Title: Less Than Nothing
Subtitle: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
Author: Slavoj Zizek
Topic: philosophy
Date: 2012

    Front Matter

      Publisher Details


      Introduction: Eppur Si Muove


    CHAPTER 1. “Vacillating the Semblances”








    CHAPTER 2. “Where There Is Nothing, Read That I Love You”







    CHAPTER 3. Fichte’s Choice









    CHAPTER 4. Is It Still Possible to Be a Hegelian Today?








    INTERLUDE 1. Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx

    CHAPTER 5. Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process







    INTERLUDE 2. Cogito in the History of Madness

    CHAPTER 6. “Not Only as Substance, But Also as Subject”







    INTERLUDE 3. King, Rabble, War … and Sex

    CHAPTER 7. The Limits of Hegel

      A LIST







    CHAPTER 8. Lacan as a Reader of Hegel









    INTERLUDE 4. Borrowing from the Future, Changing the Past

    CHAPTER 9. Suture and Pure Difference





    INTERLUDE 5. Correlationism and Its Discontents

    CHAPTER 10. Objects, Objects Everywhere











    INTERLUDE 6. Cognitivism and the Loop of Self-Positing

    CHAPTER 11. The Non-All, or, the Ontology of Sexual Difference










    CHAPTER 12. The Foursome of Terror, Anxiety, Courage … and Enthusiasm







    CHAPTER 13. The Foursome of Struggle, Historicity, Will … and Gelassenheit








    CHAPTER 14. The Ontology of Quantum Physics





    Conclusion: The Political Suspension of the Ethical

Front Matter

Publisher Details

First published by Verso 2012

Slavoj Žižek

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


UK: 6 Meard Street, London W1F 0EG

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Verso is the imprint of New Left Books

eISBN-13: 978-1-84467-902-7

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

⁄iıek, Slavoj.

Less than nothing : Hegel and the shadow of dialectical materialism / by Slavoj ⁄iıek.

p. cm.

Includes index.

ISBN 978-1-84467-897-6 -- ISBN 978-1-84467-889-1 (ebook)

1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831. I. Title.

B2948.Z55 2012



Typeset in Minion Pro by MJ Gavan, Cornwall, UK

Printed by in the US by Maple Vail


To Alenka and Mladen—because die Partei hat immer Recht.

Introduction: Eppur Si Muove

There are two opposed types of stupidity. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who just doesn’t “get it,” who understands a situation logically, but simply misses its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I first visited New York, a waiter at a café asked me: “How was your day?” Mistaking the phrase for a genuine question, I answered him truthfully (“I am dead tired, jet-lagged, stressed out …”), and he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot … and he was right: this kind of stupidity is precisely that of an idiot. Alan Turing was an exemplary idiot: a man of extraordinary intelligence, but a proto-psychotic unable to process implicit contextual rules. In literature, one cannot avoid recalling Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Švejk, who, when he saw soldiers shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no-man’s land and started to shout: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The arch-model of this idiocy is, however, the naïve child from Andersen’s tale who publicly exclaims that the emperor is naked—thereby missing the point that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked beneath our clothes.

The second and opposite figure of stupidity is that of the moron: the stupidity of those who fully identify with common sense, who fully stand for the “big Other” of appearances. In the long series of figures beginning with the Chorus in Greek tragedy—which plays the role of canned laughter or crying, always ready to comment on the action with some common wisdom—one should mention at least the “stupid” common-sense partners of the great detectives: Sherlock Holmes’s Watson, Hercule Poirot’s Hastings … These figures are there not only to serve as a contrast to and thus make more visible the detective’s grandeur; they are indispensable for the detective’s work. In one of the novels, Poirot explains to Hastings his role: immersed in his common sense, Hastings reacts to the crime scene the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react, and it is only in this way, by including in his analysis the expected reaction of the common-sense “big Other,” that the detective can solve the crime.

But does this opposition cover the entire field? Where, for instance, are we to put Franz Kafka, whose greatness resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present idiocy as something entirely normal and conventional? (Recall the extravagantly “idiotic” reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable “Before the Law.”) For this third position, we need look no further than the Wikipedia entry for “imbecile”: “Imbecile is a term for moderate to severe mental retardation, as well as for a type of criminal. It arises from the Latin word imbecillus, meaning weak, or weak-minded. ‘Imbecile’ was once applied to people with an IQ of 26–50, between ‘moron’ (IQ of 51–70) and ‘idiot’ (IQ 0–25).” So it is not too bad: beneath a moron, but ahead of an idiot—the situation is catastrophic, but not serious, as (who else?) an Austrian imbecile would have put it. Problems begin with the question: where does the root “becile” preceded by the negation (“im-”) come from? Although the origins are murky, it is probably derived from the Latin baculum (stick, walking stick, staff), so an “imbecile” is someone walking around without the help of a stick. One can bring some clarity and logic into the issue if one conceives of the stick on which we all, as speaking beings, have to lean, as language, the symbolic order, that is, what Lacan calls the “big Other.” In this case, the tripartite idiot-imbecile-moron makes sense: the idiot is simply alone, outside the big Other, the moron is within it (dwelling in language in a stupid way), while the imbecile is in between the two—aware of the need for the big Other, but not relying on it, distrusting it, something like the way the Slovene punk group Laibach defined their relationship towards God (and referring to the words on a dollar bill “In God we trust”): “Like Americans, we believe in God, but unlike Americans, we don’t trust him.” In Lacanese, an imbecile is aware that the big Other does not exist, that it is inconsistent, “barred.” So if, measured by the IQ scale, the moron appears brighter than the imbecile, he is too bright for his own good (as reactionary morons, but not imbeciles, like to say about intellectuals). Among the philosophers, the late Wittgenstein is an imbecile par excellence, obsessively dealing with variations of the question of the big Other: is there an agency which guarantees the consistency of our speech? Can we reach certainty about the rules of our speech?

Does not Lacan aim at the same position of the (im)becile when he concludes his “Vers un signifiant nouveau” with: “I am only relatively stupid—that is to say, I am as stupid as all people—perhaps because I got a little bit enlightened”?[1] One should read this relativization of stupidity—“not totally stupid”—in the strict sense of non-All: the point is not that Lacan has some specific insights which make him not entirely stupid. There is nothing in Lacan which is not stupid, no exception to stupidity, so that what makes him not totally stupid is only the very inconsistency of his stupidity. The name of this stupidity in which all people participate is, of course, the big Other. In a conversation with Edgar Snow in the early 1970s, Mao Zedong characterized himself as a hairless monk with an umbrella. Holding an umbrella hints at the separation from heaven, and, in Chinese, the character for “hair” also designates law and heaven, so that what Mao is saying is that—in Lacanese—he is subtracted from the dimension of the big Other, the heavenly order which regulates the normal run of things. What makes this self-designation paradoxical is that Mao still designates himself as a monk (a monk is usually perceived as someone who, precisely, dedicates his life to heaven)—so how can one be a monk subtracted from heaven? This “imbecility” is the core of the subjective position of a radical revolutionary (and of the analyst).

The present book is thus neither The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hegel, nor is it yet another university textbook on Hegel (which would be for morons, of course); it is something like The Imbecile’s Guide to Hegel—Hegel for those whose IQ is somewhere close to their bodily temperature (in Celsius), as the insult goes. But only something like it: the problem with “imbeciles” is that none of us, as ordinary speakers, knows what the “im” negates: we know what “imbecile” means, but we don’t know what “becile” is—we simply suspect that it must somehow be the opposite of “imbecile.”[2] But what if, here too, persists the mysterious tendency for antonyms (such as heimlich and unheimlich—about which Freud wrote a famous short text) to mean the same thing? What if “becile” is the same as “imbecile,” only with an additional twist? In our daily use, “becile” does not stand on its own, it functions as a negation of “imbecile,” so that, insofar as “imbecile” already is a negation of a kind, “becile” must be a negation of negation—but, and this is crucial, this double negation does not bring us back to some primordial positivity. If an “imbecile” is one who lacks a substantial basis in the big Other, a “becile” redoubles the lack, transposing it into the Other itself. The becile is a not-imbecile, aware that if he is an imbecile, God himself also has to be one.

So what does a becile know that idiots and morons don’t? The legend has it that, in 1633, Galileo Galilei muttered, “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”), after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun: he was not tortured, it was enough to take him on a tour and show him the torture devices … There is no contemporary evidence that he did in fact mutter this phrase, but today the phrase is used to indicate that, although someone who possesses true knowledge is forced to renounce it, this does not stop it from being true. But what makes this phrase so interesting is that it can also be used in the exact opposite sense, to assert a “deeper” symbolic truth about something which is literally not true—like the “Eppur si muove” story itself, which may well be false as a historical fact about Galileo’s life, but is true as a designation of Galileo’s subjective position while he was forced to renounce his views. In this sense, a materialist can say that, although he knows there is no God, the idea of a God nonetheless “moves” him. It is interesting to note that, in “Terma,” an episode from the fourth season of The X-Files, “E pur si muove” replaces the usual “The truth is out there,” meaning that, even if their existence is denied by official science, alien monsters nonetheless move around out there. But it can also mean that, even if there are no aliens out there, the fiction of an alien invasion (like the one in The X-Files) can nonetheless engage us and move us: beyond the fiction of reality, there is the reality of the fiction.[3]

Less Than Nothing endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this eppur si muove. Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. Recall the old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: “O, God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!” After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: “O, God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing!” After this spectacle, an ordinary poor Jew also stands up and proclaims: “O, God, I am nothing …” The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: “What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he too is nothing!” Effectively, one already has to be something in order to be able to achieve pure nothingness, and Less Than Nothing discerns this weird logic in the most disparate ontological domains, on different levels, from quantum physics to psychoanalysis.

This weird logic, the logic of what Freud called the drive, is perfectly rendered in the hypothesis of the “Higgs field,” widely discussed in contemporary particle physics. Left to their own devices in an environment in which they can pass on their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy; to put it another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, until we reach the vacuum state of zero energy. There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy—in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.”

Eppur si muove should thus be read in contrast to many versions of the extinction/overcoming of the drive, from the Buddhist notion of gaining a distance towards desire up to the Heideggerian “going-through” Will which forms the core of subjectivity. This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by an obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive. One should thus (also) invert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of how we relate to the proximity of death in the Kierkegaardian sense of the “sickness unto death,” as the series of five attitudes towards the unbearable fact of immortality. One first denies it: “What immortality? After my death, I will just dissolve into dust!” Then, one explodes into anger: “What a terrible predicament I’m in! No way out!” One continues to bargain: “OK, but it is not me who is immortal, only the undead part of me, so one can live with it …” Then one falls into depression: “What can I do with myself when I am condemned to stay here forever?” Finally, one accepts the burden of immortality.

So why do we focus on Hegel? In the history of philosophy (or Western philosophy, which amounts to the same thing), this eppur si muove arrived at its most consistent formulation in German Idealism, especially in Hegel’s thought. Since, however, the axiom of this book is that “One divides into two,” the central body of the book is split into a part on Hegel and a part on Lacan as a repetition of Hegel. In each case, the book follows the same systematic four-step approach. With Hegel, we begin with the obvious historical question: in what meaningful sense can one still be a Hegelian today, bearing in mind the radically changed historical constellation? Then comes a description of the basic mechanisms or formulae of the dialectical process, followed by the more detailed explication of Hegel’s basic thesis on the Absolute as not only Substance, but also Subject; finally, we raise the difficult non-trivial question of the limitations of the Hegelian project. With Lacan, and bearing in mind that Lacan’s theory is here interpreted as a repetition of Hegel, the first step is the presentation of Lacan’s (explicit and implicit) references to Hegel, that is, of Lacan as a reader of Hegel. What follows is the presentation of suture as the elementary mechanism of the signifying process, the mechanism which enables us to understand Lacan’s definition of the signifier as “that which represents the subject for another signifier.” The next logical step is to examine the object generated by the signifying process, the Lacanian objet a in all its dimensions. Finally, Lacan’s notion of sexual difference and his logic of non-All are submitted to a close reading which uncovers the ultimate limitation and deadlock of Lacanian theory.

It was said (in the old days before smoking became stigmatized) that the second and the third most pleasurable things in the world were the drink before and the cigarette after. Accordingly, apart from the Hegelian Thing, Less Than Nothing also deals with a series of befores (Plato, Christianity, Fichte) and afters (Badiou, Heidegger, quantum physics). Plato’s Parmenides deserves a close reading as the first exercise in dialectics proper, celebrated by Hegel and Lacan. Since Hegel was the philosopher of Christianity, it is no wonder that a Hegelian approach to Christ’s death brings out a radical emancipatory potential. Fichte’s thought is enjoying a deserved comeback: although he sometimes appears to be just one step from Hegel, their universes are thoroughly different, since the way Fichte articulates the relationship between the I and its Other reaches well beyond so-called “subjective idealism.” Alain Badiou’s attempt to overcome Lacan’s antiphilosophy confronts us with the basic question of the possibility of ontology today. Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism. The philosophical implications and consequences of quantum physics are still unexplored—what if, beyond the false alternative of pragmatism (“it works, who cares what it means philosophically”) and New Age obscurantism, a Hegelian reading opens up the path for a new materialist interpretation?

On top of this, six interludes are inserted between the chapters of the two central parts, dealing with the reverberations of these philosophical topics in literature, art, science, and ideology, as well as in the work of philosophers opposed to the Hegel/Lacan axis. Three additional topics are elaborated apropos of Hegel: the ambiguities of Marx’s references to Hegel; the unique status of madness in Hegel’s theory of mind; the multiple points at which Hegel’s system generates an excess which threatens to explode its framework (rabble, sexuality, marriage). With regard to Lacan, the first interlude deals with the retroactivity of the signifying process; the second one opposes Lacan’s anti-correlationism to Quentin Meillassoux’s recent critique of post-Kantian correlationism; the third one explores the limitations of the notion of the subject at work in the cognitive sciences. Finally, the conclusion elaborates the political implications of Lacan’s repetition of Hegel.

But how does this reference to Hegel fit our own historical moment? There are four main positions which, together, constitute today’s ideologico-philosophical field: first, the two sides of what Badiou appropriately baptized “democratic materialism”: (1) scientific naturalism (brain sciences, Darwinism …), and (2) discursive historicism (Foucault, deconstruction …); then, the two sides of the spiritualist reaction to it: (3) New Age “Western Buddhism,” and (4) the thought of transcendental finitude (culminating in Heidegger). These four positions form a kind of Greimasian square along the two axes of ahistorical versus historical thought and of materialism versus spiritualism. The thesis of the present book is double: (1) there is a dimension missed by all four, that of a pre-transcendental gap/rupture, the Freudian name for which is the drive; (2) this dimension designates the very core of modern subjectivity.

The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic exchange also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning: in a spontaneous fetishistic misperception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. What one should focus on here is the fundamental ambiguity of this notion of linguistic fetishism: is the idea that, in the good old modern way, we should distinguish between “objective” properties of things and our projections of meanings onto things, or are we dealing with the more radical linguistic version of transcendental constitution, for which the very idea of “objective reality,” of “things existing out there, independently of our mind,” is a “fetishistic illusion” which is blind to how our symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the very reality to which it “refers” or which it designates? Neither of these two options is correct—what one should drop is their underlying shared premise, the (crude, abstract-universal) homology between discursive “production” and material production.[4]

Kafka was (as always) right when he wrote: “One means that Evil has is the dialogue.” Consequently, this book is not a dialogue, since the underlying premise that sustains its double thesis is unashamedly Hegelian: what we refer to as the continent of “philosophy” can be considered as extending as much as one wants into the past or into the future, but there is a unique philosophical moment in which philosophy appears “as such” and which serves as a key—as the only key—to reading the entire preceding and following tradition as philosophy (in the same way that Marx claims that the bourgeoisie is the first class in the history of humanity which is posited as such, as a class, so that it is only with the rise of capitalism that the entirety of history hitherto becomes readable as the history of class struggle). This moment is the moment of German Idealism delimited by two dates: 1787, the year in which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared, and 1831, the year of Hegel’s death. These few decades represent a breathtaking concentration of the intensity of thinking: in this short span of time, more happened than in centuries or even millennia of the “normal” development of human thought. All that took place before can and should be read in an unashamedly anachronistic way as the preparation for this explosion, and all that took place in its aftermath can and should be read as precisely this—the aftermath of interpretations, reversals, critical (mis)readings, of German Idealism.

In his rejection of philosophy, Freud quoted Heinrich Heine’s ironic description of the Hegelian philosopher: “With his nightcap and his night-shirt tatters, he botches up the loopholes in the structure of the world.” (The nightcap and night-shirt are, of course, ironic references to the well-known portrait of Hegel.) But is philosophy at its most fundamental really reducible to a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies in our notion of reality and thus to provide a harmonious Weltanschauung? Is philosophy really a more developed form of the sekundäre Bearbeitung in the formation of a dream, of the effort to harmonize the elements of a dream into a consistent narrative? One can say that, at least with Kant’s transcendental turn, the exact opposite happens: does Kant not fully expose a crack, a series of irreparable antinomies, which emerges the moment we want to conceive reality as All? And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic. It is true that one finds in Hegel a systematic drive to cover everything, to propose an account of all phenomena in the universe in their essential structure; but this drive does not mean that Hegel strives to locate every phenomenon within a harmonious global edifice; on the contrary, the point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart. Hegel’s gaze upon reality is that of a Roentgen apparatus which sees in everything that is alive the traces of its future death.

The basic coordinates of this time of the unbearable density of thought are provided by the mother of all Gangs of Four: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel.[5] Although each of these four names stands for a “world of its own,” for a unique radical philosophical stance, one can arrange the series of the four great German Idealists precisely with reference to the four “conditions” of philosophy elaborated by Badiou: Kant relates to (Newtonian) science, his basic question being what kind of philosophy is adequate to the Newtonian breakthrough; Fichte relates to politics, to the event that is the French Revolution; Schelling relates to (Romantic) art and explicitly subordinates philosophy to art as the highest approach to the Absolute; and Hegel, finally, relates to love; his underlying problem is, from the very beginning of his thought, that of love.

It all begins with Kant, with his idea of the transcendental constitution of reality. In a way, one can claim that it is only with this idea of Kant’s that philosophy reached its own terrain: prior to Kant, philosophy was ultimately perceived as a general science of Being as such, as a description of the universal structure of entire reality, with no qualitative difference from particular sciences. It was Kant who introduced the difference between ontic reality and its ontological horizon, the a priori network of categories which determines how we understand reality, what appears to us as reality. From here, previous philosophy is readable not as the most general positive knowledge of reality, but in its hermeneutic core, as the description of the historically predominant “disclosure of Being,” as Heidegger would have put it. (Say, when Aristotle, in his Physics, struggles to define life and proposes a series of definitions—a living being is a thing which is moved by itself, which has in itself the cause of its movement—he is not really exploring the reality of living beings; he is rather describing the set of pre-existing notions which determine what we always-already understand by “living being” when we designate an object as “alive.”)

The most appropriate way to grasp the radical character of the Kantian philosophical revolution is with regard to the difference between Schein (appearance as illusion) and Erscheinung (appearance as phenomenon). In pre-Kantian philosophy, appearance was conceived as the illusory (defective) mode in which things appear to us, finite mortals; our task is to reach beyond these false appearances to the way things really are (from Plato’s Ideas to scientific “objective reality”). With Kant, however, appearance loses this pejorative characteristic: it designates the way things appear (are) to us in what we perceive as reality, and the task is not to denounce them as “mere illusory appearances” and to reach over them to transcendent reality, but an entirely different one, that of discerning the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do? If, for Plato, a table that I see in front of me is a defective/imperfect copy of the eternal Idea of the table, for Kant, it would have been meaningless to say that the table I see is a defective temporal/material copy of its transcendental conditions. Even if we take a transcendental category like that of Cause, for a Kantian it is meaningless to say that the empirical relation of causality between two phenomena participates in (is an imperfect copy of) the eternal Idea of a cause: the causes that I perceive between phenomena are the only causes that there are, and the a priori notion of Cause is not their perfect model, but, precisely, the condition of possibility of me perceiving the relationship between phenomena as causal.

Although an insurmountable abyss separates Kant’s critical philosophy from his great idealist successors (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel), the basic coordinates which render possible Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit are already there in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. First, as Dieter Henrich put it concisely, “Kant’s philosophical motivation was not identical with what he took to be the original motivation for doing philosophy”[6]: the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task, while Kant’s motivation is a critique of all possible metaphysics. Kant’s endeavor thus comes afterwards: in order for there to be a critique of metaphysics, there first has to be an original metaphysics; in order to denounce the metaphysical “transcendental illusion,” this illusion must first exist. In this precise sense, Kant was “the inventor of the philosophical history of philosophy”[7]: there are necessary stages in the development of philosophy, that is, one cannot directly get at truth, one cannot begin with it, philosophy necessarily began with metaphysical illusions. The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.”[8] The proof of the illusory nature of metaphysical propositions is that they necessarily engender antinomies (contradictory conclusions), and since metaphysics tries to avoid the antinomies which emerge when we think metaphysical notions to their end, the “system” of critical philosophy is the complete—and therefore self-contradictory, “antinomic”—series of metaphysical notions and propositions: “Only the one who can look through the illusion of metaphysics can develop the most coherent, consistent system of metaphysics, because the consistent system of metaphysics is also contradictory”—that is to say, precisely, inconsistent.[9] The critical “system” is the systematic a priori structure of all possible/thinkable “errors” in their immanent necessity: what we get at the end is not the Truth that overcomes/sublates the preceding illusions—the only truth is the inconsistent edifice of the logical interconnection of all possible illusions … is this not what Hegel did in his Phenomenology (and, at a different level, in his Logic)? The only (but key) difference is that, for Kant, this “dialogic” process of truth emerging as the critical denunciation of the preceding illusion belongs to the sphere of our knowledge and does not concern the noumenal reality which remains external and indifferent to it, while, for Hegel, the proper locus of this process is the Thing itself.

Schopenhauer famously compared Kant “to a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife”—the situation of Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus. For Schopenhauer, of course, the point of the comparison is that the masked beauty is philosophy and the wife Christianity—Kant’s radical critique is really just a new attempt to support religion, his transgression is a false one. What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it? What if this critical game radically changes the nature of religion, so that Kant effectively did undermine what it was his goal to protect? Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right?

Fichte’s “radicalization” of Kant is the most problematic link in the chain of German Idealists: he was and is dismissed, ridiculed even, as a half-crazy solipsistic “subjective idealist.” (No wonder that, for the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition, Kant is the only German Idealist to be taken seriously—with Fichte, we enter the domain of obscure speculation.) Being the least popular, it takes the greatest effort to get to the true core of his thought, his “fundamental insight” (Fichte’s Grundeinsicht—the title of Dieter Henrich’s study on Fichte). However, his work is worth the effort: as with all truly great thinkers, a proper understanding of his work reveals an unsurpassed description of the deep structure of engaged subjectivity.

Schelling’s thought is to be divided into two phases, the early “philosophy of identity” and the late “philosophy of revelation”—and, as is so often the case, Schelling’s true breakthrough occurs between the two, in the short period between 1805 and 1815 when he produced his two absolute masterpieces, the treatise on human freedom and the three versions of the “ages of the world” manuscript. A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark “ground of Being” which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is “in God more than God himself.” For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.

In Schelling, the ultimate figure of Evil is not Spirit as opposed to Nature, but Spirit directly materialized in Nature as un-natural, as a monstrous distortion of natural order, from evil spirits and vampires to monstrous products of technological manipulations (clones, etc.). Nature in itself is Good, in it, the evil-ground is by definition always subordinated to the Good: “at each stage of nature prior to the appearance of man the ground is subordinated to existence; in other words, the self-will of the particular is necessarily subordinated to the universal will of the whole. Hence, the self-will of each individual animal is necessarily subordinated to the will of the species, which contributes to the harmony of the whole of nature.”[10] When, with the emergence of man, the ground of existence is allowed to operate on its own, egotistically asserting itself, this does not only mean that it asserts itself against divine love, the harmony of the whole, the universal (non-egotistic) will—it means that it asserts itself in the very form of its opposite: the horror of man is that, in it, Evil becomes radical: no longer simple egotistic evil, but Evil masked (appearing) as universality, as is exemplarily the case in political totalitarianism, in which a particular political agent presents itself as the direct embodiment of the universal Will and Freedom of humanity.[11]

Nowhere is the difference between Hegel’s thought and Schelling’s late philosophy more palpable than regarding the question of the beginning: while Hegel begins with the poorest notion of being (which, in its abstraction, its lack of determinations, equals nothing), Schelling’s “negative philosophy” (which remains part of his system, but supplemented by “positive” philosophy) also begins with the affirmation of a negation, of a void, but this void is the affirmative force of the will’s desire: “all beginning lies in an absence; the deepest potency, which holds fast to everything, is non-being and its hunger for being.”[12] From the domain of logic and its a priori notions, we pass into the domain of actual life, whose starting point is a yearning, the “hunger” of a void to be filled in by positive actual being. Schelling’s critique of Hegel is thus that, in order to really pass from being/nothingness to actual becoming which results in “something” positive, the “nothing” with which we begin should be a “living nothing,” the void of a desire which expresses a will to generate or get hold of some content.

The enigma of Henrich’s reading of German Idealism is why he systematically downplays the role of Schelling, especially the middle Schelling of Freiheitschrift and Weltalter. This is mysterious because it was precisely this middle Schelling who explored in the greatest depth what Henrich designates as Fichte’s (and German Idealism’s) central problem, that of the “Spinozism of freedom”: how to think the Ground of Freedom, a trans-subjective Ground of subjectivity which not only does not constrain human freedom but literally grounds it? Schelling’s answer in Freiheitschrift is literally Ground itself: human freedom is rendered possible by the distinction, in God itself, between the existing God and its own Ground, what in God is not yet fully God. This accounts for Schelling’s uniqueness, also with regard to Hölderlin’s “On Judgment and Being”: like the late Fichte (although in a totally different mode, of course), Schelling arrives at the trans-subjective Ground of subjective freedom, but for Hölderlin (and Fichte), this trans-subjective order of Being (or divine Life) is fully One, pre-reflective, indivisible, not even self-identical (because self-identity already involves a formal distance of a term from itself)—it was only Schelling who introduced a radical gap, instability, discord, into this very pre-subjective/pre-reflexive Ground. In his most daring speculative attempt in Weltalter, Schelling tries to reconstruct (to “narrate”) in this way the very rise of logos, of articulated discourse, out of the pre-logical Ground: logos is an attempt to resolve the debilitating deadlock of this Ground. This is why the two true highpoints of German Idealism are the middle Schelling and the mature Hegel: they did what no one else dared to do—they introduced a gap into the Ground itself.

Hölderlin’s famous fragment “On Judgment and Being” deserves further mention, since it is often taken as an indication of a kind of “alternative reality,” of a different path that German Idealism might have taken in order to break out of the Kantian inconsistencies. Its underlying premise is that subjective self-consciousness strives to overcome the lost unity with Being/the Absolute/God from which it has been irrevocably separated by the “primordial division [Ur-Theilung],” the discursive activity of “judgment [Urteil]”:

Being [Seyn]—expresses the joining [Verbindung] of Subject and Object. Where Subject and Object are absolutely, not just partially united [vereiniget], and hence so united that no division can be undertaken, without destroying the essence [Wesen] of the thing that is to be sundered [getrennt], there and not otherwise can we talk of an absolute Being, as is the case in intellectual intuition.

But this Being must not be equated [verwechselt] with Identity. When I say: I am I, the Subject (Ego) and the Object (Ego) are not so united that absolutely no sundering can be undertaken, without destroying the essence of the thing that is to be sundered; on the contrary the Ego is only possible through this sundering of Ego from Ego. How can I say “I” without self-consciousness? But how is self-consciousness possible? Precisely because I oppose myself to myself; I sunder myself from myself, but in spite of this sundering I recognize myself as the same in the opposites. But how far as the same? I can raise this question and I must; for in another respect [Rüksicht] it [the Ego] is opposed to itself. So identity is not a uniting of Subject and Object that takes place absolutely, and so Identity is not equal to absolute Being.

Judgment: is in the highest and strictest sense the original sundering of Subject and Object most intimately united in intellectual intuition, the very sundering which first makes Object and Subject possible, their Ur-Theilung. In the concept of division [Theilung] there lies already the concept of the reciprocal relation [Beziehung] of Object and Subject to one another, and the necessary presupposition of a whole of which Object and Subject are the parts. “I am I” is the most appropriate example for this concept of Urtheilung in its theoretical form, but in practical Urtheilung, it [the ego] posits itself as opposed to the Non-ego, not to itself.

Actuality and possibility are to be distinguished as mediate and immediate consciousness. When I think of an object [Gegenstand] as possible, I merely duplicate the previous consciousness in virtue of which it is actual. There is for us no thinkable possibility, which was not an actuality. For this reason the concept of possibility has absolutely no valid application to the objects of Reason, since they come into consciousness as nothing but what they ought to be, but only the concept of necessity [applies to them]. The concept of possibility has valid application to the objects of the understanding, that of actuality to the objects of perception and intuition.[13]

Hölderlin’s starting point is the gap between (the impossible return to) the traditional organic unity and the modern reflexive freedom: we are, as finite, discursive, self-conscious subjects cast out of oneness with the whole of being to which we nevertheless long to return, yet without sacrificing our independence—how are we to overcome this gap? His answer is what he calls the “eccentric path”: the split between substance and subjectivity, Being and reflection, is insurmountable, and the only reconciliation possible is a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles. While the content remains non-reconciled, reconciliation occurs in the narrative form itself—the exact inverse of the logical assertion of the subject’s identity (I = I) where the very form (division, redoubling, of the I’s) undermines content (identity).

Hölderlin’s solution should be put in its context and conceived as one of the three versions of how to solve the same problem—the gap between subjective autonomy and the organic Whole that characterizes modernity; the other two versions are Schiller’s and Schlegel’s. For Schiller, free human life within nature and culture is possible if it achieves that kind of internal organization, determination from within, or harmony of parts that is characteristic of both natural and artistic beauty. In a beautiful natural object, we find, as it were, “the person of the thing”; we have a sense of “the free consent of the thing to its technique” and of “a rule which is at once given and obeyed by the thing,” and this is a model for the free consent of an individual to the worth of a social repertoire or way of life. Friedrich Schlegel, on the contrary, seeks to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry—a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness. It is easy to see how these three positions form a kind of triangle: Schiller-Schlegel-Hölderlin. Schiller believes in the subject’s integration into the organic substantial order—free selfhood can wholly appear in beautiful nature and art; Schlegel asserts the force of subjectivity as the constant unsettling of any substantial harmony (one can claim that, in German Idealism, this opposition repeats itself in the guise of Schelling versus Fichte—the positivity of the Ur-Grund prior to reflection versus the “eternal restlessness” of subjectivity).

Hegel occupies here a fourth position—what he adds to Hölderlin is a purely formal shift of transposing the tragic gap that separates the reflecting subject from pre-reflexive Being into this Being itself. Once we do this, the problem becomes its own solution: it is our very division from absolute Being which unites us with it, since this division is immanent to Being. Already in Hölderlin, division is redoubled, self-relating: the ultimate division is not the Subject-Object division, but the very division between division (of Subject-Object) and unity. One should thus supplement the formula of “identity of identity and non-identity” with “division between division and non-division.” Once we accomplish this step, Being as the inaccessible pre-reflexive Ground disappears; more precisely, it reveals itself as the ultimate reflexive category, as the result of the self-relating division: Being emerges when division divides itself from itself. Or, to put it in Hölderlin’s terms, the narrative is not merely the subject coping with its division from Being, it is simultaneously the story Being is telling itself about itself. The loss supplemented by the narrative is inscribed into Being itself. Which means that the last distinction on which Hölderlin insists, the one between intellectual intuition (the immediate access to Being, the subject’s direct one-ness with it) and the “eccentric” narrative path (that mediates access to Being through narrative reconciliation), has to fall: the narrative already does the job of intellectual intuition, of uniting us with Being. Or, in more paradoxical terms: the standard relationship between the two terms should be turned around. It is intellectual intuition which is merely a reflexive category, separating us from Being in its very enacting of the subject’s immediate one-ness with Being, and it is the narrative path which directly renders the life of Being itself:

That “the truth is the whole” means that we should not look at the process that is self-manifestation as a deprivation of the original Being. Nor should we look at it only as an ascent to the highest. The process is already the highest … The subject for Hegel is … nothing but the active relationship to itself. In the subject there is nothing underlying its self-reference, there is only the self-reference. For this reason, there is only the process and nothing underlying it. Philosophical and metaphorical models such as “emanation” (neo-Platonism) or “expression” (Spinozism) present the relationship between the infinite and the finite in a way that fails to characterize what the process (self-manifestation) is.[14]

It is, therefore, Hölderlin, not Hegel, who remains here metaphysical, clinging to the notion of a pre-reflexive Ground accessible through intellectual intuition—what is properly meta-physical is the very presupposition of a substantial Being beyond the process of (self-)differentiation. (This is also the reason why—as we can see in the last paragraph of the fragment—Hölderlin subordinates possibility to actuality.) This is why Hegel appropriates the solution of Hölderlin’s Hyperion (what, in reality, cannot be reconciled is reconciled afterwards, through its narrative reconstruction) against Hölderlin himself: in a clear parallel to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Hölderlin sees the solution in a narrative which retroactively reconstructs the very “eccentric path” (the path of the permanent oscillation between the loss of the Center and the repeated failed attempts to regain the immediacy of the Center) as the process of maturation, of spiritual education. This solution does not imply discursive constructivism (the consistency of our reality is that of an après-coup narrative), but a much more radical Hegelian position: while the discursive constructivism can be read as a neo-Kantian language-transcendentalism (as Gadamer put it in his paraphrase of Heidegger’s thesis on “language as a house of being,” “to be is to be understood”; that is, the horizon of understanding sustained by language is the ultimate transcendental horizon of our approach to being), that is, while the discursive transcendentalism focuses on how what we experience as “reality” is always-already mediated/constructed by language, Hölderlin’s solution shifts the focus to how (as Lacan put it) the signifier itself falls into the real, that is, how the signifying intervention (narrativization) intervenes into the real, how it brings about the resolution of a real antagonism.

Hegel thus remains the peak of the entire movement of German Idealism: all four are not equal, they are three plus one. But why? What makes Hegel unique? One of the ways to circumscribe this uniqueness of Hegel is to use the Lacanian notion of the “lack in the Other” which, in Hegel’s case, points towards the unique epistemologico-ontological mediation absent in all three other Idealists: the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth). It is the premise of the present book that this “fundamental insight” of Hegel has lost none of its power today; that it is far more radical (and a far greater threat to metaphysical thinking) than all the combined anti-totality topics of contingency-alterity-heterogeneity.[15]

One can well imagine a truly obscene version of the famous “The Aristocrats” joke that easily beats all the vulgarity of family members vomiting, defecating, fornicating, and humiliating each other in all possible ways: when asked to perform, they give the talent agent a short course in Hegelian thought, debating the true meaning of negativity, of sublation, of Absolute Knowledge, and so forth, and, when the bewildered agent asks them the name of the weird show, they enthusiastically reply: “The Perverts!” Indeed, to paraphrase the good old Brecht’s slogan “What is the robbing of a bank against a founding of a new bank?”: what is the disturbing shock of family members defecating into one another’s mouths compared to the shock of a proper dialectical reversal?[16]

However, the aim of Less Than Nothing is not to simply (or not so simply) return to Hegel, but, rather, to repeat Hegel (in the radical Kierkegaardian sense). Over the last decade, the theoretical work of the Party Troika to which I belong (along with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič) had the axis of Hegel-Lacan as its “undeconstructible” point of reference: whatever we were doing, the underlying axiom was that reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa) was our unsurpassable horizon. Recently, however, limitations of this horizon have appeared: with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock—in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots …), all of which failed. So where do we stand now?

My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the antiphilosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”[17] Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”—and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination—the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination—or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one.[18] The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan.


CHAPTER 1. “Vacillating the Semblances”


The famous last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”—involves an obvious paradox: it contains a superfluous prohibition, since it prohibits something which is already in itself impossible.[19] This paradox faithfully reproduces the predominant attitude towards the aesthetic representation of the Holocaust: it shouldn’t be done, because it can’t be done. Jorge Semprún’s Spanish-Catholic origins play a crucial role in his reversal of this prohibition: for Semprún, it is not poetic fiction but prosaic documentary which is impossible after Auschwitz. For Elie Wiesel, by contrast, there can be no novel about the Holocaust: any text claiming to be such is either not about the Holocaust or is not a novel. Rejecting this claim that literature and the Holocaust are incommensurable, Semprún argues that the Holocaust can only be represented by the arts: it is not the aestheticization of the Holocaust which is false, but its reduction to being the object of a documentary report. Every attempt to “reproduce the facts” in a documentary way neutralizes the traumatic impact of the events described—or as Lacan, another atheist Catholic, put it: truth has the structure of a fiction. Almost no one is able to endure, still less to enjoy, a snuff film showing real torture and killing, but we can enjoy it as a fiction: when truth is too traumatic to be confronted directly, it can only be accepted in the guise of a fiction. Claude Lanzmann was right to say that if by chance he were to stumble upon some documentary footage showing the actual murder of inmates in Auschwitz, he would destroy it immediately. Such a documentary would be obscene, disrespectful towards the victims even. When considered in this way, the pleasure of aesthetic fiction is not a simple form of escapism, but a mode of coping with traumatic memory—a survival mechanism.

But how are we to avoid the danger that the aesthetic pleasure generated by fiction will obliterate the proper trauma of the Holocaust? Only a minimal aesthetic sensitivity is needed to recognize that there would be something false about an epic novel on the Holocaust, written in the grand style of nineteenth-century psychological realism: the universe of such novels, the perspective from which they are written, belongs to the historical epoch that preceded the Holocaust. Anna Akhmatova encountered a similar problem when, in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, she tried to depict the atmosphere of the Stalinist terror. In her memoirs she describes what happened when, at the height of the Stalinist purges, she was waiting in a long queue outside the Leningrad prison to learn the fate of her arrested son Lev:

One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.[20]

What kind of description is intended here? Surely it is not a realistic description of the situation, but a description which extracts from the confused reality its own inner form, in the same way that, in his atonal music, Schoenberg extracted the inner form of totalitarian terror. At this level, truth is no longer something that depends on the faithful reproduction of facts. One should introduce here the difference between (factual) truth and truthfulness: what makes a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, confusion, inconsistency. If the victim were able to report on her painful and humiliating experience in a clear way, with all the data arranged into a consistent order of exposition, this very quality would make us suspicious. The same holds for the unreliability of the verbal reports given by Holocaust survivors: a witness who was able to offer a clear narrative of his camp experience would thereby disqualify himself. In a Hegelian way, the problem is here part of the solution: the very deficiencies of the traumatized subject’s report on the facts bear witness to the truthfulness of his report, since they signal that the reported content has contaminated the very form in which it is reported.[21]

What we are dealing with here is, of course, the gap between the enunciated content and the subjective position of enunciation. G. K. Chesterton wrote apropos of Nietzsche that he “denied egoism simply by preaching it”: “To preach anything is to give it away. First, the egoist calls life a war without mercy, and then he takes the greatest possible trouble to drill his enemies in war. To preach egoism is to practice altruism.”[22] The medium here is not the message, quite the opposite: the very medium that we use—the universal intersubjectivity of language—undermines the message. It is not only that we should, therefore, denounce the particular position of enunciation that sustains the universal enunciated content—the white, wealthy male subject who proclaims the universality of human rights, for example. It is far more important to unearth the universality that sustains, and potentially undermines, his particular claim. The supreme case here, as noted by Bertrand Russell, is that of the solipsist trying to convince others that he alone really exists. Could one extend this argument to the problem of tolerance or intolerance? Perhaps not altogether, although there is a similar catch involved in preaching tolerance: it (presup)poses its presupposition—that is, the subject deeply “bothered” by the Neighbor—and thus only reasserts it. Did Paul Claudel not get it right in his famous reply to Jules Renard: “Mais la tolérance?” “Il y a des maisons pour ça!” (une maison de tolérance is one French expression for a brothel)? And did not Chesterton, as was so often the case, also get it right with his famous quip, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions”?

The aesthetic lesson of this paradox is clear. The horror of the Holocaust cannot be represented; but this excess of represented content over its aesthetic representation has to infect the aesthetic form itself. What cannot be described should be inscribed into the artistic form as its uncanny distortion. Perhaps a reference to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus can again be of some help here. According to the Tractatus, language depicts reality by virtue of sharing a logical form in common with it.

4.121 Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.

We know that a picture of a sunset represents a sunset because both the picture and the sunset share a similar “pictorial form.” Similarly, a proposition and what it represents share a similar “logical form”: a proposition depicts a fact, and just as a fact can be analyzed into independent states of affairs, a proposition can be analyzed into independent elementary propositions. Wittgenstein here draws a distinction between saying and showing: while a proposition says that such-and-such fact is the case, it shows the logical form by virtue of which this fact is the case. The upshot of this distinction is that we can only say things about facts in the world; logical form cannot be spoken about, only shown: “4.1212 What can be shown, cannot be said.” If we read this proposition together with the final proposition (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”), the conclusion is that what we cannot speak about can be shown, that is, directly rendered in/by the very form of speaking. In other words, Wittgenstein’s “showing” should be understood not merely in a mystical sense, but as inherent to language, as the form of language. Let us return to our example of trauma: we cannot directly talk about or describe it, but the traumatic excess can nevertheless be “shown” in the distortion of our speech about the trauma, in its elliptic repetitions and other distortions. In his novel Le grand voyage, Semprún invented just such a new form—a “logical form” of narrative that would be adequate to the trauma of the Holocaust by way of “showing” what cannot be directly described.[23]

The narrative of Semprún’s novel unfolds during a journey in a cramped and squalid boxcar carrying 120 resistance fighters from Compiègne to Buchenwald; Gérard, the first-person narrator of the story, is one of these prisoners. The narrative only fleetingly remains in the boxcar: in sudden temporal switches Gérard’s narration lurches back and forth from the time before the war to the moment of liberation in 1945, to two, three, sixteen, or an unspecified number of years later. These switches are rendered as moments within Gérard’s fractured stream of consciousness; as he undergoes the ordeal of the journey in the present, he remembers and “fore-members” (remembers-imagines the future), since the experience has fragmented him into a splintered self. Details of his life in the past, present, and future flow through his mind like multiple currents in an unimpeded stream: he is simultaneously a partisan in the French resistance, a deported prisoner of the Germans, and a survivor of Buchenwald. By recreating Gérard’s consciousness as an intersection of three time zones, Semprún renders the fluid timeless ordeal of the camp inmate who has lost his sense of life as a chronological passage from yesterday through today into tomorrow.

The topic of the “death of the subject,” of its dispersal in a pandemonium of conflicting and fragmented narrative lines, is usually seen as a result of elitist artistic reflections, divorced from the real concerns of real people; Semprún’s unique achievement is to establish the link between this modernist revolution in writing and our most traumatic historical experience. The true focus of Le grand voyage is not what really happened on the way to Buchenwald, but how such a terrible event affects the very identity of the subject: its elementary contours of reality are shattered, the subject no longer experiences himself as part of a continuous flow of history which devolves from the past towards the future. Instead, his experience moves in a kind of eternal present in which present, past, and future, reality and fantasy, directly interact. In his theory of relativity, Einstein proposes to interpret time as a fourth dimension of space in which past and future are all “now,” already here; because of our limited perception, we just cannot see them, we can only see the present. In Semprún’s novel, it is as if, after going through the nightmare of the life in a camp, our perception widens and we can see all three dimensions of time simultaneously—time becomes space, giving us an uncanny freedom to move back and forth along it just as we wander around in an open space, with past and future as different paths that we can take at will. There is, however, a price to be paid for this freedom, a blind spot in this field of spatialized time: we can see everything except the present of the camp itself. This prohibited present is, of course, death—being alive after Buchenwald is not the same as having survived it intact: the shadow of death taints Gérard’s memories of innocent prewar friendships—he learns later that many of his friends have been killed—and poisons his postwar life. Life in the camp is thus not so much the ultimate referent of his memories as the distorting screen which taints and spoils them all. Semprún juxtaposes Gérard’s pleasure at reading the childhood memories offered in Proust with the painful and deferred memory of his arrival at the Buchenwald concentration camp—his “madeleine” is the strange smell that recalls the crematory oven:

And suddenly, borne on the breeze, the curious odor: sweetish, cloying, with a bitter and truly nauseating edge to it. The peculiar odor that would later prove to be from the crematory oven … The strange smell would immediately invade the reality of memory. I would be reborn there; I would die if returned to life there. I would embrace and inhale the muddy, heady odor of that estuary of death.[24]

What resuscitates the trauma are not merely the immediate painful associations of the details which recall the camp, but, even more, the power of these recent memories to “color” and thus spoil the more ancient, gentle memories. Robert Antelme, in his testimony L’espèce humaine, evokes a similar case of overdetermination: the pleasurable memory of a lover ringing the doorbell has been indelibly colored by the painful memory of the Gestapo ringing the same bell at the moment of one’s arrest.[25] Both in this instance and in Semprún’s use of Proust’s ringing garden bell, the survivors find that memory has been colonized by the experience of the Holocaust: there is no way to retrieve the pleasant memory of a lover waiting at the door without simultaneously triggering the corruption of that memory by the trauma.

The same shift from linear narrative time to the fragmented synchronicity of different times characterizes French vanguard cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, most visibly in the work of Alain Resnais, whose first film, the documentary Night and Fog, also deals with the Holocaust. Resnais’s masterpiece, Last Year in Marienbad, is about a couple whose affair is told in temporal slices the order of which is never clear: the time structure of the narrative exists as a synchronic mass wherein past, present, and future are all equally available, and can potentially all be present. The script for Marienbad was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the leading author of the French nouveau roman who also directed films. No wonder Semprún collaborated with Resnais: apart from writing two scenarios for him, he was an unacknowledged contributor to Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime. In discussing this film, Gilles Deleuze introduced the concept of the “sheet of time”—a traumatic point in time, a kind of magnetic attractor which tears moments of past, present, and future out of their proper context, combining them into a complex field of multiple, discrete, and interacting temporalities. In Je t’aime, je t’aime, the “sheet” is the narrator’s traumatic memory of the death (murder?) of his beloved. Claude Ridder—a writer who, in despair after the death of his love, has attempted suicide—is approached to be a test-subject at a mysterious facility devoted to researching time travel. The scientists’ plan is to send him back into his own past, exactly one year earlier, but for only one minute. Unfortunately, the experiment goes out of control, and Claude finds himself unstuck in time, bounced between random moments of his life, re-experiencing snippets from his past, in a mixture of moments of love, doubt, confusion, happiness, and even day-to-day routine, all in the form of tiny fragments, shuffled about or replayed like a scratched record. While the scientists running the botched experiment frantically try to retrieve Claude, he becomes more and more fixated on past moments, returning to them and repeating them endlessly. Does something similar not happen to Gérard in Le grand voyage? He also comes unstuck from the linear temporal flow, caught in an interactive loop between multiple traumatic sheets of time.

There is more than just a formal parallel between these procedures in cinema and literature: Le grand voyage is a novel which was only possible after the arrival of cinema, incorporating as it does the cinematic sensibility and techniques of montage, flashbacks, imagining the future, visual hallucinations, etc. Another distinguishing cinematic feature of the novel’s narrative is the sudden rise of details (images, objects, sounds) shown in close-up, their excessive and intrusive proximity overshadowing the narrative context of which they are a part. The hermeneutic temptation to read these details as symbols and to search for their hidden meaning should be resisted: they are exposed fragments of the real which resist meaning. The meaning of their context—the terrible situation of the Shoah—is too traumatic to be assumed, so this sudden focus on material details serves the purpose of keeping meaning at a distance.

The problem the survivors encounter is not only that witnessing is impossible, that it always has an element of prosopopoeia, since the true witness is always already dead and we can only speak on his behalf. There is also a symmetric problem encountered at the opposite end: there is no proper public, no listener adequate to receive the witnessing. The most traumatic dream Primo Levi had in Auschwitz was about his survival: the war is over, he is reunited with his family, telling them about his life in the camp, but they gradually become bored, start to yawn and, one after another, leave the table, so that finally Levi is left alone. An anecdote from the Bosnian war in the early 1990s makes the same point: many of the girls who survived brutal rapes later killed themselves, having rejoined their community only to find that no one was really ready to listen to them, or accept their testimony. In Lacan’s terms, what is missing here is not only another human being, the attentive listener, but the “big Other” itself, the space of the symbolic inscription or registration of my words. Levi made the same point in his direct and simple way: “What we are doing to Jews is so irrepresentable in its horror that even if someone will survive the camps, he will not be believed by those who were not there—they will simply declare him a liar or a mentally ill person!”[26] Since Levi was not an artist, he did not draw the artistic consequences of this fact—but Semprún did. During the “present” of the boxcar journey in Le grand voyage, Gérard conveys his memories to an unnamed companion dubbed “le gars de Semur” (the guy from Semur). Why this need for an interlocutor? What function does he have? Gérard informs us at the outset that his companion will die upon arriving at the camp, so he clearly stands for the dwindling presence of the big Other, the recipient of our speech. In the concentration camp, there is no big Other, no one on whom we can count to receive and verify our testimony. This is what makes even our survival meaningless.

This brings us again to the fate of modern art. Schoenberg still hoped that somewhere there would be at least one listener who would truly understand his atonal music. It was only his greatest pupil, Anton Webern, who accepted the fact that there is no listener, no big Other to receive the work and properly recognize its value. In literature, James Joyce still counted on future generations of literary critics as his ideal public, claiming that he wrote Finnegans Wake to keep them occupied for the next 400 years. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we, writers and readers, have to accept that we are alone, reading and writing at our own risk, with no guarantee from the big Other. (It was Beckett who drew this conclusion in his break with Joyce.)

This lack of the big Other does not, however, mean that we are irrevocably trapped in the misery of our finitude, deprived of any redemptive moments. In Semprún’s novel, Gérard witnesses the arrival of a truckload of Polish Jews at Buchenwald; they had been stacked into a freight train almost 200 to a car, traveling for days without food and water in the coldest winter of the war. On arrival, all had frozen to death except for fifteen children, kept warm in the middle of a bundle of bodies. When the children were removed from the car the Nazis let their dogs loose on them. Soon only two fleeing children were left:

The little one began to fall behind, the SS were howling behind them and then the dogs began to howl too, the smell of blood was driving them mad, and then the bigger of the two children slowed his pace to take the hand of the smaller … together they covered a few more yards … till the blows of the clubs felled them and, together they dropped, their faces to the ground, their hands clasped for all eternity.[27]

What should not escape our attention is that the freeze of eternity is (again) embodied in the hand as partial object: while the bodies of the two boys perish, the clasped hands persist for all eternity like the smile of the Cheshire cat … It is not hard to imagine how this scene might appear on screen: as the soundtrack records what is happening in reality (the two children being clubbed to death), the image of their clasped hands freezes, immobilized for eternity—while the sound renders temporary reality, the image renders the eternal Real. (Exactly such a procedure was used by Manuel de Oliveira in the last scene of his A Talking Picture.)[28] It is the pure surface of such fixed images of eternity, not any deeper Meaning, which allows for redemptive moments in the bleak story of the Shoah. One should read this imagined scene together with two variations. Recall the final shot of Thelma and Louise: the frozen image of the two women in the car “flying” over the precipice. Is this a vision of positive utopia (the triumph of feminine subjectivity over death), or a masking of the miserable reality about to come? From my youth, I remember an old Croatian avant-garde short film about a man chasing a woman around a large table, the two of them madly giggling. The chase goes on, and the giggling gets louder and louder, even when the couple disappear behind the table and we see only the man’s hands being raised. In the final shot, we see the dead woman’s mutilated body, but the giggling goes on …

The weakness of the final shot from Thelma and Louise is that the frozen image is not accompanied by a soundtrack recording what is “really” happening (the car crashing, the screams of the women)—strangely, this lack of reality undermines the utopian dimension of the frozen image. In the Croat film, the relations are inverted: it is the soundtrack which continues the fantasy of the erotic play, while the frozen image of the dead body confronts us with reality. The image thereby radically changes our perception of the soundtrack: the same laughter loses its erotic innocence, turning into the obscene giggling of haunting undead voices. The lesson is clear: in the scene imagined by Semprún, the frozen image accompanying the reality registered in sound stands for a positive eternal-ethical utopia, while in the Croat film, the laughter which persists even after its bearer has been murdered stands for the evil-obscene undead.

Eternity is to be taken here in the strictest Platonic sense. In one of the Agatha Christie stories, Hercule Poirot discovers that an ugly nurse is the same person as the beautiful woman he had previously met on a trans-Atlantic voyage, she has merely disguised herself to hide her natural beauty. Hastings, Poirot’s Watson-like companion, remarks sadly that if a beauty can make herself appear ugly, then the same can also be done vice versa. What then remains in man’s infatuation beyond deception? Does this insight into the unreliability of the beautiful woman not signal the end of love? “No, my friend,” replies Poirot, “it announces the beginning of wisdom.” In other words, such skepticism, such awareness of the deceptive nature of feminine beauty, misses the point, which is that feminine beauty is nonetheless absolute, an absolute which appears: no matter how fragile and deceptive it may be at the level of substantial reality, what transpires in/through the moment of Beauty is an Absolute—there is more truth in the appearance than in what may be hidden beneath it. Therein resides Plato’s deep insight: Ideas are not the hidden reality beneath appearances (Plato was well aware that this hidden reality is that of ever-changing corrupting and corrupted matter); Ideas are nothing but the very form of appearance, this form as such—or, as Lacan succinctly rendered Plato’s point, the supra-sensible is appearance as appearance. For this reason, neither Plato nor Christianity are forms of Wisdom—they are both anti-Wisdom embodied.

What this means is that, in conceiving of art, we can return to Plato without shame. Plato’s reputation has suffered on account of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city. (Rather sensible advice, judging from my own post-Yugoslav experience, where the path to ethnic cleansing was prepared by the dangerous dreams of poets—the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić being only one among them. If the West has its military-industrial complex, we in the ex-Yugoslavia had a poetic-military complex: the post-Yugoslav war was triggered by an explosive mixture of poetic and military components.) From a Platonic standpoint, what does a poem about the Holocaust do? It provides a “description without place”: it renders the Idea of Holocaust.

Recall the old Catholic strategy for guarding men against the sins of the flesh: when tempted by a voluptuous female body, imagine how it will look in a couple of decades—the wrinkled skin and sagging breasts … (better still, imagine what lurks even now beneath the skin: the raw flesh and bones, bodily fluids, half-digested food and excrement …). The same advice had already been given by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations:

Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.

Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust—to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.[29]

Far from enacting a return to the Real destined to break the imaginary spell of the body, such procedures amount to an escape from the Real, the Real which announces itself in the seductive appearance of the naked body. That is to say, in the opposition between the spectral appearance of the sexualized body and the repulsive body in decay, it is the spectral appearance which is the Real, while the decaying body is merely reality—that to which we take recourse in order to avoid the deadly fascination of the Real as it threatens to draw us into its vortex of jouissance. A “raw” Platonism would claim here that only the beautiful body fully materializes the Idea, and that a body in material decay simply falls away from its Idea, is no longer its faithful copy. From a Deleuzian (and, here, Lacanian) perspective, on the contrary, the specter that attracts us is the Idea of the body as Real. This body is not the body in reality, but the virtual body in Deleuze’s sense of the term: the incorporeal/immaterial body of pure intensities. (One should thus invert the usual opposition within which true art is “deep” and commercial kitsch superficial: the problem with kitsch is that it is all too “profound,” manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while genuine art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract its subject from the “deeper” context of historical reality.)

The same goes for contemporary art, where we encounter often brutal attempts to “return to the real,” to remind the spectator (or reader) that she is perceiving a fiction, to awaken her from the sweet dream. This gesture has two main forms which, although opposed, amount to the same thing. In literature or cinema, there are (especially in postmodern texts) self-reflexive reminders that what we are watching is a mere fiction, such as when the actor on screen addresses us directly as spectators, thus ruining the illusion of the autonomous space of the narrative, or the writer directly intervenes in the story to add an ironic comment; in theatre, there are occasional brutal acts (like slaughtering a chicken onstage) which awaken us to the reality of the stage. Instead of conferring on these gestures a kind of Brechtian dignity, perceiving them as versions of extraneation, one should rather denounce them for what they are: escapes from the Real, the exact opposite of what they claim to be, desperate attempts to avoid the real of the illusion itself, the Real that emerges in the guise of an illusory spectacle.


And the same goes for love—that is to say, what is it to find oneself passionately in love? Is it not a kind of permanent state of exception? All the proper balances of our daily life are disturbed, everything we do is colored by the underlying thought of “that.” The situation is properly “beyond Good and Evil”: we feel a weird indifference towards our moral obligations with regard to our parents, children, friends—even if we continue to meet them, we do so in a mechanical way, in a mode of “as if”; everything pales into insignificance compared to our passionate attachment. In this sense, falling in love is like the blinding light that hit Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus: a kind of religious suspension of the Ethical, to use Kierkegaard’s terms. An Absolute intervenes and derails the normal run of our affairs: it is not so much that the standard hierarchy of values is inverted, but, more radically, that another dimension enters the scene, a different level of being. And, of course, the same holds for an authentic political engagement. In his Conflict of the Faculties, written in the mid-1790s, Immanuel Kant addresses a simple but difficult question: is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress in regard to freedom, not just material development.) Kant conceded that actual history is confused and offers no clear proof: we might think of how the twentieth century brought unprecedented democracy and welfare, but also the Holocaust and the Gulag. But Kant nonetheless concluded that, although progress cannot be proven, we can discern signs which indicate that it is possible. Kant interpreted the French Revolution as such a sign which pointed towards the possibility of freedom: the hitherto unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality. For Kant, even more important than the often bloody reality of what occurred on the streets of Paris was the enthusiasm that the events in France gave rise to in the eyes of sympathetic observers all around Europe (and also in Haiti!):

The recent Revolution of a people which is rich in spirit, may well either fail or succeed, accumulate misery and atrocity, it nevertheless arouses in the heart of all spectators (who are not themselves caught up in it) a taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm and which, since its very expression was not without danger, can only have been caused by a moral disposition within the human race.[30]

Do not these words also fit perfectly the Egyptian uprising of February 2011 that toppled President Mubarak? The French Revolution was for Kant a sign of history in the triple sense of signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. The Egyptian uprising was also a sign in which the memory of the long past of authoritarian oppression and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates the possibility of a change; and a hope for future achievements. Whatever our doubts, fears, and compromises, for that instant of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity. All the skepticism expressed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives was proven wrong.

First, one could not help but note the “miraculous” nature of the events in Egypt: something happened that few had predicted, violating the experts’ opinions, as if the uprising was the result not simply of social causes but of the intervention of a foreign agency into history, an agency that we can call, in a Platonic fashion, the eternal Idea of freedom, justice, and dignity.

Second, the uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to know what it was about, without any need for a cultural analysis of the specific features of Egyptian society. In contrast to the Khomeinist revolution in Iran—where leftists had to smuggle their message into a predominantly Islamist frame—here, the frame was clearly that of a universal and secular call for freedom and justice, so that even the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt this language of secular demand. The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Copts joined in a common prayer on the Tahrir square, chanting “We are One!” thus providing the best answer to the sectarian religious violence. Those neoconservatives who criticized multiculturalism in the name of the universal values of freedom and democracy were confronted with a moment of truth: You want universal freedom and democracy? This is what people are demanding in Egypt, so why are you uneasy? Is it because the Egyptian protesters also want social and economic justice, not just market freedom?

Third, the violence of the protesters was purely symbolic, an act of radical and collective civil disobedience: they suspended the authority of the state—it was not just an inner liberation, but a social act of breaking the chains of servitude volontaire. The physical violence was perpetrated by Mubarak’s hired thugs, who entered Tahrir Square on horses and camels to knock the protesters around; the most the protesters did was defend themselves.

Fourth, although combative, the protesters’ message was not one of killing. The demand was for Mubarak to go, to leave his post and the country, and thus open up a space for freedom in Egypt, a freedom that excluded no one—the protesters’ call to the army and even the hated police was not “Death to you!” but “We are brothers! Join us!” This last feature clearly distinguishes emancipatory from rightist-populist demonstrations: although the rightist mobilization proclaims the organic unity of the People, this unity is sustained by a call to annihilate a designated enemy (Jews, traitors …).

When President Obama welcomed the uprising as a legitimate expression of opinion that needed to be acknowledged by the government, the confusion was total: the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria did not want their demands to be acknowledged by the government; they denied the very legitimacy of the government. They did not want the Mubarak regime as a partner in dialogue; they wanted Mubarak to go. They not only wanted a new government that would listen to their opinions, they wanted to reshape the entire state. They did not have “opinions”; they were the truth of the situation in Egypt. Mubarak understood this much better than Obama. There was no room for compromise here: either the entire Mubarak power edifice fell, or the uprising would be co-opted and betrayed. The protracted struggle which dragged on in Egypt was not a conflict of visions, but the conflict between a vision of freedom, the “eternal” Platonic Idea of freedom, and a blind clinging to power ready to use all means possible—terror, food deprivation, exhaustion, bribery—to crush the will to freedom.

This “truth of Plato” received its clearest formulation in one of the great anti-Platonic works, Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, where Deleuze begins by “inverting” Plato’s dualism of eternal Ideas and their imitations in sensuous reality into the dualism of substantial (material) bodies and the pure impassive surface of Sense, the flux of Becoming which is to be located on the very borderline of Being and non-Being. Senses are surfaces which do not exist, but merely subsist: “They are not things or facts, but events. We cannot say that they exist, but rather that they subsist or inhere (having this minimum of being which is appropriate to that which is not a thing, a nonexisting entity).”[31] The Stoics, who developed this notion of “incorporeals,” were

the first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion. For if bodies with their states, qualities, and quantities, assume all the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of the Idea are relegated to the other side, that is to this impassive extra-Being which is sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things: the ideational or the incorporeal can no longer be anything other than an “effect.”[32]

This dualism is the “materialist truth” of the dualism of Ideas and material things, and it is against this background that one should envisage a return to Plato. Let us take an unexpected example: A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas—the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form—the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate—the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” One should thus fully accept that spatio-temporal material reality is “all there is,” that there is no other “more true” reality: the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order, how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance. No wonder that the two great admirers of Plato’s Parmenides, Hegel and Lacan, both provide exactly the same formula of the “truth” of the Platonic supersensible Idea: the supersensible

comes from the world of appearance which has mediated it; in other words, appearance is its essence and, in fact, its filling. The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible is therefore appearance qua appearance … It is often said that the supersensible world is not appearance; but what is here understood by appearance is not appearance, but rather the sensuous world as itself the really actual.[33]

When Lacan describes how Parrhasius painted the curtain in order to prompt Zeuxis to ask him, “OK, now please draw aside the veil and show me what you have painted!” his interpretation of the story reads as an explication of the above-quoted passage from Hegel. Parrhasius’s painting

appears as something else (as another thing) than that as what it gives/presents itself, or, rather, it gives/presents itself now as being this (an)other thing. The painting does not rival appearance, it rivals what Plato designated as the Idea which is beyond appearance. It is because the painting is this appearance which says that it is what gives appearance, that Plato raises himself against painting as an activity which rivals his own.[34]

The implicit lesson of Plato is not that everything is appearance, that it is not possible to draw a clear line of separation between appearance and reality (that would have meant the victory of sophism), but that essence is “appearance as appearance,” that essence appears in contrast to appearance within appearance; that the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself. Insofar as the gap between essence and appearance is inherent to appearance, in other words, insofar as essence is nothing but appearance reflected into itself, appearance is appearance against the background of nothing—everything that appears ultimately appears out of nothing (or, to put it in terms of quantum physics, all entities arise out of the quantum vacillations of the void). Appearance is nothing in itself; it is just an illusory being, but this illusory being is the only being of essence, so that the reflective movement of essence

is the movement nothing to nothing, and so back to itself. The transition, or becoming, sublates itself in its passage; the other that in this transition comes to be, is not the non-being of a being, but the nothingness of a nothing, and this, to be the negation of a nothing, constitutes being. Being only is as the movement of nothing to nothing, and as such it is essence; and the latter does not have this movement within it, but is this movement as a being that is itself absolutely illusory, pure negativity, outside of which there is nothing for it to negate but which negates only its own negative, and this negative, which latter is only in this negating.[35]

The answer to “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” is thus that there is only Nothing, and all processes take place “from Nothing through Nothing to Nothing.” However, this nothing is not the Oriental or mystical Void of eternal peace, but the nothingness of a pure gap (antagonism, tension, “contradiction”), the pure form of dislocation ontologically preceding any dislocated content. Such a radical ontological claim is not only dismissed by common sense as a meaningless play with words, it was also problematized by many followers and critics of Hegel from Schelling to Dieter Henrich, whose diagnosis is that the Hegelian negation of negation only works if we confuse two meanings of immediacy: immediacy as the immediate starting point of a process and immediacy as the result of mediation (self-relating negation). Henrich’s critical conclusion is that Hegel’s attempt to provide a circular foundation for the dialectical process by way of demonstrating how the process itself retroactively posits/grounds its own presuppositions fails, and that what is needed is an immediate absolute starting point provided by the subject’s Selbst-Vertrautheit (self-acquaintance), preceding any reflexive movement of self-consciousness.

One can nonetheless defend Hegel here: as a model of what he has in mind, let us take the notion of the clinamen in all its radicality: it is not that there are first atoms, which then deviate from their straight path (or not)—atoms are nothing but their clinamen. There is no substantial “something” prior to the clinamen which gets caught up in it; this “something” which deviates is created, emerges, through the clinamen itself. The clinamen is thus like the photon with no mass: for an ordinary particle (if there is such a thing), we imagine it as an object with a mass, such that when its movement is accelerated its mass grows; a photon, however, has no mass in itself, its entire mass is the result of its acceleration. The paradox is here the paradox of a thing which is always (and nothing but) an excess with regard to itself: in its “normal” state, it is nothing. This brings us back to Lacan’s notion of the objet a as surplus-enjoyment: there is no “basic enjoyment” to which one adds the surplus-enjoyment; enjoyment is always a surplus, in excess. The object-in-itself (photon, atom) is here not negated/mediated, it emerges as the (retroactive) result of its mediation.

This result brings us back unexpectedly to Plato’s Parmenides, which uncannily ends up evoking a hypothesis that points forward towards the thesis that there is only Nothing, that all processes take place “from Nothing through Nothing to Nothing”: “If one is not, then nothing is.”[36] Is not Parmenides, even more than Plato’s Sophist, the dialogue on the corrosive all-pervasive force of nothingness? It begins already in Parmenides 130c-d, when Parmenides raises a question that perplexes Socrates and forces him to admit his limitation: are there also Ideas of the lowest material things, Ideas of excrement, dust …? Is there an eidos for “things that might seem absurd, like hair and mud and dirt, or anything else totally undignified and worthless?” (130c). What lurks behind this question is not only the embarrassing fact that the noble notion of Form could also apply to excremental objects, but a much more precise paradox that Plato approaches in his Statesman (262a–263a), in which he makes a crucial claim: divisions (of a genus into species) should be made at the proper joints. For example, it is a mistake to divide the genus of all human beings into Greeks and barbarians: “barbarian” is not a proper form because it does not designate a positively defined group (species), but merely all persons who are not Greeks. The positivity of the term “barbarian” thus conceals the fact that it serves as the container for all those who do not fit the form “Greek.” Hegel’s (and Lacan’s) hypothesis is that this holds for all divisions of a genus into species: every genus, in order to be fully divided into species, has to include such a negative pseudo-species, a “part of no-part” of the genus, all those who belong to the genus but are not covered by any of its species. This “contradiction” between a genus and its species, embodied in an excessive group whose consistency is purely “negative,” is what sets a dialectical process in motion.

In the domain of art as the “sensible appearing of the Idea” (a notion which should be fully rehabilitated—on condition that we conceive of the Idea as the surface of an Event that shines through a unique physical constellation), we confront a strictly homologous question: what object-content can be made into a topic of art? The history of art is a history of the gradual disclosure of new domains: with Romanticism, chaotic ruins and mountains become sublime; in high-quality detective novels, corrupted megalopolises and decaying suburbs, not to mention murder, are included; in fin de siècle modernism, feminine hysteria becomes a topic, and so on. Mladen Dolar is right to link this problem to that of the agalma, the ineffable x, the secret treasure that (also) eludes predication:

we have here the necessary counterpart, the Platonian missing half, as it were, for a theory of the object a. There are two very different, sharply opposed, views of the object in Plato—agalma and junk (shall we say “agalma and shit” to make for a better slogan?)—which should ultimately be made to converge in the concept of object a, and the theory of the object has to account for both from the same pivot.[37]

The objet a is thus the name for the ultimate unity of the opposites in Plato … In the early 1920s, Lenin proposed that Marxist philosophers should form a “society of the materialist friends of Hegel”—today, perhaps, the time has come for radical philosophers to form a “society of the materialist friends of Plato.” Plato is the first in a series of philosophers (Descartes and Hegel being the two main others) who fell out of favor in the twentieth century, being blamed for all our misfortunes. Badiou has enumerated six main (and partially intertwined) forms of twentieth-century anti-Platonism:

1. Vitalist anti-Platonism (Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze): the assertion of the real of life-becoming against the intellectualist sterility of Platonic Forms—as Nietzsche put it, “Plato” is the name for a disease …

2. Empiricist-analytic anti-Platonism: Plato believed in the independent existence of Ideas; but, as Aristotle already knew, Ideas do not exist independently of sensuous things whose forms they are. The main counter-Platonic thesis of analytic empiricists is that all truths are either analytic or empirical.

3. Marxist anti-Platonism (for which Lenin is not blameless): the dismissal of Plato as the first Idealist, opposed to pre-Socratic materialists as well as to the more “progressive” and empirically oriented Aristotle. In this view (which conveniently forgets that, in contrast to Aristotle’s notion of the slave as a “talking tool,” there is no place for slaves in Plato’s Republic), Plato was the main ideologist of the class of slave owners …[38]

4. Existentialist anti-Platonism: Plato denies the uniqueness of singular existence and subordinates the singular to the universal. This anti-Platonism has a Christian version (Kierkegaard: Socrates versus Christ) and an atheist one (Sartre: “existence precedes essence”).

5. Heideggerian anti-Platonism: Plato as the founding figure of “Western metaphysics, ” the key moment in the historical process of the “forgetting of Being,” the starting point of the process which culminates in today’s technological nihilism (“from Plato to NATO …”).

6. “Democratic” anti-Platonism in political philosophy, from Popper to Arendt: Plato as the originator of the “closed society,” as the first thinker who elaborated in detail the project of totalitarianism. (For Arendt, at a more refined level, Plato’s original sin was to have subordinated politics to Truth, not seeing that politics is a domain of phronesis, of judgments and decisions made in unique, unpredictable situations.)

Plato’s position is thus similar to that of Descartes: “Plato” is the negative point of reference which unites otherwise irreconcilable enemies: Marxists and anti-Communist liberals, existentialists and analytic empiricists, Heideggerians and vitalists …

So why a return to Plato? Why do we need a repetition of Plato’s founding gesture? In his Logiques des mondes, Badiou provides a succinct definition of “democratic materialism” and its opposite, “materialist dialectics”: the axiom which condenses the first is “There is nothing but bodies and languages …,” to which materialist dialectics adds “… with the exception of truths.”[39] One should bear in mind the Platonic, properly meta-physical, thrust of this distinction: prima facie, it cannot but appear as a proto-idealist gesture to assert that material reality is not all that there is, that there is also another level of incorporeal truths. Badiou here makes the paradoxical philosophical gesture of defending, as a materialist, the autonomy of the “immaterial” order of Truth. As a materialist, and in order to be thoroughly materialist, Badiou focuses on the idealist topos par excellence: how can a human animal forsake its animality and put its life in the service of a transcendent Truth? How can the “transubstantiation” from the pleasure-oriented life of an individual to the life of a subject dedicated to a Cause occur? In other words, how is a free act possible? How can one break (out of) the network of the causal connections of positive reality and conceive an act that begins by and in itself? Again, Badiou repeats, within the materialist frame, the elementary gesture of idealist anti-reductionism: human Reason cannot be reduced to the result of evolutionary adaptation; art is not just a heightened procedure for producing sensual pleasure but a medium of Truth; and so on.

This, then, is our basic philosophico-political choice (decision) today: either repeat in a materialist vein Plato’s assertion of the meta-physical dimension of “eternal Ideas,” or continue to dwell in the postmodern universe of “democratic-materialist” historicist relativism, caught in the vicious cycle of the eternal struggle with “premodern” fundamentalisms. How is this gesture possible, thinkable even? Let us begin with the surprising fact that Badiou identifies the “principal contradiction,” the predominant antagonism, of today’s ideological situation not as the struggle between idealism and materialism, but as the struggle between two forms of materialism (democratic and dialectical). Plus, to add insult to injury, “democratic materialism” stands for the reduction of all there is to the historical reality of bodies and languages (the twins of Darwinism, brain science, etc., and of discursive historicism), while “materialist dialectics” adds the “Platonic” (“idealist”) dimension of “eternal” Truths. To anyone acquainted with the dialectics of history, however, there should be no surprise here.


In order to discern the emancipatory potential of Plato’s thought, it must be placed against the background of the sophist revolution. In breaking with the “closed” mythic universe, the Ancient Greek sophists like the ill-famed Gorgias asserted and played upon the self-referential abyss of language, which turns in its circle, lacking any external support. Plato’s main task was to deal with this predicament which he experienced as a true horror vacui: aware that there could be no return to mythic closure, he tried to control the damage by re-anchoring language in the meta-physical reality of Ideas.

This is why his Parmenides, in which Plato himself enacts a self-critical collapse of his teaching on Ideas, is the closest he comes to being a sophist—the conclusion of the eight sophistic logical exercises covering the matrix of all logically possible relations between Being and the One is a Gorgias one: nothing exists, etc. Is not Parmenides the ultimate treatise on the signifier (One) and the real (Being), deploying the full matrix of their possible relations? The result is a version of the beautiful neopagan (“wicca”) notion that after death everybody gets what they believed in: Valhalla for the Vikings, Hell or Paradise for the Christians, nothing at all for the materialists, and so on—all variations, even if they are contradictory (self-contradictory and contradictory with regard to each other), are in some sense true. That is to say, each of the hypotheses in the second part of Parmenides is to be read as pointing towards a specific ontological sphere within a “crazy” pluralistic ontology, and the task is to provide a precise description of each of these spheres, notwithstanding eventual logical mistakes in Plato’s reasoning.

In all his later dialogues, Plato endeavors to control the damage by trying to draw a clear line of separation between self-referential sophistic language games and a speech which refers to substantial truths external to it. What Plato cannot accept is the Hegelian solution: all such exercises are true, they all have ontological relevance.

The crucial dialogue in this series is the Sophist, in which Plato deals with the problem of non-being, trying to outline a third way between two opposite extremes: Parmenides’s assertion of the unconditional One and Gorgias’s sophistic playing with the multiplicity of non-being. Plato classifies sophistry as the appearance-making art: imitating true wisdom, sophists produce appearances that deceive; in their empty ratiocinations and search for rhetorical effects, they obviously talk about something that does not exist. But how can one talk about non-being, making it appear as something that is? To answer this question, Plato is compelled to counter Parmenides’s thesis that “it is impossible that things that are not are”: things which are not (but only appear to be) also somehow are—how? Plato defines Not-Being not as the opposite of Being (i.e., not as excluded from the domain of Being), but as a Difference within the domain of Being: negative predication indicates something different from the predicate (when I say “this is not black,” I thereby imply that it is a color other than black). Plato’s basic strategy is thus to relativize non-being, that is, to treat it not as an absolute negation of being but as a relational negation of a predicate. This is how the sophist brings about a (relative) non-being and thus produces a false appearance: not by talking about absolute Nothing, but by attributing false predicates to entities.

At the origin of Plato’s troubles is thus the undecidable ontological status of semblances. What is a semblance? As a key to understanding the notion of semblant, Lacan proposes Bentham’s theory of fictions, which fascinates him for a very precise reason: the axis on which Lacan focuses is not “fiction versus reality” but “fiction versus (the real of) jouissance.” As Jelica Sumic explains:

semblance, as conceived by Lacan, is intended to designate that which, coming from the symbolic, is directed towards the real. This is precisely what characterizes Bentham’s fictions. Indeed, as a fact of language, made of nothing but the signifier, Bentham’s legal fictions are nonetheless capable of distributing and modifying pleasures and pains, thereby affecting the body. What held Lacan’s attention in reading Bentham’s Theory of Fictions was precisely that something which is ultimately an apparatus of language—Bentham defines fictions as owing their existence to language alone—is capable of inflicting pain or provoking satisfaction that can only be experienced in the body … Hence by openly stating that fictions are nothing but an artificial device, “a contrivance,” to use Bentham’s proper term, designed to provoke either pain or pleasure, Bentham brings into question all human institutions insofar as they are an apparatus destined to regulate the modes of jouissance by dressing them up in the virtues of the useful and the good. Bentham’s concept of fictions can be seen as an effective manner of denouncing the moral and social ideals of the epoch, of exposing them as being nothing but a semblance, a make-believe.[40]

So, when Lacan claims that every discourse generates a semblance of jouissance, one should read this as involving genitivus objectivus as well as subjectivus: the semblance of jouissance (not a fully real one) and a jouissance in (the fact that what we are dealing with is a mere) semblance.[41] Bentham is here far from the crude logic of “unmasking,” or discerning low motives—pleasure, power, envy, etc.—beneath high ethical reasons; the enigma he is confronting is a strange eppur si muove—even when an (ideological) fiction is clearly recognized as a fiction, it still works: “it is possible to use fictions in order to attain the real without believing in them.”[42] This is the paradox of which Marx was already aware when he pointed out that “commodity fetishism” persists even after its illusory nature has become transparent. Niels Bohr provided its perfect formulation in response to a friend who asked if he really believed that the horseshoe above his door would bring him good luck: “Of course not, but I’ve been told it works even if one doesn’t believe in it!”

What distinguishes humans from animals is their ability to pretend as opposed to simply getting caught up in an illusion: I pretend that something is x while knowing full well it is not x. Pretending (faire-semblant) is to be distinguished from direct attempts to create an illusion. When we watch a horror movie, we are pleasurably terrified—pleasurably, precisely because while giving ourselves up to the spectacle we know very well that that is just what it is. But imagine our shock and withdrawal if, all of a sudden, we became aware that what we were watching was in fact a snuff movie depicting real acts of horror. This is also why scarecrows can be frightening: not because we are duped into believing they are alive, but because we have to confront the fact that they work, while knowing very well they are just artifacts. A scarecrow confronts us with the efficiency of a simulacrum: “while scarecrows scare crows because they flap and shake in the wind, scarecrows scare humans because the collapse of their success at imitating a human reveals, in a sometimes abrupt and startling manner, indications that they are a simulacrum of a human.”[43] What makes scarecrows terrifying is the minimal difference which makes them in-human: there is “nobody at home” behind the mask—as with a human who has turned into a zombie.

There is, however, a fundamental ambiguity at work here, which is why Lacan moved on from fictions to semblances. The distinction is between symbolic fiction proper and semblance in the sense of a simulacrum. Although, in both cases, the illusion works in spite of our awareness that it is only an illusion, there is a fine line separating them. It is crucial to distinguish here between pretending as a form of politeness, part of the “alienation” constitutive of the symbolic order as such, and the cynical instrumental use of norms which relies on another subject believing in them. It is one thing to greet an acquaintance with a polite “Nice to see you!” when we both know that I do not really mean it; it is another thing to play the other for a sucker, expecting him to fall for our lies. (The catch is not only that the first case cannot be dismissed as hypocrisy—in being polite, I “lie sincerely”—but also that the second case is not that of a simple lie—in duping the other, I become my own sucker …)

David K. Lewis, one of the most perspicuous American philosophers, approached the interesting problem of “truth in fiction” along just these lines: when we read a work of fiction, there is a pact between writer and reader that both will respect the illusion that the reported events are true. But what about a situation where the writer violates this fictional truth, this truth in fiction, either by violating the “truth” of his fictive universe out of sloppiness or by having the characters relate a fiction which wrongly passes for truth within the narrative universe of the fiction? In an epic novel, say, a minor character killed off in the first chapter pops up alive and well in a much later chapter—there is no mystery to it, the writer simply forgot that the person is dead …[44] In the more complex second case, recall the outcry provoked by the “false flashback” at the beginning of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright: a man jumps into a car driven by the heroine and, as he starts telling her why he is running away, the events he describes are shown in flashback. At the film’s end, we learn that he was lying: he is in fact the murderer. What caused the outcry was that Hitchcock had here violated one of the fundamental rules of narrative cinema: what is shown directly as a flashback must have really happened in the universe of the film; it’s “cheating” if we later learn that it was a lie.[45]

So what is the properly ontological problem here? Lewis asks a very simple but pertinent question: “why does this iteration of fiction not collapse into itself? How do we distinguish pretending [that fiction is true] from pretending to pretend?”[46] It is here that Lacan enters, with his distinction between imaginary lure and symbolic fiction proper: it is only within the symbolic space that we can pretend to pretend, or, lie in the guise of truth. Lewis’s question is thus ultimately a question about the “truthful lie” of the symbolic order itself: how is it that the symbolic does not “fall into the real”? How is it that it cannot be reduced to simple signs, to an inner-worldly relation between signs and what they designate, as is the case with smoke signifying fire? The solution is a Platonic one: human language proper only functions when fiction counts for more than reality, when there is more truth in a mask than in the stupid reality beneath the mask, when there is more truth in a symbolic title (father, judge …) than in the reality of the empirical bearer of this title. This is why Lacan is right when he points out that a Platonic supra-sensible Idea is an imitation of imitation, appearance as appearance—something that appears on the surface of substantial reality.

The key formula of semblance was proposed by J-A. Miller: semblance is a mask (veil) of nothing.[47] Here, of course, the link with the fetish offers itself: a fetish is also an object that conceals the void. Semblance is like a veil, a veil which veils nothing—its function is to create the illusion that there is something hidden beneath the veil. This brings us back to the anecdote, repeatedly evoked by Lacan and mentioned above, about Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two painters from Ancient Greece, who compete to determine who can paint the more convincing illusion.[48] Zeuxis produced such a realistic picture of grapes that birds tried to eat them. But Parrhasius won by painting a curtain on the wall of his room so realistic that Zeuxis asked him to draw it back so that he could see the painting behind it. In Zeuxis’s painting, the illusion was so convincing that the image was mistaken for the real thing; in Parrhasius’s painting, the illusion resided in the very notion that what the viewer saw in front of him was just a veil covering up the hidden truth. This is also how, for Lacan, feminine masquerade works: the woman wears a mask in order to make us react like Zeuxis in front of Parrhasius’s painting—OK, now take off the mask and show us what you really are! Developing these reflections of Lacan, Bernard Baas was right to point out that

the formula “all discourse is semblance” can also be understood according to the logic articulated in the mathemes of sexuation: the affirmative universal proposition “all x verifies the function f(x)” implies—contrary to strict mathematical logic—the exception that makes the rule and that, in a certain way, founds it: “there exists at least one x that does not verify the function f(x)” … the universal law that states that “all discourse is semblance” demands, for that discourse, that there exists at least one discourse that would not be “semblance,” because such a discourse is precisely that which forbids all discourse from escaping this law.[49]

Strangely, Baas does not supplement this masculine version with the feminine one: “there is no discourse which is not a discourse of semblance” implies that “not-all discourse is a discourse of semblance.” This indicates how we are to reach a “discourse which is not semblance”: not through the exception (one discourse which is not …), but through treating the multiplicity of discourses as “non-All,” through discerning their inconsistency, their points of impossibility. This is what Lacan, in his late teaching, called “to vacillate the semblances”: not to reach beyond, to an exception, but to reach their inconsistent non-All.

