Sunday, December 27, 2009

On The Indivisible Remainder (26)

The following is excerpted from original article by Tony Myers available at:

Reading Schelling via Lacan

Once the Lacanian concepts of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are grasped, Zizek, in philosophical writings such as his discussion of Schelling, always interprets the work of other philosophers in terms of those concepts. This is so because "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to use Lacan as a privileged intellectual tool to reactualize German idealism". (The Zizek Reader) The reason Zizek thinks German idealism (the work of Hegel, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German idealism, and Zizek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized.

At its most basic, we are taught that German idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself. For Zizek, the fundamental insight of German idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere. Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.

The reason that Lacan occupies a privileged position for Zizek's lies in Lacan's proposition that self-identity is impossible. The identity of something, its singularity or "oneness", is always split. There is always too much of something, and indivisible remainder, or a bit left-over which means that it cannot be self-identical. The meaning of a word, i.e., can never be found in the word itself, but rather in other words, its meaning therefore is not self-identical. This principle of the impossibility of self-identity is what informs Zizek's reading of the German idealists. In reading Schelling, i.e., the Beginning is not actually the beginning at all - the truth of the Beginning lies elsewhere, it is split or not identical to itself.

How, precisely, does the Word discharge the tension of the rotary motion, how does it mediate the antagonism between the contractive and the expansive force? The Word is a contraction in the guise of its very opposite - of an expansion - that is, in pronouncing a word, the subject contracts his being outside himself; he "coagulates" the core of his being in an external sign. In the (verbal) sign, I - as it were - find myself outside myself, I posit my unity outside myself, in a signifier which represents me. (The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters)

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (25)

'Complementarity' as parallax view

The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

p. 211: The uncertainty principle is actually much 'stronger': far from concerning merely the limitation of the observer, its point is, rather, that complementarity is inscribed into the the 'thing itself'--a particle itself, in its 'reality', cannot have a fully specified mass and momentum, it can have only one or the other. The principle is thus profoundly 'Hegelian': what first appeared to be an epistemological obstacle turns out to be a property of the thing itself; that is to say, the choice between mass and momentum defines the very 'ontological' status of the particle. This inversion of an epistemological obstacle into an ontological 'impediment' which prevents the the object from actualizing the totality of its potential qualities (mass and momentum) is 'Hegelian'.

And this is what 'complementarity' is about: two complementary properties do not complement each other , they are mutually exclusive.

p. 212: On a somewhat different level, this is what Heidegger is aiming at when he insists again and again that true philosophical deliberation is not only 'of no practical use' but can even hurt our 'practical efficiency': a scientist, for example, if he is to be efficient in his particular domain, must not 'think', that is, reflect upon the ontological horizon of pre-comprehension which discloses this domain--therein resides one of the dimensions, an often misrecognized one, of 'ontological difference'.

p. 214: The trap to be avoided here is the reduction of this theme of complementarity to the now-fashionable critique of universalism and the related assertion of the plurality of particular narratives: complementarity--conceived as the impossibility of the complete description of a particular phenomenon--is, on the contrary, the very place of the inscription of universality into the Particular. A particular social phenomenon can never be completely 'contextualized', reduced to a set of sociohistorical circumstances--such a particularization would presuppose the crudest universalism: namely, the presumption that we, its agents, can speak from a neutral-universal place of pure meta-language exempt from any specific context.

Within the social-symbolic field, each particular totality, in its very self-enclosure, (mis)perceives itself as universal, that is to say, it comprises itself and its own perspective on its Outside, on all other particular totalities (epochs, societies, etc.)--why? Precisely because it is in itself incomplete, 'open', not wholly determined by circumstances. It is this very overlapping of two deficiencies (or, in Lacanese: the intersection of the two lacks) that opens up the dimension of universality.

p. 215: We can now see where, precisely, the Hegelian approach to universality differs from the standard one: the standard approach is concerned with the historicist problem of the effective scope of a universal notion (is a notion truly universal, or is its validity actually constrained to a specific historical epoch, social class, etc.?), whereas Hegel asks exactly the opposite question: how, in what precise historical conditions, can a 'neutral' universal notion emerge at all?

p. 216: The properly Hegelian problem is not to ascertain that my particular (socialist, conservative, feminist...) brand of ecological orientation is just one species of the universal genus of ecological movements; the true problem is how, under what conditions, my own particular sociopolitical experience leads me to abandon the immediate identification of 'being an ecologist' with my particular brand of it, so that I apprehend the link that connects ecology in general with my particular orientation as contingent. The answer, of course, is provided by the notion of lack: only in so far as I experience my own particular position as fundamentally deficient does the universal dimension involved in (and obfuscated by) it appear as such--or, in Hegel's terms, it is 'posited' becomes 'for itself'.

p. 217: Along the same lines, one can also clarify the allegedly 'unhistorical' character of the Lacanian 'formulas of sexuation'. Every epoch, every society, every ethnic community, of course, furnishes its own ideological connotation of the difference between the sexes (in Europe, for example, 'man' is posited as the neutral universality of the human species, whereas 'woman' stands for the specific difference, i.e. for 'sexualization' as such; in Ancient China, on the contrary, 'woman' designated continuity and 'man' discontinuity, breach, separation). What the Lacanian 'formulas of sexuation' endeavor to formulate, however, is not yet another positive formulation of the sexual difference but the underlying impasse that generates the multitude of positive formulations as so many (failed) attempts to symbolize the traumatic real of the sexual difference. What all epochs have in common is not some universal positive feature, some transhistorical constant; what they all share, rather, is the same deadlock, the same antinomy--in Schelling's terms, one is tempted to say that this same impasse persists and repeats itself in different powers/potentials in different cultures.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (24)

