Repetition to Drive. Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel (Part 6)

Final summary for Part 2: The Thing In-Itself: Hegel

YouTube: Repetition to Drive. Žižek’s Less Than Nothing: Chp. 7. Pt. 6. (Series Playlist)

Welcome to Lecture 26 of Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing focused Part 6 of Chapter 7 – The Limits of Hegel.  This subsection is titled “Repetition to Drive” exploring a psychoanalytic foundation for philosophy in the distinction between desire and drive. In this distinction we cover the nature of drive as constituted by the notion of hole, as well as the mechanics of drive as a circular loop that allows for the transcendence of linear spacetime itself.

In order to start our psychoanalytic foundation for philosophy, Žižek offers us the application of two fundamental discoveries in the Freudo-Lacanian tradition of psychoanalysis, castration and the objet-petit a, to the philosophical rupture in Kant and Hegel.

For Žižek, Kant is “Freudian” in the sense of embodying the castrated subject (vis-a-vis desire, our true object-cause). This castration can be found in the ultimate metaphysical limit, our barring from the noumenal thing-in-itself. Kantian noumena is always inaccessible from our grasp in the external substantial outside (inherently mysterious, inaccessible). In Freudian terms: we have to carry the impossible world with our language but never reach the truth of our desire in-itself (indefinitely approaching the thing, but we can never get it and be fully satisfied).

Hegel, in contrast, is more on the Lacanian side in the sense that castration (the movement of the symbolic order) always-already produces the enjoyment it desires (objet petit a).  What changes here is merely a parallax shift (a change in perspective vis-a-vis the nature of frustrated desire). What the desiring subject cannot see is that the gap separating it from its desired object is already the access it wants to the thing-in-itself.  Through this perspective shift the weight of the world loses its “substantial heaviness” and “burden”, instead becoming the “weightless object” of the “circular movement of the drive”.  Here we reach the subtle shift between desire and drive that appears in Freudian castration and Lacanian objet petit a, and according to Žižek, also appears in Kantian noumena (qua castration) and Hegelian noumena (qua objet petit a).

There are real philosophical consequences for this Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic analogy. The first consequence is that the “Kantian-Freudian” notion of impossible noumena qua castration as our exclusion from the thing-in-itself means that, for Kant, his system cannot survive without presupposing some immortal soul to guarantee our existence.  Freud here is, of course, agnostic on the existence of an immortal soul, but that is because he did not go deep into philosophical problems on the level of Kant.

For the Hegelian-Lacanian universe, in contrast, desire is satisfied and already accomplished in our failure to reach the thing-in-itself (again via perspectival shift on the same situation). Thus we are already immortal and already achieve our deepest “soul desire” in our capacity to be with failure and to keep moving despite our repetitive mistakes (“death drive” as the paradoxical “Freudian name” for “immortality”).  Thus we overcome the frustrated desire of the ego (qua castration) by recognising that we find our truth in how things fall apart or disintegrate (the inherent temporality of our projects and structures), but nonetheless keep moving like an “undead repetition” beyond “life and death” itself.  This is the ultimate paradox that is brought out by Žižek’s return to Hegel through psychoanalysis.

This Hegelian-Lacanian universe, where a spectral object appears in the lack of desire with a paradoxical ontological status, is the universe where Lacan ultimately developed his own metaphysics of drive.  In this we see, via engagement with the work of Jacques Alain-Miller (one of Lacan’s students), another crucial distinction to fully integrate the universe of the drive over desire.  This crucial distinction is in the difference between lack and hole.  The notion of lack keeps us within the universe of failed desire as an unbearable egoic negativity.  Lack signifies an absence of matter within space, which is the location of the missing object of desire that would hypothetically satisfy and fulfill our being.  In contrast, the hole (qua black hole in physics) is not the absence of matter but the place where space itself breaks down (the absence of space itself).  Thus whereas desire is constantly trying to “fill in the lack”; the drive accepts the lack and uses it to breakdown the spacetime continuum itself with its repetitive circular motion.  In this full realization of the drive, spacetime simply disappears and desire is always already fulfilling itself totally (enjoying its motion).

To summarise concretely: lack is equal and co-extensive with desire as the absence of matter (the true object of desire); whereas hole is equal to drive and signifies the absence of space itself where motion curves in and enjoys its own repetitive drive.

Here the difference between lack qua desire and hole qua drive for me in making this video would be the difference in thinking I have not yet achieved my dream of successfully interpreting and communicating Žižek’s Less Than Nothing; versus realizing that I have already achieved my dream in the repetitive motion required to produce these videos. 