Therein resides the deadlock reached by Nietzsche who, in one and the same text (Beyond Good and Evil), seems to advocate two opposed epistemological positions: on the one hand, the notion of truth as the unbearable Real Thing—as dangerous, lethal even, like directly gazing into Plato’s sun—so that the problem becomes how much truth a man can endure without diluting or falsifying it; on the other hand, the “postmodern” notion that appearance is more valuable than stupid reality, and that, ultimately, there is no final Reality, only the interplay of multiple appearances, so that the very opposition between reality and appearance should be abandoned.[50] Does not humanity’s greatness lie in its ability to prioritize brilliant aesthetic appearance over gray reality? This, in Badiou’s terms, is the passion of the Real versus the passion of semblance. How are we to read these two opposed positions together? Is Nietzsche here simply inconsistent, oscillating between two mutually exclusive views? Or is there a “third way”? That is to say, what if the two opposed options (passion of the Real / passion of the semblance) render palpable Nietzsche’s struggle, his failure to articulate the “right” position whose formulation eluded him? There is not just the interplay of appearances, there is a Real—this Real, however, is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap which prevents our access to it, the “rock” of the antagonism which distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. The “truth” is thus not the “real” state of things, accessed by a “direct” view of the object without any perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism which causes the perspectival distortion itself. Again, the site of truth is not the way “things really are in themselves,” beyond perspectival distortion, but the very gap or passage which separates one perspective from another, the gap (in this case, social antagonism) which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable. The “Real as impossible” is the cause of the impossibility of our ever attaining the “neutral” non-perspectival view of the object. There is a truth, and not everything is relative—but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.

This brings us back once again to Plato: in the history of philosophy, the first exemplary case of “vacillating the semblances” occurs in the second part of Plato’s Parmenides, with the deployment of eight hypotheses on the relation between Being and One. Each hypothesis, of course, describes the contours of a semblance—however, taken all together, they are not “mere semblances,” but “semblances vacillated.” And is not the Hegelian dialectical process the climax of this strategy of “vacillating the semblances”? Each figure of consciousness, each notion, is described and denounced in its semblance, without any reliance on an external standard of truth.


Parmenides is a dialogue from Plato’s middle period—in a much more literal sense than is usually meant. Its very form is that of a composite: the first part is a typical “Socratic dialogue,” this time turned against Socrates himself; the second part is exemplary of Plato’s late dialogues in which one of the interlocutors develops his line of reasoning, with his partner limited to exclamatory punctuations like “So it is!” or “By Zeus, you are right!” and so on. However, this “middle period” character of the text in no way reduces it to a transitional work—it is, in a way, more radical than Plato’s later dialogues because it brings about the collapse of the big Other, revealing its cracks and inconsistencies.

Parmenides first demonstrates to Socrates the weaknesses of his theory of Ideas, pointing out that, before risking such a grand theory, Socrates should first engage in some conceptual exercise, introducing movement into Ideas themselves. What then follows is a kind of philosophical counterpoint to Satie’s “gymnopédies”—a vast network of “dialectical gymnastics,” logical exertions actualizing the matrix of all possible relations between One and Being. The exact status of this exercise is not clear; what is clear, however, is that there is no positive result, as if the exercise were its own point. The only result is that there is no consistent totality, no “big Other.” The whole interpretive problem arises when this result is read as merely negative: such a reading generates the need to fill the gap, to propose a new positive theory—which is what the late Plato then attempts to do, passing from one supplement to another, from chora in Timaeus to … But what if such a reading is conditioned by a kind of perspectival illusion, involving a failure to see how the result is not merely negative, but is in itself already positive, already what we were looking for? To see this, one has only to effect a parallax shift and grasp the problem as (containing) its own solution.

One often hears talk of Plato’s “esoteric teaching” which runs counter to his official idealism—the two main candidates are, for New Agers, a Gnostic dualism positing the feminine material principle as a counterpoint to idealism, and, for Leo Strauss, a ruthless and cynical realism, downgrading the theory of Ideas to the status of a “noble lie.” What if it is Parmenides that delivers Plato’s true teaching—not as something hidden, but in plain view? The trick is to take seriously (literally), as true ontology, what is usually seen as a playful dialectical exercise in following all possible hypotheses ad absurdum. The truth is not hidden behind the logical exercises, it is not the negative-theological message that the ineffable One is beyond the grasp of logic; it is simply that Plato really means what he says.

A parallel with Hegel could be of some use here. One way to determine exactly when “Hegel became Hegel” is to look at the relationship between logic and metaphysics: the early “pre-Hegelian” Hegel distinguishes between Logic (the study of pure notions as organon, the means to ontological analysis proper) and Metaphysics (the study of the basic ontological structure of reality), and he “becomes Hegel” the moment he drops this distinction and realizes that Logic already is Metaphysics: what appears as an introductory analysis of the tools required to grasp the Thing is already the Thing.[51] In an homologous way, we should not read the second part of Parmenides as a mere logical exercise preparing the way for the ontology proper—it is already this ontology. Does not Plato himself not point in this direction in the following Hegelian-sounding passage?

By Heaven, can we be ready to believe that the absolutely real has no share in movement, life, soul or wisdom? That it does not live or think, but in solemn holiness, unpossessed of mind, stands entirely at rest? That would be a dreadful thing to admit. (248e)

Such a radical “Hegelian” conclusion is, however, too much for the majority of interpreters. Traditional readings of the second part of Parmenides move between two interpretive extremes: they see in it either an exercise in pure logical gymnastics, or the negative-theological indication of the Unsayable One. For the Neoplatonists, who were the first to propose the latter reading, the purpose of Parmenides

goes far beyond the making of subtle linguistic distinctions. The exercise in dialectic provides symbolic and numinous adumbrations of the nature of the superessential One and how one might approach it. The negative conclusions of the first Hypothesis, for example, are not illustrations of the nonsensical nature of the pure One. Rather, they demonstrate the failure of reason and language to grasp the ineffable non-relative One that rises above all forms of relative knowledge. The dialectical exercise, which ranges over the whole field of discourse and considers all the logical permutations of any proposition, is a meditation for freeing the mind from clinging to any one philosophical position or assumption, thereby opening it up to mystical illumination. It is the Platonic via negativa.[52]

Or, as Findlay put it: “Those unable or unwilling to draw conclusions from more or less palpable hints, or constitutionally unable to understand metaphysical or mystical utterances, or to enter into mystical feelings … should certainly never engage in the interpretation of Plato.”[53] Badiou calls this Neoplatonic move from the inconsistent multiplicity of (logical) reasoning to the trans-discursive One (whatever its name, from Substance to Life) “the Great Temptation” of materialist thought. Both Hegel and Lacan, two great admirers of Parmenides, rejected this “misunderstood ecstasy” (Hegel), this “Neoplatonic confusion” (Lacan). But is the only alternative to reading Parmenides as a piece of mystical negative theology—its lesson being that the Absolute is ineffable, that it eludes the grasp of our categories, that we san say anything and/or nothing about it—to reduce it to a jokey logical exercise (non-substantial reasoning with no connection with reality), perhaps not even intended seriously (surely Plato must have been aware of the logical fallacies in some of the arguments)? Perhaps Hegel was right to see in this dialogue the summit of the Greek dialectic. What if we reject both options and treat the “contradictions” not as signs of the limitation of our reason, but as belonging to the “thing itself”? What if the matrix of all possible relations between the One and Being is also effectively the matrix of the “impossible” relations between the signifier and the Real?

Crucial here is the shift from the first to the second part of the dialogue. In the first part, Socrates tries to resolve the paradox that opposites can be attributed to the same entity (oneness and multiplicity, rest and movement, etc.) by way of distinguishing between the eternal order of Ideas and empirical reality. The same empirical thing can be one and multiple—it can simultaneously participate in the Idea of oneness and the Idea of multiplicity: a man is at once one, this individual, and multiple, a combination of parts or organs—but the Ideas of oneness or of multiplicity cannot. In the second part, Parmenides (in a supreme example of Platonic irony, given what we know of the “real” historical Parmenides) introduces the dynamics of relating, mutual participation, and “contradiction” into the real of Ideas themselves. In order to be One, one has to be multiple (to participate in multiplicity), and so on—“everything would fall apart, and great havoc would follow, if it turned out that there could be a contradiction in the order of forms themselves”[54]—“if someone could show that kinds and forms themselves have in themselves these opposite properties, that would call for astonishment. But if someone should demonstrate that I am one thing and many, what’s astonishing about that?” (129c).

The succession of eight hypotheses in the second part should thus be conceived like the succession of categories in Hegel’s logic, where each categorial determination is developed so that its inherent “contradiction” (inconsistency) is brought out. So what if we conceive the passage from the first to the second part of Parmenides as homologous to the Hegelian passage from phenomenology to logic? The first part works like any other of Plato’s early dialogues: someone who pretends to know is questioned by the Socratic figure who compels him to admit the inconsistency of his position and thus the vanity of his knowledge; the exceptional feature here is that this procedure has become self-reflexive: the figure who pretends to know is now Socrates himself, whose teaching on Ideas is submitted to criticism in dialogue with Parmenides. In the second part, we pass from phenomenological dialogue to the logical self-deployment of notional determinations.

In her detailed introduction to Parmenides, Mary Louise Gill tries to avoid both predominant readings (Parmenides as a treatise on negative theology or as a logical exercise) by taking the second part literally, as an attempt to resolve the deadlock of the first part (where Parmenides has shown up the inconsistencies of Socrates’ theory of forms, while nonetheless unequivocally asserting that the forms are needed if we are to understand being).[55] This heroic effort leads her to differentiate between the strength and pertinence of the various hypotheses: for her, the third hypothesis (asserting that the One and Many [the others] are not incompatible, that others can partake in the One as wholes, as parts, and get from this partaking their limit) points towards the solution: “Deduction 3 produced some highly constructive results by assuming that the one is altogether one and that the others somehow partake of it.”[56] Parmenides destroys this promise in the fourth hypothesis only by accepting the unwarranted premise that the One and the others are totally incompatible.

Sympathetic and rigorous as Gill’s attempt is, it seems to miss the point of the entire matrix of the eight hypotheses in their structural unity: what is the meaning of the matrix itself, irrespective of the varying quality of particular lines of argumentation? This brings us back to a reading of the entire set of hypotheses as a formal matrix of eight possible worlds: each hypothesis formulates a world’s “immanent transcendental” (in Badiou’s precise meaning of the term). Parmenides is thus Plato’s “logics of worlds.” The eight worlds implied by the eight hypotheses are not some kind of forerunner of a postmodern “plurality of universes”: they arise against the background of a certain impossibility or deadlock which generates them—the impossibility of “reconciling” Being and the One, the Real and the Signifier, of making them overlap symmetrically. There are many worlds because Being cannot be One, because a gap persists between the two. What we should bear in mind here is that the couple of the One and Being prefigures the couple of Plato himself and Aristotle: in contrast to Aristotelian ontology, with its orientation towards being as the most basic notion in theory,

Platonism identifies unity as the central concept from which all reasoning begins. One could say that Platonism is “henology” (to hen = the One) as opposed to “ontology.” “The One” (an artificial philosophical word, which was not there before the school of Parmenides) is used here as a subject, not as a predicate or a numeral. For Aristotle, the concept of oneness is only an aspect of the particular. Every particular is “one,” insofar as it is indivisible and individual. “Oneness,” in this view, basically depends on the meaning of “Being.” In Platonism, the reverse is true: the concept of the One is self-sufficient, so to speak, preceding the domain of particulars. Accordingly, the One accounts for the existence of particulars in a manifold that is somehow unified, structured, and determinate. It is a variant of the One. All these basic predicates of the particular can be interpreted in terms of the One that precedes all being.[57]

There is yet another way to understand the link between Parmenides’s two parts: to focus on what the dialogue itself claims is the goal of the second part, namely to lay the ground for the proper understanding of the doctrine of Ideas whose critique has been laid out in the first part. Viewed in this way, the “pessimistic” conclusion that nothing at all exists, etc., should be qualified as a rejection of pre-Platonic cosmic monism: nothing fully exists, reality is a confused mess about which nothing consistent can be said; and if we remain within the coordinates of cosmic monism and do not posit a realm of Ideas external to Cosmos—if we limit ourselves to the One-All of the eternally changing reality—this One-All ultimately reveals itself to be nothing at all.


Parmenides’s dialectical exercise is divided into eight parts: apropos of each of the two basic hypotheses—if the One is and if the One is not—he examines the consequences for the One, and the consequences for the Others; plus he adds a subtle but crucial distinction between the One which has being and the bare One, so that altogether we get eight hypotheses:

Hypothesis If … Consequences for … Result
1 There is One the One negative
2 One is the One positive
3 One is the Others positive
4 There is One the Others negative
5 One is not the One positive
6 There is no One the One negative
7 One is not the Others positive
8 There is no One the Others negative

In the case of hypotheses 2, 3, 5, and 7, which predicate being (or non-being) of the One, the result is positive: predication is possible; that is, positive statements can be made of the One (or of the not One). In the case of hypotheses 1, 4, 6, and 8, which put the One out of the sphere of being (or non-being), the result is negative: predication is not possible; that is, nothing can be asserted of the One (or of the not One):

(1) “There is One,” but a totally ineffable-unpredictable One without Being, a One which is neither true nor false—Dolar is right to point out that this One is not the non-symbolic Real, but the lack of a signifier, the “barred” signifier ($), which is as such still inherent to the order of the signifier.[58]

(2) One with Being, “One is”: we can predicate it, we are dealing with One which is; but crucial here is the implied difference between One and Being: “If one is, it participates in being, and is therefore something different from being, for otherwise it would make no sense to assert that one is.”[59] But the moment we concede this difference, we are compelled to repeat it indefinitely, i.e., within each of its poles: every One again is and is One, every being is and is one, etc.: “‘The one that is’ falls apart into one and being, but in such a way that each part includes the other as its part. This inner division, once it has started, cannot be stopped: the moment we have two parts, we have infinitely many of them.” Or, to put it in Hegelese, each term has two species, itself and the other term; each term is the encompassing unity of itself and its other. We enter thereby the problematic space of self-referential paradoxes: “One is now at one and the same time the whole and the part, and so into infinity, it is both limited and unlimited, it both moves and stands still, it is both identical and different, like and unlike itself and others, both equal and unequal to itself and to others etc.” If the result of the first hypothesis is that we cannot predicate anything of the One, the result of the second hypothesis is that “anything goes,” we can predicate all possible, even mutually exclusive, predicates. Dolar draws here exactly the opposite conclusion to Armand Zaloszyc: Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un is a paraphrase not of the first, but of the second of Parmenides’s hypotheses:

Lacan’s famous dictum Y a d’l’Un can be read as a paraphrase of this second hypothesis. Translating it simply by “There is One” one loses the paradox of the French formulation, where the partitive article (de) treats the one as an indefinite quantity (as in Il y a de l’eau, “There is water,” i.e. an indefinite quantity of it), implying, first, that there can be an immeasurable quantity of one, i.e. of what is itself the basis of any measuring, and second, if the quantity is indefinite, then it is divisible (like water)—but into what, if one is the minimal unity?[60]

But does this weird immeasurable quantity not mean that the One of the second hypothesis should not be linked to Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un, that the “One which is,” the unary signifier, S1, should rather be opposed to the immeasurable “there is (something of the) One,” which is characterized by a divisibility and thus a multiplicity not composed of Ones? The paradox is here a very elegant Hegelian one: although Plato is the philosopher of the One, what he is unable to think (as opposed to just “represent”) is precisely the One as a concept. To do this, one needs not only a self-relating reflexive predication (the One is a “one One,” an x which partakes of the Idea of One with regard to Oneness itself)—which Plato possesses—but also the positive concept of zero (which Plato does not possess): to get a pure concept of the One, not just the notion of one thing, the x which “partakes of the idea of One with regard to Oneness itself” has to be zero, a void, devoid of all content. Or, to put it in a more descriptive way: being-a-One adds nothing to the content of an object; its only content is the form of self-identity itself.

In Dolar’s reading, the first two hypotheses are two circles which partially intersect, so that the first hypothesis stands for the One without Being, that is, the One from which the part of it which intersects with Being is subtracted, and the second hypothesis stands for the narrow intersection of the two circles of One and Being.

(3) One with Being does not preclude Others with Being: there can be Others with predicates.

(4) One without Being precludes Others and thus also their predication.

(5) It concerns a One, something that is an entity, but which does not exist, i.e., does not have Being. Even if One is not, we can still predicate it, i.e., negative predication is possible, we know what we are saying when we negate a predicate.

(6) The One is here not only deprived of Being, but deprived of its very character of One: it is no longer a non-existent entity, but a nonentity—and, as such, cannot be predicated.

(7) What does the fact that the One is a non-existing entity mean for Others? As in the case of the hypothesis 5, Others can be predicated.

(8) If, however, One is not only a non-existent entity, but a nonentity, then there are also no Others, existing or non-existing—there is nothing at all.

To account for the difference between hypothesis 5—one can talk (make propositions, say true things) about non-being; truth has a structure of (symbolic) fiction—and hypothesis 7—everything is a fluid appearance—we must introduce a tripartite distinction between symbolic fiction, imaginary illusion, and the appearance of the Real: the One of hypothesis 5, the One that does not exist, but which we can talk about, is the symbolic fiction; the dispersed not-One of hypothesis 7 is that of imaginary illusion; and, we may add, the One that is not One of hypothesis 8 is the Real as impossible.

Radically opposed to Dolar’s reading of Parmenides is that of Armand Zaloszyc, according to whom “Y a d’l’Un” is the formula for the pure jouissance-One, that is, a jouissance not yet mediated by the Other, the symbolic order, not yet “departmentalized,” accountable. The missing link which legitimizes us in establishing a connection between this thesis of Lacan and the first hypothesis of Plato’s Parmenides (which asserts the One totally external to Being, with no relation to or participation in Being) is provided by the Neoplatonist “mysticism” of Plotinus—recall that, for Lacan, the mystical ex-stasis is the paradigmatic example of the jouissance-One. Parmenides was the Neoplatonists’ favorite of Plato’s texts, and they read it as a powerful assertion of the ineffability of the One with which the mystical experience reunites us:

The demonstration of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides leads to the conclusion that it is impossible that the One exists. So it is, the One of this first hypothesis, being one by definition, could neither have parts nor be a whole. Therefore, it will have neither beginning, nor end, nor limits. For the same reason, it will not participate in time. It will therefore have no being since to be implies the participation in a time. And, if it is not at all, then can it have something that belongs to it or comes from it? Most certainly not. Therefore it has no name; there is no definition, no perception, and no knowledge of it. Is it possible that this be so of the One? No. From this demonstration of impossibility it can surely be legitimately introduced that “since the One in no way participates with being,” it does not exist, that there is nothing beyond being, that being is therefore all. The Neoplatonists chose to read the Parmenides demonstration of impossibility differently. They agreed that there is an incompatibility between the One and being, but rather than deducing that the One does not exist, they concluded that no doubt the One did not exist in terms of being, but that beyond being, there is the One, that the One ex-sists from being.

In this way, “there is the One” constitutes a formula that opposes ontology and leads towards the notion of the not-all of a radical Other, in terms of the otherness with which there is no relation, where emerges the logic of the Parmenides demonstration.

Being on one side, and on the other, the there is—they are incompatible. Being on one side, the real on the other. We immediately see that this opposition is the one at work in negative theologies, in the pursuit of a non-knowledge that equals itself to learned ignorance, in the accounts given by the great Christian mystics of their experience, using oxymorons drawn from The Mystic Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite.[61]

There are two arguments for this reading. When Lacan talks about jouissance feminine, he always qualifies it—“if a thing like that were to exist (but it does not)”—thereby confirming its incommensurability with the order of being (existence). Plus, his formula is Y a d’l’Un, and the impersonal il y a is, like the German es gibt which plays such a key role in late Heidegger, clearly opposed to being (in English, this distinction gets blurred, since one cannot avoid the verb “to be” in translation). There is, however, one conclusive counter-argument which pretty much ruins the case: Zaloszyc refers to the Neoplatonic mystics as the missing link between Plato and Lacan, yet, as we have already seen, Lacan explicitly rejects the Neoplatonist reading of Parmenides. It thus seems that Dolar’s opposed reading—wherein the One versus Being is, in Lacanese, the symbolic versus the Real—is much more convincing. But let us see where Zaloszyc’s reading leads him:

The One that there is, is the one of the jouissance One, that is, the jouissance designated in the terms of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides … it is opposed to a jouissance developed partes extra partes that is consequentially accountable and numerable according to the measurements of the signifier. If we think about it, the being itself is only determined by meaningfulness, whereas we refer the jouissance One to the real. The real as impossible, as we have already seen.

So there is a jouissance that is not without a relation to the Other of the signifier (that is alienated to the signifier), and there is an autistic jouissance, separated from the signifier and separated from the Other, for which the paradigm is the non-relation. That is the jouissance One. From there, there are two ways to go: either maintain that there is no other being than being, with the will to foreclose the jouissance One, or support the idea that there is the One that exists apart from being, in which case the demonstration of impossibility takes into account the trace that this One leaves in the Other, in the form of “there is no sexual relation” …

The passage from the jouissance One to the Name-of-the-Father is the passage from the not-all to an all, but this passage leaves an un-sublated remainder/excess, the trace that the jouissance One will leave there. One of the forms of this excess is jouissance feminine, the other is the Freudian Ur-Vater, the one who enjoys all the women.[62]

Insofar as, for Lacan, this One is (also) an “indivisible remainder” which makes the sexual relationship inexistent, one can understand how Y a d’l’Un is strictly correlative to il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: it is the very object-obstacle to it; it is not primarily the mystical all-encompassing One of the infamous “oceanic feeling” derided by Freud, but a “little piece of the Real,” the excremental remainder which disturbs the harmony of the Two. The equation of the two excesses (jouissance feminine and Ur-Vater) also makes sense: it points towards Lacan’s statement that “woman is one of the names of the father.”

What makes Zaloszyc’s solution problematic is that it is ultimately incompatible with the very logic of the non-All to which it refers: it reduces it to the “masculine” logic of exception; symptomatically, Zaloszyc himself uses the term “exception” to designate the feminine position: “The feminine side of sexuation will present itself, not without a tie to the phallic signifier, but also not without having preserved a relation with the jouissance One”; this is what “makes a woman an exception,” namely an exception to the phallic-symbolic order.

How are we to relate the One of Y a d’l’Un (“there is [some] One, something of a One,” developed by Lacan in Seminar XX [Encore]) to the series of unary signifiers, prior to their unification through a phallic Master-Signifier—the infinitely self-divisible series of S1 (S1 (S1 (S1…))), which also replicates the frame of the materialist ontology of multiplicities and Void? There is a good reason Lacan uses the common French expression Y a d’l’Un, which is as far as possible from the elevated mystical assertion of the One beyond all being(s), epekeina tes ousias (like “there is water there”—an unspecified quantum). However, the One of Y a d’l’Un is not yet the One of counting: the diffuse “there is something of the One” precisely prevents the fixation of limits which would render possible the counting of Ones. What if one reads Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un as the formula of the minimal libidinal fixation (on some One) constitutive of drive, as the moment of the emergence of drive from the pre-evental One-less multiplicity? As such, this One is a “sinthome,” a kind of “atom of enjoyment,” the minimal synthesis of language and enjoyment, a unit of signs permeated with enjoyment (like a tic we compulsively repeat). Are such Ones not quanta of enjoyment, its smallest, most elementary packages?

Obscurantist idealists like to vary the motif of “almost nothing”: a minimum of being which nonetheless bears witness to divinity (“God is also present in the tiniest speck of dust …”). The materialist answer to this is the less than nothing. The first to propose this answer was Democritus, the father of Ancient Greek materialism (and also, incidentally, one of the first to formulate the principle of equality—“Equality is everywhere noble,” as he put it). To express this “less than nothing,” Democritus took recourse to a wonderful neologism den (first coined by the sixth-century-BC poet Alcaeus), so the basic axiom of his ontology is: “Nothing is no less than Othing,” or, as the German translation goes, “Das Nichts existiert ebenso sehr wie das Ichts.”[63] It is crucial to note how, contrary to the late Wittgensteinian thrust towards ordinary language, towards language as part of a life world, materialism begins by violating the rules of ordinary language, by thinking against language. (Since med’hen does not literally mean “nothing,” but rather “not-one,” a more adequate transposition of den into English would have been something like “otone” or even “tone.”[64])

The Ancient Greeks had two words for nothing, meden and ouden, which stand for two types of negation: ouden is a factual negation, something that is not but could have been; meden is, on the contrary, something that in principle cannot be. From meden we get to den not simply by negating the negation in meden, but by displacing negation, or, rather, by supplementing negation with a subtraction. That is to say, we arrive at den when we take away from meden not the whole negating prefix, but only its first two letters: meden is med’hen, the negation of hen (one): not-one. Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. Or, as Lacan put it: “Nothing, perhaps? No—perhaps nothing, but not nothing”;[65] to which Cassin adds: “I would love to make him say: Pas rien, mais moins que rien (Not nothing, but less than nothing)”[66]—den is a “blind passenger” of every ontology.[67] As such, it is “the radical real,” and Democritus is a true materialist: “No more materialist in this matter than anyone with his senses, than me or than Marx, for example. But I cannot swear that this also holds for Freud”—Lacan suspects Freud’s link to kabbala obscurantism.[68]

In characterizing den as the result of “subtraction after negation” (something—nothing—othing), Cassin, of course, cannot resist the temptation to have a stab at Hegel: “It cannot be dialecticized precisely insofar as it is not an assumed and sublated negation of negation, but a subtraction after negation.”[69] The rise of den is thus strictly homologous to that of objet a which, according to Lacan, emerges when the two lacks (of the subject and of the Other) coincide, that is, when alienation is followed by separation: den is the “indivisible remainder” of the signifying process of double negation—something like Sygne de Coûfontaine’s tic, this minimal eppur si muove which survives her utter Versagung (renunciation). The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”(less-than-nothings).

The neologism den evokes density and thus points towards the primordial, pre-ontological, contraction: den is, arguably, the first name for Lacan’s Y a d’l’Un—there are ones, minimal points of contraction, of ens which is not yet the ontologically constituted One. Perhaps, an anachronistic reference to Kant can nonetheless be of some help here: meden follows the logic of negative judgment, it negates being as a predicate, while den asserts non-being as a (positive) predicate—den is nothingness (the void) which somehow “is” in itself, not only as a negation of (another) being. In other words, den is the space of indistinction between being and non-being, “a thing of nothing,” as the “undead” are the living dead. (The well-known “Panta rei, ouden menei” of Heraclitus can thus be read as: “everything flows, nothing remains”—“nothing” as the very space of indistinction of things and no-thing.)

Predictably, the Eleatic Melissus, in his critique of Democritus, dismissed den with the scathing remark that “far from being a necessary existent, [it] is not even a word.” In a way, he is right: we need a non-word to designate something that, precisely, does not yet exist (as a thing)—den lies outside the scope of the unity of logos and being. Democritean atomism is thus the first materialist answer to Eleatic idealism: Eleatics argue from the logical impossibility of the void to the impossibility of motion; Democritean atomists seem to reason in reverse, deducing from the fact that motion exists the necessity that the void (empty space) exists. The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness/the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void/nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e., there is an indistinction of being and the void. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being. In order to get from nothing to something, we do not have to add something to the void; on the contrary, we have to subtract, take away, something from nothing. Nothing and othing are thus not simply the same: “Nothing” is the generative void out of which othings, primordially contracted pre-ontological entities, emerge—at this level, nothing is more than othing, negative is more than positive. Once we enter the ontologically fully constituted reality, however, the relationship is reversed: something is more than nothing, in other words, nothing is purely negative, a privation of something.

This, perhaps, is how one can imagine the zero-level of creation: a red dividing line cuts through the thick darkness of the void, and on this line, a fuzzy something appears, the object-cause of desire—perhaps, for some, a woman’s naked body (as on the cover of this book). Does this image not supply the minimal coordinates of the subject-object axis, the truly primordial axis of evil: the red line which cuts through the darkness is the subject, and the body its object?


Hypotheses 1 and 2—if the One is and if the One is not—are followed by a brief argument (155e–157b) which is sometimes taken as a hypothesis of its own (so that we get nine instead of eight hypotheses), but more often as a mere appendix to the first two. This reasoning effectively provides a kind of mediation between hypotheses 1 and 2: if the result of hypothesis 1 was that the One, taken solely in virtue of itself, apart from everything else, is nothing at all (or totally undescribable), and if the result of hypothesis 2 was that the One, taken in virtue of others, is everything indiscriminately (large and small, similar and dissimilar, in movement and at rest …), the appendix tries to resolve this antinomy by introducing the temporal dimension. A One which exists in time can without any contradiction change in time from one state to another (it can move, say, and then be at rest). But the interest of this otherwise commonsensical solution is that it again arrives at a paradoxical result when Parmenides focuses on the simple question: when does the One in question change? “If it is in motion, it has not yet changed. If it is at rest, it has already changed. When it changes must it not be neither in motion nor at rest? But there can be no time when a thing is neither in motion nor at rest.” Parmenides proposes that the change between the two states occurs in an instant, and that the instant is not in time. At that instant, the object is neither in motion nor at rest, but is poised for both alternatives:

The instant seems to signify something such that changing occurs from it to each of two states. For a thing doesn’t change from rest while rest continues, or from motion while motion continues. Rather, this queer creature, the instant, lurks between motion and rest—being in no time at all—and to it and from it the moving thing changes to resting and the resting thing changes to moving. (156d–e)

Parmenides goes on to complicate the issue when he applies the same notion of the instant to the change from being to non-being or vice versa: at that instant, a thing neither is nor is not. (The problem with this solution is that it violates the Law of Excluded Middle which says that, at any instant, a thing should be either F or not F.) In this middle space, many weird things can take place—how can we not think of Gramsci’s remark: “the crisis lies precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In the interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear”?

The Real we are dealing with here is the Real of the pure virtual surface, the “incorporeal” Real, which is to be opposed to the Real in its most terrifying imaginary dimension, the primordial abyss which swallows up everything, dissolving all identities—a figure well known in literature in multiple guises, from Edgar Allan Poe’s maelstrom and Kurtz’s “horror” at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to Pip from Melville’s Moby Dick who, cast to the bottom of the ocean, experiences the demon God:

Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes … Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke to it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.[70]

This Real (whose best-known Freudian case is the dreamer’s look into Irma’s throat from Traumdeutung), this over-abundant obscene-morbid vitality of the primordial Flesh, is not the Real of pure appearance which is the truth of the Platonic Idea. It is again Deleuze who can help us draw a clearer line of distinction between these two Reals. On the very first page of his Logic of Sense, Deleuze describes pure becoming with a reference to Alice in Wonderland: when Alice “becomes larger,”

she becomes larger than she was. By the same token, however, she becomes smaller than she is now. Certainly, she is not bigger and smaller at the same time. She is larger now; she was smaller before. But it is at the same moment that one becomes larger than one was and smaller than one becomes. This is the simultaneity of a becoming whose characteristic is to elude the present. Insofar as it eludes the present, becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future. It pertains to the essence of becoming to move and to pull in both directions at once: Alice does not grow without shrinking, and vice versa.[71]

Temporarily, the Sense-Event, its Becoming, is a pure Instant, the borderline between the past and the future, the point at which opposites coincide, at which a thing simultaneously grows bigger and smaller, etc.—the Instant is precisely the accumulation of the opposite predicates Plato is struggling with. One should thus not be surprised that Deleuze links this notion of becoming to Plato’s Philebos and Parmenides, where Plato describes a process in which

hotter never stops where it is but is always going a point further, and the same applies to “colder,” whereas definite quality is something that has stopped going on and is fixed. (Philebos 24d)

the younger becoming older than the older, the older becoming younger than the younger—but they can never finally become so; if they did they would no longer be becoming, but would be so. (Parmenides 154e–155a)

As Deleuze shows in The Logic of Sense, the Sense-Event as pure insubstantial Becoming takes place on the borderline between the two “positive” domains (of things and of words):

Sense is both the expressible or the expressed of the proposition, and the attribute of the state of affairs. It turns one side towards things and one side towards propositions … It is exactly the boundary between things and propositions. It is this aliquid at once extra-Being and inherence, that is, this minimum of being which befits inherences.[72]

Deleuze introduces here the opposition between two modes of time, Chronos (the time of bodily substances) and Aion (the time of immaterial becoming): the cyclic time of material transformations, of the generation and corruption of things—which is, at its most basic level, the “terrifying, measureless present” of the primordial Chaos—and the pure linearity of the flux of becoming. In Chronos, “only the present exists in time. Past, present and future are not three dimensions of time; only the present fills time, whereas past and future are two dimensions relative to the present in time.”[73] This Now of Chronos should be opposed to the Instant of Aion:

In accordance with Aion, only the past and future inhere or subsist in time. Instead of a present which absorbs the past and future, a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once. Or, rather, it is the instant without thickness and without extension, which subdivides each present into past and future, rather than vast and thick presents which comprehend both future and past in relation to one another.[74]

This difference between the two becomings, the becoming-mad of the depths of the primordial formless Chaos and the surface of the infinite divisibility of the Instant, is “almost the difference between the second and third hypotheses of Parmenides—that of the ‘now’ and that of the ‘instant’”[75]:

Whereas Chronos was inseparable from circularity and its accidents—such as blockages or precipitations, explosions, disconnections, and indurations—Aion stretches out in a straight line, limitless in either direction. Always already passed and eternally yet to come, Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out into a straight line.[76]

Hypothesis 3 proper, which then follows (“if one is, what are the consequences for the others”), avoids this paradox by way of outlining a common-sense, realistic ontology: although the others are not the One, they can have some relation to the One, they can partake of the form of the One: when they are combined into a Whole, this Whole is One; as parts of this Whole, each of them is also One, etc. The form of One thus delimits the parts in relation to each other and to the whole; it “accounts for the organization of parts in a unified whole,”[77] that is, it acts as the “principle of structure for the entities it combines.”[78] If we take the form of the One away from the others, we get a chaotic unlimited multitude.

Can Plato’s “illogical” change of order between hypotheses 3 and 4 be explained as an after-effect of the mysterious appendix (or hypothesis 3) which follows hypothesis 2 and is a kind of symptomal excess of the entire matrix, its “part of no-part,” a something (an hypothesis) which counts for nothing? If we correct the order of hypotheses and exchange the places of 3 and 4, the underlying pattern emerges: entities that result from the hypothesis are describable/sayable if the One is or if it is not, that is, if we are within the order of positive being (asserted or negated), whereas the result is negative if we are within the order of “there is (or is no) One.” The reason for this repartition is that, to put it in Deleuzian terms, for Plato, predication (insofar as it is possible) within the order of being is at the level of bodies and their properties/qualities, not at the level of becoming: its basic form is substance-copula-predicate, not substance-verb or even directly impersonal verb—it is “Alice is green,” not “Alice greens” or even “it greens (on Alice).”

In order to grasp properly the key distinction between the next two hypotheses, 5 and 6, one should focus on a detail which may appear minor but on which everything hinges: the status of predication. Hypotheses 5 and 6 explore the consequences for the One if “One is not”; 5 reads “is not” as the assertion of a non-predicate, while 6 reads “is not” as a direct outright negation. In other words, in 5, “One is not” means that the One partakes of many characteristics (is unlike the others, like itself, and so on), among them non-being. The consequences of this triplicity are far-reaching: when we say “x is large,” this does not mean that the object x is large because it directly participates in the Idea of largeness; it rather means that x partakes of being in relation to largeness. This triplicity holds not only for the predicative use of the verb “being”: if we say that Socrates and Plato are similar in that they are both Greek, they are not similar because they both partake of the Idea of Greek—they are similar because they both partake of the Idea of similarity in relation to being-Greek.

So it is not only a question of the distinction between the transitive-predicative and the intransitive-existential use of “is” (“Socrates is ugly” versus “Socrates is”)—in the logic that rules hypothesis 5, the very being is reflected-into-itself: when we say that “Socrates is,” it means “Socrates is ‘is’, he partakes in being.” We are thus dealing with two different modes of being, the immediate, direct existence-in-reality, and the fluid surface “being” which is indifferent to “real” being or non-being. So, what if we follow Deleuze and read these two types of being anachronistically, through the later Stoic distinction between material bodies that exist in spatio-temporal reality, and the famous “immaterials,” pure surface-events which comprise what is sayable, what we can speak about? The moment we speak about something, its immediate existence is suspended, its being becomes a reflexive predicate, which is why we can speak about things which are in the mode of being or in the mode of non-being—or, to quote Gill’s conclusion: “Many more things exist in Plato’s ontology than exist in ours. For him anything describable is.”[79] A unicorn can have one horn, four legs, and so on, and not exist. (We can also discern in this Deleuzian reading an echo of Parmenides’s founding formula of philosophy which asserts the sameness of thinking/speaking—logos—and being.)

The next step in our interpretation of Parmenides should be to link this opposition between material bodies and the “immaterial” to the enigmatic difference between the first two hypotheses: “if it is One” and “if One is.” Perhaps we should read “if it is One” as Lacan does, as the impersonal “s’il y a d’l’Un,” as a “there is …,” not the full assertion of being. The difference between the first two hypotheses is thus the difference between “there is One” and “the One is.”

So, if we can properly talk only about entities suspended in limbo between being and non-being, of being in the mode of non-being, why can we not say anything about this One of the first hypothesis? In other words, if we can only describe and talk about that which partakes of One, when is the result of “there is one” the impossibility of saying anything at all? The negative results of some of the hypotheses in Parmenides should be read in a Hegelian way, as a determinate negation: each time we get a very specific negative result not to be confused with the others. The negative result of hypothesis 1 is thus to be opposed to the result of the last hypothesis, which is also total nothingness: the void of hypothesis 1 is not the ultimate abyss of reality (the Buddhist sunyata), but a pure One which, lacking any further qualifications, immediately erases itself. To put it in Lacanese, it is the lack of signifier-One which is still inherent to the order of the signifier-One, $, the barred signifier … in short, the void of subjectivity. $ is not the unsayable beyond the sayable, but the unsayable that is inherent to the sayable.

The last two hypotheses (7 and 8) explore the consequences of “One is not” for the others, and what makes them so interesting is not the logical (in)accuracy of the underlying reasoning, but the fact that, taken together, they come uncannily close to describing what we in the West perceive as the Buddhist ontology of pure fleeting substance-less appearances (hypothesis 7) beneath which there is nothing but the void of Nothingness (hypothesis 8). Gill is right to point out how “the effort required to make one’s way through the previous deductions is rewarded by vivid imagery here”:

The others appear one and many, but aren’t so really. They appear large, small, and equal, and they appear like and unlike themselves and each other, but they aren’t really … if the others are other, they must be other than something. They can’t be other than the one, if it is not, so they must be other than each other … they are other than each other, and they are unlimited in multitude … You take some small mass that seems to be one, but it suddenly disintegrates into many little bits. The small mass you started with now seems immense in relation to them. These are mere appearances, because without oneness to determine the individuality of things and the relations between them, the properties and relations we observe alter with our perspective … Imagine looking at a distant galaxy with the naked eye and then looking at it with a powerful telescope. At first you see only one tiny glowing object, but then a multitude of stars. What you see depends on your perspective.[80]

The result of the last hypothesis is the reality beneath this twinkling play of appearances—nothing. So why do we get first the play of appearances and then just outright Nothingness? It all hinges again on the difference between “there is no One” and “the One is not”: hypothesis 7 considers the consequences for the others if the One is not, while hypothesis 8 considers the consequences for the others if there is no One. If the One is not (as full ontological reality), the space remains open for Ones which just are, that is, for the fluid play of appearances in which others can partake of the One and thus acquire a temporary fragile consistency. If, however, there is no One, not even a temporary delusive appearance of Oneness is possible, leaving just the void of Nothingness.

We can take the conclusion of Parmenides (the result of hypothesis 8: “nothing exists”) in two opposed ways: either literally, as the conclusion of the entire matrix of hypotheses, i.e., as the ultimate ontological statement, or as a reductio ad absurdum which in a negative way demonstrates the necessity of some kind of stable forms: “The lesson is that there must be forms, or stable objects of some sort, if there is to be any world at all.”[81] Is this alternative not the alternative between materialism and idealism at its purest? Here are the very last lines of Parmenides:

Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is not, then nothing is?


Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Most true.

Is this not the most succinct, minimal definition of dialectical materialism? If there is no One, just multiplicities of multiplicities, then the ultimate reality is the Void itself; all determinate things “are and are not.”[82] Should we then add to the eight hypotheses a ninth one, which, although not explicitly posited as a hypothesis, is the truth of the entire series: “Nothing is”? (Or is it rather that “nothing is” is the truth of the eighth hypothesis alone?)

It all depends on what, precisely, we mean by zero, nothing, or the void. First, there are two zeroes, the zero of measure (like a zero degree, the point of reference chosen to establish a quantitative difference, which is arbitrary—for measuring temperature, Celsius and Fahrenheit posit a different zero) and zero as the neutral element, like 0 in addition and subtraction: whichever number we add 0 to or subtract 0 from, this number remains the same. This, perhaps, offers one approach to the “analyst’s neutrality”: the analyst is just there as an inert objet a, s/he does not actively intervene. However, we should add to this neutrality of 0 the opposite case of multiplication wherein 0 is, on the contrary, the absorbing element: whichever number we multiply with 0, the result is 0. What this means is that it is nonetheless the analyst’s mere presence which has the magic effect of transforming the patient’s flow of speech into a prosopopoeia. Imagine the patient telling his analyst a passionate story about some of his recent adventures or fantasies: the very presence of the analyst, her “ironic” stance, de-subjectivizes the patient; it transubstantiates his authentic subjective expression into a puppet-like delivery of a bric-a-brac of falsified memories and fragments lifted from totally different situations, originally addressed to different persons (like the patient’s father), or even originally spoken by others. In this sense, the analyst’s neutral presence functions as the absorbing element: no matter how well thought out and planned the patient’s speech is, once it is performed in the analytic setting (frame), its status is that of prosopopoeia and is “absorbed” into a free association.[83]

This distinction between the neutral/absorbing zero and the zero of measure is not to be confused with another distinction which also relates to the psychoanalytic practice: the distinction between nothing and the void. Nothing is localized, like when we say “there is nothing here,” while the void is a dimension without limits.[84] In psychoanalytic clinics, this couple is clearly operative in the distinction between psychosis and hysteria: in psychosis, we encounter so-called “depersonalization” or the feeling of the loss of reality, which refers to a void; while in hysteria, this void is localized as a nothing, a specific dissatisfaction. What this means is that nothing is always a nothing within some specific framework: there is nothing within a frame where we expected something.[85] The first task in the analysis of a psychotic is thus arguably the most difficult, but also the most crucial: that of “hystericizing” the psychotic subject, that is, transforming the void of his “depersonalization” into a hysterical dissatisfaction. The opposite of this transformation is the case of psychotic forclusion, where the excluded element throws the subject back into the void. But why? Because the excluded element—the Name-of-the-Father—is not just one among the signifiers, but a signifier-frame, a signifier which sustains the texture of an entire symbolic framework.

So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences.


From this concluding point, we can return to Gorgias and raise again the question of the relationship between Plato and the sophists. Let us approach the problem in the terms of the Platonic dieresis: the gradual subdivision of a genus into species which allows us to define the particular entity we are trying to grasp (to arrive at humans, we divide beings into living and non-living; the living into plants and animals; animals into mammals and all others; mammals into those who have speech and those who do not …). When such division involves an “antagonistic” either/or (Good against Evil, freedom against oppression, morality against hedonism, etc.), there are, roughly speaking, two philosophical approaches to it: either one opts for one pole against the other, or one adopts the “deeper” attitude of emphasizing the complicity of the opposites, and of advocating a proper balanced measure or unity. Although Hegel’s dialectic seems like a version of the second approach (the “synthesis” of opposites), he actually opts for an unheard-of third version: the way to resolve the deadlock is neither to engage in fighting for the “good” side against the “bad,” nor to try to bring them together in a balanced “synthesis,” but to opt for the bad side of the initial either/or. Lacan made the same point in his seminar …ou pire: in the choice between “le père ou pire” (the father or worse), the ethical choice opts for what is worse. Of course, this “choice of what is worse” fails, but in that failure it undermines the entire field of the alternative and thus enables us to overcome its terms. (Say, in politics, in the choice between organic unity and destructive terror, the only way to arrive at the truth is to begin with the “wrong” choice of destructive terror.)

Therein resides the insurmountable difference between Hegel and the New Age notion of balancing opposites. Take the classic case of the French revolutionary Terror: according to the common perception, Hegel condemns the French Revolution as the immediate assertion of an abstract-universal Freedom which, as such, has to end in its opposite: a universal terror directed at all particular content. To this abstract freedom—so the story goes—Hegel opposes the “concrete Freedom” of the modern rational state in which one’s individual freedom is grounded in assuming one’s place within the articulated totality of the social order … The problem with this common perception is that it does not take into account the immanent temporal dimension of the dialectical process. A historical agent is never directly confronted with the choice: either revolutionary terror or organic rational state. On the eve of the revolution, the only choice is between the old “organic” order and revolution, inclusive of its terror. What tips the balance of choice towards revolution in this situation is the insight into how the organic harmony of the ancien régime is itself a fake, an illusion concealing the reality of brutal violence, division, and chaos.

Adolphe de Custine’s experience of visiting Russia in the 1830s illustrates an interesting, properly Hegelian point: the very object of his inquiry alienated itself from him when he approached it. Custine went to Russia searching for an immediate organic order, that is, he wanted to find a society which, unlike modern Western Europe after the French Revolution, remained hierarchically ordered and grounded in tradition. However, what he found there was the exact opposite: not an organic social unity, but a fragile mixture of brutal order and chaos. Not only was there an immense chaos behind the appearance of total power and order; the state power itself functioned chaotically, exposed as it was to the whims of the Tsar. (This feature—chaos in the guise of order and totalitarian control—persists even today and was strikingly present in the Soviet era.)[86] “Organic unity” thus reveals itself to be the mode in which its opposite, inherent instability, appears. The “secret” of despotic societies is that they did not find their “inneres Gestalt,” their inner form; this holds also for fascism which was always torn between modernism and a return to tradition. Against any kind of “organic” temptation, it is absolutely crucial for emancipatory politics to remain faithful to the universalist/secular project of modernity.

Our first choice thus has to be revolution, because it is only after we pass through the zero-level of revolution that the space for the modern rational state (always referred to by Hegel as the “post-revolutionary” state) opens up: only the “wrong” choice of abstract terror creates the space for the choice of rational state. We can see now how the infamous Hegelian triad is grounded in the temporal structure of a repeated choice: in this case, the “triad” of ancien régime, its abstract negation in the Revolutionary Terror, and its sublation in the post-revolutionary rational state, is set in motion by two consecutive choices—first, the choice of revolution against the ancien régime; then, the choice of the modern rational state with its concrete freedom. How are we to square these dialectical reversals with the Platonic dieresis? One has to go back from Plato to Gorgias, the first to propose a dieretic matrix of divisions; his On Nature, or the Non-existent (the text survived only in summary form in Sextus Empiricus and Aristotle’s On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias) can be summed up in three propositions: (a) nothing exists; (b) if anything existed, it could not be known; (c) if anything did exist, and could be known, it could not be communicated to others. If ever there was a clear case of the Freudian logic of the borrowed kettle (providing mutually exclusive reasons), this is it: (1) nothing exists; (2) what exists cannot be known; (3) what we know cannot be communicated to others … But more interesting is the repeated “diagonal” mode of division of genre into species: Things either exist or do not. If they exist, they can either be known or can not. If they can be known, they can either be communicated to others or can not. Surprisingly, we find the same progressive differentiation at the opposite end of the history of Western philosophy, in the twentieth-century sophistics called “dialectical materialism.” Stalin’s “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” enumerates four features of Marxist dialectics:

The principal features of the Marxist dialectical method are as follows:

Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard nature as an accidental agglomeration of things, of phenomena, unconnected with, isolated from, and independent of, each other, but as a connected and integral whole, in which things, phenomena are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by, each other.

Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that nature is not a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something always disintegrating and dying away.

Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to fundamental qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.

Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics holds that internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature, for they all have their negative and positive sides, a past and a future, something dying away and something developing; and that the struggle between these opposites, the struggle between the old and the new, between that which is dying away and that which is being born, between that which is disappearing and that which is developing, constitutes the internal content of the process of development, the internal content of the transformation of quantitative changes into qualitative changes.[87]

First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and then species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, i.e., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division. To put it in Stalinist jargon: an immobile Whole is not really a Whole, but just a conglomerate of elements; development which does not involve qualitative jumps is not really a development, but just an immobile stepping at the same place; a qualitative change which does not involve a struggle of the opposites is not really a change, but just a quantitative monotonous movement. Or, to put it in more ominous terms: those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change and advocate the continuation of the same; those who advocate change without qualitative jumps really oppose change and advocate immobility … The political aspect of this logic is clearly discernible: “those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue,” and so on.

There are two famous quips by Stalin which are both grounded in this logic. When he answered the question “Which deviation is worse, the rightist or the leftist one?” with “They are both worse!” the underlying premise was that the leftist deviation was really (“objectively,” as Stalinists liked to put it) not leftist at all, but a concealed rightist one! When Stalin wrote, in a report on a party congress, that the delegates unanimously approved the Central Committee resolution by a large majority, the underlying premise was, again, that there was really no minority within the party: those who had voted against thereby excluded themselves from the party. In all these cases, the genus repeatedly overlaps (fully coincides) with one of its species. This is also what allows Stalin to read history retroactively, so that things “become clear” retroactively: it was not that Trotsky first fought for the revolution alongside Lenin and Stalin and then, at a certain stage, opted for a different strategy than the one advocated by Stalin; this last opposition (Trotsky/Stalin) “makes it clear” how, “objectively,” Trotsky was against revolution from the beginning.

We find the same procedure in the classificatory impasse the Stalinist ideologists and political activists faced in their struggle for collectivization in the years 1928–33. In their attempt to account for their effort to crush the peasants’ resistance in “scientific” Marxist terms, they divided peasants into three categories (classes): bednyaki, the “miserable ones,” the poor peasants (no land or minimal land, working for others), natural allies of the workers; serednyaki, the “middle ones,” the autonomous middle peasants (owning land, but not employing others), rich but oscillating between the exploited and exploiters; and “kulaks” (kulaki) who, apart from employing other workers to work on their land, were also lending them money or seeds, etc.—they were the exploiters proper, the “class enemy” which, as such, has to be “liquidated.” However, in practice, this classification became more and more blurred and inoperative: in the generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied, and peasants in the other two categories often joined kulaks in their resistance to forced collectivization. An additional category was thus introduced, that of a “subkulak,” a peasant who, although too poor to be considered a kulak proper, nonetheless shared the kulak “counter-revolutionary” attitude. “Subkulak” was thus

a term without any real social content even by Stalinist standards, but merely rather unconvincingly masquerading as such. As was officially stated, “by ‘kulak,’ we mean the carrier of certain political tendencies which are most frequently discernible in the subkulak, male and female.” By this means, any peasant whatever was liable to dekulakisation; and the “subkulak” notion was widely employed, enlarging the category of victims greatly beyond the official estimate of kulaks proper even at its most strained.[88]

The “subkulak” was thus the paradoxical intersection of species: a subspecies of the species “kulaks” whose members came from the other two species. As such, “subkulak” was the embodiment of the ideological lie (falsity) of the entire “objective” classification of farmers into three categories: its function was to account for the fact that all strata of farmers, not only the wealthy ones, resisted collectivization. No wonder that the official ideologists and economists finally gave up trying to provide an “objective” definition of kulak: “The grounds given in one Soviet comment are that ‘the old attitudes of a kulak have almost disappeared, and the new ones do not lend themselves to recognition.’”[89] The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became the matter of a complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath their deceptive public proclamations, so that Pravda had to concede that “even the best activists often cannot spot the kulak.”[90]

What all this points towards is the dialectical mediation of the “subjective” and “objective” dimension: “subkulak” no longer designates an “objective” social category but rather the point at which objective social analysis breaks down and the subjective political attitude directly inscribes itself into the “objective” order—in Lacanese, “subkulak” is the point of subjectivization of the “objective” chain: poor peasant—middle peasant—kulak. It is not an “objective” sub-category (or sub-division) of the class of “kulaks,” but simply the name for the subjective political attitude of the “kulak.” This accounts for the paradox that, although it appears as a subdivision of the class of “kulaks,” “subkulaks” is a species that overflows its own genus (that of kulaks), since “subkulaks” are also to be found among middle and even poor farmers. In short, “subkulak” names political division as such, the Enemy whose presence traverses the entire social body of peasants, which is why he can be found everywhere, in all three peasant classes.

This brings us back to the procedure of Stalinist dieresis: “subkulak” names the excessive element that traverses all classes, the outgrowth which has to be eliminated. There is, in every “objective” classification of social groups, an element which functions like “subkulak”—the point of subjectivization masked as a subspecies of “objective” elements of the social body. It is this point of subjectivization which, in the strictest sense of the term, sutures the “objective” social structure—and one should bear in mind the contrast between this notion of suture and the predominant use of the term (the element which “sutures” the ideological space, obliterating the traces of its dependence on its decentered “Other Scene,” enabling it to present itself as self-sufficient): the point of subjectivization “sutures” not the ideological Inside, but the Outside itself: the “suture” is the point of subjectivization which guarantees the consistency of the “objective” field itself. What this also means is that the procedure of dieresis is not endless: it reaches its end when a division is no longer a division into two species, but a division into a species and an excremental leftover, a formless stand-in for nothing, a “part of no-part.” At this final point, the singular excrement reunites with its opposite, the universal; that is, the excremental leftover functions as a direct stand-in for the Universal.

In his polemic against Badiou’s reading of Paul, Agamben defines the singularity of the Christian position with regard to the opposition between Jews and Greeks (pagans) not as a direct affirmation of an all-encompassing universality (“there are neither Jews nor Greeks”), but as an additional divide that cuts diagonally across the entire social body and as such suspends the lines of separation between social groups: a (“Christian”) subdivision of each group is directly linked with a (“Christian”) subdivision of all other groups. (The difference between Badiou and Agamben is that, for Badiou, this new “Christian” collective is the site of singular universality, the self-relating universality of naming, of subjective recognition in a name, while Agamben rejects the title of universality.) The common-sense classificatory approach would say, what’s the big deal? Being Christian or non-Christian is simply another classification that cuts across and overlaps with other classifications, like the fact that there are men and women, which also cuts across all ethnic, religious, and class divides. There is, however, a crucial difference here: for Paul, “Christian” does not designate yet another predicate (property or quality) of the individual, but a “performative” self-recognition grounded only in its own naming; in other words, it is a purely subjective feature—and, Badiou adds, only as such can it be truly universal. The opposition between the objective-neutral universal approach and the subjective-partisan approach is false: only a radical subjective engagement can ground true universality. The constellation here is therefore exactly the same as that of the “subkulaks” in the Stalinist discourse: “subkulaks” are also the “remainder” of kulaks which cuts across the entire field, a subjective-political category masked as a social-objective quality.

So, when Agamben defines “Christians” not directly as “non-Jews,” but as “non-non-Jews,”[91] this double negation does not bring us back to the starting positive determination; it should rather be read as an example of what Kant called “infinite judgment,” which, instead of negating a predicate, asserts a non-predicate: instead of saying that Christians aren’t Jews, one should say that they are non-Jews, in the same sense that horror fiction talks about the “undead.” The undead are alive while dead, they are the living dead; in the same way, Christians are non-Jews while remaining Jews (at the level of their pre-evental, positive social determination)—they are Jews who, as Paul put it, “died for [in the eyes of] the [Jewish] Law.”

To go even further back, Gorgias’s argumentation should be read in the same way. It may appear that Gorgias proceeds in three consecutive divisions: first, things either exist or do not; then, if they exist, they can either be known or can not; finally, if they can be known, we can either communicate this knowledge to others or can not. However, the truth of this gradual subdivision is again the repetition of one and the same line of division: if we cannot communicate something to others, it means that we “really” do not know it ourselves; if we cannot know something, it means that it “really” does not exist in itself. There is a truth in this logic; as Parmenides, Gorgias’s teacher and reference point here, already put it: thinking (knowing) is the same as being, and thinking (knowing) itself is rooted in language (communication)—“The limits of my language are the limit of my world.”

The lesson of Hegel and Lacan is that one should turn this dieresis around: we can only speak about things that do not exist (Bentham himself was on the right track here with his theory of fictions)—or, more modestly and precisely, speech (presup)poses a lack/hole in the positive order of being. So not only can we think about non-existing things (which is why religion is consubstantial with “human nature,” its eternal temptation), we can also talk without thinking—not only in the vulgar sense of just babbling incoherently, but in the Freudian sense of “saying more than we intended,” of making a symptomatic slip of the tongue. It is not that we know something but cannot communicate it to others—rather that we can communicate to others things we don’t know (or, more precisely, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, things we do not know we know, since, for Lacan, the unconscious as une bévue is un savoir qui ne se sait pas).

This is why the Hegelian-Lacanian position is neither that of Plato nor that of his sophist opponents: against Plato, it asserts that we not only can talk about things that we do not understand or think, but that ultimately we talk only about them, about fictions; while against the sophists it asserts that this in no way devalues truth, since, as Lacan put it, truth has the structure of a fiction.

Does so-called “postmodern relativism” thus only reach a deadlock that Plato was already struggling with in his repeated attempts to distinguish true philosophical knowledge from sophistic trickery? Is the very drawing of such a line not the highest act of sophistic trickery (in the same way it is claimed that the very attempt to draw a strict line between ideology and “true” non-ideological knowledge is the most ideological act of all)? Does this then mean that Lacan himself effectively was a sophist, in this sense, when he asserted that “there is no Other of the Other,” no ultimate guarantee of Truth exempted from the circular (self-referential) play of language? If every such line of separation is “undecidable,” does this mean that Badiou’s desperate struggle against postmodernist-deconstructionist “sophists,” and his heroic Platonic insistence on Truth as independent of historical language games, amounts to an empty gesture with no foundation? Badiou can nonetheless be defended here: the opposition between Truth and doxa occurs within the “undecidable” self-referential field of language, so when Badiou emphasizes the undecidability of a Truth-Event, his conception is radically different from the standard deconstructionist notion of undecidability.[92] For Badiou, undecidability means that there are no neutral “objective” criteria for an Event: an Event appears as such only to those who recognize themselves in its call; or, as Badiou puts it, an Event is self-relating, including itself—its own nomination—among its components. While this does mean that one has to decide about an Event, such an ultimately groundless decision is not “undecidable” in the standard sense. It is, rather, uncannily similar to the Hegelian dialectical process in which—as Hegel had already made clear in the Introduction to his Phenomenology—a “figure of consciousness” is not measured by any external standard of truth but in an absolutely immanent way, through the gap between itself and its own exemplification/staging. An Event is thus “non-All” in the precise Lacanian sense of the term: it is never fully verified precisely because it is infinite, that is, because there is no external limit to it. The conclusion to be drawn is that, for the very same reason, the Hegelian “totality” is also “non-All.”

The reference to Hegel is crucial here, since, especially in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he is often perceived as the ultimate “sophist,” abandoning any objective rational criteria of truth and succumbing to the mad self-referential play of the Absolute Idea. The element of truth in this reproach is that, for Hegel, the truth of a proposition is inherently notional, determined by the immanent notional content, not a matter of comparison between notion and reality—in Lacanian terms, there is a non-All (pas-tout) of truth. It may sound strange to invoke Hegel with regard to the non-All—is he not the philosopher of All par excellence? The Hegelian truth, however, is precisely without an external limitation/exception that would serve as its measure or standard, which is why its criterion is absolutely immanent: a statement is compared with itself, with its own process of enunciation.

Badiou and Barbara Cassin are engaged in an ongoing dialogue which can best be characterized as a new version of the ancient dialogue between Plato and the sophists: the Platonist Badiou against Cassin’s insistence on the irreducibility of the sophists’ rupture. The fact that Badiou is a man and Cassin a woman takes on a special significance here: the opposition between the Platonist’s trust in the firm foundation of truth and the sophists’ groundless play of speech is connoted by sexual difference. So, from the strict Hegelian standpoint, perhaps Cassin is right to insist on the irreducible character of the sophist’s position: the self-referential play of the symbolic process has no external support which would allow us to draw a line, within the language game, between truth and falsity. Sophists are the irreducible “vanishing mediators” between mythos and logos, between the traditional mythic universe and philosophical rationality, and, as such, they are a permanent threat to philosophy. Why is this the case?

The sophists broke down the mythic unity of words and things, playfully insisting on the gap that separates words from things; and philosophy proper can only be understood as a reaction to this, as an attempt to close the gap the sophists opened up, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos but under the new conditions of rationality. This is where one should locate Plato: he first tried to provide this foundation with his teaching on Ideas, and when, in Parmenides, he was forced to admit the fragility of that foundation, he engaged in a long struggle to re-establish a clear line of separation between sophistics and truth.[93] The irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophistic temptation ends with Hegel, the “last philosopher,” who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, embracing the self-referential play of the symbolic with no external support of its truth. For Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process—the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction,” the inner (in)consistency of the discursive process, the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation.

CHAPTER 2. “Where There Is Nothing, Read That I Love You”

When an atheist philosopher writes about religion, she should take great care to resist the temptation formulated long ago by Rousseau: “By accusing me of being religious you excuse yourself for being a philosopher; it is as if I were to renounce wine when it would make you drunk.”[94] This temptation is at its most seductive when a philosopher encounters cases which reveal the obscene disavowed underside of a religious edifice, as is the case with The Gathering (2003), a modest but interesting horror film set in the English countryside. The remains of an old Christian church are discovered buried beneath the earth, revealing stone statues and reliefs of the suffering Christ and a heterogeneous group of individuals observing him dying. It takes the local clergy and archaeologists some time to get the point: the sculpture is not about Christ (who is, strangely, shown from behind) but about those who came to see him die. A priest from the local church links the sculpture to the words allegedly written by St. Aristobulus (a first-century bishop) about “those who came to watch”: “From the east and the west they came, from the city and the plain. Not in holy reverence to our Lord, but in lust.” At the same time, the film shows us people wandering around the city whose faces strangely resemble those on the statues, and, furthermore, a researcher finds the same faces on many depictions of the crucifixion from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The conclusion is clear: those who came to the crucifixion not to mourn or worship, but for entertainment or out of mere curiosity, were cursed to walk the Earth immortal and bear witness to the suffering of men—as in the case of the Wandering Jew, immortality is here not a blessing but a curse. (Recall that Hamlet’s father also returns as a ghost because he was murdered in the full flower of his sins.) The movie then takes a predictable turn: the immortal witnesses are gathering in the city because they have a premonition that something terrible is about to happen there.


There is a deeper question that has to be raised here: is there not always a moment of lust (Freud called it Schaulust) in witnessing a traumatic event like a crucifixion? And does not the claim that we come to watch out of compassion and respect make it even (hypocritically) worse? Such a perverse logic was brought to its peak by Nicolas Malebranche, for whom, in the same way that the saintly person uses the suffering of others to bring about his own narcissistic satisfaction in helping those in distress, God also ultimately loves only himself, and merely uses man to promulgate his own glory. Malebranche here draws a consequence worthy of Lacan’s reversal of Dostoyevsky (“If God doesn’t exist, then nothing is permitted”): it is not true that, had Christ not come to Earth to deliver humanity, everyone would have been lost—quite the contrary, nobody would have been lost; in other words, every human being had to fall so that Christ could come and deliver some of them. Malebranche’s conclusion is here properly perverse: since the death of Christ is a key step in realizing the goal of creation, at no time was God (the Father) happier then when he was observing his Son suffering and dying on the Cross.

Is this perversion inscribed into the very core of Christianity, or can the Christian edifice be read in a different way? And if so, is this path opened up by the specifically Christian notion of love? The wager of properly Christian love is to demonstrate to the Other (God) that it exists by way of loving it unconditionally, beyond the Good; in this way, the anxiety and incertitude over the Other’s desire is “sublated” in the act of love. François Balmès draws attention here to the parallel with Descartes’s cogito and its doubt: In the same way that the incertitude of radical doubt turns into the certitude of cogito ergo sum, the incertitude over God’s desire/will, taken to the extreme, turns into the certitude of love, regardless of my exposure to damnation. This extreme form of ecstatic love is to be radically opposed to (Ancient) tragedy: in pure love, I freely consent to my own damnation or disappearance, I ecstatically assume it, while in tragedy, I (also) accept my Fate, but I accept it as an external force without consenting to it—the tragic hero rejects it absolutely, protesting against it to the end (Oedipus at Colonus—the case of Antigone is here more ambiguous). In other words, in contrast to the notion of amor fati, there is no love in the tragic hero’s acceptance of his damnation by Fate. Therein resides the tragic hero’s uncompromising fidelity to his desire: not in the acceptance of Fate, but in holding on to his desire against Fate, in a situation where everything is lost.

Is there, then, no properly Christian tragedy? Here, Antigone is to be opposed to Sygne de Coûfontaine from Paul Claudel’s L’Otage: if Oedipus and Antigone are the exemplary cases of Ancient tragedy, Sygne stands for the Christian tragedy.[95] Sygne lives in the modern world where God is dead: there is no objective Fate, our fate is our own choice, we are fully responsible for it. Sygne first follows the path of ecstatic love to the end, sacrificing her good, her ethical substance for God, for his pure Otherness; and she does it not on account of some external pressure, but out of the innermost freedom of her being—hence she cannot blame Fate when she finds herself totally humiliated, deprived of all ethical substance. This, however, is why her tragedy is much more radical than that of either Oedipus or Antigone: when, mortally wounded after taking the bullet meant for her despicable and hated husband, she refuses to confer any deeper sacrificial meaning on her suicidal intervention, there is no tragic beauty in this refusal—her “No” is signaled merely by a repellent grimace, a compulsive facial tic. There is no tragic beauty because her total sacrifice has deprived her of all inner beauty and ethical grandeur, so that all that remains is a disgusting excremental stain, a living shell deprived of life. There is no love here either; all her love was consumed in her previous renunciations. In a way, Sygne is here crucified, her “No” akin to Christ’s “Father, why have you forsaken me?”—which is also a gesture of defiance, a kind of “Up yours!” directed at the God-Father. Balmès is right to point out that this properly Christian “No” in all its forms is the “unthinkable” traumatic core of pure love, a scandal which undermines it from within. Here is his breathtakingly precise formulation:

The unthinkable in pure love is, in a sense, Christianity itself, the scandal of the Cross, the Passion and the death of Christ, the “Why did you abandon me?” from the psalm taken over by Christ and on which the mystics of pure love conferred a radicality intolerable for the Church.[96]

This moment of tragedy, this return of the tragic at the very heart of Christianity as the religion of love, is also the point which the self-erasing mysticism of ecstatic love cannot properly grasp: when mystics talk about the “Night of the World,” they directly identify this Night (the withdrawal from external reality into the void of pure innerness) with the divine Beatitude, with the self-erasing immersion into Divinity; for Christianity, in contrast, the unbearable and unsurpassable tension remains, there is an ex-timate “No” at the very heart of the loving “Yes>” to it all. This “No” has nothing to do with the imaginary logic of hainamoration, the reversal of narcissistic love into hatred.

Claudel himself found Sygne’s refusal of reconciliation with Turelure at the end of L’Otage mysterious: it imposed itself on him while he was writing the drama, since it was not part of the original plan (first, he intended the marriage of Sygne and Turelure to mark the reconciliation of the ancien régime and the new regime in the Restoration; later, he planned to have Badillon convince the dying Sygne to give the demanded sign of pardon and reconciliation to Turelure). Significantly, most critics perceived Sygne’s refusal as a mark not of her radicality but of her failure to follow through with the sacrifice demanded of her, that is, to give her full consent to marriage with the despicable Turelure. The idea is that, by refusing to give any sign of consent and dying in ice-cold silence, Sygne disavows the religious principles which had hitherto dictated her behavior. As Abel Hermant wrote:

Turelure tries to extract from Sygne a word, a sign of pardon, which would be for him the sign that he has definitely conquered her and reached the end of his ambitions. But Sygne refuses this pardon, on which nonetheless her eternal salvation seems to depend. She thus renders all her sacrifices worthless in the last minute.[97]

Claudel feebly protested such readings: “I believe she is saved,” but conceded that the meaning of her final act was not clear even to him: “At the play’s end, the characters escape all psychological investigation: at the human level, Sygne of course refused to fulfill her sacrifice; we do not know any more about it, and the author himself can only ‘suppose’ a meaning for her final gesture.”[98]

In “The Ancient Tragical Motif as Reflected in the Modern,” a chapter of Volume I of Either/Or, Kierkegaard proposed his fantasy of what a modern Antigone would have been.[99] The conflict is now entirely internalized: there is no longer a need for Creon. While Antigone admires and loves her father Oedipus, the public hero and savior of Thebes, she knows the truth about him (his murder of the father, his incestuous marriage). Her deadlock is that she is prevented from sharing this accursed knowledge (like Abraham, who likewise could not communicate to others the divine injunction to sacrifice his son): she cannot complain, or share her pain and sorrow with others. In contrast to Sophocles’s Antigone, who acts (to bury her brother and thus actively assume her fate), she is unable to act, condemned forever to impassive suffering. The unbearable burden of her secret, of her destructive agalma, finally drives her to death, in which alone she finds the peace that would otherwise have come with symbolizing or sharing her pain and sorrow. Kierkegaard’s point is that this situation is no longer properly tragic (again, in a similar way, Abraham is also not a tragic figure).

We can imagine the same shift also in the case of Abraham. The God who commands him to sacrifice his son is the superego-God, the perverse “version of the father,” the God who, for his own pleasure, submits his servant to the ultimate test. What makes Abraham’s situation non-tragic is that God’s demand cannot be made public, shared with the community of believers, included in the big Other, unlike the sublime tragic moment which occurs precisely when the hero addresses the public with his terrible plight, when he puts his predicament into words. To put it succinctly, the demand addressed to Abraham has a status similar to that of a ruler’s “dirty secret” when solicited to commit a crime which the State needs, but which cannot be admitted publicly. When, in the fall of 1586, Queen Elizabeth I was under pressure from her ministers to agree to the execution of Mary Stuart, she replied to their petition with the famous “answer without an answer”: “If I should say I would not do what you request, I might say perhaps more than I think. And if I should say I would do it, I might plunge myself into peril, whom you labor to preserve.”[100] The message was clear: she was not ready to say that she did not want Mary executed, since this would be “more than I think”; but while she clearly wanted her dead, she did not want to affirm this act of judicial murder publicly. The implicit message is thus also clear: “If you are my true and faithful servants, do this crime for me, kill her without making me responsible for her death, allow me to protest my ignorance and even punish some of you to maintain this false appearance …” Can we not imagine God himself giving a similar answer were Abraham to ask him publicly, in front of his fellow elders, if he really wanted him to kill his only son? “If I should say I do not want you to kill Isaac I might say perhaps more than I think. And if I should say you should do it, I might plunge myself into peril (that of appearing to be an evil barbaric God, asking you to violate my own sacred Laws), from which you, my faithful follower, labor to save me.”

Furthermore, insofar as Kierkegaard’s Antigone is a paradigmatically modernist figure, we can extend his mental experiment and imagine a postmodern Antigone, with a Stalinist twist: in contrast to the modernist one, she would find herself in a position in which, to quote Kierkegaard himself, the ethical itself would be the temptation. One version would undoubtedly be for Antigone to publicly renounce, denounce, and accuse her father (or, in a different version, her brother Polynices) of his terrible sins out of her unconditional love for him. The Kierkegaardian catch is that such a public act would render Antigone even more isolated, absolutely alone: no one—with the exception of Oedipus himself, were he still alive—would understand that her act of betrayal is the supreme act of love … Is this predicament of the “postmodern” Antigone not also that of Judas, who was secretly enjoined by Christ to publicly betray him and pay the full price for it?

Antigone would thus be entirely deprived of her sublime beauty—all that would signal the fact that she was not a pure and simple traitor to her father, but that she acted out of love for him, would be some barely perceptible repulsive tic, like Sygne de Coûfontaine’s hysteric twitch of the lips, a tic which no longer belongs to the face, but whose insistence disintegrates the unity of a face. Can we not imagine a similar tic on Judas’s face—a desperate twitch of his lips signaling the terrible burden of his role?

Far from just throwing herself into the jaws of death, possessed by a strange wish to die or to disappear, Sophocles’s Antigone insists up to her death on performing a precise symbolic gesture: the proper burial of her brother. Like Hamlet, Antigone is a drama of a failed symbolic ritual—Lacan insisted on this continuity (he had analyzed Hamlet in the seminar that preceded The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, which deals with Antigone). Antigone does not stand for some extra-symbolic real, but for the pure signifier—her “purity” is that of a signifier. This is why, although her act is suicidal, the stakes are symbolic: her passion is the death drive at its purest—but here, precisely, we should distinguish between the Freudian death drive and the Oriental nirvana. What makes Antigone a pure agent of the death drive is her unconditional demand for the symbolic ritual to be performed, an insistence which allows for no displacement or other form of compromise—this is why Lacan’s formula of drive is $-D: the subject unconditionally insisting on a symbolic demand.

The problem with Antigone is not the suicidal purity of her death drive but, quite the opposite, that the monstrosity of her act is covered up by its aestheticization: the moment she is excluded from the community of humans, she turns into a sublime apparition evoking our sympathy by complaining about her plight. This is one of the key dimensions of Lacan’s move from Antigone to Sygne de Coûfontaine: there is no sublime beauty in Sygne at the play’s end—all that marks her as different from common mortals is the tic that momentarily disfigures her face. This feature which spoils the harmony of her beautiful face, the detail that sticks out and renders it ugly, is the material trace of her resistance to being co-opted into the universe of symbolic debt and guilt.

This, then, should be the first step in a consistent reading of Christianity: the dying Christ is on the side of Sygne, not of Antigone; Christ on the Cross is not a sublime apparition but an embarrassing monstrosity. Another aspect of this monstrosity was clearly perceived by Rembrandt, whose “Lazarus,” one of the most traumatic classic paintings, depicts Christ in the act of raising Lazarus from the dead. What is striking is not only the portrayal of Lazarus, a monstrous living-dead figure returning to life, but, even more so, the terrified expression on Christ’s face, as if he were a magician shocked that his spell has actually worked, disgusted by what he has brought back to life, aware that he is playing with forces better left alone. This is a true Kierkegaardian Christ, shocked not by his mortality but by the heavy burden of his supernatural powers which border on blasphemy, the blasphemy at work in every good biography: “Biography is in fact one of the occult arts. It uses scientific means—documentation, analysis, inquiry—to achieve a hermetic end: the transformation of base material into gold. Its final intention is the most ambitious and blasphemous of all—to bring back a human being to life.”[101]

The death of God, as is well known, can be experienced in a plurality of modes: as a tragic loss generating a deep melancholy; as a joyful opening into a new freedom; as a simple fact to be coldly analyzed … But in its most radical dimension, the death of God is strictly correlative to—is the other side of—the immortalization of the body signaled by “Christ is not dead”: there is something in the human body which is more than a human body, an obscene undead partial object which is more in the body than this body itself.[102] To explain this paradox, let me cite “Joe Hill,” the famous Wobblies song from 1925 (words by Alfred Hayes, music by Earl Robinson) about the judicial murder of Hill, a Swedish-born trade union organizer and singer. In the following decades, it became a true folk song, popularized around the world by Paul Robeson; here are the (slightly shortened) lyrics which present in a simple but effective way the Christological aspect of the emancipatory collective, a struggling collective bound by love:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

Alive as you or me.

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” says he.

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,

They shot you, Joe,” says I.

“Takes more than guns to kill a man.”

Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life,

And smiling with his eyes,

Joe says, “What they forgot to kill

Went on to organize.”

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,

“Joe Hill ain’t never died.

Where working men are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.”

Crucial here is the subjective reversal: the mistake of the anonymous narrator who does not believe that Joe Hill is still alive is that he forgets to include himself, his own subjective position, in the series: Joe Hill is not alive “out there,” as a separate ghost; he is alive here, in the very minds of the workers remembering him and continuing his fight—he is alive in the very gaze which (mistakenly) looks for him out there. The same mistake of “reifying” the searched-for object is made by Christ’s disciples, a mistake which Christ corrects with the famous words: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there.”


Is this, then, the Christian Holy Spirit—the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual, ideal agency kept alive by the work of individuals participating in it? Back in 1956, Lacan offered a short and clear definition of the Holy Ghost along these lines: “The Holy Ghost is the entry of the signifier into the world. This is certainly what Freud brought us under the title of death drive.”[103] What Lacan means, at this stage of his thought, is that the Holy Ghost stands for the symbolic order as that which cancels (or, rather, suspends) the entire domain of “life”—lived experience, the libidinal flux, the wealth of emotions, or, to put it in Kant’s terms, the “pathological.” When we locate ourselves within the Holy Ghost, we are transubstantiated—we enter another life beyond the biological one. The status of this big Other is ironic, an agency of objective irony—in what sense? In the introduction to my book The Fright of Real Tears, I relate an experience of mine to illustrate the sad state of Cultural Studies today:

Some months before writing this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, so I engaged in total bluff, which went on something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, the frame that enframes our perception of the painting, and these two frames do not overlap—there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our post-modern madness, still able to discern the traces of this gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps, the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we will lose the capacity to discern this gap … To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today’s Cultural Studies.[104]

However, 125 pages later, in the book’s last chapter, I reintroduce the same notion of “between-the-two-frames,” this time without irony, as a straightforward theoretical concept:

One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, the frame that enframes our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap—there is an invisible gap separating them. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them.[105]

What distressed me was how even some of my friends and followers missed the point—most of those who noticed this repetition read it either as a self-parodic indication of how I do not take my own theories seriously, or as a sign of my growing senility (assuming I had simply forgotten by the end of the book that I had mocked the very same notion in the introduction). Was it really so difficult to perceive how my procedure here perfectly illustrated the point I was (and am) repeatedly trying to make apropos of today’s predominant attitude of cynicism and of not-taking-oneself-seriously? Even when a subject mocks a certain belief, this in no way undermines the belief’s symbolic efficacy—the belief often continues to determine the subject’s activity. When we make fun of an attitude, the truth is often in this attitude, not in the distance we take towards it: I make fun of it to conceal from myself the fact that it actually determines my activity. Someone who mocks his own love for a woman, say, often thereby expresses his uneasiness at being so deeply attached to her.

Peter Sellars’s version of Così fan tutte takes place in the present (a US naval base, with Despina as a local bar owner, and the two gentlemen—naval officers—returning not as “Albanians,” but as violet-and-yellow-haired punks). The main premise is that the only true passionate love is that between the philosopher Alfonzo and Despina, who experiment with two young couples in order to act out the impasse of their own desperate love. This reading hits the very heart of the Mozartean irony which is to be opposed to cynicism. If, to simplify it to the utmost, a cynic fakes a belief that he privately mocks (preaching sacrifice for the fatherland, say, while privately amassing profits …), an ironist takes things more seriously than he appears to—he secretly believes in what he publicly mocks. Alfonzo and Despina, the cold philosophical experimenter and the corrupt, dissolute servant girl, are the true passionate lovers using the two pathetic couples and their ridiculous erotic imbroglio as instruments to confront their traumatic attachment. And it is only today, in our postmodern age, allegedly full of irony and lacking all belief, that the Mozartean irony reaches its full actuality, confronting us with the embarrassing fact that—not in our interior lives, but in our acts themselves, in our social practice—we believe much more than we are aware of. Apropos of Molière’s Tartuffe, Henri Bergson emphasized how Tartuffe is funny not on account of his hypocrisy, but because he gets caught in his own mask of hypocrisy:

He enters so thoroughly into the role of a hypocrite that he plays it almost sincerely. In this way, and this way only, can he become comic. Were it not for this material sincerity, were it not for the language and attitudes that his long-standing experience as a hypocrite has transformed into natural gestures, Tartuffe would be simply odious.[106]

Bergson’s precise expression “material sincerity” fits perfectly with the Althusserian notion of the Ideological State Apparatus, the external ritual which materializes ideology: the subject who maintains his distance towards the ritual is unaware of the fact that the ritual already dominates him from within. Even if it is misrecognized or simply “not taken seriously,” this big Other is nonetheless effective—an efficacy clearly discernible in the case of the big Other as the “subject supposed to not know,” as the agency of innocent appearance whose ignorance should be maintained.[107] This point is nicely expressed in the distinction between mere politeness and tact proper:

Following the rules of politeness is never quite enough, it requires tact. In a wonderful scene in one of Truffaut’s early movies, Delphine Seyrig, a femme du monde, tries to teach the young Jean-Pierre Léaud the difference between politeness and tact. “Imagine you inadvertently enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked under a shower. Politeness requires that you quickly close the door and say ‘Pardon, Madame!’ Whereas tact would be to quickly close the door and say ‘Pardon, Monsieur!’” In both cases there is the respect for the other, for the other’s intimacy upon which one has unwittingly intruded, and this requires a polite excuse. The rules are satisfied in the first case. But in the second case, one makes more: one pretends not to have seen, one pretends that the intrusion was so marginal that one couldn’t even make out the sex of the exposed person, and even though the hapless lady may well know that you are pretending, she will still very much appreciate your effort.[108]

Such discretion can appear in unexpected forms and places. In China, the local party bosses are popular targets of obscene jokes mocking their vulgar tastes and sexual obsessions. (Far from originating with ordinary people, these jokes mostly express the attitude of the higher nomenklatura towards the lower cadres.) In one joke, a small provincial party boss has just returned from the big city with a pair of shiny new black shoes. When his young secretary brings him tea, he wants to impress her with the quality of his shoes; so when she leans over his table he moves his foot just under her skirt and tells her he can see (reflected in his shoe) that her underpants are blue. The next day the flirting goes on, and he tells her that today her underpants are green. On the third day, the secretary decides not to wear any underwear at all; looking at his shoes for the reflection, the party boss desperately exclaims: “I’ve just bought these shoes, and already the surface is cracked!” In the final displacement, precisely when the boss is able to see the reflected “thing itself,” he withdraws from recognizing it and reads it as a feature of the mirror reflecting it. One might even detect here, beneath the surface of the boss’s vulgar boastfulness, a gesture of hidden politeness: in a gentle misrecognition, he prefers to appear an idiot than to comment rudely on what he can see. The procedure is here different from that of fetishistic displacement: the subject’s perception does not stop at the last thing he sees before the direct view of the vaginal opening (as in the fetishistic fixation), for his shoe is not his fetish, the last thing he sees before seeing the vaginal crack; when, unexpectedly and inadvertently, he does get the view of the crack, he as it were assumes it as his own, as his own deficiency.

In politics, a supreme case of discretion or the art of the unsaid took place during the secret meeting between Alvaro Cunhal, the leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, and Melo Antunes, the pro-democracy member of the army body which de facto ran the country after the coup against the old Salazar regime in 1974. The situation was extremely tense: on the one side there was the Communist Party and the radical army officers, ready to start the real socialist revolution, taking over factories and land (arms were already being distributed to the people, etc.); on the other side conservatives and democratic liberals were ready to stop the revolution by any means necessary, including military intervention. In their meeting, Antunes and Cunhal, both highly respected intellectuals, made a deal without stating it: there was no agreement whatsoever—explicitly, they only disagreed—but they left the meeting with the understanding that the communists would not start a revolution, thereby allowing the “normal” democratic state to fully form, and that the anti-socialist military would not ban the Communist Party, but accept it as a key player in the Portuguese democratic process. One can claim that this discreet meeting literally saved Portugal, preventing a bloody civil war at the very last minute. The logic of their discretion later extended to how the two participants treated their meeting. When asked about it (by a journalist friend of mine), Cunhal said that he would confirm it only if Antunes did not deny it—if Antunes denied it, then the thing never took place. When my friend then visited Antunes, he did not confirm the meeting, but listened silently as my friend told him what Cunhal had said—thus, by way of not denying it, he met Cunhal’s condition and implicitly confirmed it. This is how gentlemen of the Left act in politics.

There are, of course, limits to this logic of polite ignorance. Some decades ago, a woman was slowly beaten to death in the courtyard of a big apartment block in Brooklyn; of the more than seventy witnesses who clearly saw what was going on from their windows, not one called the police. Why not? As the later investigation established, the most prevalent excuse by far was that each witness thought someone else would surely have already reported it. This fact should not be dismissed moralistically as a mere excuse for moral cowardice and egotistic indifference: what we encounter here is also a function of the big Other—this time not as Lacan’s “subject supposed to know,” but as what one might call “the subject supposed to call the police.”