Hysteria/the Subject vs. Subjectivization

From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 163-165: Hysteria has to be comprehended in the complexity of its strategy, as a radically ambiguous protest against the Master's interpellation which simultaneously bears witness to the fact that the hysterical subject needs a Master, cannot do without a Master, so that there is no simple and direct way out. For that reason, one should also avoid the historicist pitfall of rejecting the notion of hysteria as belonging to a bygone era: the notion that today, borderline disturbances, not hysteria, are the predominant form of 'discontent' in our civilization. 'Borderline' is the contemporary form of hysteria, that is, of the subject's refusal to accept the predominant mode of interpellation whose agent is no longer the traditional Master but the 'expert knowledge' of the discourse of Science. In short, the shift from the classic form of hysteria to borderline disturbances is strictly correlative with the shift from the traditional Master to the form of Power legitimated by Knowledge.

A more than sufficient reason for maintaining the notion of hysteria is that the status of the subject as such is ultimately hysterical. That is to say, when Lacan asserts that the most succinct definition of the subject is 'that which is not an object', the apparent banality of this claim should not deceive us: the subject--in the precise psychoanalytic sense of the subject of desire--exists only in so far as the question remains open of what she is for the Other as an object, that is, I am a subject in so far as the radical perplexity persists as to the Other's desire, as to what the Other sees (and finds worthy of desire) in me. In other words, when Lacan claims that there is no desire without an object-cause, this does not amount to the banality according to which every desire is attached to its objective correlative: the 'lost object' which sets the subject's desire in motion is ultimately the subject herself, and the lack in question concerns her uncertainty as to her status for the Other's desire. In this precise sense, desire is always desire of the Other: the subject's desire is the desire to ascertain her status as the object of the Other's desire.

The status of the Lacanian 'Che vuoi?', 'What do you want?, is thus radically ambiguous. On the one hand, it emanates from the Other--that is to say, it stands for the question the big Other (the analyst) addresses to the (hysterical) subject whose desire is inconsistent and, as such, self-impeding: 'What do you actually want? Do you really want what you are saying you want?' On the other hand, 'Che vuoi?' articulates the perplexity of the subject himself confronted with an impenetrable Other who wants something from him, although the subject is never able to ascertain what this something actually is [....] I, the subject, never know what I really want, since the Other's desire remains forever an enigma to me....

That is the vicious circle of hysteria: on the one hand, hysteria is secondary, a reaction against interpellation, a failed interpellation, a rejection of the identity imposed on the subject by the predominant form of interpellation, a questioning of this identity ('Am I really what you're saying I am?'); at another, more fundamental level, however, hysteria is primary, it articulates the radical, constitutive uncertainty as to what, as an object, I am for the other; and the symbolic identity conferred on me by interpellation is a response, a way out of the deadlock of hysteria. In other words, one could say that hysteria expresses the feminine subject's refusal of the predominant patriarchal symbolic order, the questioning of the authority of the Name-of-the-Father; however, one should simultaneously assert that this symbolic paternal authority itself emerges in order to render invisible, to 'gentrify', the impasse of hysteria. Or--to put it even more pointedly--it is not that "Woman doesn't exist' because, on account of patriarchal 'repression' she is not allowed to express herself freely and constitute her full symbolic identity, but, rather, the other way around--patriarchal symbolic authority emerges in order to 'gentrify' the scandal of 'Woman doesn't exist', to constrain the feminine subject to a determinate place in the symbolic structure. [....] Lacan's 'Woman doesn't exist' means that, precisely, 'woman' cannot be constructed: 'woman' is an entity whose symbolic construction necessarliy fails, in opposition to 'man', who does exist--that is, who can be constructed (in the logical sense of the term, since there is a limit, an exception, which allows for this construction). Lacan's point, of course, is that this 'less' is 'more': the claim that 'woman' cannot be constructed equals the claim that the status of the subject is feminine--that which eludes logical construction, the reef of impossibility at which symbolic construction fails, is precisely the subject qua $, the lack of the signifying chain.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (23)

Using Lacan to reactualize Hegelian dialectic

From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

p. 143: Our first result, therefore, is that the act and the big Other, far from being simply opposed, are intertwined in a constitutive way: [....] the 'objectivity' of the big Other implies a redoubled 'subjective' reflection: I am what (I think that others think that I think that) I am.... This precise formulation also places an obstacle in the path of the 'humanist' misreading of the interdependence of the subject and the big Other: the point is not that the big Other (the symbolic structure) is 'always-already here', but incomplete, 'non-all', and that the subject somehow finds a niche of its own, a margin of freedom, in the inconsistencies and lacks of the big Other.

p. 144: [....] it is the very supplement of my 'subjective' act of decision (of precipitate identification) which changes the dispersed, 'non-all' collection of signifiers into the 'objective order of the big Other.

