Welcome to Lecture 25 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing focused Part 5 of Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. This subsection is actually titled “Aufhebung and Repetition” where “Aufhebung” is German for “Sublation”, a central concept in Hegelian philosophy. Hegel deploys the notion of sublation as the mechanism of idealization that moves dialectical negativity. In this lecture we will be focusing on how post-Hegelian philosophy attempted to move beyond idealization with the concept of pure repetition.
Here we are covering the foundations for how we can think and approach a true “psychoanalytic philosophy” from the foundation of the “post” and “post-post” Hegelian philosophies that have structured the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. In the above representation the “post-Hegelian philosophy” is a mixture of socialist theory, materialism, existentialism, critical theory, and individualism; and “post-post-Hegelian philosophy” is a mixture of phenomenology, virtualism, deconstructionism, and new epistemologies. Then psychoanalytic philosophy, of course, starts with Freud and his discovery of the unconscious, before getting its proper philosophical foundations with Lacan, and later Badiou and Žižek.
In this move beyond Hegel, Žižek highlights that most Hegelian philosophy remains within the “economy of sublation” where particular actual content is mediated by its idealization. This dialectical motion of sublation is what often frames Hegel as a thinker of the concept in-itself that has no room for the positivity of being or real life. As Žižek repeats throughout Less Than Nothing this mechanism of sublation is what transforms contingent being on the level of particularity in-itself into a necessary ideal on the level of universality for-itself.
From Hegel’s philosophy the rise of “post-Hegelian” philosophy sought to operate in this horizon of idealization on the level of “pure repetition” beyond its ideal. First articulated by Kierkegaard, and then later by Freud and Deleuze, “pure repetition” attempts to capture the way in which idealisation can often times get in the way of understanding the in-itself of the life of the concept which is never in-itself complete and closed, but always tarrying with the undialecticizable negativity of existence itself.
According to Žižek, post-Hegelian philosophy sees no place in Hegel’s philosophy for “pure repetition”, a repetition that is not always already caught in the movement of sublation or idealization. The post-Hegelian philosophy is thus responding to the tendency for a motion that remains within the horizon of idealization to become melancholic in relation to empirical reality. In psychoanalytic terms you may refer to this as the “impotence” of the concept or the level of what is commonly referred to as “symbolic castration” in the sense of the “missing one” of the “perfect ideality”. Thus, in such a situation it can become tempting for the subject to abandon all of its hopes and dreams (its idealising sublating motion) and instead correlate its being with the “truth” of empirical reality as always already tending to decay and that any motion of sublation will in the end fail anyway.
In modern scientific terms or conceptualisation, one starts to feel that one is in a universe doomed to thermodynamic decay or heat death. Throughout the 19th century, co-extensive with the rise of post-Hegelian philosophy, there was the rise of thermodynamics where entropy or the tendency of the universe to disorder became a major ontological principle. This was also coupled with the rise of various forms of atheism that claimed the only and ultimate reality was the death of our particular life substance which could never be sublated to a higher order of being (e.g. Heaven with God).
In order to combat this tendency in the face of the failure of the ideal and the motion of sublation, the post-Hegelian philosophy, works from the ground of pure repetition beyond idealization. In this sense the idea is that pure repetition can continue to carry its relentless or persistent motion even when all is lost and the whole world is tending to disorder and catastrophe. To frame it in Žižek’s terms of desire to drive, the pure repetition escapes the horizon of failed desire and continues its circular orbit in the mode of the drive.
Or in the modern universe of quantum cosmology one could even flip the standard interpretations of thermodynamic ontology where the universe is tending to disorder with the notion that the universe also emerged from nothing. In that sense it is not just that something is tending to nothing (“heat death”) but also that something can emerge from nothing (“big bang”). This inversion points towards the potential of the repetitive drive to allow a rise from the ashes of absolute destruction for a new horizon of meaning.