The mechanism at work here is the same as that underlying Golda Meir’s famous reply when asked whether she believed in God: “I believe in the Jewish people, and they believe in God.” This formula of transitive belief is today universalized: one does not believe oneself, but, relying on another “subject supposed to believe,” one can act as if one believes. Furthermore, one should read Meir’s statement in a very precise way: it does not imply the position of the elitist leader who feeds his naïve-believing subjects with Platonic “beautiful lies.” The State of Israel is here exemplary: the fetishist disavowal is inscribed into its very foundations. Although it has, according to surveys, the most atheistic population in the world (more than 60 percent of the Jews in Israel do not believe in God), its basic legitimization (claiming the land given to them by God) is theological—the implicit formula is thus: “We know very well there is no God, but we nonetheless believe he gave us the holy land.”

The “subject supposed to believe” thus does not have to exist; it suffices that its existence is presupposed as a purely virtual entity, “the Jewish people.” And this was also the fatal mistake of the witnesses of the drawn-out Brooklyn murder: they misread the symbolic (fictional) function of the “subject supposed to call the police” as an empirical function, wrongly concluding that there must be at least someone who would actually make the call, that is, they overlooked the fact that the function is operative even if there is no actual subject who enacts it. One could even imagine an empirical test for this claim: if the circumstances could be recreated so that each of the witnesses were to think that he or she was alone in observing the gruesome scene, one could predict that, despite their opportunistic avoidance of “getting involved in something that isn’t my business,” the majority of them would have called the police.

So, again, what is the big Other? A lady from Germany once told me that her sex life was minimal: she had to seduce her husband once every couple of weeks, “just so that I can tell my psychoanalyst that I still have sex life”—the analyst is here the big Other, the agency for which one has to maintain the appearance (of an active sex life). Here is a more ominous version of the same logic: in 2009, an unfortunate Greek man wrote several letters to a Greek civil servant over several months, complaining that he had yet to receive his pension; the civil servant finally replied with a letter informing him that the reason for the delay was that he was dead.[109] The shocking nature of the message lies not only in its obvious contradiction with the fact that the addressee was actually alive, and the performative paradox that this fact implies (the message saying that I am dead is addressed to me, that is, it presupposes that I am alive). The very fact that this paradox can occur implies a more complex situation: the message addresses the dimension in me which makes me dead even while I am still alive, the “mortifying” dimension of the signifier, of being inscribed into (reduced to) the network of symbolic representation. In other words, what the message is saying is something like the following: even if you are biologically alive, you no longer exist for the big Other; as far as the state network is concerned, you are dead.

Apropos of the multiple meanings of the “big Other” in Lacan, Balmès was right to emphasize that the solution is not to attempt to distinguish clearly between the various meanings (the Other as the place of speech, the desiring Other, etc.).[110] What is much more important is to analyze what Hegel would have called the “self-movement of the notion,” the way one meaning, on account of its inherent tensions and implications, passes into another (often its opposite). For example, what differentiates hysteria from psychosis is their different relation to the “enjoyment of the Other” (not the subject’s enjoyment of the Other, but the Other who enjoys [in] the subject): a hysteric finds it unbearable to be the object of the Other’s enjoyment, she finds herself “used” or “exploited,” while a psychotic willfully immerses himself in it and wallows in it. (A pervert is a special case: he posits himself not as the object of the Other’s enjoyment, but as the instrument of the Other’s enjoyment—he serves the Other’s enjoyment.) The root of these shifts in the meaning of big Other is that, in the subject’s relation to it, we are effectively dealing with a closed loop best rendered by Escher’s famous image of two hands drawing each other. The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.” This big Other should not be reduced to an anonymous symbolic field—there are many interesting cases where an individual stands for the big Other. One should think not primarily of leader-figures who directly embody their communities (king, president, master), but rather of the more mysterious protectors of appearances—such as otherwise corrupted parents who desperately try to keep their child ignorant of their depraved lives, or, if it is a leader, then one for whom Potemkin villages are built.[111]

When, in David Lean’s Brief Encounter, the lovers meet for the last time at the desolate train station, their solitude is immediately disturbed by Celia Johnson’s noisy and inquisitive friend who, unaware of the underlying tension between the couple, goes prattling on about ridiculously insignificant everyday incidents. Unable to communicate directly, the couple can only stare desperately. This common prattler is the big Other at its purest: while it appears as an accidental and unfortunate intrusion, its role is structurally necessary.[112] When, towards the end of the film, we see this scene a second time, accompanied by Celia Johnson’s voiceover, she tells us that she was not listening to what her friend was saying, indeed she had not understood a word; however, precisely as such, her prattling provided the necessary support, as a kind of safety-cushion, for the lovers’ last meeting, preventing its self-destructive explosion or, worse, its decline into banality. That is to say, on the one hand, the very presence of the naïve prattler who “understands nothing” of the situation enables the lovers to maintain a minimum of control over their predicament, since they feel compelled to “maintain proper appearances” in front of this gaze. On the other hand, in the few words privately exchanged before the big Other’s interruption, they had come to the brink of confronting the unpleasant question: if they’re really so passionately in love that they can’t live without each other, why don’t they simply divorce their spouses and get together? The prattler then arrives at exactly the right moment, enabling the lovers to maintain the tragic grandeur of their predicament. Without the intrusion, they would have had to confront the banality and vulgar compromise of their situation. The shift to be made in a proper dialectical analysis thus goes from the condition of impossibility to the condition of possibility: what appears as the “condition of impossibility,” or the obstacle, is in fact the condition that enables what it appears to threaten to exist.

Two further “as if’s” in Brief Encounter, the first in Roald-Dahl-style: what if Celia Johnson were suddenly to discover that Trevor Howard was really a bachelor who had concocted the story of his marriage and two children to add a melodramatic-tragic flavor to the affair, and to avoid the prospect of long-term commitment? Then, one in Bridges-of-Madison-County-style: what if, at the end, Celia Johnson were to discover that her husband had known all about the affair from the beginning and had just been pretending ignorance in order to maintain appearances and/or not to hurt or put additional pressure on his wife?

To a person in a state of emotional trauma, possessed by a desire to disappear or fall into the void, a superficial external intrusion (like the friend prattling on) is often the only thing standing between him and the abyss of self-destruction: what appears as a ridiculous intrusion becomes a life-saving intervention. So when, alone with her companion in a carriage compartment, Celia Johnson complains about the incessant yapping and even expresses a desire to kill the intruder (“I wish you would stop talking. … I wish you were dead now. No, that was silly and unkind. But I wish you would stop talking”), we can well imagine what would have happened had the acquaintance really stopped talking: either Celia would have immediately collapsed, or she would have been compelled to utter a humiliating plea: “Please, just carry on talking, no matter what you are saying …” Is this unfortunate intruder not a kind of envoy of (a stand-in for) the absent husband, his representative (in the sense of Lacan’s paradoxical statement that woman is one of the Names-of-the-Father)? She intervenes at exactly the right moment to prevent the drift into self-annihilation (as in the famous scene in Vertigo where the phone rings just in time to stop Scottie and Madeleine’s dangerous drift into erotic contact).

The husband and the prattler are effectively two aspects of one and the same entity, the big Other, the addressee of Celia Johnson’s confession. The husband is both the ideal recipient of the confession—dependable, open, understanding—and the one who above all cannot be confessed to—he must be protected from the truth; he is the subject supposed to not know: “Dear Fred. There’s so much that I want to say to you. You’re the only one in the world with the wisdom and gentleness to understand it. … As it is, you are the only one in the world that I can never tell. Never, never. … I don’t want you to be hurt.” The prattler, for her part, is the wrong person at the right time and place: Celia Johnson wants to confess to her, but cannot: “I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise, kind friend instead of a gossiping acquaintance I’ve known casually for years and never particularly cared for.”[113]

In dealing with the big Other, it is crucial to be attentive to the interplay between the anonymous field and the subject impersonating it. One popular myth from the late Communist era in Eastern Europe was that there existed a department of the secret police whose function was to invent and put into circulation political jokes about the regime and its representatives, for they were aware of the positive stabilizing function of such jokes (offering ordinary people an easy and tolerable way to let off steam, easing their frustrations, etc.). Attractive as it is, this myth overlooks a rarely mentioned but nonetheless crucial feature of jokes: they never seem to have an author, as if the question “who is the author of this joke?” were an impossible one. Jokes are originally “told,” they are always already “heard” (“Have you heard the one about …?”). Therein resides their mystery: they are idiosyncratic; they stand for the unique creativity of language but are nonetheless “collective,” anonymous, authorless, arriving all of a sudden out of nowhere. The idea that there has to be an author of a joke is properly paranoid: it means that there has to be an “Other of the Other,” of the anonymous symbolic order, as if the unfathomable generative power of language has to be personalized, located in an agent who controls it and secretly pulls the strings. This is why, from the theological perspective, God is the ultimate jokester. This is the thesis of Isaac Asimov’s charming short story “Jokester,” about a group of historians of language who, in support of the hypothesis that God created man out of apes by telling them a joke, try to reconstruct this joke, the “mother of all jokes” which first gave birth to spirit. (Incidentally, for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is superfluous, since we all know what the joke was: “Do not eat from the tree of knowledge!”—the first prohibition which is clearly a joke, a perplexing temptation whose point is unclear.)

Is God then the big Other? The answer is not as simple as it may appear. One can say that he is the big Other at the level of the enunciated, but not at the level of the enunciation (the level which really matters). Saint Augustine was already fully aware of this problem, when he asked the naïve but crucial question: if God sees into the innermost depths of our hearts, knowing what we really think and want better than we do ourselves, why then is a confession to God necessary? Are we not telling him what he already knows? Is God then not like the tax authorities in some countries who already know all about our income, yet still ask us to report it, just so they can compare the two lists and establish who is lying? The answer, of course, lies in the position of enunciation. In a group of people, even if everyone knows my dirty secret (and even if everyone knows that everyone else knows it), it is still crucial for me to say it openly; the moment I do, everything changes. But what is this “everything”? The moment I say it, the big Other, the instance of appearance, knows it; my secret is thereby inscribed into the big Other. Here we encounter the two opposite aspects of the big Other: the big Other as the “subject supposed to know,” as the Master who sees everything and secretly pulls the strings; and the big Other as the agent of pure appearance, the agent supposed to not know, the agent for whose benefit appearances are to be maintained. Prior to my confession, God in the first aspect of the big Other already knows everything, but God in the second aspect does not. This difference can also be expressed in terms of subjective assumption: insofar as I merely know it, I do not really assume it subjectively, in other words, I can continue to act as if I do not know it; only when I confess to it in public can I no longer pretend not to know.[114] The theological problem is the following: does not this distinction between the two Gods introduce finitude into God himself? Should not God as the absolute Subject be precisely the one for whom the enunciated and its enunciation totally overlap, so that whatever we intimately know has already been confessed to him? The problem is that such a God is the God of a psychotic, the God to whom I am totally transparent also at the level of enunciation.


Is the Holy Spirit, then, a version of this big Other, of what Hegel calls “objective spirit” or spiritual substance? It is crucial not to equate them: the properly Christian-Hegelian notion of the Holy Spirit is misunderstood when reduced to the humanist claim that “God” is nothing but our (human) awareness of God, so that the Holy Spirit is simply the spiritual substance of humanity. Here are two representative passages:

Finite consciousness knows God only to the extent to which God knows himself, spirit is nothing other than those who worship him.

Man knows God only insofar as God knows himself as man. The Spirit of man, whereby he knows God, is simply the spirit of God himself.[115]

In short, from the properly Hegelian perspective, announced already in Eckhart, one should reverse the proposition that “to believe that God exists is to believe that I stand in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for my belief. ”[116] My belief in God is, on the contrary, the reason for God’s very existence, or, God qua Holy Ghost, the spiritual substance of the Christian collective, its presupposition, is alive only insofar as it is itself posited by the continuous activity of individuals. However, it is crucial not to confuse this gesture with the standard “materialist” notion that God is just a fiction projected by the believers, the conclusion drawn by Solomon: “there is no ‘alien’ God who reaches down to us; God is Spirit and Spirit is us, nothing more.”[117] What one should render problematic here is the fateful “nothing more”: of course there is no Spirit as a substantial entity above and beyond individuals, but this does not make Hegel a nominalist—there is “something more” than the reality of individuals, and this “more” is the virtual Real which always supplements reality, “more than nothing, but less than something.” In other words, if there is “nothing more” than us (human individuals) in Spirit, how are we to account for the central tenet of Christianity, the event of Christ’s incarnation? Why do humans not directly recognize themselves—their Spirit—in the figure of an alien substantial God? Why do they not directly “kill God” as a transcendent Subject, allowing him to survive only as the virtual symbolic order kept alive by the incessant activity of each and everyone of us? Solomon confronts this problem:

It is the “middle term” of the Trinity that exercises Hegel the most: God or “Spirit” is easily reinterpreted as immanent, and the “Holy Ghost” already has precisely the status Hegel wants it to have, as Spirit effused throughout the community. But it is the role of Jesus that distinguishes Christianity from other religions, and the notion of “incarnation” which “contradicts all understanding.”[118]

But this solution avoids the problem nicely stated centuries ago by Lessing (“How is it possible that Christianity can base the whole of its faith on an historical accident?”) by claiming that “Hegel’s answer, in fact, is found in Goethe, who described this as an allegory, ‘a particular considered only as an illustration, as an example of the universal.’”[119] Read in this way, of course, Hegel is not

a religious man, much less the “greatest abstract thinker of Christianity.” He is, perhaps, one of the first great humanists of German philosophy. That was Hegel’s secret, and the source of Kierkegaard’s righteous complaint: “Modern philosophy is neither more nor less than paganism. But it wants to make itself and us believe that it is Christianity.”[120]

Alasdair Macintyre was thus quite correct when he claimed that “if Kierkegaard hadn’t existed, it would be necessary to invent him”—or even “God invented Kierkegaard to throw light on Hegel.”[121]

Hegel does indeed say that Christ is an example—but, he adds, an “example of example” and thus “the absolute example,” which means, precisely, that it is no longer a mere example, but an example which is more the “thing itself” exemplified in/by it than the thing itself—in other words, it is only through this “example” that the exemplified “thing itself” becomes what it is. This is why Christ’s incarnation “contradicts all understanding”: what understanding cannot grasp is how, in Christianity, its universal/eternal Truth is based “on an historical accident,” namely how its necessity is itself grounded in a contingency. In this precise sense, Hegel is not a “humanist”: for a humanist, it is easy to see how all individuals are passing contingent embodiments/examples of the eternal human Spirit.[122] What a humanist cannot grasp is that this universal Spirit, in order to become “for itself,” to fully actualize itself, has to be directly incarnated in a singular contingent individual who is not its mere “example” but the full actuality of the Universal. So when this singular individual dies, it is not just the substantial In-itself of a transcendent God which dies; what dies is also God qua spiritual substance, the universal Spirit which is kept alive by the incessant activity of all passing contingent individuals—such a representation is still too “substantial.”

At a more basic level, what we are dealing with here is the shift from abstract to concrete universality. At the level of abstract universality, we can oppose the universal symbolic system as a non-psychological “objective social fact” to individual subjects and their interaction. We reach concrete universality when we ask how the anonymous symbolic system exists for the subject, that is, how the subject experiences it as “objective,” universal. In order for a universality to become “concrete,” For-itself, it has to be experienced as such, as a non-psychological universal order, by the subject.[123] This precise distinction enables us to account for the passage of what Hegel called “objective spirit” (OS) to “absolute spirit” (AS). We do not pass from OS to AS by way of a simple subjective appropriation of “reified” OS subjectivity (in the well-known Feuerbach-young-Marx pseudo-Hegelian mode: “the collective human subjectivity recognizes in OS its own product, the reified expression of its own creative power”)—this would be a simple reduction of OS to subjective spirit (SS). But neither do we accomplish this passage by positing beyond OS another, even more In-itself absolute entity that encompasses both SS and OS. The passage from OS to AS resides in nothing but the dialectical mediation between OS and SS, in the above-indicated inclusion of the gap that separates OS from SS within SS, so that OS has to appear (be experienced) as such, as an objective “reified” entity, by SS itself (and in the inverted recognition that, without the subjective reference to an In-itself of the OS, subjectivity itself disintegrates, collapses into psychotic autism).[124]

What, then, is that which does not die, the material support of the Holy Spirit? When Robeson sang “Joe Hill” at the legendary Peace Arch concert in 1952, he changed the key line from “What they forgot to kill” into: “What they can never kill went on to organize.” The immortal dimension in man, that in man which it “takes more than guns to kill,” the Spirit, is what went on to organize itself. This should not be dismissed as an obscurantist-spiritualist metaphor—there is a subjective truth in it: when emancipatory subjects organize themselves, it is the “spirit” itself which organizes itself through them. One should add to the series of what the impersonal “it” (das Es, ça) does (in the unconscious, “it talks,” “it enjoys”): it organizes itself (ça s’organise—therein resides the core of the “eternal Idea” of a revolutionary party). One should also shamelessly evoke the standard scene from science-fiction horror movies in which the alien who has taken on human appearance (or invaded and colonized a human being) is exposed, its human form destroyed, so that all that remains is a formless slime, like a pool of melted metal … the hero leaves the scene, satisfied that the threat has been dealt with—and then the formless slime that the hero forgot to kill (or could not kill) starts to move, slowly organizing itself, and the old menacing figure is reconstituted. Perhaps it is along these lines that we should read the Christian practice of Eucharist,

in which the participants in this love feast or sacrificial meal establish solidarity with one another through the medium of a mutilated body. In this way, they share at the level of sign or sacrament in Christ’s own bloody passage from weakness to power, death to transfigured life.[125]

Is not what we believers consume in the Eucharist, Christ’s flesh (bread) and blood (wine), precisely the same formless remainder, “what they [the Roman soldiers who crucified him] can never kill,” which then goes on to organize itself as a community of believers? From this standpoint we should reread Oedipus himself as a precursor of Christ: against those—including Lacan himself—who perceive Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone as figures driven by the uncompromisingly suicidal death drive, “unyielding right to the end, demanding everything, giving up nothing, absolutely unreconciled,”[126] Terry Eagleton is right to point out that Oedipus at Colonus

becomes the cornerstone of a new political order. Oedipus’s polluted body signifies among other things the monstrous terror at the gates in which, if it is to have a chance of rebirth, the polis must recognize its own hideous deformity. This profoundly political dimension of the tragedy is given short shrift in Lacan’s own meditations …[127]

In becoming nothing but the scum and refuse of the polis—the “shit of the earth,” as St Paul racily describes the followers of Jesus, or the “total loss of humanity” which Marx portrays as the proletariat—Oedipus is divested of his identity and authority and so can offer his lacerated body as the cornerstone of a new social order. “Am I made a man in this hour when I cease to be?” (or perhaps “Am I to be counted as something only when I am nothing / am no longer human?”), the beggar king wonders aloud.[128]

Does this not recall a later beggar king, Christ himself, who, by his death as a nobody, an outcast abandoned even by his disciples, grounds a new community of believers? They both re-emerge by way of passing through the zero-level of being reduced to an excremental remainder. The notion of the Christian collective of believers (and its later versions, from emancipatory political movements to psychoanalytic societies) is an answer to a precise materialist question: how to assert materialism not as a teaching, but as a form of collective life? Therein resides the failure of Stalinism: no matter how “materialist” its teaching was, its form of organization—the Party, which is an instrument of the historical big Other—remained idealist. Only a collective of the Holy Spirit founded on the “death of God,” on accepting the inexistence of the big Other, is materialist in its very form of social organization.

This “transubstantiation,” by means of which our acts are experienced as drawing strength from their own result, should not be dismissed as an ideological illusion (“in reality there are simply individuals who are organizing themselves”). Here is the shortest Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm fairy tale, “The Willful Child”:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful and did not do what his mother wanted. For this reason God was displeased with him and caused him to become ill, and no doctor could help him, and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. He was lowered into a grave and covered with earth, but his little arm suddenly came forth and reached up, and it didn’t help when they put it back in and put fresh earth over it, for the little arm always came out again. So the mother herself had to go to the grave and beat the little arm with a switch, and as soon as she had done that, it withdrew, and the child finally came to rest beneath the earth.

Is not this obstinacy that persists even beyond death freedom—the death drive—at its most elementary? Instead of condemning it, should we not rather celebrate it as the last resort of our resistance? The death of Christ is also the death/end of human mortality, the “death of death,” the negation of negation: the death of God is the rise of the undead drive (the undead partial object). Here, however, Hegel is not radical enough: since he is not able to think objet a, he also ignores bodily immortality (“undeadness”)—both Spinoza and Hegel share this blindness for the proper dimension of the objet a. How can a Christian believer come to terms with this obscene excess of immortality? Is the answer, once again, love? Can one love this excess?

In what precise sense is Christianity the religion of love? Badiou provides a standard reading: while, like Plato, Christianity mobilizes the power of love to bind together subjects and sustain their fidelity to an event which marks a rupture with their utilitarian daily lives, it subordinates love proper as the rise of the Two—as the construction of a world from the Two—to a One, the One of transcendent divinity. The open risk of a love affair, the exploration of the consequences of love with no guarantee of a final success, is thus re-inscribed into the One, the God above the Two as the ultimate goal and guarantee of love. Against this intervention of a transcendent One which resolves the impossibility inscribed into the Two, Badiou insists on the immanence of love: the real of a love-encounter is transformed into a symbolic bond, contingency is transformed into necessity, by the love declaration (“I love you”), and the commitment announced in this declaration has then to be tested in the continuous work of love. The “eternity” of love is the eternity of this commitment, not the eternity of a transcendent-eternal guarantee.

But is such a reading of Christianity the only one possible? When Christ answers his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there,” does this also not dispense with any transcendence? Is love, divine love, here not also reduced to the immanence of the link which unites the Two? In other words, is the passage from God to the Holy Ghost not precisely the passage from transcendence to an immanent link? The problem resides in the precise nature of this link: after the reduction of transcendence, is the big Other still here? Furthermore, can we simply get rid of the big Other, or is a detour through the illusion of the big Other inevitable? In Seminar XXIII, Lacan points out that “psychoanalysis, with its success, demonstrates that one can also get rid of the Name-of-the-Father. One can get rid of it (ignore it: s’en passer) on condition that one makes use of it (s’en server).”[129]

What lurks in the background here is Lacan’s dictum la vérité surgit de la méprise—more precisely, de la méprise du sss (sujet supposé savoir): one cannot get directly at the inexistence of the big Other, one has first to be duped by the Other, because le Nom-du-Père means that les non-dupes errent: those who refuse to succumb to the illusion of sss also miss the truth concealed by this illusion. This brings us back to “God is unconscious”: “God” (as subject supposed to know, as big Other, as the ultimate addressee beyond all empirical addressees) is a permanent, constitutive structure of language; without Him, we are in psychosis—without the place of God-Father, the subject ends up in a Schreberian delirium.[130] God as sss is unsurpassable, in its basic dimension of big Other, of the place of Truth. The big Other is thus the zero-level of the divine, it is “properly the place where, if you allow me this play with words, god—godspeak—speaking (le dieu—le dieur—le dire) produces itself. It is saying which makes God out of a nothing. And as long as something will be said, the hypothesis of God will be here.”[131]

The moment we speak, we (unconsciously, at least) believe in God—it is here that we encounter Lacan’s “theological materialism” at its purest: it is speech (ours, ultimately) which creates God; however, God is here the moment we speak—or, to quote the Talmud: “You have made me into a single entity in the world, for it is written ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our god, the Lord is one,’ and I shall make you into a single entity in the world.”[132] Therein resides the limit of Judaism: of course it can perform the humanist reversal, we—the collective of believers—create God-One by praying to him; but Christ, its monstrous excess, cannot be thought here. The Talmudic formula exemplifies the standard circle of subjects and their virtual substance kept alive by the subjects’ incessant activity, substance as “the work of one and all.” In his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan opposes to the thesis of the death of God the claim that God is dead from the very beginning, it is just that he just did not know it; in Christianity he finally learns it—on the Cross. The death of Christ is thus not an actual death, but rather a becoming aware of what is already here. One should nonetheless take note of how this process unfolds in two stages, the Jewish and the Christian. While, in pagan religions, the gods are alive, Jewish believers already took God’s death into account—indications of this awareness abound in the Jewish sacred texts. Recall, from the Talmud, the story about the two rabbis who basically tell God to shut up: they fight over a theological question until, unable to resolve it, one of them proposes: “Let Heaven itself testify that the Law is according to my judgment.” A voice from heaven agrees with the rabbi who first appealed; however, the other rabbi then stands up and claims that even a voice from heaven was not to be regarded, “For Thou, O God, didst long ago write down in the law which Thou gavest on Sinai, ‘Thou shalt follow the multitude.’” God himself had to agree: after saying, “My children have vanquished me! My children have vanquished me!” he runs away … There is a similar story in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), but here, in a wonderful Nietzschean twist, God accepts his defeat with joyous laughter:

R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Halakhah [religious law] is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted. And again he said to them “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!” Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” they rejoined. After yet another trial with a wall, R. Eliezer then said to the Sages: “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?” R. Joshua stood up and protested: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’ (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline’ (Ex. 23:2).” R. Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah: “He laughed [with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.’”

The outstanding feature of this story is not only the divine laughter which replaces the sorrowful complaint, but the way the Sages (who stand for the big Other, of course) win the argument against God: even God Himself, the absolute Subject, is decentered with regard to the big Other (the order of symbolic registration), so that, once his injunctions are written down, he can no longer touch them. We can thus imagine why God reacts to his defeat with joyous laughter: the Sages have learnt his lesson that God is dead, and that the Truth resides in the dead letter of the Law which is beyond his control. In short, after the act of creation is accomplished, God loses even the right to intervene in how people interpret his law.

Modern liberal-democratic readers like to refer to this story as a parable about democracy: the majority wins, God as the ultimate Master has to concede defeat. This is, however, to miss the key message: the Sages do not simply stand for the majority, they stand for the big Other, for the unconditional authority of the dead letter of the Law to which even God himself has to bow. To give this story a Christian (and, simultaneously, radical-democratic) twist, we have to suspend the reference to the big Other, accept the big Other’s inexistence, and conceive the Sages as a collective which ne s’autorise que de lui-même. To put it in Hegelese, in the two Talmudic stories, God is dead “For us or in himself,” which is why, even if believers no longer really believe in him, they continue to practice the ritual of belief—it is only in Christianity that God dies “for himself.” God thus has to die twice, in itself and for itself: in Judaism, he dies in itself by way of being reduced to the performative effect of (humans) talking about him; but such a God continues to function, so has to die for itself, which happens in Christianity.

This, perhaps, is the most concise definition of the Hegelian Absolute Knowing: fully assuming the big Other’s inexistence, that is to say, the inexistence of the big Other as the subject-supposed-to-know. There is a key difference between this knowing and what, in a certain Socratic or mystical tradition, is called docta ignorantia: the latter refers to the subject’s knowing its ignorance, while the ignorance registered by the subject of Absolute Knowing is that of the big Other itself. The formula of true atheism is thus: divine knowing and existence are incompatible, God exists only insofar as he doesn’t know (take note of, register) his own inexistence. The moment God knows, he collapses into the abyss of inexistence, like the familiar cartoon cat which falls only when it notices there is no ground beneath its feet.

So why did Christ have to die? The paradox is that, in order for the virtual Substance (the big Other) to die, the price had to be paid in the real of flesh and blood. In other words, God is a fiction, but for the fiction (which structures reality) to die, a piece of the real had to be destroyed. Since the big Other as a virtual order, a symbolic fiction, is effective in its very inexistence—it does not exist, but it nevertheless works—it is thus not enough to destroy the fiction from the outside, to reduce it to reality, to demonstrate how it emerged from reality (pace “vulgar” atheists like Richard Dawkins). The fiction has to be destroyed from within, that is, its inherent falsity has to be brought out. To put it in descriptive terms, it is not enough to prove that God does not exist—the formula of true atheism is that God himself must be made to proclaim his own inexistence, must stop believing in himself. Therein lies the paradox: if we destroy the fiction from outside, reducing it to reality, it continues to function in reality, to exert its symbolic efficacy—as in the famous joke about the aforementioned atheist Zionists who do not believe that God exists, but nonetheless believe he gave them the land of Israel. “But now thus said the Lord that created you, Jacob, and he that formed you, Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). This, exactly, is what is reversed (undone) in the “subjective destitution” at work in consistent Christianity: I have to confront the terror of the big Other’s non-existence, which means that I myself am deprived of my symbolic identity—as a barred subject ($), I am no one’s and nameless. And the same applies to God himself, which is why, in his unpublished seminar from 1974–5, Lacan explains that Christianity is the “true” religion: in it, God ex-sists with regard to all: “He is ex-sistence par excellence, that is to say, in short, he is repression in person, he is even the person supposed in repression. And it is with regard to this that Christianity is true.”[133] Lacan refers here to “I am what I am,” the answer the burning bush on Mount Sinai gives when Moses asks it what it is; he reads it as the designation of a point at which a signifier is lacking, at which there is a hole in the symbolic order—and this should be taken in a strong reflexive sense, not only as an indication that God is a deep reality beyond the reach of our language, but that God is nothing but this lack in the symbolic order (big Other). As such, the divine “I am what I am” effectively prefigures the Cartesian cogito, the barred subject ($), this pure evanescent point of enunciation betrayed by any enunciated. This nothing—whose stand-in (or place-holder) is objet a—is the focus of love, or, as Simone Weil put it: “Where there is nothing, read that I love you.”

It is with regard to this crucial feature that we might also locate the ultimate limitation of Malabou’s notion of plasticity, which she still conceives of as the unity of opposites, of activity and passivity, of gathering and splitting. Malabou seems to be caught in the notional frame of polarity—of (the bad infinity of) two poles each reverting into the other indefinitely, along the lines of the Freudian Eros and Thanatos or the pagan notion of the universe as originating in the constant struggle of masculine and feminine, light and darkness, etc. So when she writes, in an almost programmatic passage, the following, what is missing is the assertion of the singular punctual moment of the full identity of the opposites:

An integrating and informing power, an originary synthetic power, plasticity also requires a contrary power of dissociation and rupture. These two powers characterize perfectly the gait of the Hegelian text: gathering and splitting, both at work in the System’s own formation. They are two inseparable powers allowing an idea of temporalizing synthesis and an idea of factual eruption to be articulated together. My whole work is invested here, as it tries to show that the Hegelian notion of temporality is located nowhere else but in the economy opened up by this articulation.[134]

When a chaotic period of gestation culminates in the explosive eruption of a new Form which reorganizes the entire field, this very imposition of the new Necessity/Order is in itself thoroughly contingent, an act of abyssal/ungrounded subjective decision. This brings us to the strict philosophical notion of subjectivity, since what characterizes the subject—in contrast to substance—is precisely such a complete coincidence of opposites: in the case of substance, synthesis and splitting remain externally opposed. While “substance” already stands for the encompassing unity of opposites, for the medium within which particular forces reproduce themselves through their struggle, in a “substantial” relationship the two aspects, synthesis and splitting, are not yet brought to self-relating, so that splitting as such would be that which brings about a synthesis, so that imposing a new Necessity would be the highest gesture of contingency.

Two features which cannot but appear opposed characterize the modern subject as it was conceptualized by German Idealism: (1) the subject is the power of “spontaneous” (i.e., autonomous, starting-in-itself, irreducible to a prior cause) synthetic activity, the force of unification, of bringing together the manifold of sensuous data we are bombarded with into a unified representation of objects; (2) the subject is the power of negativity, of introducing a gap/cut into the given-immediate substantial unity; it is the power of differentiating, of “abstracting,” tearing apart and treating as self-sufficient what in reality is part of an organic unity. In order to truly understand German Idealism, it is crucial to think these two features not only together (as two aspects of one and the same activity—i.e., the subject first tears apart natural unity then brings the membra disjecta together into a new [his own “subjective”] unity), but as stricto sensu identical: the synthetic activity itself introduces a gap/difference into substantial reality; likewise the differentiation itself consists in imposing a unity.

But how, exactly, are we to understand this? The subject’s spontaneity emerges as a disturbing cut into substantial reality, since the unity the transcendental synthesis imposes onto the natural manifold is precisely “synthetic” (in the standard rather than Kantian sense, i.e., artificial, “unnatural”). To evoke a common political experience: all great unifiers begin with a divisive gesture—de Gaulle, for example, unified the French by way of introducing an irreconcilable difference between those who wanted peace with Germany and those who did not.

The same goes for Christianity: we are not first separated from God and then miraculously united with him; the point of Christianity is that the very separation unites us—it is in this separation that we are “like God,” like Christ on the Cross, such that our separation from God is transposed into God himself. So when Meister Eckhart speaks of how, in order to open oneself up to the grace of God, allowing Christ to be born in one’s soul, one has to “empty” oneself of everything “creaturely,” how is this kenosis related to the properly divine kenosis (or, for that matter, even to the kenosis of alienation, of the subject being deprived of its substantial content)?

And likewise for ethics: a radical act of Good has to appear first as “evil,” as disturbing the substantial stability of traditional mores. Kafka formulated succinctly the basic Judeo-Christian tenet concerning Good and Evil: “Evil knows of the Good, but Good does not know of Evil. Knowledge of oneself is something only Evil has.”[135] This is the proper Judeo-Christian answer to the Gnostic-Socratic motto “Know yourself!” The underlying idea that Evil comes from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is radically opposed to the Oriental and Platonic tradition for which Evil is grounded in the lack of the evildoer’s knowledge (you cannot knowingly do evil things), so that the motto “Know yourself!” is simultaneously both ethical and epistemological. (This is why, in some Gnostic readings of the Old Testament, the snake that seduces Adam and Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge is an agent of the Good, working against the evil God-Creator.) Does this mean that, in order to be good, we should limit ourselves to ignorance? The dialectical position is more radical: there is a third way, that of the primacy of Evil over the Good. It is necessary to begin by choosing Evil; or, more precisely, every true Beginning as a radical break with the past is by definition Evil, from which the Good can emerge only afterwards, in the space opened up by that Evil.[136] The infamous series of black books (of communism, capitalism, psychoanalysis …) should be recapitulated in a black book on humanity itself—Brecht was right, humans are by nature evil and corrupt; one cannot change them, but only limit their opportunities to actualize their evil potential.

This is why, in Christianity, opposed features are attributed to Christ: he brings peace, love, etc., and he brings a sword, turning son against father, brother against brother. Again, this is one and the same gesture, not a logic of “first divide in order to unite.” And, again, it is crucial not to confuse this “identity of opposites” with the standard pagan motif of a divinity having two faces, a loving one and a destructive one—we are talking about one and the same face. But this does not mean that “the difference is only in us, not in God, who dwells in his blessed Beyond” (as in the old simile that sees reality as like a painting: if we look at it from too close up, we see only blurred stains; but viewed from a proper distance we can see the global harmony)—or, rather, it is like that, but not as external to God-in-himself: this shift is inherent to God. The dialectic of appearance holds here also: appearing is not external to God; God also is only as deep as he appears; his depth has to appear as depth, and it is this appearing that introduces a gap/cut. God has to appear “as such” in the domain of appearance itself, tearing it apart—it is nothing but this appearing.

This is why those who see a deep affinity between Heidegger and Buddhism miss the point: when Heidegger speaks about the “appropriating event (Ereignis),” he introduces a dimension which, precisely, is missing in Buddhism—that of the fundamental historicity of Being. Although what is erroneously called “Buddhist ontology” desubstantializes reality into a pure flow of singular events, what it cannot think is the “eventuality” of the Void of Being itself. To put it another way, the goal of Buddhism is to enable a person to achieve Enlightenment by “traversing” the illusion of the Self and rejoining the Void—what is unthinkable within this space is Heidegger’s notion of the human being as Da-Sein, as the “being-there” of Being itself, as the site of the event-arrival of Being, so that it is Being itself that “needs” Dasein; with the disappearance of Dasein, there is also no Being, no place where Being can, precisely, take place. Can one imagine a Buddhist claiming that the Void (sunyata) itself needs humans as the site of its arrival? One perhaps can, but in a conditional form which totally differs from Heidegger’s: namely in the sense that, of all sentient beings, only humans are able to achieve Enlightenment and thus break the circle of suffering.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the gap that separates Christianity from Buddhism is the difference in their respective triads. That is to say, in their respective histories, each divided itself into three main strands. In the case of Christianity, we get the triad of Orthodoxy-Catholicism-Protestantism, which neatly fits the logic of Universal-Particular-Individual. In Buddhism, by contrast, we get a case of what in Hegel occurs as a “downward synthesis” in which the third term, whose function is to mediate between the first two, does so in a disappointing-regressive way (in Hegel’s Phenomenology, for example, the whole dialectic of observing Reason culminates in the ridiculous figure of phrenology). The main split within Buddhism is between Hinayana (“the small wheel”) and Mahayana (“the great wheel”). The first is elitist and demanding, trying to maintain a fidelity to Buddha’s teaching, focusing on the individual’s effort to overcome the illusion of the Self and attain Enlightenment. The second, which arose from a split with the first, subtly shifts the accent onto compassion for others: its central figure is the bodhisattva, the individual who, after achieving Enlightenment, decides out of compassion to return to the world of material illusions in order to help others to achieve Enlightenment, in other words, to work to end the suffering of all sentient beings. The split here is irreducible: working for one’s own Enlightenment only reasserts the centrality of the Self in the very act of striving for its overcoming, while the “great wheel” route out of this predicament just displaces the deadlock: egotism is overcome, but at the price of universal Enlightenment itself turning into an object of the instrumental activity of the Self.

It is easy to identify the inconsistency of the Mahayana move, which cannot but have fateful consequences: when the Mahayana reinterpretation focuses on the figure of the bodhisattva—the one who, after achieving Enlightenment and entering nirvana, returns to the life of illusory passions out of compassion for all those still caught in the Wheel of Craving—a simple question arises: if, as radical Buddhists emphatically point out, entering nirvana does not mean that we leave this world and enter another, higher reality—in other words, if reality remains as it is and all that changes is the individual’s attitude towards it—why, then, in order to help other suffering beings, must we return to our ordinary reality? Why can we not continue to dwell in the state of Enlightenment in which, as we are taught, we remain living in this world? There is thus no need for Mahayana, for the “larger wheel”: the small (Hinayana) wheel is itself large enough to allow the Enlightened one to help others achieve Enlightenment. In other words, is not the very concept of the bodhisattva based on a theologico-metaphysical misunderstanding of the nature of nirvana? Does it not, in an underhand way, turn nirvana into a higher meta-physical reality? No wonder that Mahayana Buddhists were the first to give a religious twist to Buddhism, abandoning the Buddha’s original agnostic materialism, his explicit indifference towards the religious topic.

It would, however, be an utterly non-Hegelian reading of Buddhism if we were to locate “the Fall” in its historical development in the humanitarian “betrayal” of its original message enacted by the Mahayana turn: if there is an Hegelian axiom, it is that the flaw has to be located at the very beginning of the entire movement. What, then, is already wrong with the Hinayana itself? Its flaw is precisely that to which the Mahayana reacts, as its symmetrical reversal: in striving for my own Enlightenment, I regress into egotism in my very attempt to erase the constraints of my Self.

So, how to bring these two orientations, Hinayana and Mahayana, together? What they both exclude is a shattering proto-conservative insight: what if truth does not alleviate our suffering? What if truth hurts? What if the only peace attainable comes from immersing oneself in illusion? Is this conclusion not the hidden underlying premise of the third major school, the Vajrayana, which predominates in Tibet and Mongolia? Vajrayana is clearly regressive, involving the reinscription of traditional ritualistic and magical practices into Buddhism: the opposition between Self and others is here overcome, but through its “reification” in ritualized practices which are indifferent to this distinction. It is an interesting fact of historical dialectic that Buddhism, which originally dispensed with all institutional ritual and dogma to focus solely on the individual’s Enlightenment and overcoming of suffering, ended up clinging to the most mechanical and firmly entrenched institutional hierarchical framework.

The point here is not to make fun of the “superstitious” features of Tibetan Buddhism, but to become aware of how this total externalization does the job, “delivers the goods”: is not the use of the prayer-wheel—and of ritual more generally—also a means to achieve “mindlessness,” to empty one’s mind and repose in peace? So, in a way, Tibetan Buddhism is wholly faithful to the Buddha’s pragmatic orientation (ignore theological niceties, focus on helping people): sometimes, following blind ritual and immersing oneself in theologico-dogmatic hair-splitting is pragmatically the most effective way to achieve the goal of inner peace. The same holds for sexuality, where, sometimes, the best cure for impotence is not just to “relax and let go” (the moment one formulates this as an injunction, it has the opposite of the intended effect), but to approach sex as a bureaucratic procedure, establishing in detail what one is planning to do. This logic is also that of intelligent utilitarians who are well aware that moral acts cannot be directly grounded in utilitarian considerations (“I will do this because, in the long run, it is the best strategy for bringing me the most happiness and pleasure …”); but the conclusion they draw is that the Kantian “absolutist” morality (“do your duty for the sake of duty”) can and should be defended precisely on utilitarian grounds—it is also the one that works best in real life.

What then is the Buddhist answer to the Hegelian question: if we suffering humans need to be awakened into Enlightenment, how did we fall asleep in the first place? How did the Wheel of Desire emerge out of the eternal Void? There are three main answers which strangely echo the triad of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The first, standard answer invokes the Buddha’s practico-ethical attitude: instead of dwelling on metaphysical enigmas, begin with the fact of suffering and the task of helping people out of it. The next answer draws our attention to the obvious cognitive paradox implied in the question itself: our very state of ignorance makes it impossible for us to answer it—it can only be answered (or even posed in a proper way) once one reaches full Enlightenment. (Why then do we not receive an answer from those who claim to have reached Enlightenment?) Finally, there are some Tibetan Buddhist hints at dark demonic forces which disturb the balance of nirvana from within.

It is here that the gap separating Hegel from the Buddhist experience is unbridgeable: for Hegel as a Christian philosopher, the problem is not “how to overcome the split,” since the split stands for subjectivity, for the gap of negativity, and this negativity is not a problem but a solution, it is already in itself divine. The divine is not the abyssal, all-encompassing Substance/Unity behind the multitude of appearances; the divine is the negative power tearing apart the organic unity. Christ’s “death” is not overcome, but elevated into Spirit’s negativity.[137] Imagine experiencing oneself abandoned by God, left to one’s own devices, with no big Other secretly watching over one and guaranteeing a happy outcome—is this not another name for the abyss of freedom? This abandonment in a state of freedom causes anxiety—as Lacan reinterpreted Freud—not because the divine is far from us, but because it is all too close, since it is in our freedom that we are “divine”—as Lacan put it, anxiety does not signal the loss of the object-cause of desire, but its over-proximity. If freedom is God’s supreme gift to us (taking the word “gift” in all its fundamental ambiguity: “present” and “poison”—a poisonous and dangerous present, then), then being abandoned by God is the most God can give us. Crucial for Christianity, in contrast to all other religions, is this immanent reversal of abandonment into proximity—or, to put it in terms of “bad news/good news” medical jokes: the bad news is that we are abandoned by God; the good news is that we are abandoned by God and left with our freedom.

What to make, then, of the standard reproach that Hegel transposes Christianity—a religion of love and passion, of total subjective engagement—into a narrative representation of “abstract” speculative truth? Although Christianity is the “true” religion, in it the truth still appears in the medium of representation (and not in its own conceptual medium), so that speculative philosophy is the truth (the true-adequate form) of the Christian truth (content); the passion and pain of subjective engagement are thus dismissed as a secondary narrative husk to be discarded if we want to reach the truth in its own conceptual element. What this critique misses is that the casting off of the pathetic-narrative existential experience—the transubstantiation of the subject from a “concrete” self immersed in its life world into the subject of pure thought—is itself a process of “abstraction” which has to be accomplished in the individual’s “concrete” experience, and which as such involves the supreme pain of renunciation.

For Badiou, love is a “scene of the Two” as such, grounded only in itself, its own “work of love,” lacking any Third which would provide a proper support or Ground: when I am in love with someone, my love is neither One nor Three (I do not form with my beloved a harmonious One in fusion, nor is our relationship grounded in a Third, a medium which would provide predetermined coordinates for our love and thus guarantee its harmony).[138] This is what makes love so fragile: it is, as Badiou puts it, a process of pure presentation, a radically contingent encounter incessantly in search of some form of re-presentation in the big Other that would guarantee its consistency. Therein resides the function of marriage: through its ritual, the raw real of a love passion is registered in, and thus recognized by, the big Other of the public order, and, ultimately (in a church marriage), by God, the ultimate big Other itself. This is why, as Badiou perspicuously notes, love is in its very notion atheist, godless: all the talk about God’s love for us or our love for God should not deceive us. How, then, are we to explain the central role of love (of God’s love for humanity) in Christianity? Precisely by the fact that Christianity is, at its deepest core, already atheistic, a paradoxically atheistic religion. When Christ says to his followers deceived after his death on the Cross that, whenever there is love between them, he will be there, alive among them, this should not be read as a guarantee that Christ-Love is a Third term in the relationship of love, its guarantee and foundation, but, on the contrary, as another way of proclaiming the death of God: there is no big Other which guarantees our fate; all we have is the self-grounded abyss of our love.

What this means is also that Hegel really is the ultimate Christian philosopher: no wonder he often uses the term “love” to designate the play of the dialectical mediation of opposites. What makes him a Christian philosopher and a philosopher of love is the fact that, contrary to the common misunderstanding, in the arena of dialectical struggle there is no Third which unites and reconciles the two struggling opposites.


In Lacan’s formulae of sexuation, “non-All” designates the feminine position, a field which is not totalized because it lacks the exception, the Master-Signifier. Applied to Christianity, this means that the Holy Spirit is feminine, a community not based on a leader. The shift to the feminine occurs already in Christ: Christ is not a male figure; as many subtle readers have noted, his strangely passive stance is that of feminization, not of male intervention. Christ’s impassivity thus points towards the feminization of God: his sacrifice follows the same logic as that of the heroine of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, or of Sygne de Coûfontaine in Claudel’s L’Otage. Christ is not a Master figure, but the objet a, occupying the position of the analyst: an embarrassing excess, answering questions with jokes and riddles that only confound his listeners further, already acting as his own blasphemy.[139] Recall the strange parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew:

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 25:14–30)

It is not hard to imagine how much an American business-oriented Baptist pastor would love this parable: does it not confirm the parallel between religion and business, promoting in both the dynamic capitalist spirit of venture, circulation, risk, and expansion? Preachers who expound the word of God must act like businessmen expanding their business! However, is it not also possible to read the parable in the opposite way, especially if we bear in mind the alternative version in Luke 19:11–27: here the master is a nobleman who has to leave for “a distant country to receive for himself a kingdom,” although he is not wanted there; the three men are not servants but (ten) slaves; the nobleman’s attendants protest at his decision to give the third man’s minas to the one who already has ten (“‘Sir, he has ten minas already!’”); and the parable concludes with a cruel order: “‘But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be their king, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!’”—hardly a gesture worthy of a good man. Is it not much more appropriate to do as William Herzog proposed, and celebrate the third servant as a whistle-blower denouncing the exploitation of the poor?[140] In other words, what if we read the third man’s decision to hide the talent, withdrawing it from commercial circulation, as a gesture of subtraction from the field of (economic) power, as a refusal to participate in it? The master’s furious reaction is thus fully justified: what this servant did is much worse than stealing his money or hiding the profit—had he done that, the servant would still have participated in the business spirit of “reaping where I have not sowed.” But the servant went much further: he rejected the entire “spirit” of profit and exploitation and thus attacked the very foundations of the master’s existence—and was this not why Christianity had such problems coming to terms with collecting interest, which means precisely to “reap where I have not sowed”? The parable is definitely an exercise in weird humor, so John Caputo is right to refer to Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus who says that humor serves as the incognito of the religious—the problem resides in the precise determination of this humor, a humor inextricably mixed with horror.[141]

One can conceive of the entire history of Christianity as a reaction not against preceding religion(s), but against its own excessive/subversive core, that of the true dimension of the Holy Ghost (the egalitarian emancipatory collective which cancels any organic-hierarchical social link): all the great theologians embraced the task of making Christianity compatible with a hierarchical social body. Saint Augustine took the first major step in this direction by way of “inventing psychological interiority,” thereby withdrawing from a literal and socially dangerous interpretation of Christ’s radical sayings (to follow him one must hate one’s mother and father; the rich will never enter paradise; etc.). The whole art of Thomas Aquinas culminates in a form of sophistry designed to reconcile the literal meaning of the Bible with the demands of a hierarchical society. Recall, for example, his demonstration that although Christ preaches the renunciation of earthly wealth (i.e., the sinful character of private property), this holds only for people who are themselves holy (priests, etc.); if ordinary people were to want to abolish private property, they would sin against God. This, however, in no way leads to a “spurious infinity” of the gap between really existing Christianity and the true Christianity, so that every really existing form of the Church necessarily misses its notion. The solution here is the properly Hegelian one: the true Idea of the Christian collective was realized, but outside of the Church as an institution—which, however, does not mean that it survived in intimate, authentic religious experiences which had no need for the institutional frame; rather, it survived in other institutions, from revolutionary political parties to psychoanalytic societies … It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective—the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.

The standard reproach addressed to this project of “Christian materialism” is that it amounts to a “barred” belief: not being courageous enough to make the “leap of faith,” I retain the Christian form of religious engagement without its content. My reply is that this “emptying the form of its content” already takes place in Christianity itself, at its very core—the name of this emptying is kenosis: God dies and resurrects itself as the Holy Ghost, as the form of collective belief. It is a fetishistic mistake to search for the material support of this form (the resurrected Christ)—the Holy Ghost is the very collective of believers, what they are searching for outside of the collective is already there in the guise of the love that binds them. Adrian Johnston recently formulated a pertinent critical point apropos of my project of “Christian atheism”:

You and Badiou clearly, openly, and unambiguously are thoroughgoing atheists, thinkers insisting on the non-existence of any big Other, One-All, and so on. Moreover, both of you labor to reveal, in a non-reductive manner, the material basis/genesis of “spiritual” phenomena. And, of course, you yourself vehemently insist on reading Christianity as the “religion of atheism.” But, from others’ texts I’ve read and conversations I’ve had these past few years, some people register you and Badiou as religious in the same fashion that audiences register Penn and Teller as magical: “I know full well that Badiou and Žižek are atheists, but nonetheless …”; “I know that Christianity is, as the religion of atheism, an immanent self-negation of religion, but nonetheless … (I continue to relate to it as religion, in a religious mode replete with all its established rituals, practices, etc.).” I guess one of the things I’m saying is that the tactic of employing Christianity as a tempting Trojan horse carrying within it the explosive potentials of an atheistic-materialist radical politics carries dangerous risks arising from this je sais bien, mais quand même reaction evident in those who latch onto you and Badiou as licensing, as displaying strains of phenomenology and its offshoots, a version of “post-secular” Continental philosophy.[142]

Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological—the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers.

Let us for a moment return to Pascal. The first thing of note is his rejection of all attempts to demonstrate the existence of God: Pascal concedes that “we do not know if He is,” and so seeks instead to provide prudential reasons for believing in him: we should wager that God exists because it is the best bet:

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separates us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up … Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose … But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God exists.[143]

Pascal appears to be aware of the immediate objection to this argument, for he imagines an opponent replying: “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” In short, when one wagers on God, one does put something at stake, which presumably one loses if God does not exist: truth, the respect for one’s worldly life … (Indeed, it is strange how utilitarian-pragmatist Pascal’s reasoning is.) A series of other objections follow:

(1) Pascal assumes that the same matrix of decision and reward applies to everybody—but what if the rewards are different for different people? Perhaps, for example, there is a predestined infinite reward for the Chosen, whatever they do, and finite utility for the rest?

(2) The matrix should have more rows: perhaps there is more than one way to wager for God, and the rewards that God bestows vary accordingly. For instance, God might not reward infinitely those who strive to believe in him only for the utilitarian-pragmatic reasons that Pascal gives. One could also imagine distinguishing belief based on faith from belief based on evidential reasons, and posit different rewards in each case.

(3) Then there is the obvious many-Gods objection: Pascal had in mind the Catholic God, but other theistic hypotheses are also live options, i.e., the “(Catholic) God does not exist” column really subdivides into various other theistic hypotheses (but the Protestant God exists, Allah exists, there is no God …). The obverse of this objection is the claim that Pascal’s argument proves too much: its logical conclusion is that rationality requires believing in various incompatible theistic hypotheses.

(4) Finally, one can argue that morality requires you to wager against God: wagering for God because of the promise of future profit violates the Kantian definition of the moral act as an act accomplished for no “pathological” reasons. Voltaire, arguing along these lines, suggested that Pascal’s calculations, and his appeal to self-interest, were unworthy of the gravity of the subject.

Underlying all this is the basic paradox of belief as a matter of decision: as if to believe something or not were a matter of decision and not of insight. So, if we read Pascal’s wager together with his no less well-known topic of customs, one can argue that the core of his argument does not directly concern belief but rather acting: one cannot decide to believe, one can only decide to act as if one believes, in the hope that belief will arise by itself; perhaps this trust that if you act as if you believe, belief will arise, is itself the wager:

You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.[144]

Perhaps the only way out of these impasses is what, in his unpublished “secret” writings, Denis Diderot elaborated under the title of the “materialist’s credo.” In “Entretien d’un Philosophe avec la maréchale de ***,” he concluded: “Après tout, le plus court est de se conduire comme si le vieillard existait … même quand on n’y croit pas.” (After all, the most straightforward way is to behave as if the old guy exists … even if one doesn’t believe it.) This may appear to amount to the same as Pascal’s wager with regard to rituals: even if you do not believe in them, act as if you believe. However, Diderot’s point is exactly the opposite one: the only way to be truly moral is to act morally without regard to God’s existence. In other words, Diderot directly inverts Pascal’s wager (the advice to place your bet on the existence of God): “En un mot que la plupart ont tout à perdre et rien à gagner à nier un Dieu rénumérateur et vengeur.” (In a word, it is that the majority of those who deny a remunerating and revenging God have all to lose and nothing to gain.)[145] In his denial of the remunerative and vengeful God, the atheist either loses everything (if he is wrong, he will be damned forever) or gains nothing (if he is right, there is no God, so nothing happens). It is this attitude which expresses true confidence in one’s belief and makes one do good deeds without regard to divine reward or “as if the old guy exists”—this old guy is, of course, God-the-Father, which recalls Lacan’s formula le père ou pire—father or worse. It is at this level that one should oppose Pascal and Diderot: while Pascal bets on God-the-Father, Diderot enjoins us to parier sur le pire, to put one’s wager on the worse. In true ethics, one acts from the position of the inexistence of the big Other, assuming the abyss of the act deprived of any guarantee or support.

Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a(nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief and thus have no need for any figure of the Other to guarantee that belief; to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-même. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of its inexistence.

This is also why a true atheist is at the opposite end from those who want to save religion’s spiritual truth from its “external” dogmatic-institutional context. A profoundly religious friend once commented on the subtitle of a book of mine, “the perverse core of Christianity”: “I fully agree with you there! I believe in God, but I find repulsive and deeply disturbing all the twists celebrating sacrifice and humiliation, redemption through suffering, God organizing his own son’s killing by men. Can’t we have Christianity without this perverse core?” I could not bring myself to answer him: “But that is precisely the point of my book: what I want is all those perverse twists of redemption through suffering, the death of God, etc., but without God!”

Thus, as we have said, God has to die twice, first as real, then as symbolic; first in Judaism, then in Christianity. In Judaism, the God of the real survives as Word, as the virtual-dead Other whose specter is kept alive by the ritual performance of his subjects; in Christianity, this virtual Other itself dies. In Judaism, the God perceived directly as real dies; in Christianity, the God who is unconscious dies. The passage from paganism to Judaism is one of sublimation (the dead god survives as the symbolic Other); the death of Christ is not sublimation, in other words it is not the death of the real God who is resurrected in the Holy Ghost as the symbolic Other, like Julius Caesar who returns as sublimated in the symbolic title “Caesar.”

In strict parallel with this double move from paganism to Judaism and from Judaism to Christianity is the move from traditional authoritarian power to democracy and from democracy to revolutionary power: it is only in revolutionary power that the big Other really dies. In democracy, the place of power is empty, but the electoral procedure functions as a kind of ersatz-Other providing the legitimacy for power. That is to say, democracy—in the way this term is used today—concerns above all formal legality: its minimal requirement is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. “Democracy” means that, whatever electoral manipulation takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were effectively “democratic”: in spite of the obvious electoral duplicity and the patent meaninglessness of the fact that a couple of hundred voters in Florida decided who would be the president, the Democratic candidate accepted defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriately acerbic comment: “The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said.” This comment should be taken more seriously than Clinton himself intended: even now, we do not know what they said—maybe because there was no substantial “message” behind the result at all. Jacques-Alain Miller has elaborated on the idea that democracy implies the “barred” big Other;[146] however, the Florida example demonstrates that there nevertheless is a “big Other” which continues to exist in democracy: the procedural “big Other” of electoral rules which must be obeyed whatever the result—and this “big Other,” this unconditional reliance on rules, is what a more radical politics threatens to suspend.

This Kantian limitation of democracy is strictly homologous to the limitation of Kojin Karatani’s Kantian “transcendental” solution to the antinomy of money (we need an X which will be money and will not be money). When Karatani reapplies this solution to power (we need some centralized power, but not fetishized into a substance which is “in itself” Power)—and when he explicitly evokes the structural homology with Duchamp (the object becomes a work of art not because of its inherent properties, but simply by occupying a certain place in the structure)—does this not all exactly fit Lefort’s theorization of democracy as a political order in which the place of power is originally empty and is only temporarily occupied by the elected representatives? Along these lines, even Karatani’s apparently eccentric suggestion of combining elections with selection by lot is more traditional than it may appear (he himself mentions Ancient Greece)—paradoxically, it fulfills the same function as does Hegel’s theory of monarchy.

Karatani here takes a heroic risk in proposing a crazy-sounding definition of the difference between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat: “If universal suffrage by secret ballot, namely, parliamentary democracy, is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the introduction of lottery should be deemed the dictatorship of the proletariat.” In this way, “the center exists and does not exist at the same time”[147]: it exists as an empty place, a transcendental X, and it does not exist as a substantial positive entity. But is this really enough to undermine the “fetishism of power”? When an ordinary individual is allowed temporarily to occupy the place of power, the charisma of power is bestowed on him, following the usual logic of fetishistic disavowal: “I know very well that this is an ordinary person like me, but nonetheless … (while in power, he becomes the instrument of a transcendent force, power speaks and acts through him)!” Does this not fit the general matrix of Kant’s solutions, where metaphysical propositions (God, immortality, etc.) are asserted, “under erasure,” as postulates? Consequently, would not the true task be precisely to get rid of the very mystique of the place of power? This is why, in his writings of 1917, Lenin reserves his most acerbic irony for those who engage in an endless search for some kind of “guarantee” for the revolution. This guarantee takes two main forms, in terms of either the reified notion of social Necessity (the revolution must not be risked too early; one has to wait for the right moment, when the situation is “mature” with regard to the laws of historical development) or the idea of normative (“democratic”) legitimacy (“the majority of the population is not on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic”)—as if, before the revolutionary agent risks the seizure of state power, it should seek permission from some figure of the big Other (organize a referendum to ascertain whether the majority supports the revolution). Not surprisingly, a very Christian point.


It is only against this background of the fall of the big Other that one can properly grasp Lacan’s famous formulation of the basic ethical axiom implied by psychoanalysis:

It is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of our experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?[148]

This is Lacan’s maxim of the ethics of psychoanalysis: “the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire.”[149] This maxim, simple and clear as it appears, becomes elusive the moment one tries to specify its meaning. For Lacan, properly ethical acts are rare: they occur like “miracles” which interrupt the ordinary run of things; they do not “express” the entire “personality” of the subject, but function as a break in the continuity of “personal identity.” Take the case of Maximilian Kolbe, which confronts us with a weird but crucial ethical dilemma. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan monk who, during the 1920s and 1930s, was involved in writing and organizing mass propaganda for the Catholic Church, with a clear anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic edge. With the outbreak of World War II, he helped people threatened by the Nazis, among them many Jews, and for this he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. When, in the summer of 1941, after the escape of a prisoner, the Germans selected ten others to be starved to death as a punishment, one of them broke down in tears, claiming he had a family which needed him; Kolbe voluntarily offered himself in the man’s stead and died three weeks later of starvation. For this, he was later beatified by Pope John Paul II. How to fit these two aspects of Kolbe’s life together? Most commentators take one of the many easy ways out. Some simply try to deny or minimize Kolbe’s anti-Semitism (even dismissing the rumors about it as a KGB plot). Some insist on the scholastic distinction between anti-Semitism proper and anti-Judaism—a “mere” prejudice against Jews, not a murderous hatred of them—claiming that Kolbe’s error was of the second, minor sort. Others interpret his helping the Jews and final sacrifice as acts of repentance: having witnessed the suffering of the Jews under the Nazi occupation, Kolbe changed his view and tried to assuage his guilt. Still others take the risky step of minimizing not his anti-Semitism, but his final self-sacrificial gesture, pointing out that the man he saved was not a Jew but a Catholic Pole. All these versions are desperate attempts to avoid the embarrassing fact that the two attitudes (and activities) can easily coexist: a person who is anti-Semitic can also be capable of a dignified act of ethical self-sacrifice—and, even more embarrassingly, the (explicit) motivation for Kolbe’s noble self-sacrifice may well have been the very conservative-Catholic ideology which had sustained his anti-Semitism.

An ethical act is one that does not comprise or express the entire person, but is a moment of grace, a “miracle” which can occur also in a non-virtuous individual. This is why such acts are difficult to imagine, and why, when they do occur, one often tends to invent a narrative which normalizes them. Recall the “Assassins,” the Ismaili sect, part of the Shia orientation of Islam, that fascinated the Western gaze from the twelfth century on: according to myth they were ruthless murderers who obeyed their master’s orders unconditionally, without regard for their own lives; after they had killed their target (always in public and with a dagger), they did not run away, but waited to be apprehended and punished. They were able to perform these ruthless acts because they were under the influence of hashish. In the mysterious mountain fortress of Alamut in northern Iran, they were manipulated by their leader, who first drugged them and then, while they were comatose, moved them to a secluded garden decked out with all the features of the Muslim paradise, including beautiful girls ready for sex. On being returned to ordinary life, they were convinced they had experienced a heavenly episode—so when their leader told them that, if they succeeded in assassinating the designated target, they would return to paradise, they willingly complied. A closer historical study, however, quickly dispels the myth: the name hashishi is local to Syria only, where it functions as a general term of popular abuse; it was applied to “Assassins” as “an expression of contempt for the wild beliefs and extravagant behaviour of the sectaries—a derisive comment on their conduct.”[150] The standard explanation (they were called “assassins” because they used hashish to ready themselves for their ruthless acts) has thus to be inverted: “it was the name that gave rise to the story, rather than the reverse … For Western observers in particular, such stories may also have served to provide a rational explanation for behavior that was otherwise totally inexplicable.”[151] The story about the recreated paradise was thus a fantasy concocted to rationalize the traumatically “incomprehensible” fact that the Ismaili followers were ready to function as perfect killing machines, willing to sacrifice their own lives in the accomplishment of the task—a fantasy, in short, that enabled Westerners to re-translate a pure “ethical” act into an act determined “pathologically” (in the Kantian sense of the term). How, then, does such an ethics stand with regard to the panoply of today’s ethical options? It seems to fit three of its main versions: liberal hedonism, immoralism, and “Western Buddhism.”[152] Let us run through these positions one by one.

The first thing to state categorically is that Lacanian ethics is not an ethics of hedonism: whatever “do not compromise your desire” means, it does not mean the unrestrained rule of what Freud called “the pleasure principle,” the functioning of the psychic apparatus that aims at achieving pleasure. For Lacan, hedonism is in fact the model of postponing desire on behalf of “realistic compromises”: it is not only that, in order to attain the greatest amount of pleasure, I have to calculate and economize, sacrificing short-term pleasures for more intense long-term ones; what is even more important is that jouissance hurts. So, first, there is no break between the pleasure principle and its counterpart, the “reality principle”: the latter (compelling us to take into account the limitations that thwart our direct access to pleasure) is an inherent prolongation of the former. Second, even (Western) Buddhism is not immune to the lures of the pleasure principle; the Dalai Lama himself wrote: “The purpose of life is to be happy”—not true for psychoanalysis, one should add.[153] It was Nietzsche who observed that “human beings do not desire happiness, only the Englishmen desire happiness”—today’s globalized hedonism is thus merely the obverse of the fact that, in the conditions of global capitalism, we are ideologically “all Englishmen” (or, rather, Anglo-Saxon Americans …). So what is wrong with the rule of the pleasure principle? In Kant’s description, ethical duty functions like a foreign intruder that disturbs the subject’s homeostatic balance, its unbearable pressure forcing the subject to act “beyond the pleasure principle,” ignoring the pursuit of pleasures. For Lacan, exactly the same description holds for desire, which is why enjoyment is not something that comes naturally to the subject, as a realization of his or her inner potential, but is the content of a traumatic superegoic injunction.

If hedonism is to be rejected, is Lacanian ethics then a version of the heroic immoralist ethics, enjoining us to remain faithful to ourselves and persist on our chosen way beyond good and evil? Think of don Giovanni in the last act of Mozart’s opera, when the Stone Guest confronts him with a choice: he is near death, but if he repents of his sins, he can still be redeemed; if, however, he does not renounce his sinful life, he will burn in hell forever. Don Giovanni heroically refuses to repent, although well aware that he has nothing to gain, except eternal suffering, for his persistence. Why does he do it? Obviously not for any profit or promise of pleasure to come. The only explanation is his utmost fidelity to the dissolute life he has chosen. This is a clear case of immoral ethics: don Giovanni’s life was undoubtedly immoral; however, as his fidelity to himself proves, he was immoral not for pleasure or profit, but out of principle, acting the way he did in accordance with a fundamental choice.

Or, to take a feminine example also from opera: George Bizet’s Carmen. Carmen is, of course, immoral (ruthlessly promiscuous, ruining men’s lives, destroying families), but nonetheless thoroughly ethical (faithful to her chosen path to the end, even when this means certain death). Along these lines, Lee Edelman has developed the notion of homosexuality as involving an ethics of “now,” of unconditional fidelity to jouissance, of following the death drive by totally ignoring any reference to the future or engagement with the practical complex of worldly affairs. Homosexuality thus stands for the thorough assumption of the negativity of the death drive, of withdrawing from reality into the real of the “night of the world.” Along these lines, Edelman opposes the radical ethics of homosexuality to the predominant obsession with posterity (i.e., children): children are the “pathological” moment which binds us to pragmatic considerations and thus compels us to betray the radical ethics of jouissance.[154] (Incidentally, does this line of thought—the idea that homosexuality at its most fundamental involves the rejection of children—not justify those who argue that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt children?) The figure of an innocent and helpless child is the ultimate ethical trap, the emblem-fetish of betraying the ethics of jouissance.

Friedrich Nietzsche (a great admirer of Carmen) was the great philosopher of immoral ethics, and we should always remember that the title of Nietzsche’s masterpiece is “genealogy of morals,” not “of ethics”: the two are not the same. Morality is concerned with the symmetry of my relations to other humans; its zero-level rule is “do not do to me what you do not want me to do to you.”[155] Ethics, in contrast, deals with my consistency in relation to myself, my fidelity to my own desire. On the back flyleaf of the 1939 edition of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Stalin made the following note in red pencil:

1) Weakness

2) Idleness

3) Stupidity

These are the only things that can be called vices. Everything else, in the absence of the aforementioned, is undoubtedly virtue.

NB! If a man is 1) strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) clever (or capable), then he is good, regardless of any other “vices”!
1) plus 3) make 2).[156]

This is as concise as ever a formulation of immoral ethics; in contrast, a weakling who obeys moral rules and worries about his guilt stands for unethical morality, the target of Nietzsche’s critique of resentment. It is a supreme irony (and one of the greatest cases of poetic justice) that, among American writers, the one who provided the most precise formulation of the same immoral ethics was none other than the rabidly anti-Communist Russian emigrant Ayn Rand, in her first (still moderate) US success, the play Night of January 16th. Although written in a traditional realist mode, this courtroom (melo)drama engages its spectators in a very contemporary, almost Brechtian, manner: at the beginning, the twelve jury members are randomly selected from among the theater audience; they are seated on the stage and, at the play’s end, they briefly withdraw before returning to deliver the verdict of guilty or not guilty—Rand provided different final lines depending on which it was. The decision they have to make is not only about the murder of Bjorn Faulkner, a ruthless Swedish tycoon: did Karen Andre, his devoted mistress and secretary, do it or not? It is also about two opposed ethics—to quote the play itself:

if you value a strength that is its own motor, an audacity that is its own law, a spirit that is its own vindication—if you are able to admire a man who, no matter what mistakes he may have made in form, had never betrayed his essence: his self-esteem—if, deep in your hearts, you’ve felt a longing for greatness and for a sense of life beyond the lives around you, if you have known a hunger which gray timidity can’t satisfy …[157]

In short, if you advocate immoral ethics, you will find Karen not guilty; if, however, you believe in social respectability, in a life of service, duty, and unselfishness, etc., then you will find Karen guilty.

There is, however, a limit to this Stalinist immoral ethics: not that it is too immoral, but that it is secretly too moral, still relying on a figure of the big Other. In what is arguably the most intelligent legitimization of Stalinist terror, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror from 1946, the terror is justified as a kind of wager on the future, almost in the mode of Pascal: if the final result of today’s horror turns out to be a bright communist future, then this outcome will retroactively redeem the terrible things a revolutionary has to do today. Along similar lines, even some Stalinists themselves—when forced to admit (mostly in private) that many of the victims of the purges were innocent, that they were accused and killed because “the Party needed their blood to fortify its unity”—imagined a future moment of final victory when all the victims would be given their due, and their innocence and sacrifice for the Cause would be recognized. This is what Lacan, in his seminar on Ethics, refers to as the “perspective of the Last Judgment,” a perspective even more clearly discernible in two key terms of the Stalinist discourse, “objective guilt” and “objective meaning”: while you can be an honest individual who acts with the most sincere intentions, you are nonetheless “objectively guilty” if your acts serve reactionary forces—and it is, of course, the Party that decides what your acts “objectively mean.”

Here, again, we get not only the perspective of the Last Judgment (from which the “objective meaning” of your acts is formulated), but also the agent in the present who already has the unique ability to judge today’s events and acts from this perspective.[158] The name of Raskolnikov (the hero of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) evokes a split (raskol); Raskolnikov is “the split one”—but split between what and what? The standard answer is that he is “torn between the ‘Napoleonic idea,’ the notion that all is permitted to a strong person, and the ‘Russian idea’ of selfless devotion to humanity”[159]—however, this version misses the properly “totalitarian” coincidence of the two ideas: it is my very selfless devotion to humanity, my awareness that I am an instrument of Humanity, which justifies my claim that all is permitted to me. The paradox is thus that what Raskolnikov lacks is the split itself, the distance between the two ideas, the “Napoleonic” and the “Russian.”

We can see now why Lacan’s motto “il n’y a pas de grand Autre” (there is no big Other) takes us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely this “perspective of the Last Judgment,” the idea that somewhere—even if as a thoroughly virtual reference point, even if we concede that we can never occupy its place and pass the actual judgment—there must be a standard which would allow us to take the measure of our acts and pronounce on their “true meaning,” their true ethical status. Even Derrida’s notion of “deconstruction as justice” seems to rely on a utopian hope which sustains the specter of “infinite justice,” forever postponed, always to come, but nonetheless here as the ultimate horizon of our activity.

The harshness of Lacanian ethics lies in its demand that we thoroughly relinquish this reference to the big Other—and its further wager is that not only does this renunciation not plunge us into ethical insecurity or relativism (or even sap the very fundamentals of ethical activity), but that renouncing the guarantee of some big Other is the very condition of a truly autonomous ethics. Recall that the exemplary dream Freud used to illustrate his procedure of dream analysis was a dream about responsibility (Freud’s own responsibility for the failure of his treatment of Irma)—this fact alone indicates that responsibility is a crucial Freudian notion. But how are we to conceive of this responsibility? How are we to avoid the common misperception that the basic ethical message of psychoanalysis is, precisely, that we should relieve ourselves of responsibility and instead place the blame on the Other (“since the Unconscious is the discourse of the Other, I am not responsible for its formations, it is the big Other who speaks through me, I am merely its instrument”)? Lacan himself pointed the way out of this deadlock by referring to Kant’s philosophy as the crucial antecedent of psychoanalytic ethics.


According to the standard critique, the limitation of the Kantian universalistic ethic of the “categorical imperative” (the unconditional injunction to do one’s duty) resides in its formal indeterminacy: the moral Law does not tell me what my duty is, it merely tells me that I should accomplish my duty, and so leaves room for an empty voluntarism (whatever I decide will be my duty is my duty). However, far from being a limitation, this very feature brings us to the core of Kantian ethical autonomy: it is not possible to derive the concrete obligations pertaining to one’s specific situation from the moral Law itself—which means that the subject himself must assume the responsibility of translating the abstract injunction into a series of concrete obligations. The full acceptance of this paradox compels us to reject any reference to duty as an excuse: “I know this is heavy and can be painful, but what can I do, this is my duty …” Kant’s ethics is often taken as justifying such an attitude—no wonder Adolf Eichmann himself referred to Kant when trying to justify his role in planning and executing the Holocaust: he was just doing his duty and obeying the Führer’s orders. However, the aim of Kant’s emphasis on the subject’s full moral autonomy and responsibility was precisely to prevent any such maneuver of putting the blame on some figure of the big Other.

During an unfortunate debate I had with Bernard-Henri Lévy (in the premises of Le Nouvel Observateur in Paris), he related (what maybe was, or not) a personal experience to illustrate his opposition to killing. During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, he had visited the besieged Sarajevo, where he was taken to a frontline trench by an officer of the Bosnian government. From here, looking through the scope of a gun, he was able to see a Serb soldier on a nearby hill occasionally shooting at civilians in the city. Looking at the soldier with his finger on the trigger, Lévy was tempted to shoot, but he resisted—the injunction “Do not kill!” is for him unconditional. To me, such a reaction was moralistic hypocrisy at its purest: Lévy fully supported the Bosnian side in the conflict (as did I, so there was no disagreement there), but his refusal to take the shot meant that, while he would have expected a Bosnian soldier in the same position to pull the trigger, he wanted to keep his hands clean and leave the necessary dirty work to others. In the face of such a dilemma, the only truly universalistic stance is to be ready to dirty one’s own hands.

The core of Lacan’s atheism is best discerned in the conceptual couple of “alienation” and “separation” which he develops in his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.[160] In a first approach, the big Other stands for the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings; the subject does not speak, he is “spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully controls the effects of his acts, so that their final outcome is always other than what he aimed at or anticipated. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, lacking (“barred,” as Lacan liked to put it): the big Other does not possess what the subject lacks. In separation, the subject experiences how his own lack with regard to the big Other is already the lack that affects the big Other itself. To recall Hegel’s immortal dictum concerning the Sphinx: “The enigmas of the Ancient Egyptians were enigmas also for the Egyptians themselves.” Along the same lines, the elusive, impenetrable Dieu obscur has to be impenetrable also to himself; he has to have a dark side, something that is in him more than himself.[161]

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards referred to suicide as “alienating oneself from the Party and people.”[162] One is tempted to ask here, with regard to the Lacanian couple of alienation and separation: what, then, would separation from the Party and people have been? The question is not as meaningless as it may appear, insofar as, for Lacan, separation stands for redoubled alienation: the subject enacts separation when his lack coincides with the lack in the Other, that is, when he recognizes that the Other also does not have what he is missing. In short, in this context, separation involves the insight that the distance separating the subject from the Party and people is already immanent to the Party and people themselves—in other words, the Party itself is already alienated from the people.

So what does it mean to abandon the topic of the Last Judgment? As is often the case, Kafka provides the key here: “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of martial law.”[163] In other words, the absence of the Last Judgment does not mean that there is merely historical evolution with no moments of what Benjamin called “suspended dialectics,” when the continuous flow is momentarily immobilized: the Last Judgment does not come at the end of times, it is the martial law—the state of exception—here and now.

The only other school of thought that fully accepts the inexistence of the big Other is Buddhism. Is the solution then to be found in Buddhist ethics? There are reasons to consider this option. Does not Buddhism lead us to “traverse the fantasy,” overcoming the illusions on which our desires are based and confronting the void beneath each object of desire? Furthermore, psychoanalysis shares with Buddhism the insistence that there is no Self as a substantive agent of psychic life: no wonder Mark Epstein, in his book on Buddhism and psychoanalysis, refers positively to Lacan’s early essay on the “mirror stage,” with its notion of the Ego as an object, the result of the subject’s identification with the idealized fixed image of itself:[164] the Self is the fetishized illusion of a substantial core of subjectivity where, in reality, there is nothing. This is why, for Buddhism, the point is not to discover one’s “true Self,” but to accept that there is no such thing, that the “Self” as such is an illusion, an imposture. In more psychoanalytic terms: not only should one analyze resistances, but, ultimately, “there is really nothing but resistance to be analyzed; there is no true self waiting in the wings to be released.”[165] The self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being. Consequently, in the process of Buddhist Enlightenment, we do not quit this terrestrial world for another truer reality—we just accept its non-substantial, fleeting, illusory character; we embrace the process of “going to pieces without falling apart.” In the Gnostic mode, for Buddhism, ethics is ultimately a question of knowledge and ignorance: our craving (desire), our attachment to terrestrial goods, is conditioned by our ignorance, so that deliverance comes with proper knowing. (What Christian love means, on the contrary, is that there is a decision not grounded in knowledge—Christianity thus breaks with the entire tradition of the primacy of Knowledge which runs from Buddhism through Gnosticism to Spinoza.)

Crucial to Buddhism is the reflexive change from the object to the thinker himself: first, we isolate the thing that bothers us, the cause of our suffering; then we change not the object but ourselves, the way we relate to (what appears to us as) the cause of our suffering: “What was extinguished was only the false view of self. What had always been illusory was understood as such. Nothing was changed but the perspective of the observer.”[166] This shift involves great pain; it is not merely a liberation, a step into the incestuous bliss of the infamous “oceanic feeling”; it is also the violent experience of losing the ground under one’s feet, of being deprived of the most familiar stage of one’s being. This is why the path towards Buddhist Enlightenment begins by focusing on the most elementary feelings of “injured innocence,” of suffering an injustice without cause (the preferred topic of narcissistic, masochistic thoughts: “How could she do this to me? I don’t deserve to be treated that way”).[167] The next step is to make the shift to the Ego itself, the subject of these painful emotions, rendering clear and palpable its own fleeting and irrelevant status—the aggression directed against the object causing the suffering should be turned against the Self itself. We do not repair the damage; rather, we gain the insight into the illusory nature of that which appears to need repair.[168]

What, then, is the nature of the gap that separates psychoanalysis from Buddhism? In order to answer this question, we need to confront the basic enigma of Buddhism, its blind spot: how did the fall into samsara, the Wheel of Life, occur? This enigma is the exact opposite of the main Buddhist concern: how can we break out of the Wheel of Life and attain nirvana?[169] The nature and origin of the impetus by means of which desire (deception) emerged out of the Void is the big unknown in the heart of the Buddhist edifice: it points towards an act that “breaks the symmetry” within nirvana itself and thus makes something appear out of nothing (as in quantum physics with its notion of symmetry-breaking). The Freudian answer is the drive: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive (as Lacan put it in the last pages of Seminar XI: after the subject traverses the fantasy, desire is transformed into drive). What psychoanalysis adds to Buddhism is thus in fact a new version of Galileo’s eppur si muove: imagine a Lacanian being tortured by a New Age Western Buddhist into admitting that inner peace can be achieved; after the forced concession, as he leaves the room, he quietly mumbles: “But nonetheless, it continues to move!”[170]

This is what Lacan is aiming at when he emphasizes the difference between the Freudian death drive and the so-called “nirvana principle” according to which every life system tends towards the lowest level of tension, ultimately towards death. To put it in terms of the Higgs field in quantum physics, “nothingness” (the void, being deprived of all substance) and the lowest level of energy paradoxically no longer coincide; at the lowest level of tension, or in the void, the dissolution of all order, it is “cheaper” (it costs the system less energy) to persist in “something” than to dwell in “nothing.” It is this distance that sustains the death drive (namely, the drive as such, since “every drive is virtually a death drive”).[171] Far from being the same as the nirvana principle (the striving towards the dissolution of all tension, the longing for a return to original nothingness), the death drive is the tension which persists and insists beyond and against the nirvana principle. In other words, far from being opposed to the pleasure principle, the nirvana principle is its highest and most radical expression. In this precise sense, the death drive stands for its exact opposite, for the dimension of the “undead,” of a spectral life which insists beyond (biological) death. So does the paradox of the Higgs field not also prefigure the mystery of symbolic castration in psychoanalysis? What Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—“incestuous”—object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and of meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity.

This is why psychoanalysis is firmly entrenched in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, not only against Oriental spirituality but also against Islam, which, like Oriental spirituality, endorses the thesis on the ultimate vanity and illusory nature of every object of desire. On the 614th night of One Thousand and One Nights, Judar, following the orders of a Moroccan magician, had to open seven doors that would lead him to a treasure. When he came to the seventh door,

there issued forth to him his mother, saying, “I salute thee, O my son!” He asked, “What art thou?” and she answered, “O my son, I am thy mother who bare thee nine months and suckled thee and reared thee.” Quoth he, “Put off thy clothes.” Quoth she, “Thou art my son, how wouldst thou strip me naked?” But he said “Strip, or I will strike off thy head with this sword;” and he stretched out his hand to the brand and drew it upon her saying, “Except thou strip, I will slay thee.” Then the strife became long between them and as often as he redoubled on her his threats, she put off somewhat of her clothes and he said to her, “Doff the rest,” with many menaces; while she removed each article slowly and kept saying, “O my son, thou hast disappointed my fosterage of thee,” till she had nothing left but her petticoat trousers. Then said she, “O my son, is thy heart stone? Wilt thou dishonour me by discovering my shame? Indeed, this is unlawful, O my son!” And he answered, “Thou sayest sooth; put not off thy trousers.” At once, as he uttered these words, she cried out, “He hath made default; beat him!” Whereupon there fell upon him blows like rain drops and the servants of the treasure flocked to him and dealt him a funding which he forgot not in all his days.[172]

On 615th night, we learn that Judar was given another chance and tried again; when he came to the seventh door,

the semblance of his mother appeared before him, saying, “Welcome, O my son!” But he said to her, “How am I thy son, O accursed? Strip!” And she began to wheedle him and put off garment after garment, till only her trousers remained; and he said to her, “Strip, O accursed!” So she put off her trousers and became a body without a soul. Then he entered the hall of the treasures, where he saw gold lying in heaps…[173]

Fethi Benslama has pointed out how this passage indicates that Islam knows what our Western universe denies: the fact that incest is not forbidden, but inherently impossible (when one finally gets the naked mother, she fades away as a bad specter). Benslama refers here to Jean-Joseph Goux,[174] who demonstrated how the Oedipus myth is a Western myth and as such an exception with regard to other myths; its basic feature is precisely that “behind the prohibition, the impossible withdraws itself”:[175] the very prohibition is read as an indication that incest is possible.

Here, however, we should remain faithful to the Western “Oedipal” tradition: of course every object of desire is an illusory lure; of course the full jouissance of incest is not only prohibited, but in itself impossible; nevertheless, Lacan’s les non-dupes errent must still be asserted. Even if the object of desire is illusory, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive content is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real; which is why there is more truth in the unconditional fidelity to one’s desire than in the resigned insight into the vanity of one’s striving.