From a strictly Hegelian standpoint, the alternative between persisting in the solitude of the act which suspends the big Other and 'compromising one's desire' by accepting one's place in the big Other (the socio-symbolic order) is a false one, the last trap laid by abstract Understanding in order to prevent us from attaining true philosophical speculation. The ultimate speculative identity is the identity of the act and the Other: an authentic act momentarily suspends the big Other, but it is simultaneously the 'vanishing mediator' which grounds, brings into existence, the big Other. In other words, the proposition 'A is a' displays the precise structure of speculative judgement in which the identity of the two elements is mediated by a central impossibility: A, the big Other, the symbolic order, is inherently 'barred', hindered, structured around the void of a central impossibility; it always falls short of its notion; this central impossibility is its condition of possibility, and the objet a is precisely the paradoxical object which gives body to this impossibility, which is nothing but the materialization of this impossibility. In this precise sense, a is the object cause of desire: it does not effectively pre-exist desire as that which arouses it, it merely gives body to its inherent deadlock, to the fact that desire is never satisfied by any positive object; [....]

pp. 144-5: [....] the big Other is the field of supposed knowledge, that is, [....] it is strictly correlative to the effect of transference (in exactly the sense in which Kant claims that the moral law acquires actual existence only in the subject's respect for it). 'Transference' designates the subject's trust in the meaning-to-come: in the psychoanalytic cure, for example, the transferential relationship with the analyst bears witness to the patient's confidence that the analyst 'is in the know'--the analyst's presence is the guarantee that the patient's symptoms possess some secret meaning yet to be discovered. Consequently, in so far as the big Other functions as the guarantee of the meaning-to-come, the very fact of the big Other involves the subjective gesture of precipitation. In other words: how do we pass from the 'non-all', dispersed, inconsistent collection of signifiers to the big Other qua consistent order? By supplementing the inconsistent series of signifiers with a Master-Signifier, S1, a signifier of the pure potentiality of meaning-to-come; by this precipitation (the intervention of an 'empty' signifier which stands in for the meaning-to-come) the symbolic field is completed, changed into a closed order. Since, however, the transferential relationship is by definition dependent on a subject which is in itself divided/split, a subject which stands under the sign of lack and negativity (only such a dislocated subject has the urge to establish a support for itself in the big Other via the gesture of precipitate identification), this means that the big Other hinges on a divided/split subject. For that reason, the dissolution of transference (at the end of the psychoanalytic cure), the experience that 'the big Other doesn't exist', and 'subjective destitution' are strictly equivalent.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (22)

Using Lacan to reactualize Hegelian dialectic

From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

p. 139: The transcendence of the big Other qua substantial In-itself--that is, the order of 'objective spirit' which exists independently of the subject's activity--is therefore a kind of necessary perspective illusion; it is the form in the guise of which the subject (mis)perceives his very incapacity to attain the In-itself of the real other whose true intentions remain impenetrable. In this precise sense, the status of the spiritual Substance is virtual: what is virtual about the big Other is its very In-itself, that on account of which the big Other cannot be reduced to the intentions, meanings, psychical states, and so on, of effectively existing individuals.

p. 140: In other words, far from depending on a kind of minimal co-ordination individuals were able to reach in spite of the opacity of their true intentions, the spiritual Substance emerges as the way to avoid the impasse of this opacity by presupposing the co-ordination-of-intentions as already given in the purely virtual Third Order of impersonal rules, so that now the problem is no longer 'Do individuals truly understand each other?', but 'Does every individual follow the common rules?' In this precise sense, every human community is 'virtual': founded upon rules, values, and so on, whose validity is by definition presupposed, never conclusively proven--the status of the big Other is forever that of a semblance.

p. 140: [....] even if some notion was first imposed as a purely instrumental means of ideological deception, the moment the majority of the people fully accept this notion as the foundation of their social existence, we are no longer dealing with a lie but with the substantial truth of a community. [....]

p. 141: This 'magic' reversal of an 'error' into the founding gesture of co-operation can also occur in the opposite direction, 'backwards': in the course of the disintegration of an 'organic' community into egotistic individualism [....]

And again, the crucial point is that this structural impossibility of verifying the rules or intentions which underlie our socio-symbolic activity, this undecidability between error and co-operation, is the positive condition of genuine co-operation: the moment we invest another subject with the capacity to possess and determine the rules which control the true meaning of our speech, we no longer participate in genuine symbolic co-operation, since we conceive ourselves as a pure instrument manipulated by those who control the rules of the game. In this case, the symbolic order loses its virtual status--that is the most succinct definition of paranoia. Let us recall the reference to Nation: Nation is an 'open' notion; no subject controls its 'true meaning'; and, for that very reason, it can serve as the frame for genuine co-operation, that is, as the substance of our social being, not a mere deceptive ploy manipulated by the rulers in order to control and exploit their subordinates.

We are effectively dealing with 'spiritual Substance' when a notion which was originally imposed as a means of ideological deception and manipulation unexpectedly escapes the control of its creator and starts to lead a life of its own. [....]

p. 142: Therein resides the fundamental enigma of the symbolic community: how is it possible to perform this sleight of hand constitutive of the symbolic order, this deceitful presentation of what is yet to come as already given? Lacan provides a precise answer: the presupposed co-ordination concerns not the level of the signified (of some shared positive content) but the level of the signifier. The undecidability with regard to the signified (do others really intend the same as me?) converts into an exceptional signifier, the empty Master-Signifier, the signifier-without-signified. 'Nation', 'Democracy', 'Socialism', and other Causes stand for that 'something' about which we are never sure what, exactly, it is--the point is, rather, that by identifying with Nation we signal our acceptance of what others accept, with a Master-Signifier which serves as the rallying point for all the others. In other words, identification with such an empty Master-Signifier is, in its most basic dimension, identification with the very gesture of identification. We can now see in what precise sense the status of the signifier as such is virtual: virtuality is the virtuality of the signified, that is, the signifier relies on a 'meaning to come' which, although it is never fully actualized, functions as if it is already effective. When the signifier 'our nation' starts to function as the rallying point for a group of people, it effectively co-ordinates their activity, although each of them may have a different notion of what 'our Nation' means.

