Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Negation of the Negation: Lacan versus Hegel?

[Excerpt from Žižek’s Less Than Nothing]

How does this Lacanian negation of the negation―in its two main versions: the redoubled negation which generates the excess of the non-All, and the move from alienation to separation―relate to the Hegelian negation of the negation? Is the Hegelian version strong enough to contain (account for) the Lacanian version? Lacan repeatedly insists that his “negation of the negation,” in contrast to Hegel’s, does not result in a return to any kind of positivity, no matter how sublated or mediated that positivity might be. In Vertigo, Scottie reaches the end when he discovers that Madeleine was a fake from the very beginning, “no longer (not) without Madeleine,” which, again, does not mean that he is with Madeleine, but that he has lost the loss itself, the very point of reference which circumscribed the place of the loss structuring his desire. In a way, he loses desire itself, its object-cause. This move is still Hegelian, for Hegel can well think the negation of the negation as a radical loss. The question is thus not “Does the Hegelian negation of the negation erase the loss in a return to full unity?” but rather: “Can Hegel think the additional fourth phase in which the self-relating movement of the negation of the negation itself engenders a particular tic, a singular excessive-repetitive gesture (like Julie’s suicidal explosion of passion at the end of La nouvelle Heloise, or Sygne’s tic at the end of Claudel’s L’Otage)?”

As we have already seen, the Lacanian negation of the negation is located on the feminine side of the “formulae of sexuation,” in the notion of the non-All: there is nothing which is not a fact of discourse; however, this non-not-discourse does not mean that all is discourse, but, precisely, that not-All is discourse―what is outside is not a positive something but the objet a, more than nothing but not something, not One.72 Alternatively: there is no subject which is not castrated, but this does not mean that all subjects are castrated (the non-castrated remainder is, of course, the objet a). The Real that we touch upon here, in this double negation, can be linked to Kantian infinite judgment, the affirmation of a non-predicate: “he is undead” does not simply mean that he is alive, but that he is alive as not dead, as a living dead. “He is undead” means that he is not-not-dead.73 In the same way, the Freudian Unconscious is like the undead: it is not simply not-conscious but non-not-conscious, and, in this double negation, a no not only persists, but is even redoubled: undead remains not-dead and not-alive. Is not the objet a in the same way a non-not-object and, in this sense, an object which embodies the void?

This double negation can also have the structure of a choice which, while not forced, is rendered indifferent since, whatever our decision, the result will be the same. Such was allegedly the case in Vietnam where, after the defeat of the South, Northern propagandists picked up young people on the streets and forced them to watch a long documentary propaganda film. After the screening, the viewers were asked if they liked the film. If they answered no, they were told that obviously they did not really understand it and so would have to watch it again; if they answered yes, they were told: “Good, since you like it so much, you can now watch it again!” Yes and no amount to the same thing, which, at a more basic level, amounts to a “no” (the boredom involved in seeing the film again). Similar (but not the same) is the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he did not want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I’m afraid that if I go, there will be chaos, everything will fall apart―but I’m even more afraid that, if I go, things will just go on as normal without me, proving that I am not really needed!” A certain negative choice (no holiday, seeing the film again) is supported by both yes and no; there is, however, an asymmetry in the answers, which comes out clearly if we imagine the dialogue as a succession of two answers: first, the reaction is the obvious (negative) one (I did not like the film; I am afraid everything will fall apart if I take a holiday); then, when this reaction fails to produce the desired outcome, the opposite (positive) reason is given (I liked the film; everything will be fine without me), which fails even more miserably. No wonder that the Hearst editor’s answer can be reformulated as a dialogue along the lines of the Rabinovitch joke: “Why don’t you take a holiday, you deserve it!”; “I don’t want to, for two reasons. First, I’m afraid that everything will fall apart here if I take a holiday…”; “But you are totally wrong, things will just go on as normal when you’re not here!” “That is my second reason.”