As we have seen, at the core of this paradox is a formal structure homologous to that of the Higgs field in quantum physics: what, in the Higgs field, is called the double vacuum[176] appears here in the guise of the irreducible gap between ethics (understood as the care of the self, as striving towards authentic being) and morality (understood as the care for others, responding to their call). Insofar as the authenticity of the Self is taken to the extreme in Buddhist meditation, whose goal is precisely to enable the subject to overcome (or, rather, suspend) its Self and enter the vacuum of nirvana, one should remember the Zen Buddhist claim that “Zen and the sword are one and the same,” a principle grounded in the opposition between the reflexive attitude of our ordinary daily lives (in which we cling to life and fear death, strive for egotistic pleasures and profits, hesitate instead of acting directly) and the enlightened stance in which the difference between life and death no longer matters, in which we regain the original self-less unity and become directly our acts. In a unique short-circuit, militaristic Zen masters interpret the basic Zen message (that liberation entails losing one’s Self, uniting immediately with the primordial Void) as being identical with total military fidelity, with immediately following orders and performing one’s duty without concern for the Self and its interests. The standard anti-militaristic cliché about soldiers being drilled into a state of mindless subordination is here asserted as being identical to Zen Enlightenment. Within this attitude, the warrior no longer acts as a person; he is thoroughly de-subjectivized; or, as D. T. Suzuki himself put it: “it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.”[177]

Does this description not provide the ultimate example of the phenomenological attitude which, instead of intervening into reality, just lets things appear as they are? The sword itself does the killing; the enemy just appears and makes himself a victim—the warrior is in it for nothing, reduced to being the passive observer of his own acts. No wonder that, “struck by his leader’s cold demeanor and his utter ruthlessness towards their enemies, one of his comrades once compared Pol Pot with a Buddhist monk who had attained the ‘third level’ of consciousness: ‘You are completely neutral. Nothing moves you. This is the highest level.’”[178] One should not dismiss this as an obscene false parallel: Pol Pot did indeed come from a Buddhist cultural background, and there is a long tradition of militarist discipline in Buddhism. We find the same authoritarian streak in Tibetan Buddhism—for example, in a traditional Tibetan custom which has undergone a strange transformation over the last half-century:

During the Cultural Revolution, if an old landowner met emancipated serfs on the road he would stand to the side, at a distance, putting a sleeve over his shoulder, bowing down and sticking out his tongue—a courtesy paid by those of lower status to their superiors—and would only dare to resume his journey after the former serfs had passed by. Now things have changed back: the former serfs stand at the side of the road, bow and stick out their tongues, making way for their old lords. This has been a subtle process, completely voluntary, neither imposed by anyone nor explained.[179]

In short, the ex-serfs somehow detected that with Deng Xiaoping’s “reforms,” they were once again at the bottom of the social scale; however, much more interesting than the redistribution of social hierarchy signaled by this change is the fact that the same traditional ritual survived such tremendous social transformations. In order to dispel any illusions about Tibetan society, is it not enough to note the distasteful nature of this custom. Over and above the usual stepping aside and bowing—to add insult to injury, as it were—the subordinated individual had to fix his face in an expression of humiliating stupidity (open mouthed with tongue stretched out, eyes turned upwards, etc.) in order to signal with this grotesque grimace his worthless stupidity. The crucial point here is to recognize the violence of this practice, a violence that no consideration of cultural differences and no respect for otherness should wash over.

The point here is not to criticize Buddhism, but merely to emphasize the irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility): the difficult thing to accept is that one can be totally authentic in overcoming one’s false Self and yet still commit horrible crimes—and vice versa, of course: one can be a caring subject, morally committed to the full, while existing in an inauthentic world of illusion with regard to oneself. This is why all the desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps towards (and conditions of) Enlightenment misfire: Suzuki himself was much more honest in this regard when he pointed out that Zen is a meditation technique which implies no particular ethico-political stance—in his political life, a Zen Buddhist may be a liberal, a fascist, or a communist. Again, the two vacuums never coincide: in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity.

CHAPTER 3. Fichte’s Choice

Perhaps the most productive way to deal with an “official” history of philosophy is to consider how a philosopher who was “overcome” by his successor (according to this “official” line) reacted (or would have reacted) to his successor. How would Plato react to Aristotle, or Wagner to Nietzsche, or Husserl to Heidegger, or Hegel to Marx?[180] The most intriguing case of this “rebellion of the vanquished” was German Idealism, wherein each of the “predecessors” in the “official” line of progress (Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel-late Schelling) reacted to the critique or interpretation of his work by his successor. Fichte wanted merely to complete Kant’s philosophy with his Wissenschaftslehre, and Kant’s disparaging remarks about Fichte are well known: he rejected as meaningless and tautological the very term Wissenschaftslehre (“doctrine about knowledge”). Fichte’s “subjective idealism” was then followed by Schelling’s philosophy of identity, which supplements the transcendental-subjective genesis of reality with a philosophy of nature. Fichte bitterly rejected this “supplement” as a misreading of his Wissenschaftslehre, as one can read in their correspondence. (On the other hand, Schelling himself was not slow to retort that Fichte had radically changed his position in reaction to Schelling’s critique.) Hegel’s “overcoming” of Schelling is a case in itself: Schelling’s reaction to Hegel’s idealist dialectic was so strong that it has increasingly come to be seen as the next (even final) step in the inner development of German Idealism—indeed, there is a book (by Walther Schulze) with the title The Accomplishment of German Idealism in Schelling’s Late Philosophy. Schelling’s first and decisive break out of the constraints of his early philosophy of identity occurs with his Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom from 1807 (the year of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit!), to which Hegel reacted in his (posthumously published) lectures on the history of philosophy with a brief and ridiculously inadequate dismissal which totally misses the point of Schelling’s masterpiece. What is today considered a highpoint in the entire history of philosophy appeared to Hegel as an insignificant minor essay. No wonder, then, that the topic among contemporary Hegel scholars is “What would Hegel’s rejoinder have been to Schelling’s critique of dialectics as a mere ‘negative philosophy’?” Among others, Dieter Henrich and Frederick Beiser have tried to reconstruct a Hegelian answer.

When, in 1841, it was announced that the old Schelling would go to Berlin and start teaching there, answering the call by the Prussian king himself to fight the “dragonseed of Hegelian pantheism” with its “facile omniscience,” Karl Rosenkranz, a leading pupil of Hegel, wrote that he was “delighted” by this prospect:

I looked forward to the fight that this occasion must cause. I rejoiced in quiet over what by all appearances would be the toughest test of the Hegelian system and its adherents. I revelled in the feeling of progress, which for philosophy must spring from this. I greeted this challenge as a phenomenon never before encountered in philosophy, where a philosopher should have the power to step beyond the circle of his creation and grasp its consequences, which in the history of philosophy until now is without precedent.[181]

It is effectively as if, on such occasions, an impossible encounter takes place: a philosopher is somehow able to step onto his own shoulders and see himself, his thought, “objectively,” as part of a larger movement of ideas, interacting with what comes after. What is the philosophical status of these “retroactive” rejoinders? It is all too easy to claim (in the postmodern vein of the “end of the grand narratives”) that they bear witness to the failure of every general scheme of progress: they do not so much undermine the underlying line of succession (from Kant to late Schelling) as, rather, highlight its most interesting and lively moment, the moment when, as it were, a thought rebels against its reduction to a term in the chain of “development” and asserts its absolute right (or claim).

Sometimes, such reactions are mere outbursts of a helpless disorientation; sometimes, they are themselves the true moments of progress. That is to say, when the Old is attacked by the New, this first appearance of the New is, as a rule, flat and naïve—the true dimension of the New arises only when the Old reacts to (the first appearance of) the New. Pascal reacted from a Christian standpoint to scientific secular modernity, and his “reaction” (his struggling with the problem of how to remain a Christian in the new conditions) tells us much more about modernity than its direct partisans.[182] True “progress” emerges from the reaction of the Old to progress. True revolutionaries are always reflected conservatives. As Roman Bainton, Luther’s commentator, put it: “The most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him”[183]—a version of Racine’s “I fear God, and I have no other fears,” from his Athalie.

One of the great cases of a philosopher answering his successor is that of Husserl vis-à-vis Heidegger. Husserl is often reproached for trying to cling onto the “abstract” Cartesian subject, that is, for failing to fully grasp In-der-Welt-Sein, the subject’s active engagement in its life world—only Heidegger, it is said, was able to make this move, in Sein und Zeit. What if, however, it is Heidegger who is not “concrete” enough in his critique of Husserl? What if he overlooks the existential base of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction? Husserl’s phenomenological reduction is an exemplary case of the gap between the pure logical process of reasoning and the corresponding spiritual attitude. If one limits oneself to the process of reasoning, Husserl’s deduction cannot but appear an extravagant exercise in “abstract reasoning” at its worst: all we can be sure that really exists is the process of thinking that is I; so if we want an absolutely scientific starting point, we will have to bracket the naïve-realist notion of things existing out there in the world and take into account only their pure appearance, the way they appear to us and are correlative to our (transcendental) acts. What such an understanding misses is that the state described by Husserl in terms of the “phenomenological reduction” is much more than this, approaching an existential experience and attitude close to some currents within early Buddhism: the attitude of Realitätsverlust, of experiencing reality as a dream, a totally de-substantialized flow of fragile and ephemeral appearances, in relation to which I am not an engaged agent, but a stunned passive observer observing my own dream. Even when I act, it is not the core of me that acts—I observe my “self,” another ethereal appearance, interacting with other appearances.

Husserl should thus also be read against the background of the unity of philosophy and the existential position in actual life, which was for the first time explicitly posited by Fichte, who “proposed to develop a philosophical theory from the perspective of the living mind that directly reflected the actual life of the mind.”[184] This attitude is best expressed in Fichte’s saying that the kind of philosophy one has depends on what kind of man one is: philosophy is not a neutral world-view, but a reflective appropriation of one’s pre-theoretical existential attitudes. And is not Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit a systematic deployment of this stance? Is not every “figure of consciousness” described by Hegel a unity of a philosophical notion and a practical life-world position?[185] This brings us back to Balmès and the reasons why Lacan retained the term “subject”: Husserl’s phenomenological reduction implicitly refers to the existential experience of a kind of “psychotic” disengagement for which there is no place in the Heideggerian edifice. This is why Husserl’s manuscripts on passive synthesis and time-consciousness are so precious.

Far from being mere footnotes in the history of philosophy or pathetic dead ends, these detours of the Old which, instead of graciously conceding defeat and leaving the scene, persist and counter-attack the New, are in fact the very catalysts of its “development.” To grasp a philosophy at its most radical, one should imagine, for example, how Kant would have answered Hegel, how Hegel would have answered the late Schelling or Marx, how Husserl would have answered Heidegger.


Arguably the most interesting case of such a retroactive rejoinder is presented by Fichte’s late philosophy in which he (implicitly or explicitly) answers his critics, primarily Schelling. Let us then focus on Fichte’s shift from the self-positing I to the asubjective divine Being as the ultimate ground of all reality. Here is Günter Zöller’s succinct description of this basic shift in Fichte’s doctrine from the Jena period (1794–99) to the Berlin period (1799–1814): in the Jena period,

the I, in its capacity as absolute I, had functioned as the principle of all knowledge. After 1800, the I provides the form (Ichform: “I-form”), of knowledge as such. The ground is now no longer identified with the I qua absolute I but with something absolute prior to and originally independent of the I (Seyn, “Being,” or Gott, “God”). By contrast, the I qua I-form is the basic mode for the appearance of the absolute, which does not appear itself and as such.[186]

One should be very precise in reading this shift: it is not simply that Fichte “abandons” the I as the absolute ground, reducing it to a subordinate moment of the trans-subjective Absolute, to a mode or form of appearance of this Absolute. If anything, it is only now (after Jena) that Fichte correctly grasped the basic feature of the I: the I is “as such” a split of the Absolute, the “minimal difference” of its self-appearing. In other words, the notion of I as the absolute Ground of all being secretly but unavoidably “substantivizes” the subject.

Fichte is, however, unable to formulate this insight clearly—his limitation is discernible in the wrong answer he gives to the crucial question: to whom does the Absolute appear in the I-form? Fichte’s answer is: to (subjective) appearance, to the subject to whom the Absolute appears. What he is not able to assert is that, in appearing to the subject, the Absolute also appears to itself, i.e., that the subjective reflection of the Absolute is the Absolute’s self-reflection.

The key text is here the Wissenschaftslehre from 1812, in contrast to the Jena versions of Wissenschaftslehre from 1794–99. In these early versions, Fichte’s strategy is the standard subjective-idealist one of critically denouncing the “reified” notion of objective reality, of things existing out there in the world of which the subject is also part: one should dispel this necessary illusion of independent objective reality by way of deploying its subjective genesis. Here, the only Absolute is the spontaneous self-positing of the absolute I: the absolute I designates the coincidence of being and acting (Tat-Handlung), it is what it does. Against this version of the Fichtean I, Hegel made the well-known remark that it has the same relation to things as an empty purse has to money. One should not dismiss this parallel as simply a case of mocking aggression, implying that Fichte’s self-positing of the absolute I which engenders all its content out of itself has the same (nil) value as an empty purse expected to generate money out of itself; that is, in the same way that someone has to put money into the purse from outside, the content of the pure I should “affect” the I from outside and thus cannot be generated out of the absolute I’s “self-affection.” On the contrary, this parallel should be given its full weight, also taking into account Kant’s use of money as an example in his criticism of the ontological proof of the existence of God—you cannot deduce existence from the concept alone, it is not the same thing to have a concept of 100 thalers and to have 100 thalers in your pocket. Hegel’s reply is that, precisely, God is not the same type of object as 100 thalers: at the level of the Absolute, the containing Form can generate its own content.

In 1812, however, Fichte takes one further step backwards: “it is no longer the absoluteness of the things that is unveiled as an unavoidable illusion, but the absoluteness of the I itself.”[187] The self-positing of the I is itself an illusory appearance, an “image” of the only true Absolute, the trans-subjective immovable absolute Being (“God”). Back in 1790s, after Fichte had explained to Madame de Stael the I’s self-positing, she snapped back: “So you mean that the absolute I is like Baron Münchhausen, who saved himself from drowning in a swamp by grabbing his hair and pulling himself out with his own hands?” It is as if the late Fichte accepted this critique, conceding that the self-reflecting I is a chimera floating in mid-air, which has to be grounded in some firm positive Absolute. The critical analysis has thus to take a further step back: first from objective reality to the transcendental I, then from the transcendental I to the absolute Being: the I’s self-positing is an image of the divine Absolute, not the Absolute itself:

the Absolute appears, as life teaches us. The appearance of the Absolute means that it appears as the Absolute. Since determinacy comes with negation, the Absolute must bring forth its own opposite, a non-Absolute, to be able to appear as the Absolute. This non-Absolute is the Absolute’s appearance. The appearance is also that to which the Absolute appears. Thus, the Absolute can appear to the appearance only if at the same time its opposite, namely the appearance, appears to the appearance as well. There is no appearing of the Absolute without an appearing of the appearance to itself, that is, without reflectivity of the appearance. Since the Absolute appears necessarily, the self-reflection of the appearance is necessary too.

Fichte relates the unitary aspect of the appearance to the appearing of the Absolute, whereas the multiplicity aspect is linked to the appearance’s self-reflection. Since self-reflection is a process, there is transmutation and genesis within the appearance when it appears to itself. Employing the notion of being as unity and immutability, Fichte concludes that the appearance is insofar as it is a manifestation or a self-revelation of the Absolute; and that the appearance is not insofar as it is self-reflective.[188]

This shift can also be formulated as one from positing to appearing: while in 1794, the I posits itself as positing itself, in 1812,

the appearance appears to itself as appearing to itself. To appear, however, is an activity. Thus, the appearance appears to itself as being active through itself, or as a principle “from itself, out of itself, through itself.” Fichte concludes that, since the appearance is constituted by the act of appearing to itself, it conceives of its own existence (its “formal being”) as grounded in itself. As soon as the appearance reflects on itself, it understands itself to exist through itself, that is, to be a se. But this cannot be true, as the Wissenschaftslehre demonstrates. Only One is in the sense of aseitas, namely the Absolute, so that appearance cannot truly be in this sense.[189]

A double mediation has to be accomplished here. Firstly, if, in the appearing of the Absolute, the Absolute appears as the Absolute, this means that the Absolute has to appear as absolute in contrast to other “mere” appearances—so there must be a cut in the domain of appearances, a cut between “mere” appearances and the appearance through which the Absolute itself transpires. In other words, the gap between appearance and true Being must inscribe itself into the very domain of appearing.

But what this reflectivity of appearing means is that the Absolute also exposes itself to the danger of merely “appearing” to be the Absolute—the appearing of the Absolute turns into the (misleading, illusory) appearing to be the Absolute. Is not the entire history of religion (from a materialist standpoint, of course) the history of such false appearances of the Absolute? At this level, “the Absolute” is its own appearing, that is, an organization of appearances which evokes the mirage that there is, hidden behind it, an Absolute which appears (shines through it). Here, in effect, the illusion is no longer one of mistaking appearing for being, but of mistaking being for appearing: the only “being” of the Absolute is its appearing, and the illusion is that this appearing is a mere “image” behind which there is a transcendent true Being. So when Fichte writes the following he overlooks that error which is the exact opposite of mistaking images for being (that of taking as the true being what is effectively only its image), namely the error of mistaking being for images (in other words of taking as merely an image of the true being what is effectively the true being itself): “Every error without exception consists in mistaking images for being. The Wissenschaftslehre has for the first time pronounced how far this error extends through showing that being is only in God.”[190] At this level, one should thus accept the Derridean theological conclusion: “God” is not an absolute Being persisting in itself, it is the pure virtuality of a Promise, the pure appearing of itself. In other words, the “Absolute” beyond appearances coincides with an “absolute appearance,” an appearance beneath which there is no substantial Being.

Second mediation: if the Absolute is to appear, appearing itself must appear to itself as appearing, and Fichte conceives this self-appearing of appearance as subjective self-reflection. Fichte is right to endorse a two-step critical approach (first the move from the object to its subjective constitution, then the meta-critical step of deploying the abyssal mirage of the subject’s self-positing); what he gets wrong is the nature of the Absolute that grounds subjectivity itself. The late Fichte’s Absolute is an immovable transcendent In-itself, external to the movement of reflection. What Fichte cannot think is the “life,” movement, mediation, in the Absolute itself: how, precisely, the Absolute’s appearing is not a mere appearance, but a self-actualization, a self-revelation, of the Absolute. This immanent dynamics does not make the Absolute itself a subject, but it inscribes subjectivization into its very core.

What Fichte was furthermore unable to grasp is the speculative identity of these two extreme poles (pure absolute Being and the appearance appearing to itself): the I’s self-positing self-reflectivity is, quite literally, the “image” of the Absolute as self-grounded Being. Therein resides the objective irony of Fichte’s development: Fichte, the philosopher of subjective self-positing, ends up reducing subjectivity to a mere appearance of an immovable absolute In-itself. The proper Hegelian reproach to Fichte is thus not that he is too “subjective,” but, on the contrary, that he is unable to really think Substance also as Subject: the shift of his thought towards the asubjective Absolute is not a reaction to his earlier excessive subjectivism, but a reaction to his inability to formulate the core of subjectivity.

Hegel’s true novelty can be seen with regard to the topic of “absolute” idealism, in terms of the standard history of post-Kantian thought formed by the triad of Fichte’s “subjective” idealism, Schelling’s “objective” idealism, and Hegel’s “absolute” idealism. The designation of Schelling’s Identitätsphilosophie as “objective” idealism is, however, deceiving: the whole point of his Identitätsphilosophie is that subjective idealism (transcendental philosophy) and objective idealism (philosophy of nature) are two approaches to the Third, the Absolute beyond or beneath the duality of spirit and nature, subject and object, underlying and manifesting itself in both. (The late Fichte does something similar when he passes from the transcendental I to the divine Being as the absolute Ground of all reality.) In this sense, it is meaningless to call Hegel’s philosophy “absolute idealism”: his point is precisely that there is no need for a Third element, the medium or Ground beyond subject and object-substance. We start with objectivity, and the subject is nothing but the self-mediation of objectivity. When, in Hegel’s dialectics, we have a couple of opposites, their unity is not a Third, an underlying medium, but one of the two: a genus is its own species, or, a genus ultimately has only one species, which is why specific difference coincides with the difference between genus and species.

We can thus identify three positions: metaphysical, transcendental, and “speculative.” In the first, reality is simply perceived as existing out there, and the task of philosophy is to analyze its basic structure. In the second, the philosopher investigates the subjective conditions of the possibility of objective reality, its transcendental genesis. In the third, subjectivity is re-inscribed into reality, but not simply reduced to a part of objective reality. While the subjective constitution of reality—the split that separates the subject from the In-itself—is fully admitted, this very split is transposed back into reality as its kenotic self-emptying (to use the Christian theological term). Appearance is not reduced to reality; rather the very process of appearance is conceived from the standpoint of reality, so that the question is not “How, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality?” but “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?”

For Henrich, Fichte’s problem is that of recognition: how do I know that what I see when I look at myself is “me”? Lacan’s solution is: I do not know, recognition is misrecognition; in other words, “I” is originally a void, a failure to locate myself in the order of Being. There is a constitutive gap between the I and the substance of I, or what I am as object—this impossibility is missed by Fichte and Henrich.

One of the standard gags in American TV comedy is the late-recognition scene—a man sees a car being towed away, laughs cruelly at the owner’s misfortune, before recoiling in surprise a couple of seconds later: “But, wait, that’s my car!” The most elementary form of this gag is, of course, that of delayed self-recognition: I pass a glass door and think I see behind it an ugly, disfigured guy; I laugh, and then, all of a sudden, realize that the glass was a mirror, and that the figure I saw was myself. The Lacanian thesis is that this delay is structural: there is no direct self-acquaintance; the self is empty.


What are the philosophical roots of Fichte’s error regarding the status of appearing? Let us return to the early Fichte (of the Jena period), who is usually perceived as a radical subjective idealist. On this reading, there are two possible descriptions of our reality: “dogmatic” (Spinozan deterministic materialism: we are part of reality, submitted to its laws, an object among others, our freedom is an illusion) and “idealist” (the subject is autonomous and free; as the absolute I it spontaneously posits reality). Reasoning alone cannot decide between the two, the decision is a practical one; or, to quote again Fichte’s famous dictum: what philosophy one chooses depends on what kind of man one is—and, in this choice, Fichte passionately opts for idealism. However, a closer look quickly makes clear that this is not Fichte’s position. Idealism is for Fichte not a new positive teaching which should replace materialism, but, to quote Peter Preuss’s perspicuous formulation:

merely an intellectual exercise open to anyone who accepts the autonomy of theoretical reason. Its function is to destroy the current deterministic dogma. But if it were now itself to become a theoretical understanding of reality it would be every bit as bad. While human life is no longer seen as a mere natural event it would now be seen as a mere dream. We would be no more human in the one understanding than the other. In the one understanding I am the material to which life happens as an event, in the other I am the uninvolved spectator of the dream which is my life. Fichte finds each of these to be equal cause for lament. No, the task is not to replace one theoretical philosophy with another one, but to get out of philosophy altogether. Philosophical reason is not autonomous, but has its foundation in practical reason, i.e., the will … Fichte is widely misunderstood as opting for idealism over realism … neither realism (of whatever kind) nor idealism (of whatever kind) yields knowledge, theoretical understanding of reality. Both yield unacceptable nonsense if taken to their final conclusions. And precisely this yields the valuable conclusion that the intellect is not autonomous. The intellect, to function properly as part of a whole human being, must relate to the activity of that being. Human beings do contemplate and try to understand reality, but not from a standpoint outside the world. Human beings are in the world and it is as agents in the world that we require an understanding of the world. The intellect is not autonomous but has its foundation in our agency, in practical reason or the will.[191]

How does the will provide this foundation?

… in an act of faith it transforms the apparent picture show of experience into an objective world of things and of other people … faith indicates a free (i.e., theoretically unjustifiable) act of mind by which the conditions within which we can act and use our intellects come to be for us.[192]

Fichte’s position is thus not that a passive observer of reality chooses determinism, while an engaged agent chooses idealism: taken as an explanatory theory, idealism does not lead to practical engagement, but to the passive position of being the observer of one’s own dream (reality is already constituted by me, I only have to observe it like that, that is, not as a substantial independent reality, but as a dream). Both materialism and idealism lead to consequences which make practical activity meaningless or impossible. In order for me to be practically active, engaged in the world, I have to accept myself as a being “in the world,” caught in a situation, interacting with real objects which resist me and which I try to transform. Furthermore, in order to act as a free moral subject, I have to accept the independent existence of other subjects like me, as well as the existence of a higher spiritual order in which I participate and which is independent of natural determinism. To accept all this is not a matter of knowledge—it can only be a matter of faith. Fichte’s point is thus that the existence of external reality (of which I myself am a part) is not a matter of theoretical proofs, but a practical necessity, a necessary presupposition of myself as an agent intervening in reality, interacting with it.

The irony is that Fichte here comes uncannily close to Nikolai Bukharin, a die-hard dialectical materialist who, in his Philosophical Arabesques (one of the most tragic works in the entire history of philosophy—a manuscript written in 1937, when he was in the Lubyanka prison, awaiting execution), tries to bring together for the last time his entire life-experience into a consistent philosophical edifice. The first and crucial choice he confronts is that between the materialist assertion of the reality of the external world and what he calls the “intrigues of solipsism.” Once this key battle is won, once the life-asserting reliance on the real world liberates us from the damp prison-house of our fantasies, we can breathe freely, simply going on to draw all the consequences from this first key result. The mysterious feature of the book’s first chapter, in which Bukharin confronts this dilemma, is its tension between form and content: although, at the level of content, Bukharin adamantly denies that his book is dealing with a choice between two beliefs or primordial existential decisions, the whole chapter is structured like a dialogue between a healthy but naïve materialist and Mephistopheles, standing for the “devil of solipsism,” a “cunning spirit” which “drapes itself in an enchantingly patterned cloak of iron logic, and … laughs, poking out its tongue.”[193] “Curling his lips ironically,” Mephistopheles tempts the materialist with the idea that, since all we have direct access to are our subjective sensations, the only way we can pass from them to the belief in some external reality independent of them is by a leap of faith, “a salto vitale (as opposed to salto mortale).”[194] In short, Mephistopheles’s “devil of logic” tries to seduce us into accepting that the belief in independent external reality is a matter of faith, that the existence of “holy matter” is the fundamental dogma of the “theology” of dialectical materialism. After a series of arguments (which, one has to admit, although not all devoid of philosophical interest, are irredeemably marked by a pre-Kantian naïveté), Bukharin concludes the chapter with the ironic call (which, nonetheless, cannot conceal the underlying despair): “Hold your tongue, Mephistopheles! Hold your dissolute tongue!”[195] But in spite of this exorcism, the devil continues to reappear throughout the book—see the first sentence of Chapter 12: “After a long interval, the demon of irony again makes his appearance.”[196] As in Fichte, external reality is a matter of faith, of breaking the deadlock of theoretical sophistry with a practical salto vitale.

Where Fichte is more consistent than Bukharin is in his awareness that there is an element of credo qua absurdum in this leap: the discord between our knowledge and our ethico-practical engagement is irreducible, one cannot bring them together in a complete “world-view.” Fichte here radicalizes Kant, who had already conjectured that the transcendental I, in its “spontaneity,” occupies a third space between phenomena and noumena. The subject’s freedom/spontaneity is not the property of a phenomenal entity, hence it cannot be dismissed as a false appearance concealing the noumenal fact that we are totally caught in an inaccessible necessity; however, it is also not simply noumenal. In a mysterious subchapter of his Critique of Practical Reason entitled “Of the Wise Adaptation of Man’s Cognitive Faculties to His Practical Vocation,” Kant endeavors to answer the question of what would happen to us if we were to gain access to the noumenal domain, to the Ding an sich:

instead of the conflict which now the moral disposition has to wage with inclinations and in which, after some defeats, moral strength of mind may be gradually won, God and eternity in their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes … Thus most actions conforming to the law would be done from fear, few would be done from hope, none from duty. The moral worth of actions, on which alone the worth of the person and even of the world depends in the eyes of supreme wisdom, would not exist at all. The conduct of man, so long as his nature remained as it is now, would be changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures.[197]

In short, the direct access to the noumenal domain would deprive us of the very “spontaneity” which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom: it would turn us into lifeless automata, or, to put it in today’s terms, “thinking machines.” The implication of this passage is much more radical and paradoxical than it may appear. If we ignore its inconsistency (how could fear and lifeless gesticulation coexist?), the conclusion it imposes is that, at the level of phenomena as well as at the noumenal level, humans are a “mere mechanism” with no autonomy and freedom: as phenomena, we are not free, we are a part of nature, a “mere mechanism,” totally subjugated by causal links, a part of the nexus of causes and effects; and as noumena, we are again not free, but reduced to a “mere mechanism.”[198] Our freedom persists only in a space between the phenomenal and the noumenal. It is therefore not that Kant simply limited causality to the phenomenal domain in order to be able to assert that, at the noumenal level, we are free autonomous agents: we are only free insofar as our horizon is that of the phenomenal, insofar as the noumenal domain remains inaccessible to us.[199] Kant formulated this impasse in his famous statement that he had to limit knowledge in order to create space for faith. Along the same lines,

Fichte’s philosophy ends in total cognitive skepticism, i.e., in the abandonment of philosophy proper, and looks instead to a kind of quasi-religious faith for wisdom. But he thinks that this is not a problem, since all that matters is practical: to produce a world fit for human beings, and to produce myself as the person I would be for all eternity.[200]

The limitation of this position resides in Kant’s and Fichte’s inability to conceive positively of the ontological status of this neither-phenomenal-nor-noumenal autonomous-spontaneous subject (this is already Heidegger’s reproach in Sein und Zeit: traditional metaphysics cannot think the ontological status of Dasein). Hegel’s solution here involves the transposition of the epistemological limitation into ontological fact: the void of our knowledge corresponds to a void in being itself, to the ontological incompleteness of reality.

This transposition enables us to cast new light on the Hegelian definition of freedom as “conceived necessity”: the consistent notion of subjective idealism compels us to invert this thesis and conceive of necessity as (ultimately nothing but) conceived freedom. The central tenet of Kant’s transcendental idealism is that it is the subject’s “spontaneous” (i.e., radically free) act of transcendental apperception that changes the confused flow of sensations into “reality,” which obeys necessary laws. The point is even clearer in moral philosophy: when Kant claims that moral Law is the ratio cognoscendi of our transcendental freedom, does he not literally say that necessity is conceived freedom? In other words, the only way for us to get to know (conceive of) our freedom is via the fact of the unbearable pressure of the moral Law, of its necessity, which enjoins us to act against the compulsion of our pathological impulses. At the most general level, one should posit that “necessity” (the symbolic necessity that regulates our lives) relies on the abyssal free act of the subject, on its contingent decision, on what Lacan calls the point de capiton, the “quilting point,” which magically turns confusion into a new Order. Is this freedom that is not yet caught up in the web of necessity not the abyss of the “night of the world”?

For this reason, Fichte’s radicalization of Kant is consistent, not just a subjectivist eccentricity. Fichte was the first philosopher to focus on the uncanny contingency at the very heart of subjectivity: the Fichtean subject is not the overblown Ego = Ego as the absolute Origin of all reality, but a finite subject thrown into, caught up in, a contingent social situation forever eluding mastery.[201] The Anstoss, the primordial impulse that sets in motion the gradual self-limitation and self-determination of the initially void subject, is not merely a mechanical external impulse: it also points towards another subject who, in the abyss of its freedom, functions as the challenge (Aufforderung) compelling me to limit/specify my freedom, that is, to accomplish the passage from the abstract egotistic freedom to concrete freedom within the rational ethical universe; perhaps this intersubjective Aufforderung is not merely the secondary specification of the Anstoss, but its exemplary original case. It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits for itself in order to stimulate its activity, so that by overcoming the obstacle it can assert its creative power (like the games the proverbial ascetic saint plays with himself, inventing increasingly perverse temptations in order to confirm his strength by successfully resisting them). If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.

Anstoss thus designates the moment of the “run-in,” the hazardous knock, the encounter with the Real in the midst of the ideality of the absolute I: there is no subject without Anstoss, without the collision with an element of irreducible facticity and contingency—“the I is supposed to encounter within itself something foreign.” The point is thus to acknowledge “the presence, within the I itself, of a realm of irreducible otherness, of absolute contingency and incomprehensibility … Ultimately, not just Angelus Silesius’s rose, but every Anstoss whatsoever ist ohne Warum.”[202] In clear contrast to the Kantian noumenal Ding that affects our senses, Anstoss does not come from outside, it is stricto sensu ex-timate: a non-assimilable foreign body in the very core of the subject. As Fichte himself emphasizes, the paradox of Anstoss resides in the fact that it is simultaneously “purely subjective” and not produced by the activity of the I. If Anstoss were not “purely subjective,” if it were already the non-I, part of objectivity, we would fall back into “dogmaticism”; that is, Anstoss would effectively amount to no more than a shadowy remainder of the Kantian Ding an sich and would thus only confirm Fichte’s inconsequentiality (the most common reproach against him). If Anstoss were simply subjective, it would be a case of the subject’s vacuous playing with itself, and we would never reach the level of objective reality; that is, Fichte would effectively be a solipsist (another commonplace reproach against his philosophy). The crucial point is that Anstoss sets in motion the constitution of “reality”: at the beginning is the pure I with the non-assimilable foreign body at its heart; the subject constitutes reality by way of assuming a distance towards the Real of the formless Anstoss and conferring on it the structure of objectivity. What imposes itself here is the parallel between the Fichtean Anstoss and the Freudian-Lacanian scheme of the relationship between the primordial Ich (Ur-Ich) and the object, the foreign body in its midst, which disturbs its narcissistic balance, setting in motion the long process of the gradual expulsion and structuration of this inner snag, through which (what we experience as) “external, objective reality” is constituted.

If Kant’s Ding an sich is not Fichte’s Anstoss, what is the difference? Or, to put it in another way: where do we find in Kant something prefiguring Fichte’s Anstoss? One should not confuse Kant’s Ding an sich with the “transcendental object,” which (contrary to some confused and misleading formulations found in Kant himself) is not noumenal but the “nothingness,” the void on the horizon of objectivity, of that which stands against the (finite) subject, the minimal form of resistance that is not yet any positive determinate object that the subject encounters in the world—Kant uses the German expression Dawider, what is “out there opposing itself to us, standing against us.” This Dawider is not the abyss of the Thing, it does not point to the dimension of the unimaginable, but is, on the contrary, the very horizon of openness towards objectivity within which particular objects appear to a finite subject.


To recapitulate, Anstoss is formally homologous to the Lacanian objet a: like a magnetic field, it is the focus of the I’s positing activity, the point around which this activity circulates, yet it is in itself entirely insubstantial, since it is created-posited, generated, by the very process which reacts to it and deals with it. It is like in the old joke about the conscript who pleaded insanity in order to avoid military service: his “symptom” was to compulsively examine every paper within reach and exclaim, “That’s not it!” When examined by the military psychiatrists, he does the same, so the psychiatrists finally gave him a paper confirming his release from military service. The conscript reaches for it, examines it, and exclaims: “That’s it!” Here, also, the search itself generates its object. And therein resides the ultimate paradox of the Fichtean Anstoss: it is not immediately external to the circular movement of reflection, but an object which is posited by this very (self-referential) movement. Its transcendence (impenetrability, irreducibility to an ordinary represented object) coincides with its absolute immanence.

Is Anstoss then immanent or transcendent? Does it “provoke/disturb” the I from the outside, or is it posited by the I itself? In other words: do we have, first (ideally), the pure Life of the self-positing I, which then posits the obstacle? If it is transcendent, we have the finite subject limited by Anstoss (be it in the form of the Kantian Thing-in-itself, or in the form, today much more acceptable, of intersubjectivity, of another subject as the only true Thing, as the ethical Anstoss); if it is immanent, we get the boring, perverse logic of the I which posits an obstacle in order to overcome it. So the only solution is: absolute simultaneity/overlapping of self-positing and obstacle; that is, the obstacle is the excremental “reject” of the process of self-positing, not so much posited as ejected, excreted/secreted, as the obverse of the activity of self-positing. In this sense, Anstoss is the transcendental a priori of positing, that which incites the I to endless positing, the only non-posited element. Or, in Lacanese, following Lacan’s logic of “non-All”: the (finite) I and the non-I (object) limit each other, while, at the absolute level, there is nothing which is not I, the I is unlimited, and for that reason non-All—the Anstoss is that which makes it non-All.

Sylvain Portier formulated this crucial point clearly: “If we are trying to account for the ‘limit,’ we should be careful never to represent it in an objective, or, rather, objectivized way.”[203] The standard assertion that Kant was aware of the necessity of presupposing an external X that affects us when we experience sensations, while Fichte closed the circle of transcendental solipsism, misses the point, the finesse of Fichte’s argumentation: Fichte dispenses with the Ding an sich not because he posits the transcendental subject as an infinite Absolute, but precisely on account of the transcendental subject’s finitude—or, as the early Wittgenstein put it: “Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” Like the field of vision, life is finite, and, for that very reason, we cannot ever see its limit—in this precise sense, “eternal life belongs to those who live in the present” (Tractatus 6.4311): precisely because we are within our finitude, we cannot step out of it and perceive its limitation. This is what Fichte aims at when he emphasizes that one should not conceive of the transcendental I as a closed space surrounded by another external space of noumenal entities.

This point can be made very clearly in terms of Lacan’s distinction between the subject of the enunciated and the subject of the enunciation: when I directly posit/define myself as a finite being, existing in the world among other beings, at the level of enunciation (the position from which I speak) I already objectivize the limit between myself and the rest of the world; that is, I adopt the infinite position from which I can observe reality and locate myself in it. Consequently, the only way for me to truly assert my finitude is to accept that my world is infinite, since I cannot locate its limit within it.[204] As Wittgenstein points out, this is also the problem with death: death is the limit of life which cannot be located within life—and only a true atheist can fully accept this fact, as was made clear by Ingmar Bergman in his great manifesto for atheism, which he develops precisely apropos of his “religious” film The Seventh Seal:

My fear of death was to a great degree linked to my religious concepts. Later on, I underwent minor surgery. By mistake, I was given too much anaesthesia. I felt as if I had disappeared out of reality. Where did the hours go? They flashed by in a microsecond.

Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. That one could be transformed from being to non-being—it was hard to grasp. But for a person with a constant anxiety about death, now liberating. Yet at the same time it seems a bit sad. You say to yourself that it would have been fun to encounter new experiences once your soul had had a little rest and grown accustomed to being separated from your body. But I don’t think that is what happens to you. First you are, then you are not. This I find deeply satisfying. That which had formerly been so enigmatic and frightening, namely, what might exist beyond this world, does not exist. Everything is of this world. Everything exists and happens inside us, and we flow into and out of one another. It’s perfectly fine like that.[205]

There is thus a truth in Epicurus’s well-known argument against the fear of death (there is nothing to fear: while you are still alive, you are not dead, and when you are dead, you feel nothing): the source of the fear of death is the power of imagination; death as an event is the ultimate anamorphosis—in fearing it, we experience a non-event, a non-entity (our passage to non-being), as an event.

Ernesto Laclau has developed the idea that, in an antagonistic relationship, external difference coincides with internal difference: the difference that separates me from other entities around me, and thus guarantees my identity, simultaneously cuts into my identity, leaving it flawed, unstable, truncated.[206] This tension should be extended to the full dialectical identity of opposites: the condition of possibility of identity is, at the same time, its condition of impossibility; the assertion of self-identity is based on its opposite, on an irreducible remainder that truncates every identity.

This is why Fichte is right to claim that the arch-model for all identity is I = I, the subject’s identity with itself; the formal-logical notion of (self-)identity comes second, it has to be grounded in a transcendental logical notion of the self-identity of the I. When Fichte emphasizes that the absolute I is not a fact (Tatsache) but a deed (Tat-Handlung)—that its identity is purely and thoroughly processual—he means precisely that the subject is the result of its own failure to become a subject: I try to fully actualize myself as a subject, I fail (to become a subject), and this failure is the subject (that I am). Only in the case of the subject do we get this full coincidence of failure and success, of identity as grounded in its own lack; in all other cases, there is the appearance of a substantial identity that precedes or underlies processuality. And the point of Fichte’s critique of realist “dogmatism” is to assert the transcendental-ontological priority of this pure processuality of the I over every substantial entity: every appearance of substantial identity has to be accounted for in terms of transcendental genesis, as the “reified” result of the pure I’s processuality. The passage from I = I to the delimitation between the I and the non-I is thus the passage from immanent antagonism to external limitation that guarantees the identity of the opposed poles: the pure self-positing I does not simply divide itself into the posited non-I and the finite I opposed to it; it posits the non-I and the finite I as mutually limiting opposites in order to resolve the immanent tension of its processuality.

The claim that the limitation of the subject is simultaneously external and internal, that the subject’s external limit is always its internal limitation, is, of course, developed by Fichte into the main thesis of his “absolute transcendental idealism”: every external limit is the result of an internal self-limitation. This is what Kant does not see: for him, the Thing-in-itself is directly the external limit of the phenomenal field constituted by the subject, in other words the limit that separates the noumenal from the phenomenal is not the transcendental subject’s self-limitation, but simply its external limit.

However, does all this endorse the standard reading, according to which Fichte marks the passage to transcendental absolute idealism wherein every external limit of subjectivity is co-opted, re-inscribed as a moment of the subject’s infinite self-mediation/limitation? We should read the thesis that every limit of the subject is (grounded in) the subject’s self-limitation in conjunction with the thesis on the overlapping of external and internal limitation; if we do so, then the accent of the subject’s “self-limitation” shifts from the subjective to the objective genitive: the “limitation of the self” not in the sense that the subject is the full agent and master of its own limitation, encompassing its limits within the activity of its self-mediation, but in the sense that the external limitation of the self truncates from within the very identity of the subject.—It is (again) Portier who clearly spells out this point:

What the I, insofar as it is precisely the “absolute I,” is not, that is to say, the “non-I” itself, is thus (for the I) absolutely nothing, a pure nothingness or, as Fichte himself put it, a kind of “non-being” … we should thus take care not to represent to ourselves the non-I as an other level than that of the I: outside the “transcendental field” of the positing I, there is truly nothing but the absence of all space, in other words, the non-level, the void that is proper to the non-I.[207]

What this means is that, since there is nothing outside the (self-)positing of the absolute I, the non-I can only emerge—can only be posited—as correlative to the I’s non-positedness: the non-I is nothing but the non-positedness of the I. Or, translated into terms closer to our common experience: since, in Fichte’s absolute egological perspective, all positing activity is the activity of the I, when the I encounters the non-I as active, as objective reality exerting active pressure on the I, actively resisting it, this can only be the result of the I’s own passivity: the non-I is active only insofar as I render myself passive and thus let it act back upon me.[208] Therein lies, for Fichte, the fatal flaw of Kant’s Thing-in-itself: insofar as the Kantian Thing is conceived as existing independently of the I and, as such, exerting pressure on it, we are dealing here with an activity in the non-I to which no passivity in the I itself corresponds—and this is totally unthinkable for Fichte, a remainder of metaphysical dogmatism.

This brings us to the topic of the subject’s finitude: in Fichte, the a priori synthesis of the finite and the infinite is the finitude of the positing I:

the I, that is to say, the “act of reflection-into-itself,” always has to “posit something absolute outside itself,” all the while recognizing that this entity can only exist “for it,” that is to say, relatively to the finitude and the precise mode of intuition of the I.[209]

Fichte thus resumes the basic insight of the philosophy of reflection, which is usually formulated in a critical mode: the moment the subject experiences itself as redoubled in reflection, caught in oppositions, and so on, it has to relate this split/mediated condition of its own to some presupposed Absolute inaccessible to it, set up as the standard which the subject tries to rejoin. The same insight can also be made in more common-sense terms: when we humans are caught in a turmoil of activity, it is our propensity to imagine an external absolute point of reference that would provide an orientation for, and bring some stability to, that activity. What Fichte does here, in the best tradition of transcendental phenomenology, is to read this constellation in a purely immanent way: we should never forget that this Absolute, precisely insofar as it is experienced by the subject as the presupposition of its activity, is actually posited by it, that is “can only exist ‘for it.’” Two crucial consequences follow from such an immanent reading: first, the infinite Absolute is the presupposition of a finite subject; its specter can only arise within the horizon of a finite subject experiencing its finitude as such. Second, this experience of the gap that separates the subject from the infinite Absolute is inherently practical, compelling the subject to incessant activity. Seidel perspicuously concludes that, with this practical vision, Fichte also opens up the space for a new radical despair: not only the despair that I cannot realize the Ideal; not only the despair that reality is too hard for me; but despair at the suspicion that the Ideal is in itself invalidated, not worth the effort.[210]


One can see now the absolutely central role of the notion of limitation in Fichte’s entire theoretical edifice: in contrast to dogmatic realism which posits the substantial non-I as the only true and independent agency, and in contrast to “idealist realism” à la Descartes or Leibniz—for which the only true reality is that of monadic spiritual substance, and all activity of the non-I is a mere illusion—for Fichte, the relationship of the I and the non-I is one of mutual limitation. Although this mutual limitation is always posited within the absolute I, the key point is to conceive of this I not in a realist way, as a spiritual substance which “contains in itself everything,” but as an abstract, purely transcendental-ideal medium in which the I and the non-I delimit themselves mutually. It is not the absolute I which is “(the highest) reality”; on the contrary, the I itself only acquires reality through/in its real engagement with the opposing force of the non-I which frustrates and limits it—there is no reality of the I outside its opposition to the non-I, outside this shock, this encounter of an opposing/frustrating power (which, in its generality, encompasses everything, from the natural inertia of one’s own body to the pressure of social constraints and institutions upon the I, not to mention the traumatic presence of another I). Depriving the I of the non-I equals depriving it of its reality. The non-I is thus primordially not the abstract object (Objekt) of the subject’s distanced contemplation, but the object as Gegenstand, what stands there against me, as an obstacle to my effort. As such, the subject’s passivity in the face of an object that frustrates its practical effort of positing, its thetic effort, is properly pathetic, or, rather, pathic.[211] Or, to put it in yet another way, the subject can only be frustrated (and experience the object as an obstacle) insofar as it is itself oriented towards the outside, “pushing” outside in its practical effort.

So, within the (absolutely positing) I, the (finite) I and the non-I are posited as divisible, limiting each other—or, as Fichte put it in his famous formula: “I oppose in the I a divisible non-I to the divisible I.” Jacobi was thus in a way right when, in a unique formula from his famous letter to Fichte, he designated the latter’s Wissenschaftslehre as a “materialism without matter”: the “pure consciousness” of the absolute I within which the I and the non-I mutually delimit each other effectively functions as the idealist version of matter in abstract materialism, that is, as abstract (mathematical) space endlessly divided between the I and the non-I.

Nowhere is the proximity of (and, simultaneously, the gap between) Fichte and Hegel more clearly discernible than in the difference between their respective notions of limitation. What they both share is the insight into how, paradoxically, far from excluding each other, limitation and true infinity are two aspects of the same constellation. In Hegel, the overlapping of true infinity and self-limitation is developed in the notion of self-relating: in true infinity, the relation-to-other coincides with self-relating—this is what, for Hegel, defines the most elementary structure of life. A number of contemporary researchers in the life sciences, from Lynn Margulis to Francisco Varela, assert that the true problem of biology is not how an organism and its environment interact or connect, but, rather, how a distinct self-identical organism emerges out of its environs. How does a cell form the membrane which separates its inside from its outside? The true problem is thus not how an organism adapts to its environment, but how there comes to be something, a distinct entity, which must adapt itself in the first place. At this crucial point, the language of contemporary biology starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. When Varela, for example, explains his notion of autopoiesis, he repeats almost verbatim the Hegelian notion of life as a teleological, self-organizing entity. His central notion of the loop or bootstrap points towards the Hegelian Setzung der Voraussetzungen (positing the presuppositions):

Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It’s specific to the cellular level. There’s a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organizing network of biochemical reactions produces molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produces the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what’s unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn’t require an external agent to notice it, or to say, “I’m here.” It is, by itself, a self-distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics.[212]

The conclusion to be drawn is thus that the only way to account for the emergence of the distinction between the “inside” and “outside” constitutive of a living organism is to posit a kind of self-reflexive reversal by means of which—to put it in Hegelese—the One of an organism as a Whole retroactively “posits” as its result, as that which it dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes (i.e., the very multiple processes out of which it emerged). In this way, and only in this way, an organism is no longer limited by external conditions, but is fundamentally self-limited—again, as Hegel would have articulated it, life emerges when the external limitation (of an entity by its environs) turns into self-limitation. This brings us back to the problem of infinity: for Hegel, true infinity does not stand for limitless expansion, but for active self-limitation (self-determination) in contrast to being-determined-by-the-other. In this precise sense, life (even at its most elementary, as a living cell) is the basic form of true infinity, since it already involves the minimal loop through which a process is no longer simply determined by the Outside of its environs but is itself able to (over)determine the mode of this determination and thus “posits its presuppositions.” Infinity acquires its first actual existence the moment a cell’s membrane starts to function as a self-boundary. So, when Hegel includes minerals in the category of “life,” as the lowest form of organisms, does he not anticipate Lynn Margulis, who also insists on forms of life preceding vegetable and animal life?

In Fichte, however, the link between infinity and limitation is completely different: the Fichtean infinity is an “acting infinity,” the infinity of the subject’s practical engagement.[213] Although, obviously, an animal can also be frustrated by objects/obstacles, it does not experience its predicament as stricto sensu limited; it is not aware of its limitation, since it is simply constrained by/in it. But man does experience his predicament itself as frustratingly limited, and this experience is sustained by his infinite striving to break out of it. In this way, man’s “acting infinity” is directly grounded in his experience of his own finitude. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, while an animal is simply/immediately limited, namely while its limit is external to it and thus invisible from within its constrained horizon (if an animal were to speak, it would not be able to say, “I am limited to my small, poor world, unaware of what I am missing”), a man’s limitation is “self-limitation” in the precise sense that it cuts into his very identity from within, frustrating it, “finitizing” it—and this prevents man not only from “becoming the world,” but from becoming himself. This is the (often overlooked) counterpart of Fichte’s basic thesis on how “I oppose in the I a divisible non-I to the divisible I.” The fact that the limit between the I and the object/obstacle falls within the I entails not only the triumphant conclusion that the I is the encompassing unity of itself and its objective other; it also entails the much more unpleasant and properly traumatic conclusion that the object/obstacle cuts into the I’s identity itself, rendering it finite/frustrated.

This crucial insight enables us to approach what some interpreters see as the problem for Fichte: how to pass from the I to the non-I as an In-itself that has a consistency outside the I’s reflexive self-movement? Does the I’s circular self-positing hang in mid-air, unable ever to really ground itself? (Recall Madame de Stael’s comparison of Fichte’s self-positing I to Baron Münchhausen.) Pierre Livet proposed an ingenious solution:[214] since there must be a kind of external point of reference for the I (without it, the I would simply collapse into itself), and since this point nonetheless cannot be directly external to the I (since any such externality would amount to a concession to the Kantian Thing-in-itself that impedes the I’s absolute self-positing), there is only one consistent way out of this deadlock: to ground the circular movement of reflexivity in itself—not by way of the impossible Münchhausen trick in which the founded X retroactively provides its own foundation, but by way of referring to another I. In this way, we get a point of reference which is external to a singular I, and which the latter experiences as an opaque impenetrable kernel, yet which is nonetheless not foreign to the reflexive movement of (self-)positing, since it is merely another circle of such (self-)positing. (In this manner, Fichte can ground the a priori necessity of intersubjectivity.)

One can only admire the elegant simplicity of this solution which calls to mind the Lacanian-Freudian notion of the neighbor as the impenetrable traumatic Thing. However, ingenious as the solution is, it nonetheless fails, in neglecting the fact that the I’s relating to the object, in the strict formal sense of transcendental genesis, precedes the I’s relating to another I: the primordial Other, the Neighbor qua Thing, is not another subject. The Anstoss which awakens (what will have been) the subject out of its pre-subjective status is an Other, but not the Other of (reciprocal) intersubjectivity.


We can see now the fatal flaw in dismissing Fichte’s thought as the extreme point of German Idealism, as representing idealism “at its worst.” According to this commonplace, Hegel represents the moment of madness, the dream of a System of Absolute Knowledge; but, as this view goes, his work nonetheless contains a lot of useful historical material as well as many valuable insights on history, politics, culture, and aesthetics. Fichte, on the contrary, as an earlier, crazier version of Hegel, represents nothing more than madness (see Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy). Even Lacan refers in passing to the radical position of solipsism as a form of madness advocated by no wise man. Even those who praise Fichte see in his thought an extreme formulation of modern subjectivity. And, upon skimming Fichte’s work, it cannot but appear to be so: we start with Ich = Ich, the I’s self-positing; then we pass to not-I; then … In other words, pure abstract ratiocinations, supported by ridiculous arguments and references to mathematics, oscillating between weird jumps and poor common sense.

However, the paradox is that, as in Kant, Schelling, and all of German Idealism, what appears as abstract speculation becomes a source of substantial insight the moment we relate it to our most concrete experience. For example, when Fichte claims that it is because the absolute/ideal self is posited by the finite self that the op-positing of the non-self occurs, this makes sense as a speculative description of the finite subject’s concrete practical engagement: when I (as finite subject) “posit” an ideal/unattainable practical goal, the finite reality outside me appears as “not-self,” as an obstacle to my goal to be overcome, transformed. This is Fichte’s version (after Kant) of the “primacy of practical reason”: the way I perceive reality depends on my practical projects. An obstacle is not an obstacle to me as an entity, but to me as engaged in realizing a project: “if my ideal as a health professional is to save lives, then I will begin to see in my patients the things I need to be concerned about: I will begin to see ‘things’ such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, etc.”[215] Or, an even more perspicuous example: “If … I am a rich capitalist being driven through a slum district in my air-conditioned limousine, I do not see the poverty and misery of the local inhabitants. What I see is people on welfare who are too lazy to work, etc.”[216] Sartre was thus really in a Fichtean mood when, in a famous passage from Being and Nothingness, he claimed that

whatever may be the situation in which he finds himself, the for-itself must wholly assume this situation with its peculiar coefficient of adversity, even though it be insupportable. Is it not I who decides the coefficient of adversity in things and even their unpredictability by deciding myself?[217]

The weird-sounding syntagm “coefficient of adversity” belongs to Gaston Bachelard, who subjected to critique Husserl’s notion of noematic objectivity as constituted by the transcendental subject’s noetic activity, arguing that this notion ignores the object’s “coefficient of adversity,” the inertia of objects resisting subjective appropriation. While conceding the point about the inertia of the In-itself, the idiocy of the real, Sartre points out, in a Fichtean manner, that one experiences this inertia of the Real as adversity, as an obstacle, only with regard to one’s determinate projects:

my freedom to choose my goals or projects entails that I have also chosen the obstacles I encounter along the way. It is by deciding to climb this mountain that I have turned the weakness of my body and the steepness of the cliffs into obstacles, which they were not so long as I was content simply to gaze at the mountain from the comfort of my chair.[218]

It is only this primacy of the practical which provides the key to the proper understanding of how Fichte reduces the perceived thing to the activity of its perceiving, that is, how he endeavors to generate the (perceived) thing out of its perception. From this phenomenological standpoint, the In-itself of the object is the result of the long arduous work through which the subject learns to distinguish, within the field of its representations, between mere illusory appearance and the way the appearing thing is itself. The In-itself is thus also a category of appearing: it does not designate the immediacy of the thing independent of its appearing to us, but the most mediated mode of appearing. But how?

The I transfers a certain quantum of reality outside of itself; it externalizes part of its activity in a non-I which is thereby “posited as non-posited,” that is, appears as “independent” of the I. Fichte’s paradox here is that “it is the I’s finitude … and not its reflexivity proper, which renders necessary the different modalities of the objectivization of the non-I to which this I relates itself.”[219] To put it in somewhat simplified terms, the I is caught in its self-enclosed circle of objectivizations not because it is the infinite Ground of all being, but precisely because it is finite. The key point here is the paradoxical link between infinity (in the sense of the absence of external limitation) and finitude: every limitation has to be self-limitation not because the I is an infinite divine ground of all being, but precisely because of its radical finitude: as such, as finite, it cannot “climb upon its own shoulders” (or “jump over its own shadow”) and perceive its own external limitation. Portier is fully justified in speaking of the “‘circle’ of the finite absolute Knowing”: finitude and infinity are here no longer opposed; it is our very encounter with the obstacle (and thus our brutal awareness of our finitude) that, simultaneously, makes us aware of the infinity in ourselves, of the infinite Duty that haunts us in the very core of our being.[220]

The standard interpretation claiming that Fichte cannot deduce the necessity of the “shock,” of the encounter with the obstacle which triggers the subject’s activity, thus simply misses his point: this “shock” has to arise “out of nowhere” because of the subject’s radical finitude—it stands for the intervention of the radical Outside which by definition cannot be deduced (if it were deducible, we would be back with the metaphysical subject/substance which generates its entire content out of itself):

Fichte’s stroke of genius resides undoubtedly in the fact that he makes out of the inevitable lack that pertains to his categorical deduction, not the weakness, but the supreme force of his system: the fact that Necessity can only be deduced from the practical point of view is itself (theoretically and practically) necessary.[221]

It is here, in this coincidence of contingency and necessity, of freedom and limitation, that we effectively encounter the “acme of Fichte’s edifice.”[222] In this “shock,” in the impact of the non-I on the I—described by Fichte as simultaneously “impossible” and “necessary”—finitude (being constrained by an Other) and freedom are no longer opposed, since it is only through the shocking encounter with the obstacle that I become free.

This is why, for Fichte, it is the infinite I, not the non-I, which has to “finitize” itself, to appear as the (self-)limited I, to split itself into the absolute I and the finite I opposed to non-I. What this means is that, as Portier puts it in a wonderfully concise way, “every non-I is the non-I of an I, but no I is the I of a non-I.”[223] This, however, does not mean that the non-I is simply internal to the I, the outcome of its self-relating. One should be very precise here: over and above the standard “dogmatic” temptation to conceive of the I as part of the non-I, as part of objective reality, there is the much more tricky and no less “dogmatic” temptation of transcendental realism itself, of hypostasizing the absolute I into a kind of noumenal meta-Subject/Substance which engenders the finite subject as its phenomenal/empirical appearance. In this case, there would be no truly “real” objects: the objects would be ultimately mere phantom-objects, specters engendered by the absolute I in its circular play with itself. This point is absolutely crucial if we are to avoid the notion of Fichte as the ridiculous figure of the “absolute idealist”: the absolute I is not merely playing with itself, positing obstacles and then overcoming them, all the while secretly aware that it is the only player/agent in the house. The absolute I is not the absolute real/ideal Ground of everything; its status is radically ideal, it is the ideal presupposition of the practically engaged finite I as the only “reality” (since, as we have seen, the I becomes “real” only through its self-limitation in encountering the obstacle of the non-I). This is why Fichte is a moralist-idealist, an idealist of infinite Duty: freedom is not something that substantially coexists with the I, but something that has to be acquired through arduous struggle, through the effort of culture and self-education. The infinite I is nothing but the process of its own infinite becoming.

This brings us to Fichte’s solution of the problem of solipsism: although at the level of theoretical observation we are passive receivers and at the level of practice we are active (we intervene in the world, impose our projects onto it), we cannot overcome solipsism from a theoretical standpoint, but only from a practical one: “[if] no effort, [then] no object.”[224] As a theoretical I, I can easily imagine myself as a solitary monad caught in an ethereal, non-substantial web of my own phantasmagorias; but the moment I engage in practice, I have to struggle with the object’s resistance—or, as Fichte himself put it: “The coercion on account of which belief in reality imposes itself is a moral coercion, the only one possible for a free being.”[225] Or, as Lacan put it much later: ethics is the dimension of the Real, the dimension in which imaginary and symbolic balances are disturbed. This is why Fichte can and has to reject the Kantian solution of the dynamic antinomies: if we resolve them in the Kantian way, by simply assigning each of the two opposed theses to a different level (phenomenally we are subject to necessity, while noumenally we are free), we obfuscate the fact that the world into which we intervene with our free acts is the very world of phenomenal reality in which we struggle for our freedom. This is also why Fichte can avoid the above-mentioned impasse reached by Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason, where he endeavors to answer the question of what would happen to us were we to gain access to the noumenal domain, to the Ding an sich (we would be mere puppets deprived of our freedom). Fichte allows us to clarify this confusion which arises when we insist on the opposition between the noumenal and the phenomenal: the I is not a noumenal substance, but the pure spontaneity of self-positing; this is why its self-limitation does not need a transcendent God who manipulates our terrestrial situation (limiting our knowledge) in order to foster our moral growth—one can deduce the subject’s limitation in a totally immanent way.

Interpreters like to emphasize the radical break or “paradigm shift” that takes place between Kant and Fichte; however, Fichte’s focus on the subject’s finitude compels us to acknowledge a no less radical break between Fichte and Schelling. Schelling’s idea (shared also by the young Hegel) is that Fichte’s one-sided subjective idealism should be supplemented by objective idealism, since only such a two-sided approach can give us a complete image of the absolute Subject-Object. What gets lost in this shift from Fichte to Schelling is the unique standpoint of the subject’s finitude (the finitude that determines Fichte’s basic attitude towards reality as an engaged-practical one: the Fichtean synthesis can only be given as practical effort, as endless striving). In Fichte, the synthesis of the finite and the infinite is given in the infinite effort of the finite subject, and the absolute I itself is a hypo-thesis of the “thetic” practical-finite subject; whereas, in Schelling, the original datum is the Absolute qua indifference of the subject-object, and the subject as opposed to the object emerges as the Abfall, a falling-off, from the Absolute, which is why rejoining the Absolute is for Schelling no longer a matter of the I’s practical effort, but of an aesthetic submergence into the Absolute’s indifference, which amounts to the subject’s self-overcoming. In other words, from Fichte’s standpoint, Schelling regresses to a pre-Kantian “idealist realism”: his Absolute is again the noumenal absolute Entity, and all finite/delimited entities are its results/fall-offs. For Fichte, on the contrary, the status of the Absolute (the self-positing I) remains thoroughly transcendental-ideal; it is the transcendental condition of the finite I’s practical engagement, its hypo-thesis, never a positively given ens realissimus.

It is precisely because the status of the Absolute is, for Fichte, transcendental-ideal that he remains faithful to the basic Kantian insight that time and space are a priori forms of sensibility; this prohibits any naïve-Platonic notion of finite/material/sensuous reality as the secondary “confused” version of the true intelligible/noumenal universe. For Kant (and Fichte), material reality is not a blurred version of the true noumenal world, but a fully constituted reality of its own. In other words, the fact that time and space are a priori forms of sensibility means that what Kant called “transcendental schematism” is irreducible: the orders/levels of sensibility and intelligibility are irreducibly heterogeneous, and one cannot deduce anything about material reality from the categories of pure reason themselves.

Fichte’s position with regard to the status of nature nonetheless remains the radicalized Kantian one: if reality is primordially experienced as the obstacle to the I’s practical activity, this means that nature (the inertia of material objects) exists only as the stuff of our moral activity, that its justification can only be practical-teleological, not speculative. This is why Fichte rejected all attempts at a speculative philosophy of nature—and why Schelling, the great practitioner of the philosophy of nature, ridiculed Fichte: if nature can only be justified teleologically, this means that air and light exist only so that moral individuals can see each other and thus interact. Well aware of the difficulties such a view poses to our sense of what is credible, Fichte replied with sarcastic laughter:

They answer me: “Air and light a priori, just think of it! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Come on, laugh along with us! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Air and light a priori: tarte à la crème, ha ha ha! Air and light a priori! Tarte à la crème, ha ha ha! Air and light a priori! Tarte à la crème, ha ha ha!” et cetera ad infinitum.[226]

The weird nature of this outburst in part resides in its contrast to the more typical common-sense laughter at the philosopher’s strange speculations, the kind of laughter whose exemplary case is the joke told in poor taste about the philosopher-solipsist: “Let him hit his head against a wall and he will soon discover if he is alone in the world, ha ha ha!” Here, the philosopher-Fichte laughs at the common-sense argument that air and light are obviously not here just to enable our moral activity, but just are out there, whether we act or not. Fichte’s laughter is all the more strange for resembling the traditional realist philosopher’s direct appeal to the obviousness of reality as the best argument against abstract speculations. When Zeno the Cynic was confronted with Eleatic proofs of the non-existence of movement, he simply raised and moved his middle finger, or so the story goes … (In another version, he simply stood up and started to walk about.) However, according to Hegel, when one of the students present applauded the master for this proof that movement exists, Zeno beat him up—appeals to immediate reality do not count in philosophy, only conceptual thinking can do the job of demonstration. What, then, could Fichte’s laughter mean, since he laughs not from the standpoint of common-sense realism (which tells us that movement exists and that air and light are out there independently of our activity), but at this standpoint? The key to the answer is (as is often the case with philosophers who hide their crucial formulation in a footnote or a secondary remark) squeezed between parentheses. Here is Fichte’s decisive explanation of the non-I:

([According to the usual opinion,] the concept of the non-self is merely a general concept which emerges through abstraction from everything represented [allem Vorgestellten]. But the shallowness of this explanation can easily be demonstrated. If I am to represent anything at all, I must oppose it to that which represents [the representing self]. Now within the object of representation [Vorstellung] there can and must be an X of some sort, whereby this object discloses itself as something to be represented, and not as that which represents. But that everything wherein this X may be is not that which represents but something to be represented, is something that no object can teach me; for merely to be able to posit something as an object, I have to know this already; hence it must lie initially in myself, that which represents, prior to any possible experience.—And this is an observation so striking that anyone who fails to grasp it and is not thereby uplifted into transcendental idealism, must unquestionably be suffering from mental blindness.)[227]

The logic of this argumentation may appear surprising to anyone not well-versed in German idealism: it is precisely because there is something more in the non-Self, in the object, than the subject’s representations (Vorstellungen); precisely because it cannot be reduced to a general, shared, feature abstracted from representations; and precisely because it “discloses itself as something to be represented, and not as that which represents,” that this surplus over my representations must lie in me, in the representing subject.[228]

Seidel is thus fully justified in emphasizing that Fichte’s Nicht-Ich should be read according to what Kant called “infinite judgment.” Kant introduced the key distinction between negative and indefinite judgment: the positive judgment “the soul is mortal” can be negated in two ways, when a predicate is denied to the subject (“the soul is not mortal”), and when a non-predicate is affirmed (“the soul is non-mortal”)—the difference is exactly the same as the one, known to every reader of Stephen King, between “he is not dead” and “he is undead.” The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the “undead” is neither alive nor dead, but precisely the monstrous “living dead.” And the same goes for “inhuman”: “he is not human” is not the same as “he is inhuman”—“he is not human” means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while “he is inhuman” means something thoroughly different, namely that he is neither human nor not-human, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although negating what we understand as “humanity,” is inherent to being human. And, perhaps, one should risk the hypothesis that this is what changes with the Kantian revolution: in the pre-Kantian universe, humans were simply humans, beings of reason, fighting the excess of animal lust and divine madness; only with Kant and German Idealism does the excess to be fought become absolutely immanent, located at the very core of subjectivity itself (which is why, with German Idealism, the metaphor for that core is the night, the “night of the world,” in contrast to the Enlightenment notion of the Light of Reason dispelling the surrounding darkness). So when, in the pre-Kantian universe, a hero goes mad, it means he is deprived of his humanity, as the animal passions or divine madness take over; with Kant, by contrast, madness signals an explosion of the very core of a human being. In precisely the same way, the Fichtean non-Self is not a negation of the predicate, but an affirmation of a non-predicate: it is not “this isn’t a Self,” but “this is a non-Self,” which is why it should be translated into English more often as “non-Self” rather than “not-Self.”[229] (More precisely: the moment we arrive at Fichte’s third proposition—the mutual delimitation/determination of Self and non-Self—the non-Self effectively turns into a not-Self, something.)

Fichte starts with the thetic judgment: Ich = Ich, pure immanence of Life, pure Becoming, pure self-positing, Tat-Handlung, the full coincidence of posited with positing. I am only through the process of positing myself, and I am nothing but this process—this is intellectual intuition, this mystical flow inaccessible to consciousness: every consciousness needs something opposed to itself. Now—and here is the key—the rise of Non-Ich out of this pure flow is not (yet) delimited from Ich: it is a pure formal conversion, like Hegel’s passage from Being to Nothingness. Both Ich and non-Ich are unlimited, absolute. How, then, do we pass from non-Ich to Object as not-Ich? Through Anstoss, this ex-timate obstacle. Anstoss is neither Nicht-Ich (which comprises me) nor Object (which is externally opposed to me). Anstoss is neither “absolutely nothing” nor something (a delimited object); it is (to refer to the Lacanian logic of suture, as deployed by Miller in his classical text) nothing counted as something (in the same way as the number one is zero counted as one). The distinction between form and content on which Fichte insists so much is crucial here: as to its content, Anstoss is nothing; as to its form, it is (already) something—it is thus “nothing in the form of something.” This minimal distinction between form and content is already at work in the passage from the first to the second thesis: A = A is the pure form, the formal gesture of self-identity, the self-identity of a form with itself; non-Self is its symmetrical opposite, a formless content. This minimal reflexivity is also what makes the passage from A = A (Ich = Ich) to the positing of non-Self necessary: without this minimal gap between form and content, the absolute Self and the absolute non-Self would simply and directly overlap.

In the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant contends that

all possible speculative knowledge of reason is limited to mere objects of experience. But our further contention must also be duly borne in mind, namely, that though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in the position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.[230]

Is this not exactly the Hegelian-Lacanian thesis, however? Is not the supersensible which is “appearance qua appearance” precisely an appearance in which nothing appears? As Hegel put it in his Phenomenology: beyond the veil of appearances, there is only what the subject puts there. This is the secret of the Sublime that Kant was not ready to confront. So we turn back to Fichte: is not the Anstoss precisely such an appearance without anything that appears, a nothing which appears as something? This is what brings the Fichtean Anstoss uncannily close to the Lacanian objet petit a, the object-cause of desire, which is also a positivization of a lack, a stand-in for a void.

Some decades ago, Lacan invited ridicule when he stated that the meaning of the phallus is “the square of -1”—but Kant had already compared the Thing-in-itself as ens rationis to a “square root of a negative number.”[231] It is insofar as we apply this comparison also to Fichte’s Anstoss that the Kantian distinction between what we can only think and what we can know assumes all its weight: we can only think the Anstoss, we cannot know it as a determinate object-of-representation.


To recapitulate, Fichte’s attempt to get rid of the Thing-in-itself follows a very precise logic and intervenes at a very precise point in his critique of Kant. Let us recall that, for Kant, the Thing is introduced as the X that affects the subject when it experiences an object through its senses: the Thing is primarily the source of sensuous affections. If we are to get rid of the Thing, it is thus absolutely crucial to show how the subject can affect and act upon itself, not only at the intelligible level but also at the level of (sensuous) affections; the absolute subject must be capable of temporal auto-affection.

For Fichte, this I’s “sentimental auto-affection” by means of which the subject experiences its own existence, its own inert given character, and thus relates to itself (or, rather, is for itself) as passive, as affected, is the ultimate foundation of all reality. This does not mean that all reality, all experience of the other as inert/resisting, can be reduced to the subject’s self-experience; it means that it is only the subject’s passive self-relation which opens the subject up to the experience of otherness.

Therein culminates Fichte’s entire effort, in the deployment of the notion of the subject’s “sensuous auto-affection” as the ultimate synthesis of the subject and the object. If this is feasible, then there is no longer the need to posit, behind the transcendental I’s spontaneity, the unknowable “noumenal X” that the subject “really is”: if there is genuine self-affection, then the I is also able to fully know itself, that is, we no longer have to refer to a noumenal “I or he or it, the Thing that thinks,” as Kant does in The Critique of Pure Reason. And, thereby, we can also see how Fichte’s urgency to get rid of the Thing-in-itself is linked to his focus on the ethico-practical engagement of the subject as grounded in its freedom: if the subject’s phenomenal (self-)experience is just the appearance of an unknown noumenal substance, then our freedom is just an illusory appearance and we are really like puppets whose acts are controlled by an unknown mechanism. Kant was fully aware of this radical consequence—and, perhaps, all of Fichte can be read as an attempt to avoid this Kantian deadlock.

But, one may ask, does this assertion of the subject’s capacity to get to know itself fully not contradict Fichte’s focus on the subject as practically engaged, struggling with objects/obstacles that frustrate its endeavors, and thereby as finite? So can only an infinite being fully know itself? The answer is that the Fichtean subject is precisely the paradoxical conjunction of these two features, finitude and freedom, since the subject’s infinity (the infinite striving of its ethical engagement) is itself an aspect of its finite condition.

The key here is again provided by Fichte’s notion of the mutual delimitation of subject and object, Self and not-Self: every activity is posited in/as the object only insofar as the Self is posited as passive; and this positing of the Self as passive is still an act of the Self, its self-limitation. I am only a passive X affected by objects insofar as I (actively) posit myself as a passive recipient. Seidel ironically calls this the “law of the conservation of activity”: “when reality (activity) is canceled in the self, that quantum of reality (activity) gets posited in the non-self. If activity is posited in the non-self, then its opposite (passivity) is posited in the self: I (passively) see the (actively) blooming apple.” However, this can only happen “because I (actively) posit passivity in my-self so that activity may be posited in the non-self … The non-self cannot act upon my consciousness unless I (actively, that is, freely) allow it to do so.”[232]

Kant had already prefigured this in his so-called “incorporation thesis”: causes only affect me insofar as I allow them to affect me. This is why “you can because you must”: every external impossibility (to which the excuse “I know I must, but I cannot, it is impossible …” refers) relies on a disavowed self-limitation. Applied to the sexual opposition of the “active” male and “passive” female stance, this Fichtean notion of the activity of the non-I as strictly correlative to the I’s passivity brings us directly to Otto Weininger’s notion of woman as the embodiment of man’s fall: woman exists (as a thing out there, acting upon man, disturbing his ethical stance, throwing him off the rails) only insofar as man adopts the stance of passivity; she is literally the result of man’s withdrawal into passivity, so there is no need for man to actively fight woman—his adoption of an active stance automatically pulls the ground out from under woman’s existence, since her entire being is nothing but man’s non-being.

Here “Fichte asks himself whether the quantity (that is, the activity) of the self can ever equal zero (= 0), whether the self can ever be totally at rest, ever totally passive.” Fichte’s answer, of course, is no: “For the non-self has reality only to the extent that the self is affected by it; otherwise, as such, it has no reality at all … I do not see anything I do not will to see.”[233] However, the way we read the exact status of the non-Self is crucial here: if we read it in accordance with the Kantian infinite judgment, that is, as a non-Self that comprises Self itself (in the same way that the “undead” comprises the dead), then, prior to positing objectivity, the constituting/constitutive gesture of Ich should be an immobilization, a withdrawal, a self-emptying of the non-Self, a self-reduction to a zero which is the Self; this reduction to zero opens up the space, literally, for Ich’s activity of positing/mediating.

Fichte gets caught in a circle here. His first proposition is: A = A, Ich = Ich, i.e., absolute self-positing, pure substanceless becoming, Tat-Handlung (deed-activity), “intellectual intuition.” Then comes the second proposition: A = non-A, Ich = non-Ich, the self posits a non-self which is absolutely opposed to it—here enters the absolute contradiction. Then comes the mutual limitation which resolves this self-contradiction in its double form, practical (the Self posits the not-self as limited by the self) and theoretical (the self posits itself as limited by the not-self)—the Self and the not-self are at the same level, divisible.[234] The ambiguity here lies in the fact that “the absolute self of the first principle is not something … it is simply what it is.”[235] Only with delimitation,

[b]oth are something: the not-self is what the self is not, and vice versa. As opposed to the absolute self (though, as will be shown in due course, it can only be opposed to it insofar as it is represented [by it], not insofar as it is in itself), the non-self is absolutely nothing (schlechthin Nichts); as opposed to the limitable self, it is a negative quantity.[236]

However, from the practical standpoint, the finite Self posits the infinite Self in the guise of the Ideal of Unity of Self and not-Self, and, with it, the non-self as an obstacle to be overcome. We thus find ourselves in a circle: the absolute Self posits non-self and then finitizes itself by its delimitation; however, the circle closes itself, the absolute presupposition itself (the pure self-positing) returns as presupposed, that is, as the presupposition of the posited, and, in this sense, as depending on the posited. Far from being an inconsistency, this is the crucial, properly speculative, moment in Fichte: the presupposition itself is (retroactively) posited by the process it generates.


So perhaps, before dismissing his philosophy as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance. To properly understand his passage to full idealism it is necessary to bear in mind how he radicalizes the primacy of practical reason, which had already been asserted by Kant. Kant’s first critics had already noticed the ambiguous relationship, in his practical philosophy, between the categorical imperative itself as the direct “fact of reason” and the postulates of pure practical reason (the immortality of the soul, the existence of God …), in other words the so-called “moral image of the world” which alone makes our moral activity meaningful: we have to trust that the reality in which we intervene is already in itself structured in such a way that will enable us to achieve our practical goals and progress to a better world. Kant’s premise is that these postulates—the entire “moral image of the world”—do not have the same direct and unconditional status as does our moral awareness (of the categorical imperative), but are the result of a secondary reasoning on the cognitive implications of our moral awareness. Once we concede this point, the parallel imposes itself between the postulates of practical reason which guarantee the meaningfulness of our moral activity and the regulative ideas of pure (theoretical) reason which guarantee the consistency of our knowledge. The divine teleology that we can obscurely discern in nature is not a cognitive category, it just helps us systematize our knowledge of nature; that is, we proceed as if there was a God who rules the world, but without knowing this for sure. And the same holds also for practical reason: when we act morally, we proceed as if there is a “moral world order.” It was, as Henrich notes, Schulze who developed this critique in detail, likening

the structure of Kant’s moral theology to the cosmological proof of the existence of God, in which one moves from the unavoidability of thinking the idea of God to the belief in the existence of what we are thinking … In Kant’s moral theology, we have, first, the fact of the moral law that we presuppose. We then infer from this fact of reason, which is merely the awareness of the categorical imperative, the existence of a moral world order … the inference pursues the same illegitimate course of reasoning as the cosmological proof. Both infer from something given something else that is inaccessible to our experience.[237]

This gap thus leaves open the possibility that our moral freedom is just an illusion, that we are noumenally blind automata. Fichte’s answer to this reproach is very precise and refined: the reproach itself silently presupposes the primacy of theoretical over practical reason. It is only for theoretical reason that objective reality is more than “mere” subjective certainty; from the standpoint of theoretical reason, the self-positing I (which exists only in the subjective mode, “for itself”) does not exist at all, there is no such thing in “objective reality.” Furthermore, insofar as the space of practical activity involves the opposition/conflict between subject and object, the I and the non-I—that is, the endless effort of the I to impose its mould on objective reality—“the entire existence of practical reason is founded on the conflict between the self-determining element within us and the theoretical-knowing element. And practical reason would itself be canceled if this conflict were eliminated.”[238] Therein resides the difference between the ontological proof of God’s existence and the postulates of practical reason: “the cosmo-theological one is based entirely upon theoretical reason, whereas the moral proof is based upon the conflict between theoretical reason and the I in itself.”[239]

This Fichtean primacy of practical over theoretical reason is much more radical than the Kantian one: while Kant asserts the primacy of practical reason, he still keeps the two spheres apart—his point is ultimately that one has to limit the scope of (theoretical) knowledge to make space for (practical) beliefs. With Fichte, on the contrary, practical philosophy “becomes for the first time a part of epistemology”: he finds “elements to be basic in cognition itself that traditionally had been separated from cognition and connected instead with pleasure and action.”[240]

It is only by taking into account this primacy of practical philosophy that we can answer the key question: how does Fichte pass from the I’s self-positing to the I’s self-limitation by way of positing the non-I? In simpler terms, how does he pass from the absolute subject’s self-positing to the mutual delimitation of subject and object? The problem resides in the fact that Fichte does not subscribe to the founding axiom of the post-Hegelian transcendental philosophy of finitude, which asserts the correlation between subject and object as the ultimate horizon of our experience: for him, the two relata of the subject-object relationship are not of equal weight, one of them—the I—is absolutely privileged, since the I is all reality. For this reason, Fichte can only designate the object as “not-I,” that is, its status has to be purely negative, with no positive force to it. The relationship is here that of a logical negation: the object is a non-subject and nothing above that. However, Fichte’s thought in its entirety is a gigantic effort to conceive of all reality as originating from the I’s (mind’s) self-relating and the I’s endless “practical” struggle with its opposite (the object, not-I) as the unsurpassable fact of our lives—and the category which fits this relation is not that of negation, but that of what Kant called “real opposition” (in his “Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitude into Philosophy” from his pre-critical phase, 1763–4). When two opposed forces collide, each can diminish the intensity (“quantity of a quality”) of the opposite, but this diminishing is by definition the effect of the opposed positive force. To give a thoroughly simplified example: two groups of boys pull a rope in opposite directions; if the rope moves left, this means that the “negative magnitude” of the right group’s force is the result of the overwhelming power of the left group’s force (the rope not only did not move in the direction in which they pulled it, but moved away from them). According to Henrich (who is worth quoting in extenso on this point), Fichte ultimately cheats here: his whole construction of the not-I is based upon confusing (or jumping between) logical negation and real opposition—in other words, he treats what he introduces as the result of a logical negation (and as such a purely negative entity, a non-entity) as a positive counter-force:

Kant takes it for granted that such a reduction of reality in one particular is due to a real force in another particular … the ontological status of being a negative particular depends, in some respect, on some other particular’s being positive. By way of contrast, Fichte assumes that all reality has to be found in the self. He therefore cannot avoid saying that the non-self is nothing but an X that reduces the self’s reality. This is the origin of Fichte’s infamous and unsettling theory of the Anstoss—the impulse that takes place in the activity of the self and brings about its reflecting on itself …

Fichte’s assumption that there is absolute reality in the self depends entirely on his smuggling in a real ontological negation, by way of the negative element in the term “not-self.” Fichte simply calls the object the not-self, and then he introduces the idea of its being negative. Now he means that the being negative of the not-self is an ontological negativity, and only negative in this sense. This is obviously a philosophical sleight-of-hand, a shell game, in which Fichte shifts the meaning of his terms.[241]

Note Henrich’s excessively aggressive dismissal of Anstoss, betraying traces of uneasiness (to be contrasted to Daniel Breazeale’s much more subtle analysis) and bearing witness to his inability to perceive the inner necessity of Anstoss. True, Fichte himself was not able fully to account for the precise status of Anstoss (is it the last remainder of the Thing-in-itself, absolutely external to the I and thus limiting it, or just a self-posited obstacle?); however, the urge that pushed him to introduce this notion was absolutely consistent with the deepest logic of his thought. What Fichte failed to see was that, in the subject-object relationship, the subject is a negative entity, a pure self-relating negativity—which is why, in order not to “implode into itself,” it needs a minimum of objectal support. That is to say, although Fichte repeatedly emphasizes how the subject is not a thing but a self-relating process, a Tat-Handlung, he conceives of the subject in an all-too-positive way when he claims that the absolute I (subject) is all reality—the subject is, on the contrary, a hole in reality. As such, the I (subject) is in no position to “transfer” its reality onto the not-I (object); on the contrary, it is itself in need of a “little bit of reality” (of an object) to regain its minimum consistency. What this means is that the subject by definition cannot be “complete”: it is in itself “thwarted,” the paradoxical result of its own failure-to-be. To describe it in the simplified terms of the loop of symbolic representation: the subject endeavors to adequately represent itself, this representation fails, and the subject is the result of this failure. Recall what one might be tempted to call the “Hugh Grant paradox” (referring to the famous scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral): the hero tries to express his love to his beloved, only to get caught in stumbling and confused repetitions; yet it is in this very failure to deliver his message in a perfect way that he bears witness to its authenticity. Is not Fichte himself unexpectedly on the track of this same insight when he

shifts from the term vorstellen (representation) to the word darstellen (presentation). But what now does representation present? As soon as I have arrived at presentation from representation, the question “What is represented?” has an entirely different meaning. In representation, of course, it would be the object that is represented. But what is presented in the representation in the sense of darstellen? The answer is obvious: the self![242]

And here we come to the crucial point: the otherness, the “stranger in my very heart,” which Fichte endeavored to discern under the name of Anstoss, is this “bone in the throat” which prevents the direct expression of the subject (and which—since the “subject” is the failure of its own direct expression—is strictly correlative to the subject). Which means that the minimal emptying of subject, the reduction of its reality (of its “thingness”), is constitutive of subjectivity: the subject is caught in its loop because it is not-All, finite, lacking, because a loss-of-reality is co-substantial with it, and Anstoss is the positivization of this gap. Anstoss is the In-itself in the mode of For-the-subject/self.

