Cunning of Reason. Chapter 8 – Lacan as a Reader of Hegel (Part 1)

YouTube: Cunning of Reason. Žižek’s Less Than Nothing: Ch. 8 – Lacan as a Reader of Hegel Pt. 1 (Series Playlist)

In this video we introduce lecture 27 of Less Than Nothing focused on Part 1 of Chapter 8 – Lacan as a Reader of Hegel: The Cunning of Reason. In this work we explore the intersections between Lacan and Hegel through Lacan’s use of Hegel in analysis, and also how this use can save Hegelian philosophy for practical analytic purposes.

First a direct quote from Lacan on the nature and meaning of psychoanalysis and the location of its termination (1):

“The question of the termination of an analysis is that of the moment at which the subject’s satisfaction is achievable in the satisfaction of all — that is, of all those it involves in a human undertaking.  Of all the undertakings that have been proposed in this century, the psychoanalyst’s is perhaps the loftiest, because it mediates in our time between the care-ridden man and the subject of absolute knowledge.”

This quote holds a ton of weight.  The first thing to note is that Lacan does perceive analysis as a process with a beginning (when the subject internally gives itself to the open process), and an end (when the subject has internally closed upon an identity capable of an achievable satisfaction vis-a-vis the all of others.  This has to be connected to traversing the fantasy of an ego on top of the world, as an all in and for itself.  Lacan claims that this task is the loftiest of all because it involves both the mind as an intelligent function and the heart as an emotional function.

Lacan saw this lofty goal as somehow a weird synthesis between Hegelian “Absolute Knowledge” and Heideggerian “care-ridden” Dasein.  Absolute Knowledge, as we have covered in Part 4 of Chapter 6, is Hegel’s name for the spirits own self-realization as a process that has no background or standard by which to measure its success or understanding outside of its own internal self-limitation.  Heidegger’s Dasein, as we have not covered, is the notion that our being in the world is irreducibly bound up with a disposition of care for others.  Lacan’s basic claim here is that an analysis should bring the subject to both its own absolute knowing and Dasein’s care-ridden state (“satisfaction achievable in the satisfaction of all”).  The work of psychoanalysis then, for Lacan, is the higher order social emergence of what was discovered in the deepest philosophical forms.

Here what is ultimately important to understand about both functions in analysis is the idea that absolute knowledge (as self-limitation) mediates the struggle-to-death as its own pathway; and care-ridden Dasein is guided by its being-towards-death in the shedding of identity that would do unnecessary harm or bring unnecessary pain to others.  In this understanding Lacan was indebted to the work of both philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s and psychiatrist Gaetan Clérambault.  

This is all important to understand the structure of a Lacanian psychoanalysis.  In a Lacanian psychoanalysis we have the biological body of the subject, the inconsistent and contradictory mind of the subject, and the other as the empty-void point, occupied by analyst receptive to the frustrated speech of the subject. 

This is how Lacanian analysis mobilizes absolute knowing, not as accomplished symbolization and a full-presence, but rather as the impossibility of accomplished symbolization and the empty-absence at the core of the real.  This structure is, again, meant to bring the subject to its own understanding of absolute knowing and ultimately a sense of care that can function for the satisfaction of all.      

Here is a quote from Žižek on how Lacanian analysis manages to embody the model of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and ultimately the society-level manifestation of absolute knowing (2):

“Lacan already outlines the “limits within which it is impossible for our teaching to ignore the structuring moments of Hegel’s phenomenology: “But if there is still something prophetic in Hegel’s insistence on the fundamental identity of the particular and the universal, an insistence that reveals the extent of his genius, it is certainly psychoanalysis that provides it with its paradigm by revealing the structure in which this identity is realized as disjunctive of the subject, and without appealing to the future.

Let me simply say that this, in my view, constitutes an objection to any reference to totality in the individual, since the subject introduces division therein, as well as in the collectivity that is the equivalent of the individual.  Psychoanalysis is what clearly relegates both the one and the other to the status of mirages.”

What this means is that, for Lacan, the analytic session embodies the paradigm of Hegelian phenomenology, in the sense that the universal moves through the particular, and only gains existence in particularity.  In order to understand the universal, there can be no notion of a perfect/closed totality revealing itself in the subject, nor any teleological future substance revealed it the subject.  Both totality and the future can only have their truth in the “future-present” of the notion in-itself.    