Here to quote Žižek himself on how the logic of desire qua lack and drive qua hole apply to the capitalist universe of endless self-reproduction (1):

“Therein lies the difference between desire and drive: desire is grounded in its constitutive lack, while the drive circulates around a hole, a gap in the order of being.  In other words, the circular movement of the drive obeys the weird logic of the curved space in which the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a curve: the drive “knows” that the quickest way to realize its way is to circulate around its goal-object.  At the immediate level of addressing individuals, capitalism of course interpellates them as consumers, as subjects of desire, soliciting in them ever new perverse and excessive desires (for which it offers products to satisfy them); furthermore, it obviously also manipulates the “desire to desire”, celebrating the very desire to desire ever new objects and modes of pleasure.  However, even if it already manipulates desire in a way which takes into account the fact that the most elementary desire is the desire to reproduce itself as desire (and not to find satisfaction), at this level, we do not yet reach the drive. […] The drive inheres in capitalism at a much more fundamental, systemic level: the drive is that which propels forward the entire capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-production.  We enter the mode of the drive the moment the circulation of money as capital becomes an end in-itself, since the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.  (One should bear in mind here Lacan’s well-known distinction between the aim and the goal of the drive: while the goal is the object around which the drive circulates, its true aim is the endless continuation of its circulation as such).  The capitalist drive thus belongs to no particular individual — it is rather that those individuals who act as the direct “agents” of capital (capitalists themselves, top managers) have to display it.”

On the level of our individual experience how should we think this transition in ourself?  To realize the drive we have to realise that space itself changes from a linear expression of temporality to a circular expression of temporality.  In the mode of desire we are never with the object of desire and it is always “to come”, it is always deferred to some future realisation (when I finally get the object, the job, the partner, etc.).  However, in the drive space is circular, the self curves in on itself and finds that what it is is already what it wants.  In this process the motion that was sustained by desire my be frustrated and require a period of subjective withdrawal.  But once it has been achieved the same basic motion should be actualised, and the only thing that will have changed is the inner perspective on the motion that was sustained by desire.  

This inner perspectival shift involves the concrete breaking down or division of the “All image” (of getting it all, of achieving the whole, of resolving all problems and contradictions), with the recognition that the division or separation in individual consciousness is the thing-in-itself (the absolute idea has released itself into the subject and as the subject to experience itself, and so forth).  When the “All image” has been broken into the division itself, once “transcendentalizes” the cut that allow for repetition.  In other words, the very motion that is sustained within the horizon of language is the transcendental itself.  This cut is magical in the sense that it is the necessity of the absolute, and it is dependent on subjective engagement to actualize itself.  In this paradox we recognize that our subjective motion is what is required for absolute actualization, and that we can posit the very nature of the absolute necessity, it is our gift and destiny.      

In Žižek’s philosophy, and ultimately his plea for a return to Hegel over a regression to a Kantian or pre-Kantian universe (which does not or cannot transcendentalise the cut at the core of our individual self-consciousness), we see that he claims that the Hegelian horizon is the enjoyment of the idea’s own repetitive motion.  This can and should be read in contrast to the Buddhist universe where the idea is negated for the void in-itself, which is ultimately a negation of history, and the history of the idea.  

In philosophy, Žižek would make a distinction between the Spinozian horizon (already covered in Part 2 of Chapter 6), and the Hegelian horizon.  For Žižek, Spinoza situates the self in lack, vis-a-vis the perfect substance of the absolute.  However, Hegel situates the self in curvature, as an inherit distortion of substance which creates the illusion of perfect substance, and that this curvature (as the enjoyment of the idea) is what is crucial in imaging the absolute as not only the substance we are separated from, but also the condition for the appearance of the absolute to itself.  Here we get the idea that the absolute is not a perfect circle already complete in-itself, but rather a twisted circle (like a mobius band) that is completing itself through the emergence of subjectivity and our engagement.

Žižek attempts to apply this Hegelian ontology of curved space generated by the hole of the drive to the emergence of humanity, and the difference between instinct and drive.  For Žižek, the animal world is regulated by instinct, and the basic mechanics of the need which represents a desired goal for an organism.  For example, lion needs to eat, sees tarsier, attempts to eat tarsier as a desired goal.  This space of instinctual need, for Žižek, can be explained with lack as an absence of matter that needs to be filled in with some content.  Here space is flat or linear because there is a normal temporal order at work in the tiger attempting to eat the tarsier.  Tiger is hungry, attempts to catch tarsier, eats tarsier, and hunger is satisfied for a moment.