A century and a half later, Lacan called this same “bone in the throat” the objet petit a. Insofar as the “subject” is the name for self-relating absolute negativity, Anstoss as the minimal form of not-I is not a (logical) negation of the subject’s (full and only) reality, but, on the contrary, the result of the negation of the negation which “is” the subject. One does not begin with a positivity which is then negated; one begins with negation, and the object’s positivity is the result of the (self-related) negation of this negation. Or, to put it in Lacanese, the object a has no positive substantial being of its own, is nothing but the positivation of a lack: not a lacking object, but an object which positivizes a lack (negativity), whose positivity is nothing but a positivized negativity. It is here that imagination enters: this positivization of a lack is the zero-level imagination. At its most radical ontological level, imagination fills in the void/lack that “is” the subject, that is, what the subject originally “imagines” is its own objectal counterpoint, itself as a determinate being.

It is crucial to grasp correctly here the link between imagination (Einbildung) and representation (Vorstellung). Although closely connected, they are not simply the same (in the simplified “transcendental” sense that, since all reality is subjective, its status has to be that of the subject’s imagination); there is a very precise distinction between the two. First, representation: how does Fichte come to re-presentation as the mediating moment between subject and object, between the I and the not-I? Again, his idea is not the simple common-sensical notion of representation as the subjective stand-in (representative) of a (represented) object. Here Henrich is again worth quoting in detail:

if the Self is absolute reality itself, its reality cannot be reduced. Since the relation between the subject and the object is the relation between the real and the negative, no real relation between the real and the negative is possible. Therefore, only a logical relation that excludes any real relation between the two of them will do. A real relation between the two of them presupposes some third mediating element. This element must have the character of the subject to a certain degree, and just as this element has the character of the self only to a certain degree, so also it is affected by the object. … In this third element, the Self itself is not limited: the limitation of the Self would be impossible, if the Self really is all reality. Nonetheless, there is something that is limitation … So conceived, limitation is an entity that makes the relation between subject and object possible. In this respect the limited relation between subject and object is the elementary ontological status of representation.”[243]

So why can the subject not simply be limited by the object? Not because the subject is absolute in the naïve sense of being the all-encompassing reality, but precisely because it is finite, caught in its self-relating loop and therefore unable to step out of itself and draw a line of delimitation between subjective and objective: every limit the subject draws is already “subjective.” In other words, for the subject to be able to draw a clear “objective” limit between itself and the not-I, its objectivity, it would have to break out of its own loop and adopt a neutral position from which it would have been possible for the subject to compare itself with objectivity. The subject cannot simply be limited by the object because it is caught in its own loop, that is, because every relation it entertains with objectivity is already a mode of self-relating; the subject’s direct relation to the object cannot be a relation of real opposition between two positive forces delimiting each other, but only a purely logical relation between the subject and an empty-negative X, not even the Kantian Thing-in-itself.

We can now see why representation needs to be supplemented by imagination proper: since the field of representations remains within the loop of the subject’s self-relating, it is by definition always inconsistent, full of lacunae, which the subject must somehow fill in to create a minimally consistent Whole of a world—and the function of imagination is precisely to fill in these gaps. Now we can also see clearly the difference between representation and imagination: representation is the subjective mode of objectivity (objects are “represented” for the subject), while imagination is the objective mode of subjectivity (the subject’s void is present[ifi]ed as an [imagined] object). In other words, while representation represents something (its object), imagination represents nothing (which “is” the subject). Fichte did not see all of this clearly, which explains why he often seems to be using “imagination” simply as a name for the subjective positing of objectivity, that is, for “subjective objectivity.” But Kant already had a presentiment of the underlying true raison d’être of imagination: it arises because the subject is finite and boundless, with no externality—this is why the synthesis through imagination is needed to constitute reality: “No psychologist has yet thought that the imagination is a necessary ingredient of [the] perception [of reality] itself.”[244]

Even Heidegger fell short here in his elaboration of the difference between the Ancient Greek and the modern understanding of fantasy: in Greek thought, phantasia referred to the coming-into-appearance of entities, to their un-concealment against the background of withdrawal/concealment. As such, phantasia concerns Being itself—in contrast to modern subjectivism, wherein fantasy designates man’s “merely subjective” fantasizing, disconnected from “objective” reality:

In unconcealment fantasia comes to pass: the coming-into-appearance, as a particular something, of that which presences—for man, who himself presences toward what appears. Man as representing subject, however “fantasizes,” i.e., he moves in imaginatio, in that his representing imagines, pictures forth, whatever is, as the objective, into the world as picture.[245]

Lacan’s precise use of fantasy restores something of the original Greek meaning: “fantasy” has for him a kind of transcendental status; it is constitutive of reality itself, a frame which guarantees the ontological consistency of reality. Heidegger nonetheless falls short here: what he fails to see is how imagination as opposed to the “objective”—that is, precisely in its “merely subjective” aspect—is needed to constitute the phenomenal “objective reality.” Things become even more complex when Fichte tries to show how, out of the play of subjective imagination which is entirely contained within the loop of the mind’s self-relating, the necessary belief in an external world independent of our perception/imagination arises. The I’s self-limitation and its constant overcoming first constitute a play of imagination within which “consciousness in a state of dreaming can be understood as related to itself so that it experiences itself as wavering, or as moving into and out of states freely. It is thus not really determined by anything that could adequately be described as an object.”[246] So, again, how do we pass from here to the (belief in the) external world? Fichte’s answer is beautifully paradoxical: it is not that, in its representations, the I stumbles upon something which so resists the free play of its imagination that it can only be accounted for as an external counter-force; on the contrary, the problem the I resolves with the (hypo-)thesis of external reality is that of its own full self-awareness as a mind—what happens in the mind must be posited for it as “mental.” Here again, a longer passage from Henrich is unavoidable:

First, sensations are nothing but states of the mind. In order to know them as mental, that is, to have them for the mind as such, we must distinguish sensations from something that is not mental at all … In order to become aware of itself, the mind has to introduce freely a mental construct of something that corresponds to the sensations, which is the image of the external world … once we are able to think of sensations as somehow having something corresponding to them, we have perceptions. So construed, sensations are not now states of the mind; they are correlated to something that is not mental: they are of something. At this point, the closed, self-relating system of the mind is opened for the first time … To the question “What is the world?” we may now offer the following answer: it is the indeterminate dimension of correlates to the states of our minds.[247]

It is easy to see the paradox here: the mind has to posit something as not-mental in order to become aware of itself as mind, and this non-mental X is again “a mental construct of something that corresponds to the sensations”; so “the closed, self-relating system of the mind is opened for the first time”—but it is obviously a false opening, because it is opened towards something which is again a mental construct. Is the absurd-subjectivist sleight-of-hand not clearly discernible here, i.e., is Fichte not clearly claiming that “what is outside the mind is nothing but a construct of the self-reference of the mind itself”?[248] The mistake again is to conceive of this constellation only in a theoretical mode of subjectivity: if one adopts the stance of a passive-neutral observer, then the objective correlations to our sensations remain purely mental, lacking any real counter-force able to resist the subject—within this mode, of course, all I have direct access to are my sensations, and all other entities are my “mental constructs.” In short, if Fichte were to have remained at this level, he would have really been a Berkeleyan subjectivist (as Lenin wrongly assumed in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism). So the key question is: how does the relationship between subject and object become one of real opposition, that is, how does the external world become a real opposing force to the I? According to Fichte, this happens only when our mind adopts a practical stance towards the world. In the theoretical-observational stance, it is easy to conceive of reality as a mere dream that unfolds in front of our eyes—but reality “hurts” and resists us once we start intervening in it and trying to change it. Here enters, of course, Fichte’s infamous “spurious infinity”: the practical Self can never totally overcome the resistance of the not-I, so “the self’s original practical constitution is a striving (Streben)”—ultimately the endless ethical striving to create a reality that would fully conform to the moral ideal.[249]

Here, however, another surprise awaits us. Fichte does not remain at the level of abstract/indeterminate striving, but tries to show how this striving (corresponding to pure subjective inwardness) becomes determinate in the guise of a particular object—and the name he chooses for this object-which-is-determinate-striving is none other than drive: “What begins as indeterminate striving becomes determinate, once it is an object of thought. We may well wonder what this object is which simultaneously has the nature of striving. Fichte’s answer: ‘This object is a drive (Trieb)’.”[250] The parallel with Freud is here truly breathtaking: in exactly the same way that, in Fichte’s conception of drive, striving is posited as such (i.e., in its limitation-determination), the drive for Freud is always irreducibly linked to a partial object. Fichte accomplishes here a crucial step beyond subjectivism which Lacan himself was not able to make until his Seminar XI (1963–4). Prior to this date, Lacan really did not know what to do with the Freudian drive or “libido”—basically, he reduced it to the scientific objectification/“reification” of the authentic intersubjective reality of desire. Only with Seminar XI was Lacan able to think the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object.


Only against this background of Fichte’s complex position can we properly approach the genealogical topic of Jacobi’s necessary role in the passage from Kant to Fichte. Fichte’s reaction to Jacobi’s criticism of Kant is paradigmatic of how a true philosopher proceeds, fearlessly running against the grain of the predominant common sense. Jacobi claimed that Kant was inconsistent in his clinging to the notion of a Thing-in-itself: the only truly consistent transcendental philosophy would have been “transcendental egoism”—the denial of the real givenness of other minds, and of any knowledge of an external world: we are never in contact with anything other than our own minds, even our most immediate sensations are nothing but qualifications of our mental states. “Kant should have had the courage to teach this theory, but he shrank from it.”[251] For Jacobi, of course, this result is patently absurd, self-refuting, a clear example of the kind of blind alley down which philosophical speculation can lead; he mentions it merely in order to step out of the domain of philosophy and advocate a return to the original “irrational” beliefs of humanity: “philosophy could never be a satisfactory explication of reality,” since “any philosophy whatsoever, once made consistent, inevitably denies fundamental beliefs that no human life can abandon.”[252] Fichte, however, did not shrink from the full implications of Kant’s transcendentalism: he met Jacobi’s challenge and openly endorsed what Jacobi had deemed an absurd (im)possibility. Note how the triad Kant-Jacobi-Fichte reverses the expected “normal” succession of philosophical positions: it is not that a half-way position is first radicalized to its consistent-but-absurd conclusion and then rejected; on the contrary, what is first treated as a reductio ad absurdum, proposed ironically as a plainly nonsensical and self-defeating radicalization, is then taken seriously and fully endorsed. The truly tragic position here is Jacobi’s: he outlined the contours of an extreme position he abhorred (transcendental egoism), with the critical intent of combating tendencies that might lead towards it, but his efforts had the unintended consequence of providing a program for his opponents to follow—to “understand the world in terms of the self-referential nature of the mind.”[253]

The key question is thus: how did what appeared to Jacobi (and also to Kant) as a nonsensical “transcendental egoism” suddenly become a viable philosophical option? What changed in the underlying presuppositions? This brings us to what Henrich repeatedly analyzes as “Fichte’s fundamental insight,” the core of which is the critical rejection of the self-reflective model of self-consciousness: self-consciousness cannot be accounted for as a second-level consciousness, a mind turning its eye upon itself, taking itself as its object; that is, it is not that there is first a consciousness of objects and then the mind bends back and makes itself its object—this would involve an infinite regress, plus it would leave unanswered the simple question: when I see myself as an object, how do I recognize it as “myself”? It is, rather, that I must in a certain way already be pre-reflexively acquainted with myself (what Henrich calls Selbst-Vertrautheit) in order to be able to recognize “myself” in the object of reflection. But Fichte does not stop here, with this vague notion of a pre-reflexive self-awareness or self-acquaintance; he develops all the consequences of the failure of the self-reflexive model of self-consciousness, the first of which is his own version of Lacan’s axiom il n’y a pas de méta-langage: self-consciousness is caught in an inescapable circle or, rather, a self-referential loop—a human mind is not only aware of itself, it exists only through this (self-)awareness, for itself:

the faculty of representation (i.e., the mind) does not exist at all except for the faculty of representation. There is no mind plus something for which it is that would entail a separation between the mind and its being-for-X. There is no access to the mind from the outside; and there is no mind that is not already for itself. The very essence of the mind is its self-referential character.[254]

There is thus no “objective” approach to self-consciousness (I): if we look at it from the outside, it disappears, dissolving into an objective psycho-physical process:

The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and does not know what he wants.[255]

Note here the absolutely crucial invocation of finitude: the circle holds for “every finite understanding.” What this means is that the self-relating loop of the I is not a sign of its absolute/infinite power (as in primitive solipsistic subjectivism, where the I is the only absolute/infinite reality which creates everything else), but, on the contrary, the sign of its finitude. So when we read in Fichte what can only appear to common sense as ridiculously overblown statements about the absolute I positing itself and then, within the absolute I, op-positing the finite I and the finite non-I, we should always bear in mind that the I’s self-positing is not a miracle performed by a quasi-divine infinite entity which acts as causa sui (like Baron Münchhausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his own hair)—on the contrary, the closed loop of self-relating is the sign of the I’s ultimate finitude, of its being caught within its own horizon, of being itself only for itself.

The key term “positing” is to be opposed here to “reflecting”: in self-consciousness, the I does not reflect upon itself as its own object, it directly posits itself—which means that we cannot even distinguish between the positing subject and the subject as the result of this positing. As Fichte puts it, the I absolutely posits itself as positing, it “is” nothing but the process of its (self-)positing. Fichte’s formulation is very precise and has to be taken literally: it is not just that the mind (I) relates to itself—the mind (I) is nothing but this process of self-relating. Therein lies the circle or loop Fichte talks about: the relating itself not only creates what it relates to, it also is what it relates to.

But even this—the notion of the I’s absolute self-positing—is only the first step. Around 1800, Fichte engaged in a closer and very refined analysis of the I’s self-positing, and arrived at a further surprising result, a kind of “splitting the atom” of the absolute I’s self-positing: he discovered that the most elementary structure of self-consciousness—the I’s self-positing—is more complex than it initially appears, and displays a precise structure. Fichte’s starting point is that the Self is not a product of some pre-subjective activity that generates it—the Self comes immediately with the activity. Already in 1795, Fichte employed the metaphor of the eye (das Auge): the Self is an activity into which an eye is inserted, an activity which sees itself and is only through seeing itself. His next step is to admit that “we cannot account for the duality of the activity and the eye in terms of one of them alone”: “Neither the eye nor the activity can provide this account. In this moment, the idea of a ground of the structure becomes indispensable.”[256] In other words, the concept of the Self loses its explanatory power: it can no longer be the ultimate explanans, but is itself in need of explanation. It is here that Fichte confronts his greatest theoretical challenge: how can one conceive this Ground of the Self without betraying the basic insight into the I’s self-positing, into how the I exists only for the I, and without thereby regressing into a pre-Kantian metaphysics in which the Ground is God as a noumenal Thing which de facto cancels the I’s freedom, deprecating it as a mere “subjective” illusion?

The only solution is for self-consciousness (i.e., the I) to be “incorporated into the ground rather than only being … an effect of it”:[257] in self-consciousness, the Ground itself “enters into a relationship of self-reference,” that is, the I’s self-consciousness is simultaneously and immediately the self-consciousness of the Ground itself.[258] The interdependence of the Ground and self-consciousness is here radically ontological and not merely epistemological: it is not only that the Ground becomes aware of itself through the I’s self-consciousness; insofar as the Ground constitutes self-consciousness, we should say that the Ground “is what it is only in what it constitutes.”[259]

In his very subtle reading in which he tries to reconstruct Fichte’s implicit reasoning, Henrich points out that Fichte here imperceptibly introduces a notion of self-relating that is radically different from the self-relating of the absolute I who is nothing but its own self-positing: because of this new notion of relation, we have to interpret “the knowledge of the product about itself and its origin as an ontological relation between the ground and itself, by way of its essential product, the mind”:[260] “self-consciousness relates itself to the absolute ground and presupposition of its activity; but self-consciousness also relates itself to itself, because the ultimate ground and activity is nothing but the manifestation of itself in self-consciousness.”[261]

God not only has to manifest itself, but is nothing but its own self-manifestation (in an exact homology to the I which not only posits itself, but is nothing but its self-positing); only in this way is God not a Thing-in-itself which as such limits human freedom. A being which exists only through its self-manifestation is a living being, and so it is because of this thoroughly processual character of God that Fichte calls the Ground of the Self life: “God is nothing but spiritual life.”[262]

But in spite of this full immanence of the free self-consciousness to the Ground, “this process of the world is absolutely justified by virtue of itself. We are only essential elements in it, ‘essential’ only as vehicles for it. The manifestation takes place in and by ourselves, but what is manifested is not our own individual nature.”[263] What this means is that, with his fateful step towards the Ground of the I, Fichte nonetheless violates the basic axiom of his project of the science of knowledge, the thesis that the I exists only for the I as absolutely self-positing, i.e., that there cannot be any external ground for it.

Fichte’s passage to theology is thus again not simply a consequence of the insight into how the self-positing I is an illusion of groundless self-relating which would have imploded into nothingness without an external supporting Ground. Henrich provides a detailed analysis of the line of reasoning which brought Fichte to pass from the absolute I to God as the ultimate ground of being. Fichte’s problem here is this: how can one conceive of a trans-subjective God, a God who grounds subjectivity, but who is nonetheless not a Thing-in-itself? The problem is strictly homologous to that of the Marxist notion of class (self-)consciousness (or, more generally, ideological consciousness): how to conceive of the self-consciousness’s dependence on the Ground (the “economic base,” the material process of social life) without falling into “economic reductionism” and conceiving self-consciousness as a mere “ideological effect” of the economic material process which is the only “real”?[264]

Henrich is right to try to explicate Fichte’s implicit reasoning, but perhaps he is not clear enough in showing how Fichte’s oscillations and ambiguities demonstrate two things simultaneously: (1) that there is a deep necessity involved in accomplishing the step to the Ground of the Self’s freedom, and to the irreducible multiplicity of Selves which coexist within this Ground; and (2) that, within Fichte’s horizon, it is impossible to accomplish this step, in other words, that all of Fichte’s reasoning is false and ultimately irrelevant here. In short, Fichte is confronting the Real of his thought—something simultaneously both necessary and impossible. And—to make a leap of thought, if not of faith—there is a concept which fits perfectly Fichte’s requirements for the Ground of freedom: Lacan’s concept of the “big Other.” (We leave aside here the complex relationship between the big Other and Hegel’s “objective Spirit.”) This is why Fichte can conceive God as the spiritual Life in which individual self-consciousnesses participate; it is not a limitation of the I’s freedom, but its very ground. This is how he tries to realize the project of the “Spinozism of freedom,” and this is why his theology is

the first modern theology and perhaps the only one—Hegel’s, of course, being the alternative. It qualifies as the first modern theology because it contains a potential for overcoming the antagonism between freedom and religion. Fichte conceives of the concept of God in such a way that, by definition, God cannot impose any restriction upon freedom. God is manifestation, and manifestation takes place in free self-reference. For this reason, it is absolutely unintelligible to think of God as a person who imposes demands on human beings. Fichte’s conception of God precludes this antagonism.[265]

As Henrich demonstrates, Fichte cannot resolve the problem of the multiplicity of I’s—not only how to account for it, i.e., describe its genesis, but how even to conceive of it. That is to say, the moment Fichte introduces the idea of a pre-subjective Ground of the I, he has to confront the question of how a multitude of I’s can coexist and interact within this shared Ground. The problem here is that, once we accept the premise of a pre- and trans-subjective order which serves as the subjects’ shared Ground,

the order in which these distinct selves exist would prove not to be mental at all. In other words, any individual self is a closed system, and while there are many individual selves, the manifestation takes place in all selves individually. In order for us to account for the existence of such an order of different selves, we would have to violate Fichte’s methodological principle, because now we would invoke a non-mental structure that is, nevertheless, essential for understanding what the mind is.[266]

This leads Fichte to postulate—in a wholly justified immanent way—an a- or pre-subjective knowledge: insofar as the divine Ground is not a blind mechanical substance, but a spiritual order, an order of knowledge, and, simultaneously, anonymous/pre-subjective, we must presuppose that “something that is already knowledge precedes the individual selves.”[267] In other words, against any kind of phenomenological deduction of this knowledge out of inter-subjective interaction, we must presuppose that,

rather than all knowledge somehow belonging to the knower (the self-asserting self), now the knowing subjects have to belong to this non-individual epistemic process … the primary, anonymous knowledge, which Fichte always tried to render plausible by appeal to the paradigm of mathematical evidence (a somewhat Platonic move), is a form of knowledge that we cannot in any way claim to be individualized.[268]

And it is only here that Fichte reaches the true limit of his daring endeavor: although this structure of anonymous knowledge is pre-subjective, it has to include “a dimension with respect to which we can distinguish a multitude of individual knowers … This means that any of these selves knows, in advance, that there are other selves, despite having no direct access to their minds.”[269] The problem Fichte struggles with (and cannot resolve) here corresponds perfectly to the problem in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “structural anthropology” solved by Lacan: what kind of subject fits the symbolic structure? How can we think the immanence of the excluded subject to the anonymous symbolic structure (big Other)? Or, to put it the other way round: what kind of structure do we have to think so that it effectively involves the subject, not only as its epiphenomenal “effect,” but as its immanent constituent? Lacan’s answer, of course, is that the condition of freedom (of a free subject) is the “barred” big Other, a structure which is inconsistent, with gaps.

As Henrich demonstrates in a detailed reconstruction of Fichte’s reasoning, the close analysis of the structure of subjective self-relating reveals a split in the midst of subjectivity: a split between the subject’s immediate (but pre-conceptual) self-acquaintance (self-awareness) and a moment of knowledge which is not yet subjectivized but remains “anonymous”—is this not precisely the split between $ and S2, the signifying chain of knowledge? How can the two be mediated? Through S1, which represents the subject in the chain of knowledge at the site of its inconsistency.

The Lacanian notion of le grand Autre (the big Other, vaguely corresponding to what Hegel called “objective spirit” or the “spiritual substance” of individual lives), triumphantly resolves this problem. The big Other is a totally subjectivized substance: not a Thing-in-itself, but a Substance which exists only insofar as it is continuously sustained by the work of “all and everyone.” Reproducing Fichte’s formula of the subject’s self-positing, the big Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only as permanently “posited” by subjects.

Fichte cannot resolve the status of Ground because he does not have at his disposal a term which would designate an entity that is not-mental, that is asubjective, and yet at the same time is not a material “thing,” but purely ideal. This, however, is exactly what the Lacanian “big Other” is: it is definitely not-mental (Lacan repeatedly emphasizes that the status of the big Other is not psychological), it does not belong to the order of the subject’s experience; but it is also not the pre-symbolic material Real, a thing or process in reality independent of subjectivity—the status of the big Other is purely virtual, as an ideal structure of reference; that is, it exists only as the subject’s presupposition. (The big Other is thus close to what Karl Popper, in his late writings, designated as the Third World, neither objective reality nor subjective inner experience.) The Lacanian “big Other” also resolves the problem of the plurality of subjects: its role is precisely that of the Third, the very medium of the encounter between subjects.

This is also how one should approach Hegel’s outrageously “speculative” formulations about Spirit as its own result, as a product of itself: while “Spirit has its beginnings in nature in general,”

the extreme to which spirit tends is its freedom, its infinity, its being in and for itself. These are the two aspects; but if we ask what Spirit is, the immediate answer is that it is this motion, this process of proceeding from, of freeing itself from, nature; this is the being, the substance of spirit itself.[270]

Spirit is thus radically de-substantialized: Spirit is not a positive counter-force to nature, a different substance which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff; it is nothing but this process of freeing-itself-from. Hegel explicitly disowns the notion of Spirit as some kind of positive Agent which underlies the process:

Spirit is usually spoken of as subject, as doing something, and apart from what it does, as this motion, this process, as still something particular, its activity being more or less contingent … it is of the very nature of spirit to be this absolute liveliness, this process, to proceed forth from naturality, immediacy, to sublate, to quit its naturality, and to come to itself, and to free itself, it being itself only as it comes to itself as such a product of itself; its actuality being merely that it has made itself into what it is.[271]

If “it is only as a result of itself that it is spirit,”[272] then this means that the standard talk about the Hegelian Spirit which alienates itself to itself and then recognizes itself in its otherness and thus reappropriates its content is deeply misleading: the Self to which spirit returns is produced in the very movement of this return; or, that to which the process of return returns to is produced by the very process of returning. Recall here the concise and unsurpassed formulations from Hegel’s Logic on how essence

presupposes itself and the sublating of this presupposition is essence itself; conversely, this sublating of its presupposition is the presupposition itself. Reflection therefore finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What it thus found only comes to be through being left behind … For the presupposition of the return-into-self—that from which essence comes, and is only as this return—is only in the return itself.[273]

When Hegel says that a Notion is the result of itself, that it provides its own actualization, this claim which at first cannot but appear extravagant (the notion is not simply a thought activated by the thinking subject, but that it possesses a magic property of self-movement …), loses its mystery the moment we grasp that the Spirit as the spiritual substance is a substance, an In-itself, which sustains itself only through the incessant activity of the subjects engaged in it. Say, a nation exists only insofar as its members take themselves to be members of this nation and act accordingly; it has absolutely no content, no substantial consistence, outside this activity. The same goes for, say, the notion of communism—this notion “generates its own actualization” by way of motivating people to struggle for it.

Henrich raises here what is for him a key question: can Hegel (and Schelling, we have to add) account for the central problem with which Fichte struggled through his entire life, that of self-relating subjectivity? Fichte and Hegel share the project of grasping the basic ontological structure of reality simultaneously as complete self-reference and as the struggle of oppositions. So while both their systems are based on a self-referential structure, the specific matrix of self-reference is different in each case: Fichte focuses on the mental self-reference that constitutes the I and on the I’s self-identification (How do I know who I am?), whereas Hegel’s matrix is that of the self-relating negation. With this shift of focus, Hegel never even encountered the problem Fichte struggled with his whole life; so the crucial question (ignored by Hegel) is: can one demonstrate, from the Hegelian premises, that once we move within the matrix of self-relating negation, the Fichtean problem of mental self-relating can either be resolved or else dismissed as an illusory pseudo-problem? Henrich’s reply is a negative one, which is why he insists that we bear in mind “not only the correspondence between the failures of Fichte and the merits of Hegel, but also that between the merits of Fichte and the failures of Hegel.”[274] In other words, there is no unilateral progress in German Idealism: each of its four great names (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel) struggled with a fundamental problem and ultimately failed to resolve it, but this does not mean that each linear successor resolved his predecessor’s problem in a move of Aufhebung—rather, the successor radically changed the field, so that the problem itself disappeared. Fichte “missed the point” of Kant’s thought; Schelling and Hegel “missed the point” of Fichte’s (and of each other’s).

Measured by his own inherent standards, the passage in Fichte from the self-positing subject to its ground (God as infinite Life) is not a compromise, a withdrawal from his earlier assertion of radical subjectivity, but a necessary consequence of thinking through the implications of the very notion of subjectivity. The subject is not only or principally the active agent who “posits” (creates, dominates, exploits) objectivity (Heidegger), but a site of “abstraction,” tearing apart the links of organic totality, illusion, finitude—of what we refer to as “merely subjective.” Subject only emerges as a gap in substance, as an effect of its incompleteness/inconsistency. This is what Hegel celebrates as the absolute power of Understanding: “The action of separating the elements is the exercise of the force of Understanding, the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power.” This celebration is in no way qualified; that is, Hegel’s point is not that this power is nonetheless later “sublated” into a subordinate moment of the unifying totality of Reason. The problem with Understanding is rather that it does not unleash this power to the end, that it takes it as external to the thing itself—like, in the above-quoted passage from the Phenomenology, the standard notion that it is merely our Understanding (“mind”) that separates in its imagination what in “reality” belongs together, so that the Understanding’s “absolute power” is merely the power of our imagination which in no way concerns the reality of the thing analyzed. We pass from Understanding to Reason not when this analyzing, or tearing apart, is overcome in a synthesis which brings us back to the wealth of reality, but when this “tearing apart” is displaced from being “merely a power of our mind” onto things themselves, as their inherent power of negativity.—And the key dialectical insight is that the “synthesis,” the bringing-together of what was torn apart by Understanding, is the absolute, most radical, act of tearing apart—a violent imposition of unity.

Henrich correctly locates Hegel’s great breakthrough, the moment “Hegel became Hegel,” at the precise point where he dropped the “methodological distinction between the critical and the systematic discourses (reflectionis and rationis),”[275] between the critical analysis of the notions of Understanding and the positive deployment of the categories in the guise of a constructive system of Reason: the positive system of Reason is nothing but the “way towards itself” through the dialectical analysis of the categories of Understanding. He also correctly claims that this tension nonetheless persists in the guise of the difference between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic: how does the Phenomenology relate to the system? Is it an external introduction to it or part of it? The problem is not only an abstract one; it gets complicated by the fact that many of the analyses of the Phenomenology are (sometimes almost verbatim) included in the system (for example, the dialectic of the struggle of consciousness[es] for recognition reappears at the beginning—second chapter of part one—of the Philosophy of Spirit).

What makes Henrich’s reflections so interesting is that he relies on them in his critique of Marx (and of Marx’s critique of Hegel); his basic claim is that Marx’s project of the critique of ideology “depends on the conceptual apparatus of the Phenomenology of Spirit,” which is why, in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx cannot properly get Hegel’s notion of the State (which already presupposes the notional structure of the Science of Logic).[276] The problem Hegel struggles with in his Philosophy of Right is that a fully realized autonomy and freedom do not consist only in

accepting and following the will’s own law, but also involve requiring that there be a reality that corresponds structurally to the will’s own structure … Hegel’s answer is that it is the rational state whose good constitution respects the freedom of its citizens. This is the structure in reality that corresponds to the internal structure of the will.[277]

For this precise reason, a state is not only an instrument of civil society destined to guarantee the satisfaction of its subjects’ particular needs: the subjects do not accept the laws of their rational state “because it provides for the fulfillment of all the needs of the natural individual. Instead, the will accepts the state because only with reference to it can the self-reference of the will’s own structure be completed.”[278] Henrich’s critique of Marx should thus in no way be dismissed as a proof that he “remains caught up in bourgeois ideology.”

The Marxist analysis of the state as a structure of class domination (and, in this sense, as an instrument of civil society) misses the crucial problem Hegel was struggling with, “leaving the objective issue between Hegel’s institutionalism of freedom and socialism (with its spontaneity) entirely unsettled.”[279] The price paid for this neglect was that the problem returned with a vengeance in the guise of the Stalinist “totalitarian” state.


CHAPTER 4. Is It Still Possible to Be a Hegelian Today?

The main feature of historical thought proper is not “mobilism” (the motif of the fluidification or historical relativization of all forms of life), but the full endorsement of a certain impossibility: after a true historical break, one simply cannot return to the past, or go on as if nothing happened—even if one does, the same practice will have acquired a radically changed meaning. Adorno provided a nice example with Schoenberg’s atonal revolution: after it took place, it was (and is), of course, possible to go on composing in the traditional tonal way, but the new tonal music has lost its innocence, since it is already “mediated” by the atonal break and thus functions as its negation. This is why there is an irreducible element of kitsch in twentieth-century tonal composers such as Rachmaninov—something of a nostalgic clinging to the past, something fake, like the adult who tries to keep alive the naïve child within. And the same goes for all other domains: with the emergence of Plato’s philosophical analysis of notions, mythical thought loses its immediacy, any revival of it becomes fake; after Christianity, revivals of paganism become nostalgic simulacra.

Writing, thinking, or composing as if a Rupture has not occurred is more ambiguous than it may appear and cannot be reduced to a non-historical denial. Badiou once famously wrote that what unites him with Deleuze is that they are both classical philosophers for whom Kant, the Kantian break, did not happen—but is this really so? Maybe this holds for Deleuze, but definitely not for Badiou.[280] Nowhere is this clearer than in their different handling of the Event. For Deleuze, an Event really is a pre-Kantian cosmological One which generates a multitude, which is why the Event is absolutely immanent to reality, while the Badiouian Event is a break in the order of being (transcendentally constituted phenomenal reality), the intrusion of a radically heterogeneous (“noumenal”) order, so that we are clearly in (post-)Kantian space. This is why one can even define Badiou’s systematic philosophy (developed in his last masterpiece, Logics of Worlds) as Kantianism reinvented for the epoch of radical contingency: instead of one transcendentally constituted reality, we get a multiplicity of worlds, each delineated by its transcendental matrix, a multiplicity which cannot be mediated/unified into a single larger transcendental frame; instead of the moral Law, we get fidelity to the Truth-Event, which is always specific with regard to a particular situation of a World.

Is not Hegel’s speculative idealism the exemplary case of such a properly historical impossibility? Can one still be a Hegelian after the post-Hegelian break with traditional metaphysics which occurred more or less simultaneously in the works of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Marx? After all this, is there not something inherently false in advocating a Hegelian “absolute Idealism”? Will not any re-affirmation of Hegel fall victim to the same anti-historical illusion, by-passing the impossibility of being a Hegelian after the post-Hegelian break, writing as if that break had not happened? Here, however, one should complicate things a little bit: under certain conditions, one can and should write as if a break had not happened. What are these conditions? To put it simply and directly: when the break in question is not a true but a false break, in fact one which obliterates the true break, the true point of impossibility. Our wager is that this, precisely, is what happened with the “official” post-Hegelian anti-philosophical break (Schopenhauer-Kierkegaard-Marx): although it presents itself as a break with idealism as embodied in its Hegelian climax, it ignores a crucial dimension of Hegel’s thought; that is, it ultimately amounts to a desperate attempt to go on thinking as if Hegel had not happened. The hole left by this absence of Hegel is then, of course, filled in with the ridiculous caricature of Hegel the “absolute idealist” who “possessed Absolute Knowledge.” The re-assertion of Hegel’s speculative thought is thus not what it may appear to be—a denial of the post-Hegelian break—but rather a bringing-forth of that very dimension whose denial sustains the post-Hegelian break itself.


Let us develop this point apropos of Gérard Lebrun’s posthumously published L’envers de la dialectique, one of the most convincing and forceful attempts to demonstrate the impossibility of being Hegelian today—and, for Lebrun, “today” stands under the sign of Nietzsche.[281]

Lebrun accepts that one cannot “refute” Hegel: the machinery of his dialectics is so all-encompassing that nothing is easier for Hegel than to demonstrate triumphantly how all such refutations are inconsistent, to turn them against themselves (“one cannot refute an eye disease,” as Lebrun quotes Nietzsche approvingly). Most ridiculous among such critical refutations is, of course, the standard Marxist-evolutionist idea that there is a contradiction between Hegel’s dialectical method—which demonstrates how every fixed determination is swept away by the movement of negativity, how every determinate shape finds its truth in its annihilation—and Hegel’s system: if the destiny of everything is to pass away in the eternal movement of self-sublation, does the same not hold for the system itself? Is not Hegel’s own system a temporary, historically relative formation which will be overcome by the progress of knowledge? Anyone who finds such a refutation convincing is not to be taken seriously as a reader of Hegel.

How, then, can one move beyond Hegel? Lebrun’s solution goes by way of Nietzschean historical philology: one should bring to light the “eminently infra-rational” lexical choices which are grounded in how living beings cope with threats to their vital interests. Before Hegel sets in motion his dialectical machinery, which “swallows up” all content and elevates it to its truth by destroying it in its immediate being, a complex network of semantic decisions has already been taken imperceptibly. In uncovering these, one begins to “unveil the obverse of the dialectics. Dialectics is also partial. It also obfuscates its presuppositions. It is not the meta-discourse it pretends to be with regard to the philosophies of ‘Understanding’.”[282] Lebrun’s Nietzsche is decidedly anti-Heideggerian: for Lebrun, Heidegger re-philosophizes Nietzsche by way of interpreting the Will to Power as a new ontological First Principle. More than Nietzschean, Lebrun’s approach may appear Foucauldian: what he aims at is an “archaeology of the Hegelian knowledge,” its genealogy in concrete life-practices.

But is Lebrun’s “philological” strategy radical enough in philosophical terms? Does it not amount to a new version of historicist hermeneutics or, rather, of a Foucauldian succession of epochal epistemi? Does this not, if not legitimize, at least render understandable Heidegger’s re-philosophization of Nietzsche? That is to say, one should raise the question of the ontological status of the “power” which sustains particular “philological” configurations—for Nietzsche himself, it is the Will to Power; for Heidegger, it is the abyssal game of “there is” which “sends” different epochal configurations of the disclosure of the world. In any case, one cannot avoid ontology: historicist hermeneutics cannot stand on its own. Heidegger’s history of Being is an attempt to elevate historical (not historicist) hermeneutics directly into transcendental ontology: there is for Heidegger nothing behind or beneath what Lebrun calls infra-rational semantic choices; they are the ultimate fact/horizon of our being. Heidegger, however, leaves open what one might call the ontic question: there are obscure hints all through his work of a “reality” which persists out there prior to its ontological disclosure. That is to say, Heidegger in no way equates the epochal disclosure of Being with any kind of “creation”—he repeatedly concedes as an un-problematic fact that, even prior to their epochal disclosure or outside it, things somehow “are” (persist) out there, although they do not yet “exist” in the full sense of being disclosed “as such,” as part of a historical world. But what is the status of this ontic persistence outside of ontological disclosure?[283]

From the Nietzschean standpoint, there is more in the “infra-rational” semantic decisions than the fact that every approach to reality has to rely on a pre-existing set of hermeneutic “prejudices” or, as Heidegger would have put it, on a certain epochal disclosure of being: these decisions effectuate the vital pre-reflexive strategy of the Will to Power. For such an approach, Hegel remains a profoundly Christian thinker, a nihilist whose basic strategy is to repackage a profound defeat, the withdrawal from life in all its painful vitality, as a triumph of the absolute Subject. That is to say, from the standpoint of the Will to Power, the effective content of the Hegelian process is one long story of defeats and withdrawals, of sacrifices of vital self-assertion: again and again, one has to renounce vital engagement as still too “immediate” and “particular.” Exemplary is here Hegel’s passage from the Revolutionary Terror to the Kantian morality: the utilitarian subject of civil society, the subject who wants to reduce the State to being the guardian of his private safety and well-being, has to be crushed by the Terror of the revolutionary State which can annihilate him at any moment for no reason whatsoever (the subject is not punished for something he has done, for some particular content or act, but for the very fact of being an independent individual opposed to the universal)—this Terror is his “truth.” So how do we pass from Revolutionary Terror to Kant’s autonomous and free moral subject? By way of what, in more contemporary language, one could call a full identification with the aggressor: the subject should recognize in the external Terror, in this negativity which constantly threatens to annihilate him, the very core of his (universal) subjectivity; in other words, he should fully identify with it. Freedom is thus not freedom from a Master, but the replacement of one Master with another: the external Master is replaced with an internal one. The price for this identification is, of course, the sacrifice of all “pathological” particular content—duty should be accomplished “for the sake of duty.”

Lebrun demonstrates how this same logic holds also for language:

State and language are two complementary figures of the Subject’s accomplishment: here as well as there, the sense that I am and the sense that I enunciate are submitted to the same imperceptible sacrifice of what appeared to be our “self” in the illusion of immediacy.[284]

Hegel was right to point out again and again that, when one talks, one always dwells in the universal—which means that, with its entry into language, the subject loses its roots in the concrete life world. To put it in more pathetic terms, the moment I start to talk, I am no longer the sensually concrete I, since I am caught up in an impersonal mechanism which always makes me say something different from what I wanted to say—as the early Lacan liked to say, I am not speaking, I am being spoken by language. This is one way to understand what Lacan called “symbolic castration”: the price the subject pays for its “transubstantiation” from being the agent of a direct animal vitality to being a speaking subject whose identity is kept apart from the direct vitality of passions.

A Nietzschean reading easily discerns in this reversal of Terror into autonomous morality a desperate strategy of turning defeat into triumph: instead of heroically fighting for one’s vital interests, one pre-emptively declares total surrender and gives up all content. Lebrun is here well aware how unjustified the standard critique of Hegel is according to which the dialectical reversal of utter negativity into a new higher positivity, of catastrophe into triumph, functions as a kind of deus ex machina, precluding the possibility that the catastrophe might be the final outcome of the process—the well-known common-sense argument: “But what if there is no reversal of negativity into a new positive order?” This argument misses the point, which is that this is, precisely, what happens in the Hegelian reversal: there is no real reversal of defeat into triumph but only a purely formal shift, a change of perspective, which tries to present defeat itself as a triumph. Nietzsche’s point is that this triumph is a fake, a cheap magician’s trick, a consolation prize for losing all that makes life worth living: the real loss of vitality is supplemented by a lifeless specter. In Lebrun’s Nietzschean reading, Hegel thus appears as a kind of atheist Christian philosopher: like Christianity, he locates the “truth” of all terrestrial finite reality in its (self-)annihilation—reality reaches its truth only through/in its self-destruction; unlike Christianity, Hegel is well aware that there is no Other World in which we will be repaid for our terrestrial losses: transcendence is absolutely immanent, what is “beyond” finite reality is nothing but the immanent process of its self-overcoming. Hegel’s name for this absolute immanence of transcendence is “absolute negativity,” as he makes clear in an exemplary way in the dialectics of Master and Servant: the Servant’s secure particular/finite identity is unsettled when, in experiencing the fear of death during his confrontation with the Master, he gets a whiff of the infinite power of negativity; through this experience, the Servant is forced to accept the worthlessness of his particular Self:

For this consciousness was not in peril and fear for this element or that, nor for this or that moment of time, it was afraid for its entire being; it felt the fear of death, the sovereign master. It has been in that experience melted to its inmost soul, has trembled throughout its every fibre, and all that was fixed and steadfast has quaked within it. This complete perturbation of its entire substance, this absolute dissolution of all its stability into fluent continuity, is, however, the simple, ultimate nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure self-relating existence, which consequently is involved in this type of consciousness.[285]

What, then, does the Servant get in exchange for renouncing all the wealth of his particular Self? Nothing—in overcoming his particular terrestrial Self, the Servant does not reach a higher level of a spiritual Self; all he has to do is to shift his position and recognize in (what appears to him as) the overwhelming power of destruction which threatens to obliterate his particular identity the absolute negativity which forms the very core of his own Self. In short, the subject has to fully identify with the force that threatens to wipe him out: what he feared in fearing death was the negative power of his own Self. There is thus no reversal of negativity into positive greatness—the only “greatness” here is this negativity itself. Or, with regard to suffering: Hegel’s point is not that the suffering brought about by the alienating labor of renunciation is an intermediary moment that must be patiently endured while we wait for our reward at the end of the tunnel—there is no prize or profit to be gained at the end for our patient submission; suffering and renunciation are their own reward, all that has to be done is to change our subjective position, to renounce our desperate clinging to our finite Selves with their “pathological” desires, to purify our Selves towards their universality. This is also how Hegel explains the overcoming of tyranny in the history of states: “One says that tyranny is overturned by the people because it is undignified, shameful, etc. In reality, it disappears simply because it is superfluous.”[286] It becomes superfluous when people no longer need the external force of the tyrant to make them renounce their particular interests, but when they become “universal citizens” by directly identifying the core of their being with this universality—in short, people no longer need the external master when they are educated into doing the job of discipline and subordination themselves.

The obverse of Hegel’s “nihilism” (all finite/determinate forms of life reach their “truth” in their self-overcoming) is its apparent opposite: in continuity with the Platonic metaphysical tradition, he is not ready to give negativity full rein, that is, his dialectics is ultimately an effort to “normalize” the excess of negativity. For late Plato already, the problem was how to relativize or contextualize non-being as a subordinate moment of being (non-being is always a particular/determinate lack of being measured by the fullness it fails to actualize; there is no non-being as such, there is always only, e.g., “green” which participates in non-being by not being “red” or any other color, etc.). In the same vein, Hegelian “negativity” serves to “proscribe absolute difference” or “non-being”:[287] negativity is limited to the obliteration of all finite/immediate determinations. The process of negativity is thus not just a negative process of the self-destruction of the finite: it reaches its telos when finite/immediate determinations are mediated/maintained/elevated, posited in their “truth” as ideal notional determinations. What remains after negativity has done its work is the eternal parousia of the ideal notional structure. What is missing here, from the Nietzschean standpoint, is the affirmative no: the no of the joyous and heroic confrontation with the adversary, the no of struggle which aims at self-assertion, not self-sublation.


This brings us back to the incompatibility between Hegel’s thought and any kind of evolutionary or historicist “mobilism”: Hegel’s dialectics “in no way involves the recognition of the irresistible force of becoming, the epopee of a flux which takes everything with it”:

The Hegelian dialectics was often—but superficially—assimilated to a mobilism. And it is undoubtedly true that the critique of the fixity of determinations can give rise to the conviction of an infinite dialectical process: the limited being has to disappear again and always, and its destruction extends to the very limit of our sight … However, at this level, we are still dealing with a simple going-on (Geschehen) to which one cannot confer the inner unity of a history (Geschichte).[288]

To recognize this, to thoroughly reject the “mobilist” topic of the eternal flux of Becoming which dissolves all fixed forms, is the first step towards dialectical reason in its radical incompatibility with the allegedly “deep” insight that everything comes out of the primordial Chaos and is again swallowed by it, a form of Wisdom which persists from ancient cosmologies up to and including Stalinist “dialectical materialism.” The most popular form of “mobilism” is the traditional view of Hegel as the philosopher of “eternal struggle,” popularized by Marxists from Engels to Stalin and Mao: the well-known “dialectical” notion of life as an eternal conflict between reaction and progress, old and new, past and future. This belligerent view, which advocates our engagement on the “progressive” side, is totally foreign to Hegel, for whom “taking sides” as such is illusory (since it is by definition unilateral).

Let us take social struggle at its most violent: war. What interests Hegel is not struggle as such, but the way the “truth” of the engaged positions emerges through it, namely how the warring parties are “reconciled” through their mutual destruction. The true (spiritual) meaning of war is not honor, victory, defense, etc., but the emergence of absolute negativity (death) as the absolute Master which reminds us of the false stability of our organized, finite lives. War serves to elevate individuals to their “truth” by making them renounce their particular self-interests and identify with the State’s universality. The true enemy is not the enemy we are fighting but our own finitude—recall Hegel’s acerbic remark on how easy it is to proclaim the vanity of our finite terrestrial existence, but how much more difficult it is to accept when enforced by a wild enemy soldier who breaks into our home and starts to slice up members of our family with a saber.

In philosophical terms, Hegel’s point here concerns the primacy of “self-contradiction” over the external obstacle (or enemy). We are not finite and self-inconsistent because our activity is always thwarted by external obstacles; we are thwarted by external obstacles because we are finite and inconsistent. In other words, what the subject engaged in a struggle perceives as the enemy, the external obstacle he has to overcome, is the materialization of the subject’s immanent inconsistency: the struggling subject needs the figure of the enemy to sustain the illusion of his own consistency, his very identity hinges on his opposing the enemy, so much so that his (eventual) victory amounts to his own defeat or disintegration. As Hegel likes to put it, in fighting the external enemy, one (unknowingly) fights one’s own essence. So, far from celebrating engaged struggle, Hegel’s point is rather that every embattled position, every taking of sides, has to rely on a necessary illusion (the illusion that, once the enemy is annihilated, I will achieve the full realization of my being). This brings us to what would have been a properly Hegelian notion of ideology: the misapprehension of the condition of possibility (of what is an inherent constituent of your position) as the condition of impossibility (as an obstacle which prevents your full realization)—the ideological subject is unable to grasp how his entire identity hinges on what he perceives as the disturbing obstacle. This notion of ideology is not just an abstract mental exercise: it fits perfectly with fascist anti-Semitism as the most elementary form of ideology—one is even tempted to say: as ideology as such, kat’ exochen. The anti-Semitic figure of the Jew, the foreign intruder who disturbs and corrupts the harmony of the social order, is ultimately a fetishistic objectivization, a stand-in, for the “inconsistency” of the social order itself, for the immanent antagonism (“class struggle”) which generates the dynamic of its instability.

Hegel’s interest in the “conflict of the opposites” is thus that of the neutral dialectical observer who discerns the “Cunning of Reason” at work in struggle: a subject engages in struggle, is defeated (as a rule, in his very victory), and this defeat brings him to his truth. We can clearly measure here the distance that separates Hegel from Nietzsche: the innocence of exuberant heroism that Nietzsche wants to resuscitate, the passion of risk, of fully engaging in a struggle, of victory or defeat—these are all absent; the “truth” of the struggle emerges only in and through defeat.

This is why the standard Marxist denunciation of the falsity of the Hegelian reconciliation (already made by Schelling) misses the point. According to this critique, the Hegelian reconciliation is false because it occurs only in the Idea, while real antagonisms persist—in the “concrete” experience of the “real life” of individuals who cling to their particular identity, state power remains an external compulsion. Therein resides the crux of the young Marx’s critique of Hegel’s political thought: Hegel presents the modern constitutional monarchy as a rational State in which antagonisms are reconciled, as an organic Whole in which every constituent finds, or can find, its proper place, but he thereby obfuscates the class antagonism which continues in modern societies, generating the working class as the “non-reason of the existing Reason,” as the part of modern society which has no proper part in it, as its “part of no-part” (Rancière).

What Lebrun rejects in this critique is not its diagnosis (that the proposed reconciliation is dishonest, an “enforced reconciliation” [erpresste Versöhnung]—the title of one of Adorno’s essays—which obfuscates the antagonisms’ persistence in social reality), rather: “what is so admirable in this portrait of the dialectician rendered dishonest by his blindness is the supposition that he could have been honest.”[289] In other words, instead of rejecting the Hegelian reconciliation as false, Lebrun rejects as illusory the very notion of dialectical reconciliation, renouncing the demand for a “true” reconciliation itself. Hegel was fully aware that reconciliation does not alleviate real suffering and antagonisms—his formula from the foreword to his Philosophy of Right is that one should “recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present”; or, to put it in Marx’s terms: in reconciliation one does not change external reality to fit some Idea, one recognizes this Idea as the inner “truth” of the miserable reality itself. The Marxist reproach that, instead of transforming reality, Hegel merely proposes a new interpretation of it, thus in a way misses the point—it is knocking on an open door, since, for Hegel, in order to pass from alienation to reconciliation, we do not have to change reality, but rather the way we perceive and relate to it.

The same insight underlies Hegel’s analysis of the passage from labor to thought in the subchapter on Master and Servant in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Lebrun is fully justified in emphasizing, against Kojève, that Hegel is far from celebrating (collective) labor as the site of the productive self-assertion of human subjectivity, as the process of forceful transformation and appropriation of natural objects, their subordination to human goals. All finite thought remains caught in the “spurious infinity” of the never-ending process of the (trans)formation of objective reality which always resists the full subjective grasp, so that the subject’s work is never done: “As an aggressive activity deployed by a finite being, labor signals above all man’s impotence to integrally take possession of nature.”[290] This finite thought is the horizon of Kant and Fichte: the endless practico-ethical struggle to overcome external obstacles as well as the subject’s own inner nature. Their philosophies are the philosophies of struggle, while in Hegel’s philosophy, the fundamental stance of the subject towards objective reality is not that of practical engagement, of confrontation with the inertia of objectivity, but that of letting-it-be: purified of its pathological particularity, the universal subject is certain of itself, it knows that its thought already is the form of reality, so it can renounce enforcing its projects upon reality, it can let reality be the way it is.

This is why my labor gets all the more close to its truth the less I work to satisfy my need, that is, to produce objects I will consume. This is why industry which produces for the market is spiritually “higher” than production for one’s own needs: in market-production, I manufacture objects with no relation to my needs. The highest form of social production is therefore that of a merchant: “the merchant is the only one who relates to the Good as a perfect universal subject, since the object in no way interests him on behalf of its aesthetic presence or its use value, but only insofar as it contains a desire of an other.”[291] And this is also why, in order to arrive at the “truth” of labor, one should gradually abstract from the (external) goal it strives to realize.

The parallel with war is appropriate here: in the same way that the “truth” of the military struggle is not the destruction of the enemy, but the sacrifice of the “pathological” content of the warrior’s particular Self, its purification into the universal Self, the “truth” of labor as the struggle with nature is also not victory over nature, compelling it to serve human goals, but the self-purification of the laborer itself. Labor is simultaneously the (trans)formation of external objects and the disciplinary self-formation/education (Bildung) of the subject itself. Hegel here celebrates precisely the alienated and alienating character of labor: far from being a direct expression of my creativity, labor forces me to submit to artificial discipline, to renounce my innermost immediate tendencies, to alienate myself from my natural Self:

Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby unalloyed feeling of self. This satisfaction, however, just for that reason is itself only a state of evanescence, for it lacks objectivity or subsistence. Labour, on the other hand, is desire restrained and checked, evanescence delayed and postponed; in other words, labour shapes and fashions the thing.[292]

As such, labor prefigures thought, it achieves its telos in thinking which no longer works on an external stuff, but is already its own stuff, or, which no longer imposes its subjective/finite form onto external reality but is already in itself the infinite form of reality. For finite thought, the concept of an object is a mere concept, the subjective goal one actualizes when, by way of labor, one imposes it onto reality. For speculative thought, on the contrary, thought is not merely subjective, it is in itself already objective—it renders the objective conceptual form of the object. This is why inner Spirit, certain of itself, “no longer needs to form/shape nature and to render it spiritual in order to fixate the divine and to make its unity with nature externally visible: insofar as the free thought thinks externality, it can leave it the way it is (kann er es lassen wie es ist).”[293]

This sudden retroactive reversal from not-yet to already-is (we never directly realize a goal—we pass from striving to realize a goal to a sudden recognition that it is already realized) is what distinguishes Hegel from all kinds of historicist tropes, including the standard Marxist critical reproach that the Hegelian ideal reconciliation is insufficient, since it leaves reality (real pain and suffering) the way it is, and that what is needed is actual reconciliation through radical social transformation. For Hegel, the illusion is not that of the enforced “false reconciliation” which ignores the persisting divisions; the true illusion resides in not seeing that, in what appears to us as the chaos of becoming, the infinite goal is already realized: “Within the finite order, we cannot experience or see that the goal is truly achieved. The accomplishment of the infinite goal resides only in overcoming the illusion [Täuschung—deception] that this goal is not yet achieved.”[294]

In short, the ultimate deception lies in the failure to see that one already has what one is looking for—like Christ’s disciples awaiting his “real” reincarnation, blind to the fact that their collective already was the Holy Spirit, the return of the living Christ. Lebrun is thus justified in noting that the final reversal of the dialectical process, as we have seen, far from involving the magical intervention of a deus ex machina, is a purely formal turnaround, a shift in perspective: the only thing that changes in the final reconciliation is the subject’s standpoint—the subject endorses the loss, re-inscribes it as its triumph. Reconciliation is thus simultaneously both less and more than the standard idea of overcoming an antagonism: less, because nothing “really changes”; more, because the subject of the process is deprived of its very (particular) substance.

Here is an unexpected example: at the end of Howard Hawks’s classic Western Red River, a “psychologically unfounded” twist occurs which is usually dismissed as a simple weakness of the script. The entire film moves towards the climactic confrontation between Dunson and Matt, a duel of almost mythic proportions, predestined by fate, as an inexorable conflict between two incompatible subjective stances; in the final scene, Dunson approaches Matt with the determination of a tragic hero blinded by his hatred and marching towards his ruin. The brutal fist fight which then ensues is unexpectedly ended when Tess, who is in love with Matt, fires a gun into the air and shouts at the two men: “anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.” A quick reconciliation follows, with Dunson and Matt chatting like old buddies: this “transition of Dunson from anger incarnate, all Achilles all the time, to sweetness and light, happily yielding to Matt … is breathtaking in its rapidity.”[295] Robert Pippin is fully justified in detecting beneath this technical weakness of the script a deeper message:

the struggle for power and supremacy that we have been watching … has been a kind of shadow play … a fantasy largely staged by Dunson to justify himself. There never was any great struggle, never any real threat of a fight to the death … The mythic struggle we have been watching is itself the result of a kind of self-mythologization … a fantasy narrative frame that is also demythologizing itself in front of us.[296]

This is how Hegelian reconciliation works—not as a positive gesture of resolving or overcoming the conflict, but as a retroactive insight into how there never really was a serious conflict, how the two opponents were always on the same side (a little bit like the reconciliation between Figaro and Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, where they are brought together by the realization that they are mother and son). This retroactivity accounts also for the specific temporality of reconciliation. Recall the paradox of the process of apologizing: if I hurt someone by making an unkind remark, the proper thing for me to do is to offer a sincere apology, and the proper thing for her to do is to say something like, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I wasn’t offended, I knew you didn’t mean it, so you really owe me no apology!” The point, of course, is that despite this final result, one still has to go through the entire process of offering the apology: “you owe me no apology” can only be said after I have offered an apology, so that although, formally, “nothing happens,” and the offer of apology is proclaimed unnecessary, something is gained at the end of the process (perhaps, even, a friendship is saved).[297]

Perhaps this paradox provides a clue to understanding the twists and turns of the Hegelian dialectical process. Let us take Hegel’s critique of the Jacobin Revolutionary Terror, understood as an exercise in the abstract negativity of absolute freedom which, unable to stabilize itself in a concrete social order, has to end in a fury of self-destruction. One should bear in mind here that, insofar as we are dealing with a historical choice (between the “French” path of remaining within Catholicism, and thus being obliged to engage in Revolutionary Terror, and the “German” path of Reformation), this choice involves exactly the same elementary dialectical paradox as that, also from the Phenomenology of Spirit, between the two readings of “the Spirit is a bone” which Hegel illustrates by the phallic metaphor (phallus as the organ of insemination or phallus as the organ of urination): Hegel’s point is not that, in contrast to the vulgar empiricist mind which sees only urination, the proper speculative attitude has to choose insemination. The paradox is that to choose insemination directly is the infallible way to miss it: it is not possible to choose directly the “true meaning,” in other words, one has to begin by making the “wrong” choice (of urination)—the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, “wrong,” reading.[298]

And the same goes for social life in which the direct choice of the “concrete universality” of a particular ethical life world can only end in a regression to premodern organic society that denies the infinite right of subjectivity as the fundamental feature of modernity. Since the subject-citizen of a modern state can no longer accept his immersion in some particular social role that confers on him a determinate place within the organic social Whole, the only route to the rational totality of the modern State leads through Revolutionary Terror: one should ruthlessly tear up the constraints of premodern organic “concrete universality” and fully assert the infinite right of subjectivity in its abstract negativity.

In other words, the point of Hegel’s analysis of the Revolutionary Terror is not the rather obvious insight into how the revolutionary project involved the unilateral assertion of abstract Universal Reason and was as such doomed to perish in self-destructive fury, being unable to transpose its revolutionary energy into a stable social order; Hegel’s point is rather to highlight the enigma of why, in spite of the fact that Revolutionary Terror was a historical deadlock, we have to pass through it in order to arrive at the modern rational State.

Here also, then, one has to do something (offer an apology, enact a reign of Terror) in order to see how it is superfluous. This paradox is sustained by the distinction between the “constative” and the “performative” dimensions of speech, between the “subject of the enunciated” and the “subject of the enunciation”: at the level of the enunciated content, the whole operation is meaningless (why do it—offer an apology, go through the Terror—when it is superfluous?); however, what this common-sense insight forgets is that only the “wrong” superfluous gesture creates the subjective conditions which make it possible for the subject to really see why the gesture is superfluous. It only becomes possible to say that my apology is unnecessary after I have offered it, to see how the Terror is superfluous and destructive after one has gone through it. The dialectical process is thus more refined than it may appear: the standard notion is that one can only arrive at the final truth along the path of error, so that the errors along the way are not simply discarded, but “sublated” in the final truth, preserved in it as its moments. The evolutionary notion of dialectical process tells us that the result is not just a dead body, that it does not stand alone, in abstraction from the process that engendered it: in this process, different moments first appeared in their unilateral immediate form, while the final synthesis gathers them as sublated, maintaining their rational core. What this standard notion misses is how the previous moments are preserved precisely as superfluous. In other words, while the preceding stages are indeed superfluous, we need time to arrive at the point from which we can see that they are so.


How are we to counter this diagnosis of the “disease called Hegel,” which centers on the dialectical reversal as an empty formal gesture of presenting defeat as victory? The first observation that imposes itself is that reading “infra-rational” semantic choices as strategies for coping with obstacles to the assertion of life is in itself already an “infra-rational” semantic choice. But more important is to note how such a reading subtly perpetuates a narrow view of Hegel which obliterates many key dimensions of his thought. Is it not possible to read Hegel’s systematic “sublation” of each and every shape of consciousness or social life-form as, precisely, a description of all possible life-forms, with their vital “semantic choices,” and their inherent antagonisms (“contradictions”)?[299] If there is a “semantic choice” that underlies Hegel’s thought, it is not the desperate wager that, retroactively, one will be able to tell a consistent, all-encompassing and meaningful story in which every detail will be allotted its proper place, but, on the contrary, the weird certainty (comparable to the psychoanalyst’s certainty that the repressed will always return, that a symptom will always spoil every figure of harmony) that, with every figure of consciousness or form of life, things will always somehow “go wrong,” that each position will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction.

Does this mean that Hegel does not advocate any determinate “semantic choice,” since, for him, the only “truth” is the endless process of the “generation and corruption” of determinate “semantic choices”? Yes, but on condition that we do not conceive this process in the usual “mobilist” sense.

How, then, does the truly historical thought break with such universalized “mobilism”? In what precise sense is it historical and not simply the rejection of “mobilism” on behalf of some eternal Principle exempted from the flow of generation and corruption? The key resides in the concept of retroactivity which concerns the very core of the relationship between Hegel and Marx: it is the main reason why, today, one should return from Marx to Hegel and enact a “materialist reversal” of Marx himself.

To approach this complex issue, let me begin with Gilles Deleuze’s notion of a pure past: not the past into which things present pass, but an absolute past “where all events, including those that have sunk without trace, are stored and remembered as their passing away,”[300] a virtual past which already contains things which are still present (a present can become past because in a way it is already, it can perceive itself as part of the past; “what we are doing now is [will have been] history”). “It is with respect to the pure element of the past, understood as the past in general, as an a priori past, that a given former present is reproducible and the present present is able to reflect itself.”[301] Does this mean that the pure past involves a thoroughly deterministic notion of the universe in which everything that is still to happen (to come), all actual spatio-temporal deployment, is already part of an immemorial/atemporal virtual network? No, and for a very precise reason: because “the pure past must be all the past but must also be amenable to change through the occurrence of any new present.”[302] It was none other than T. S. Eliot, that great conservative, who first clearly formulated this link between our dependence on tradition and our power to change the past:

[tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities …

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.[303]

When Eliot says that in judging a living poet “you must set him among the dead,” he formulates a precise example of Deleuze’s pure past. And when he writes that “the existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted,” he no less clearly formulates the paradoxical link between the completeness of the past and our capacity to change it retroactively: precisely because the pure past is complete, each new work re-sets its entire balance. This is how one should read Kafka’s critique of the notion of the Day of Judgment as something which will arrive at the end of time: “Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.” Every historical moment contains its own Judgment in the sense of its “pure past” which allocated a place to each of its elements, and this Judgment is being constantly rewritten. Recall Borges’s precise formulation of the relationship between Kafka and his multitude of precursors, from ancient Chinese authors to Robert Browning:

Kafka’s idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of these writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist … each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.[304]

In the same way, a radical revolution does (what previously appeared as) the impossible and thereby creates its own precursors—this, perhaps, is the most succinct definition of what an authentic act is. Such an act proper should be located in the trilogy (which strangely reflects the “European trinity” of English, French, and German): acting out, passage à l’acte, Tat-Handlung (Fichte’s neologism for the founding gesture of the subject’s self-positing in which the activity and its result fully overlap). Acting out is a hysterical outburst within the same big Other; passage à l’acte destructively suspends the big Other; Tat-Handlung retroactively rearranges it. As Jacques-Alain Miller put it, “the status of the act is retroactive”:[305] a gesture “will have been” an act; it becomes an act if, in its consequences, it succeeds in disturbing and rearranging the “big Other.” The properly dialectical solution of the dilemma “Is it really there, in the source, or did we just read it into the source?” is thus: it is there, but we can only perceive and state this retroactively, from the perspective of the present.[306]

One of the standard procedures of de-fetishizing/de-reifying critique is to denounce (what appears as) a direct property of the perceived object as the subject’s (the observer’s) “reflexive determination”: the subject ignores how her gaze is already included in the perceived content. An example from recent theory: post-structuralist deconstructionism does not exist (in itself, in France), since it was invented in the US, for and by the American academic gaze with all its constitutive limitations.[307] In short, an entity like “post-structuralist deconstructionism” (a term not used in France) comes into existence only for a gaze that is unaware of the details of the philosophical scene in France: this gaze brings together authors (Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, and so on) who are simply not perceived as part of the same episteme in France, just as the concept of film noir posits a unity which did not exist “in itself.” And in the same way, the French gaze, ignorant of the ideological tradition of American individualist, anti-combo populism, and looking through existentialist lenses, mistook the heroic-cynical, pessimist-fatalist stance of the noir hero for a socially critical attitude. Likewise, the American perception inscribed the French authors into the field of radical cultural criticism, thereby conferring on them a feminist, etc., critical social stance for the most part absent in France itself. So just as film noir is not a category of American cinema, but primarily a category of the French cinema criticism and (later) of the historiography of cinema, so too “post-structuralist deconstructionism” is not a category of French philosophy, but primarily a category of the American (mis)reception of the French theorists designated as such.

This, however, is only the first step, at the level of (external) reflection. In the next and crucial step, these subjective determinations are developed precisely as not merely “subjective” but as simultaneously affecting the “thing itself.” The notion of “post-structuralist deconstructionism,” although resulting from a limited foreign perspective, draws out of its object potentials invisible to those directly engaged within it. Therein resides the ultimate dialectical paradox of truth and falsity: sometimes, the aberrant view which misreads a situation from its limited perspective can, on account of this very limitation, perceive the “repressed” potential of the observed constellation. And, furthermore, the external misperception can sometimes have a productive influence on the misperceived “original” itself, forcing it to become aware of its own “repressed” truth (arguably, the French notion of noir, although the result of a misperception, exerted a strong influence on later American movie-making). Is not the American reception of Derrida a supreme example of this productivity of the external misperception? Although it clearly was a misperception, did it not have a retroactive but productive influence on Derrida himself, forcing him to confront ethico-political issues more directly? Was the American reception of Derrida in this sense not a kind of pharmakon, a supplement to the “original” Derrida himself—a poisonous stain-fake, distorting the original but at the same time keeping it alive? In short, would Derrida still be so “alive” today had it not been for the American misperception of his work?

Here, Peter Hallward falls short in his otherwise excellent Out of This World, where he stresses only the aspect of the pure past as the virtual field in which the fate of all actual events is sealed in advance, since “everything is already written” in it.[308] At this point, where we view reality sub specie aeternitatis, absolute freedom coincides with absolute necessity and its pure automatism: to be free means to let oneself freely flow in/with the substantial necessity. This topic reverberates even in today’s cognitivist debates on the problem of free will. Compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett have an elegant solution to the incompatibilists’ complaints about determinism:[309] when incompatibilists complain that our freedom cannot be combined with the fact that all our acts are part of the great chain of natural determinism, they secretly make an unwarranted ontological assumption: first, they assume that we (the Self, the free agent) somehow stand outside reality, then they go on to complain about how they feel oppressed by the notion that reality in its determinism controls them totally. This is what is wrong with the notion of us being “imprisoned” by the chains of natural determinism: we thereby obfuscate the fact that we are part of reality, that the (possible, local) conflict between our “free” striving and the external reality that resists it is a conflict inherent in reality itself. That is to say, there is nothing “oppressive” or “constraining” about the fact that our innermost strivings are (pre)determined: when we feel thwarted in our freedom by the pressure of external reality, there must be something in us, some desire or striving, which is thus thwarted, but where do such strivings come from if not this same reality? Our “free will” does not in some mysterious way “disturb the natural course of things,” it is part and parcel of this course. For us to be “truly” and “radically” free would entail that there be no positive content involved in our free act—if we want nothing “external” and particular or given to determine our behavior, then “this would involve being free of every part of ourselves.”[310] When a determinist claims that our free choice is “determined,” this does not mean that our free will is somehow constrained, that we are forced to act against our will—what is “determined” is the very thing that we want to do “freely,” that is, without being thwarted by external obstacles.

To return to Hallward: while he is right to emphasize that, for Deleuze, freedom “isn’t a matter of human liberty but of liberation from the human,”[311] of fully submerging oneself in the creative flux of absolute Life, the political conclusion he draws from this seems too facile:

The immediate political implication of such a position … is clear enough: since a free mode or monad is simply one that has eliminated its resistance to the sovereign will that works through it, so then it follows that the more absolute the sovereign’s power, the more “free” are those subject to it.[312]

But does Hallward not overlook here the retroactive movement on which Deleuze also insists, namely how this eternal pure past which fully determines us is itself subjected to retroactive change? We are thus simultaneously less free and more free than we think: we are thoroughly passive, determined by and dependent on the past, but we have the freedom to define the scope of this determination, to (over)determine the past which will determine us. Deleuze is here unexpectedly close to Kant, for whom I am determined by causes, but I (can) retroactively determine which causes will determine me: we, subjects, are passively affected by pathological objects and motivations; but, in a reflexive way, we have the minimal power to accept (or reject) being affected in this way, that is, we retroactively determine the causes allowed to determine us, or, at least, the mode of this linear determination. “Freedom” is thus inherently retroactive: at its most elementary, it is not simply a free act which, out of nowhere, starts a new causal link, but a retroactive act of determining which link or sequence of necessities will determine us. Here, one should add a Hegelian twist to Spinoza: freedom is not simply “recognized/known necessity,” but recognized/assumed necessity, the necessity constituted/actualized through this recognition. So when Deleuze refers to Proust’s description of Vinteuil’s music that haunts Swann—“as if the performers not so much played the little phrase as executed the rites necessary for it to appear”—he is evoking the necessary illusion: generating the sense-event is experienced as ritualistic evocation of a pre-existing event, as if the event was already there, waiting for our call in its virtual presence.

The key philosophical implication of Hegelian retroactivity is that it undermines the reign of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: this principle only holds in the condition of linear causality where the sum of past causes determines a future event—retroactivity means that the set of (past, given) reasons is never complete and “sufficient,” since the past reasons are retroactively activated by what is, within the linear order, their effect.


What directly resonates in this topic is, of course, the Protestant motif of predestination: far from being a reactionary theological motif, predestination is a key element of the materialist theory of sense, on condition that we read it along the lines of the Deleuzian opposition between the virtual and the actual. That is to say, predestination does not mean that our fate is sealed in an actual text existing from eternity in the divine mind; the texture which predestines us belongs to the purely virtual eternal past which, as such, can be retroactively rewritten by our acts. In predestination, fate is substantialized into a decision that precedes the process, so that the burden of individuals’ activities is not to performatively constitute their fate, but to discover (or guess) their pre-existing fate. What is thereby obfuscated is the dialectical reversal of contingency into necessity, that is, the way the outcome of a contingent process takes on the appearance of necessity: things retroactively “will have been” necessary.

This, perhaps, would have been the ultimate meaning of the singularity of Christ’s incarnation: it is an act which radically changes our destiny. Prior to Christ, we were determined by Fate, caught up in the cycle of sin and its payment; but Christ’s erasure of our past sins means precisely that his sacrifice changes our virtual past and thus sets us free. When Deleuze writes that “my wound existed before me; I was born to embody it,” does not this variation on the theme of the Cheshire cat and its smile from Alice in Wonderland (the cat was born to embody its smile) provide a perfect formula for Christ’s sacrifice: Christ was born to embody his wound, to be crucified? The problem is with the literal teleological reading of this proposition: as if the actual deeds of a person merely actualize their atemporal-eternal fate inscribed in their virtual idea:

Caesar’s only real task is to become worthy of the events he has been created to embody. Amor fati. What Caesar actually does adds nothing to what he virtually is. When Caesar actually crosses the Rubicon this involves no deliberation or choice since it is simply part of the entire, immediate expression of Caesarness, it simply unrolls or “unfolds something that was encompassed for all times in the notion of Caesar.”[313]

But what about the retroactivity of a gesture which (re)constitutes this past itself? This, perhaps, is the most succinct definition of what an authentic act is: in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) coordinates of our identity, while an act proper involves the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual “transcendental” coordinates of its agent’s being—or, in Freudian terms, which not only changes the actuality of our world but also “moves its underground.” We have thus a kind of reflexive “folding back of the condition on to the given it was the condition for”:[314] while the pure past is the transcendental condition for our acts, our acts not only create new actual reality, they also retroactively change this very condition.

This brings us to the Deleuzian notion of the sign: actual expressions are signs of a virtual Idea which is not an ideal but, rather, a problem. Common sense tells us that there are true and false solutions to every problem; for Deleuze, on the contrary, there are no definitive solutions to problems, solutions are just repeated attempts to deal with the problem, with its impossible-real. Problems themselves, not solutions, are true or false. Each solution not only reacts to “its” problem, but retroactively redefines it, formulating it from within its own specific horizon. Which is why the problem is universal and the solutions or answers are particular. Deleuze is here unexpectedly close to Hegel: for Hegel, the Idea of the State, say, is a problem, and each specific form of the state (Ancient republic, feudal monarchy, modern democracy …) simply proposes a solution, redefining the problem itself. The passage to the next “higher” stage of the dialectical process occurs precisely when, instead of continuing to search for a solution, we problematize the problem itself, abandoning its terms—when, for example, instead of continuing to search for a “true” State, we drop the very reference to the State and look for a communal existence beyond the State. A problem is thus not only “subjective,” not just epistemological, a problem for the subject who tries to solve it; it is stricto sensu ontological, inscribed into the thing itself: the structure of reality is “problematic.” That is to say, actual reality can only be grasped as a series of answers to a virtual problem—in Deleuze’s reading of biology, for instance, the development of the eye as an organ must be grasped as a solution to the problem of how to deal with light. And this brings us back to the sign—actual reality appears as a “sign” when it is perceived as an answer to virtual problem: “Neither the problem nor the question is a subjective determination marking a moment of insufficiency in knowledge. Problematic structure is part of objects themselves, allowing them to be grasped as signs.”[315]

This explains the strange way in which Deleuze opposes signs and representations: for common sense, a mental representation directly reproduces the way a thing is, while a sign just points towards it, designating it with a (more or less) arbitrary signifier. (In a representation of a table, I “see directly” a table, while its sign just points towards the table.) For Deleuze, on the contrary, representations are mediate, while signs are direct, and the task of a creative thought is that of “making movement itself a work, without interpositions; of substituting direct signs for mediate representations.”[316] Representations are figures of objects as objective entities deprived of their virtual support or background, and we pass from representation to sign when we are able to discern in an object that which points towards its virtual ground, towards the problem with regard to which it is an answer. To put it succinctly, every answer is a sign of its problem. This brings us to Deleuze’s notion of the “blind seer”: blind to actual reality, sensible only to the virtual dimension of things. Deleuze resorts to a wonderful metaphor of a spider deprived of eyes and ears but infinitely sensitive to whatever resonates through its virtual web. As Hallward paraphrases it:

Actual or constituted forms slip through the web and make no impression, for the web is designed to vibrate only on contact with virtual or intensive forms. The more fleeting or molecular the movement, the more intense its resonance through the web. The web responds to the movements of a pure multiplicity before it has taken on any definite shape.[317]

This brings us to the central problem of Deleuze’s ontology: how are the virtual and the actual related? “Actual things express Ideas but are not caused by them.”[318] The notion of causality is limited to the interaction of actual things and processes; on the other hand, this interaction also causes virtual entities (sense, Ideas): Deleuze is not an idealist, Sense is for him always an ineffective, sterile shadow accompanying actual things. What this means is that, for Deleuze, (transcendental) genesis and causality are totally opposed: they move at different levels:

Actual things have an identity, but virtual ones do not, they are pure variations. An actual thing must change—become something different—in order to express something. Whereas, the expressed virtual thing does not change—only its relation to other virtual things, other intensities and Ideas changes.[319]

How does this relation change? Only through the changes in actual things which express Ideas, since the entire generative power lies in actual things: Ideas belong to the domain of Sense which is “only a vapor which plays at the limit of things and words”; as such, Sense is “the Ineffectual, a sterile incorporeal deprived of its generative power.”[320] Think of a group of dedicated individuals fighting for the Idea of communism: in order to grasp their activity, we have to take into account the virtual Idea. But this Idea is in itself sterile, it has no proper causality: all causality lies in the individuals who “express” it.

The lesson to be drawn from the basic paradox of Protestantism (how is it possible that a religion which taught predestination sustained capitalism, the greatest explosion of human activity and freedom in history) is that freedom is neither grasped necessity (the vulgata from Spinoza to Hegel and traditional Marxists) nor overlooked (ignored) necessity (the thesis of the cognitive and brain sciences: freedom is the “user’s illusion” of our consciousness, which is unaware of the bio-neuronal processes that determine it), but a Necessity which is presupposed and/as unknown/unknowable. We know that everything is predetermined, but we do not know what our predetermined destiny is, and it is this uncertainty which drives our incessant activity. Freud’s infamous statement “anatomy is destiny” should also be read along these lines, as a Hegelian speculative judgment in which the predicate “passes over” into the subject. That is to say, its true meaning is not the obvious one, the standard target of feminist critique (“the anatomical difference between the sexes directly determines the different socio-symbolic roles of men and women”), but rather the opposite: the “truth” of anatomy is “destiny,” in other words a symbolic formation. In the case of sexual identity, an anatomic difference is “sublated,” turned into the medium of appearance/expression—more precisely, into the material support—of a certain symbolic formation.

This is how one should differentiate historicity proper from organic evolution. In the latter, a universal Principle is slowly and gradually differentiating itself; as such, it remains the calm, underlying, all-encompassing ground that unifies the bustling activity of struggling individuals, the endless process of generation and corruption that is the “cycle of life.” In history proper, on the contrary, the universal Principle is caught in an “infinite” struggle with itself; that is, the struggle is each time a struggle for the fate of the universality itself. In organic life, particular moments are in struggle with one another, and through this struggle the Universal reproduces itself; in Spirit, the Universal is in struggle with itself.

This is why the eminently “historical” moments are those marked by great collisions in which a whole form of life is threatened, when the established social and cultural norms no longer guarantee a minimum of stability and cohesion; in such open situations, a new form of life has to be invented, and it is at this point that Hegel locates the role of great heroes. They operate in a pre-legal, stateless zone: their violence is not bound by the usual moral rules, they enforce a new order with the subterranean vitality which shatters all established forms. According to the usual doxa on Hegel, heroes follow their instinctual passions, their true motifs and goals are not clear to themselves, they are the unconscious instruments of a deeper historical necessity giving birth to a new spiritual life form. However, as Lebrun points out, here one should not impute to Hegel the standard teleological notion of a hidden hand of Reason pulling the strings of the historical process, following a plan established in advance and using the passions of individuals as instruments for its implementation. First, since the meaning of their acts is a priori inaccessible to the individuals who accomplish them, heroes included, there is no “science of politics” able to predict the course of events: “nobody ever has the right to declare himself a depositary of the Spirit’s self-knowledge,”[321] and this impossibility “spares Hegel the fanaticism of ‘objective responsibility’”[322]—in other words, there is no place in Hegel for the Marxist-Stalinist figure of the communist revolutionary who understands the historical necessity and posits himself as the instrument of its implementation. However, it is crucial to add a further twist here: if we merely assert this impossibility, we are still “conceiving the Absolute as Substance, not as Subject”—we are still surmising that there is some pre-existing Spirit imposing its substantial Necessity on history, while accepting that knowledge of this Necessity is denied us. To be consistently Hegelian, however, we must take a crucial step further and insist that historical Necessity does not pre-exist the contingent process of its actualization, that is, that the historical process is also in itself “open,” undecided—this confused mixture “generates sense insofar as it unravels itself”:

It is people, and they only, who make history, while Spirit explicates itself through this making … The point is not, as in a naïve theodicy, to find a justification for every event. In actual time, no heavenly harmony resonates in the sound and fury. It is only once this tumult recollects itself in the past, once what took place is conceived, that we can say, to put it briefly, that the “course of History” is a little bit better outlined. History runs forward only for those who look at it backwards; it is linear progression only in retrospect … Hegelian “providential necessity” has so little authority that it seems as if it learns from the run of things in the world which were its goals.[323]

This is how one should read Hegel’s thesis that, in the course of the dialectical development, things “become what they are”: it is not that a temporal deployment merely actualizes some pre-existing atemporal conceptual structure—this atemporal conceptual structure is itself the result of contingent temporal decisions. Let us take an exemplary case of a contingent decision whose outcome defined the agent’s entire life—Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon:

It is not enough to say that crossing the Rubicon is part of the complete notion of Caesar. One should rather say that Caesar is defined by the fact that he crossed the Rubicon. His life didn’t follow a scenario written in the book of some goddess: there is no book which would already have contained the relations of Caesar’s life, for the simple reason that his life itself is this book, and that, at every moment, an event is in itself its own narrative.[324]

But why should we not then say that there is simply no atemporal conceptual structure, that all there is is a gradual temporal deployment? Here we encounter the properly dialectical paradox which defines true historicity as opposed to evolutionist historicism, and which was much later, in French structuralism, formulated as the “primacy of synchrony over diachrony.” Usually, this primacy was taken to mean the ultimate denial of historicity in structuralism: a historical development can be reduced to the (imperfect) temporal deployment of a pre-existing atemporal matrix of all possible variations/combinations. This simplistic notion of the “primacy of synchrony over diachrony” overlooks the properly dialectical point, made long ago by, among others, T. S. Eliot (see the long quote above) with regard to how each truly new artistic phenomenon not only designates a break with the entire past, but retroactively changes this past itself. At every historical conjuncture, the present is not only present, it also encompasses a perspective on the past immanent to it—after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, say, the October Revolution is no longer the same historical event: it is (from the triumphant liberal-capitalist view) no longer the beginning of a new progressive epoch in the history of humanity, but the beginning of a catastrophic swerving off-course of history which reached its end in 1991.

This is the ultimate lesson of Hegel’s anti-“mobilism”: dialectics has nothing whatsoever to do with the historicist justification of a particular politics or practice at a certain stage of historical development, a justification which may then be lost at a later “higher” stage. Reacting to the revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Brecht noted how the same political agent who had earlier played an important role in the revolutionary process (Stalin) had now become an obstacle to it, and praised this as a proper “dialectical” insight—but one should thoroughly reject this logic. In the dialectical analysis of history, on the contrary, each new “stage” “rewrites the past” and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one.


Back to Caesar: once he crossed the Rubicon, his previous life appeared in a new way, as a preparation for his later world-historical role; that is, it was transformed into part of a totally different life story. This is what Hegel calls “totality” or what structuralism calls “synchronic structure”: a historical moment which is not limited to the present but includes its own past and future, in other words, the way the past and the future appeared to and from this moment. The main implication of conceiving the symbolic order as such a totality is that, far from reducing it to a kind of transcendental a priori (a formal network, given in advance, which limits the scope of human practice), one should follow Lacan and focus on how the gestures of symbolization are entwined with and embedded in the process of collective practice. What Lacan elaborates as the “twofold moment” of the symbolic function reaches far beyond the standard theory of the performative dimension of speech, as developed in the tradition from J. L. Austin to John Searle:

The symbolic function presents itself as a twofold movement in the subject: man makes his own action into an object, but only to return its foundational place to it in due time. In this equivocation, operating at every instant, lies the whole progress of a function in which action and knowledge alternate.[325]

The historical example evoked by Lacan to clarify this “twofold movement” is indicative in its hidden references: “in phase one, a man who works at the level of production in our society considers himself to belong to the ranks of the proletariat; in phase two, in the name of belonging to it, he joins in a general strike.”[326] Lacan’s (implicit) reference here is to Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, a classic Marxist work from 1923 whose widely acclaimed French translation was published in the mid-1950s. For Lukács, consciousness is opposed to mere knowledge of an object: knowledge is external to the known object, while consciousness is in itself “practical,” an act which changes its very object. (Once a worker “considers himself to belong to the ranks of the proletariat,” this changes his very reality: he acts differently.) One does something, one counts oneself as (declares oneself) the one who did it, and, on the base of this declaration, one does something new—the proper moment of subjective transformation occurs at the moment of declaration, not at the moment of the act. This reflexive moment of declaration means that every utterance not only transmits some content, but also, simultaneously, determines how the subject relates to this content. Even the most down-to-earth objects and activities always contain such a declarative dimension, which constitutes the ideology of everyday life.