The Indivisible Remainder (21)

Using Lacan to reactualize Hegelian dialectic

From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 136-139,
[From the subsection: The semblance of the 'objective Spirit']

The crucial point not to be missed here is that this undecidability , this radical uncertainty, this lack of guarantee concerning the meaning of my partner's words or the rules which regulate his/her use of well-known words ('How can I ever be sure that he means the same thing by me as his word?') is not a deficiency but a positive feature, the ultimate proof of my inclusion in the big Other: the big Other 'functions' as the substance of our being, we are 'within', effectively embedded in it, precisely and only in so far as its status is irreducibly undecidable, lacking any guarantee--any proof of its validity would presuppose a kind of external distance of the subject towards the symbolic order. It was Hegel who pointed out that the spiritual substance is always marked by such a tautological abyss--'it is because it is'.

This notion of the 'virtual' big Other also enables us to approach anew the traditional sociological alternative of methodological individualism, whose basic premiss is the primacy of individuals and which, consequently, insists on the need to derive trans-individual collective entities from the interaction of individuals, from the mutual recognition of their intentions ('common knowledge'), and so on; and, on the other hand, of the Durkheimian presupposition of Society as the substantial Order which is 'always-already here', that is, which precedes individuals and serves as the spiritual foundation of their being, somewhat like the Hegelian 'objective Spirit'. The 'realist' Lacan of the 1950's continues to conceive, in a Durkheimian mode, the big Other as the substantial order which is 'always-already here', providing the unsurpassable horizon of the subjective experience; whereas the late 'fictionalist' Lacan derives the social substance (the big Other) from the interaction of individuals, but with a paradoxical twist which turns upside down the individualist-nominalist reduction of the Substance to 'common knowledge', to the space of mutually recognized subjective intentions. At stake here is nothing less than the enigma of the emergence of the big Other: how is it possible for an individual to perceive his intersubjective environs not as the multitude of others, fellow-creatures like himself, but as a radically asymmetrical field of the 'big Other'? How does he pass from the mirror-like mutual reflection of other individuals ('I think about what he thinks that I think that he thinks, etc.) to 'objective Spirit', to the order of Mores qua impersonal 'reified' Order which cannot be reduced to the simple collection of 'all others'? When, for example, does the social injunction change from '(I'm saying that) you should do this!' to the impersonal 'This is how it is done!'?

What we encounter here is the key Hegelian problem of how we are to think Substance simultaneously as posited by subjects and as an In-itself: how is it possible for individuals to posit their social Substance by means of their social activity, but to posit it precisely as an In-itself, as an independent, presupposed foundation of their activity? From the individualist-nominalist point of view, the big Other emerges as the outcome of the process in the course of which individuals gradually recognize some shared content: [....] this shared content is never fully guaranteed [....]

Lacan's Hegelian solution to this impasse is paradoxical and very refined. [....] his point is not that since one cannot derive spiritual Substance from the interaction of individuals, one has to presuppose it as an In-itself which precedes this interaction. In an (unacknowledged) Hegelian way, Lacan asserts that it is this very impossibility which links an individual to his spiritual substance: the collective substance emerges because individuals can never fully co-ordinate their intentions, become transparent to each other.

This impossibility of co-ordinating intentions, of course, points towards the 'materialist notion of subject' [....] In short, impossibility is primordial, and the spiritual substance is the virtual supplement to this impossibility. [....] (the barrier of impossibility comes first; the Thing is ultimately nothing but the spectre which fills out the void of this impossibility): the big Other is a fiction, a pure presupposition, an unsubstantiated (in all the connotations of the term) hypothesis which fills out the void of the radical uncertainty as to the other's intentions ('Che vuoi?'). [....]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (20)


From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 129-131,
[From the subsection: There is no subject without an empty signifier]

The 'becoming-subject of substance' stands for the gesture of hubris by means of which a mere accident or predicate of the substance, a subordinated moment of its totality, installs itself as the new totalizing principle and subordinates the previous Substance to itself, turning it into its own particular moment. In the passage from feudalism to capitalism, for example, money--in medieval times a clearly subordinated moment of the totality of economic relations, asserts itself as the very principle of totality (since the aim of capitalist production is profit). The 'becoming-subject' of the Substance involves such a continuous displacement of the Centre: again and again, the old Centre turns into a subordinate moment of the new totality dominated by a different structuring principle--far from being a 'deeper' underlying agency which 'pulls the strings' of this displacement of the Centre (i.e. of the structuring principle of totality), 'subject' designates the void which serves as the medium and/or operator of this process of displacement.