This Lacanian matrix of the “negation of the negation” is clearly discernible in Leo Strauss’s notion of the need for a philosopher to employ “noble lies,” to resort to myth, to narratives ad captum vulgi. The problem is that Strauss does not draw all the consequences from the ambiguity of this stance, torn as he is between the idea that wise philosophers know the truth but judge it inappropriate for the common people, who cannot bear it (it would undermine the very fundamentals of their morality, which needs the “noble lie” of a personal God who punishes sins and rewards good deeds), and the idea that the core of truth is inaccessible to conceptual thought as such, which is why philosophers themselves have to resort to myths and other forms of fabulation to fill in the structural gaps in their knowledge. Strauss is, of course, aware of the ambiguity of the status of a secret: a secret is not only what the teacher knows but refrains from divulging to the non-initiated―a secret is also a secret for the teacher himself, something that he cannot fully penetrate and articulate in conceptual terms. Consequently, a philosopher uses parabolic and enigmatic speech for two reasons: in order to conceal the true core of his teaching from the common people, who are not ready for it, and because the use of such speech is the only way to describe the highest philosophical insights.74

No wonder, then, that Strauss answers in a properly Hegelian way the common-sense reproach according to which, when we are offered an esoteric explanation of a work which is already in itself esoteric (as with, say, Maimonides’s reading of the Bible), the explanation will be twice as esoteric and, consequently, twice as difficult to understand as the esoteric work itself:

thanks to Maimonides, the secret teaching is accessible to us in two different versions: in the original Biblical version, and in the derivative version of [Maimonides’s] Guide. Each version by itself might be wholly incomprehensible; but we may become able to decipher both by using the light which one sheds on the other. Our position resembles then that of an archeologist confronted with an inscription in an unknown language, who subsequently discovers another inscription reproducing the translation of that text into another unknown language … [Maimonides] wrote the Guide according to the rules which he was wont to follow in reading the Bible. Therefore, if we wish to understand theGuide, we must read it according to the rules which Maimonides applies in that work to the explanation of the Bible.75

The redoubling of the problem thus paradoxically generates its own solution. One should bear in mind here that when Strauss emphasized the difference between exoteric and esoteric teaching, he conceived this opposition in a way almost exactly opposite to today’s New Age defenders of esoteric wisdom. The content of New Age wisdom is some spiritual higher reality accessible only to the initiated few, while common mortals see around them only vulgar reality; for Strauss, on the contrary, and in a properly dialectical way, such narratives of spiritual mystery are the very model of fables concocted ad captum vulgi. Is this not confirmed by the success of the recent wave of religious thrillers epitomized by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? These works are perhaps the best indicator of the contemporary ideological shift: the hero is in search of an old manuscript which will reveal some shattering secret that threatens to undermine the very foundations of (institutionalized) Christianity; a “criminal” edge is provided by the desperate and ruthless attempts of the Church (or some hard-line faction within it) to suppress the document. The secret as a rule focuses on the “repressed” feminine dimension of the divine: Christ was married to Mary Magdalene; the Grail is actually the female body, etc. The paradox assumed here is that it is only through the “monotheistic” suspension of the feminine signifier, of the polarity of masculine and feminine, that the space emerges for what we broadly refer to as “feminism” proper, for the rise of feminine subjectivity (which ultimately coincides with subjectivity as such). For Strauss, by contrast, the unbearable esoteric secret is the fact that there is no God or immortal soul, no divine justice, that there is only this terrestrial world which has no deeper meaning and carries no guarantee of a happy outcome.

When Strauss deploys the inherent paradox of a theology which proceeds ad captum vulgi, he thus provides a textbook case of the Hegelian negation of the negation.76 In the first step, Strauss, following Spinoza, asserts that, in the Bible, God speaks in the language of ordinary people, adapting his speech to vulgar prejudices (presenting himself as a supreme person, a wise lawgiver who performs miracles, utters prophecies, and dispenses mercy)―in short, he tells stories which mobilize the powers of human imagination. However, in the second step, the question necessarily pops up: is not the idea of a God as a supreme Person who employs ruses, displays mercy and rage, and so on, in itself a common idea which only can occur when one speaks “with a view to the capacity of the vulgar”?