However, Lukács remains all too idealist when he proposes simply replacing the Hegelian Spirit with the proletariat as the Subject-Object of History: Lukács is here not really Hegelian, but a pre-Hegelian idealist.[327] One is even tempted to talk here of Marx’s “idealist reversal of Hegel”: in contrast to Hegel, who was well aware that the owl of Minerva takes wing only at dusk, after the fact—that Thought follows Being (which is why, for Hegel, there can be no scientific insight into the future of society)—Marx reasserts the primacy of Thought: the owl of Minerva (German contemplative philosophy) should be replaced by the singing of the Gaelic rooster (French revolutionary thought) announcing the proletarian revolution—in the proletarian revolutionary act, Thought will precede Being. Marx thus sees in Hegel’s motif of the owl of Minerva an indication of the secret positivism of Hegel’s idealist speculation: Hegel leaves reality the way it is.

The Hegelian reply is that the delay of consciousness does not imply a naïve objectivism which claims that consciousness is caught in a transcendent objective process. A Hegelian accepts Lukács’s notion of consciousness as opposed to mere knowledge of an object; what is inaccessible to consciousness is the impact of the subject’s act itself, its own inscription into objectivity. Of course thought is immanent to reality and changes it, but not as fully self-transparent self-consciousness, not as an Act aware of its own impact. Marx himself nonetheless comes close to this paradox of non-teleological retroactivity when, in his Grundrisse manuscripts, apropos the notion of labor, he pointed out how

even the most abstract categories, despite their validity—precisely because of their abstractness—for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known.[328]

In short, to paraphrase Pierre Bayard, what Marx is saying here is that the anatomy of the ape, although it was formed earlier in time than the anatomy of man, nonetheless in a certain way plagiarizes by anticipation the anatomy of man. The question, however, remains: does Hegel’s thought harbor such an openness towards the future, or does the closure of his System a priori preclude it? In spite of misleading appearances, we should answer yes, Hegel’s thought is open towards the future, but precisely on account of its closure. That is to say, Hegel’s opening towards the future is a negative: it is articulated in his negative/limiting statements like the famous “one cannot jump ahead of one’s time” from his Philosophy of Right. The impossibility of directly borrowing from the future is grounded in the very fact of retroactivity which makes the future a priori unpredictable: we cannot climb onto our own shoulders and see ourselves “objectively,” in terms of the way we fit into the texture of history, because this texture is again and again retroactively rearranged. In theology, Karl Barth extended this unpredictability to the Last Judgment itself, emphasizing how the final revelation of God will be totally incommensurable with our expectations:

God is not hidden to us; He is revealed. But what and how we shall be in Christ, and what and how the World will be in Christ at the end of God’s road, at the breaking in of redemption and completion, that is not revealed to us; that is hidden. Let us be honest: we do not know what we are saying when we speak of Jesus Christ’s coming again in judgment, and of the resurrection of the dead, of eternal life and eternal death. That with all these there will be bound up a piercing revelation—a seeing, compared to which all our present vision will have been blindness—is too often testified in Scripture for us to feel we ought to prepare ourselves for it. For we do not know what will be revealed when the last covering is removed from our eyes, from all eyes: how we shall behold one another and what we shall be to one another—men of today and men of past centuries and millennia, ancestors and descendants, husbands and wives, wise and foolish, oppressors and oppressed, traitors and betrayed, murderers and murdered, West and East, Germans and others, Christians, Jews, and heathen, orthodox and heretics, Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Reformed; upon what divisions and unions, what confrontations and cross-connections the seals of all books will be opened; how much will seem small and unimportant to us then, how much will only then appear great and important; for what surprises of all kinds we must prepare ourselves.

We also do not know what Nature, as the cosmos in which we have lived and still live here and now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then.[329]

With this insight, it becomes clear how false, how “all too human,” is the fear that the guilty will not be properly punished—here, especially, we must abandon our expectations: “Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty!”[330] And the same uncertainty holds for the Church itself—it possesses no superior knowledge, it is like a postman who delivers the mail with no idea what it says: “The Church can only deliver it the way a postman delivers his mail; the Church is not asked what it thinks it is thereby starting, or what it makes of the message. The less it makes of it and the less it leaves on it its own fingerprints, the more it simply hands it on as it has received it—and so much the better.”[331] There is only one unconditional certainty in all this—the certainty of Jesus Christ as our savior, which is a “rigid designator” remaining the same in all possible worlds:

We know just one thing: that Jesus Christ is the same also in eternity, and that His grace is whole and complete, enduring through time into eternity, into the new world of God which will exist and be recognized in a totally different way, that it is unconditional and hence is certainly tied to no purgatories, tutoring sessions, or reformatories in the hereafter.[332]

No wonder Hegel formulated this same limitation apropos politics: especially as communists, we should abstain from any positive imagination of the future communist society. We are, of course, borrowing from the future, but how we are doing so will only become readable once the future is here, so we should not put too much hope in the desperate search for the “germs of communism” in today’s society.

Is the ultimate consequence of our awareness of the “retroversive effect” thus a negative one? Should we limit, reject even, ambitious social actions, since they always, for structural reasons, lead to unintended (and as such potentially catastrophic) results? A further distinction has to be drawn here: between the “openness” of the ongoing symbolic activity which is caught up in the “retroversive effect,” with the meaning of each of its elements decided retroactively, and the act in a much stronger sense of the term. In the first case, the unintended consequences of our acts are simply due to the big Other, the complex symbolic network which overdetermines (and thus displaces) their meaning. In the second case, the unintended consequences emerge from the very failure of the big Other, that is, from the way our act not only relies on the big Other, but radically challenges and transforms it. The awareness that the power of a proper act is to retroactively create its own conditions of possibility should not make us afraid to embrace what, prior to the act, appears as impossible: only in this way does our act touch the Real. Replying to Judith Butler’s reproach that it is not clear to what moral or political end his effort at exploring and problematizing liberal notions of freedom and justice is directed, Talal Asad offers a wonderful Hegelian answer:

there can be no abstract answer to this question because it is precisely the implications of things said and done in different circumstances that one tries to understand … one should be prepared for the fact that what one aims at in one’s thinking may be less significant than where one ends up … in the process of thinking one should be open to ending up in unanticipated places—whether these produce satisfaction or desire, discomfort or horror.[333]

We are free only against the background of this non-transparency: if it were possible for us to fully predict the consequences of our acts, our freedom would effectively be only “known necessity” in the pseudo-Hegelian way, for it would consist in freely choosing and wanting what we know to be necessary. In this sense, freedom and necessity would fully coincide: I act freely when I knowingly follow my inner necessity, the instigations that I find in myself as my true substantial nature. But if this is the case, we are stepping back from Hegel to Aristotle, for we are no longer dealing with the Hegelian subject who produces (“posits”) its own content, but with an agent bent on actualizing its immanent potentials, its positive “essential forces,” as the young Marx put it in his deeply Aristotelian critique of Hegel. What gets lost here is the dialectics of the constitutive retroactivity of sense, of the continuous retroactive (re)totalization of our experience.

Such openness for radical contingency is difficult to maintain—even a rationalist like Habermas was not able to do so. His late interest in religion breaks with the traditional liberal concern for the humanist, spiritual, etc., content hidden in the religious form; what interests him is this form itself: in particular, among those who really fundamentally believe and are ready to put their lives at stake for their beliefs, displaying the raw energy and unconditional commitment missing from the anemic sceptical-liberal stance—as if the influx of such unconditional engagement could revitalize the post-political dessication of democracy. Habermas is reacting here to the same problem as Chantal Mouffe does with her “agonistic pluralism”—namely, how to reintroduce passion into politics. Is he not, however, thereby engaged in a kind of ideological vampirism, sucking the energy from naïve believers without being ready to abandon his own basic secular-liberal stance, so that full religious belief retains a kind of fascinating and mysterious Otherness? As Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such an opposition of formal Enlightenment and fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, an untenable ideologico-existential position. What should be done is to fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments, which is precisely what apocalyptic “Christian materialism” can do: it brings together the rejection of divine Otherness and the unconditional commitment.

It is, however, at this very point—after fully conceding Hegel’s radical break with traditional metaphysical theodicy, and fully admitting Hegel’s openness towards the yet-to-come—that Lebrun makes his critical move. Lebrun’s fundamental Nietzschean strategy is, first, to admit the radical nature of Hegel’s undermining of traditional metaphysics, but then, in a crucial second step, to demonstrate how this radical sacrifice of metaphysical content saves the minimal form of metaphysics. The accusations concerning Hegel’s theodicy, of course, fall short: there is no substantial God who writes the script of History in advance and watches over its realization; the situation is open, truth emerges only through the very process of its deployment, and so on and so forth—but what Hegel nonetheless maintains is the much deeper presupposition that, as dusk falls over the events of the day, the owl of Minerva will take wing, that there always is a story to be told at the end, a story which (“retroactively” and “contingently” as much as one wants) reconstitutes the Sense of the preceding process. Likewise, with regard to domination, Hegel is of course against every form of despotic domination, so the critique of his thought as a divinization of the Prussian monarchy is ridiculous; however, his assertion of subjective freedom comes with a catch: it is the freedom of the subject who undergoes a violent “transubstantiation” from the individual stuck on his particularity to the universal subject who recognizes in the State the substance of his own being. The mirror-obverse of this mortification of individuality as the price to be paid for the rise of the “truly” free universal subject is that the State’s power retains its full authority—all that changes is that this authority (as in the entire tradition from Plato onwards) loses its tyrannical-contingent character and becomes a rationally justified power.

The question is thus whether or not Hegel is effectively pursuing a desperate strategy of sacrificing everything, all metaphysical content, in order to save the essential, the form itself (the form of a retrospective rational reconstruction, the form of authority which imposes on the subject the sacrifice of all particular content, etc.). Or is it rather that Lebrun himself, in making this type of reproach, enacts the fetishistic strategy of je sais bien, mais quand meme …—“I know very well that Hegel goes to the end in destroying metaphysical presuppositions, but nonetheless …”? The answer to this kind of reproach takes the form of a pure tautology which marks the passage from contingency to necessity: there is a story to be told if there is a story to be told. That is to say, if, due to contingency, a story emerges at the end, then this story will appear as necessary. Yes, the story is necessary, but its necessity is itself contingent.

Nevertheless, is there not a grain of truth in Lebrun’s critical point? Does Hegel not effectively presuppose that, contingent and open as history may be, a consistent story can always be told after the event? Or, to put it in Lacan’s terms, is not the entire edifice of Hegelian historiography based on the premise that, no matter how confused the events themselves, a subject supposed to know will emerge at the end, magically converting nonsense into sense, chaos into a new order? Recall simply his philosophy of history with its narrative of world history as the story of the progress of freedom … And is it not true that, if there is a lesson to be learned from the twentieth century, it is that all the extreme phenomena that occurred in it can never be unified in a single encompassing philosophical narrative? One simply cannot write a “phenomenology of the Spirit of the twentieth century,” uniting technological progress, the rise of democracy, the failed communist experiment, the horrors of fascism, the gradual end of colonialism … But why not? Is this really the case? What if one can and should write precisely such a Hegelian history of the twentieth century, this “age of extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm), as a global narrative delimited by two epochal constellations, with its starting point in the (relatively) long peaceful period of capitalist expansion from 1848 till 1914, whose subterranean antagonisms then exploded with the First World War, and its conclusion in the ongoing global-capitalist “New World Order” which emerged after 1990, as a return to a new all-encompassing system signaling a kind of Hegelian “end of history,” but whose antagonisms already announce new explosions? Are the great reversals and unexpected explosions of the topsy-turvy twentieth century, its numerous “coincidences of the opposites”—the reversal of liberal capitalism into fascism, the even more weird reversal of the October Revolution into the Stalinist nightmare—not the very privileged stuff which seems to call for a Hegelian reading? What would Hegel have made of today’s struggle of liberalism against fundamentalist faith? One thing is sure: he would not have simply taken the side of liberalism, but would have insisted on the “mediation” of the opposites.[334]


Convincing as it may appear, Lebrun’s critical diagnosis of the Hegelian wager that there is always a story to tell nonetheless once again falls short: Lebrun misses an additional twist which complicates the image of Hegel. Yes, Hegel sublates time in eternity—but this sublation itself has to appear as (hinges on) a contingent temporal event. Yes, Hegel sublates contingency in a universal rational order—but this order itself hinges on a contingent excess (the State as a rational totality, say, can only actualize itself through the “irrational” figure of the king at its head). Yes, struggle is sublated in the peace of the reconciliation (mutual annihilation) of the opposites, but this reconciliation itself has to appear as its opposite, as an act of extreme violence. So Lebrun is right in emphasizing that Hegel’s topic of the dialectical struggle of the opposites is as far as possible from an engaged attitude of “taking sides”: for Hegel, the “truth” of the struggle is always, with an inexorable necessity, the mutual destruction of the opposites—the “truth” of a phenomenon always resides in its self-annihilation, in the destruction of its immediate being. But Lebrun here nonetheless misses the paradox proper: not only did Hegel have no problem taking sides (with an often very violent partiality) in the political debates of his time, his entire mode of thinking is deeply “polemical”—always intervening, attacking, taking sides, and, as such, a long way from the detached position of Wisdom observing the ongoing struggle from a neutral distance, aware of its nullity sub specie aeternitatis. For Hegel, the true (“concrete”) universality is accessible only from an engaged “partial” standpoint.

The Hegelian relationship between necessity and freedom is usually read in terms of their ultimate coincidence: true freedom has nothing to do with capricious choice; it means the priority of self-relating to relating-to-other; in other words, an entity is free when it can deploy its immanent potential without being impeded by any external obstacle. From here, it is easy to develop the standard argument against Hegel: his system is a fully “saturated” set of categories, with no place for contingency and indeterminacy, for in Hegel’s logic, each category follows with an inexorable immanent-logical necessity from the preceding one, with the entire series of categories forming a self-enclosed Whole. We can see now what this argument misses: the Hegelian dialectical process is not this “saturated”, self-contained, necessary Whole, but the open and contingent process through which such a Whole forms itself. In other words, the reproach confuses being with becoming: it perceives as a fixed order of Being (the network of categories) what is for Hegel the process of Becoming which, retroactively, engenders its necessity.

The same point can also be made in terms of the distinction between potentiality and virtuality. Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. He relies here on Badiou, who also pointed out how Cantor’s great materialist breakthrough concerns the status of infinite numbers (and it was precisely because this breakthrough was materialist that it caused so much psychic trauma for Cantor, a devout Catholic): prior to Cantor, the Infinite was linked to the One, the conceptual form of God in religion and metaphysics; after Cantor, the Infinite enters the domain of the Multiple—it implies the actual existence of infinite multiplicities, as well as an infinite number of different infinities.[335] Does, then, the choice between materialism and idealism concern the most basic scheme of the relationship between multiplicity and the One in the order of the signifier? Is the primordial fact that of the multiplicity of signifiers, which is then totalized through the subtraction of the One; or is the primordial fact that of the “barred One”—more precisely, that of the tension between the One and its empty place, of the “primordial repression” of the binary signifier, so that multiplicity emerges to fill in this emptiness, the lack of the binary signifier? Although it may appear that the first version is materialist and the second idealist, one should resist this easy temptation: from a truly materialist position, multiplicity is only possible against the background of the Void—it is only this which makes the multiplicity non-All. The (Deleuzian) “genesis” of the One out of primordial multiplicity, this prototype of “materialist” explanation of how the totalizing One arises, should therefore be rejected: no wonder that Deleuze is simultaneously the philosopher of the (vitalist) One.

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. In psychoanalytical terms, this is the gap between desire and drive, and here also, one should resist the temptation to give priority to one term and reduce the other to its structural effect. That is to say, one can conceive the rotary motion of the drive as a way to avoid the deadlock of desire: the primordial lack/impossibility, the fact that the object of desire is always missed, is converted into a profit when the aim of libido is no longer to reach its object, but to repeatedly turn around it—satisfaction is generated by the very repeated failure of direct satisfaction. And one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp. In philosophical terms, this couple echoes (not the couple of Spinoza and Hegel, but) the couple of Spinoza and Kant: the Spinozan drive (not grounded in a lack) versus Kantian desire (to reach the noumenal Thing).

But does Hegel really begin with contingent multiplicity? Does he not rather offer a “third way,” through the point of non-decision between desire and drive? Does he not actually begin with Being, and then deduce the multiplicity of existents (beings-there), which emerges as the result of the first triad (or, rather, quadruple) being-nothing-becoming-existent? Here, one should bear in mind the key fact that, when he writes about the passage from Being to Nothingness, Hegel resorts to the past tense: Being does not pass into Nothingness, it has always already passed into Nothingness, and so on. The first triad of the Logic is not a dialectical triad, but a retroactive evocation of a kind of shadowy virtual past, of something which never passes since it has always already passed: the actual beginning, the first entity which is “really here,” is the contingent multiplicity of beings-there (existents). To put it another way, there is no tension between Being and Nothingness which would generate the incessant passage of one into the other: in themselves, prior to dialectics proper, Being and Nothingness are directly and immediately the same, they are indiscernible; their tension (the tension between form and content) appears only retroactively, if one looks at them from the standpoint of dialectics proper.

Such an ontology of the non-All asserts a radical contingency: not only are there no laws which hold of necessity, every law is in itself contingent—it can be overturned at any moment. This amounts to a suspension of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: a suspension not only epistemological, but also ontological. That is to say, it is not only that we can never get to know the entire network of causal determinations, but this chain is in itself “inconclusive,” opening up the space for the immanent contingency of becoming—such a chaos of becoming, subjected to no pre-existing order, is what defines radical materialism. Along these lines, Meillassoux proposes a precise distinction between contingency and chance, linking it to the distinction between virtuality and potentiality:

Potentialities are the non-actualized cases of an indexed set of possibilities under the condition of a given law (whether aleatory or not). Chance is every actualization of a potentiality for which there is no univocal instance of determination on the basis of the initial given conditions. Therefore I will call contingency the property of an indexed set of cases (not of a case belonging to an indexed set) of not itself being a case of sets of cases; and virtuality the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles.[336]

A clear case of potentiality is the throw of a die through which what was already a possible case becomes a real case: it was determined by the pre-existing order of possibilities that there is a one in six chance of number six turning up, so when number six does actually turn up, a pre-existing possible is realized. Virtuality, on the contrary, designates a situation in which one cannot totalize the set of possibles, so that something new emerges, a case is realized for which there was no place in the pre-existing set of possibles: “time creates the possible at the very moment it makes it come to pass, it brings forth the possible as it does the real, it inserts itself in the very throw of the die, to bring forth a seventh case, in principle unforeseeable, which breaks the fixity of potentialities.”[337] One should note here Meillassoux’s precise formulation: the New arises when an X emerges which does not merely actualize a pre-existing possibility, but whose actualization creates (retroactively opens up) its own possibility:

If we maintain that becoming is not only capable of bringing forth cases on the basis of a pre-given universe of cases, we must then understand that it follows that such cases irrupt, properly speaking, from nothing, since no structure contains them as eternal potentialities before their emergence: we thus make irruption ex nihilo the very concept of a temporality delivered to its pure immanence.[338]

In this way, we obtain a precise definition of time in its irreducibility: time is not only the “space” of the future realization of possibilities, but the “space” of the emergence of something radically new, outside the scope of the possibilities inscribed into any atemporal matrix. This emergence of a phenomenon ex nihilo, not fully covered by the sufficient chain of reasons, is thus no longer—as in traditional metaphysics—a sign of the direct intervention of some super-natural power (God) into nature, but, on the contrary, a sign of the inexistence of God, that is, a proof that nature is not-All, not “covered” by any transcendent Order or Power which regulates it. A “miracle” (whose formal definition is the emergence of something not covered by the existing causal network) is thus converted into a materialist concept: “Every ‘miracle’ thus becomes the manifestation of the inexistence of God, insofar as every radical rupture of the present in relation to the past becomes the manifestation of the absence of any order capable of overseeing the chaotic power of becoming.”[339]

On the basis of these insights, Meillassoux brilliantly undermines the standard argument against the radical contingency of nature and its laws (in both senses: of the hold of laws and of the laws themselves), namely: if it is so radically contingent, how is it that nature is so permanent, that it (mostly) conforms to laws? Is this not highly improbable, the same improbability as that of the die always falling with six face up? This argument relies on a possible totalization of possibilities/probabilities, with regard to which the uniformity is improbable: if there is no standard, nothing is more improbable than anything else. This is also why the “astonishment” on which the Strong Anthropic Principle in cosmology counts is false: we start from human life, which could have evolved only within a set of very precise preconditions, and then, moving backwards, we cannot but be astonished at how our universe was furnished with precisely the right set of characteristics for the emergence of life—only a slightly different chemical composition, density, etc., would have made life impossible. This “astonishment” again relies on the probabilistic reasoning which presupposes a pre-existing totality of possibilities.

This is how one should read Marx’s aforementioned thesis about the anatomy of man as a key to the anatomy of ape: it is a profoundly materialist thesis in that it does not involve any teleology (which would propose that man is “in germ” already present in ape; that the ape immanently tends towards man). It is precisely because the passage from ape to man is radically contingent and unpredictable, because there is no inherent “progress” involved, that one can only retroactively determine or discern the conditions (not “sufficient reasons”) for man in the ape. And, again, it is crucial to bear in mind here that the non-All is ontological, not only epistemological: when we stumble upon “indeterminacy” in nature, when the rise of the New cannot be fully accounted for by the set of its pre-existing conditions, this does not mean that we have encountered a limitation of our knowledge, our inability to understand the “higher” reason at work here, but, on the contrary, that we have demonstrated the ability of our mind to grasp the non-All of reality:

The notion of virtuality permits us … to reverse the signs, making of every radical irruption the manifestation, not of a transcendent principle of becoming (a miracle, the sign of a Creator), but of a time that nothing subtends (an emergence, the sign of non-All). We can then grasp what is signified by the impossibility of tracing a genealogy of novelties directly to a time before their emergence: not the incapacity of reason to discern hidden potentialities, but, quite on the contrary, the capacity of reason to accede to the ineffectivity of an All of potentialities which would pre-exist their emergence. In every radical novelty, time makes manifest that it does not actualize a germ of the past, but that it brings forth a virtuality which did not pre-exist in any way, in any totality inaccessible to time, its own advent.[340]

For we Hegelians, the crucial question here is this: where does Hegel stand with regard to this distinction between potentiality and virtuality? On a first approach, there is massive evidence that Hegel is the philosopher of potentiality: is not the whole point of the dialectical process as the development from In-itself to For-itself that, in the process of becoming, things merely “become what they already are” (or were from all eternity)? Is not the dialectical process the temporal deployment of an eternal set of potentialities, which is why the Hegelian System is a self-enclosed set of necessary passages? This mirage of overwhelming evidence dissipates, however, the moment we fully take into account the radical retroactivity of the dialectical process: the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself. This is also (among other things) what “to conceive substance as subject” means: the subject as the Void, the Nothingness of self-relating negativity, is the very nihil out of which every new figure emerges; in other words, every dialectical passage or reversal is a passage in which the new figure emerges ex nihilo and retroactively posits or creates its necessity.


The stakes in this debate—is Hegel a thinker of potentiality or a thinker of virtuality?—are extremely high: they concern the (in)existence of the “big Other” itself. That is to say, the atemporal matrix which contains the scope of all possibilities is one name of the “big Other,” and another is the totalizing story we can tell after the fact, or the certainty that such a story will always emerge. Nietzsche reproaches modern atheism precisely for the fact that, in it, the “big Other” survives—true, no longer as the substantial God, but as the totalizing symbolic frame of reference. This is why Lebrun contends that Hegel is not an atheist conveniently presenting himself as a Christian, but effectively the ultimate Christian philosopher. Hegel always insisted on the deep truth of the Protestant saying “God is dead”: in his own thought, the substantial-transcendent God dies, but is resurrected as the symbolic totality which guarantees the meaningful consistency of the universe—in a strict homology with the passage from God qua substance to the Holy Spirit as the community of believers in Christianity. When Nietzsche talks about the death of God, he does not have in mind the pagan living God, but precisely this God qua Holy Spirit, the community of believers. Although this community no longer relies on a transcendent Guarantee of a substantial big Other, the big Other (and thereby the theological dimension) is still here as the symbolic frame of reference (in Stalinism, say, in the guise of the big Other of History which guarantees the meaningfulness of our acts).

But is this shift from the living gods of the real to the dead God of the Law really what happens in Christianity? Is it not that this shift already takes place in Judaism, so that the death of Christ cannot stand for this shift, but for something much more radical—precisely for the death of the symbolic-“dead” big Other itself? The key question is thus: is the Holy Spirit still a figure of the big Other, or is it possible to conceive it outside of this frame? If the dead God were to morph directly into the Holy Ghost, then we would still have the symbolic big Other. But the monstrosity of Christ, this contingent singularity interceding between God and man, is proof that the Holy Ghost is not the big Other surviving as the spirit of the community after the death of the substantial God, but a collective link of love without any support in the big Other. Therein resides the properly Hegelian paradox of the death of God: if God dies directly, as God, he survives as the virtualized big Other; only if he dies in the guise of Christ, his earthly embodiment, does he also disintegrate as the big Other.

As Christ died on the Cross, the earth shook and darkness descended, signs that the heavenly order itself—the big Other—was disturbed: not only did something horrible happen in the world, but the very coordinates of the world itself were shaken. It was as if the sinthome, the knot tying the world together, had been unraveled, and the audacity of the Christians was to take this as a good omen, or, as Mao would put it much later: “there is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.” Therein resides what Hegel calls the “monstrosity” of Christ: the insertion of Christ between God and man is strictly equivalent to the fact that “there is no big Other”—Christ is inserted as the singular contingency on which the universal necessity of the “big Other” itself hinges. In claiming that Hegel is the ultimate Christian philosopher, Lebrun is thus—to paraphrase T. S. Eliot—right for the wrong reason.

Only if we bear in mind this dimension can we really see why the Darwinian (or other evolutionary) critics of Hegel miss the point when they ridicule his claim that there is no history in nature, that there is history only in human societies: Hegel does not imply that nature is always the same, that forms of vegetal and animal life are forever fixed, so that there is no evolution in nature—what he claims is that there is no history proper in nature: “The living conserves itself, it is the beginning and the end; the product in itself is also the principle, it is always as such active.”[341] Life eternally repeats its cycle and returns to itself: substance is again and again reasserted, children become parents, and so on. The circle here is perfect, at peace with itself. It is often perturbed—from without: in nature we do of course have gradual transformations of one species into another, and we do get clashes and catastrophes which obliterate entire species; but what we do not perceive in nature is the Universal appearing (posited) as such, in contrast to its own particular content—a Universal in conflict with itself. In other words, what is missing in nature is what Hegel called the “monstrosity” of Christ: the direct embodiment of the arkhe of the entire universe (God) in a singular individual who walks around as one among the mortals. It is in this precise sense that, in order to distinguish natural from spiritual movement, Hegel uses the strange term “insertion”: in an organic process, “nothing can insert itself between the Notion and its realization, between the nature of the genus determined in itself and the existence which is conformed to this nature; in the domain of the Spirit, things are wholly different.”[342] Christ is such a figure which “inserts itself” between God and its creation. Natural development is dominated and regulated by a principle, arkhe, which remains the same throughout the movement of its actualization, be it the development of an organism from its conception to its maturity or the continuity of a species through the generation and decay of its individual members—there is no tension here between the universal principle and its exemplification, the universal principle is the calm universal force which totalizes and encompasses the wealth of its particular content; however, “life doesn’t have history because it is totalizing only externally”[343]—it is a universal genus which encompasses the multitude of individuals who struggle, but this unity is not posited in an individual. In spiritual history, on the contrary, this totalization occurs for itself, it is posited as such in the singular figures which embody universality against its own particular content.

Or, to put it another way, in organic life, substance (the universal Life) is the encompassing unity of the interplay of its subordinate moments, that which remains the same through the eternal process of generation and corruption, that which returns to itself through this movement; with subjectivity, however, predicate passes into subject: substance does not return to itself, it is re-totalized by what was originally its predicate, its subordinated moment. The key moment in a dialectical process thus involves the “transubstantiation” of its focal point: what was at first just a predicate, a subordinate moment of the process (say, money in the development of capitalism), becomes its central moment, retroactively degrading its presuppositions, the elements out of which it emerged, into its subordinate moments, elements of its self-propelling circulation.

Robert Pippin exemplifies in what sense the Hegelian Spirit is “its own result” with reference to the finale of Proust’s À la Recherche: how does Marcel finally “become what he is”? By way of breaking with the Platonic illusion that his Self can be “secured by anything, any value or reality that transcends the wholly temporal human world”:

It was … by failing to become “what a writer is,” to realize his inner “writerly essence”—as if that role must be some transcendentally important or even a definite, substantial role—that Marcel realizes that such a becoming is important by not being secured by the transcendent, by being wholly temporal and finite, always and everywhere in suspense, and yet nonetheless capable of some illumination … If Marcel has become who he is, and this somehow continuous with and a product of the experience of his own past, it is unlikely that we will be able to understand that by appeal to a substantial or underlying self, now discovered, or even by appeal to successor substantial selves, each one linked to the future and past by some sort of self-regard.[344]

It is thus only by way of fully accepting this abyssal circularity, in which the search itself creates what it is looking for, that the Spirit “finds itself.” This is why the verb “failing,” as used by Pippin, is to be given full weight: the failure to achieve the (immediate) goal is absolutely crucial to, constitutive of, this process—or, as Lacan put it: la vérité surgit de la méprise. If, then, “it is only as a result of itself that it is spirit,”[345] this means that the standard talk about the Hegelian Spirit which alienates itself to itself, then recognizes itself in its otherness and thus re-appropriates its content, is deeply misleading: the Self to which Spirit returns is produced in the very movement of this return, or, that to which the process of return is returning is produced by the very process of returning. In a subjective process, there is no “absolute subject,” no permanent central agent playing with itself the game of alienation and disalienation, losing or dispersing itself and then re-appropriating its alienated content: after a substantial totality is dispersed, it is another agent—previously its subordinated moment—which re-totalizes it. It is this shifting of the center of the process from one moment to another which distinguishes a dialectical process from the circular movement of alienation and its overcoming; it is because of this shift that the “return to itself” coincides with accomplished alienation (when a subject re-totalizes the process, its substantial unity is fully lost). In this precise sense, substance returns to itself as subject, and this trans-substantiation is what substantial life cannot accomplish.

The logic of the Hegelian triad is thus not the externalization of Essence followed by the recuperation of the alienated Otherness by Essence, but a wholly different one. The starting point is the pure multiplicity of Being, a flat appearing with no depth. Through self-mediation of its inconsistency, this appearing constructs or engenders the Essence, the depth, which appears in and through it (the passage from Being to Essence). Finally, in the passage from Essence to Concept, the two dimensions are “reconciled” so that Essence is reduced to the self-mediation, cut, within appearing itself: Essence appears as Essence within appearing, this is its entire consistency, its truth. Consequently, when Hegel talks about how the Idea “externalizes” (entäussert) itself in contingent appearances, and then re-appropriates its externality, he applies one of his many misnomers: what he is actually describing is the very opposite process, that of “internalization,” the process whereby the contingent surface of being is posited as such, as contingent-external, as “mere appearance,” by way of generating, in a self-reflective movement, (the appearance of) its own essential “depth.” In other words, the process in which Essence externalizes itself is simultaneously the process which generates this very essence: “externalization” is strictly the same as the formation of the Essence which externalizes itself. The Essence retroactively constitutes itself through its process of externalization, through its loss—this is how one should understand the much-quoted statement of Hegel that the Essence is only as deep as it is wide.

This is why the pseudo-Hegelian topic of the subject which first externalizes itself and then re-appropriates its alienated substantial Otherness is to be rejected. First, there is no pre-existing subject which alienates itself by way of positing its otherness: the subject stricto sensu emerges through this process of alienation in the Other. This is why the second move—Lacan calls it separation—in which the subject’s alienation in the Other is posited as correlative to the separation of the Other itself from its ex-timate core, this overlapping of two lacks, has nothing to do with the subject integrating or internalizing its otherness. (However, a problem remains here: Lacan’s duality of alienation and separation obviously also displays the formal structure of a kind of “negation of negation,” but how is this redoubled negation related to the Hegelian negation of negation?)

Perhaps what is missing in Lebrun is the proper image of a circle that would render the unique circularity of the dialectical process. For pages, he fights with different images to differentiate the Hegelian “circle of circles” from the circularity of traditional (premodern) Wisdom, from the ancient topic of the “cycle of life,” its generation and corruption. How, then, are we to read Hegel’s description, which seems to evoke a full circle in which a thing merely becomes what it is? “Necessity only shows itself at the end, but in such a way precisely that this end reveals how it was equally the First. Or, the end reveals this priority of itself by the fact that, in the change actualized by it, nothing emerges which was not already there.”[346] The problem with this full circle is that it is too perfect, that its self-enclosure is double—its very circularity is re-marked in yet another circular mark.

In other words, the very repetition of the circle undermines its closure and surreptitiously introduces a gap into which radical contingency is inscribed: if the circular closure, in order to be fully actual, has to be re-asserted as closure, this means that, in itself, it is not yet truly a closure—it is only (the contingent excess of) its repetition which makes it a closure. (Recall again the paradox of the monarch in Hegel’s theory of the rational State: one needs this contingent excess to actualize the State as a rational totality. This excess is, in Lacanese, that of the signifier without the signified: it adds no new content, it just performatively registers something that is already here.) As such, this circle undermines itself: it only works if we supplement it with an additional internal circle, so that we get the figure of the “inside-inverted eight” (regularly referred to by Lacan, and also invoked once by Hegel). This is the true figure of the Hegelian dialectical process, a figure missing in Lebrun’s book.

This brings us finally to Hegel’s absolutely unique position in the history of philosophy. The ultimate anti-Hegelian argument invokes the very fact of the post-Hegelian break: what even the most fanatical partisan of Hegel cannot deny is that something changed after Hegel, that a new era of thought began which can no longer be accounted for in Hegelian terms of absolute conceptual mediation; this rupture occurs in different guises, from Schelling’s assertion of the abyss of pre-logical Will (vulgarized later by Schopenhauer) and Kierkegaard’s insistence on the uniqueness of faith and subjectivity, through Marx’s assertion of the actual socio-economic life-process, and the full autonomization of the mathematicized natural sciences, up to Freud’s motif of the “death drive” as a repetition that insists beyond all dialectical mediation. Something happened here, for there is a clear break between before and after, and while one can argue that Hegel already announces this break, that he is the last idealist metaphysician and the first post-metaphysical historicist, one cannot really be a Hegelian after this break, for Hegelianism has lost its innocence forever. To act like a full Hegelian today is equivalent to writing tonal music after the Schoenbergian revolution. Hegel is the ultimate “bad guy” in this grand narrative, his work the final achievement of metaphysics. In his thought, system and history thoroughly overlap: the consequence of the equation of the Rational and the Actual is that the conceptual system is nothing but the notional structure of history, and history is nothing but the external deployment of this system.

The predominant Hegelian strategy that is emerging as a reaction to this scarecrow image of Hegel the Absolute Idealist offers a “deflated” image of Hegel freed of ontological-metaphysical commitments, reduced to a general theory of discourse, of possibilities of argumentation. This approach is best exemplified by so-called Pittsburgh Hegelians (Brandom, McDowell), and is ultimately advocated also by Robert Pippin, for whom the point of Hegel’s thesis on Spirit as the “truth” of Nature “is simply that at a certain level of complexity and organization, natural organisms come to be occupied with themselves and eventually to understand themselves in ways no longer appropriately explicable within the boundaries of nature or in any way the result of empirical observation.”[347] Consequently, the “sublation” of Nature in Spirit ultimately means that “natural beings which by virtue of their natural capacities can achieve it are spiritual: having achieved it and maintaining it is being spiritual; those which cannot are not.”[348] So, far from describing an ontological or cosmic process through which an entity called Notion externalizes itself in nature and then returns to itself from it, all Hegel tried to do was to provide “some manageable account of the nature of the categorical (if not ontological) necessity for spirit-concepts in making sense of what these [human] organisms are doing, saying, and building.”[349] This kind of avoidance of full ontological commitment, of course, brings us close to Kantian transcendentalism—which Pippin willingly concedes, conceiving Hegel’s system as a systematic exposition of all possible forms of intelligibility:

The idea is that the structure “Logic—Philosophy of nature—Philosophy of spirit” is an attempt at comprehending the possibility of all determinate intelligibility (the possibility of representational or conceptual content, of objective purport, whatever one’s most general statement of such possibility amounts to) … So for the Concept to be in or to underlie something is to claim that the thing has a principle of intelligibility, it can be rendered intelligible, given an account of, illuminated as what it truly is, where intelligibility is itself a logical notion and one inseparable from self-knowledge, knowledge of what explanatory satisfaction amounts to. I have already mentioned the similarity with Kant’s Critique—“Metaphysics of Nature”—“Metaphysics of Morals” structure, although for many reasons Hegel would certainly insist that he is not presenting Kantian-like subjective conditions of intelligibility. But the issue is still, I am suggesting, intelligibility, a rendering of accounts, and Hegel clearly believed he could provide something like the comprehensive possibility of any account-giving.[350]

The Hegelian passage from Nature to Spirit is thus not a movement in the “thing itself,” but occurs in the domain of the self-reflective movement of thinking about nature:

Nature itself, that is, does not “develop into spirit.” Thinking through accounts of nature can be said to lead one to spirit’s own standards (“for itself”) of account-giving, and therewith to the nature of normative authority in general, the central issue in our achievement of collective like-mindedness, in spirit’s own self-realization.[351]

If, then, in ontological terms, spirit naturally evolves as a capacity of natural beings, why not simply endorse materialist evolutionism? That is to say, if—to quote Pippin—“at a certain level of complexity and organization, natural organisms come to be occupied with themselves and eventually to understand themselves,” does this not mean that, precisely, in a certain sense nature itself does “develop into spirit”? What one should render problematic is precisely Pippin’s fragile balance between ontological materialism and epistemological transcendental idealism: he rejects the direct idealist ontologization of the transcendental account of intelligibility, but he also rejects the epistemological consequences of the ontological evolutionary materialism. (In other words, he does not accept that the self-reflection of knowledge should construct a kind of bridge to materialist ontology, accounting for how the normative attitude of “accounting for” itself could have emerged out of nature.)

The same ambiguity can be discerned already in Habermas: no wonder he praises Brandom, since Habermas also avoids directly approaching the “big” ontological question (“are humans really a subspecies of animals, is Darwinism true?”), the question of God or Nature, of idealism or materialism. It would be easy to prove that Habermas’s neo-Kantian avoidance of ontological commitment is in itself necessarily ambiguous: while Habermasians treat naturalism as an obscene secret not to be publicly admitted (“of course man developed from nature, of course Darwin was right …”), this obscure secret is a lie, it covers up the idealist form of their thought (the a priori normative transcendentals of communication which cannot be deduced from natural being). While Habermasians secretly think they are really materialists, the truth resides in the idealist form of their thinking.

To avoid a fatal misunderstanding: the point is not that one should take sides and opt for one consistent stance, either evolutionary materialism or speculative idealism. The point is rather that one should fully and explicitly accept the gap which manifests itself in the incompatibility of the two stances: the transcendental standpoint is in a sense irreducible, for one cannot look “objectively” at oneself and locate oneself in reality; and the task is to think this impossibility itself as an ontological fact, not only as an epistemological limitation. In other words, the task is to think this impossibility not as a limit, but as a positive fact—and this, perhaps, is what at his most radical Hegel does.

Such a “deflated” image of Hegel is not enough; the post-Hegelian break must be approached in more direct terms. True, there is a break, but in it Hegel is the “vanishing mediator” between its “before” and its “after,” between traditional metaphysics and post-metaphysical nineteenth-and twentieth-century thought. That is to say, something happens in Hegel, a breakthrough into a unique dimension of thought, which is obliterated, rendered invisible in its true dimension, by post-metaphysical thought.[352] This obliteration leaves an empty space which has to be filled in so that the continuity of the development of philosophy can be re-established. But, we may ask, filled in with what? The index of this obliteration is the absurd image of Hegel as the “absolute idealist” who “pretended to know everything,” to possess Absolute Knowledge, to read the mind of God, to deduce the whole of reality out of the self-movement of (his) Mind—an image which is an exemplary case of what Freud called Deck-Erinnerung (screen-memory), a fantasy-formation destined to cover up a traumatic truth. In this sense, the post-Hegelian turn to “concrete reality, irreducible to notional mediation,” should rather be read as a desperate posthumous revenge of metaphysics, as an attempt to reinstall metaphysics, although in the inverted form of the primacy of concrete reality.[353]

Perhaps, however, we encounter here also the limit of Hegel, although not in the Nietzschean sense deployed by Lebrun. If life is a substantial universality, is not then what inserts itself in the gap between its Notion and the Notion’s actualization, and what thereby breaks the substantial circularity of life, death? To put it bluntly: if Substance is Life, is the Subject not Death? Insofar as, for Hegel, the basic feature of pre-subjective Life is the “spurious infinity” of the eternal reproduction of the life substance through the incessant movement of the generation and corruption of its elements—that is, the “spurious infinity” of a repetition without progress—the ultimate irony we encounter here is that Freud, who called this excess of death over life the “death drive,” conceived it precisely as repetition, as a compulsion to repeat. Can Hegel think this weird repetition which is not progress, but also not the natural repetition through which substantial life reproduces itself? A repetition which, by its excessive insistence, breaks precisely with the cycle of natural repetition?

INTERLUDE 1. Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx

The big political shift in Hegel’s development occurred when he abandoned his early fascination with the Romantic vision of the non-alienated society of Ancient Greece as a beautiful organic community of love (as opposed to the modern society of the Understanding, with its mechanical interaction between autonomous egotistical individuals). With this shift, Hegel began to appreciate the very thing that had previously repelled him: the “prosaic,” non-heroic character of modern societies with their complex division of professional and administrative labor, in which “no one simply could be heroically responsible for much of anything (and so could not be beautiful in action).”[354] Hegel’s full endorsement of the prose of modern life, his ruthless dismissal of all longing for the heroic old times, is the (often neglected) historical root of his thesis about the “end of art”: art is no longer an adequate medium for expressing such a “prosaic” disenchanted reality, reality deprived of all mystery and transcendence.[355]

The young Hegel, especially in his System der Sittlichkeit, was still fascinated by the Greek polis as the organic unity of individual and society: here, social substance does not yet stand opposed to individuals as a cold, abstract, objective legality imposed from outside, but appears as the living unity of “customs,” of a collective ethical life in which individuals are “at home,” recognizing it as their own substance. From this perspective, cold universal legality is a regression from the organic unity of customs—the regression from Greece to the Roman empire. Although Hegel soon accepted that the subjective freedom of modernity has to be accepted, that the organic unity of the polis was forever lost, he nonetheless insisted on the need for some kind of return to a renewed unity, to a new polis that would offer individuals a deeper sense of social solidarity and organic unity beyond the “mechanistic” interaction and individualist competition of civil society.

Hegel’s crucial step towards maturity occurs when he really “abandons the paradigm of the polis” by reconceptualizing the role of civil society.[356] First, civil society is for Hegel the “state of Understanding,” the state reduced to the police-apparatus regulating the chaotic interaction of individuals each of whom pursues his egotistic interests. This individualistic-atomistic notion of freedom and the notion of a legal order imposed on individuals as an external limitation of that freedom are strictly correlative. The need thus arises to pass from this “state of Understanding” to the true “state of Reason,” in which individuals’ subjective dispositions are harmonized with the social Whole, in which individuals recognize the social substance as their own. The key move occurs when Hegel fully develops the mediating role of civil society: the “system of multilateral dependence” whose ultimate modern form is the market economy—in which particular and universal are separated and opposed, in which every individual pursues only his private goals, in which organic social unity decomposes into external mechanical interaction—is in itself already the reconciliation of the particular and the universal in the guise of the famous “invisible hand” of the market, on account of which, by pursuing his private interests at the expense of others, every individual contributes to the welfare of all. It is thus not simply that one has to “overcome” the mechanical or external interaction of civil society in a higher organic unity: civil society and its disintegration plays a crucial mediating role, so that the true reconciliation (which does not abolish modern subjective freedom) has to recognize how this disintegration is in itself already its opposite, a force of integration. Reconciliation is thus radically immanent: it implies a shift of perspective with regard to what first appeared as disintegration. In other words, insofar as civil society is the sphere of alienation, of the separation between subjectivity persisting in its abstract individuality and an objective social order opposing it as an external necessity limiting its freedom, the resources for reconciliation should be found in this very sphere (in what appears, “at first sight, as the least spiritual, as the most alienating: the system of needs”[357]), not in the passage to another “higher” sphere. The structure here is that of the Rabinovitch joke: Rabinovitch wants to emigrate from the Soviet Union for two reasons: “First, I fear that, if the socialist order disintegrates, all the blame for the communist crimes will be put on us, the Jews.” To the state bureaucrat’s objection: “But nothing will ever change in the Soviet Union! Socialism is here to stay forever!” Rabinovitch calmly answers: “This is my second reason.” The true (second) reason can be enunciated only insofar as it is produced as a reaction to the bureaucrat’s rejection of the first reason. The civil society version is: “There are two reasons modern society is reconciled with itself. The first is the interaction within civil society …” “But civil-society interaction is a matter of constant strife, the very mechanism of disintegration, of ruthless competition!” “Well, this is the second reason, since this very strife and competition makes individuals thoroughly interdependent and thus creates the ultimate social link …”

The whole perspective thus changes: it is no longer that the organic Sittlichkeit of the polis disintegrates under the corrosive influence of modern abstract individuality in its multiple modes (the market economy, Protestantism, etc.), and that this unity should somehow be restored at a higher level: the point of Hegel’s analyses of antiquity, best exemplified by his repeated readings of Antigone, is that the Greek polis itself was already marked, cut through, by fatal immanent antagonisms (public-private, masculine-feminine, human-divine, free men-slaves, etc.) which belie its organic unity. Abstract universal individualism (Christianity), far from causing the disintegration of the Greek organic unity, was, on the contrary, the necessary first step towards true reconciliation. Likewise the market, far from being simply a corrosive force, provides the mediating process which forms the basis of a true reconciliation between the universal and the singular. Market competition really brings people together, while organic order divides them. The best indication of this shift in the mature Hegel concerns the opposition of customs and law: for the early Hegel, the transformation of customs into institutionalized law is a regressive move from organic unity to alienation (the norm is no longer experienced as part of my substantial ethical nature, but as an external force that constrains my freedom), while for the mature Hegel, this transformation is a crucial step forward, opening up and sustaining the space of modern subjective freedom.

The problem here, of course, is whether the market dynamic really provides what it promises. Does it not in fact generate a permanent destabilization of the social body, especially by increasing class distinctions and giving rise to a “mob” deprived of the basic conditions of life? Hegel’s solution here was very pragmatic—he opted for secondary palliative measures like colonial expansion and, especially, the mediating role of estates (Stände). And his dilemma is still ours today, two hundred years later. The clearest indication of Hegel’s historical limit lies in his double use of the same term Sitten (customs, social ethical order): it stands for the immediate organic unity that has to be left behind (the Ancient Greek ideal), and for the higher organic unity which should be realized in a modern state.

It is easy to play the historicist card here and claim that Hegel was unable to grasp the capitalist dynamic proper because of the limitation of his historical experience. Jameson is right to draw attention to the fact that, “despite his familiarity with Adam Smith and emergent economic doctrine, Hegel’s conception of work and labor—I have specifically characterized it as a handicraft ideology—betrays no anticipation of the originalities of industrial production or the factory system”[358]—in short, Hegel’s analyses of work and production cannot be “transferred to the new industrial situation.”[359] There is a series of interconnected reasons for this limitation, all grounded in the constraints of Hegel’s historical experience. First, his notion of the industrial revolution involved only Adam-Smith-type manufacturing where the work process was still that of a group of individuals using tools, not yet that of the factory in which the machinery sets the rhythm and individual workers are de facto reduced to organs serving the machinery, to its appendices. Second, he could not yet imagine the way abstraction rules would develop in capitalism: when Marx describes capital’s mad self-enhancing circulation, which reaches its apogee in today’s meta-reflexive speculations on futures, it is far too simplistic to claim that the specter of this self-engendering monster pursuing its interests with no regard for human or environmental concerns is an ideological abstraction, and that, behind this abstraction, there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital’s circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this “abstraction” is not only characteristic of our (the financial speculator’s) misperception of social reality, but that it is “real” in the precise sense of determining the structure of material social processes themselves: the fate of whole swathes of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the “solipsistic” speculative dance of Capital, which pursues its goal of profitability with blessed indifference to how its movements will affect social reality. Therein lies the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than the direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: it is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective,” systemic, anonymous.

Here we encounter the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real: “reality” is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable “abstract” spectral logic of Capital that determines what goes on in social reality. This gap is tangible in the way the economic situation of a country can be considered to be good and stable by the international financial experts, even when the majority of its people are worse off than before—reality does not matter, what matters is the situation of Capital. And, again, is this not more true than ever today? Do not phenomena usually classed as features of “virtual capitalism” (future trading and similar financial speculations) point towards the reign of “real abstraction” at its purest, much more radical than in Marx’s time? In short, the highest form of ideology does not involve getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending to address directly “real people with their real problems.” Visitors to the London Stock Exchange are given a free leaflet explaining how the stock market is not about mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products—this is ideology at its purest.

Here, in the analysis of the universe of Capital, we should not only push Hegel towards Marx, Marx himself should be radicalized: it is only today, in relation to global capitalism in its “post-industrial” form, that, to put it in Hegelian terms, really existing capitalism is reaching the level of its notion. Perhaps, we should once again follow Marx’s old anti-evolutionist motto (incidentally, taken verbatim from Hegel) that the anatomy of man provides the key to the anatomy of a monkey—i.e., that, in order to describe the inherent notional structure of a social formation, we must start with its most developed form. Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use-value and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potential of this opposition is fully realized, the domain of exchange-value acquires autonomy, is transformed into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic crisis from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money—this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in ever more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis is for Marx the gap between use- and exchange-value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people. It may appear that this analysis is highly relevant today, when the tension between the virtual universe and the real is reaching almost unbearable proportions: on the one hand, we have crazy solipsistic speculations about futures, mergers, etc., following their own inherent logic; on the other hand, reality is catching up in the guise of ecological catastrophes, poverty, the collapse of social life in the Third World, and the spread of new diseases.

This is why cyber-capitalists appear as the paradigmatic capitalists today—why Bill Gates can dream of cyberspace as providing the frame for what he calls “frictionless capitalism.” What we have here is an ideological short-circuit between two versions of the gap between reality and virtuality: the gap between real production and the virtual or spectral domain of Capital, and the gap between experiential reality and the virtual reality of cyberspace. The real horror of the motto “frictionless capitalism” is that, even though actual “frictions” continue to insist, they become invisible, forced into a netherworld outside our “postmodern” and post-industrial universe; this is why the “frictionless” universe of digitalized communication, technological gadgets, etc., is constantly haunted by the notion of a global catastrophe lurking just around the corner, threatening to explode at any moment.

It seems as if the gap between my fascinating cyberspace persona and the miserable flesh which is “me” off-screen translates into the immediate experience of the gap between the Real of the speculative circulation of capital and the drab reality of the impoverished masses. However, is this recourse to a “reality” which will sooner or later catch up with the virtual game really the only way to pursue a critique of capitalism? What if the problem of capitalism is not this solipsistic dance, but precisely the opposite: that it continues to disavow its gap with “reality,” that it presents itself as serving the real needs of real people? The paradox of this virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself. Does not today’s virtual capitalist function in a homologous way—his “net value” is zero, he just operates with the surplus, borrowing from the future?

This compels us to thoroughly reformulate the standard Marxist topic of “reification” and “commodity fetishism,” insofar as the latter still relies on a notion of the fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation. Paradoxically, fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is “dematerialized,” turned into a fluid “immaterial” virtual entity; money fetishism will culminate with the passage to its electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality will disappear—electronic money is the third form, after “real” money, which directly embodies its value (in gold or silver), and paper money which, although a “mere sign” with no intrinsic value, still clings to a material existence. And it is only at this stage, when money becomes a purely virtual point of reference, that it finally assumes the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you $1000, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I still owe you $1000, the debt is inscribed somewhere in virtual digital space.

Does the same not hold also for warfare? Far from pointing towards twenty-first-century warfare, the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 was rather the last spectacular act of twentieth-century warfare. What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an “immaterial” war in which the attacks are invisible—viruses, poisons, which can be everywhere and nowhere. At the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, there are no big explosions, and yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates. We are entering a new era of paranoid warfare in which the greatest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons. It is only with this thoroughgoing “dematerialization”—when Marx’s famous thesis from The Communist Manifesto, that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air,” acquires a much more literal meaning than the one he had in mind, when our material social reality is not only dominated by the spectral or speculative movement of Capital but is itself progressively “spectralized” (the “Protean Self” replacing the old self-identical Subject, the elusive fluidity of its experiences superseding the stability of owned objects), in short, when the usual relationship between solid material objects and fluid ideas is inverted (objects are progressively dissolved in fluid experiences, while the only stable things are virtual symbolic obligations)—it is only at this point that what Derrida called the spectral aspect of capitalism is fully actualized.

This is why the key feature of contemporary capitalism is not only the hegemony, but also the (relative) autonomy of financial capital: it may seem like the banks are just engaging in speculation, shuffling numbers here and there, and nobody is exploited, since exploitation happens in “real” production. But why did we have to give billions of dollars to the banks in 2008 and 2009? Because, without a functioning banking system, the entire (capitalist) economy collapses. Banks should thus also count as privatized commons: insofar as private banks control the flow of investments and thus represent, for individual companies, the universal dimension of social capital, their profit is really a rent we pay for their role as universal mediator. This is why state or other forms of social control over banks and collective capital in general (like pension funds) are crucial in taking a first step towards the social control of commons. Apropos the reproach that such control is economically inefficient, we should recall not only those cases in which such control was very effective (this was, for example, how Malaysia avoided crisis in the late 1990s), but also the obvious fact that the 2008 financial crisis was triggered precisely by the failure of the banking system.

Let us take a closer look at Marx’s classical description of the passage from money to capital, with its explicit allusions to the Hegelian and Christian background. First, there is the simple act of market exchange in which I sell in order to buy—I sell the product I own or have made in order to buy another one which is of some use to me: “The simple circulation of commodities—selling in order to buy—is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants.”[360] What happens with the emergence of capital is not just the simple reversal of C-M-C (Commodity-Money-Commodity) into M-C-M, i.e., of investing money in some commodity in order to sell it again and thus get back to (more) money; the key effect of this reversal is the eternalization of circulation: “The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.”[361] Crucial here is the difference between the traditional miser, hoarding his treasure in secret, and the capitalist who augments his treasure by throwing it into circulation:

The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.[362]

This madness of the miser is nonetheless not something which simply disappears with the rise of “normal” capitalism, nor is it a pathological deviation. It is rather inherent to it: the miser has his moment of triumph in the economic crisis. In a crisis, it is not—as one would expect—money which loses its value, so that we have to resort to the “real” value of commodities; commodities themselves (the embodiment of “real [use] value”) become useless, because there is no one to buy them. In a crisis,

money suddenly and immediately changes from its merely nominal shape, money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes value-less, and their value vanishes in the face of their own form of value. The bourgeois, drunk with prosperity and arrogantly certain of himself, has just declared that money is a purely imaginary creation. “Commodities alone are money,” he said. But now the opposite cry resounds over the markets of the world: only money is a commodity … In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, is raised to the level of an absolute contradiction.[363]

It is crucial how, in describing this elevation of money to the status of the only true commodity (“The capitalist knows that all commodities, however scurvy they may look, or however badly they may smell, are in faith and in truth money, inwardly circumcised Jews”[364]), Marx resorts to the precise Pauline definition of Christians as “inwardly circumcised Jews”: Christians do not need actual circumcision (the abandonment of ordinary commodities with use values, dealing only with money), since they know that each of these ordinary commodities is already “inwardly circumcised,” that its true substance is money. In a certain sense, this self-engendering speculative movement of Capital can also be said to indicate a limit of the Hegelian dialectical process, and one that eludes Hegel’s grasp. It is in this sense that Lebrun mentions the “fascinating image” of Capital presented by Marx (especially in his Grundrisse): “a monstrous mixture of the good infinity and the bad infinity, the good infinity which creates its presuppositions and the conditions of its growth, the bad infinity which never ceases to surmount its crises, and which finds its limit in its own nature.”[365] Actually, it is in Capital itself that we find this Hegelian description of the circulation of capital:

in the circulation M-C-M, both the money and the commodity represent only different modes of existence of value itself, the money its general mode, and the commodity its particular, or, so to say, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form to the other without thereby becoming lost, and thus assumes an automatically active character. If now we take in turn each of the two different forms which self-expanding value successively assumes in the course of its life, we then arrive at these two propositions: Capital is money: Capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the active factor in a process, in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it at the same time changes in magnitude, differentiates itself by throwing off surplus-value from itself; the original value, in other words, expands spontaneously. For the movement, in the course of which it adds surplus-value, is its own movement, its expansion, therefore, is automatic expansion. Because it is value, it has acquired the occult quality of being able to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or, at the least, lays golden eggs.

Value, therefore, being the active factor in such a process, and assuming at one time the form of money, at another that of commodities, but through all these changes preserving itself and expanding, it requires some independent form, by means of which its identity may at any time be established. And this form it possesses only in the shape of money. It is under the form of money that value begins and ends, and begins again, every act of its own spontaneous generation.[366]

Note how Hegelian references abound here: with capitalism, value is not a mere abstract “mute” universality, a substantial link between the multiplicity of commodities; from the passive medium of exchange, it turns into the “active factor” of the entire process. Instead of just passively assuming the two different forms of its actual existence (money—commodity), it appears as the subject “endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own”: it differentiates itself from itself, positing its otherness, and then again overcomes this difference—the entire movement is its own movement. In this precise sense, “instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters … into private relations with itself”: the “truth” of its relating to its otherness is its self-relating, in its self-movement, capital retroactively “sublates” its own material conditions, changing them into subordinate moments of its own “spontaneous expansion”—in pure Hegelese, it posits its own presuppositions.

Crucial in the quoted passage is the expression “an automatically active character,” an inadequate translation of the German words used by Marx to characterize capital as “automatischem Subjekt,” an “automatic subject,” an oxymoron uniting living subjectivity and dead automatism. This is what capital is: a subject, but an automatic one, not a living one—and, again, can Hegel think this “monstrous mixture,” a process of subjective self-mediation and retroactive positing of presuppositions which, as it were, gets caught up in a substantial “spurious infinity,” a subject which itself becomes an alienated substance?

This is perhaps also the reason why Marx’s reference to Hegel’s dialectics in his “critique of political economy” is ambiguous, oscillating between taking it as a mystified expression of the logic of capital and taking it as a model for the revolutionary process of emancipation. First, there is the dialectic as the “logic of capital”: the development of the commodity-form and the passage from money to capital are clearly formulated in Hegelian terms (capital is money-substance turning into the self-mediating process of its own reproduction, etc.). Then, there is the Hegelian notion of the proletariat as “substance-less subjectivity,” the grandiose Hegelian scheme of the historical process moving from pre-class society to capitalism in a gradual separation of the subject from its objective conditions, so that the overcoming of capitalism means that the (collective) subject re-appropriates its alienated substance. Perhaps this oscillation between the two is conditioned by a third term: the precise status of the social antagonism (“class struggle”). The problem here is whether Hegel can think the class struggle, or whether Kant gets closer to it with his antinomies, which just have to be ontologized, conceived as a paradoxical feature of reality itself. But does not such an ontologization contradict Marx’s notion of class struggle as historically limited, as an antagonism to be overcome with the disappearance of capitalism? In response, one can argue that neither Marx nor Freud are really able to think antagonism: ultimately, they both reduce it to a feature of (social or psychic) reality, unable to articulate it as constitutive of reality itself, as the impossibility around which reality is constructed—the only thought able to do this comes later, originating in the differential logic of “structuralism.”

Marx’s reading of Hegel’s dialectic as an idealist formulation of the logic of capitalist domination fails to go all the way: what the Hegelian dialectical process deploys is the (mystified) expression of the mystification immanent to the circulation of capital, or, in Lacanian terms, of its “objectively-social” fantasy—to put it in somewhat naïve terms, for Marx, capital is not “really” a subject-substance which reproduces itself by way of positing its own presuppositions and so on; what this Hegelian fantasy of capital’s self-generating reproduction obliterates is workers’ exploitation, that is, how the circle of capital’s self-reproduction draws its energy from the external (or, rather, “ex-timate”) source of value, how it has to parasitize workers. So why not pass directly to a description of workers’ exploitation, why bother with fantasies which sustain the functioning of capital? It is crucial for Marx to include in his description of capital this intermediary level of “objective fantasy,” which is neither the way capitalism is actually experienced by its subjects (they are good empirical nominalists unaware of the “theological niceties”) nor the “real state of things” (workers exploited by capital). But the problem is how to think together the Hegelian circulation of capital and its de-centered cause, the labor force, that is, how to think the causality of a productive subject external to the circulation of capital without resorting to the Aristotelian positivity of workers’ productive potential? For Marx, the starting point is precisely such a positivity: the productive force of human labor; and he accepts this starting point as unsurpassable, rejecting the logic of the dialectical process which, as Hegel put it, progresses “from nothing through nothing to nothing.”

In short, capital is money which is no longer a mere substance of wealth, its universal embodiment, but value which, through its circulation, generates more value, value which mediates or posits itself, retroactively positing its own presuppositions. First, money appears as a mere means for the exchange of commodities: instead of endless bartering, we first exchange our product for the universal equivalent of all commodities, which can then be exchanged for any commodity we may need. Then, once the circulation of capital is set in motion, the relationship is inverted, the means turns into an end-in-itself, the very passage through the “material” domain of use-values (the production of commodities which satisfy individuals’ particular needs) is posited as a moment of what is substantially the self-movement of capital itself. From this moment on, the true aim is no longer the satisfaction of individuals’ needs, but simply more money, the endless repeating of the circulation as such. This arcane circular movement of self-positing is then equated with the central Christian tenet of the identity of God-the-Father and his Son, of the immaculate conception in which the single Father directly (without a female spouse) begets his only Son and thus forms what is arguably the ultimate single-parent family.

Is capital then the true Subject or Substance? Yes and no: for Marx, this self-engendering circular movement is—to put it in Freudian terms—precisely the “unconscious fantasy” of capitalism which parasitizes the proletariat as “pure substanceless subjectivity”; for this reason, capital’s speculative self-generating dance has a limit, and brings about the conditions for its own collapse. This insight allows us to solve the key interpretive problem of the passage quoted above: how are we to read its first three words, “in truth, however”? First, of course, they imply that this truth has to be asserted against some false appearance or experience: the everyday assumption that the ultimate goal of capital’s circulation is still the satisfaction of human needs, that capital is just a means to bring about this satisfaction in a more efficient way. However, this “truth” is not the reality of capitalism: in reality, capital does not engender itself, but extracts the worker’s surplus-value. There is thus a necessary third level to be added to the simple opposition of subjective experience (of capital as a means of satisfying people’s needs) and objective social reality (of exploitation): namely, the “objective deception,” the disavowed “unconscious” fantasy (of the mysterious self-generating circular movement of capital), which is the truth (although not the reality) of the capitalist process. Again, to quote Lacan, truth has the structure of fiction: the only way to formulate the truth of capital is through a reference to this fiction of its “immaculate” self-generating movement. And this insight also allows us to locate the weakness of the above-mentioned “deconstructionist” appropriation of Marx’s analysis of capitalism: although it emphasizes the endless process of deferral which characterizes this movement, as well as its fundamental inconclusiveness, its self-blockage, the “deconstructionist” retelling still describes the fantasy of capital—it describes what individuals believe, although they do not know it.

What all this means is that the urgent task is to repeat Marx’s “critique of political economy,” but without succumbing to the temptation of the multiple ideologies of “post-industrial” society. The key change concerns the status of private property: the ultimate element of power and control is no longer the last link in the chain of investment—the firm or individual who “really owns” the means of production. The ideal capitalist today functions in a wholly different way: investing borrowed money, “really owning” nothing, maybe even indebted, but nonetheless still controlling things. A corporation is owned by another corporation, which again borrows money from banks, which may ultimately manipulate money owned by ordinary people like ourselves. With Bill Gates, the notion of “private property of the means of production” becomes meaningless, at least in its standard sense.

It is easy to miss the irony here: the fact that Marx needed Hegel to formulate the logic of capital (the crucial breakthrough in Marx’s work occurred in the mid-1850s, when, after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, he started to read Hegel’s Logic again) means that what Hegel was not able to see was not some post-Hegelian reality but rather the properly Hegelian aspect of the capitalist economy. Here, paradoxically, Hegel was not idealist enough, for what he did not see was the properly speculative content of the capitalist economy, the way financial capital functions as a purely virtual notion processing “real people.” And does not exactly the same hold for modern art? Robert Pippin endorses Hegel’s thesis on the “end of art”—with a qualification: it does not refer to art as such, but only to representational art, to the art which relies on some pre-subjective substantial notion of “reality” that art should reflect, re-present in the medium of sensuous materials:

Representational art cannot adequately express the full subjectivity of experience, the wholly self-legislating, self-authorizing status of the norms that constitute such subjectivity, or, thus, cannot adequately express who we (now) are. Only philosophy can “heal” such a self-inflicted wound and allow the self-determining character of experience its adequate expression. (“Only philosophy,” that is, on Hegel’s official account. I am trying to suggest here that there is no reason a form of art, like abstraction, could not make such a point in a nondiscursive way.)[367]

This is how Pippin reads—in a consciously anachronistic way, with the benefit of the hindsight of those who live two centuries after Hegel—Hegel’s prophecy, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, that post-Romantic art will enact the “self-transcendence of art but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself”:[368] art transcends itself as representational art, it overcomes its limitation to the representational sphere. What Hegel could not grasp (insofar as his thought was, as every thought is, “his time conceived in thought”) was the notional possibility of an art that would overcome in itself, as art, the medium of representation, and thus function as an art adequate to the total reflexivization (subjective mediation) of life conceptualized in his absolute Idealism.[369]

The interest of Pippin’s gesture resides in the fact that he rejects the standard story which goes something like this: with Hegel, Western metaphysics reached its apogee in the figure of Absolute Knowing, the actual infinity of the total conceptual mediation of all reality—nothing can any longer resist the power of notional conceiving; God himself is, as Hegel put it with an implicit but all the more unsurpassable acerbic irony, “an interesting representation” (meaning: a mere representation, Vorstellung, whose truth is its notional content). However, post-Hegelian philosophy, in all its versions, is a reaction against this totality of absolute notional self-mediation, against this all-powerful Spirit which swallows everything up. Finitude (either human finitude as such, man’s separatedness from God; or the finitude of man’s sensual life and material production) is fully reasserted, meaning, among other things, that art regains its rights against philosophy. The first step in this direction was already taken by Schelling in his System of Transcendental Idealism, where he places art above philosophy as the highest synthesis of Spirit and Nature, of Subject and Object, of thought and senses: philosophy is limited to the thinking subject opposed to nature, to sensuous reality; the harmonious balance of the two sides is achieved only in a work of art.

When, however, Pippin envisages a new possibility for art after Hegel, he does not ground it in any limitation of Reason, of reflexive mediation: for him, the modernist break (abstract art) has nothing to do with the reassertion of the unsurpassable horizon of finitude. Pippin remains faithful to Hegel: there is no transcendent Truth from which we, as finite humans, remain forever cut off, either in the form of an Infinite Reality which art cannot properly represent, or in the form of a Divinity too sublime to be grasped by our finite mind. In other words, the point of Pippin’s rehabilitation of art is not that the Absolute cannot be directly conceptually grasped, that it can only be hinted at, evoked as an unfathomable X, in artistic metaphors; his rehabilitation of art has nothing to do with the assertion of an irrational spirituality, too subtle to let itself be caught in the crude analytical categories of human Reason, of a spirituality which can only be experienced in the form of artistic intuition. Modernist art is thoroughly reflexive, in contrast to traditional art which still relies on a non-reflected acceptance of some substantial medium or reality; it is reflexive in the radical sense of questioning its own medium. This is what “abstraction” means: a reflexive questioning of the very medium of artistic representation, so that this medium loses its natural transparency. Reality is not just “out there,” reflected or imitated by art, it is something constructed, something contingent, historically conditioned—and therein resides the legacy of German Idealism, which

destroyed the classical picture of the sensible-intelligible relation. Sensibility could not now be understood as an unclear representation of the world that reason could work to clarify or could represent better, nor could it be understood as a vivid, “lively” impression, guiding the abstracting and generalizing intellect … The content of sensibility was, after Kant, to be understood as the material object of the understanding’s synthesizing, active work … Sensory data became representative as a result of this work by the understanding, and considered apart from such enforming, conceptualizing activity, it counted as mere stuff, preintelligible materiality.[370]

The consequence of all this for the visual arts is that “painterly and indeed sensible representations cannot be understood on some mimetic model of seeing through the image (or sensation) to the object itself”:[371]

“Abstraction” in this Hegelian sense does not mean abstraction of “everything that was not intrinsic to art as such,” but abstraction from dependence on sensual immediacy, and so a kind of enactment of the modernist take on normativity since Kant: self-legislation … Paintings by Pollock and Rothko are not presentations of paint drips and color fields and flat canvas. They thematize and so render self-conscious components of sensible meaning that we traditionally would not see and understand as such, would treat as given. Said another way, they present the materiality of such components in their conceptual significance; such materiality is mentioned, cited, or quoted, as well as used, as well as occupying space on a stretched canvas. And this can make sense because the “result” character of even sensible apprehension … has come to be part of the intellectual habits of mind of modern self-understanding, even if unattended to as such.[372]

This is why one can only agree with Pippin’s endorsement of Michael Fried’s rejection of modernism and postmodernism as consecutive “stages” of historical development; “postmodernism” is rather the name for a regression, for a refusal to follow the consequences of the modernist break:

There was no failure of modernism, no exhaustion by the end of abstract expressionism. Rather, there was (and still is) a failure to appreciate and integrate the self-understanding reflected in such art (the same kind of failure to appreciate modernism, or the same kind of straw-men attacks, in what we call postmodernism). The aftermath—minimalism, “literalism,” op and pop art, postmodernism—can be understood better as evasions and repressions than as alternatives.[373]

Or, to put it in Badiou’s terms, there is no postmodernist Event: postmodernism is not an Event proper, but, at its most basic, a reactive formation, a way of betraying the modernist break, of re-integrating its achievement into the dominant field. The apparent “radicality” of some postmodern trends should not deceive us here: this—often spectacular—“radicality” is there to fascinate us with its deceptive lure, and thus to blind us to the fundamental absence of thought proper. Suffice it to recall recent trends in the visual arts: gone are the days of simple statues or framed paintings—what we see now are the frames themselves without paintings, dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body (gastroscopy and colonoscopy), the inclusion of odors in the exhibition, and so on and so forth. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses are part of the system itself, what the system feeds on in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps this gives us one possible definition of postmodern art as opposed to modernist art: in postmodernism, the transgressive excess loses its shock value and is fully integrated into the established art market.

This weird postmodern space where excesses lose their subversive edge brings us to a further critical point which concerns the properly modern capitalist class struggle in its difference from traditional caste and feudal hierarchies: since Hegel’s notion of domination was limited to the traditional struggle between master and servant, what he could not envisage was the kind of relationship of domination which persists in a post-revolutionary situation (referring here to the “bourgeois” revolution doing away with traditional privileges), where all individuals recognize each other as autonomous free subjects. This “prodigious social leveling” of a modern democracy

certainly does not exclude the emergence of wealth and of profound distinctions between rich and poor, even in the socialist countries. Nor is it in any way to be understood as the end of classes in their economic sense: there are still workers and managers in these societies, there is still profit and exploitation, reserve armies of the unemployed, and so on and so forth. But the new cultural equality … is infused with a powerful hatred of hierarchy and special privileges and with a passionate resentment of caste distinctions and inherited cultural superiority. It is permitted to be wealthy, so long as the rich man is as vulgar as everyone else.[374]

A situation which, one might add, opens up the unexpected possibility of a genuinely proletarian re-appropriation of “high culture.”

All these cases of Hegel’s historical limitation seem to themselves call for an Hegelian analysis: laborers reduced to an appendix of machinery; reality dominated by the virtual/ideal self-movement of capital’s circulation; a hierarchy persisting in the very form of “plebeianization”—paradoxical reversals which seem to give body to all the twists and turns of the most sophisticated dialectic. What kind of “reconciliation” can we then imagine in these new conditions? Apropos Hegel’s “reconciliation” in a modern post-revolutionary state, Jameson outlines a higher, “enlarged” version of Hegelian reconciliation, a version appropriate for our global capitalist epoch: the project of a “human age” characterized by “production-for-us” (the end of classes) and ecology.[375] Jameson’s view is that, far from standing for the ultimate “end of history,” the reconciliation proposed at the end of the chapter on Spirit in the Phenomenology is a temporary, fragile synthesis—Hegel himself was aware that this reconciliation was under threat, as is clear from his panicky reaction to the revolution of 1830 and the first signs of universal democracy (recall his furious rejection of the British electoral Reform Bill, the first step towards universal elections). Is it then not consistent that, in view of the new contradictions of the nineteenth-century capitalist system which exploded the fragile Hegelian synthesis, a renewed Hegelian approach which remains faithful to the idea of concrete universality, of universal rights for all, “calls in its very structure for the subsequent enlargements of later history”[376] and for a new project of reconciliation? Such a move is nonetheless illegitimate: it does not take into account in a sufficiently radical way that the same paradox as that of the retroactive positing of presuppositions holds also for the future.

This is why Hegel was right to insist that the owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk; and also why the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough—that is, insofar as the fundamental capitalist thrust of unleashed productivity survived in it, deprived of its concrete contradictory conditions of existence. The inadequacy of Heidegger, Adorno and Horkheimer, and so on, lies in their abandonment of the concrete social analysis of capitalism: in their very critique or overcoming of Marx, they in a certain way repeat Marx’s mistake—like him, they take unleashed productivity as something ultimately independent of the concrete capitalist social formation. Capitalism and communism are not two different historical realizations, two species, of “instrumental reason”—instrumental reason as such is capitalist, grounded in capitalist relations, and “really existing socialism” failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to “have one’s cake and eat it,” to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient. Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described. In other words, our wager is that, even if we take away the teleological notion of communism (the society of fully unleashed productivity) as the implicit standard by which Marx measures the alienation of existing society, the bulk of his “critique of political economy,” his insights into the self-propelling vicious cycle of capitalist (re)production, survives.

The task of contemporary theory is thus double: on the one hand, to repeat the Marxist “critique of political economy” without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard; on the other hand, to imagine really breaking out of the capitalist horizon without falling into the trap of returning to the eminently premodern notion of a balanced, (self-)restrained society (the “pre-Cartesian” temptation to which most contemporary ecology succumbs). A return to Hegel is crucial in order to perform this task, a return which dispenses with all the classic anti-Hegelian topics, especially that of Hegel’s voracious narcissism, of the Hegelian Idea swallowing up or internalizing the whole of reality. Instead of trying to undermine or overcome this “narcissism” from the outside, emphasizing the “preponderance of the objective” (or the fact that “the Whole is the non-true,” and every other similar motif in Adorno’s rejection of “identitarian” idealism), one should rather problematize this figure of Hegel by asking a simple question: which Hegel is our point of reference here? Do not both Lukács and Adorno refer to the “idealist-subjectivist” (mis)reading of Hegel, to the standard image of Hegel as the “absolute idealist” who posited Spirit as the true agent of history, its Subject-Substance? Within this framework, Capital can effectively appear as a new embodiment of the Hegelian Spirit, an abstract monster which moves and mediates itself, parasitizing the activity of actual, really existing individuals. This is why Lukács also remains all too idealist when he proposes simply replacing the Hegelian Spirit with the proletariat as the Subject-Object of History: Lukács is here not really Hegelian, but a pre-Hegelian idealist.

If, however, one problematizes this figure, another Hegel appears, a more “materialist” Hegel for whom the reconciliation between subject and substance does not mean that the subject “swallows” its substance, internalizing it into its own subordinate moment. Reconciliation rather amounts to a much more modest overlapping or redoubling of the two separations: the subject has to recognize in its alienation from substance the separation of substance from itself. This overlapping is what is missed in the Feuerbachian-Marxian logic of dis-alienation in which the subject overcomes its alienation by recognizing itself as the active agent which has itself posited what appears to it as its substantial presupposition. In the Hegelian “reconciliation” between subject and substance, there is no absolute Subject which, in total self-transparency, appropriates or internalizes all objective substantial content. But “reconciliation” also does not mean (as it does in the line of German Idealism from Hölderlin to Schelling) that the subject should renounce the hubris of perceiving itself as the axis of the world and accept its constitutive “de-centering,” its dependency on some primordial, abyssal Absolute beyond or beneath the subject/object divide, and, as such, also beyond the subject’s conceptual grasp. The subject is not its own origin: Hegel firmly rejects Fichte’s notion of the absolute I which posits itself and is nothing but the pure activity of this self-positing. But the subject is also not just a secondary accidental appendix or outgrowth of some pre-subjective substantial reality: there is no substantial Being to which the subject can return, no encompassing organic Order of Being in which the subject has to find its proper place. “Reconciliation” between subject and substance means the acceptance of this radical lack of any firm foundational point: the subject is not its own origin, it comes second, it is dependent upon its substantial presuppositions; but these presuppositions also do not have a substantial consistency of their own but are always retroactively posited.

What this also means is that communism should no longer be conceived as the subjective (re)appropriation of the alienated substantial content—all versions of reconciliation as “subject swallows the substance” should be rejected. So, again, “reconciliation” is the full acceptance of the abyss of the de-substantialized process as the only actuality there is: the subject has no substantial actuality, it comes second, it emerges only through the process of separation, the overcoming of its presuppositions, and these presuppositions are also just a retroactive effect of the same process of their overcoming. The result is thus that there is, at both extremes of the process, a failure or negativity inscribed in the very heart of the entity we are dealing with. If the status of the subject is thoroughly “processual,” this means that it emerges only through the failure to fully actualize itself. This brings us again to one possible formal definition of the subject: a subject tries to articulate (“express”) itself in a signifying chain, this articulation fails, and in and through this failure, the subject emerges: the subject is the failure of its signifying representation—which is why Lacan writes the subject of the signifier as $, as “barred.” In a love letter, the very failure of the writer to formulate his declaration in a clear and effective way, his vacillations, the letter’s fragmentary style, and so on, can in themselves be proof (perhaps the necessary and only reliable proof) that the love he professes is authentic—here, the very failure to deliver the message properly is the sign of its authenticity. If the message is delivered too smoothly, it will arouse the suspicion that it is part of a well-planned approach, or that the writer loves himself, the beauty of his writing, more than his love-object, that the latter is effectively reduced to a pretext for engaging in the narcissistically satisfying activity of writing.

And the same goes for substance: substance is not only always already lost, it only comes to be through its loss, as a secondary return-to-itself—which means that substance is always already subjectivized. In the “reconciliation” between subject and substance, both poles thus lose their firm identity. Take the case of ecology: radical emancipatory politics should aim neither at complete mastery over nature nor at humanity’s humble acceptance of the predominance of Mother Earth. Rather, nature should be exposed in all its catastrophic contingency and indeterminacy, and the unpredictable consequences of human agency fully assumed—viewed from this perspective of the “other Hegel,” the revolutionary act no longer involves the Lukácsian substance-subject as its agent, as the agent who knows what it is doing while acting.

Hegel is, of course, fully aware of the fact that our thinking wants to “jump ahead of its time” and project a future; his point is that such thinking is always and by definition “ideological,” mistaken: its intervention into Being generates something unexpected, totally different from what was projected. Therein resides the lesson of the French Revolution: the pure thought of universal equality and freedom, imposing itself onto social Being, generated the Terror. Marx’s counter-argument here is that his revolutionary theory is not a utopian projection into the future: it merely extrapolates tendencies and possibilities from the antagonisms of the present. Hegel is wrong in his basic presupposition that one can rationally grasp the Present as a Totality: it cannot be done because our historical Present is in itself split, traversed by antagonisms, incomplete—the only way to concretely grasp it as a rational totality is from the standpoint of the revolutionary agent which will resolve those antagonisms. Present antagonisms are not “readable” on their own terms; they are like the Benjaminian traces which are readable only from the future. What Hegel rejects is precisely such a totalization-from-the-future: the only totality accessible to us is the flawed totality of the present, and the task of Thought is to “recognize the Heart in the Cross of the present,” to grasp how the Totality of the Present is complete in its very incompleteness, how this Totality is sustained by those very features which appear as its obstacles or fatal flaws.

The task here is to leave behind the standard “subjectivist” reading of Hegelian “reconciliation” whose clearest instance is Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness but which also underlies Marx’s reference to Hegel.[377] According to this reading, in reconciliation, the subject recognizes itself in the alienated substance (substantial content); that is, it recognizes in it the reified product of its own work, and thereby re-appropriates it, transforms it into a transparent medium of its self-expression. The key feature here is that the subject, the agent of re-appropriation, is in the singular (even if it is conceived as a collective subject); what thereby disappears is the dimension of what Lacan calls the “big Other,” the minimally “objectivized” symbolic order, the minimal self-transcendence which alone sustains the dimension of intersubjectivity—intersubjectivity can never be dissolved into the direct interaction of individuals.

This is why one should reject not only the (in)famously stupid “dialectical-materialist” substitution of “idea” with “matter” as the absolute (so that dialectics becomes a set of dialectical “laws” of matter’s movement), but also Lukács’s more refined “materialist reversal of Hegel,” his substitution of Hegel’s “idealist” subject-object (the absolute Idea) with the proletariat as the “actual” historical subject-object. Lukács’s “reversal” also implies a formalist and non-Hegelian separation of the dialectical method from the material to which it is applied: Hegel was right to describe the process of the subject’s alienation and re-appropriation of the “fetishized” or reified substantial content, he just did not see that what he described as the Idea’s self-movement is actually an historical development which culminates in the emergence of the substanceless subjectivity of the proletariat and its re-appropriation of the alienated substance through a revolutionary act. The reason we should reject this “materialist reversal” is that it remains all too idealist: locating Hegel’s idealism in the “subject” of the process (the “absolute Idea”), it fails to see the subjectivist “idealism” inherent in the very matrix of the dialectical process (the self-alienated subject which re-appropriates its “reified” substantial content, positing itself as the absolute subject-object).

There are two ways to break out of this “idealism”: either one rejects Hegel’s dialectics as such, dismissing the notion of the subjective “mediation” of all substantial content as irreducibly “idealist,” proposing to replace it with a radically different matrix (Althusser: structural (over)determination; Deleuze: difference and repetition; Derrida: différance; Adorno: negative dialectics with its “preponderance of the objective”); or one rejects such a reading of Hegel (focused on the idea of “reconciliation” as the subjective appropriation of the alienated substantial content) as “idealist,” as a misreading which remains blind to the true subversive core of Hegel’s dialectic. This is our position: the Hegel of the absolute Subject swallowing up all objective content is a retroactive fantasy of his critics, starting with late Schelling’s turn to “positive philosophy.” This “positivity” is found also in the young Marx, in the guise of the Aristotelian reassertion of positive forces or potentials of Being pre-existing logical or notional mediation. One should thus question the very image of Hegel-the-absolute-idealist presupposed by his critics—they attack the wrong Hegel, a straw man. What are they unable to think? The pure processuality of the subject which emerges as “its own result.” This is why talk about the subject’s “self-alienation” is deceptive, as if the subject somehow precedes its alienation—what this misses is the way the subject emerges through the “self-alienation” of the substance, not of itself. We should therefore reject the young Marx’s celebration of the subject’s productive powers or potentials, of its essential nature—Marx is here secretly Aristotelian, presupposing a “substantial” subject which pre-exists the deployment of these potentials in history; that is, his critical move

represents a kind of regression to an Aristotelian or naturalist essentialism, one which borrows a teleological logic of such “natures” that abandons rather than completes the Hegelian project. The key and very controversial point to be defended is: Hegel’s self-making model is not derived from the Aristotelian notions of natural growth and maturation into some flourishing state.[378]

One standard criticism addressed by some late partisans of “dialectical materialism” against the “subjectivist” Marxism of the young Lukács is that there is at least one key advantage of “dialectical materialism”: since it locates human history in the general frame of an all-encompassing “dialectics of nature,” it is much more appropriate for grasping the ecological problematic. But is this really so? Is it not, on the contrary, that the dialectical-materialist vision with its “objective laws of nature” justifies a ruthless technological domination over and exploitation of nature? While the philosophically much more refined Adornian view of nature as the encompassing Other of humanity, out of which humanity emerged and to which it forever remains indebted (from Dialectic of Enlightenment), clearly sees this, it does not offer much more than the well-known clichés of the “critique of instrumental reason”: it fails to provide a clear way to think “nature” philosophically, in its priority to humanity.