We are now in a position to specify the difference between the three parts of Hegel's logic: 'Being', 'Essence', and 'Notion'. In the sphere of Being, we are dealing with immediate, fixed determinations unable to endure any kind of internal dynamics--any contact with their Otherness entails their decomposition, that is to say, each of the determinations of Being simply passes over into another determination. In the sphere of Essence, the dynamics is already located within each determination: the self-identical Essence expresses-reflects itself in the plurality of its appearances. Each essential determination thus already contains its Otherness (there is no Essence which does not appear, no Cause without an effect, etc.); the problem, however, is that this Otherness is reduced to an 'inessential' attribute of a fixed, self-identical Essence unaffected by change--the process of change concerns only the 'inessential' appearances. For that very reason, each essential determination turns into its opposite: the Ground reveals itself as something which depends on what it grounds; [....] the entire content of Essence comes from its 'inessential' appearing; and so on [....]

In other words, dialectics takes its revenge for the assertion of the Essence as the substantial Ground exempted from the process of mediation: the very Otherness which Essence is trying to mediate-internalize as its 'inessential' appearances 'reifies' itself into a kind of counter-image to the immediate self-identity of the Essence, turns into an impenetrable Substance impervious to reflective mediation. [....] We pass into the sphere of Notion the moment we drop this residual self-identical Ground of the process, so that the process effectively becomes a 'process without a substance', the process of the very permanent displacement of every totalizing principle, every 'centre of gravity'--therein resides the notorious 'fluidity' of the Notion.

The trap to be avoided here, therefore, is to conceive Notion as a reflection of Essence which has succeeded: [....] What such a reading of Hegel fails to take into account is the price which has to be paid for this 'transparency': the process becomes 'transparent' at the price of 'transubstantiation'--there is no longer a unique Centre, a central agent which can be said to remain substantially 'the same' in the process of 'externalizing' itself and then reappropriating its Otherness, since in the movement of the 'return-to-itself' the very identity of this 'self' is irreversibly displaced.

We should therefore renounce the usual formulas of the Hegelian 'concrete Universal' as the Universal which is the unity of itself and its Other (the Particular)--that is, not abstractly opposed to the wealth of the particular content, but the very movement of self-mediation and self-sublating of the Particular: the problem with this standard 'organic' image of 'concrete Universal' as a living substantial Totality which reproduces itself through the very movement of its particular content is that in it, the Universal is not yet 'for itself', that is, posited as such. In this precise sense, the emergence of the subject is correlative to the positing of the Universal 'as such', in its opposition to the particular content. [....] And our point is that the emergence of 'subject' is strictly correlative to the positing of this central signifier as 'empty': I become a 'subject' when the universal signifier to which I refer ('ecology', in our case) is no longer experienced as an empty space to be filled out by the particular (feminist, conservative, state, pro-market, socialist...) content. This 'empty' signifier whose positive content is the 'stake' of the ideologico-political struggle 'represents the subject for the other signifiers', for the signifiers which stand for its positive content.

The Indivisible Remainder (19)


From The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

p. 126: [....] Hegel emphasizes again and again that Christ dies on the Cross for real--he returns as the Spirit of the community of believers, not in person.

p. 126-7: Hegel's whole point is that the subject does NOT survive the ordeal of negativity: he effectively loses his very essence, and passes over into his Other. One is tempted to evoke here the science-fiction theme of changed identity, when a subject biologically survives, but is no longer the same person--this is what the Hegelian transubstantiation is about, and of course, it is this very transubstantiation which distinguishes Subject from Substance: 'subject' designates that X which was able to survive the loss of its substantial identity, and to continue to live as the 'empty shell of its former self'.

An analogous transubstantiation is at work in the Hegelian 'cunning of reason': in the triad of Ends, Means and Object, the effective unity, the mediating agency, is not the End but the Means: the means effectively effectively dominate the entire process by mediating between the End and the external Object in which the End is to be realized-actualized. The End is thus far from dominating the means and the Object: the End and the external Object are the two objectivizations of means qua the movable medium of negativity. In short, Hegel's result is that the End is ultimately a 'means of means themselves', a means self-posited by means to set in motion its mediating activity. [....] The point of the 'cunning of reason' is thus not that the End realizes itself via a detour: the End the subject has been pursuing throughout the process is effectively lost, since the actual End is precisely what agents caught up in the process experience as mere Means. In the end, the End is realized, but not the End which was posited at the outset, as with the subject who returns to himself, but is no longer the same 'self' as the subject who got lost at the outset....

pp. 127-8: This is also how one should reformulate the different status of reflection in the 'objective' logic of essence and the 'subjective' logic of notion: the logic of essence still involves the 'objective', substantial, notion of Essence as a kind of substratum which reflects itself in its Other, that is, which posits Otherness as its inessential double (its effect, form, appearance...), but is unable to effectuate its full mediation with it--it endeavors to preserve the kernel of its self-identity 'undamaged', exempted from the reflective mediation, which is why it becomes entangled in a mass of aporias. It is only at the level of the notion that 'substance' effectively 'becomes subject', since in it reflection is 'absolute'; that is to say, the process of 'transubstantiation' gets under way through which substance itself becomes the predicate of (what was) its own predicate. The standard criticism of Hegel--according to which the Hegelian absolute Subject does not really expose itself to Otherness, but merely plays a narcissistic game of self-alienation and reappropriation with itself--fails to take into account the fact that in Hegelian 'alienation', the substance is lost for good.

pp. 128-9,
[From the subsection: There is no subject without an empty signifier]