But is Hegel unable to think this dimension? After Žižek describes the transition from the Hegelian economy of sublation to the post-Hegelian economy of repetition, he then adds his own critique of this interpretation and transition, which is in the end an attempt to resurrect Hegelian dialectics for the post-Hegelian philosophical era (1):
“But there is a paradox which complicates this critique of Hegel: is not absolute negativity, this central notion of Hegelian thought, precisely a philosophical figure of what Freud called the “death drive”? Insofar as — following Lacan — the core of Kant’s thought can be defined as the “critique of pure desire”, is not the passage from Kant to Hegel then precisely the passage from desire to drive? The very concluding lines of Hegel’s Encyclopedia (on the Idea which enjoys repeatedly transversing its circle) point in this direction, suggesting that the answer to the standard critical question — “Why does the dialectical process always go on? Why does dialectical mediation always continue its work?” — is precisely the eppur si muove of the pure drive. This structure of negativity also accounts for the quasi-“automatic” character of the dialectical process, for the common reproach concerning its “mechanical” character: belying all the assurances that dialectics is open to the true life of reality, the Hegelian dialectic is like a processing machine which indifferently swallows up and process all possible contents, from nature to history, from politics to art, delivering them packaged in the same triadic form. Heidegger was thus right in his thesis that Hegel does not render thematic his basic operation of negativity, but he is, as it were, right for the wrong reason: the core of Hegelian dialectics, inaccessible to Hegel himself, is the repetitive (death) drive which becomes visible after the post-Hegelian break. But why should there not be at the base of dialectics a tension between dialectics and its non-dialecticizable core? In this sense, the death drive or the compulsion to repeat is the heart of negativity, Hegel’s non-thematized presupposition — inaccessible not only to him, but, perhaps to philosophy as such: its outlines were first deployed by a theologian (Kierkegaard) and a (meta-)psychologist (Freud), and a century later a philosopher (Deleuze) incorporated Kierkegaard’s and Freud’s lesson. With regard to the precise status of negativity, the situation is thus in a way reversed: it is Hegel who offers a series of Vers, of displaced variations of negativity, and it is only in psychoanalysis, through Freud and Lacan, that we can formulate the elementary form of negativity.
In other words, Žižek is first telling us that Hegel’s dialectical machinery focuses on the motion of negation in the form of sublation, but that Hegel himself did not “thematize” the absolute negativity at the heart of this dialectical machinery. Second, Žižek is emphasising that it took non-philosophical thinkers to first fully identify this absolute negativity which is still implied in the dialectical machinery. Kierkegaard as a theologian may have identified it due to his focus on the tragedy of existence in a post-theological modern universe; and Freud may have identified it due to his focus on the vicissitudes of the human psyche which deeply struggle with their paradoxical situation between animal embodiment and transcendent idealization.
From this subtle complication Žižek attempts to articulate two different breaks in post-Hegelian philosophy as it relates to the notion of ideal sublation: the first is the break to what may be called “affirmationism”. In affirmationism the ideal sublation is negated and the positivity of being is embraced in the sense of standard materialist ontology. Marx could be here seen as one of the first figures of such an affirmationism with his grounding in scientific socialism and world communism. However, even figures like Deleuze who seek to understand the virtual would invite an affirmation of the pure multiplicity of being over the motion of the ideal sublation articulated in Hegelian dialectics.
The second motion is what Žižek refers to as “bearing witness” to a “true philosophical revolution” in the form of what we may call “negationism”. In contrast to the post-Hegelian assertion of positive being Žižek claims that this assertion of positive being is a type of ultimate ideal and that pure repetition must be privileged due to the impossibility of directly affirming. In other words, it is because reaching the Thing in the Kantian sense is impossible that we must repeat and this repetition is itself the Thing in the Hegelian sense.
Now we can break down in greater detail these two variations on the post-Hegelian tendency. The first aspect is composed of a conceptual schema that includes “positivity, being, material, actuality, and finitude”. In short this philosophical conceptual package includes notions that are comfortable and at home within the modern scientific materialist universe. Here we align subjectivity with what positively exists in being as an actual material substrate.
However, the second aspect, what Žižek calls the “true philosophical revolution” includes a conceptual schema of “repetition, impossibility, spectrality/spirit, virtuality and infinity/immortality”. In a frame described in Chapter 6 this conceptual schema is attempting to think “not only substance, but also subject”. What we get when we include the subject in the becoming of the absolute is the subject’s own “impossible repetition” which is governed by a type of “virtual-spectral” “infinite-immortality” in the form of the death drive. For Žižek, this is the type of motion that subjectively uses to uphold the modern scientific materialist universe as a virtual frame.
In order to think this “true philosophical revolution” in the post-Hegelian universe Žižek would seek to work towards a psychoanalytic philosophy which can truly think dimensions that are not thought in the Hegelian conceptual edifice: the totality of the unconscious and its libidinal fixations-attachments. Thus psychoanalytic philosophy works from the perspective that what is problematic about being or positive substance is the absence of “THE” object, which sets in motion the conceptual series of negations that are articulated in the Hegelian dialectic. Another way of thinking about this is that what is absent is the “Mother” or the “Woman”. Thus, psychoanalytic philosophy does not operate in the scientific materialist universe that is “de-sexualized” but neither does it exist in the pre-scientific universe which would presuppose a substantial feminine essence as a mythological archetype or “Mother Goddess”. Instead psychoanalytic philosophy problematises subjective separation from the Mother at birth and the vicissitudes or absolute negativity of being-in-the-world. In this sense all structures of negation circulate around or orbit this “absential X” or simply “absential” to use the term being used in the modern scientific literature.