Another example: Badiou uses the term “inaesthetics” (inesthétique) to refer to “a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.”77 Badiou’s opposition to philosophical aesthetics is thus double: (1) art is not opposed to thinking, art generates its own truth, which is why philosophy does not preside over art, explicating in conceptual terms the truth that art stages in pre-conceptual modes of representation (but it also does not elevate art into a privileged medium of truth); (2) philosophy does not deploy a universal theory of art, it describes the intra-philosophical effects of some works of art. Nevertheless, we should note that this distance from aesthetics is inherent to it, that the term “inaesthetics” functions like a predicate in an infinite judgment, as a negation which remains within the negated field―“inaesthetics” is non-non-aesthetics (just as “inhuman” is non-non-human, non-human within the field of the human).

Where then is the non-All in the relationship between necessity and contingency? Is it that necessity is universal and contingency its constitutive exception―everything is necessary except necessity itself, the fact of which is contingent, and so on; or vice versa―everything is contingent except contingency itself, the fact of which is necessary, etc.? A first hint is given by Le Gaufey, who ingeniously links this grounding of universality in the exception of its enunciation to the (in)famous cry of a compulsive neurotic: “Anything but that!”―expressing his readiness to give away everything but that which really matters (“Take it all, just not this book!” etc.): 

“‘Anything but that!’ the cry, if there is one, of a man confronted with castration, assumes here [in the case of ‘all men are mortal’] the form of a ‘everyone, but not me,’ which asserts itself as the sine qua non of the enunciation of an ‘all’.”78 The difference between the two is that the exception which grounds universality is contingent (a contingency of enunciation grounding the universal necessity), while the compulsive neurotic’s exception is necessary: the one thing he is not ready to give is necessary, everything else is contingent. This means that contingency as exception is primordial, and that the reversal of roles (necessity as exception) is its compulsive-neurotic inversion. This conclusion imposes itself the moment we formulate all four positions that follow from each of these two opposed starting points: (1) everything is necessary; there is something which is not necessary; there is nothing which is not necessary; not-all things are necessary; (2) everything is contingent; there is something which is not contingent; there is nothing which is not contingent; not-all things are contingent. The true foundation of dialectical materialism is not the necessity of contingency, but the contingency of necessity. In other words, while the second position opts for a secret invisible necessity beneath the surface of contingency (the big compulsive topic), the first position asserts contingency as the abyssal ground of necessity itself.

In a brilliant move, Le Gaufey applies this logic of universality and its constitutive exception to the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice. In the standard theoretical view, particular cases are used to verify (or falsify) a general concept―say, we analyze a concrete case of paranoia and see if it fits our general notion (e.g., paranoia is the result of displaced homosexual attachment, etc.). Le Gaufey, on the contrary, reads concrete cases as constitutive exceptions: each case “rebels” against its universality, it never simply illustrates it. 

However, Le Gaufey here all too naïvely endorses the opposition between conceptual realists and empirical nominalists: “For the first, the conceptual architecture first articulates the order of the world. For the second, it misses it at first, and it is from this failure that the object shines forth, is grounded in existence.”79 For a Hegelian, this is literally true―more literally than intended by Le Gaufey: it is not only that the object eludes our conceptual grasp, it is that the “object” in the strict sense emerges as the result of (is generated by) the failure of our conceptual grasp. This is why Le Gaufey also unwittingly speaks the truth when he writes: “The feature displayed by the object, the situation or the individual, and which allows us to subsume it under a concept, is actually not of the same nature as the feature present in the concept itself.”80 What this means, read literally, is that the “truth” of the discord between the individual case and its universal concept is the inherent discord within the concept itself: the feature in question redoubles itself into the universal feature and the same feature in its particular (over)determination.