One can also make the same point by focusing on the dialectics of In-itself and For-itself. In today's ecological struggles, the position of the 'mute In-Itself' of the abstract Universal is best epitomized by an external observer who apprehends 'ecology' as the neutral universality of a genus which then subdivides itself into a multitude of species (feminist ecology, socialist ecology, New Age ecology, conservative ecology, etc.); however, for a subject who is 'within', engaged in the ecological fight, there is no such neutral universality. For a feminist ecologist, say, the impending threat of ecological catastrophe results from the male attitude of domination and exploitation, so that she is not a feminist and an ecologist--feminism provides her with the specific content of her ecological identity, that is, for her a 'non-feminist ecologist' is not another kind of ecologist, but simply somebody who is not a true ecologist. The--properly Hegelian--problem of the "For-itself' of a Universal is therefore: how, under what concrete conditions, can the universal dimension become 'for itself', how can it be posited 'as such', in explicit contrast to its particular qualifications [....]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (18)

Misguided Postmodern Critique of Hegel

The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 125-6: A postmodern commonplace against Hegel is the criticism of 'restrained economy': in the dialectical process, loss and negativity are contained in advance, accounted for--what gets lost is merely the inessential aspect (and the very fact that a feature has been lost counts as the ultimate proof of its inessential status), whereas one can rest assured that the essential dimension will not only survive, but even be strengthened by the ordeal of negativity. The whole (teleological) point of the process of loss and recuperation is to enable the Absolute to purify itself, to render its essential dimension manifest by getting rid of the inessential, like a snake which, from time to time, has to cast off its skin to rejuvenate itself....

We can now see where this reproach, which imputes to Hegel the obsessional economy of 'I can give you everything but that', goes wrong and misses its target: Hegel's basic premiss is that every attempt to distinguish the Essential from the Inessential always proves itself false--whenever I resort to the strategy of renouncing the Inessential in order to save the Essential, sooner or later (but always when it's already too late) I am bound to discover that I made a fatal mistake when I decided what is essential, and the essential dimension has already slipped through my fingers. The crucial aspect of a proper dialectical reversal is this shift in the very relationship between the Essential and the Inessential--when, for example, I defend my unprincipled flattery of my superiors by claiming that it amounts to mere external accommodation, whereas deep in my heart I stick to my true convictions and despise them, I blind myself to the reality of the situation: I have already given way on what really matters, since it is my inner conviction, sincere as it may be, which is effectively 'inessential'....

The 'negation of negation' is not a kind of existential sleight of hand by means of which the subject pretends to put everything at stake, but effectively sacrifices only the inessential; rather, it stands for the horrifying experience which occurs when, after sacrificing everything I considered 'inessential', I suddenly realize that the very essential dimension for the sake of which I sacrificed the inessential is already lost. The subject does save his skin, he survives the ordeal, but the price he has to pay is the loss of his very substance, of the most precious kernel of his individuality. More precisely: prior to this 'transubstantiation' the subject is not a subject at all, since 'subject' is ultimately the name for this very 'transubstantiation' of substance which, after its dissemination, 'returns to itself', but not as 'the same'.

It is all too easy, therefore, to be misled by Hegel's notorious propositions concerning Spirit as the power of 'tarrying with the negative', that is, of resurrecting after its own death: in the ordeal of absolute negativity, the Spirit in its particular selfhood effectively dies, is over and done with, so that the Spirit which 'resurrects' is not the Spirit which previously expired.

The Indivisible Remainder (17)

The dialectico-materialist 'and' versus the idealist-ideological 'and'

The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

p. 103: What is at stake here could also be formulated as the problem of the status of 'and' as a category. In Althusser, 'and' functions as a precise theoretical category: when an 'and' appears in the title of some of his essays, this little word unmistakably signals the confrontation of some general ideological notion (or, more precisely, of a neutral, ambiguous notion that oscillates between its ideological actuality and its scientific potentiality) with its specification which tells us how we are to concretize this notion so that it begins to function as non-ideological, as a strict theoretical concept. 'And' thus splits up the ambiguous starting unity, introduces into it the difference between ideology and science. [....]

p. 104: 'And' is thus, in a sense, tautological: it conjoins the same content in its two modalities--first in its ideological evidence, then in the extra-ideological conditions of its existence. For that reason, no third term is needed here to designate the medium itself in which the two terms, conjoined by means of the 'and', encounter each other: this third term is already the second term itself which stands for the network (the 'medium') of the concrete existence of an ideological universality. In contrast to this dialectico-materialist 'and', the idealist-ideological 'and' functions precisely as this third term, as the common medium of the polarity or plurality of elements. [....]

pp. 104-105: The difference between these two 'ands'--the 'idealist' one which stands for the medium of the coexistence of the two poles, and the 'materialist' one in which the second term designates the concrete medium of existence of the first (of the ideological universality)--renders Schelling's radical ambiguity clearly perceptible. In a materialist perspective, the 'and' in Schelling's qualification of freedom in its actuality as 'the freedom for good and evil' points toward the uncanny fact that Evil is the concrete existence of the Good. Freedom is not the neutral 'and' between Evil and Good, but, in its concrete existence, the freedom of a living, finite human person, Evil itself, the pure form of Evil--this, perhaps, is what Schelling tried to conceal from himself by taking refuge in suspicious ideological formulas on the 'inversion of the natural relationship'....

