its mode of logical sublation. However, the true dimension of a change in Hegel is not the addition of an ideal in sublation but rather its subtraction from the actual field of multiplicities. In other words, when a field of actual entities changes due to the introduction of a new virtual frame, there can also be the emergence of the new when the old stubbornly remains fixed or stuck in its ways, refusing to die. In that sense the Old is New because of its persistence within the new virtual field.

Through this logic Žižek attempts to bring Deleuzian difference and repetition into closer contact with Hegel’s identity and idealization, emphasising the different ways in which the new can emerge in relation to the ideal: either through a change in the virtual frame itself, or through a fixed repetition with the old. In this way Žižek is emphasising the form of repetition introduced by Kierkegaard where repetition gains autonomy from sublation, either in the form of a repetition of a new virtual frame, or in the repetition of an old form under a new ideal. As is constant throughout this chapter, Žižek is here emphasising that all post-Hegelian philosophy is really an attempt to escape the Hegelian monstrous ideality of logical sublation through an understanding of repetition as a break with conceptual totality as such. In standard readings of Hegel his system logically sublates all materiality. However, in post-Hegelian philosophy it is the repetition of difference outside of this conceptual totality which gains a new focus.

For this reason Žižek emphasizes that the concept that potentially brings together both Hegel’s system of logic and its post-philosophical repetition in anti-Hegelian gestures claiming to go beyond it can reflect Lacan’s notion of the death drive as a compulsion to repeat the same form of negativity. In other words, the way in which philosophers repeat an anti-Hegelian gesture is a form of death drive internal to Hegel’s own totalizing philosophical system, or rational totality. In the mode of the death drive there is nothing really new, there is nothing really added, as in standard notions of a linear progress. just a circular repetition of the same. This is why Žižek claims that philosophy beings and ends with the passage from Kant to Hegel, and everything post-Hegel is an attempt to come to terms with the immanence of Hegel’s logical sublation in the mode of the death drive. However, Žižek also claims that although post-Hegelian philosophy is correct to focus on this dimension of pure repetition, Hegel was still well aware of the importance of repetition, and the way in which the domain of spiritual ideal sublation can only emerge in and through the work of mechanical repetition.

With this tour through Hegel’s relation to Deleuzian repetition, Žižek then focuses on Hegel’s relation to Freud and the discovery of the unconscious. How does the discovery of the unconscious impact Hegel’s systemic philosophy of Absolute Knowing and ideal sublation? The first thing to note is the minimal difference between Hegel’s presuppositions of conscious knowledge mastery which represents the unity of subject and the Absolute; with Freud’s presuppositions of unconscious knowledge as the master of the subject’s ego, and thus introducing a division between subjectivity and the Absolute. In this sense Freud’s discovery of the unconscious subverts Hegel’s basis thesis of a conscious subject of Absolute Knowing since the status of Absolute Knowing is unconscious. For both Freud and Lacan, then, what is essential to understand is that unconscious knowledge is an “unknown known” that moves the subject independent of its conscious knowledge, a dimension that Hegel was unaware. This does not mean that the unconscious is best represented by “blind instincts”, but rather that there is a dimension of the symbolic order (language) that possesses a knowledge that the subject is always separated from and yet effected by (the primal scene).

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Knowledge Quadrant

We can reflect on a quadrant of the different philosophical positions that structure the relationship of the subject and knowledge. In the top right quadrant we have Kant’s notion “known unknowns”, here best represented by the concept of noumena. Noumena are things that subjectivity thinks it knows, but in fact does not know. In the top left quadrant we have Hegel’s notion of “known knowns”, here best represented by the status of Absolute Knowledge, of a symmetrical relation between the subject’s knowledge and the known content internal to the spiritual process of historical becoming. In the bottom left quadrant we have Freud’s notion of “unknown knowns” here best represented by the status of unconscious knowledge that is unknown on the level of self-consciousness, but known and with real effects on the level of the unconscious. In the bottom right quadrant we have Deleuze’s notion of “unknown unknowns”, best represented by the virtual plane of immanence where there is a field of virtual potential that we cannot possible know that we do not know.