In psychoanalysis what emerges at this deontological dimension is the location of subjective aggression, self-sabotage and hysteria vis-à-vis the lacking-missing object-cause of desire or what Lacan refers to as the objet petit a. Žižek calls these forms of negativity a “weird negativity” and a form of negativity that do not appear in the Hegelian universe of negations or ideal sublations. In other words, the pure repetitions of aggression, self-sabotage and hysteria when one is dealing with the positive absence of the perfect object reveal a dimension of the unconscious that Hegel could not include in his historical dialectic but which are an essential feature of the totality of subjectivity. What is occurring in these pure repetitions is the manifestation of the unconscious wish fulfilment itself freed from idealized repression. This unconscious wish fulfilment could be translated simply as “this is not that”. In other words, every possible object-cause of desire is not “THE” object-cause of desire and is ultimately unsatisfactory on the level of absolute becoming.
This brings us to the repetition compulsion that is the heart of the unconscious in-itself and thus an adequate ground for a post-Hegelian philosophy articulated on the ground of pure repetition beyond the egoic ideal in the motion of sublation. According to Freud the unconscious in-itself “knows no negation” since it is in-itself a pure wish fulfilment that is only thwarted and distorted because of an inability to purely affirm itself. Only the pre-conscious and self-conscious see the “negativity” as a “negative thing” in the sense that they are manifestations of pure negativity. This is why Žižek’s form of “negationism” (of positive substance of the world) operates because of the impossibility to affirm the pure unconscious in-itself. This means that absence of the full or complete actualization of the unconscious is the condition for the positive determination of the repetition compulsion. What is more is that this positive determination of the repetition compulsion and the core of the unconscious wish fulfilment is the very location of what Freud thought of as the “true psychical reality” and the “immortal indestructible drive”. This is the location of reality that is not articulated or admitted to consciousness in the modern scientific materialist universe which would presuppose thermal decay and heat death. What this view misses is the inadmissible, that is, the unconscious.
The technical ground of psychoanalytic philosophy is fundamentally different then most forms of knowledge in the sense the signifiers have no direct relation to the world in-itself (which is why they “repeat” and why they find every object “insufficient”). Instead signifiers overlap with absence/lack in-itself or nothingness. This space of nothingness is why signifiers repeat in search of the lacking-missing object-one. From the motion of signification in this lack there is the emergence of what Lacan, properly grounding the philosophy of psychoanalysis, referred to as “objet petit a” as the embodiment of absence or lack. The objet petit a is the partial object that sticks out and causes a signifying motion. The pure embodiment of this partial object as opposed to its spectral haunting is the location where desire turns into drive and where the circular repetition is capable of overcoming the negativity of reality for the real of the unconscious wish fulfilment. Thus, what psychoanalytic philosophy presupposes is that in order for reality to emerge there must first be a subtraction of the real in the form of “THE” object, the missing object that the signifier searches for (in vain) in reality and which is the location of an inverted absence/lack. In other words, whatever object the subject wants more than anything, is a spectral image, and in order to attain “THE” object it has to turn this image inside-out and embody lack as such.
To quote Žižek on this strange domain where he situates his metaphysics of “less than nothing” (2):
“What precedes Nothing is less than nothing, the pre-ontological multiplicity whose names range from Democritus’s den to Lacan’s objet a. The space of this pre-ontological multiplicity is not between Nothing and Something (more than nothing but less than something); den is, on the contrary, more than something but less than Nothing. The relationship between these three basic ontological terms — Nothing, Something, den is more than Something (the objet a is in excess with regard to the consistency of Something, the surplus-element which sticks out), and Nothing is more than den (which is “less than nothing”).”
Thus the passage from Freud in the discovery of psychoanalysis and the unconscious to Lacan and the philosophical grounding of objet petit a is a significant passage. Furthermore it is a fundamental passage for Žižek’s attempt to instantiate less than nothing as the deontological ground of psychoanalytic philosophy. What changes from Freud to Lacan is the location of the ultimate subjective ethical-existential practice. For Freud there is no sublated ideal in the Hegelian sense but he still remains on the level of the symbolic in the sense of symbolic castration. The subject must accept symbolic castration (the missing ideal) and bear this loss in the world by attempting to carry the world as best as he or she can. However, in the passage to Lacan and the identification of objet petit a as the object embodiment of lack, we reach the level of the death drive in a repetitive fixation on the partial object’s spectral image which merely needs to be turned inside out or inverted in order to achieve the level of the circular drive. According to Žižek, Freud did not understand his own discovery, especially when it comes to the level of the death drive, which Freud was too quick to assign on the level of the nirvana principle and the dissolution of all tension. Instead, the level of the death drive is the maintenance and persistence of tension and a negation of the nirvana principle or the opposite of the nirvana principle.
This brings us to the end of Part 5 of Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. In this lecture we covered the meaning of the transition from Hegelian to post-Hegelian philosophy as it relates to ideal sublation and pure repetition or drive. In this mode switch philosophy can tend towards affirmationism or negationism. For the ground of a psychoanalytic philosophy what is affirmed is the pure negativity of the objet a as the object-embodiment of lack which inverts “THE” missing one.
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(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel. p. 492-3.
(2) ibid. p. 495.