p. 105: There, in these two versions of the 'and', resides the ultimate difference between Schelling and Hegel, as well as Schelling's crucial limitation: when Schelling asserts the irrational Ground of Logos as the indelible remainder of the primordial chaotic Thing which forever threatens to draw us back into its whirlpool--'What we call understanding, if it is real, living, active understanding, is really nothing but regulated madness. Understanding can manifest itself, show itself, only in its opposite, thus in what lacks understanding'--he is exposed to the permanent temptation of conceiving Ground and Logos, the Real and the Ideal principle, as complementary.

pp. 105-106: Hegel's effective position is far more disquieting: yes, in 'reconciliation', harmony is restored, but this 'new harmony' has nothing whatsoever to do with the restitution of the lost original harmony--in the new harmony, the loss of the original harmony is consummated. That is to say, the shift from utter 'perversion' to restored harmony concerns principally the notional standards by means of which we measure the 'perversion': it occurs when the subject abandons the (old) standard according to which the new state of things appeared to him 'perverted', and accepts a standard appropriate to the new constellation--as Hegel repeats again and again, when a state of things no longer fits its notion (its normative ground), the endeavor to bring this state of things back into harmony with its notion is vain: one has to change the notion itself.

Schelling claims that the fact of freedom opens up the possibility of Evil as the reversal of the 'normal' relationship between Logos and its contractive Ground: Ground can prevail upon the Light of Reason and, instead of remaining in the (back)ground, directly posit itself as the dominant principle of the Whole. For Hegel, however, this reversal is the very definition of subject: 'subject' is the name for the principle of Selfhood which subordinates to itself the substantial Whole whose particular moment it originally was. The reversal is therefore always-already the reversal of reversal itself: not in the sense that the subject has to abandon his 'egotistic pride', his central position, and again posit himself as the subordinate moment of a higher substantial Whole--what he has to abandon is the very standard of the substantial Whole which reduces him to a subordinated moment; instead, the subject has to raise a new, subjective Totality to the measure of 'normalcy'.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Indivisible Remainder (16)

Voice & Writing: Lacan vs. Derrida

The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 99-100: Derrida also likes to indulge heavily in exuberant variations on the paradoxical character of the supplement (the excessive element which is neither inside nor outside; it sticks out of the series it belongs to and simultaneously completes it, etc.). Lacan, on the contrary--by means of a gesture which for Derrida, of course, would undoubtedly signal reinscription into traditional philosophical discourse--directly offers a concept of this element, namely the concept of the Master-Signifier, S1, in relation to S2, the 'ordinary' chain of knowledge. This concept is not a simple unambiguous concept, but the concept of the structural ambiguity itself; that is to say, Lacan reunites in one and the same concept what Derrida keeps apart: in Lacan, S1 stands for the supplement--the trait which sticks out, but is as such, in its very excess, unavoidable--and, simultaneously, for the totalizing Master-Signifier. Therein, in this 'speculative identity' of supplement and Centre, resides Lacan's implicit 'Hegelian' move: the Centre Derrida endeavors to 'deconstruct' is ultimately the very supplement which threatens to disrupt its totalizing power--or, to put it in Kierkegaardese, supplement is the Centre itself 'in its becoming'. In this precise sense, supplement is both the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of the Centre.

Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for the couple voice/writing: voice provides an exemplary case of Hegelian self-identity. In his 'deconstruction' of Western logo-phono-centrism, Derrida proposed the idea that the 'metaphysics of presence' is ultimately founded upon the illusion of 'hearing-oneself-speaking [s'entendre-parler]', upon the illusory experience of the Voice as the transparent medium that enables and guarantees the speaker's immediate self-presence. In his psychoanalytic theory of voice as partial object (on a par with other such objects: breast, faeces...), Lacan supplements Derrida with the Hegelian identity as the coincidence of the opposites. True, the experience of s'entendre-parler serves to ground the illusion of the transparent self-presence of the speaking subject; however, is not the voice at the same time that which undermines most radically the subject's self-presence and self-transparence? Not writing, which undermines the voice as it were from without, from a minimal distance, but the voice itself: one is tempted to say the voice as such in its uncanny presence--I hear myself speaking, yet what I hear is never fully myself but a parasite, a foreign body in my very heart.


In the antagonistic tension between signifier and object, voice is thus on the side of the object: voice, in its fundamental dimension, is not the ideal (totally transparent, pliant, self-effacing) signifier, but its exact opposite, the opaque inertia of an objectal remainder.


In Lacan, voice prior to writing (and to the movement of differance) is a drive and, as such, caught in the antagonism of a closed circular movement; by the expulsion of its own opaque materiality into the 'externality' of writing, voice establishes itself as the ideal medium of self-transparency. The passage from this inner antagonism of the voice to the 'external' relationship between voice and writing is thus strictly analogous to the Schellingian passage from the 'closed' rotary motion of drives to the 'opening' of the difference that resolves the tension of the drives' pulsation. Perhaps therein resides the abyss that forever separates the Real of an antagonism from Derrida's differance: differance points towards the constant and constitutive deferral of impossible self-identity, whereas in Lacan, what the movement of symbolic deferral-substitution forever fails to attain is not Identity but the Real of an antagonism.


p. 101: To recapitulate: in Derrida, voice is the medium of illusory self-transparency; consequently, the fact that voice, for structural reasons, always fails to deliver this self-transparency means that voice is always-already tainted with writing [....] In Lacan's 'graph of desire', however, voice is the remainder of the signifying operation, that is, the meaningless piece of the real which stays behind once the operation of 'quilting [capitonnage]' responsible for the stabilization of meaning is performed--voice is that which, in the signifier, resists meaning, it stands for the opaque inertia which cannot be recuperated by meaning. It is only the dimension of writing which accounts for the stability of meaning [....]