We can see now why Adorno’s project of “negative dialectics,” which sees itself as the overcoming of Hegel’s “positive” dialectics, misses the point. “Negative dialectics” wants to break out of the confines of the “principle of identity” which enslaves or subordinates every otherness through conceptual mediation. In Hegel’s idealism, negativity, alterity, and difference are asserted, but only as subordinate secondary moments serving their opposite—the absolute Subject re-appropriates all otherness, “sublating” it into a moment of its own self-mediation. Adorno counters this with his “primacy of the objective”: instead of appropriating or internalizing all otherness, dialectics should remain open towards it, granting ultimate primacy to the objective over the subjective, to difference over identity. What if, however, the image of Hegel’s dialectic this critique presupposes is wrong? What if, in its innermost core, Hegel’s dialectic is not a machine for appropriating or mediating all otherness, for sublating all contingency into a subordinated ideal moment of the notional necessity? What if Hegelian “reconciliation” already is the acceptance of an irreducible contingency at the very heart of notional necessity? What if it involves, as its culminating moment, the setting-free of objectivity in its otherness? In this case, it is Adorno’s “negative dialectics” which, paradoxically, remains within the confines of “identitarian” thought: the endless critical “work of the negative” which is never done, since it presupposes Identity as its starting point and foundation. In other words, Adorno does not see how what he is looking for (a break-out from the confines of Identity) is already at work at the very heart of the Hegelian dialectic, so that it is Adorno’s very critique which obliterates the subversive core of Hegel’s thought, retroactively cementing the figure of his dialectic as the pan-logicist monster of the all-consuming Absolute Notion.

Does this mean that the ultimate subjective position we can adopt is that of a split which characterizes the fetishistic disavowal? Is it the case that all we can do is take the stance of: “although I know very well that there is no big Other, that the big Other is only the sedimentation, the reified form, of intersubjective interactions, I am compelled to act as if the big Other is an external force which controls us all”? It is here that Lacan’s fundamental insight into how the big Other is “barred,” lacking, in-existent even, acquires its weight: the big Other is not the substantial Ground, it is inconsistent or lacking, its very functioning depends on subjects whose participation in the symbolic process sustains it. In place of both the submersion of the subject in its substantial Other and the subject’s appropriation of this Other we thus have a mutual implication through lack, through the overlapping of the two lacks, the lack constitutive of the subject and the lack of/in the Other itself. It is perhaps time to read Hegel’s famous formula “One should grasp the Absolute not only as substance, but also as subject” more cautiously and literally: the point is not that the Absolute is not substance, but subject. The point is hidden in the “not only … but also,” that is, in the interplay between the two, which also opens up the space of freedom—we are free because there is a lack in the Other, because the substance out of which we grew and on which we rely is inconsistent, barred, failed, marked by an impossibility.

But what kind of freedom is thereby opened up? Here we should raise a clear and brutal question in all its naïveté: if we reject Marx’s critique and embrace Hegel’s notion of the owl of Minerva which takes flight only at dusk—that is, if we accept Hegel’s claim that the position of an historical agent able to identify its own role in the historical process and to act accordingly is inherently impossible, since such self-referentiality makes it impossible for the agent to factor in the impact of its own intervention, of how this act itself will affect the constellation—what are the consequences of this position for the act, for emancipatory political interventions? Does it mean that we are condemned to acting blindly, to taking risky steps into the unknown whose final outcome totally eludes us, to interventions whose meaning we can establish only retroactively, so that, at the moment of the act, all we can do is hope that history will show mercy (grace) and reward our intervention with at least a modicum of success? But what if, instead of conceiving this impossibility of factoring in the consequences of our acts as a limitation of our freedom, we conceive it as the zero-level (negative) condition of our freedom?

The notion of freedom as known necessity found its highest expression in Spinoza’s thought, and no wonder that Spinoza also provided the most succinct definition of the personalized notion of God: the only true God is nature itself—that is, substance as causa sui, as the eternal texture of causes-effects. The personalized notion of God as a wise old man who, sitting somewhere up there in the heavens, rules the world according to his caprice, is nothing but the mystified positive expression of our ignorance—when our knowledge of actual natural causal networks is limited, we as it were fill in the blanks by projecting a supreme Cause onto an unknown highest entity. From the Hegelian view, Spinoza just needs to be taken more literally than he was ready to take himself: what if this lack or incompleteness of the causal network is not only epistemological but also ontological? What if it is not only our knowledge of reality but reality itself which is incomplete? In this case, is not the personalized notion of God also an indication (a mystified indication, but nonetheless an indication) of the ontological incompleteness of reality itself? Or, to put it in terms of the classical Hegelian distinction between what I want or mean to say and what I actually say, when I say “God,” I want to name the transcendent absolute Person who governs reality, but what I really say is that reality is ontologically incomplete, that it is marked by a fundamental impossibility or inconsistency.

In this sense Dostoyevsky was right: it is only the personalized God—insofar as he is the name for a desiring/lacking Other, for a gap in the Other—who gives freedom: I am not free by being the creator and master of all reality, when nothing resists my power to appropriate all heterogeneous content; I am free if the substance of my being is not a full causal network, but an ontologically incomplete field. This incompleteness is (or, rather, can also be) signaled by an opaque desiring God, a God who is himself marked by imperfections and finitude, so that when we encounter him, we confront the enigma of “What does he want?” an enigma which holds also for God himself (who does not know what he wants).

But, again, what does this mean for our ability to act, to intervene in history? There are in French two words for the “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for the future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of tendencies which are already present, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present—avenir is what is to come (à venir), not just what will be. For example, in the contemporary apocalyptic situation, the ultimate horizon of the “future” is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of ecological breakdown, global economic and social chaos, etc.—even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the future catastrophe is through acts which interrupt this drifting towards the dystopian “fixed point,” acts which take upon themselves the risk of giving birth to some radical Otherness “to come.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it designates not the impossibility of change, but precisely what we should be striving for—to break the hold the catastrophic “future” has over us, and thereby to open up the space for something New “to come.”

CHAPTER 5. Parataxis: Figures of the Dialectical Process

The widespread use of the notion of “intellectual intuition” in post-Kantian German Idealism is not the sign of a regression to pre-critical metaphysics (as orthodox Kantians claim). For post-Kantian Idealists, “intellectual intuition” is not a passive intuitive reception or vision of noumenal reality: on the contrary, it always designates an active, productive, spontaneous faculty, and, as such, it remains firmly rooted in the Kantian topic of the active synthesis of transcendental imagination (which is why those who rehabilitate this notion enthusiastically refer to sections 76 and 77 of Kant’s Critique of Judgment).[379] So why did Kant reject this notion? What threshold did he refuse to cross?

In 1804, towards the end of his life, Kant wrote that the two hinges on which his entire thought turns are the ideality of space and time and the reality of the concept of freedom.[380] Kant’s opposition to the common-sense attitude is clear here: for common-sense naturalism, space and time are real (real objects and processes “are” in space and time, space and time are not merely the transcendental horizon of our experience of reality), while freedom is ideal (a form of the self-perception of our conscious Self with, perhaps, no foundation in basic reality where only matter really exists). For Kant, on the contrary, space and time are ideal (not properties of things in themselves, but forms of perception imposed on phenomena by the transcendental Self), while freedom is real in the most radical (even Lacanian) sense: freedom is an inexplicable, “irrational,” unaccountable “fact of reason,” a Real which disturbs our notion of (phenomenal) spatio-temporal reality as governed by natural laws. For this reason, our experience of freedom is properly traumatic, even for Kant himself, who mistakes the Real as the impossible which happens (that which “I cannot not do”) for the Real as the impossible-to-happen (that which “I cannot ever fully accomplish”). That is to say, in Kantian ethics, the true tension is not between the subject’s idea that he is acting only for the sake of duty and the hidden fact that there was actually some pathological motivation at work (vulgar psychoanalysis); the true tension is exactly the opposite one: the abyssally free act is unbearable, traumatic, in that when we accomplish an act out of freedom, and in order to sustain it, we experience it as conditioned by some pathological motivation. One is tempted to refer here to the key Kantian concept of schematization: a free act cannot be schematized, integrated into our experience, so, in order to schematize it, we have to “pathologize” it. And Kant himself, as a rule, misreads the true tension (the difficulty in endorsing and assuming a free act) as the standard tension affecting the agent who can never be sure if his act really was free, rather than motivated by hidden pathological impulses. This is why, as Kierkegaard put it, the true trauma lies not in our mortality, but in our immortality: it is easy to accept that we are just a speck of dust in the infinite universe; what is much more difficult to accept is that we effectively are immortal free beings who, as such, cannot escape the terrible responsibility of our freedom.

The root of this trouble lies with the deadlock at the heart of the Kantian edifice, as noted by Henrich: Kant starts with our cognitive capacity—the Self with its three features (unity, synthetic activity, emptiness) is affected by noumenal things and, through its active synthesis, organizes impressions into phenomenal reality; however, once he arrives at the ontological result of his critique of knowledge (the distinction between phenomenal reality and the noumenal world of Things-in-themselves), “there can be no return to the self. There is no plausible interpretation of the self as a member of one of the two worlds.”[381] This is where practical reason comes in: the only way to return from ontology to the Self is via freedom: freedom unites the two worlds, and provides for the unity or coherence of the Self—this is why Kant repeated again and again the motto: “subordinate everything to freedom.”[382] Here, however, a gap between Kant and his followers occurs: for Kant, freedom is an “irrational” fact of reason, it is simply and inexplicably given, something like an umbilical cord inexplicably rooting our experience in the unknown noumenal reality, not the First Principle out of which one can develop a systematic notion of reality, while the Idealists from Fichte onwards cross this limit and endeavor to provide a systematic account of freedom itself. The status of this limit changes with the Idealists: what was for Kant an a priori limitation, so that the very notion of “going over” is stricto sensu meaningless, becomes for the Idealists just an indication that Kant was not yet ready to pursue his project to the end, to draw all the consequences from his breakthrough. For the Idealists, Kant got stuck half-way, while for Kant, his Idealist followers totally misunderstood his critique and fell back into pre-critical metaphysics or, worse, mystical Schwarmerei.

There are thus two main versions of this passage:[383] (1) Kant asserts the gap of finitude, transcendental schematism, the negative access to the Noumenal (via the Sublime) as the only one possible, and so forth, while Hegel’s absolute idealism closes the Kantian gap and returns to pre-critical metaphysics. (2) It is Kant who goes only half-way in his destruction of metaphysics, still maintaining the reference to the Thing-in-itself as an external inaccessible entity, and Hegel is merely a radicalized Kant, who moves from our negative access to the Absolute to the Absolute itself as negativity. Or, to put it in terms of the Hegelian shift from epistemological obstacle to positive ontological condition (our incomplete knowledge of the thing becomes a positive feature of the thing which is in itself incomplete, inconsistent): it is not that Hegel “ontologizes” Kant; on the contrary, it is Kant who, insofar as he conceives the gap as merely epistemological, continues to presuppose a fully constituted noumenal realm existing out there, and it is Hegel who “deontologizes” Kant, introducing a gap into the very texture of reality. In other words, Hegel’s move is not to “overcome” the Kantian division, but, rather, to assert it “as such,” to remove the need for its “overcoming,” for the additional “reconciliation” of the opposites, that is, to gain the insight—through a purely formal parallax shift—into how positing the distinction “as such” already is the looked-for “reconciliation.” Kant’s limitation lies not in his remaining within the confines of finite oppositions, in his inability to reach the Infinite, but, on the contrary, in his very search for a transcendent domain beyond the realm of finite oppositions: Kant is not unable to reach the Infinite—what he is unable to see is how he already has what he is looking for. Gérard Lebrun has clarified this crucial point in his analysis of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s antinomies.[384]

The commonplace among defenders of Kant is that Hegel’s critique, although apparently more audacious (Hegel sees contradictions everywhere), only domesticates or blunts the Kantian antinomies. Kant is, so the story goes (as retold from Heidegger to postmodernists), the first philosopher who really confronted the subject’s finitude not only as an empirical fact, but as the very ontological horizon of our being. This led him to conceive antinomies as genuine unresolvable deadlocks, inescapable scandals of reason, in which human reason becomes involved by its very nature—the scandal of what he even calls “euthanasia of Reason.” The impasse is here irreducible, there is no mediation between the opposites, no higher synthesis. We thus get the very contemporary image of a human subject caught in a constitutive deadlock, marked by an a priori ontological split or gap. As for Hegel, although he may appear to radicalize antinomies by conceiving them as “contradictions” and universalizing them, seeing them everywhere, in every concept we use, and, going even further, ontologizing them (while Kant locates antinomies in our cognitive approach to reality, Hegel locates them in reality itself), Hegel’s radicalization is a ruse: once reformulated as “contradictions,” antinomies are caught in the machinery of the dialectical progress, reduced to an in-between stage, a moment on the road towards the final reconciliation. Hegel thus effectively blunts the scandalous edge of the Kantian antinomies which threatened to bring Reason to the edge of madness, renormalizing them as part of a global ontological process.

Lebrun demonstrates that this commonly shared conception is thoroughly wrong: it is Kant himself who actually defuses the antinomies. One should always bear in mind Kant’s result: there are no antinomies as such, they emerge simply out of the subject’s epistemological confusion between phenomena and noumena. After the critique of Reason has done its work, we end up with a clear and unambiguous, non-antagonistic, ontological picture, with phenomena on one side and noumena on the other. The whole threat of the “euthanasia of Reason,” the spectacle of Reason as forever caught in a fatal deadlock, is ultimately revealed as a mere theatrical trick, a staged performance designed to confer credibility on Kant’s transcendental solution. This is the feature that Kant shares with pre-critical metaphysics: both positions remain in the domain of Understanding and its fixed determinations, and Kant’s critique of metaphysics spells out the final result of metaphysics: as long as we move in the domain of Understanding, Things-in-themselves are out of reach, our knowledge is ultimately in vain.

In what, then, does the difference between Kant and Hegel with regard to antinomies effectively reside? Hegel changes the entire terrain: his basic reproach concerns not what Kant says, but Kant’s unsaid, Kant’s “unknown knowns” (to use Donald Rumsfeld’s newspeak)—Kant cheats, his analysis of antinomies is not too poor, but rather too rich, for he smuggles into it a whole series of additional presuppositions and implications. Instead of really analyzing the immanent nature of the categories involved in antinomies (finitude versus infinity, continuity versus discontinuity, etc.), he shifts the entire analysis onto the way we, as thinking subjects, use or apply these categories. Which is why Hegel’s basic reproach to Kant concerns not the immanent nature of the categories, but, in an almost Wittgensteinian way, their illegitimate use, their application to a domain which is not properly theirs. Antinomies are not inscribed into categories themselves, they only arise when we go beyond the proper domain of their use (the temporal-phenomenal reality of our experience) and apply them to noumenal reality, to objects which cannot ever become objects of our experience. In short, antinomies emerge the moment we confuse phenomena and noumena, objects of experience with Things-in-themselves.

Kant can only perceive finitude as the finitude of the transcendental subject who is constrained by schematism, by the temporal limitations of transcendental synthesis: for him, the only finitude is the finitude of the subject; he does not consider the possibility that the very categories he is dealing with may be “finite,” i.e., that they may remain categories of abstract Understanding, not yet the truly infinite categories of speculative Reason. And Hegel’s point is that this move from categories of Understanding to Reason proper is not an illegitimate step beyond the limits of our reason; it is rather Kant himself who oversteps the proper limits of the analysis of categories, of pure notional determinations, illegitimately projecting onto this space the topic of temporal subjectivity, and so forth. At its most elementary, Hegel’s move is a reduction, not an enrichment, of Kant: a subtractive move, a gesture of taking away the metaphysical ballast and of analyzing notional determinations in their immanent nature.


So what, precisely, is Understanding? Jameson characterizes Understanding (Verstand) as a kind of spontaneous ideology of our daily lives, of our immediate experience of reality. As such, it is not merely a historical phenomenon to be dissolved through dialectical critique and the practical transformation of the relations which engender it, but a permanent, trans-historical fixture of our everyday reality. True, Reason (Vernunft) “has the task of transforming the necessary errors of Verstand into new and dialectical kinds of truths,”[385] but this “transformation” leaves intact the everyday efficacy of Understanding, its formative role in our ordinary experience—all Reason can achieve is a kind of Kantian critical delimitation of the proper sphere of Understanding; in other words, it can only make us aware of how, in our daily lives, we are victims of necessary (“transcendental”) illusions. Underlying this reading of the opposition of Reason and Understanding is a profoundly non-Marxian notion of ideology (or, rather, a profoundly non-Marxian splitting of this notion) probably taken from Althusser (and, maybe, Lacan): in a Kantian mode, Jameson seems to imply that there are two modes of ideology, a historical one (forms linked to specific historical conditions which disappear when these conditions are abolished, like traditional patriarchy) and an a priori transcendental one (a kind of spontaneous tendency to identitarian thinking, to reification, etc., which is co-substantial with language as such, and which, for this reason, can be assimilated to the illusion of the big Other as the “subject supposed to know”). Closely linked to this notion of ideology is Jameson’s (rarely noticed, but all the more persistent) motif of the unsayable, of things better left unsaid—for example, in his review of my Parallax View in the London Review of Books, his argument against the notion of parallax is that, as the name for the most elementary split/diffraction, it endeavors to name something which is better left unnamed. In a similar way, Jameson subscribes to the Kantian tendency of (some of) today’s brain scientists to insist on the a priori structural unknowability of consciousness:

what Hegel’s contemporaries called the not-I is that which consciousness is conscious of as its other, and not any absence of consciousness itself, something inconceivable except as a kind of science-fictional picture-thinking, a kind of thought of otherness. But it is hard to understand how we could know something without knowing what its absence entails: and it may well be, as Colin McGinn argues, that consciousness is one of those philosophical problems which human beings are structurally unfit to solve; and that in that sense Kant’s was the right position to take: that, although its existence is as certain as the Cartesian cogito, consciousness must also remain perpetually unknowable as a thing-in-itself.[386]

The least one can say about these lines is that they are profoundly non-Hegelian, even taking into account Jameson’s unexpected dialectical point: since an element can be properly grasped only through its difference to its opposite, and since the I’s opposite—the not-I—is inaccessible to the I as it is in itself, the consequence of the unknowability of the not-I as it is In-itself, independently of the I, is the unknowability of consciousness (the I) itself as it is In-itself. The standard solipsist-empiricist claim that “the subject can only know itself, its sensations” is thus proven wrong: if the not-I is unknowable, the I itself suffers the same lot. The question to be raised here is whether this circle is inescapable. Are we caught in it right to the end, so that every speculation about the Outside is always already a retroactive fantasy from the standpoint of the Inside? Or, as Hegel would have put it, is every presupposition already posited? Jameson develops this impossibility of breaking out in his perspicuous reading of the concept of positing as the key to what Hegel means by “idealism.” His first move is to dialectically mediate the very opposition of positing and presupposing: the core of “positing” is not the direct production of objects, since such a production remains abstractly opposed to what is simply given (I as a finite subject find in front of me material objects and then proceed to “positing” by working on them); the core of “positing” concerns these presuppositions themselves; that is, what are primordially posited are presuppositions themselves. Recall Heidegger’s notion of the essence of modern technology as Gestell: in order for the subject to technologically manipulate and exploit reality, this reality has to be “posited”/presupposed (or, as Heidegger puts it, disclosed) in advance as an object of possible technological exploitation, as a reserve of raw materials and energies, and so on. It is in this sense that one should conceive what is posited “in terms of presuppositions: for positing somehow always takes place ‘in advance’ of other kinds of thinking and other kinds of acts and events,”[387] or, even more pointedly, “in terms of theatrical settings or pro-filmic arrangements, in which, ahead of time, a certain number of things are placed on stage, certain depths are calculated, and an optical center also carefully provided, the laws of perspective invoked in order to strengthen the illusion to be achieved”:[388]

Kant’s theory—phenomenon and noumenon—looks somewhat different if it is grasped as a specific way of positing the world … it is no longer a question of belief: of taking the existence of objective reality, of the noumenon, of a world independent of human perceptions, on faith. But it is also not a question of following in Fichte’s footsteps and affirming that objective reality—the noumenon, which has now become the not-I—is summoned into being by the primal act of the I, which “posits” it (now using the term in a metaphysical sense).

Rather, that beyond as which the noumenon is characterized now becomes something like a category of thinking … It is the mind that posits noumena in the sense in which its experience of each phenomenon includes a beyond along with it … The noumenon is not something separate from the phenomenon, but part and parcel of its essence; and it is within the mind that realities outside or beyond the mind are “posited.”[389]

We should introduce here a precise distinction between the presupposed or shadowy part of what appear as ontic objects and the ontological horizon of their appearing. On the one hand, as was brilliantly developed by Husserl in his phenomenological analysis of perception, every perception of even an ordinary object involves a series of assumptions about its unseen back-side, as well as about its background; on the other hand, an object always appears within a certain horizon of hermeneutic “prejudices” which provide an a priori frame within which we locate the object and which thus make it intelligible—to observe reality “without prejudices” means to understand nothing. This same dialectic of “positing the presuppositions” plays a crucial role in our understanding of history: “just as we always posit the anteriority of a nameless object along with the name or idea we have just articulated, so also in the matter of historical temporality we always posit the pre-existence of a formless object which is the raw material of our emergent social or historical articulation.”[390] This “formlessness” should also be understood as a violent erasure of (previous) forms: whenever a certain act is “posited” as a founding one, as a historical cut or the beginning of a new era, the previous social reality is as a rule reduced to a chaotic “ahistorical” conundrum—say, when the Western colonialists “discovered” black Africa, this discovery was read as the first contact of “pre-historical” primitives with civilized history proper, and their previous history basically blurred into a “formless matter.” It is in this sense that the notion of “positing the presuppositions” is “not only a solution to the problems posed by critical resistance to mythic narratives of origin … it is also one in which the emergence of a specific historical form retroactively calls into existence the existence of the hitherto formless matter from which it has been fashioned.”[391]

This last claim should be qualified, or, rather, corrected: what is retroactively called into existence is not the “hitherto formless matter” but, precisely, matter which was well articulated before the rise of the new, and whose contours were only blurred, or became invisible, from the horizon of the new historical form—with the rise of the new form, the previous form is (mis)perceived as “hitherto formless matter,” that is, the “formlessness” itself is a retroactive effect, a violent erasure of the previous form.[392] If one misses the retroactivity of such positing of presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch. This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicted.”[393]

What this means is that, although presuppositions are (retroactively) posited, the conclusion to be drawn is not that we are forever caught in this circle of retroactivity, so that every attempt to reconstruct the rise of the New out of the Old is nothing but an ideological narrative. Hegel’s dialectic itself is not yet another grand teleological narrative, but precisely an effort to avoid the narrative illusion of a continuous process of organic growth of the New out of the Old; the historical forms which follow one another are not successive figures within the same teleological frame, but successive re-totalizations, each of them creating (“positing”) its own past (as well as projecting its own future). In other words, Hegel’s dialectic is the science of the gap between the Old and the New, of accounting for this gap; more precisely, its true topic is not directly the gap between the Old and the New, but its self-reflective redoubling—when it describes the cut between the Old and the New, it simultaneously describes the gap, within the Old itself, between the Old “in-itself” (as it was before the New) and the Old retroactively posited by the New. It is because of this redoubled gap that every new form arises as a creation ex nihilo: the Nothingness out of which the New arises is the very gap between the Old-in-itself and the Old-for-the-New, the gap which makes impossible any account of the rise of the New in terms of a continuous narrative.[394]

We should add a further qualification here: what escapes our grasp is not the way things were before the arrival of the New, but the very birth of the New, the New as it was “in itself,” from the perspective of the Old, before it managed to “posit its presuppositions.” This is why fantasy, the fantasmatic narrative, always involves an impossible gaze, the gaze by means of which the subject is already present at the scene of its own absence—the illusion is here the same as that of “alternate reality” whose otherness is also “posited” by the actual totality, which is why it remains within the coordinates of the actual totality. The way to avoid this utopian reduction of the subject to the impossible gaze witnessing an alternate reality from which it is absent is not to abandon the topos of alternate reality as such, but to reformulate it so as to avoid the mystification of the theosophic mytho-poetic narrative which pretends to render the genesis of the cosmos (of the fully constituted reality, ruled by logos) out of the proto-cosmic pre-ontological chaos. Such attempts only obfuscate the point that the repressed spectral “virtual history” is not the “truth” of the official public history, but the fantasy which fills in the void of the act that brought about history. At the level of family life, this distinction is palpable in so-called False Memory Syndrome: the “memories” unearthed (being seduced or molested by a family member), the repressed stories that haunt the imagination of the living, are precisely such “primordial lies” destined to forestall the encounter with the ultimate rock of impossibility, the fact that “there is no sexual relationship.” And the same goes, at the level of social life, for the notion of the primordial Crime that grounds the legal Order: the secret narrative that tells its story is purely fantasmatic.

In philosophy proper, this fantasmatic mystification resides at the very core of Schelling’s Weltalter project. What Schelling endeavored to accomplish in Weltalter is precisely such a mytho-poetic fantasmatic narrative that would account for the emergence of logos itself out of the pre-logical proto-cosmic Real; however, at the very end of each of the three successive drafts of Weltalter—that is to say, at the very point at which the passage from mythos to logos, from the Real to the Symbolic, should have been deployed—Schelling was compelled to posit an uncanny act of Ent-Scheidung (decision or separation), an act in a way more primordial than the Real of the “eternal Past” itself. The repeated failure of his Weltalter drafts signals precisely Schelling’s honesty as a thinker—the fact that he was radical enough to acknowledge the impossibility of grounding the act or decision in a proto-cosmic myth. The line of separation between materialism and obscurantist idealism in Schelling thus concerns precisely the relationship between the act and the proto-cosmos: idealist obscurantism deduces or generates the act from the proto-cosmos, while materialism asserts the primacy of the act and denounces the fantasmatic character of the proto-cosmic narrative.

So, apropos Schelling’s claim that man’s consciousness arises from the primordial act which separates the present-actual consciousness from the spectral, shadowy realm of the unconscious, one has to ask a seemingly naïve but crucial question: what, precisely, is the unconscious here? Schelling’s answer is unambiguous: the “unconscious” is not primarily the rotary motion of drives ejected into the eternal past; the “unconscious” is rather the very act of Ent-Scheidung by means of which drives were ejected into the past. Or, to put it in slightly different terms: what is truly “unconscious” in man is not the immediate opposite of consciousness, the obscure and confused vortex of “irrational” drives, but the very founding gesture of consciousness, the act of decision in which I “choose myself,” by which I combine this multitude of drives into the unity of my Self. The “unconscious” is not the passive stuff of inert drives to be used by the creative “synthetic” activity of the conscious Ego; the “unconscious” in its most radical dimension is rather the highest Deed of my self-positing, or (to resort to later “existentialist” terms) the choice of my fundamental “project” which, in order to remain operative, must be “repressed,” kept out of the light of day. To quote from the admirable final pages of the second draft of Weltalter:

That primordial deed which makes a man genuinely himself precedes all individual actions; but immediately after it is put into exuberant freedom, this deed sinks into the night of unconsciousness. This is not a deed that could happen once and then stop; it is a permanent deed, a neverending deed, and consequently it can never again be brought before consciousness. For man to know of this deed, consciousness itself would have to return into nothing, into boundless freedom, and would cease to be consciousness. This deed occurs once and then immediately sinks back into the unfathomable depths; and nature acquires permanence precisely thereby. Likewise that will, posited once at the beginning and then led to the outside, must immediately sink into unconsciousness. Only in this way is a beginning possible, a beginning that does not stop being a beginning, a truly eternal beginning. For here as well, it is true that the beginning cannot know itself. That deed, once done, is done for all eternity. The decision that in some manner is truly to begin must not be brought back to consciousness; it must not be called back, because this would amount to being taken back. If, in making a decision, somebody retains the right to reexamine his choice, he will never make a beginning at all.[395]

What we encounter here is, of course, the logic of the “vanishing mediator”: of the founding gesture of differentiation which must sink into invisibility once the difference between the vortex of “irrational” drives and the universe of logos is in place. Schelling’s fundamental move is thus not simply to ground the ontologically structured universe of logos in the horrible vortex of the Real; if we read him carefully, there is a premonition in his work that this terrifying vortex of the pre-ontological Real is itself (accessible to us only in the guise of) a fantasmatic narrative, a lure destined to detract us from the true traumatic cut, that of the abyssal act of Ent-Scheidung.

It is against this background that one can raise two further critical points about Jameson’s notion of Understanding as an eternal or unsurpassable form of ideology. The first thing to note is that this unsurpassable character is in itself redoubled: first, there is Understanding as the a priori tendency of human thinking towards identitarian reification; then, there is the unsurpassability of the circle of “positing the presuppositions” which prevents us from stepping outside ourselves and grasping the not-I in all its forms, spatial and temporal (from external reality as it is independently of us, to our own historical past). The first critical point to be made here is that the features Jameson attributes to Understanding (“common-sense empirical thinking of externality, formed in the experience of solid objects and obedient to the law of non-contradiction”) clearly are historically limited: they designate modern-secular empiricist common sense, which is very different from, say, a “primitive” holistic notion of reality permeated by spiritual forces.

However, a much more important critical point concerns the way Jameson formulates the opposition between Understanding and Reason: Understanding is understood as the elementary form of analyzing, of fixing differences and identities, reducing the wealth of reality to an abstract set of features; this spontaneous tendency towards identitarian reification has to be then corrected by dialectical Reason, which faithfully reproduces the dynamic complexity of reality by outlining the fluid network of relations within which every identity is located. This network both generates every identity and, simultaneously, causes its ultimate downfall. This, however, is emphatically not the way Hegel conceives the difference between Understanding and Reason—let us read carefully a well-known passage from the “Foreword” to the Phenomenology:

To break up an idea into its ultimate elements means returning upon its moments, which at least do not have the form of the given idea when found, but are the immediate property of the self. Doubtless this analysis only arrives at thoughts which are themselves familiar elements, fixed inert determinations. But what is thus separated, and in a sense is unreal, is itself an essential moment; for just because the concrete fact is self-divided, and turns into unreality, it is something self-moving, self-active. The action of separating the elements is the exercise of the force of Understanding, the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power. The circle, which is self-enclosed and at rest, and, qua substance, holds its own moments, is an immediate relation, the immediate, continuous relation of elements with their unity, and hence arouses no sense of wonderment. But that an accident as such, when cut loose from its containing circumference,—that what is bound and held by something else and actual only by being connected with it,—should obtain an existence all its own, gain freedom and independence on its own account—this is the portentous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of pure Self.[396]

Understanding, precisely in its aspect of analyzing, tearing the unity of a thing or process apart, is here celebrated as “the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power”—as such, it is, surprisingly (for those who stick to the commonly held view of dialectics), characterized in exactly the same terms as Spirit which is, with regard to the opposition between Understanding and Reason, clearly on the side of Reason: “Spirit is, in its simple truth, consciousness, and forces its moments apart.” Everything turns on how we are to understand this identity-and-difference between Understanding and Reason: it is not that Reason adds something to the separating power of Understanding, re-establishing (at some “higher level”) the organic unity of what Understanding has sundered, supplementing analysis with synthesis; Reason is, in a way, not more but less than Understanding, it is—to put it in the well-known terms of Hegel’s opposition between what one wants to say and what one actually says—what Understanding, in its activity, really does, in contrast to what it wants or means to do. Reason is therefore not another faculty supplementing Understanding’s “one-sidedness”: the very idea that there is something (the core of the substantial content of the analyzed thing) which eludes Understanding, a trans-rational Beyond out of its reach, is the fundamental illusion of Understanding. In other words, all we have to do to get from Understanding to Reason is to subtract from Understanding its constitutive illusion.

Understanding is not too abstract or violent, it is, on the contrary, as Hegel remarked of Kant, too soft towards things, too afraid to locate its violent movement of tearing things apart in the things themselves.[397] In a way, it is epistemology versus ontology: the illusion of Understanding is that its own analytical power—the power to make “an accident as such … obtain an existence all its own, gain freedom and independence on its own account”—is only an “abstraction,” something external to “true reality” which persists out there intact in its inaccessible fullness. In other words, it is the standard critical view of Understanding and its power of abstraction (that it is just an impotent intellectual exercise which misses the wealth of reality) which contains the core illusion of Understanding. To put it in yet another way, the mistake of Understanding is to perceive its own negative activity (of separating, tearing things apart) only in its negative aspect, ignoring its “positive” (productive) aspect—Reason is Understanding itself in its productive aspect.[398]

Let us indulge in an excursus at this point. What is abstract thinking? Recall Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, a recent film about the 1982 Lebanon war which draws on Maoz’s own memories as a young soldier, rendering the war’s fear and claustrophobia by shooting most of the action from inside a tank. The movie follows four inexperienced soldiers dispatched to “mop up” enemies in a Lebanese town that has already been bombarded by the Israeli Air Force. Interviewed at the 2009 Venice festival, Yoav Donat, the actor who played Moaz as a young soldier, said: “This is a movie that makes you feel like you’ve been to war.” Maoz himself said his film was not a condemnation of Israel’s policies, but a personal account of what he went through: “The mistake I made is to call the film ‘Lebanon’ because the Lebanon war is no different in its essence from any other war and for me any attempt to be political would have flattened the film.”[399] This is ideology at its purest: the focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to ignore the entire ethico-political background of the conflict: what was the Israeli army doing deep in Lebanon? and so on. Such a “humanization” thus serves to obfuscate the key question: the need for a ruthless political analysis of the stakes involved in the deployment of armed forces.

Here one immediately encounters the ideological moron’s riposte: but why shouldn’t the depiction of the horror and perplexity of combat be a legitimate topic for art? Is not such personal experience also part of war? Why should artistic depictions of war be limited to the great political divisions which determine such conflicts? Is not war a multi-faceted totality? In an abstract way, all this is of course true; however, what gets lost is that the true global meaning of a war and one’s personal experience of it cannot coexist within the same space: an individual’s experience of war, no matter how “authentic,” inevitably narrows its scope and as such is in itself a violent abstraction from the totality. Like it or not, refusing to fight is not the same for a Nazi murdering Jews in the ghetto as for a partisan resisting the Nazis; likewise, in the Lebanon war of 1982, the “trauma” of the Israeli soldier in the tank is not the same as the trauma of the Palestinian civilian he is shelling—focusing on the former only serves to obfuscate what was at stake in the Israeli invasion.

Fredric Jameson has argued that Saint Augustine’s most celebrated achievement—his invention of the psychological depth of the believer, with all the complexity constituted by inner doubt and despair—is strictly correlative to (or is the other side of) his legitimization of Christianity as a state religion, as fully compatible with the obliteration of the last remnants of radical politics from the Christian edifice.[400] The same holds for, among others, the anti-communist renegades of the Cold War era: as a rule, their turn against communism went hand in hand with a turn towards a certain Freudianism, with their discovery of the psychological complexity of individual lives.

But does this mean that the only truthful account is a de-subjectivized one, with no place for subjective experience? It is here that the key Lacanian distinction between the subject ($, the “barred” non-psychological agent) and the “person” has to be mobilized: what lies behind the screen of the wealth of a person’s “inner life” is not “objective reality” but the subject itself—the political subject, in our case.

The act of abstraction, of tearing apart, can also be understood as an act of self-imposed blindness, of refusing to “see it all.” In his Blindness and Insight, Paul de Man developed a refined reading of Derrida’s “deconstruction” of Rousseau in On Grammatology.[401] De Man’s thesis is that, in presenting Rousseau as a “logocentrist” caught in the metaphysics of presence, Derrida overlooks how the motifs and theoretical moves involved in deconstructing that metaphysics are already operative in Rousseau’s text—often, the “deconstructive” point Derrida is making about Rousseau has already been articulated by Rousseau himself. Furthermore, this oversight is not an accident, but a structural necessity: Derrida can only see what he sees (deploy his deconstructive reading) through such blindness. And it would be easy to demonstrate the same paradoxical overlapping of blindness and insight in other great Derridean readings—say, for his detailed reading of Hegel in Glas. Here also, the price for the complex theoretical move of demonstrating how Hegel fails to see that a condition of impossibility is a condition of possibility—how he produces something whose status he has to disavow in order to maintain the consistency of his edifice, and so forth—is a violent simplification of the underlying frame of Hegel’s thought. The latter is reduced by Derrida to the absolute-idealist “metaphysics of presence,” where the Idea’s self-mediation is able to reduce all Otherness, and all Hegel’s formulations which run against this image are read as so many signs of his symptomatic inconsistency, of Hegel not being able to control his own theoretical production, of being forced to say more, or something different, than what he wanted to say.

But how, exactly, are we to read this co-dependence of insight and blindness? Is it possible to avoid the standard reading that imposes itself with an apparently self-evident force: the reading according to which the co-dependence of insight and blindness is an indication of our unsurpassable finitude, of the radical impossibility of our reaching the standpoint of infinity, of an insight no longer marred by any kind of blindness? It is our wager that Hegel offers another way here: what he calls “negativity” can also be couched in terms of insight and blindness, as the “positive” power of “blindness,” of ignoring parts of reality. How does a notion emerge out of the confused network of impressions we have of an object? Through the power of “abstraction,” of blinding oneself to most of the features of the object, reducing it to its constitutive key aspects. The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations—only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all—too much data only blurs our clear vision.[402] For example, many essays on Joyce’s Ulysses—and often the best ones—were written by scholars who had not read the whole book; the same goes for books on Kant or Hegel, where a truly detailed knowledge often only gives rise to a boring specialist exegesis, rather than living insights. The best interpretations of Hegel are always partial: they extrapolate the totality from a particular figure of thought or of dialectical movement. As a rule, it is not a reading of a thick book by Hegel himself, but some striking, detailed observation—often wrong or at least one-sided—made by an interpreter that allows us to grasp Hegel’s thought in its living movement.

The tension between insight and blindness accounts for the fact that Hegel uses the term Begriff (notion) with two opposed meanings: “notion” as the very core, the essence, of the thing, and “notion” as “mere notion” in contrast to “the thing itself.” And one should bear in mind that the same goes for his use of the term “subject”: the subject as elevated above the objective, as the principle of life and mediation of objects, and the subject as designating something “merely subjective,” a subjectively distorted impression in contrast to the way things really are. It is all too simple to treat these two aspects in terms of the “lower”—pertaining to the abstract approach of Understanding (the reduction of the subject to the “merely subjective”)—and the “higher”—involving the truly speculative notion of the Subject as the mediating principle of Life or reality. The point is, rather, that the “lower” aspect is the key constituent of the “higher”: one overcomes the “merely subjective” precisely by fully endorsing it. Recall again the passage from the Preface to the Phenomenology celebrating the disjunctive power of “abstract” Understanding: Hegel does not overcome the abstract character of Understanding by substantially changing it (replacing abstraction with synthesis etc.), but by perceiving in a new light this same power of abstraction: what at first appears as the weakness of Understanding (its inability to grasp reality in all its complexity, its tearing apart of reality’s living texture) is in fact its greatest power.


Although Kant makes it clear that antinomies result from the misapplication of categories, and that they disappear the moment we clarify this confusion and respect the gap that separates noumena from phenomena, he nonetheless has to insist that this misapplication is not a contingent mistake, but a kind of necessary illusion inscribed into the very functioning of our Reason. One thus needs to be very precise in describing the true contours of the passage from Kant to Hegel: with his philosophical revolution, Kant made a breakthrough the radicality of which he was himself unaware; so, in a second move, he withdraws from this radicality and desperately tries to navigate into the safe waters of a more traditional ontology. Consequently, in order to pass “from Kant to Hegel,” we have to move not “forward” but backward: back from the deceptive envelope to identify the true radicality of Kant’s breakthrough—in this sense, Hegel was literally “more Kantian than Kant himself.” One of the points where we see this clearly is in the distinction between phenomena and noumena: Kant’s explicit justification of why we need to introduce noumena remains well within the confines of traditional ontology with its distinction between appearance and true reality—appearances cannot stand on their own, there must be something behind them which sustains them:

The cause of our not being satisfied with the substrate of sensibility, and of our therefore adding to the phenomena noumena which only the pure understanding can think, is simply as follows. The sensibility (and its field, that of the appearances) is itself limited by the understanding in such fashion that it does not have to do with things in themselves but only with the mode in which, owing to our subjective constitution, they appear. The Transcendental Aesthetic, in all its teaching, has led to this conclusion; and the same conclusion also, of course, follows from the concept of an appearance in general; namely, that something which is not in itself appearance must correspond to it. For appearance can be nothing by itself, outside our mode of representation. Unless, therefore, we are to move constantly in a circle, the word appearance must be recognized as already indicating a relation to something, the immediate representation of which is, indeed, sensible, but which, even apart from the constitution of our sensibility (upon which the form of our intuition is grounded), must be something in itself, that is, an object independent of sensibility.[403]

There is, however, an implicit clash between this account, in which phenomena and noumena are distinguished as two types (spheres) of (positively existing) objects, and Kant’s key thesis that, since noumena are radically transcendent, never given as objects of our experience, the concept of a noumenon is “a merely limiting concept, the function of which is to curb the pretensions of sensibility; and it is therefore only of negative employment”:[404]

The division of objects into phenomena and noumena, and the world into a world of the senses and a world of the understanding, is therefore quite inadmissible in the positive sense although the distinction of concepts as sensible and intellectual is certainly legitimate. For no object can be determined for the latter concepts, and consequently they cannot be asserted to be objectively valid … What our understanding acquires through this concept of a noumenon, is a negative extension; that is to say, understanding is not limited through sensibility; on the contrary, it itself limits sensibility by applying the term noumena to things in themselves (things not regarded as appearances). But in so doing it at the same time sets limits to itself, recognizing that it cannot know these noumena through any of the categories, and that it must therefore think them only under the title of an unknown something.[405]

True, we can read these lines as simply restating the standard division of all objects into phenomena and noumena: the “negative employment” of “noumenon” merely reasserts the radical transcendence of the In-itself, its inaccessibility to our experience: there is an endless field of positive things out there, which can never become objects of our experience, so we can refer to them only in a negative way, well aware that they are “in themselves” fully positive, the proper cause and foundation of phenomena. But is there not another, much more radical notion lurking behind the concept of a noumenon—that of the pure negativity, that is, the self-limitation, of phenomena as such, as opposed to their limitation by another positive transcendent domain? In this case, negativity is not a mirror-like effect of transcendent positivity (so that we can only grasp the transcendent In-itself in a negative way); on the contrary, every positive figure of the In-itself is a “positivization” of negativity, a fantasmatic formation we construct in order to fill in the gap of negativity. As Hegel put it with unsurpassable clarity in his Phenomenology: behind the curtain of phenomena, there is only what we put there. Negativity thus precedes transcendent positivity, the self-limitation of phenomena precedes what is beyond the limit—this is the deep speculative sense of Kant’s thesis that the “division of objects into phenomena and noumena, and the world into a world of the senses and a world of the understanding, is … inadmissible in the positive sense”: the limit between phenomena and noumena is not the limit between two positive spheres of objects, since there are only phenomena and their (self-)limitation, their negativity. The moment we get this, the moment we take Kant’s thesis on the negative employment of “noumena” more literally than he did himself, we pass from Kant to Hegel, to Hegelian negativity.

This is how one should read the key statement that understanding “limits sensibility by applying the term noumena to things in themselves (things not regarded as appearances). But in so doing it at the same time sets limits to itself, recognizing that it cannot know these noumena through any of the categories.” Our understanding first posits noumena as the external limit of “sensibility” (that is, of the phenomenal world, objects of possible experience): it posits another domain of objects, inaccessible to us. But in doing so, it “limits itself”: it admits that, since noumena are transcendent, never to be an object of possible experience, it cannot legitimately treat them as positive objects. That is to say, in order to distinguish noumena and phenomena as two positive domains, our understanding would have to adopt the position of a meta-language, exempt from the limitation of phenomena, dwelling somewhere above the division. Since, however, the subject dwells within phenomena, how can it perceive their limitation (as Wittgenstein also noted, we cannot see the limits of our world from within our world)? The only solution is that the limitation of phenomena is not external but internal, in other words that the field of phenomena is in itself never “all,” complete, a consistent Whole; this self-limitation of phenomena assumes in Kant the form of the antinomies of pure reason. There is no need for any positive transcendent domain of noumenal entities which limit phenomena from outside—phenomena with their inconsistencies, their self-limitations, are “all there is.” The key conclusion to be drawn from this self-limitation of phenomena is that it is strictly correlative to subjectivity: there is a (transcendental) subject only as correlative to the inconsistency, self-limitation, or, more radically, “ontological incompleteness,” of phenomenal reality. The moment we conceive the inconsistency and self-limitation of phenomenal reality as secondary, as the effect of the subject’s inability to experience the transcendent In-itself the way it “really is,” the subject (as autonomous-spontaneous) becomes a mere epi-phenomenon, its freedom becomes a “mere appearance” conditioned by the fact that noumena are inaccessible to it (to put it in a somewhat simplified way: I experience myself as free insofar as the causality which effectively determines me is inaccessible to me). In other words, the subject’s freedom can be ontologically grounded only in the ontological incompleteness of reality itself.

And, to avoid the obvious reproach, this purely negative use of noumena in no way implies a naïve “subjective idealism,” a universe in which there is nothing but (self-)limited subjective phenomena: of course there are things-processes out there not yet known or discovered by us, there is what naïve realism designates as “objective reality,” but it is wrong to designate it as noumenal—this designation is all too “subjective.” Noumena designate the In-itself as it appears to us, embedded in phenomenal reality; if we designate our unknowns as “noumena,” we thereby introduce a gap which is not warranted by their mere unknowability: there is no mysterious gap separating us from the unknown, the unknown is simply unknown, indifferent to being-known. In other words, we should never forget that what we know (as phenomena) is not separated from things-in-themselves by a dividing line, but is constitutive of them: phenomena do not form a special ontological domain, they are simply part of reality.

This brings us to Hegel’s basic criticism of Kant, of his insistence on the limitation that our finitude imposes on our knowledge. It is that, beneath Kant’s modesty, there is a hidden arrogance: when Kant claims that we humans, constrained by our finite Understanding, cannot ever come to know the totality of the universe, he continues to represent this infinite task as one that another, infinite, Understanding would be able to accomplish, as if the problem is simply one of extending or extrapolating our capacity to infinity, rather than changing it qualitatively. The model for such false reasoning is the well-known naturalist-determinist idea that, were an infinite mind able to know extensively all the atoms in the universe, their position, force, and movement, it would be able to predict their future behavior with the utmost precision—as if the very notion of a finite mind extended to infinity were not in itself nonsensical. When we represent to ourselves a mind able to grasp infinity, the image we refer to is that of a mind somehow able to count an infinite number of elements in the same way we are able to count a finite number of them. In a wonderfully vicious image, Hegel likens Kant’s notion of an infinite mind to the way a poor church organist tries to explain God’s greatness to a simple peasant: “In the same way you know every individual in our village by name, God intimately knows every single fly among the infinite number of flies that buzz around the globe …”[406]

This brings us to the gap between what is explainable-in-principle and what is actually explained-in-fact—this gap is fully operative in the cognitive sciences: thought is a product of the brain and can in principle be accounted for in terms of neuronal processes; it is only a matter of fact that we are not yet there. According to this view, this gap is purely cognitive: it is simply the gap between the empirical limitation of our knowledge of reality and reality itself. For Hegel, on the contrary, this gap is notional, categorical:

The proposition which states that our actual, real knowledge, the way it exists at this moment, articulated in causal explanations, is finite and even no knowledge in the absolute meaning of the word, but a mere certainty, is ultimately not really a proposition about the limits of our knowledge, but a proposition about the form of our knowledge. It is a notional, tautological, proposition.[407]

The mistake resides in the fact that the limit pertaining to the form itself (to the categories used) is misperceived as a contingent empirical limitation. In the case of cognitivism: it is not that we already have the categorial apparatus necessary to explain consciousness (neuronal processes, etc.), and our failure to have yet done so pertains only to the empirical limitation of our knowing the relevant facts about our brain; the true limitation lies in the very form of our knowledge, in the very categorial apparatus we are using. In other words, the gap between the form of knowledge and its empirical limitation is inscribed in this form itself. It is because Kant locates the limitation in the finitude of our temporal-empirical experience that he is inconsistent in his dealing with the antinomies of pure reason.

Here, then, possibility is narrowed down: what appears as possible-in-principle, rendered impossible only on account of our empirical limitations, is revealed to be impossible also in principle, in its very notional-formal determinations. However, the obverse of this narrowing-down of the field of the possible is its extension: the Hegelian totality is not merely the totality of the actual content; it includes the immanent possibilities of the existing constellation. To “grasp a totality” one should include its possibilities; to grasp the truth of what there is, one should include its failure, what might have happened but was missed. But why should this be the case? Because the Hegelian totality is an “engaged” totality, a totality disclosed to a partial partisan view, not a “neutral” overview transcending engaged positions—as Georg Lukács recognized, such a totality is accessible only from a practical standpoint that considers the possibility of changing it. Hegel has thus a lot to teach us about the topic of possibility versus actuality. What is involved in a dialectical analysis of, say, a past event, such as a revolutionary break? Does it really amount to identifying the underlying necessity that governed the course of events in all their apparent confusion? What if the opposite is true, and dialectical analysis reinserts possibility into the necessity of the past? There is something of an unpredictable miraculous emergence in every passage from “negation” to “negation of negation,” in every rise of a new Order out of the chaos of disintegration—which is why for Hegel dialectical analysis is always the analysis of past events.[408] No deduction will bring us from chaos to order; and to locate this moment of the magical turn, this unpredictable reversal of chaos into Order, is the true aim of dialectical analysis. For example, the aim of the analysis of the French Revolution is not to unearth the “historical necessity” of the passage from 1789 to the Jacobin Terror and then to Thermidor and Empire, but rather to reconstruct this succession in terms of a series of (to use this anachronistic term) existential decisions made by agents who, caught up in a whirlwind of action, had to invent a way out of the deadlock (in the same way that Lacan reconceptualizes the succession of oral, anal, and phallic stages as a series of dialectical reversals).

As a rule, Hegel’s famous suggestion that one should conceive the Absolute not only as substance but also as subject conjures up the discredited notion of some kind of “absolute Subject,” a mega-Subject creating the universe and keeping watch over our destiny. For Hegel, however, the subject, at its very core, also stands for finitude, the cut, the gap of negativity, which is why God only becomes subject through Incarnation: he is not already in himself, prior to Incarnation, a mega-Subject ruling the universe. Kant and Hegel are usually contrasted along the lines of finite versus infinite: the Hegelian subject as the totalizing and infinite One which mediates all multiplicity; the Kantian subject marked by finitude and the gap that forever separates it from the Thing. But, at a more fundamental level, is not exactly the opposite the case? The basic function of the Kantian transcendental subject is to continuously enact the transcendental synthesis of apperception, to bring into One the multitude of sensible impressions; while the Hegelian subject is, in its most basic dimension, the agent of splitting, division, negativity, redoubling, the “fall” of Substance into finitude.

Consequently, it is crucial not to confuse Hegel’s “objective spirit” with the Diltheyan notion of a life-form, a concrete historical world, as “objectivized spirit,” the product of a people, its collective genius: the moment we do this, we miss the point of “objective spirit,” which is precisely that it is spirit in its objective form, experienced by individuals as an external imposition, a constraint even—there is no collective or spiritual super-Subject that would be the author of “objective spirit,” whose “objectivization” this spirit would have been. In short, for Hegel there is no collective Subject, no Subject-Spirit beyond and above individual humans. Therein resides the paradox of “objective spirit”: it is independent of individuals, encountered by them as given, pre-existent, as the presupposition of their activity; yet it is nonetheless spirit, that is, something that exists only insofar as individuals relate their activity to it, only as their (pre)supposition.[409]


Such a reading cannot but appear to be at odds with the standard reading of Hegel as an “absolute idealist.” There is a nice exercise in the genre of Žižek-bashing which perfectly illustrates this gap that separates me from the common-sense notion of Hegel; the author takes as his starting point a passage from my Preface to the new edition of For They Know Not What They Do which allegedly demonstrates “how badly Žižek mishandles Hegel.” I originally wrote:

Hegel has nothing to do with such a pseudo-Hegelian vision (espoused by some conservative Hegelians like Bradley and McTaggart) of society as an organic harmonious Whole, within which each member asserts his or her “equality” with others through performing his or her particular duty, occupying his or her particular place, and thus contributing to the harmony of the Whole. For Hegel, on the contrary, the “transcendent world of formlessness” (in short: the Absolute) is at war with itself; this means that (self-)destructive formlessness (absolute, self-relating negativity) must appear as such in the realm of finite reality. The point of Hegel’s notion of the revolutionary Terror [in the Phenomenology] is precisely that it is a necessary moment in the deployment of freedom.[410]

From this, my critic generates his scathing commentary:

We correct: Bradley (and the British Idealists generally) were not bad readers of Hegel when it came to political philosophy … Hegel was very much concerned, from his student days up through his mature System, with the possibility of life in a society as a harmonious existence, of being reconciled to the world and to one’s life in it. Early-on, this takes the form of a Romantic idolization of Greek life as a sort of naturliche Harmonie; by the point of his Jena writings, Hegel had already become critical of this tendency in the thought of his contemporaries.

If a modern man was to be reconciled to his world, then it could only be through a moralische Harmonie, a harmony which was not merely given but which was comprehended in thought; a man had to not merely be an harmonious part of his society, but had to recognize this harmony, had to comprehend his own existence (including what is most “inward” and private for him, such as his feelings & religious sentiments) as being integrated with the whole of life. The bulk of Hegel’s criticisms of his contemporary society make the complaint that it does not make sufficient allowance for this reconciliation to become possible; the life of private individuals is too abstract from the affairs of the state (or the church, or various other social organizations), or else the state (or the church, or various other social organizations) does not make sufficient allowance for the free self-determination of individual actors to do as they judge best. Hegel does not think that moralische Harmonie is impossible; on the contrary, the possibility of this harmony is the highest achievement of modern civilization (and its philosophical handmaiden, Hegel’s System, is directed towards helping this Harmonie come about more fully). This is the “end of History”: with modernity Spirit knows its world as its own product, comprehends what is given to it as always already implicitly Spirit, as capable of being rationally comprehended, and the social world of “Objective Spirit” is a place where Spirit can feel “at home with itself in its other,” where the individual peculiarities of a particular subject are recognized as determinations of the “universal” of society, and not something over and against it.

Zizek is one hundred eighty degrees wrong about Hegel’s “the Absolute”: it is not a nihil, a “transcendent world of formlessness,” or any other ding-an-sich-like transcendence. Hegel’s Absolute is not the Schellingian “night in which all cows are black”; the Absolute is the most contentful thing there is. The Absolute is a concrete universal; it has its being, its truth, only in the particular determinations (“moments”) which make up Hegel’s system—those which make up the triad of Logic, Nature, and Spirit. The Absolute is not “at war with itself”; the Absolute particularizes itself in the asunderness of nature and returns to unity with itself in the reconciliation of asunderness with unity. To put it in religious terms, the Father begets the Son, and they are united in the Spirit of charity which proceeds from both; God creates a “fallen” world of disorder, enters into it in His only Son, and the world is reconciled to God through the life of the Spirit; the sinful individual, separated from God, becomes an adopted child of God in the community of the Spirit. The Absolute does not wage war in the divine comedy.

The “absolute, self-negating negativity” [sic] of the Terror is a moment of history, just as the Fall of Adam is a moment in the Christian story of salvation-history. For Hegel, the Terror is an exemplar of the “abstract universal”: in “absolute freedom” one refuses to recognize any “given” content as adequate to the universal, to Reason,—thus the purely formal “Supreme Being” of the French Revolution, and its trumpeting of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” while the actual state was rank tyranny of the lowest sort. The “point” of Hegel’s reference to the Terror is not “that it is a necessary moment in the deployment of freedom” (for this would apply to everything Hegel includes in his System), but that the Terror shows what happens when the drive for the Universal in human life takes a utopian form, trying to build everything up anew out of pure thought rather than recognizing and cultivating what is already rational in human life.[411]

Here we have the differend at its purest, and, insofar as we remain within the confines of the standard-textbook interpretation, the notion of Hegel which underlies this critique will appear not only convincing but even obvious—as if what I am offering is an eccentric reading against which it suffices to recall the basic facts known to any student of Hegel. This is why, for me, replying to this critique is almost embarrassing: everything it claims about Hegel is, of course, well known to me, since it consists in precisely the predominant image of Hegel that I endeavor to undermine—so one cannot simply invoke it against me … The question nonetheless remains: what justifies me rejecting this image? Let us begin with the last sentence from the quoted passage: after admitting that Revolutionary Terror was necessary (in a purely formal sense, as a subordinate moment in the development), my critic reduces it to the outcome of a wrong choice: the Terror “shows what happens when the drive for the Universal in human life takes a utopian form, trying to build everything up anew out of pure thought”—it explodes when, instead of “recognizing and cultivating what is already rational in human life,” that is, instead of searching for and endorsing the underlying rationality of the existing order and imposing changes in continuity with this tradition, people want to enact a violent rupture with the past, turn the world on its head and start again from year-zero. The problem here is that it is precisely this quality of the French Revolution that Hegel unambiguously celebrated to the end of his life—here are his sublime words from the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History:

It has been said that the French revolution resulted from philosophy, and it is not without reason that philosophy has been called Weltweisheit [world wisdom]; for it is not only truth in and for itself, as the pure essence of things, but also truth in its living form as exhibited in the affairs of the world. We should not, therefore, contradict the assertion that the revolution received its first impulse from philosophy … Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centers in his head, i.e. in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality … not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking being shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.[412]

This, of course, did not prevent Hegel from coldly analyzing the inner necessity of this explosion of abstract freedom turning into its opposite, the self-destructive Revolutionary Terror; however, one should never forget that Hegel’s critique is immanent, accepting the basic principle of the French Revolution (and its key supplement, the Haitian Revolution). One should be very clear here: Hegel in no way subscribes to the standard liberal critique of the French Revolution which locates the wrong turn in 1792–3, whose ideal is 1789 without 1793, the liberal phase without the Jacobin radicalization—for him 1793–4 is a necessary immanent consequence of 1789; by 1792, there was no possibility of taking a more “moderate” path without undoing the Revolution itself. Only the “abstract” Terror of the French Revolution creates the conditions for post-revolutionary “concrete freedom.”

If one wants to put it in terms of choice, then Hegel here follows a paradoxical axiom which concerns logical temporality: the first choice has to be the wrong choice. Only the wrong choice creates the conditions for the right choice. Therein resides the temporality of a dialectical process: there is a choice, but in two stages. The first choice is between the “good old” organic order and the violent rupture with that order—and here, one should take the risk of opting for “the worse.” This first choice clears the way for the new beginning and creates the condition for its own overcoming, for only after the radical negativity, the “terror,” of abstract universality has done its work can one choose between this abstract universality and concrete universality. There is no way to obliterate the temporal gap and present the choice as threefold, as the choice between the old organic substantial order, its abstract negation, and a new concrete universality.

It is this paradoxical priority of the wrong choice that provides the key to the Hegelian “reconciliation”: it is not the organicist harmony of a Whole within which every moment sticks to its particular place, as opposed to a field torn apart, in which every moment strives to assert its one-sided autonomy. Every particular moment does fully assert itself in its one-sided autonomy, but this assertion leads to its ruin, to its self-destruction—and this is the Hegelian “reconciliation”: not a direct reconciliation in mutual recognition, but a reconciliation in and through the struggle itself. The “harmony” Hegel depicts is the strange harmony of “extremes” themselves, the mad violent dance of every extreme turning into its opposite. Within this mad dance, the Absolute is not the all-encompassing container, the space or field within which particular moments are at war with each other—it is itself caught up in the struggle. Here, again, my critic misreads my claim that “the ‘transcendent world of formlessness’ (in short: the Absolute) is at war with itself; this means that (self-)destructive formlessness (absolute, self-relating negativity) must appear as such in the realm of finite reality”: he reads these lines as if I am asserting that the Hegelian Absolute is the abstract negativity of a Universal suspending all its particular content, the proverbial night in which all cows are black, and then triumphantly makes the elementary point that, on the contrary, the Hegelian Absolute is a concrete universal. But the choice proposed here by my critic—the choice between abstract universality and concrete organic system in which the universal engenders and contains the wealth of its particular determinations—is a false one: what is missing here is the third, properly Hegelian, choice, precisely the one I invoked in the quoted passage, namely the choice of abstract universality as such, in its opposition to its particular content, appearing within its own particular content (as one of its own species), encountering among its species as its own “oppositional determination.” It is in this sense that “the ‘transcendent world of formlessness’ (in short: the Absolute) is at war with itself” and that “(self-)destructive formlessness (absolute, self-relating negativity) must appear as such in the realm of finite reality”: this abstract universality becomes “concrete” not only by deploying itself in the series of its particular determinations, but by including itself in this series. It is because of this self-inclusion (self-referentiality) that the Absolute is “at war with itself,” as in the case of Revolutionary Terror, where abstract negativity is no longer a transcendent In-itself, but appears “in its oppositional determination,” as a particular force opposed to and destroying all (other) particular content. In more traditional Hegelian terms, this is what it means to say that, in a dialectical process, every external opposition, every struggle between the subject and its external opposite, gives way to an “internal contradiction,” to a struggle of the subject with itself: in its struggle against Faith, Enlightenment is at war with itself, it opposes itself to its own substance. Denying that the Absolute is “at war with itself” means denying the very core of the Hegelian dialectical process, reducing it to a kind of Oriental Absolute, a neutral or impassive medium in which particulars struggle against each other.

This is also why my critic is wrong when he claims that the Absolute

is not “at war with itself”; the Absolute particularizes itself in the asunderness of nature and returns to unity with itself in the reconciliation of asunderness with unity. To put it in religious terms, the Father begets the Son, and they are united in the Spirit of charity which proceeds from both; God creates a “fallen” world of disorder, enters into it in His only Son, and the world is reconciled to God through the life of the Spirit; the sinful individual, separated from God, becomes an adopted child of God in the community of the Spirit.[413]

Although this may appear a faithful summary of Hegel’s deployment of the Absolute, it misses the key feature—the fact that, as Hegel repeats again and again, the Absolute is the “result of itself,” the outcome of its own activity. What this means is that, in the strict sense of the term, there is no Absolute which externalizes or particularizes itself and then unites itself with its alienated Otherness: the Absolute emerges out of this process of alienation; that is, as the result of its own activity, the Absolute “is” nothing but its “return to itself.” The notion of an Absolute which externalizes itself and then reconciles itself with its Otherness presupposes the Absolute as given in advance, prior to the process of its becoming; it posits as the starting point of the process what is effectively its result. The insufficiency of this standard notion of the Hegelian process becomes palpable when my critic puts it in religious terms: on a close reading, one cannot fail to note how he evokes two different “triads,” first the triad of the Father begetting the Son and then uniting with him in the Spirit, then the triad of God creating a fallen world and then reconciling himself with it by entering into it in the guise of Christ, his Son. It is true that, in this way, “the sinful individual, separated from God, becomes an adopted child of God in the community of the Spirit”; however, the price paid for this is that God himself has to be separated from himself, that he has to die in the guise of his Son’s crucifixion. Is the death of Christ not the ultimate proof that, in the tension between God and the fallen world, God is at war with himself, which is why he has to “enter” the fallen world in the guise of his oppositional determination, as a miserable individual called Jesus?


But is not the claim that the Absolute is the “result of itself,” the outcome of its own activity, yet another sophism recalling Baron Münchhausen? Dieter Henrich made this point in philosophical terms when he explained how Hegel never succeeded in clearly presenting the basic “matrix” of his dialectical procedure, “a second-order discourse that could interpret what he was doing. I believe that without that key I am offering to you [my readers], the system remains ultimately inaccessible.”[414] As is well known, Henrich tries to find this key in his classic essay on Hegel’s logic of reflection: his claim is that Hegel came closest to articulating the basic matrix of his procedure when, at the beginning of his logic of Essence, he deals briefly with the different modes of reflection. The question, as always, is whether this key delivers what it promises: does it really open the door to the innermost secret of Hegel’s dialectics? Here is how Henrich begins his explanation:

Starting only with negation means having nothing but negation. Now in order to have nothing but negation, we need negation more than once. For, in Hegel’s view, negation is relational in the sense that there must be something it negates. But inasmuch as there is nothing that negation could possibly negate—owing to the assumption that we have only negation—negation can only negate itself. Accordingly, autonomous negation can only be a negation of negation. This means that autonomous negation is originally self-referential: in order to have only negation, we have to have negation twice …

We do not have, first, some particular proposition, and subsequent to this the negation of it, and, then, a further negation of the negation that might give us back the proposition.[415]

For common-sense reasoning, all this is, of course, meaningless sophistry: one cannot begin with negation, negation presupposes a positive entity that is negated. This is why it is crucial to explain what is meant by the self-referential negation through convincing examples—and here, it seems, Henrich does not live up to his own standards: a gap persists between the above-quoted abstract determination of the self-relating negation and the example of Hegel’s procedure provided by Henrich some pages earlier:

[Hegel] pursues the following strategy: he invokes Kant’s idea of autonomy (complete self-determination) as his criterion, and then notes that there are various ways in which the individual agent can acquire and observe this principle … Now the critical analysis of the philosopher can show that the discrepancy remains between the demands of autonomy and the state of consciousness or behavior that the agent has already achieved. Moreover, the proof of this discrepancy is simultaneously the justification of the demand for a higher form of moral life. This higher form eliminates the defects of the previous ones and so completes it … the new form requires that the preceding one remain present, anticipating completion, even though it is no longer the ultimate form.[416]

To illustrate this very procedure (in a way which, of course, runs counter to Henrich’s political orientation), let us note how the Marxist critique of “bourgeois” freedom and equality provides a perfect case of such a pleroma (fulfillment of the law): if we remain at the level of merely legal equality and freedom, this has consequences which lead to the immanent self-negation of freedom and equality (the un-freedom and inequality of the exploited workers who “freely” sell their labor-power on the market); the abstract legal principle of freedom and equality has thus to be supplemented by a social organization of production which will no longer allow for the self-undermining of the principle in its very enactment. The principle of freedom and equality is thereby “sublated”: negated, but in such a way that it is maintained at a higher level.[417] This example enables us to clarify the paradoxical starting point of Henrich’s “key”: Hegel does not actually start with negation, he starts with an apparent positivity which, upon closer inspection, immediately reveals itself to be its own negation: so, in our example, positive “bourgeois” freedom and equality reveal themselves (in their actualization) as their opposites, as their own negation. This is not yet negation proper, negation as a movement of mediation—the movement proper begins when the original form (which “is” its own negation) is negated or replaced by a higher form; and the “negation of negation” occurs when we realize that this higher form which negated the first effectively maintains (and even asserts more strongly) the starting point, in other words truly actualizes it, confers on it some positive content: the immediate assertion of freedom and equality really is its opposite, its self-destruction; it is only when it is negated or elevated to a higher level (in the socially just organization of the economy, and so on) that freedom and equality become actual. This is why, at the end of his Science of Logic, Hegel says that if one wants to count the moments of a dialectical process, they can be counted either as three or as four—what is negated is already in itself negated. But there is a further point to be added here: it is not only that, as in our example, if one sticks to abstract subjective autonomy without its more concrete fulfillment, this autonomy negates itself. Much more importantly, this “sticking” is necessary, unavoidable, one cannot by-pass it and move on directly to a more concrete higher form: it is only through the “excessive” sticking to the lower form that the self-negation takes place which then creates the need (or opens up the space) for the higher form. (Recall Hegel’s example of the French Revolution: the “abstract” freedom and equality had first to negate themselves in [or reveal themselves as] absolute Terror—only in this way was the space created for a post-revolutionary “concrete” State.)

We can clearly see here what is wrong with one of the basic common-sense criticisms of Hegel: “Hegel always presupposes that the movement goes on—a thesis is opposed by its anti-thesis, the ‘contradiction’ gets aggravated, we pass to the new position, etc., etc. But what if a moment refuses to get caught in the movement, what if it simply insists in (or resigns itself to) its inert particularity: ‘OK, I am inconsistent with myself, but so what? I prefer to stay where I am …’” The mistake of this criticism is that it misses the point: far from being a threatening abnormality, an exception to the “normal” dialectical movement, this—the refusal of a moment to become caught in a movement, its sticking to its particular identity—is precisely what happens as a rule. A moment turns into its opposite precisely by way of sticking to what it is, by refusing to recognize its truth in its opposite.

But is there not a more radical (in theoretical and political terms) example which fits much better Henrich’s abstract description of starting with negation and then reaching a new positivity through self-relating negation—that of crime? The central figure of G. K. Chesterton’s religious thriller The Man Who Was Thursday is a mysterious chief of a super-secret Scotland Yard department who is convinced that “a purely intellectual conspiracy would soon threaten the very existence of civilization”:

He is certain that the scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State. He has, therefore, formed a special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers. It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense … The work of the philosophical policeman … is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.[418]

Would not thinkers as different as Popper, Adorno, and Levinas also subscribe to a slightly modified version of this idea, where the actual political crime is called “totalitarianism” and the philosophical crime is condensed in the notion of “totality”? A straight road leads from the philosophical notion of totality to political totalitarianism, and the task of the “philosophical policeman” is to discover from one of Plato’s dialogues or a treatise by Rousseau that a political crime will be committed. The ordinary political policeman goes to secret meetings to arrest revolutionaries; the philosophical policeman goes to philosophical symposia to detect proponents of totality. The ordinary anti-terrorist policeman tries to detect those preparing to blow up buildings and bridges; the philosophical policeman tries to detect those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundations of our societies. The same insight was already formulated by Heinrich Heine in his History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany from 1834, although as a positive, admirable fact: “Mark you this, you proud men of action, you are nothing but the unconscious henchmen of intellectuals, who, often in the humblest seclusion, have meticulously plotted your every deed.”[419] As cultural conservatives would put it today, deconstructionist philosophers are much more dangerous than actual terrorists: while the latter want to undermine our politico-ethical system in order to impose their own religious-ethical regime, deconstructionists want to undermine order as such:

We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s … The common criminal is a bad man, but at least he is, as it were, a conditional good man. He says that if only a certain obstacle be removed—say a wealthy uncle—he is then prepared to accept the universe and to praise God. He is a reformer, but not an anarchist. He wishes to cleanse the edifice, but not to destroy it. But the evil philosopher is not trying to alter things, but to annihilate them.[420]

This provocative analysis demonstrates the limitation of Chesterton, and the inadequacy of his Hegelianism: what he does not grasp is that universal(ized) crime is no longer a crime—it sublates (negates/overcomes) itself as crime and turns from transgression into a new order. He is right to claim that, compared to the “entirely lawless” philosopher, burglars, bigamists, murderers even, are essentially moral: a thief is a “conditionally good man,” he does not deny property as such, he just wants more of it for himself and is then quite ready to respect it. However, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that crime is as such “essentially moral,” that it desires simply a particular illegal reordering of the global moral order which itself should remain unchanged. And, in a truly Hegelian spirit, one should take this proposition (of the “essential morality” of the crime) as far as its immanent reversal: not only is crime “essentially moral” (in Hegelese: an inherent moment of the deployment of the inner antagonisms and “contradictions” of the very notion of moral order, not something that disturbs moral order from outside, as an accidental intrusion); but morality itself is essentially criminal—again, not only in the sense that the universal moral order necessarily “negates itself” in particular crimes, but, more radically, in the sense that the way morality (and, in the case of theft, property) asserts itself is already in itself a crime—“property is theft,” as they used to say in the nineteenth century. That is to say, we should pass from theft as a particular criminal violation of the universal form of property to this form itself as a criminal violation: what Chesterton fails to perceive is that the “universalized crime” he projects onto “lawless modern philosophy” and its political equivalent, the “anarchist” movement that aims at destroying the totality of civilized life, already exists in the guise of the existing rule of the law, so that the antagonism between the law and crime reveals itself to be inherent to crime, as the antagonism between universal and particular crime.[421] This point was clearly made by none other than Richard Wagner who, in his draft for the play Jesus of Nazareth, written some time between late 1848 and early 1849, attributes to Jesus a series of alternate supplementations of the Commandments:

The commandment saith: Thou shalt not commit adultery! But I say unto you: Ye shall not marry without love. A marriage without love is broken as soon as entered into, and whoso hath wooed without love, already hath broken the wedding. If ye follow my commandment, how can ye ever break it, since it bids you do what your own heart and soul desire?—But where ye marry without love, ye bind yourselves at variance with God’s law, and in your wedding ye sin against God; and this sin avengeth itself by your striving next against the law of man, in that ye break the marriage-vow.[422]

The shift from Jesus’ actual words is crucial here: Jesus “internalizes” the prohibition, rendering it much more severe (the Law says do not commit adultery, but I say if you even covet another’s wife in your mind, it is the same as if you had already committed adultery, etc.); Wagner also internalizes it, but in a different way—the inner dimension is not that of intention, but of the love that should accompany the Law (marriage). True adultery is not copulating outside marriage, but copulating in marriage without love: simple adultery just violates the Law from outside, while marriage without love destroys it from within, turning the letter of the Law against its spirit. So, to paraphrase Brecht once again: what is simple adultery compared to the adultery that is a loveless marriage? It is not by chance that Wagner’s underlying formula “marriage is adultery” recalls Proudhon’s “property is theft”—in the stormy events of 1848, Wagner was not only a Feuerbachian celebrating sexual love, but also a Proudhonian revolutionary demanding the abolition of private property; so no wonder that, on the same page, Wagner attributes to Jesus a Proudhonian supplement to “Thou shalt not steal!”:

This also is a good law: Thou shalt not steal, nor covet another man’s goods. Who goeth against it, sinneth: but I preserve you from that sin, inasmuch as I teach you: Love thy neighbour as thyself; which also meaneth: Lay not up for thyself treasures, whereby thou stealest from thy neighbour and makest him to starve: for when thou hast thy goods safeguarded by the law of man, thou provokest thy neighbour to sin against the law.[423]

This is how the Christian “supplement” to the Book should be conceived: as a properly Hegelian “negation of negation,” which resides in the decisive shift from the distortion of a notion to a distortion constitutive of this notion, that is, to this notion as a distortion-in-itself. Recall again Proudhon’s dialectical motto “property is theft”: the “negation of negation” is here the shift from theft as a distortion (“negation,” violation) of property to the dimension of theft inscribed into the very notion of property (nobody has the right to fully own the means of production; they are by nature inherently collective, so every claim “this is mine” is illegitimate). As we have just seen, the same goes for crime and law, for the passage from crime as the distortion (“negation”) of the law to crime as sustaining the law itself, the idea of the law itself as universalized crime. We should note that, in this notion of the “negation of negation,” the encompassing unity of the two opposed terms is the “lowest,” “transgressive” one: it is not crime which is a moment of law’s self-mediation (or theft which is a moment of property’s self-mediation); the opposition of crime and law is inherent to crime, law is a subspecies of crime, crime’s self-relating negation (in the same way that property is theft’s self-relating negation). And, ultimately, does not the same go for nature itself? Here, the “negation of negation” is the shift from the idea that we are violating some natural balanced order to the idea that imposing on the Real such a notion of balanced order is in itself the greatest violation—which is why the premise, the first axiom even, of every radical ecology is “there is no Nature.” Chesterton wrote: “Take away the supernatural and what you are left with is the unnatural.” We should endorse this statement, but in a sense opposite to that intended by Chesterton: we should accept that nature is “unnatural,” a freak show of contingent disturbances with no inner rhyme or reason. The same dialectical reversal characterizes the notion of violence: it is not only that an outburst of violence is often a passage à l’acte as a sign of impotence; one could claim that this reversal is inherent to the notion of violence as such, and not only a feature or sign of a deficient violence. Violence as such—the need to attack the opponent—is a sign of impotence, of the agent’s exclusion from what it attacks. I treat with violence only that which escapes my control, that which I cannot regulate or steer from within.

The lines quoted above from Wagner cannot but evoke the famous passages from The Communist Manifesto which respond to the bourgeois reproach that communism wants to abolish freedom, property, and family: it is capitalist freedom itself which, as the freedom to buy and sell on the market, is the very form of un-freedom for those who have nothing but their labor-power to sell; it is capitalist property itself which is the “abolition” of property for those who do not own the means of production; it is bourgeois marriage itself which is universalized prostitution. In all these cases, the external opposition is internalized, so that one opposed term becomes the form of appearance of the other (bourgeois freedom is the form of appearance of the unfreedom of the majority, etc.). However, at least in the case of freedom, for Marx this means that communism will not abolish freedom but, by abolishing capitalist servitude, bring about actual freedom, the freedom which will no longer be the form of appearance of its opposite. It is thus not freedom itself which is the form of appearance of its opposite, but only a false freedom, freedom distorted by relations of domination.

Underlying the dialectic of the “negation of negation,” then, a Habermasian “normative” approach immediately imposes itself: how can we talk about crime without a preceding notion of legal order that is violated by the criminal transgression? In other words, is not the notion of law as universalized or self-negated crime self-destructive? This, precisely, is what a properly dialectical approach rejects: what precedes transgression is just a neutral state of things, neither good nor bad (neither property nor theft, neither law nor crime); the balance of this state of things is then violated, and the positive norm (law, property) arises as a secondary move, as an attempt to counteract and contain the transgression. With regard to the dialectic of freedom, this means that it is “alienated, bourgeois” freedom itself which creates the conditions and opens up the space for “actual” freedom.[424]

The shift from negation to the negation of negation is thus a shift from the objective to the subjective dimension: in direct negation, the subject observes a change in the object (its disintegration, its passage into its opposite), while in the negation of negation, the subject includes itself in the process, taking into account how the process it is observing affects its own position. Let us take the “highest” example, that of the crucifixion: the subject first observes the most radical “negation” imaginable, the death of God; then, it becomes aware of how the death of God opens up the space for its own (subjective) freedom.

Such a reading of the negation of negation runs counter to the commonly held notion according to which the first negation is the splitting or particularization of the inner essence, its externalization, and the second negation the overcoming of that split. No wonder that this notion caused many interpreters of Hegel to mock the negation of negation as a magical mechanism which guarantees that the final outcome of a process will always be happy. Back in 1953, the young Louis Althusser published a text in La revue de l’enseignement philosophique in which he congratulated Stalin for rejecting the “negation of negation” as a universal law of dialectics,[425] a rejection shared by Mao. It is easy to understand this rejection as the expression of the spirit of struggle, of “one divides into two”: there is no reunification, no final synthesis, the struggle goes on forever. However, the Hegelian dialectical “synthesis” has to be clearly delimited from the “synthesis-of-the-opposites” model with which it is as a rule identified. In psychoanalysis, this model has two versions. The first is subjectivist: the psychoanalytical treatment is conceived as the reflexive appropriation of the alienated unconscious substance, and, on a first approach, it may appear that Freud’s famous wo es war soll ich werden fits perfectly the process of “the unconscious substance becoming subject.” The second version is substantialist, and it should come as no surprise to true Freudians that the first person to propose it was Jung, the arch-renegade, in his pseudo-Hegelian “compensation theory.” (In the opposition between Freud and Jung, Freud was here the truer Hegelian.) The basic idea of “compensation theory” is the elevation of the Unconscious into the hidden substantial Truth of the human subject—with our one-sided rationalist subjectivism, we in the West have lost sight of this substantial Truth in the depth of our being:

Whenever life proceeds one-sidedly in any given direction, the self-regulation of the organism produces in the unconscious an accumulation of all those factors which play too small a part in the individual’s conscious existence. For this reason I have put forward the compensation theory of the unconscious as a complement to the repression theory.[426]

It is easy to see how this relates to neurotic symptoms and therapy: when the ego becomes too narrow and rigid, excluding the (“irrational”) tendencies that do not fit its (self-)image, these tendencies return in the guise of neurotic symptoms. For example, when a man curtails his feminine “shadow” (anima), cutting it out of his identity, it returns to haunt him in the guise of monstrous and obscene feminine figures in which he is not able to recognize himself, and which he experiences as brutal foreign intrusions. The goal of therapy is therefore not to eliminate these symptoms, but to integrate them into a wider Self that transcends the narrow confines of ego. The symptoms stand for forces that are not in themselves evil and destructive: what makes them such is the false perspective of the ego, or, as Hegel would have put it, evil resides in the very gaze that sees evil everywhere around it. So when the ego is haunted by neurotic symptoms, the task of the therapist is to get the patient to see how his ego is part of the problem, not its solution: the patient should shift his perspective and recognize in his symptoms the violent expression of the disavowed part of himself. The true illness is that of the ego itself, and the neurotic symptoms are desperate attempts at a cure, attempts to re-establish the balance disturbed by the ego’s narrow frame which has excluded crucial parts of the Self’s content:

A neurosis is truly removed only when it has removed the false attitude of the ego. We do not cure it—it cures us. A man is ill, but the illness is nature’s attempt to heal him, and what the neurotic flings away as absolutely worthless contains the true gold we should never have found elsewhere.[427]

No wonder that some partisans of Jung see in this “compensation theory” a Hegelian inspiration:

It was Hegel who argued that the only way a battle could cease between a thesis and an antithesis was through the construction of a synthesis that would include elements from both sides and transcend the opposition. Although Jung denied that Hegel was an influence of his thought, it is hard to imagine Jungian thought without the Hegelian model that sees conflict overcome through the creation of a transcendent “third” which is neither thesis nor antithesis but a new entity in which both are included.[428]

Here, however, Jung was for once right: there really is no trace of Hegel in Jung’s “compensation theory.” This may appear too hasty, since many of Jung’s formulations effectively recall Hegel’s notion of the reconciliation of the subject with its alienated substance—how the subject has to recognize in the foreign power it fights the misrecognized part of its own substance. This dialectic of recognition effectively belongs to the young Hegel; it found its definitive expression in the Jena-period fragments on love and reconciliation, and, later, in Hegel’s reading of Antigone as the tragic confrontation of two opposed positions, Antigone’s and Creon’s, both blinded by their one-sidedness and thus each unable to recognize the moment of their own truth in the other. Here is Jung’s most “Hegelian” formulation: “The individual is faced with the necessity of recognizing and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life, as a kind of ‘also-I’.”[429]

Is it then possible to say, in line with “recognizing and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life,” that the goal of the analytic process is, in a vaguely Hegelian way, to enable the patient to “set straight” the libidinal compromises that characterize his subjective position, and to arrive at the truth about his desire? No, for a very precise and simple reason: because there is no substantial truth to be appropriated, in which the subject or patient might recognize his authentic place. We should thus reject the matrix underlying the first philosophically relevant attempt to establish the link between Hegel and psychoanalysis, namely, that undertaken within the tradition of the Frankfurt School, first elaborated by Jürgen Habermas in Interest and Human Knowledge, and later acquiring its definitive formulation in Helmut Dahmer’s Libido and Society. The basic matrix involved here is provided by the homology between the Hegelian process of alienation and its overcoming through subjective mediation, or reflexive re-appropriation, of the alienated substantial content, and the Freudian process of repression and its overcoming through the analytic process wherein the patient is brought to recognize his own content in what appeared to him as the weird formations of the unconscious. Like Hegelian reflection, psychoanalysis does not generate neutral-objective knowledge, but a “practical” knowledge which, when subjectively assumed, radically changes its bearer.