In contrast to the animal world regulated by instinct, for Žižek, we need to consider the uniqueness of the way the drive creates a new space.  This space is radically curved around a hole that can never be filled with substantial content, but rather obliterates the coordinates of spacetime itself.   Consider again the example of myself creating these videos or reading Less Than Nothing.  In the actual production of these videos and the reading of Less Than Nothing it is not equivalent to the tiger needing to eat the tarsier, and then filling in that lack with substantial content.  The production of these videos or reading of Less Than Nothing does not satisfy any instinctual need, if I did not do it, the consequences for my biological integrity would be negligible.  What is happening in this action is rather that an unfillable hole has emerged in myself, and around this hole I curve the space of my mind in on itself.  In essence this action allows me to understand myself and get rid of myself simultaneously because I am purely in the flow of symbolic information, and also with the object-cause of desire that is sustained by this flow of symbolic information.  The actual object qua YouTube video or book is inexhaustible, can never be “fully eaten”, but rather sustains a circular motion that lifts me from the normal spacetime continuum that has given birth to all life, and in the real it is as if I am feasting eternally on, not substantial content (like a tarsier), but “less than nothing”.  

To quote Žižek on the strange space of drive in the human universe (2):

“The basic paradox here is that the specifically human dimension — drive as opposed to instinct — emerges precisely when what was originally a mere by-product is elevated into an autonomous aim: man is not more “reflexive”; on the contrary, man perceives as a direct goal what, for an animal, has no intrinsic value.  In short, the zero-degree of “humanization” is […] a radical narrowing of focus, the elevation of a minor activity into an end-in-itself.  We become “humans” when we get caught up in a closed, self-propelling loop of repeating the same gesture and finding satisfaction in it.  We can recall the archetypal cartoon scene: a cat jumps into the air and turns on its axis; but instead of plunging back down in accordance with the normal laws of gravity, it remains suspended, turning around in the levitated position as if caught in a loop of time, repeating the same circular movement over and over again. In such moments, the “normal” run of things, of being caught in the imbecilic inertia of material reality, is for a brief moment suspended; we enter the magical domain of suspended animation, of a kind of self-sustained ethereal rotation.  This rotary movement, in which the linear progress is suspended in a repetitive loop, is the drive at its most elementary.  This again, is “humanization” at its zero-level: this self-propelling loop which suspends or disrupts the linear temporal enchainment.  This shift from desire to drive is crucial if one is to grasp the true nature of the “minimal difference”: at its most fundamental, the minimal difference is not the unfathomable X which elevates an ordinary object into an object of desire, but, rather, the inner torsion which curves libidinal space and thus transforms instinct into drive.”

This is one of the most important elements of Žižek’s philosophy, the identification of a distinction between instinct and drive, of course well known to Freudo-Lacanians, and also the identification of a twisted loop (curvature) that is something like our own little “transpersonal” black hole which lifts us from or cancels our immersion in, what we call “reality” (spacetime, materiality, etc.). 

Let me return again to this notion of drive and its circular space again in a meta-reflection on my own activity within the Lacanian algebra of the barred subject ($) and the object-cause of desire (a), which is ultimately my own self-mediation.  In my self, I have chosen to engage in the activity of repeating over and over again the book Less Than Nothing, both in reading and in producing these videos.  In this repetitive act it is not that there is some light at the end of the tunnel where I will finally be recognized for my work (this would be the level of desire, and the level of its lack).  It is rather that in this repetitive act I curve in on myself and repeat for its own sake act of reproducing Less Than Nothing, and in this action, the linear continuum of spacetime breaks down and I find my own self in losing my self in the behaviour of writing and narrating.  In a true drive, there is a type of logical fixation, where the subject is ready to risk everything for its behaviour.  For example, I could be going against the institution that funds me, or the supervisor that trained me, in order to repeat my drive.  Even if there is an economic and social and political cost to my drive, nonetheless I have to continue driving.  To give Žižek’s formula for logical fixation: “I am ready to risk everything for that!”

Now it may be useful to also give examples that are more general than my own activity.  Consider two examples from theology and science.  On the right you see the drive of Gilbert Chesterton, and on the left you see the drive of Richard Dawkins.  For Chesterton, a theologian, he repeatedly fixated on The Bible and its Christian logic to explore metaphysics and comment on the nature of psychology and society.  For Dawkins, a scientist, he repeatedly fixated on The Origin of Species and its evolutionary logic to explore metaphysics and comment on the nature of psychology and society.  Both subjects, although at odds with each other in terms of religious and scientific presuppositions, nonetheless embody this twisted logic of the drive and the endless circulation that it produces.  For both subjects, the end is or will be death, but the enjoyment of the drive in its own moment, is eternal (or atemporal if you prefer).

Now, for Žižek’s metaphysical horizon, operating as it does on the circular repetition of the drive, as a type of “transpersonal black hole structure”, there is a “weird synthesis” between the traditional evolutionary and the religion worldview.  For the evolutionary worldview there is a presupposition of time as asymmetrical change of material phenomena (from big bang to the present, the arrow of time in physics, emergence of life in biology, and so forth).  For the religious worldview there is a presupposition of timeless (eternal) reality that is in perfect symmetry and identity with itself (God, and so forth).  However, in the motion of the drive and the logic of its curved space, there is the necessity to include the temporality of the subject and the way in which it becomes asymmetrically fixated on a virtual object that constitutes its endless circulation.  This is the death drive that was not recognized by either evolutionary or religious thinkers.  