The Indivisible Remainder (15)

The Idealist vs. Materialist Lacan

The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters, by Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1996 & 2007). The following citations are from the 2007 edition.

pp. 95-6: The paradoxical stakes of our strategy are now becoming somewhat clearer: precisely in so far as our aim is to elevate Lacan to the dignity of an author who provides the key to the Grundoperation of German Idealism, perhaps the acme of the entire history of philosophy, our main opponent is a typical 'philosophical' reading of Lacan, a doxa on Lacan which reduces his teaching to the framework of traditional philosophy. Far from being a simple case of a false reading, this doxa definitely has support in Lacan: Lacan himself often yields to its temptation, since this doxa is a kind of 'spontaneous philosophy of (Lacanian) psychoanalysis'. What, then, are its basic contours?

The moment we enter the symbolic order, the immediacy of the pre-symbolic Real is lost for ever, the true object of desire ('mother') becomes impossible-unattainable. Every positive object we encounter in reality is already a substitute for this lost original, the incestuous Ding rendered inaccessible by the very fact of language--that is 'symbolic castration'. The very existence of man qua being-of-language stands thus under the sign of an irreducible and constitutive lack: we are submerged in the universe of signs which forever prevent us from attaining the Thing; so-called 'external reality' itself is already 'structured like a language', that is, its meaning is always-already overdetermined by the symbolic framework which structures our perception of reality. The symbolic agency of the paternal prohibition (the 'Name-of-the-Father') merely personifies, gives body to, the impossibility which is co-substantial with the very fact of the symbolic order--'jouissance is forbidden to him who speaks as such'.

This gap that forever separates the lost Thing from symbolic semblances which are never 'that' defines the contours of the ethics of desire: 'do not compromise your desire' can only mean 'do not put up with any of the substitutes for the Thing, keep the gap of desire open'. [....] the ethics of pure desire compels us to avoid not only debilitating contentment with the pleasures provided by the objects of phenomenal reality but also the danger of yielding to fascination with the Thing, and being drawn into its lethal vortex, which can only end in psychosis or suicidal passage a l'acte.


p. 97: On a first approach, this reading of Lacan cannot but appear convincing, almost a matter of course--yet [....] To put it somewhat bluntly, we are dealing here with an 'idealist' distortion of Lacan; to this 'idealist' problematic of desire, its constitutive lack, and so on, one has to oppose the 'materialist' problematic of the Real of drives. That is to say, for Lacan the 'Real' is not, in the Kantian mode, a purely negative category, a designation of a limit without any specification of what lies beyond--the Real qua drive is, on the contrary, the agens, the 'driving force', of desiring.

This 'active' (and not purely negative) status of drives, of the pre-symbolic 'libido', induces Lacan to elaborate the highly Schellingian myth of 'lamella': in it, he deploys--in the form of a mythical narrative, not of a conceptual articulation--the 'real genesis', that is, what had to occur prior to symbolization, prior to the emergence of the symbolic order [footnote 6]. In short, Lacan's point here is that the passage from the radically 'impossible' Real (the maternal Thing-Body which can be apprehended only in a negative way) to the reign of the symbolic Law, to desire which is regulated by Law, sustained by the fundamental Prohibition, is not direct: something happens between 'pure', 'pre-human' nature and the order of symbolic exchanges, and this 'something' is precisely the Real of drives--no longer the 'closed circuit' of instincts and their innate rhythm of satisfaction (drives are already 'derailed nature'), but not yet the symbolic desire sustained by Prohibition. The Lacanian Thing is not simply the 'impossible' Real which withdraws into the dim recesses of the Unattainable with the entry of the symbolic order, it is the very universe of drives. Here, the reference to Schelling is of crucial importance, since Schelling was the first to accomplish an analogous step within the domain of philosophy: his mythical narrative on the 'ages of the world' focuses on a process in God which precedes the actuality of the divine Logos, and, as we have already seen, this process is described in terms which clearly pave the way for Lacan's notion of the Real of drives.


pp. 173-4, [footnote 6]: On this Lacanian myth of lamella, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1993. Incidentally, what we have just said in no way implies that the Real of drives is, in its ontological status, a kind of full substantiality, the positive 'stuff' of formal-symbolic structurations. What Lacan did with the notion of drive is strangely similar to what Einstein, in his general theory of relativity, did with the notion of gravity. Einstein 'desubstantialized' gravity by reducing it to geometry: gravity is not a substantial force which 'bends' space but the name for the curvature of space itself; in an analogous way, Lacan 'desubstantialized' drives: a drive is not a primordial positive force but a purely geometrical, topological phenomenon, the name for the curvature of the space of desire--for the paradox that, within this space, the way to attain the object (a) is not to go straight for it (the surest way to miss it) but to encircle it, to 'go round in circles'. Drive is this purely topological 'distortion' of the natural instinct which finds satisfaction in a direct consumption of its object.