Here to capture the difference between Hegel and Freud (2):

“What if Absolute Knowing is to be located into the very tension between the knowledge aware of itself and the unknown knowledge? What if the “absoluteness” of knowing refers not to our access to the divine Absolute in-itself, or to a total self-reflection through which we would gain full access to our “unknown knowing” and thus achieve subjective self-transparency, but to a much more modest (and all the more difficult to think) overlapping between the lack of our “conscious” knowledge and the lack inscribed into the very heart of our unknown knowledge? It is at this level that one should locate the parallel between Hegel and Freud: if Hegel discovers unreason (contradiction, the mad dance of opposites which unsettles any rational order) in the heart of reason, Freud discovers reason in the heart of unreason (in slips of the tongue, dreams, madness). What they share is the logic of retroactivity: in Hegel, the One is a retroactive effect of its loss, the very return to the lost One constitutes it; and in Freud, repression and the return of the repressed coincide, the repressed is the retroactive effect of its return.”

This is clearly a way in which Žižek is trying to bring Hegel’s system to the level of Freud and the unconscious, and vice versa, to bring Freud’s unconscious to the level of Hegelian historicity. What emerges in their synthesis is the way in which reason and madness, or reason and unreason interact dynamically on the level of self-conscious history (mad dance of opposites) and on the level of the unconscious (dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue).

From this Žižek then seeks to compare and contrast the differences in meaning between the Hegelian unconscious and the Freudian unconscious. For Hegel’s unconscious is on the level of the rational totality of spiritual becoming and the oppositional determinations that structure history. What is “un-conscious” in this spiritual process is the enunciation of the subject where enunciated content is what is focused as an object; the universality of the symbolic form internal to the particular subject; and the “in-itself” of the subjective process. In other words, what is “unconscious” is the self-conscious subject itself while it is speaking as the universal spirit. That is why Žižek claims that holding self-consciousness as an object is part of understanding the meaning of the Freudian unconscious.

Moving to the properly Freudian unconscious we have, to repeat, the notion of grasping self-consciousness self-reflexively, of holding self-consciousness as an object of analysis. When we think on this level we become aware of a truth that is normally unconscious to the becoming of self-consciousness. The Freudian Unconscious is also a particular-singular dimension that is irreducible to every subject (as opposed to a “collective unconscious” of “universal archetypes”). This means we have a contingent transcendental framework as opposed to a necessary transcendental framework. From this perspective the universal can really only be inscribed into the particular-singular dimension of an unconscious subjective wish-fulfilment. What is universal here is the wish-fulfilment as such, the desire of subjectivity which is inadmissible to self-consciousness, and yet hold’s the subject’s entire universe together. If the inadmissible wish fulfilment is revealed and challenged, the subject’s identity would collapse in on itself. Finally, this unconscious can be read, not in a direct and self-transparent way, but in the reason of word-play, jokes and slips of the tongue, in an indirect and often hidden form, asking the intent of the self-conscious agent from itself.

The Freudian Unconscious was most formally introduced with the publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams”. In this text we have the identification of the paradox of the Freudian Unconscious as a wish fulfilment which disguises its true message or core with a symbolic mask. The consequence is that the direct message or core of the wish fulfilment cannot be read in a straight forward manner, but must be read indirectly through the witticisms and indirect significations of the manifest dream content. In other words, in the difference or gap o the dream thought in-itself and the manifest dream-content, there is the wish of the unconscious which cannot be made fully conscious.

Thus, in the same way Žižek attempts to bring Hegel’s system to the level of Deleuzian repetition, he is also attempting to bring Hegel’s system to the level of Freud’s system (and vice versa). He asks whether or not these two giants can think each other, since they are both fundamentally aligned in thinking from the perspective of conflict, struggle and contradiction. By bringing Freud into the historical field we have to state that the conflict is never over or resolved (as in an Absolute Knowledge) but constantly a war between the wish fulfilment and external reality. There is ultimately no resolution between the two, but simply the curvature or tension of the negation.

There are many other dimensions that Freud introduces that subtly change the way in which we have to think about the battles of historical becoming. Due to a permanent unknown knowing always at work in history old spiritual principles continue to exist and persist independent of the introduction of new spiritual principles. This is due to the unconscious negation which masks or distorts the self-conscious belief system. There is also the level of cause on the level of the virtual in the social field itself where causation is always de-centered from the self-conscious agent. This virtual center is absolute and non-relational since every subjectivity is relativized to it and ultimately unaware of it. It operates at many levels simultaneously: economic, political and ideological.