Žižek is here attempting to think both Hegel and Lacan simultaneously.  With Hegel we have the idea of self-consciousness as a notional mediation of otherness (via mechanics of sublation); whereas, with Lacan, we have the idea of the unconscious as a subject separated from its cause.  How can we think the coincidence of these opposites?  From the perspective of self-consciousness, we have ideal sublation; from the perspective of the unconscious we have the separated cause.  Does this separated cause have any place in Hegel’s own understanding?      

Žižek points towards Gerard Lebrun’s The Patience of the Concept to help us once again think the foundational core of Hegel.  Here we find the absolute as not only substance but also subject; the actuality of the rational; the status of absolute knowing as self-limit; and finally, the force of negativity.  Here the separated cause and the place of the unconscious can be situated in-between substance and subject, as what undermines the actuality of the rational, the precondition for the necessity of absolute knowing, and ultimately the mysterious location of the power of the negative force.  

Consequently, we should totally avoid the modern straw-man of Hegel that claims Hegel’s dialectics reaches the appropriation of all reality in notional mediation, as if the notion was at an all-you-can-eat buffet that didn’t require defecation.  Once we properly defecate this notion of the appropriation of all reality in the notion we can have patience to understand the truth of the concept.

With the unconscious as a separated cause, we can actually develop a serious critique of Hegel, while at the same time redeem Hegel with pragmatic maxims.  Hegel’s philosophy is ultimately one that can help us in local and particular contexts that may seem totally disconnected from his program, namely because the core of Hegel — absolute as substance/subject, actuality of the rational, absolute knowing, and the force of negativity — still hold and even become more important in light of the unconscious as a separated cause.  

Consequently, there is really no problem using the foundations of Hegel in the analytic session.  What Hegel reached in his philosophy as absolute knowing is no different then what the subject reaches on its own via analytic treatment.  This means that the subject, via analysis, reaches this paradoxical location of a true infinity in the recognition of its radical finitude.  Lacan insists that the true power of the subject can be found only when it accepts its finitude and works the negative power of death as its most secret joy and potential.  This thrusts the subject into the recognition of a strange psychic temporality denoted as “future anterior”.  The notion of future anterior is a future that is imagined in the present but is read backwards as if it has already happened.

Here to quote Lacan directly (3):

“What is realized in my history is neither the past definite as what was, since it is no more, nor even the perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior as what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming.”

What Lacan is attempting to introduce with the future anterior is a determination of the subject, not by the (so-called) “actual past”, but rather the past of the future.  Here I can give reflective example of myself making these videos.  In imagining writing and narrating the whole of Less Than Nothing, I have to image a future period of time where this task has been accomplished, and then I can read “backwards” this process as I myself am future-directed in completing the task (i.e. my “process of becoming”).  The future anterior is crucial to understand the temporality that regulates the subject.

This brings us to the notion of time that Hegel uncovers and Lacan grounds at the foundation of Freudian psychoanalysis.  This temporality is the logical time of the concept.  In the past we have the “fall’ (the trauma of birth and individuation), in the future we have the “idealization” (the reconciliation brought forth by the powers of the subject).  In the process of becoming the subject is caught in this temporal conflict between the past of its emergence, and the future of its desire to reconcile this situation (its separated object-cause).  The end of history, in the Hegelian sense, is the reflective understanding of this inner logical temporal structure of the concept.    

Here what is assumed in Hegel is that the concept is already accomplished in its own futural dimension that does not require the individual subject to accomplish it for the concept.  This is the dimension of the concept as universality, in its own becoming in-and-through each particular subjectivity.  What this future perfect is in-itself we have no idea, and cannot know, and this is absolute knowing.  

Here a direct passage from Hegel on the future perfect (4):

“It is a present that raises itself, it is essentially reconciled, brought to consummation through the negation of its immediacy, consummated in universality, but in a consummation that is not yet achieved, and which must therefore be grasped as future — a now of the present that has consummation before its eyes; but because the community is posited now in the order of time, the consummation is distinguished from this “now” and is posited as future.””

What is essential to understand about the future perfect of the concept from the perspective of the subject is that the subject, before reaching absolute knowing, thinks that it has to realize the future perfect of the concept, instead of assuming that the task is already completed.  In essence the subject wrestles with temporality and struggles to reconcile the eternity of the future perfect with the temporality of the present imperfect.  