Here to quote Žižek (3):

The key dimension of this notion to which Freud himself was blind, unaware of the full significance of his discovery — is the “non-dialectical” core of Hegelian negativity, the pure drive to repeat without any movement of sublation or idealization.  The paradox here is that pure repetition (in contrast to repetition as idealizing sublation) is sustained precisely by its impurity, by the persistence of a contingent “pathological” element to which the movement of repetition gets and remains stuck.  The key question is thus: can Hegel think the “indivisible remainder” generated by every move of idealization or sublation?  Before concluding too quickly that he cannot, we should bear in mind that, at its most radical, the Lacanian objet a (the name of this “indivisible remainder”) is not a substantial element disturbing the formal mechanism of symbolization, but a purely formal curvature of symbolization itself.”

This brings Žižek to his Hegelian interpretation of 20th century philosophy.  Contemporary philosophy in some sense finds itself split between the new materialism of Deleuzian virtual ontology, grounded in repetitions of multiplicity; and the psychoanalytic materialism of Lacanian virtual ontology, grounded in causality of objet-petit a.  Žižek suggests that these two giants of contemporary philosophy are in fact 20th century repetitions of Hegel’s knowing of absolute knowing in the sense of a radical self-limitation that allows for the production or generation of the new.

What the Deleuzian ontology may help us approach is the way Hegel failed to understand the future of the state, specifically with reference to United States of America and Russia.  Both notions of the state are idealization of identity, as opposed to repetitive multiplicities.  

What Lacan’s ontology may help us to understand is the ultimate status of scientific naturalism or materialism: most notably, with science as our contemporary horizon of knowing, we are still left with the open question: what does science want?  What is the cause of the scientists desire?  This is more and more important considering the rise of transhumanism.

Finally, both Deleuzian and Lacanian ontology may help us understand what Hegel meant by the rabble (over the idealization of identity in the proletariat).  What if the rabble is not a category to be idealized as the full realization of emancipated workers productivity, but rather repetitive multiplicities whose true cause of desire is to be found in logical fixation on a partial object perceived by most to be an obstacle to full self-identity (addictions, and so forth). 

Bringing together Deleuze and Lacan into this notion of drive and its curved space brings together pure repetition and objet-petit a as a partial object fixation.  Both pure repetition and the partial object are not idealization of the ego but rather a type of motion that continues after the fantasy of the ego-ideal has been broken by the real.  In terms of our phenomenal reality and experience of this real, the constant change of reality, how everything is impermanent and doomed to rise and fall away again into the abyss, somehow gets interrupted by a “stuckness” internal to the subject itself.  This “stuckness” allows for pure repetition and takes the form of a partial object.  All of the changing appearances disappear via subjective indifference, and the repetitive stuckness in a partial object consumes the totality of subjectivity in an affirmative “YES”! (similar to what Freud said about the core of the unconscious as what “knows no no”).  This space of “stuckness” in pure repetition and partial object fixation is the reality of both sex and politics, and both realities of sex and death, as they are in and for the rabble, escape the evolutionary and religious worldview.  Consequently, Žižek argues that what we gain from the Deleuzian and Lacanian repetitions of Hegelian absolute knowing is a way to approach the real of the rabble in sexual and political spaces (which is also discussed in Interlude 3).  

This brings us to a final quote from Žižek to end the section on Hegel in Less Than Nothing (4):

“But does this not, paradoxically and unexpectedly, bring us back to the topic of sublation, this time applied to the very relationship between Hegel and his post-Hegelian “repetition”?  Deleuze once characterized his own thought as an essay in thinking as if Hegel had not existed, repeatedly making the point that Hegel was a philosopher who should be simply ignored, not worked-through.  What Deleuze misses was how his own thought of pure repetition only works as a weird sublation of Hegel.  In this exemplary last revenge of Hegel, the great Hegelian motif of the path towards truth being part of the truth — of how, in order to arrive at the right choice, one has to begin with the wrong choice — reasserts itself.  The point is not so much that we should not ignore Hegel, but that we can only afford to ignore him after a long and arduous working through Hegel.  The time has thus come to repeat Hegel.”

And hopefully that is what the first half of this video series on Less Than Nothing has offered to you, a pure repetition of Hegel.

Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 7: The Limits of Hegel. p. 496-7.

(2) ibid. p. 499.

(3) ibid. p. 500.

(4) ibid. p. 503-504.

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