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Unconscious History

Here we can see a representation of the Freudian Unconscious in the Hegelian historical field of spiritual becoming. In this field we radically complexify the picture of history. The reality of this field is structured by a multiplicity of oppositional determinations, a complex web. The Real that holds these oppositional determinations together is a central absent core which is the ultimate cause of the social struggle. Due to this Real being absent all subjective positions are ultimately distortions of the Real, with no subject holding the truth with a capital T. This means that the field is “non-all” even if various subjectivities would claim the “All” and attempt a complete totalization. In the field as non-all any description is inherently partial, only grasping an aspect of the whole truth. These partial descriptions orbit historical becoming as an impossible antagonism which is never resolved, and never completed.

What is a totality in this context? The totality can be defined as a whole not of a smooth or perfect harmony; but a whole inclusive of distortions, symptoms and excesses. The whole is always riddled with and fundamentally composed of such distorted, symptomal and excessive elements. These elements are furthermore structured by irreducible deadlocks at multiple levels of analysis: political, economic, religious and sexual. There is no All-view that could reconcile these deadlocks, they are just an on-going contradiction that structures totality as such. The most common examples could be seen as Hegel’s rabble, unable to be included in a political totality; Marx’s proletariat, unable to be included into an economic totality; Freud’s mortality, unable to be included into a religious totality; and Lacan’s sexuation, unable to be included into a sexual totality.

Ultimately when it comes to interpreting the meaning of Hegel and Freud philosophically it is about their status in regards to negativity. What is the difference in the meaning of negativity for Hegel and Freud? The two most commonly expressed perspectives are as follows. For Hegel he either radicalizes negativity all the way to death as the Absolute Master and/or he remains within the state-capitalist structure taking negativity to the Absolute Spirit of historical process. For Freud he either focuses on the subject’s compromises with negativity in repression of wish fulfilment or he pushes it all the way to the end of all life in the formation of the death drive.

However, Žižek claims, that both of these common perspectives on the meaning of Hegelian and Freudian negativity miss the core of both. The third perspective offered by Žižek is that Hegelian negativity points towards the magical-virtual transformation of the impossible Thing. Meaning that in history the work of the negative qua impossibility of Absolute Knowledge is in the end magically-virtually transformed. For Freud, Žižek claims, that the Freudian death drive is not a push to the annihilation of all life, but rather an “undead” (inhuman) persistent attachment to contingent necessity. When we take both of these works of the negative to the extreme we get the view that subjectivity will eventually negate its ways out of this physical matrix or natural world and exist within a necessarily determined virtual matrix or unconscious world as a true wish fulfilment.

Here we see the mechanisms of the negative deployed by both with special attention given to the way in which negativity is complexified in Freud’s work on the unconscious. For Hegel negation is a simple no to every conscious historical form (“this is not that”). The process of ideal sublation is ultimately a process whereby the ideal ideal is never the real real. For Freud, these negations take on many different unconscious forms in relation to the fundamental wish fulfilment: repression, foreclosure, disavowal, or denial. This complex matrix of negations can help us to explain the various ways in which subjectivity negates in the historical process.

Hegel’s system of negation is ultimately that between empirical reality and abstract notions. The level of the “NO” is on the level of the abstract notions which always find the empirical reality to be insufficient or lacking in relation to its own ideality.

Freud’s system of negation is on the level of the drive in-itself governed by the mechanisms of repression, foreclosure, disavowal, and denial. These negations are all in relation to the absent unconscious X or Real at the core of historical becoming (3):

“According to Freud, the multiplicity of phalli in a dream always points towards castration: multiplicity comes to fill in the gap, the lack, of the missing one. Can we then say that — insofar as the unconscious does not know negation (“no”), as Freud claims — the missing or excluded negation returns with a vengeance in the multiple forms of the process of repression: repression itself, disavowal, denial, [foreclosure], etc.? The answer is yes — on condition that we add that the very fact of the proliferation of quasi-negations bears witness to the fact that some kind of radical negation is already at work in the unconscious, even if it is excluded. The field of the unconscious — as the big Other — is structured around a loss or obstacle, around an impossibility, and the key problem is discerning the exact nature of this foundation impossibility.”

Thus we conclude the fourth subsection of Chapter 7 The Limits of Hegel titled “The Formal Aspect”. In this section we covered the difference between Deleuzian repetition and Hegelian sublation; the difference between the Freudian and Hegelian unconscious; the meaning of the historical unconscious inclusive of the Freudian discovery; and the ultimate status of negativity in the work of Hegel and Freud.

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Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. p. 480-1.

(2) ibid.  p. 484.

(3) ibid.  p. 490.


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