The paradoxes at work here are difficult to capture, but essential to understand the intersections of Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis.  The conclusion of psychoanalytic treatment as the “future perfect” of “accomplished symbolization” does not mean that we reconcile as individuals the concept in-itself (which has already achieved this realization), but rather recognize that this has already been done, and nonetheless we have to act without knowing what that end will be.  To re-emphasize the crucial point, that in the translation of Hegelian dialectics into psychoanalysis, we have to focus on the paradoxical finitude of the subject in the process, who is pathologized by an ego that cannot accept this reality of the idea.  Here the analyst must become a type of “Hegelian Master” who embodies the impossibility of the ego’s deepest desire.  The deeper the subject goes into analysis, the deeper the subject comes to the realization that its future perfect must be related to via a perspectival shift.  This perspectival shift involves a renouncing of the forcing of reality, where the observer’s ego constantly manipulates the scenes with its images.  The subject of absolute knowledge, in some sense, realizes that it has to do less, it has to engage into the mode of subtractive gestures, even though it still has to do, to act, this activity becomes a paradoxical passive activity.  

In analysis the subject comes and invests all of its libidinal energy into the other of the analyst.  The subject releases in speech all of its deepest desires for perfect unity and completion. In a proper analysis, the analyst simply “acts passively”, letting the subject fall in on its own inconsistencies and imperfections; allowing the subject to come to its own realization that the other is lacking and ultimately inconsistent and incomplete.  The subject then can recognize that all of its self-identity is ultimately a fraud and a sham, that by forcing reality into its image, it creates its own problems and makes them progressively worse than they need to be.

Here to quote Zizek on the Hegelian method deployed by the analyst (5):

“The Hegelian wager is that the best way to destroy an enemy is to leave the field free for him to deploy his potential, so that this success will be his failure, since the lack of any external obstacle will confront him with the absolutely inherent obstacle of the inconsistency of his own position: […] “a true master is at bottom only he who can provoke the other to transform himself through his act.”

Thus, you can see that, by doing nothing, simply being a passive container for the speech of the subject, the analyst in some sense tricks the subject to willingly destroy their own notion.  Here it is important to focus on the fact that a “true master” does not try to fill up the other with positive content to trap the subject, but rather acts as an empty void allowing the subject to find its own truth.  

Let us consider for a moment a few notional structures that may pathologize the subject of the future present.  What all of these notional structures will have in common, despite their differences, is a guaranteed future where meaning is represented in a coherent and consistent totality.  This could be the dream of possessing all the knowledge, or building a totalizing paradigm.  This could be the dream of the full realization of feminism, and the emancipation of feminine spirit.  This could be the dream of a fully realized love project with an intimate partner.  Or this could be the dream of a fully realized communist world where all humans exist in a communitarian harmony.    

There are many other species of the future perfect.  Consider the dream of the religious subject of oneness with God.  Or the dream of the secular humanist who uses the notion of Gaia or Mother Earth to dream of a world where humans live in a balanced harmony with nature; or the dream of the nationalist who desires a country that is fully integrated without divisions and antagonisms between different political parties and orientations; or, finally, the dream of the physicist or scientists to develop a grand unified theory of everything.

In all situations, what the analysis is meant to do is bring the subject to recognize that their own future perfect is incomplete and incoherent, as opposed to a total sphere of meaning guaranteeing their safety and security, and ultimately their joy with the other.  

To quote Zizek on this ultimate and paradoxical power of unreason internal to the “cunning of reason” (6):

“The wager of the Hegelian Cunning of Reason thus involves not so much a trust in the power of Reason (we can take it easy and withdraw — Reason will ensure that the good side wins out), as a trust in the power of “unreason” in every determinate agent which, left to itself, will destroy itself: “If reason is as cunning as Hegel said it was, it will do its job without your help.”  The Cunning of Reason thus in no way involves a faith in a secret guiding hand guaranteeing that all the apparent contingency of unreason will somehow contribute to the harmony of the Totality of Reason; if anything, it involves a trust in un-Reason, the certainty that, no matter how well-planned things are, somehow they will go wrong. […] Every totality of meaning is always disturbed by its symptom.”

Here it is clear that reason spontaneously attempts to create a sphere of meaning that is a perfect circle.  What is essential to grasp in the motion of the idea in-itself, as it is processed by individuals, is that every circle is imperfect, every circle is pathologized by its own un-reason, its own inconsistency and incoherence which undermines it from within.  