It is because of this nominalist-empiricist (mis)reading of the logic of exception that Le Gaufey misses the opposite aspect of the Freudian relationship between theory and practice, the obverse of the excess of praxis: psychoanalytic theory is not merely the theory of psychoanalytic practice, but, simultaneously, the theory of the ultimate failure of this (its own) practice, a theoretical account of why the very conditions which gave birth to psychoanalysis render it “impossible” as a profession―theory here relates to the impossible-Real core of the practice.81 It is this ultimate failure of the practice that renders its theory necessary: theory is not simply external to practice, confronting practice as the immense field of reality; the opening of the very gap between theory and practice, the exemption (subtraction) of theory from practice, is in itself a practical act, maybe the most radical one.

We can thus articulate the relationship between theory and practice as a square of the formulae of sexuation: on the left (masculine) side: all cases are subsumed under a universal concept of clinical theory / there exists at least one case which is not subsumed under any universal concept; on the right (feminine) side: there is no case which is not subsumed under a universal concept / not-all cases are subsumed under a universal concept. The feminine side (there is nothing outside theory, inconsistency is immanent to theory, an effect of its non-All character) is here the “truth” of the masculine side (theory is universal, but undermined by factual exceptions).

The Lacanian negation of the negation also enables us to see why the logic of carnivalesque suspension is limited to traditional hierarchical societies: with the full deployment of capitalism, it is “normal” life itself which, in a way, is today carnivalized, with its constant self-revolutionizing, with its reversals, crises, and reinventions. How, then, are we to revolutionize an order whose very principle is one of constant self-revolutionizing? This is the problem of the negation of the negation: how to negate capitalism without returning to some form of premodern stability (or, even worse, to some kind of “synthesis” between change and stability, a more stable and organic capitalism known as fascism…). Here, again, not-not-capitalism is not a premodern order (or any combination between modernity and tradition, this eternal fascist temptation which is today re-emerging as the Confucian “capitalism with Asian values”), but also not the overcoming of capitalism the way Marx conceived it, which involved a certain version of the Hegelian Aufhebung, a version of throwing out the dirty bath water (capitalist exploitation) and keeping the healthy baby (unleashed human productivity). Therein resides the properly utopian misunderstanding ofAufhebung: to distinguish in the phenomenon both its healthy core and the unfortunate particular conditions which prevent the full actualization of this core, and then to get rid of those conditions in order to enable the core to fully actualize its potential. Capitalism is thus aufgehoben, sublated, in communism: negated but maintained, since its essential core is raised to a higher level. What such an approach blinds us to is the fact that the obstacle to the full deployment of the essence is simultaneously its condition of possibility, so that when we remove the false envelope of the particular conditions, we lose the core itself. Here, more than anywhere, the true task is not to throw away the dirty water and keep the baby, but to throw away the allegedly healthy baby (and the dirty water will disappear by―take care of―itself).
Recall the paradox of the notion of reflexivity as “the movement whereby what has been used to generate a system becomes, through a change in perspective, part of the system it generates.”82 As a rule, this reflexive appearance of the generating movement within the generated system, in the guise of what Hegel called the “oppositional determination,” takes the form of the opposite: within the material sphere, Spirit appears in the guise of the most inert moment (crane, as in “the Spirit is a bone,” the formless black stone in Mecca); in the later stage of a revolutionary process, when the Revolution starts to devour its own children, the political agents who effectively set the process in motion are relegated to the role of being its main obstacle, as waverers or outright traitors who are not ready to follow the revolutionary logic to its conclusion. Along the same lines, once the socio-symbolic order is fully established, the very dimension which introduced the “transcendent” attitude that defines a human being, namely sexuality, the uniquely human “undead” sexual passion, appears as its very opposite, as the main obstacle to the elevation of a human being to pure spirituality, as that which ties him or her down to the inertia of bodily existence. For this reason, the end of sexuality represented by the much-vaunted “post-human” self-cloning entity soon expected to emerge, far from opening up the way to a pure spirituality, will simultaneously signal the end of what is traditionally designated as the uniquely human capacity for spiritual transcendence. For all the celebration of the new “enhanced” possibilities for sexual life that Virtual Reality has to offer, nothing can conceal the fact that, once cloning supplements sexual difference, the game is effectively over.83

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