Žižek uses all of this understanding of the Hegelian dialectic to dialecticize Lacan’s own major transformation in his theoretical development.  In the early Lacan, there was a hyper focus on the symbolic register of the symbolic-imaginary-real.  The early Lacan focused on the symbolic was searching for the possibilities of symbolic realization in a complete idealization that worked for the subject via the manifestation of truthful speech as a liberation in language and a way to overcome death anxiety.  It is easy to see why such a pathway would be appealing for an emerging psychoanalytically minded thinker.  However, as Lacan developed later in his career, he became more aware of the register of the real in the symbolic-imaginary-real triad.  The real was the location of (primordial) symbolic castration barring access to complete realization in idealization; the real was the location of a complete mortification where one is annihilated instantly and without a trace; where one is brought to their knees, not by truthful speech, but by death itself; the real was the location where language appeared only as a screen of protection and defense; which ultimately necessitated an ethic, for Lacan, that we must think death itself — the “Black Sun” of the “Real Thing” (the ultimate Hegelian Master).  

This brings us to the all-important axiom of Less Than Nothing that there is a non-Other that takes the location of the positivized images of the Other as a Totality of Meaning.  The Totality of Meaning can only be discovered by confronting the non-Other of Death itself.  In relation to this non-Other of Death there is a possibility to embed in one’s subjectivity a process of coherencing and consistencing (as opposed to a total system of coherence and consistence), but in order to guarantee its truth, one must always be in touch with death, with loss, with failure, with the end of one’s identity.

How can this real possibly be inscribed into a psychoanalysis?  Here we attempt to image the Lacanian triad of the symbolic-imaginary-real with the methodological approach used by Lacan.  The first step in an analysis is the “symbolization of symptoms” (expressing the real in frustrated, depressed, anxious speech); the second step is for the analyst to (gently, indirectly) bring the subject to encounter its own real directly, through, but ultimately, without symbolization; and third, it is the analysts job to help the subject piece together their imaginary self-notion back into the daily psychic “economy”.  

All of the ethical problems that Lacan ended up contemplating could be located, not at the level of the symbolic, but in-between the oscillation between the real and the imaginary.  The real, as described, is a brutal mortification and annihilation; and the imaginary, is an illusory but necessary function for day-to-day life, day-to-day appearances.  How are these two polar opposites to be properly mediated?  

To quote Žižek on the problems of this persistent oscillation (7):

“Lacan’s limitation is clearly discernible in how, in his last decades, he tends to oscillate between two poles which are both “worse”, as Stalin would have put it.  Sometimes (exemplarily in his reading of Antigone), he conceives of the ethical act as a kind of “forcing”, a violent act of transgression which cuts into imaginary and symbolic semblances and makes the subject confront the terrifying Real in its blinding destructive power — such traumatic encounters, such penetrations into the forbidden and damned domain […] can only be sustained for a brief moment.  These authentic moments are rare; one can only survive them if one soon returns to the safe domain of semblances — truth is too painful to be sustained for more than a passing moment. At other times […] Lacan adopts the opposite (but effectively complementary) attitude of wisdom: the analyst never knows what will happen when he pushes analysis too far and dissolves the analysand’s symptoms too radically — one can get more than one expected, a local interpretive intervention into a particular symptomal formation can destabilize the subject’s entire symbolic economy and bring about a catastrophic disintegration of his world.  The analyst should thus remain modest and respect appearances without taking them too seriously; they are ultimately all we have, all that stands between us and the catastrophe.  It is easy to see how these two stances complement each other: they rely on a (rather Heideggerian) image of human life as a continuous dwelling in “inauthentic” semblances, interrupted from time to time by violent encounters with the Real.”

Here we see a representation of these two ethical stances, two impossible choices, one in the register of the real, the other in the register of the imaginary.  On the side of the Real we are interested in Truth with a capital T over the diminishment of suffering and pain; the work of authentic Love over inauthentic semblances; committed with a religious fervour to the atheistic void over postmodern relativity; ethical acts that destroy symbolic-imaginary semblances over maintaining the psychic economy; and the domain of forbidden knowledge over taking it easy and light.  

The principles by which this late Lacan of the Real can be defined include a favouring of truth over homeostatic balancing; the core of desire over basic necessities; the sound of the signifier over the signification of sensed correlationism; ethical duty over utilitarian decisions; and the risk of one’s own life over a pragmatic life.  This most radical dimension of Lacan is ultimately how he brings the Hegelian death master into the analytic session, although fully embodying such principles in analysis, is an extremely difficult task.  

Works Cited:

(1) Žižek, S. 2012. Chapter 8: Lacan as a Reader of Hegel. p. 507.

(2) ibid. p. 508.

(3) ibid. p. 509.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid. p. 510.

(6) ibid. p. 510-511.

(7) ibid. p. 511-512.


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