From a contemporary perspective, it is easy to see the limitations of such a notion of reconciliation—it suffices to attempt to apply it to the struggle between the Nazis and the Jews. Again, on a first approach, the Jungian notion of the “shadow” as the misrecognized alter ego seems fitting here: is there not indeed a strange echoing and redoubling between the Nazi elevation of Aryan Germans and the Jews’ perception of themselves as the chosen nation? Was it not already Schoenberg who dismissed Nazi racism as a miserable imitation of the Jewish identity as the chosen people? And yet would it not be obscene to say that each of these two parties should recognize in its opponent its own truth and substance, its own second Self? For the Jews, this could only mean that they should recognize how, in the guise of the Nazi hatred of them, they suffer the reaction to the fact that they excluded themselves from organic communal life and thereby abandoned themselves to a rootless, alienated existence. It is immediately clear what is wrong here: what’s missing is the radical asymmetry of the opposed poles. While the (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” really is a kind of “symptom” of Nazism, Nazism is definitely not in any symmetrical way a symptom of Judaism, the return of its repressed, its inner truth, for it is an obscenity to say that, in their struggle against Nazism, the Jews “fling away as absolutely worthless the true gold they should never have found elsewhere.”

The opposition of poles thus conceals the fact that one of the poles already is the unity of the two—so, for Hegel, there is no need for a third element to bring the two together.[430] This is why Hegel’s dialectics is radically groundless, abyssal, a process of the self-relating of the Two which lacks any Third—for example, there is no external Third, no Ground, no shared medium in which the opposition between law and crime is “synthesized”: the dialectical “truth” of their opposition is that crime is its own species, the encompassing unity of itself and its opposite. With regard to the opposition of liberal individualism and fundamentalism, today’s communitarians advocate a kind of Jungian “compensation theory”: we in the West put too much emphasis on individualism, neglecting the bonds of community, which then return to haunt us in the guise of the fundamentalist threat; the way to fight fundamentalism is thus to change our own view, to recognize in it the distorted image of the neglected aspect of our own identity. The solution lies in restoring the proper balance between individual and community, creating a social body in which collective and individual freedom organically supplement each other. What is wrong here is this very figure of a balanced harmony of the two opposed principles. We should start, on the contrary, with the immanent “contradiction” (antagonism) of capitalist individualism—fundamentalism is ultimately a secondary, “reactive” phenomenon, an attempt to counteract and “gentrify” this antagonism.

For Hegel, the goal is thus not to (re)establish the symmetry and balance of the two opposing principles, but to recognize in one pole the symptom of the failure of the other (and not vice versa): fundamentalism is a symptom of liberalism, Antigone is a symptom of Creon, etc. The solution is to revolutionize or change the universal term itself (liberalism, etc.), so that it will no longer require its symptom as the guarantee of its unity. Consequently, the way to overcome the tension between secular individualism and religious fundamentalism is not to find a proper balance between the two, but to abolish or overcome the source of the problem, the antagonism at the very heart of the capitalist individualist project.

It is this move towards self-relating negativity that is absent in Zen Buddhism, which also relies on a kind of “negation of negation”: first, we deny the substantial character of reality and assert that the only Absolute is the Void itself; then, we overcome the Void itself insofar as it is still opposed to positive reality and assert the ultimate sameness of the plurality of phenomena and the Void. This is why the basic feature of the Buddhist ontology is the notion of the radical interdependence of phenomena: phenomena are totally non-substantial, there is nothing behind them, no Ground, only the Void; that is, if we isolate a thing from its relations to other things and try to grasp it as it is “in itself,” we get only Void. In nirvana, we existentially assume this Void—not by denying phenomena, but by fully assuming their non-substantial character. The ethical implication of this notion of Void is that “good has no priority over evil. The priority of good over evil is an ethical imperative but not an actual human condition.”[431] “Good and evil are completely interdependent. There is no good without evil and vice versa. There is no nothingness without somethingness and vice versa.”[432] When we realize this (not only notionally, but also existentially), we reach “the point where there is neither good nor evil, neither life nor death, neither nothingness or somethingness … This is freedom.”[433] At this point, “I am neither good nor bad. I am nothing whatsoever.”[434] From this position, even Hegel’s dialectics appears not radical enough: for Hegel, Being still has priority over Nothing, negativity is contained to the self-mediating movement of the absolute Spirit which thus maintains a minimum of substantial identity, and the Hegelian “Cunning of Reason” indicates that a substantial force underlies the interplay of phenomena, teleologically directing it.

From the Hegelian standpoint, what is missing here is the properly dialectical paradox of a Nothingness which is prior to Somethingness and, even more, of a weird Something which is less than nothing. In other words, the Buddhist inter-relation and de-substantialization of reality remains at the level of the thorough interdependence of the opposite poles: no good without evil, no something without nothing, and vice versa—and we can overcome this duality only by way of withdrawing into the abyss of the absolute and unconditional Void. But what about a properly Hegelian dialectical process in which negativity is not reduced to a self-mediation of the positive Absolute, but in which, on the contrary, positive reality appears as the result of self-relating negativity (or, with regard to ethics, in which the good is a self-negated or self-mediated evil)?


Can the matrix of the “subjective re-appropriation of the alienated objective content” still be applied to Lacan’s “return to Freud”? Is not the whole thrust of Lacan’s reading of Freud directed against such a subjective re-appropriation of alienated Otherness? For Lacan, is not the alienation of the subject in the Other constitutive of subjectivity? The obvious answer is no—however, it is our aim to give this “no” a different twist from the usual one: not to cut the link which connects Lacan to Hegel (a path which was increasingly followed by Lacan himself), but to make, in reading Hegel through Lacan, a new “return to Hegel,” that is, to discern the contours of a different Hegel, a Hegel who no longer fits the subjectivist matrix of the subject appropriating (internalizing through notional mediation, sublating, idealizing) all substantial content.

One of the best indicators of the dimension which resists the pseudo-Hegelian understanding of psychoanalytic treatment as the process of the patient’s appropriation of repressed content is the paradox of perversion in the Freudian theoretical edifice: perversion demonstrates the insufficiency of the simple logic of transgression. The standard wisdom tells us that perverts actually do what hysterics only dream about doing, for “everything is allowed” in perversion, a pervert openly actualizes all repressed content—and yet, nonetheless, as Freud emphasizes, nowhere is repression as strong as in perversion, a fact amply confirmed by our late-capitalist reality in which total sexual permissiveness causes anxiety and impotence or frigidity instead of liberation. This compels us to draw a distinction between the repressed content and the form of repression, where the form remains operative even after the content is no longer repressed—in short, the subject can fully appropriate the repressed content, but repression remains. Commenting on a short dream had by one of his patients (a woman who at first refused to tell Freud the dream “because it was so indistinct and muddled”), which revealed itself to refer to the fact that the patient was pregnant but in doubt as to the baby’s father (i.e., the parenthood was “indistinct and muddled”), Freud draws a key dialectical conclusion:

the lack of clarity shown by the dream was a part of the material which instigated the dream: part of this material, that is, was represented in the form of the dream. The form of a dream or the form in which it is dreamt is used with quite surprising frequency for representing its concealed subject-matter.[435]

The gap between form and content is here properly dialectical, in contrast to the transcendental gap whose point is that every content appears within an a priori formal frame, and hence we should always be aware of the invisible transcendental frame which “constitutes” the content we perceive—or, in structural terms, we should distinguish between the elements and the formal places these elements occupy. We only attain the level of proper dialectical analysis of a form when we conceive a certain formal procedure not as expressing a certain aspect of the (narrative) content, but as marking or signaling that part of the content which is excluded from the explicit narrative line, so that—and herein resides the proper theoretical point—if we want to reconstruct “all” of the narrative content, we must reach beyond the explicit narrative content as such and include those formal features which act as a stand-in for the “repressed” aspect of the content.[436] To take the well-known elementary example from the analysis of melodramas: the emotional excess that cannot express itself directly in the narrative line finds its outlet in the ridiculously sentimental musical accompaniment or in other formal features.

Exemplary is here the way Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources displace Marcel Pagnol’s original film (and his own later novelization of it) on which they are based. That is to say, Pagnol’s original retains traces of the “authentic” French provincial community life, with its old, quasi-pagan religious patterns, while Berri’s films fail in their effort to recapture the spirit of this closed, premodern community. However, unexpectedly, the inherent obverse of Pagnol’s universe is the theatricality of the action and the element of ironic distance and comicality, while Berri’s films, though shot more “realistically,” place the emphasis on destiny (the musical leitmotif of the films is based on Verdi’s La forza del destino), and on the melodramatic excess whose hystericality often borders on the ridiculous (like the scene in which, after the rain by-passes his field, the desperate Jean cries and shouts at Heaven). So, paradoxically, the closed, ritualized, premodern community implies theatrical comicality and irony, while the modern, “realistic” rendering involves Fate and melodramatic excess. In this respect, Berri’s two films are to be opposed to Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves: in both cases, we are dealing with the tension between form and content; however, in Breaking the Waves, the excess is located in the content (the subdued pseudo-documentary form makes this excess palpable), while in Berri, the excess in the form obfuscates and thus renders palpable the flaw in the content, the impossibility today of realizing the pure classical tragedy of Destiny.

Therein lies the key consequence of the move from Kant to Hegel: the very gap between content and form is to be reflected back into the content itself, as an indication that the content is not all, that something was repressed/excluded from it. This exclusion which establishes the form itself is the “primordial repression” (Ur-Verdrängung), and no matter how much we bring out all the repressed content, this primordial repression persists. How do we explain this? The immediate answer involves the identity of the repression with the return of the repressed, which means that the repressed content does not pre-exist repression, but is retroactively constituted by the very process of repression. Through different forms of negation or obfuscation (condensation, displacement, denegation, disavowal …), the repressed is allowed to penetrate public conscious speech, to find an echo in it (the most direct example comes from Freud: when one of his patients said, “I don’t know who this woman in my dream is, but I am sure she is not my mother!” the mother, the repressed, entered into speech). What we get here is another kind of “negation of negation”; that is, the content is negated or repressed, but this repression is in the same gesture itself negated in the guise of the return of the repressed (which is why we are definitely not dealing here with the properly Hegelian negation of negation). The logic seems similar to that of the relationship between sin and Law in Paul, where there is no sin without Law, where the Law itself creates the transgression it tries to subdue, so that, if we remove the Law, we also lose what the Law tried to “repress”—or, in more Freudian terms, if we remove the “repression,” we also lose the repressed content. Is the proof not provided by today’s typical patient, whose reaction to the same dream would be: “I don’t know who this woman in my dream is, but I am sure she has something to do with my mother!”? The patient says this, but there is no liberation, no truth-effect, no shift in his subjective position—why? Again, what remains “repressed” even when the barriers preventing access to the repressed content come down? The first answer is, of course: the form itself. That is to say, both the positive and the negative form (“this is my mother”; “this is not my mother”) move within the same field, the field of the symbolic form, and what we should focus on is a more radical “repression” constitutive of this form itself, what Lacan (at some point) called symbolic castration or the prohibition of incest—a negative gesture which sustains the very symbolic form, so that even when we say, “This is my mother!” the mother is already lost. That is to say, this negative gesture sustains the minimal gap between the symbolic and the Real, between (symbolic) reality and the impossible Real.

However, insofar as we are dealing here with the properly dialectical mediation between form and content, we should not reduce primordial repression simply to the form of a gap: something insists, the weird positivity of an excessive “content” not only impervious to negation, but produced by the very process of redoubled (self-relating) negation. Consequently, this something is not simply a remainder of the pre-symbolic Real that resists symbolic negation, but a spectral X called by Lacan the objet a or surplus-enjoyment. Here Lacan’s key distinction between pleasure (Lust, plaisir) and enjoyment (Geniessen, jouissance) comes into play: what is “beyond the pleasure principle” is enjoyment itself, the drive as such. The basic paradox of jouissance is that it is both impossible and unavoidable: it is never fully achieved, always missed, but, simultaneously, we never can get rid of it—every renunciation of enjoyment generates an enjoyment in renunciation, every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle, and so on. This reversal provides the minimal definition of surplus-enjoyment: it involves a paradoxical “pleasure in pain.” That is to say, when Lacan uses the term plus-de-jouir, one has to ask another naïve but crucial question: in what does this surplus consist? Is it merely a qualitative increase of ordinary pleasure? The ambiguity of the French expression is decisive here: it can mean “surplus of enjoyment” as well as “no enjoyment”—the surplus of enjoyment over mere pleasure is generated by the presence of the very opposite of pleasure, namely pain; it is the part of jouissance which resists being contained by homeostasis, by the pleasure-principle; it is the excess of pleasure produced by “repression” itself, which is why we lose it if we abolish repression. This is what Herbert Marcuse, in his Eros and Civilization, misses when he proposes a distinction between “basic repression” (“the ‘modifications’ of the instincts necessary for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization”) and “surplus-repression” (“the restrictions necessitated by social domination”):

while any form of the reality principle demands a considerable degree and scope of repressive control over the instincts, the specific historical institutions of the reality principle and the specific interests of domination introduce additional controls over and above those indispensable for civilized human association. These additional controls arising from the specific institutions of domination are what we denote as surplus-repression.[437]

Marcuse offers as examples of surplus-repression “the modifications and deflections of instinctual energy necessitated by the perpetuation of the monogamic-patriarchal family, or by a hierarchical division of labor, or by public control over the individual’s private existence.”[438] Although he concedes that basic and surplus-repression are de facto inextricably intertwined, one should go a step further and render problematic their very conceptual distinction: it is the paradox of libidinal economy that surplus or excess is necessary for even for the most “basic” functioning. An ideological edifice “bribes” subjects into accepting “repression” or renunciation by way of offering surplus-enjoyment (Lacan’s plus-de-jouir)—that is, enjoyment generated by the “excessive” renunciation of enjoyment itself; surplus-enjoyment is by definition enjoyment-in-pain. (Its paradigmatic case is the Fascist call “Renounce corrupt pleasures! Sacrifice yourself for your country!” a call which promises an obscene enjoyment brought about by this very renunciation.) Thus one cannot have only “basic” repression without surplus-repression, since it is the very enjoyment generated by surplus-repression which renders “basic” repression palpable to subjects. The paradox we are dealing with here is thus a kind of “less is more”: “more” repression is less traumatic, more easily accepted, than less. When repression is diminished, it becomes much more difficult to endure and provokes rebellion. (This may be one of the reasons why revolutions break out not when oppression is at its height, but when it diminishes to a more “reasonable” or “rational” level—the diminishing deprives repression of the aura which makes it acceptable.)

To return to Hegel: can one really claim that this excess produced by the very process of self-relating negation is beyond his scope? In a neglected passage from the subchapter of the Phenomenology describing the structure of the utilitarian Enlightenment universe, Hegel (for the first time) formulates the basic paradox of the “pleasure principle”: the fact that the greatest threat to pleasure is not a scarcity that prevents full access to it, but the excess of pleasure itself. In the utilitarian universe, “everything exists to pleasure and delight [man], and, as he first comes from the hand of God, he walks the earth as in a garden planted for him.” But what disturbs this paradise is that, having also “plucked the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” man’s

inherently good nature is also so constituted that the superfluity of delight does it harm, or rather his singleness contains as a factor in its constitution a principle that goes beyond it; his singleness can overreach itself and destroy itself. To prevent this, he finds reason a useful means for duly restraining this self-transcendence, or rather for preserving himself when he does go beyond the determinate: for such is the force of consciousness … The principle of measure or proportion has, therefore, the determinate function of preventing pleasure in its variety and duration from being quite broken off: i.e. the function of “measure” is immoderation.[439]

This lesson is repeatedly imparted to us by advertising: to enjoy our product fully and permanently, we must enjoy it in proper measure (drink reasonably, consume only one bar of chocolate at a time …)—only such restraint guarantees true “immoderation,” a prolonged life of pleasure; as Lacan pointed out, the Freudian pleasure principle is not a principle of unbridled ecstatic enjoyment, but a principle of restraint.

The proof that Hegel’s formulation of the “beyond of the pleasure principle” is embedded in his notion of subjectivity lies in his definition of the subject as “the activity of the formal rationality of satisfying impulses.”[440] This idea is developed in his Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History:

[Man] places the ideal, the realm of thought, between the demands of the impulse and their satisfaction. In the animal, the two coincide; it cannot sever their connection by its own efforts—only pain or fear can do so. In man, the impulse is present before it is satisfied and independently of its satisfaction; in controlling or giving rein to his impulses, man acts in accordance with ends and determines himself in the light of a general principle. It is up to him to decide what end to follow; he can even make his end a universal one. In so doing, he is determined by whatever conceptions he has formed of his own nature and volitions. It is this which constitutes man’s independence: for he knows what it is that determines him.[441]

This means that rationality, at first merely interposing itself as an agency for the better satisfaction of impulses, ends up subordinating all natural goals to itself (“positing its presuppositions”) and becoming its own goal: rationality first emerges as

a hedonic calculus aiming at the general satisfaction of my impulses (in happiness); but finally, if I am to be fully satisfied in my action—in my regard that it is my own—the rationality principle that I apply must not be conditional on a contingent end like happiness (which may depend on some view of desire preference that I can’t be sure is my own, since others may have influenced my selection of it). Rather, the principle of my action must involve my willing that I be present in my action as a free agent.[442]

No wonder, then, that the identity of opposites is clearly discernible in the case of pleasure and duty. Not only is it possible to elevate pleasure into a duty (à la the narcissistic hedonist), it is also possible to elevate duty into a pleasure (à la the sentimental moralist). But what about the majority of cases in which the two are simply opposed? The catch is: am I able to do my duty, not when it curtails my pleasures, but when it gives me pleasure to do it? Only if I am able to do so will the two domains be truly separated. If I cannot tolerate the pleasure that may result as a by-product, then my carrying out of my duty will already be contaminated by pleasure, by the economy of “moral masochism.” In other words, it is crucial to distinguish between tolerating pleasure as an accidental by-product of doing my duty, and doing a duty because it provides me pleasure.


The “coincidence of the opposites” thus has nothing whatsoever to do with the “eternal harmony/struggle” of opposed forces, the constituent of every pagan cosmology. In a given society, certain features, attitudes, and norms of life are not perceived as ideologically marked but appear as “neutral,” as part of a non-ideological common-sense way of life. “Ideology” is then reserved for those explicitly posited (“marked” in the semiotic sense) positions which stand out from or against this background (like extreme religious zeal, dedication to some political orientation, etc.). The Hegelian point here would be that it is precisely this neutralization of certain features within a spontaneously accepted background which is ideology at its purest (and at its most effective). Here, then, is a true case of the “coincidence of the opposites”: the actualization of a notion (ideology in this case) at its purest coincides with (or more precisely appears as) its opposite (as non-ideology). And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for violence: social-symbolic violence at its purest appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, as neutral as the air that we breathe.

What this last example clearly shows is that, in the Hegelian “negation of negation,” the level shifts: first negation directly changes the content within the same horizon, while in the negation of negation, “nothing really changes,” the horizon is simply turned around, so that “the same” content appears as its opposite. Another unexpected example: in the mid-1990s, the servicing of goods organized by the state in North Korea’s centralized and fully regulated economy gradually ceased to function: the food distribution system delivered increasingly smaller rations, factories simply stopped paying salaries, the medical system was without medicines, electricity and water were available for only a couple of hours per week, cinemas stopped showing films, etc. The reaction of ordinary North Koreans to this disintegration may be surprising to some: the needs which were no longer being met by the state were, up to a point, accommodated by primitive forms of a modest market capitalism, grudgingly tolerated by the state: individuals selling home-grown vegetables, fish or mushrooms, dogs and rats (or trading them for family valuables like jewelry or clothes); electronic devices and DVDs smuggled in from China. What emerged was a brutal survivalist market economy, as if the country had regressed to a kind of Hobbesian state of nature: find your market niche (from selling homemade corn noodles to hairdressing) or die. It was thus not some elementary form of solidarity but raw egoism which won the day: in a cruel irony, at this zero-point, the official ideology of total solidarity and the dedication of individuals to the community was supplemented by its pure and simple opposite. The Hegelian point to be made here is, of course, that this negation of the official ideology was not external, but internal to it: the explosion of egoism was “in itself” already there in the actual subjective economy of those who participated in the official communal rituals—they participated as a matter of survival, as part of a pure egoist strategy of avoiding state terror. A recent docu-fiction book (based on interviews with refugees) describes the moment when Jun-sang, a privileged student at a Pyongyang university, after encountering a starving homeless child, suddenly realized that he no longer believed in the North Korean official ideology:

He now knew for sure that he didn’t believe. It was an enormous moment of self-revelation, like deciding one was an atheist. It made him feel alone. He was different from everybody else, burdened by a secret he had discovered about himself.

At first he thought his life would be dramatically different with his newfound clarity. In fact, it was much the same as ever before. He went through the motions of being a loyal subject. On Saturday mornings he showed up punctually at the ideological lectures at the university.[443]

However, he then noticed that the faces of his fellow students

were still and expressionless, as blank as mannequins in a department store window.

He realized suddenly he wore the same vacant expression on his face. In fact, they all probably felt exactly the same way he did about the contents of the lecture.

“They know! They all know!” he nearly screamed, he was so certain … Jun-sang realized he was not the only nonbeliever out there. He was even convinced that he could recognize a form of silent communication that was so subtle it didn’t even rise to the level of a wink or a nod.[444]

One should read these lines literally: far from experiencing a loss of individuality through immersion in a primordial collective identity, the individuals who participated in the obligatory ideological rituals were absolutely alone, reduced to a punctual individuality, unable to communicate their true inner subjective stance, totally divorced from the ideological big Other. What we encounter here is one of the purest examples of the shift from alienation to separation as developed by Lacan in his seminar on the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis: radical alienation in the public ideological order, where people seem to lose their individuality and act like puppets, is no less a form of radical separation, the total withdrawal of subjects into their mute singularity excluded from any symbolic collective—it was this singularity produced by the state-ideological machine which exploded in North Korea when the state servicing of goods ceased to function. (Perspicuous analysts of Stalinism had already noted that the Stalinist collective rendered individuals less solidary and more survivalist-egotist than normal bourgeois society, where elements of solidarity survive as a reaction against market competition.)[445]

The underlying logic here is that of the retroactive positing of presuppositions. This logic also allows us to see what is wrong in the Hobbesian vision of the Monarch as the One who brutally but necessarily imposes peaceful coexistence upon the multitude of individuals who, left to themelves, would descend into a state where homo homini lupus. This supposedly “natural” state of the war of all against all is a retroactive product of the imposed state power; that is, in order for that power to function, the One has to sever the direct lateral links between individuals: “the relation to the One makes of every subject a traitor to his fellows. It is false to assert that the One is put in the place of the third because homo homini lupus, as Hobbes would say. It is the fact of putting the One in the place of the transcendent lawgiver or considering him as its representative that makes a wolf out of a man.”[446] A similar point was made by Sofia Näsström: it is the state itself that “frees” people from their responsibility to each other, narrowing the space of direct communal solidarity and reducing people to abstract individuals—in short, the state itself creates the problem it then strives to resolve.[447]

What this more complicated model including retroactivity indicates is that the Hegelian triad is never really a triad, that its number is not 3. There were three steps in the formation of Russian national identity: first, the substantial starting point (premodern Orthodox Russia); then, the violent modernization enforced by Peter the Great, which continued throughout eighteenth century and created a new French-speaking elite; finally, after 1812, the rediscovery of “Russianness,” the return to forgotten authentic origins.[448] It is crucial to bear in mind that this rediscovery of authentic roots was only possible through and for the educated eyes of the French-speaking elite: “authentic” Russia existed only for the “French gaze.” This is why it was a French composer (working at the imperial court) who wrote the first opera in Russian and thus started the tradition, and why Pushkin himself had to use French words to make clear to his readers (and to himself) the true meaning of his authentic Russian terms. Later, of course, the dialectical movement goes on: “Russianness” immediately splits into liberal populism and conservative Slavophilism, and the process culminates in the properly dialectical coincidence of modernity and primitivism: the fascination of the early twentieth-century modernists with ancient barbaric cultural forms. The complexity of this example accounts for why it seems that Hegel secretly oscillates between two matrices of the negation of negation. The first matrix is: (1) substantial peace; (2) the subject’s act, its one-sided intervention which disturbs the peace, disrupts the balance; (3) the revenge of Destiny which re-establishes the balance by way of annihilating the subject’s excess. The second is: (1) the subject’s act; (2) the failure of the act; (3) the shift of perspective which inverts this failure into success.[449] It is easy to see that the last two moments of the first triad overlap with the first two moments of the second triad—it all depends on where we start to count: if we start with substantial unity and balance, the subjective act is the negation; if we start with the subjective act as the moment of positing, negation is its failure.

What this complication implies is that, already at the abstract-formal level, we should distinguish four rather than only three stages of a dialectical process. Decades ago, MAD magazine published a series of variations on the topic of how a subject can relate to a norm at four levels: in fashion, say, the poor don’t care how they dress; the lower middle classes try to follow the fashion but always lag behind; the upper middle classes dress in accordance with the latest fashion; those at the top, the trend-setters, also don’t care how they dress since the way they dress is the fashion. Or, with regard to the law, the outcasts do not care what the law says, they just do whatever they want; the utilitarian egotists follow the law, but only approximately, when it suits their interests; the moralists strictly follow the law; while those at the top, like the absolute monarch, again do whatever they want since what they do or say is the law. In both cases, the logic is the same: we progress from ignorance to partial commitment and then to full commitment, but to these three steps another is added: the highest level which paradoxically coincides with the lowest—at this highest level, people do exactly the same as at the previous level, but with a subjective attitude which is the same as the attitude of those at the lowest level. Does this not fit with Augustine’s saying that, if you have Christian love, you can do whatever you want since what you do will automatically be in accordance with the law? And do these four steps not also provide a model for the “negation of negation”? We start with a totally non-alienated attitude (I do what I want), then we progress through partial alienation (I restrain myself, my egotism) followed by total alienation (I surrender myself completely to the norm or law), until finally, in the figure of the Master, this total alienation is self-negated, coinciding with its opposite.

This more complex model, which distinguishes between two alienations or negations, partial and total, also enables us to answer one of the critical points often made against Hegel: namely that he cheats when he presents the inner deployment of a constellation in such a way that the lowest point of self-relating negation magically reverts into a new higher positivity—at best, what we should get, instead of the total destruction or self-erasure of the entire movement, is a return to the immediate substantial starting point, so that we would find ourselves in a cyclical universe. But the first surprise is that Hegel himself outlines this option in his Phenomenology, in the chapter on absolute freedom and the Terror:

Out of this tumult spirit would be hurled back upon its starting point, the ethical world and the real world of spiritual culture, which would thus have been merely refreshed and rejuvenated by the fear of the lord, that has again entered men’s hearts. Spirit would have anew to traverse and continually repeat this cycle of necessity, if only complete interpenetration of self-consciousness and the substance were the final result: an interpenetration in which self-consciousness, which has experienced the force of its universal nature operating negatively upon it, would try to know and find itself not as this particular self-consciousness but only as universal, and hence, too, would be able to endure the objective reality of universal spirit, a reality, excluding self-consciousness qua particular.[450]

In Revolutionary Terror, the singular consciousness experiences the destructive consequences of keeping itself separate from the universal substance: in such a separation, substance appears as a negative power which arbitrarily annihilates every singular consciousness. Here we can employ one of Hegel’s famous word plays: the ambiguity of the German expression zugrundegehen, which means to disintegrate, fall apart, but literally also zu Grunde gehen, to reach one’s ground—the positive outcome of the Terror is that, in the subject’s very annihilation, the subject reaches its ground, finds its place in the ethical substance, accepts its unity with this substance. On the other hand, since ethical substance is actual only as the force which mobilizes singular subjects, the annihilation of the singular subject by the substance is simultaneously the substance’s self-annihilation, which means that this negative movement of self-destruction seems compelled to repeat itself indefinitely. It is at this point, however, that the inevitable “but” enters, articulated in a precise line of argumentation:

But this is not the form the final result assumed. For in absolute freedom there was no reciprocal interaction either between an external world and consciousness, which is absorbed in manifold existence or sets itself determinate purposes and ideas, or between consciousness and an external objective world, be it a world of reality or of thought. What that freedom contained was the world absolutely in the form of consciousness, as a universal will, and, along with that, self-consciousness gathered out of all the dispersion and manifoldness of existence or all the manifold ends and judgments of mind, and concentrated into the bare and simple self … In the sphere of culture itself it does not get the length of viewing its negation or alienation in this form of pure abstraction; its negation is negation with a filling and a content—either honour and wealth, which it gains in the place of the self that it has alienated from itself; or the language of esprit and insight, which the distraught consciousness acquires; or, again, the negation is the heaven of belief or the principle of utility belonging to the stage of enlightenment. All these determinate elements disappear with the disaster and ruin that overtake the self in the state of absolute freedom; its negation is meaningless death, sheer horror of the negative which has nothing positive in it, nothing that gives a filling.

At the same time, however, this negation in its actual manifestation is not something alien and external. It is neither that universal background of necessity in which the moral world is swamped, nor the particular accident of private possession, the whims and humours of the owner, on which the distraught consciousness finds itself dependent; it is universal will, which in this its last abstraction has nothing positive, and hence can give nothing in return for the sacrifice. But just on that account this will is in unmediated oneness with self-consciousness, it is the pure positive because it is the pure negative; and that meaningless death, the unfilled, vacuous negativity of self, in its inner constitutive principle, turns round into absolute positivity.[451]

In an uncanny act of what Pierre Bayard calls “plagiarizing the future,” Hegel seems to quote Lacan here: how can “negation with a filling” not evoke all the Lacanian formulae for filling in the lack, for an object which serves as the place-holder of the lack (le tenant-lieu du manque), etc.? The infamous reversal of the negative into the positive occurs here at a very precise point: at the moment when the exchange breaks down. Throughout the whole period of what Hegel calls Bildung (culture or education through alienation), the subject is deprived of (a part of) its substantial content, yet it gets something in exchange for this deprivation, “either honour and wealth, which it gains in the place of the self that it has alienated from itself; or the language of esprit and insight, which the distraught consciousness acquires; or, again, the negation is the heaven of belief or the principle of utility belonging to the stage of enlightenment.” In Revolutionary Terror, this exchange breaks down, the subject is exposed to the destructive abstract negativity (embodied in the State) which deprives it even of its biological substance (of life itself), without giving anything in return—death is here utterly meaningless, “the most cold-blooded and meaningless death of all, with no more significance than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water,” without even surviving as a noble memory in the minds of friends and family. How, then, does this pure negativity or loss “magically” turn into new positivity? What do we get when we get nothing in exchange? There is only one consistent answer: this nothingness itself. When there is no filling of the negation, when we are forced to confront the power of negativity in its naked purity and are swallowed by it, the only way to go on is to realize that this negativity is the very core of our being, that the subject “is” the void of negativity. The core of my being is not some positive feature, but merely the capacity to mediate or negate all fixed determinations; it is not what I am, but the negative way I am able to relate to what(ever) I am.[452] But does Hegel not thereby endorse what one is tempted to call the mother of all ideological mystifications of the French Revolution, first formulated by Kant, for whom, more important than the often bloody reality of what occurred on the streets of Paris, was the enthusiasm that the Revolution gave rise to among sympathetic observers throughout Europe?

The revolution which we have seen taking place in our own times in a nation of gifted people may succeed, or it may fail. It may be so filled with misery and atrocities that no right-thinking man would ever decide to make the same experiment again at such a price, even if he could hope to carry it out successfully at the second attempt. But I maintain that this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger. It cannot therefore have been caused by anything other than a moral disposition within the human race.[453]

The mystification resides in the reversal of the external negativity of the Revolutionary Terror into the sublime internal power of the moral Law within each of us—but can this sublation (Aufhebung) actually be accomplished? Is the violence of the Terror not too strong for such a domestication? Kant himself is fully aware of this excess: in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), he characterizes the central defining event of the French Revolution (regicide) as a “suicide of the state,” as a pragmatic paradox opening up an “abyss” into which reason falls, as an indelible crime (crimen immortale, inexpiable) which precludes forgiveness in this world or in the next:

Of all the atrocities involved in overthrowing a state by rebellion … it is the formal execution of the monarch that strikes horror in a soul filled with the idea of human rights, a horror that one feels repeatedly as soon and as often as one thinks of such scenes as the fate of Charles I or Louis XVI.[454]

All the oscillations involved in the encounter with the Real are here: a regicide is something so terrible one cannot fully represent it to oneself in all its dimensions; it cannot really happen (people cannot be so evil), it should only be constructed as a necessary virtual point; the actual regicide was not a case of diabolical evil, of an evil accomplished for no pathological reason (and thus indistinguishable from the Good), since it was in fact done for a pathological reason (the fear that, if the king were allowed to live, he might return to power and exact revenge). It is interesting to note how the standard Kantian suspicion about an act being truly good or ethical is here weirdly mobilized in the opposite direction: we cannot be sure that an act really was “diabolically evil,” that some pathological motivation did not make it a normal case of evil. In both cases, empirical causality appears to be suspended, the excess of another noumenal dimension seems to intrude violently into our reality. Kant is thus unable to assume this ultimate political infinite judgment.

Hegel is the only one who fully asserts the identity of the two extremes, of the Sublime and of the Terror: “Hegel’s unflinching identification of the Terror as the inauguration of political modernity does not prevent him from affirming the Revolution in its entirety as inevitable, comprehensible, justifiable, horrible, thrilling, mind-numbingly boring, and infinitely productive.”[455] Hegel’s sublime words on the French Revolution from his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History are, if anything, even more enthusiastic than Kant’s, and he rejects the easy way out of the traumatic “infinite judgment” in both its versions: First, the liberal dream of “1789 without 1793” (the idea that we could have had the Revolution without the Terror, with the latter seen as an accidental distortion). Second, the conditional endorsement of 1793 as the price that had to be paid in order for the nation to enjoy the institutions of modern civil society as the “rational kernel” which remains after the repellent shell of the revolutionary upheaval has been discarded.[456] (Marx reverses this relationship: he praises the enthusiasm of the Revolution, treating the later prosaic, commercial order as its banal truth.)

Furthermore, Hegel also clearly registers the limit of what may appear to be his own solution: the above-mentioned Aufhebung of the abstract freedom or negativity of the Revolution in the concrete post-revolutionary rational state. As Rebecca Comay summarizes this argument (not without irony): “Hegel loves the French Revolution so much he needs to purge it of the revolutionaries.”[457] However, as Comay makes clear, a close reading of the last part of the chapter on Spirit in the Phenomenology reveals how, far from celebrating the Aufhebung of Terror in the inner freedom of the subject obeying only his autonomous voice of conscience, Hegel is fully aware that

such freedom on its own terms does nothing to redeem the blocked promise of the Revolution. Hegel makes it bitterly clear that the sublime purity of the moral will can be no antidote to the terrifying purity of revolutionary virtue. He demonstrates that all the features of absolute freedom are carried over into Kantian morality: the obsessionality, the paranoia, the suspicion, the surveillance, the evaporation of objectivity within the sadistic vehemence of a subjectivity bent on reproducing itself within a world it must disregard.[458]

The excess of the Revolution thus resists its Aufhebung in both its dimensions: not only is inner moral freedom not strong enough to pacify the Revolutionary Terror (to account for it, to justify it), it is also—and this is the obverse of the same failure—not strong enough to actualize the Revolution’s emancipatory promise. Inner moral freedom, even when overblown in the Romantic absolute subject, always and by definition conceals a resigned acceptance of the existing social order of domination:

Hegel has relentlessly dismantled every attempt to displace or dissolve the traumatic rupture of the French Revolution within a spiritual, philosophical, or aesthetic upheaval. Political revolution can no longer be absorbed into the Copernican revolution of Kant or Fichte, or into the various cultural revolutions projected from Schiller on … Hegel is as unforgiving here as Marx: every retreat from politics to the freedom of moral self-consciousness rehearses the Stoic impasse, provokes the sceptical rejoinder, and culminates in a self-serving misery in which can be discerned a secret collusion with the existent.[459]

Comay notes how this brutal critique of Kant’s practical thought reveals Hegel at his most Freudo-Nietzschean, deploying the “hermeneutics of suspicion” at its most radical: “The catalogue of Freudian concepts (and at times even vocabulary) marshalled by Hegel throughout this section is impressive: repression, perversion, isolation, splitting, disavowal, fetishism, projection, introjection, incorporation, masochism, mourning, melancholia, repetition, death drive.”[460] With Hegel’s analysis of the steps which follow his critique of the Kantian ethical edifice (Fichtean concrete duty, the Schillerian aestheticization of ethics, the hypocrisy of the Beautiful Soul), we are just caught further in this downward spiral, right down to the solipsistic madness of “vaporized subjectivity” and its self-ironic mirroring. Even when describing how this self-destructive pathological Narcissism reaches its peak, admitting the void in its heart, Hegel is well aware that the fetish is not only an object filling in the void: “The void carved by the missing object turns into a filling for itself: even absence provides its own bitter consolation.”[461] Referring to Origen, Hegel “goes so far as to suggest gleefully, on Enlightenment’s behalf, that even castration can be a defence against castration: the florid example of Origen shows how an all too literal injury can serve to preempt the ultimate traumatic wounding”[462]—a thesis fully confirmed by psychoanalysis, which demonstrates how a castration in reality (cutting off one’s penis or testicles) can function as a way of avoiding the wound of symbolic castration (this was the strategy of the “skopci” sect in Russia and Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth century).

We touch here on a problematic nerve, highlighted by the Young Hegelian reproach that Hegel surrenders to the existing social misery. Does Hegel not detect a hidden conformism in the critical stance itself? This is why, in a profoundly Hegelian way, Catherine Malabou calls for the abandonment of the critical stance towards reality as the ultimate horizon of our thinking, under whatever name it may appear, from the Young Hegelian “critical critique” to twentieth-century Critical Theory.[463] What such a critical stance fails to accomplish is the fulfillment of its own gesture: the radicalization of the subjective negative-critical attitude towards reality into a full critical self-negation. Even if it leaves one open to the accusation of having “regressed” to the Old Hegelian position, one should adopt the authentically Hegelian absolute position which, as Malabou points out, involves a kind of speculative “surrender” of the Self to the Absolute, albeit in a Hegelian-dialectical way: not the immersion of the subject in the higher unity of an all-encompassing Absolute, but the inscription of the “critical” gap separating the subject from the (social) substance into this substance itself, as its own antagonism, or self-distance. The “critical” stance is thus not directly canceled in some higher-level Yes to a positive Absolute; it is rather inscribed into the Absolute itself as its own gap. This is why Hegelian Absolute Knowledge, far from signaling a kind of subjective appropriation or internalization of all substantial content, should be read against the background of what Lacan called “subjective destitution.” In the very last pages of the chapter on Spirit, this “surrender to the Absolute” takes the form of an unexpected and abrupt gesture of reconciliation: “The reconciling Yes, in which the two I’s let go their antithetical existence, is the existence of the ‘I’ which has expanded into a duality, and therein remains identical with itself.”[464] While this formulation may sound emptily abstract, the worst kind of exercise in formal-dialectical thinking, it pays to read it closely, bearing in mind its precise context. Just before the quoted passage, Hegel characterizes reconciliation as “externalization,” a kind of counter-move to the standard dialectical internalization of the external opposition: here, it is the inner contradiction of the subject which is externalized in the relationship among subjects, indicating the subject’s acceptance of itself as part of the outer social world over which it does not exert control. What is accepted in the Yes of reconciliation is thus a basic alienation in an almost Marxist sense: the meaning of my acts does not depend on me, on my intentions, it is decided afterwards, retroactively. In other words, what is accepted, what the subject has to assume, is its radical and constitutive decentering in the symbolic order.

“The two” in the passage just quoted refers to the opposition between the acting and the judging consciousness: to act is to err, the act is by definition partial, it involves guilt, but the judging consciousness does not admit that its judging is also an act, it refuses to include itself in what it judges. It ignores the fact that the true evil lies in the neutral gaze which sees evil everywhere around itself, so that it is no less tainted than the acting consciousness. In geopolitical terms, this gap between the judging consciousness and the acting consciousness, between knowing and doing, is the gap between Germany and France: reconciliation is the reconciliation of the two nations, where the Word of reconciliation should be pronounced by Germany—German thought should reconcile itself with the acting French hero (Napoleon). We are dealing here with a purely performative formal gesture of abandoning purity and accepting the “stain” of one’s complicity with the world. The one who pronounces the word of reconciliation is the judging consciousness, renouncing its critical attitude. But far from amounting to conformism, only such a Yes (expressing a readiness to accept the evil, to dirty one’s hands) opens up the space for real change. As such, this reconciliation is simultaneously both precipitous and belated: it occurs all of a sudden, as a kind of flight forward, before the situation seems ready for it, and, at the same time, like Kafka’s Messiah, it comes one day too late, when it no longer matters.

But how does such an elementary gesture of accepting (oneself as part of) the contingency of the world open up the space for real change? Towards the end of the “Preface” to his Philosophy of Right, Hegel defines the task of philosophy: like the owl of Minerva which takes flight at dusk, philosophy can only paint “gray on gray,” in other words it only translates into a lifeless conceptual scheme a form of life which has already reached its peak and entered its decline (is becoming “gray” itself). Comay perspicuously reads this “gray on gray” as a figure of “minimal difference”[465] (or, as Nietzsche would have put it, of the “shortest shadow,” although Nietzsche speaks of midday, of course): the difference between the decrepit reality and its notion when the difference is at its minimal, purely formal, in contrast to when a wide gap exists between an ideal and the misery of its actual existence.

How can such a tautology open up the space for the New? The only solution to this paradox is that the New we are dealing with is not primarily the future New, but the New of the past itself, of the thwarted, blocked, or betrayed possibilities (“alternate realities”) which have disappeared in the actualization of the past: the actualization (Verwirklichung)—that is, the acceptance of actuality—brought about by Reconciliation involves the “deactivation of the existent and the reactivation and reenactment (in every sense) of the thwarted futures of the past. Actuality thus expresses precisely the presence of the virtual: it opens history to the ‘no longer’ of a blocked possibility and the persistence of an unachieved ‘not yet’.”[466] The Hegelian tautology “gray on gray” should be linked to the Deleuzian notion of pure repetition as the rise of the New: what emerges in the repetition of the same actual “gray” is its virtual dimension, the lost “alternate histories” of what might have happened but did not. “The French Revolution is the French Revolution” does not add any new positive knowledge, any new positive determinations, but it reminds us of the spectral dimension of the hopes that the Revolution evoked and which were thwarted by its outcome. Such a reading also enables us to see how we can think together Reconciliation as internalizing memory (Er-Innerung) and the retroactive healing of the wounds of the Spirit which undoes (ungeschehenmachen) catastrophes of the past in an act of radical forgetting:

Forgetting is not opposed to the work of remembrance but proves here to be its most radical achievement: oblivion brings memory itself to a point beyond its own beginning. To forget, to undo the past, to make it all “un-happen,” is precisely to remember a moment before it all happened, to undo the inexorability of fate by restaging the beginning, even if only in imagination and in proxy: to act as if we could take it over again, as if we could cast aside the legacy of dead generations, as if we could refuse the mourning work of cultural succession, as if we could cast off our patrimony, rewrite our origins, as if every moment, even those long vanished, could become a radically new beginning—unprecedented, unrehearsed, unremembered.[467]

Reconciliation as pure repetition does not bring us back to some mythical beginning, but to the moment just before the beginning, before the flow of events organized itself into a Fate, obliterating other alternative possibilities. For example, in the case of Antigone, the point is not to somehow restore the organic unity of mores (Sittlichkeit), since there never was such a unity—a split is constitutive of the very order of Sittlichkeit. Antigone is a story about this division constitutive of power, and one should avoid the boring moralistic topic of who is right or who is worse, Antigone or Creon, the representative of respect for the sacred or the representative of secular power. As Stalin would have put it, they are both worse (than what? Than the power of the people!), part of the same hierarchic power machine. The only way to break the deadlock of their conflict is to step outside of their common ground and imagine a third option from which to reject the entire conflict as false—something like the Chorus taking over, arresting both Antigone and Creon for posing a threat to the people, putting at risk their very survival, and establishing itself as a collective body of revolutionary justice, a kind of Jacobin committee for public safety keeping the guillotine busy.

The problem here is: how does this negation of negation which changes the entire field relate to the Freudo-Lacanian negation of negation which ends with the spectral not-not-nothingness? Does not the shift from the first negation (“negation with a filling”), where I sacrifice the core of my being in exchange for something (heaven of belief, honor, utility, wealth …), to the negation of negation (“negation without a filling”) point towards what Lacan, in his reading of Claudel, deployed as the structure of Versagung, where we pass from the sacrifice made for something to the sacrifice made for nothing?

Let us clarify this crucial point by way of a detour through literature: not Claudel’s L’Otage (Lacan’s own reference in his explication of Versagung), but J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a profoundly Hegelian novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a divorced, middle-aged scholar of Romantic poetry whose unrealized ambition is to write a chamber opera about Byron’s life in Italy. He has become a victim of “the great rationalization” of his Cape Town university, which has been turned into a technical college, where he now teaches courses in “communication skills” that he finds nonsensical. He is such a nonentity that not only do his students look straight through him, even the prostitute he patronizes weekly, and for whom he has begun buying gifts, stops receiving him. When he is hauled before an academic tribunal after a misbegotten affair with Melanie, a beautiful black student, he refuses to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment, although his conduct towards Melanie has fallen only a little short of rape. He finally blurts out an apology, but the members of the tribunal are not satisfied, and demand to know whether it reflects his sincere feelings and comes from the heart. He rashly tells his judges that his liaison with the pretty and almost totally passive Melanie transformed him, if only briefly: “I was no longer a fifty-year-old divorcé at a loose end. I became a servant of Eros.”

To escape this suffocating situation, David moves in with his daughter Lucy, a stolid lesbian who, like him, seems to have been abandoned by the world, and lives in an isolated farm on the South African plain, surviving by selling flowers and vegetables at a local market. Their relations with Petrus, the African farmer who is their nearest neighbor, become increasingly troubled. Once Lucy’s servant, he now owns his own plot of land, and is conspicuously absent when David and Lucy become the victims of a vicious criminal assault: three black youngsters beat David and burn his face, while Lucy is gang raped. We are given hints that the attacks are part of Petrus’s plan to take over Lucy’s farm. In the wake of these brutal attacks, David’s angry demands for justice receive no response from the overstretched police, and his attempts to confront one of the assailants (whom Petrus is protecting) are met with silence and evasive lies. Finally, Petrus informs David that he plans to marry Lucy and take control of her farm to provide her with protection. To David’s shock and surprise, Lucy tells him that she will accept Petrus’s offer and give birth to the child she bears as the result of the rape. Lucy seems to understand what David cannot: that to live where she lives she must tolerate brutalization and humiliation and simply keep going. “Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept,” she tells her father. “To start at ground level. With nothing … No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity … Like a dog.”

Again needing to escape a terrible deadlock, David volunteers to work for Bev, a friend of Lucy’s who runs the local veterinary clinic. He soon comes to realize that Bev’s primary role, in this impoverished land, is not to heal animals but to kill them with as much love and mercy as she can summon. He becomes Bev’s lover, although she is conspicuously ugly. He returns briefly to Cape Town, where he visits Melanie’s family and apologizes to her father. At the novel’s end, David is also reconciled to his life with Lucy; he thus reclaims a kind of dignity based on the very fact that he has given up everything: his daughter, his notion of justice, his dream of writing an opera on Byron, and even his favorite dog, which he helps Bev to put down. He no longer needs a dog, since he has himself accepted to live “like a dog” (echoing the final words of Kafka’s The Trial).

Perhaps this is what true Hegelian reconciliation looks like—and maybe this example enables us to clear up some confusions about what that reconciliation actually involves.[468] David is portrayed as a disenchanted cynic who exploits his power over students, and the rape of his daughter seems a kind of repetition which establishes a certain justice: what he did to Melanie happens again to his daughter. However, it is all too simple to say that David should recognize his own responsibility for the predicament he finds himself in—such a reading of David as a “tragic” character who gets his comeuppance in his final humiliation still relies on a kind of moral balance or justice being established at the end, and thus avoids the deeply disturbing fact that the novel in fact has no clear moral compass. This ambiguity is condensed in the character of Petrus who, while ruthlessly ambitious and manipulative beneath his polite exterior, nonetheless stands for a kind of social stability and order. The political message implied by his ascendance to power within the small local community is not a racist one (“this is what happens if you allow the blacks to take over: no real change, just a reorganization of domination which makes things even worse than before”), but one that highlights the re-emergence of a gangster-like patriarchal-tribal order which, one can argue, is the result of white rule which kept the blacks in a state of apartheid, preventing their inclusion in modern society.

The wager of the novel is that the very radicality of the white hero’s utter resignation and acceptance of this new oppressive order confers on him a kind of ethical dignity. If David can be seen as a contemporary Sygne de Coûfontaine, Versagung is enacted here in a reversed way: it is not that the subject renounces everything for a higher Cause and then notices he has thereby lost the Cause itself; it is rather that the subject simply loses everything, his egoist interests as well as his higher ideals, and his wager is then that this total loss itself will be converted into some kind of ethical dignity.

But something is missing at the end of Disgrace, something that would correspond to the repulsive tic on the face of the dying Sygne, as a mute gesture of protest, of the refusal to reconcile, or to Julie’s “Happiness is boring” at the end of La Nouvelle Héloïse. One can imagine the boy in Der Jasager or in Massnahme, when he accepts his death, doing the same—emitting a barely perceptible repetitive gesture of resistance, an eppur si muove that persists, a pure figure of the undead drive. Here the objet a is generated through the process of the negation of negation as its excess or product. But is not the process of Versagung as the loss of a loss precisely the process of the loss of the objet a, the object-cause of desire? In Vertigo, Scottie first loses the object of his desire (Madeleine), and then, when he learns that Madeleine was a fake from the very beginning, loses his desire itself. Is there a way out of this abyss to a new objet a? Can we say that what is lost in Versagung is the fantasmatic status of the objet a (the fantasy-frame which sustained the subject’s desire), so that the Versagung, which equals the act of traversing the fantasy, opens up the space for the emergence of the pure drive beyond fantasy?

INTERLUDE 2. Cogito in the History of Madness

Levinas’s early critique of Hegel and Heidegger in his Totality and Infinity is a model of the anti-philosophical procedure: for Levinas, the infinity of relating to the divine Other is the excess which breaks out of the circle of philosophical totality. It is crucial to note here that Derrida is not an antiphilosopher—on the contrary, Derrida at his best (say, in his detailed “deconstructive” readings of Levinas, Foucault, Bataille, etc.) convincingly demonstrates how, in their effort to break out of the closed circle of philosophy, to assert a point of reference outside the horizon of philosophy (infinity versus totality in Levinas, madness versus cogito in the early Foucault, sovereignty versus Hegelian domination in Bataille), they remain within the field they try to leave behind.[469] No wonder, then, that Foucault reacted so violently to Derrida’s critical analysis of his History of Madness, accusing Derrida of remaining within the confines of philosophy: yes, Derrida does, but therein lies his strength with regard to those who pretend all too easily to have reached a domain beyond philosophy. What Derrida does is not only “deconstruct” philosophy, demonstrating its dependence on an external Other; even more so, he “deconstructs” the attempt to locate a sphere outside philosophy, demonstrating how all anti-philosophical efforts to determine this Other remain indebted to a frame of philosophical categories.

Cogito, madness, and religion are interlinked in Descartes (see his thought experiment with the malin génie) as well as in Kant (his notion of the transcendental subject emerged from the critique of Swedenborg, whose religious dreams stand for madness). Simultaneously, the cogito emerges through a differentiation from (or a reference to) madness, and the cogito itself (the idea of the cogito as the point of absolute certainty, “subjective idealism”) is perceived (not only) by common sense as the very epitome of the madness of philosophy, of its crazy paranoid system-building (cf. the “philosopher as madman” motif in the late Wittgenstein). Simultaneously, religion (direct faith) is evoked as a form of madness (Swedenborg for Kant, or religion generally for Enlightenment rationalists, up to Dawkins today), and religion (God) enters as the solution to (solipsistic) madness (Descartes).

This triangle of cogito, religion, and madness is the focus of the polemic between Foucault and Derrida, in which they both share the key underlying premise: that the cogito is inherently related to madness. The difference is that, for Foucault, the cogito is grounded in the exclusion of madness, while, for Derrida, the cogito itself can only emerge through a “mad” hyperbole (universalized doubt), and remains marked by this excess: before it stabilizes itself as res cogitans, the self-transparent thinking substance, the cogito explodes as a crazy punctual excess.[470]

Foucault’s starting point is a fundamental change in the status of madness which took place in the passage from the Renaissance to the classical Age of Reason (the beginning of the seventeenth century). During the Renaissance (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Erasmus, etc.), madness was a specific phenomenon of the human spirit which belonged to the series of prophets, possessed visionaries, saints, clowns, those obsessed by demons, and so on. It was a meaningful phenomenon with a truth of its own: even if madmen were vilified, they were treated with awe, as if messengers of a sacred horror. With Descartes, however, madness is excluded; in all its varieties, it comes to occupy a position that was formerly the preserve of leprosy. It is no longer a phenomenon to be interpreted, its meaning searched for, but a simple illness to be treated under the well-regulated laws of a medicine or a science that is already sure of itself, sure that it cannot be mad. This change concerns not only theory, but social practice itself: from the Classical Age on, madmen were interned, imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals, deprived of the full dignity of a human being, studied and controlled like a natural phenomenon.

In his Histoire de la folie, Foucault dedicated three or four pages to the passage in the Meditations in which Descartes arrives at cogito ergo sum. Searching for the absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, Descartes analyses the main forms of delusion: delusions of the senses and sense perception, the illusions of madness, dreams. He ends with the most radical delusion imaginable, the hypothesis that everything that we experience is not true, but a universal dream, an illusion staged by an evil genius (malin génie). From here, he arrives at the certainty of the cogito (I think): even if I can doubt everything, even if all I see is an illusion, I cannot doubt that I think all this, so the cogito is the absolutely certain starting point for philosophy. Foucault’s objection here is that Descartes does not really confront madness, but rather avoids thinking it: he excludes madness from the domain of reason. In the Classical Age, Reason is thus based on the exclusion of madness: the very existence of the category “madness” is historically determined, along with its opposite “reason”; that is, it is determined through power relations. Madness in the modern sense is not directly a phenomenon we can observe, but a discursive construct which emerges at a certain historical moment, together with its double, Reason in the modern sense.

In his reading of Histoire de la folie, Derrida focused on these four pages on Descartes which, for him, provided the key to the entire book. Through a detailed analysis, he tries to demonstrate that, far from excluding madness, Descartes pushes it to an extreme: universal doubt, where I suspect that the entire world is an illusion, is the greatest madness imaginable. Out of this universal doubt the cogito emerges: even if everything is an illusion, I can still be sure that I think. Madness is thus not excluded by the cogito: it is not that the cogito is not mad, but the cogito is true even if I am totally mad. Extreme doubt, the hypothesis of universal madness, is not external to philosophy, but strictly internal to it, a hyperbolic moment, the moment of madness, which grounds philosophy. Of course, Descartes later “domesticates” this radical excess with his image of man as a thinking substance, dominated by reason; he constructs a philosophy which is clearly historically conditioned. But the excess, the hyperbole of universal madness, is not itself historical; it is the excessive moment which grounds philosophy in all its historical forms. Madness is thus not excluded by philosophy: it is internal to it. Of course, every philosophy tries to control this excess, to repress it—but in repressing it, it represses its own innermost foundation: “Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness.”[471]

In his reply, Foucault first tries to prove, through a detailed reading of Descartes, that the madness he evokes does not have the same status as sensory illusions and dreams. When I suffer sensory illusions of perception or when I dream, I remain normal and rational, I only deceive myself with regard to what I see. In madness, on the contrary, I myself am no longer normal, I lose my reason. So madness has to be excluded if I am to be a rational subject. Derrida’s refusal to exclude madness from philosophy bears witness to the fact that he remains a philosopher who is unable to think the Outside of philosophy, who is unable to think how philosophy itself is determined by something that escapes it. Apropos the hypothesis of universal doubt and the Evil Genius, we are not dealing with true madness, but with the rational subject who feigns to be mad, who makes a rational experiment, never losing his control over it.

Finally, on the very last page of his reply, Foucault tries to identify the true difference between himself and Derrida. He attacks (without naming it) the practice of deconstruction and textual analysis, for which “there is nothing outside the text,” so that we are caught in an endless process of interpretation. Foucault, on the contrary, does not practice textual analysis, but analyses discourses, “dispositifs,” formations in which texts and statements are interlinked with extra-textual mechanisms of power and control. What we need is not deeper textual analyses, but analyses of the way discursive practices are combined with practices of power and domination. But does this rejection of Derrida hold? Let us go through the debate once again, this time taking Derrida as the starting point. As Derrida made clear in his essay on Foucault’s Histoire de la folie, madness is inscribed in the history of cogito at two levels. First, throughout the entire philosophy of subjectivity from Descartes through Kant, Schelling, and Hegel, up to Nietzsche and Husserl, the cogito is related to its shadowy double, the pharmakon, which is madness. Second, madness is inscribed into the very (pre)history of the cogito itself, as part of its transcendental genesis:

the Cogito escapes madness only because at its own moment, under its own authority, it is valid even if I am mad, even if my thoughts are completely mad … Descartes never interns madness, neither at the stage of natural doubt nor at the stage of metaphysical doubt … Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum … even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think.[472]

Derrida leaves us in no doubt that, “as soon as Descartes has reached this extremity, he seeks to reassure himself, to certify the Cogito through God, to identify the act of the Cogito with a reasonable reason.”[473] This withdrawal sets in “from the moment when he pulls himself out of madness by determining natural light through a series of principles and axioms.”[474] The term “light” is here crucial in measuring Descartes’s distance from German Idealism, in which, precisely, the core of the subject is no longer light, but the abyss of darkness, the “Night of the World.” This, then, is Derrida’s fundamental interpretive gesture: one of

separating, within the Cogito, on the one hand, hyperbole (which I maintain cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality), and, on the other hand, that in Descartes’s philosophy (or in the philosophy supporting the Augustinian Cogito or the Husserlian Cogito as well) which belongs to a factual historical structure.[475]

Here, when Derrida asserts that “the historicity proper to philosophy is located and constituted in the transition, the dialogue between hyperbole and the finite structure, … in the difference between history and historicity,” he perhaps falls too short.[476] This tension may appear very “Lacanian”: is it not a version of the tension between the Real—the hyperbolic excess—and its (ultimately always failed) symbolization? The matrix we thus arrive at is that of an eternal oscillation between the two extremes, the radical expenditure, hyperbole, excess, and its later domestication (as in Kristeva, the oscillation between Semiotic and Symbolic). Both extremes are illusionary: pure excess as well as pure finite order would disintegrate, cancel themselves out. Such an approach misses the true point of “madness,” which is not the pure excess of the “night of the world,” but the madness of the passage to the symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order onto the chaos of the Real.[477] If madness is constitutive, then every system of meaning is minimally paranoid, “mad.” Recall again Brecht’s slogan “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?”—therein resides the lesson of David Lynch’s Straight Story: what is the ridiculously pathetic perversity of figures like Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart or Frank in Blue Velvet compared to deciding to cross the US central plane on a lawnmower to visit a dying relative? Measured against this act, Frank’s and Bobby’s outbreaks of rage are but the impotent theatrics of old and sedate conservatives. In the same way, we should say: what is the mere madness caused by the loss of reason compared to the madness of reason itself?

This step is the properly “Hegelian” one—which is why Hegel, the philosopher who made the most radical attempt to think the abyss of madness at the core of subjectivity, is also the philosopher who brought to its “mad” climax the philosophical System as the totality of meaning. This is why, for very good reasons, from the common-sense perspective “Hegel” stands for the moment at which philosophy goes “mad,” explodes in a “crazy” pretense to “Absolute Knowledge.”

It is thus not enough simply to oppose “madness” and symbolization: there is, in the history of philosophy itself (of philosophical “systems”), a privileged point at which the hyperbole, philosophy’s ex-timate core, directly inscribes itself into it, and this is the moment of the cogito, of transcendental philosophy. “Madness” is here “tamed” in a different way, through a “transcendental” horizon which does not cancel it in an all-encompassing world-view, but maintains it.

“In the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: … the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorizing a relation only through the abstract universality of disease.”[478] However, what about psychoanalysis? Is not psychoanalysis precisely the point at which the “man of reason” re-establishes his dialogue with madness, rediscovering the dimension of truth in it—not the same truth as before, in the premodern universe, but a different, properly scientific, one? Foucault himself dealt with this in his later History of Sexuality, where psychoanalysis is conceived as the culmination of “sex-as-the-ultimate-truth” logic of confession.

In spite of the finesse of Foucault’s reply, he ultimately falls into the trap of an historicism which cannot account for its own position of enunciation; this impossibility is redoubled in Foucault’s characterization of his “object,” madness, which oscillates between two extremes. On the one hand, his strategic aim is to make madness itself talk, as it is in itself, outside of the (scientific, etc.) discourse on it: “it is definitely not a question of a history of ideas, but of the rudimentary movements of an experience. A history not of psychiatry, but of madness itself, in its vivacity, before knowledge has even begun to close in on it.”[479] On the other hand, the (later) model deployed in his Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality compels him to posit the absolute immanence of the (excessive, transgressive, resisting …) object to its manipulation by the dispositif of power-knowledge: in the same way that “the carceral network does not cast the inassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside”;[480] in the same way that the “liberated” man is himself generated by the dispositif that controls and regulates him; in the same way that “sex” as the inassimilable excess is itself generated by the discourses and practices that try to control and regulate it; madness is also generated by the very discourse that excludes, objectivizes, and studies it, there is no “pure” madness outside it. As Boyne puts it, Foucault here “effectively acknowledg[es] the correctness of Derrida’s formulation,”[481] that is, of il n’y a pas de hors-texte,[482] providing his own version of it. When Foucault writes that “Perhaps one day [transgression] will seem as decisive for our culture, as much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier time for dialectical thought,”[483] does he not thereby miss the point, which is that this day has already arrived, that permanent transgression already is a key feature of late capitalism? And this is why his concluding objection to Derrida’s il n’y a pas de hors-texte seems to miss the mark, when he characterizes it in terms of a

reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; elision of the events which are produced in these practices, so that all that remains of them are marks for a reading; inventions of voices behind the texts, so that we do not have to analyze the modes of the implication of the subject in the discourses; the assignation of the originary as [what is] said and not-said in the text, so that we do not have to locate discursive practices in the field of transformations in which they effectuate themselves.[484]

No wonder that some Marxists took Foucault’s side here, conceiving his polemic with Derrida as the latest chapter in the eternal struggle between materialism and idealism: Foucault’s materialist analysis of discursive practices versus Derrida’s endless self-reflexive textual games. A further point in favor of Foucault seems to be that he remains a radical historicist, reproaching Derrida for his inability to think the exteriority of philosophy. This is how he sums up the stakes of their debate:

could there be something prior or external to the philosophical discourse? Can the condition of this discourse be an exclusion, a refusal, an avoided risk, and, why not, a fear? A suspicion rejected passionately by Derrida. Pudenda origo, said Nietzsche with regard to religious people and their religion.[485]

However, Derrida is much closer to thinking this externality than Foucault, for whom exteriority involves a simple historicist reduction which cannot account for itself (when Foucault was asked from what position he was speaking, he employed the cheap rhetorical trick of claiming that this was a “police” question, “who are you to say that”—but he combined this reply with the opposite claim that genealogical history is an “ontology of the present”). It is easy to submit philosophy to such a historicist reduction (philosophers can easily dismiss such external reduction as relying on a confusion between genesis and value); it is much more difficult to think its inherent excess, its ex-timate core. These, then, are the true stakes of the debate: ex-timacy or direct externality?

This dark core of madness at the heart of the cogito can also be determined in a more genetic way. Daniel Dennett draws a convincing and insightful parallel between an animal’s physical environment and the human environment, including not only human artifacts (clothes, houses, tools) but also the “virtual” environment of the discursive web: “Stripped of [the ‘web of discourses’], an individual human being is as incomplete as a bird without feathers, a turtle without its shell.”[486] A naked man is the same nonsense as a shaved ape: without language (and tools and …), man is a crippled animal—it is this lack which is supplemented by symbolic institutions and tools, so that the point made obvious today in popular culture figures like Robocop (man as simultaneously super-animal and crippled) holds from the very beginning. How do we pass from the “natural” to the “symbolic” environment? This passage is not direct, one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither Nature nor Culture—this in-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on homo sapiens, enabling him to form his supplementary virtual symbolic environment, but precisely something which, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos—the Freudian name for this in-between is, of course, the death drive.

Perhaps, even more than Descartes, the philosopher who stands for one extreme of “madness” is Nicolas Malebranche, with his “occasionalism.” Malebranche, a disciple of Descartes, drops the latter’s ridiculous reference to the pineal gland as the point of contact between material and spiritual substance, body and soul; but how, then, are we to explain their coordination, if there is no contact between the two, no point at which a soul can act causally on a body or vice versa? Since the two causal networks (that of ideas in my mind and that of bodily interconnections) are totally independent, the only solution is that a third, true Substance (God) continuously coordinates and mediates between the two, thereby maintaining the semblance of continuity: when I think about raising my hand and my hand then rises, my thought causes the raising of my hand not directly but only “occasionally”—upon noticing my thought directed at raising my hand, God sets in motion the other, material, causal chain which leads to my hand actually being raised.

If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the proximity of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemic against Aristotle in “Television,” the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two.[487] Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrariness of the signifier,” for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks, so that, when my body bites into an apple, my soul experiences a pleasurable sensation. This same gap was targeted by the ancient Aztec priests who organized human sacrifices to ensure that the sun would rise again: the human sacrifice was an appeal to God to sustain the coordination between the two series, bodily necessity and the concatenation of symbolic events. “Irrational” as the Aztec priest’s sacrifice may appear, its underlying premise is far more insightful than our commonplace intuition according to which the coordination between body and soul is direct, i.e., that it is “natural” for me to have a pleasurable sensation when I bite into an apple since this sensation is caused directly by the apple: what gets lost is the intermediary role of the big Other in guaranteeing the coordination between reality and our mental experience of it. And is it not the same with our immersion in Virtual Reality? When I raise my hand in order to push an object in virtual space, this object effectively moves—my illusion, of course, is that it was the movement of my hand which directly caused the relocation of the object, for in my immersion, I overlook the intricate mechanisms of computerized coordination, homologous to the role of God guaranteeing the coordination between the two series in occasionalism.[488]

It is a well-known fact that the “close the door” button in most elevators is a totally non-functioning placebo, placed there just to give us the impression that we can somehow speed things up—when we push the close button, the door closes in exactly the same amount of time as it would had we only pressed the floor button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor for the participation of individuals in our “postmodern” political process. And it represents occasionalism at its purest: from Malebranche’s perspective, we are effectively pressing such buttons all the time, and it is God’s incessant activity that coordinates between our action and the event that follows, while we think the event results from our action.

For this reason, it is crucial to keep open the radical ambiguity involved in how cyberspace will affect our lives: it does not depend on technology as such but on the mode of its social inscription. Immersion in cyberspace can intensify our bodily experience (a new sensuality, a new body with more organs, new sexes …), but it also opens up the possibility for someone manipulating the cyberspace machinery to literally steal our own (virtual) body, depriving us of control over it, so that one no longer relates to one’s body as to “one’s own.” What we encounter here is the constitutive ambiguity of the notion of mediatization.[489] Originally this referred to the gesture by means of which a subject was stripped of its direct, immediate right to make decisions; the great master of political mediatization was Napoleon, who left to the monarchs he conquered the appearance of power, while they were effectively no longer in a position to exercise it. At a more general level, one could say that just such a “mediatization” of the monarch defines constitutional monarchy: in it, the monarch is reduced to the point of a purely formal symbolic gesture of “dotting the i’s,” of signing and thereby conferring performative force on the edicts whose content has been determined by the elected governing body. And, mutatis mutandis, does not the same hold also for the progressive digitalization of our everyday lives, in the course of which the subject is also more and more “mediatized,” imperceptibly stripped of his power, all the while under the false impression that it is being increased? When our body is mediatized (caught in the network of electronic media), it is simultaneously exposed to the threat of a radical “proletarianization”: the subject is potentially reduced to the pure $, since even my own personal experience can be stolen, manipulated, regulated by the mechanical Other.

One can see, again, how the prospect of radical virtualization bestows on the computer a position strictly homologous to that of God in Malebranchean occasionalism: since the computer coordinates the relationship between my mind and (what I experience as) the movement of my limbs (in virtual reality), one can easily imagine a computer which runs amok and starts to act like an Evil God, disturbing that coordination—when the mental signal to raise my hand is suspended or even counteracted in (the virtual) reality, the most fundamental experience of the body as “mine” is undermined. It thus seems that cyberspace effectively realizes the paranoid fantasy elaborated by Schreber, the German judge whose memoirs were analyzed by Freud: the “wired universe” is psychotic insofar as it seems to materialize Schreber’s hallucination of the divine rays through which God directly controls the human mind. In other words, does not the externalization of the big Other in the computer account for the inherent paranoiac dimension of the wired universe? Or, to put it another way: the commonplace is that the ability to upload consciousness into a computer finally frees people from their bodies—but it also frees the machines from “their” people … Which brings us to the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy: much more than Berkeley’s God who sustains the world in his mind, the ultimate Matrix is Malebranche’s occasionalist God.

What, then, is the Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject does not speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for the agency thanks to which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, thanks to which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated. However, it is crucial to note that, in the key chapters of his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan struggles to delineate the operation that follows alienation and is in a sense its counterpoint, that of separation: alienation in the big Other is followed by the separation from the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, “barred,” deprived of the Thing—and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject, that is, to (re)constitute the consistency of the big Other.

Following the same paranoid twist, the thesis of The Matrix is that this big Other is externalized in the really existing Mega-Computer. There is—there has to be—a Matrix because “things are not right, opportunities have been missed, something goes wrong all the time,” in other words, the film’s idea is that it is so because the Matrix obfuscates the “true” reality behind it all. The problem with the film is that it is not “crazy” enough, because it supposes another “real” reality behind our everyday reality sustained by the Matrix. One is tempted to claim, in Kantian fashion, that the mistake of conspiracy theory is homologous to the “paralogism of pure reason,” to the confusion between the two levels: suspicion (of received scientific, social, etc., opinion) as the formal methodological stance, and the positivization of this suspicion in another global all-explanatory para-theory.

The excess of madness at the heart of the cogito is thus closely linked to the topic of freedom. The “antagonism” of the Kantian notion of freedom (as the most concise expression of the antagonism of freedom in bourgeois life itself) does not lie where Adorno locates it (the self-imposed law means that freedom coincides with self-enslavement and self-domination, that Kantian “spontaneity” is in actuality its opposite, utter self-control, the thwarting of all spontaneous impetuses), but is, as Robert Pippin put it, “much more on the surface.”[490] For Kant as for Rousseau, the greatest moral good is to lead a fully autonomous life as a free rational agent, and the worst evil is subjection to the will of another; however, Kant has to concede that man does not emerge as a free mature rational agent spontaneously, through his natural development, but only through an arduous process of maturation sustained by harsh discipline and education which cannot but be experienced by the subject as an external coercion:

Social institutions both to nourish and to develop such independence are necessary and are consistent with, do not thwart, its realization, but with freedom understood as an individual’s causal agency this will always look like an external necessity that we have good reasons to try to avoid. This creates the problem of a form of dependence that can be considered constitutive of independence and that cannot be understood as a mere compromise with the particular will of another or as a separate, marginal topic of Kant’s dotage. This is, in effect, the antinomy contained within the bourgeois notions of individuality, individual responsibility …[491]

Here one can indeed imagine Kant as an unexpected precursor of Foucault’s thesis, in his Discipline and Punish, on the formation of the free individual through a complex set of disciplinary micro-practices—and, as Pippin does not hesitate to point out, this antinomy explodes even more intensely in Kant’s socio-historical reflections, focused on the notion of “unsocial sociability”: what is Kant’s notion of the historical relation between democracy and monarchy if not this same thesis (of the link between freedom and submission to a higher authority) applied to the historical process itself? In the long term (or in its notion), democracy is the only appropriate form of government; however, because of the immaturity of the people, the conditions for a functioning democracy can only be established through a non-democratic monarchy which, in the exertion of its benevolent power, brings the people to political maturity. And, as to be expected, Kant does not fail to mention the Mandevillean rationality of the market in which each individual’s pursuit of his or her egotistic interests is what works best (much better than direct altruism) for the common good. At its most extreme, this leads Kant to the notion that human history itself is governed by an inscrutable divine plan, within which we mortals are destined to play a role unbeknownst to us—here, the paradox grows even stronger: our freedom is linked to its opposite not only “from below” but also “from above”; that is, not only can it arise only through our submission and dependence, but our freedom as such is a moment in a larger divine plan—our freedom is not truly an aim-in-itself, but serves a higher purpose.

We can clarify—if not to resolve—this dilemma by introducing some further distinctions into the notion of “noumenal” freedom itself. Upon a closer look, it becomes evident that, for Kant, discipline and education do not directly work on our animal nature, forging it into human individuality: as Kant points out, animals cannot be properly educated, since their behavior is already predestined by their instincts. What this means is that, paradoxically, in order to be educated into freedom (qua moral autonomy and self-responsibility), I already have to be free in a sense much more radical, “noumenal,” monstrous even. The Freudian name for this monstrous freedom is, again, the death drive. It is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose a moment in human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal but also not yet a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized,” “derailed” nature which is not yet culture. In his anthropological writings, Kant emphasized that the human animal needs disciplinary pressure in order to tame that uncanny “unruliness” which seems to be inherent to human nature—a wild, unconstrained propensity to insist stubbornly on one’s own will, whatever the cost. It is on account of this that the human animal needs a Master to discipline him: discipline targets this “unruliness,” not the animal nature in man. In Hegel’s Lectures on Philosophy of History, a similar role is played by the reference to “negroes”: significantly, Hegel deals with “negroes” before history proper (which starts with ancient China), in the section entitled “The Natural Context or the Geographical Basis of World History”: “negroes” here stand for the human spirit in its “state of nature,” they are described as a kind of perverted, monstrous children, simultaneously naïve and corrupted, living in a pre-lapsarian state of innocence, and, precisely as such, the cruelest of barbarians; part of nature and yet thoroughly denaturalized; ruthlessly manipulating nature through primitive sorcery, yet simultaneously terrified by raging natural forces; mindlessly brave cowards.[492]

This in-between is the “repressed” of the narrative form (in this case, of Hegel’s “grand narrative” of the world-historical succession of spiritual forms): not nature as such, but the very break with nature which is (later) supplemented by the virtual universe of narratives. According to Schelling, prior to its assertion as the medium of the rational Word, the subject is the “infinite lack of being” (unendliche Mangel an Sein), the violent gesture of contraction that negates every being outside itself. This insight also forms the core of Hegel’s notion of madness: when Hegel determines madness to be a withdrawal from the actual world, the closing of the soul onto itself, its “contraction,” he all too quickly conceives of this withdrawal as a “regression” to the level of the “animal soul” still embedded in its natural environment and determined by the rhythm of nature (night and day, etc.). But does not this withdrawal, on the contrary, amount to a severing of links with the Umwelt, the end of the subject’s immersion in its immediate natural environment, and is it not, as such, the founding gesture of “humanization”? Was not this withdrawal-into-the-self accomplished by Descartes with his universal doubt and reduction to the cogito, which, as Derrida pointed out, also involves a passage through the moment of radical madness?

This brings us to the necessity of the Fall: given the Kantian link between dependence and autonomy the Fall is unavoidable, a necessary step in the moral progress of man. That is to say, in precise Kantian terms: the “Fall” is the very renunciation of my radical ethical autonomy; it occurs when I take refuge in a heteronomous Law, in a Law experienced as imposed on me from the outside. The finitude in which I search for support to avoid the dizziness of freedom is the finitude of the external-heteronomous Law itself. Therein resides the difficulty of being a Kantian. Every parent knows that the child’s provocations, wild and “transgressive” as they may appear, ultimately conceal and express a demand for the figure of authority to set firm limits, to draw a line which means “This far and no further!” thus enabling the child to clearly map what is possible and what is not possible. (And does the same not go also for hysteric’s provocations?) This, precisely, is what the analyst refuses to do, and this is what makes him so traumatic for the analysand—paradoxically, it is the setting of a firm limit which is liberating, and it is the very absence of a firm limit which is experienced as suffocating.

This is why the Kantian autonomy of the subject is so difficult—its implication is precisely that there is no one else, no external agent of “natural authority,” who can do the job for me, that I myself have to set the limit to my natural “unruliness.” Although Kant famously wrote that man is an animal which needs a master, this should not deceive us: what Kant was aiming at was not the philosophical commonplace according to which, in contrast to animals whose behavioral patterns are grounded in their inherited instincts, man lacks such firm coordinates which, therefore, have to be imposed on him from outside, through a cultural authority; rather, Kant’s true aim is to point out how the very need for an external master is a deceptive lure: man needs a master in order to conceal from himself the deadlock of his own difficult freedom and self-responsibility. In this precise sense, a truly enlightened “mature” human being is a subject who no longer needs a master, who can fully assume the heavy burden of defining his own limitations. This basic Kantian (and also Hegelian) lesson was put very clearly by Chesterton: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”[493]

The lesson here is thus in a precise sense an Hegelian one: the external opposition between freedom (transcendental spontaneity, moral autonomy, and self-responsibility) and slavery (submission, either to my own nature, its “pathological” instincts, or to an external power) has to be transposed into freedom itself, as the “highest” antagonism between monstrous freedom qua “unruliness” and the true moral freedom. However, a possible counter-argument here would be that this noumenal excess of freedom (Kantian “unruliness,” the Hegelian “night of the world”) is a retroactive result of the disciplinary mechanisms themselves (along the lines of the Paulinian motif of “Law creates transgression,” or the Foucauldian topic of how the very disciplinary measures that try to regulate sexuality generate “sex” as the elusive excess)—the obstacle creates that which it endeavors to control.

Are we then dealing with the closed circle of a process positing its own presuppositions? Our wager is that the Hegelian dialectical circle of positing presuppositions, far from being closed, generates its own opening and thus the space for freedom. In order to see this, one has to begin with what appears to be the very opposite of freedom: blind mechanical habit. In the shift from Aristotle to Kant, to modernity with its subject as pure autonomy, the status of habit changes from organic inner rule to something mechanical, the opposite of human freedom: freedom can never become habit(ual); if it becomes a habit, it is no longer true freedom (which is why Thomas Jefferson wrote that if people are to remain free, they have to rebel against the government every couple of decades). This eventuality reaches its apogee in Christ, who is “the figure of a pure event, the exact opposite of the habitual.”[494]

Hegel here provides the immanent corrective to Kantian modernity. As Catherine Malabou notes, Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit begins with a study of the same topic with which Philosophy of Nature ends: the soul and its functions. This redoubling offers a clue as to how Hegel conceptualizes the transition from nature to spirit: “not as a sublation, but as a reduplication, a process through which spirit constitutes itself in and as a second nature.”[495] The name for this second nature is habit. So it is not that the human animal breaks with nature through the creative explosion of spirit, which then gets “habituated,” alienated, turned into a mindless routine; the reduplication of nature in “second nature” is primordial, it is only this reduplication that opens up the space for spiritual creativity.

Perhaps this Hegelian notion of habit allows us to account for the figure of the zombie, slowly dragging itself around in a catatonic mode but persisting forever: are zombies not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (language, consciousness, and thinking)?[496] This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone we knew before, when he was still normally alive—the shock for a character in a zombie movie comes when they recognize the formerly friendly neighbor in the creeping figure relentlessly stalking them.[497] What Hegel says about habits thus has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of human identity, we are all zombies; our “higher” and “free” human activities are dependent on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits—in this sense, being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, humanity’s inhuman or mechanical core. The shock of meeting a zombie is thus not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own humanity.[498]

Hegel’s conception of habit is unexpectedly close to the logic of what Derrida called pharmakon, the ambiguous supplement which is simultaneously a force of death and a force of life. Habit is, on the one hand, the dulling of life, its mechanization (Hegel characterizes it as a “mechanism of self-feeling”[499]): when something turns into a habit, it means that its vitality is lost, we just mechanically repeat it without being aware of it. Habit thus appears to be the very opposite of freedom: freedom means making creative choices, inventing something new, in short, precisely breaking with (old) habits. Think about language, whose “habitual” aspect is best exemplified by standard ritualized greetings: “Hello, how are you? Nice to see you!”—we do not really mean it, there is no living intention in it, it is just a “habit.”

On the other hand, Hegel emphasizes again and again that there is no freedom without habit: habit provides the background and foundation for every exercise of freedom. Take language again: in order for us to exercise freedom in using language, we have to get fully accustomed to it, habituated (in)to it, we have to learn to practice it, to apply its rules “blindly,” mechanically, as a habit: only when a subject externalizes what he learns in mechanized habits is he “open to be otherwise occupied and engaged.”[500] Not only language, but a much more complex set of spiritual and bodily activities have to be turned into a habit in order for a human subject to be able to exert his “higher” functions of creative thinking and working—all the operations we perform all the time mindlessly, such as walking, eating, holding things, and so on and so forth, have to be learned and turned into mindless habits. Through habits, a human being transforms his body into a mobile and fluid means, the soul’s instrument, which serves us without our having to focus consciously on it. In short, through habits, the subject appropriates his body. As Alain points out in his commentary on Hegel:

When freedom comes it is in the sphere of habit … Here the body is no longer a foreign being, reacting belligerently against me; rather it is pervaded by soul and has become soul’s instrument and means; yet at the same time, in habit the corporeal self is understood as it truly is; body is rendered something mobile and fluid, able to express directly the inner movements of thought without needing to involve thereby the role of consciousness or reflection.[501]

More radically even, for Hegel, living itself (leading a life) is for us something we must learn as a habit, starting with birth itself. Recall how, seconds after birth, the baby has to be shaken and thereby reminded to breathe—otherwise, forgetting to breathe, it will die. Indeed, as Hegel reminds us, a human being can also die of habit: “Human beings even die as result of habit—that is, if they have become totally habituated to life, and spiritually and physically blunted.”[502] Nothing thus comes “naturally” to human being, including walking and seeing:

The form of habit applies to spirit in all its degrees and varieties. Of all these modifications, the most external is the determination of the individual in relation to space; this, which for man means an upright posture, is something which by his will he has made into a habit. Adopted directly, without thinking, his upright stance continues through the persistent involvement of his will. Man stands upright only because and insofar as he wants to stand, and only as long as he wills to do so without consciousness of it. Similarly, to take another case, the act of seeing, and others like it, are concrete habits which combine in a single act the multiple determinations of sensation, of consciousness, intuition, understanding, and so forth.[503]

Habit is thus “depersonalized” willing, a mechanized emotion: once I become habituated to standing, I will it without consciously willing it, since my will is embodied in the habit. In a habit, presence and absence, appropriation and withdrawal, engagement and disengagement, interest and disinterest, subjectivization and objectivization, consciousness and unconsciousness, are strangely interlinked. Habit is the unconsciousness necessary for the very functioning of consciousness:

in habit our consciousness is at the same time present in the subject-matter, interested in it, yet conversely absent from it, indifferent to it; … our Self just as much appropriates the subject-matter as, on the contrary, it draws away from it; … the soul, on the one hand, completely pervades its bodily activities and, on the other hand, deserts them, thus giving them the shape of something mechanical, of a merely natural effect.[504]

And the same goes for my emotions: their display is not purely natural or spontaneous; we learn to cry or laugh at appropriate moments (recall how, for the Japanese, laughter functions in a different way than for us in the West: a smile can also be a sign of embarrassment and shame). The external mechanization of emotions—from the ancient Tibetan prayer wheel which prays for me to “canned laughter” where the TV set laughs for me, turning my emotional display quite literally into a mechanical display—is thus based in the fact that emotional displays, including the most “sincere,” are already in themselves “mechanized.”

However, the highest level (and, already, the self-sublation) of habit is language as the medium of thought—in it, the couple of possession and withdrawal is taken to the limit. The point is not only that, in order to speak a language “fluently,” we have to master its rules mechanically, without thinking about it; much more radically, the co-dependence of insight and blindness determines the very act of understanding: when I hear a word, I not only immediately abstract from its sound and “see through it” to its meaning (recall the weird experience of becoming aware of the non-transparent vocal materiality of a word—it appears as intrusive and obscene …), but I have to do so if I am to experience meaning at all.

If, for Hegel, man is fundamentally a being of habit, if habits actualize themselves when adopted as automatic reactions which occur without the subject’s conscious participation, and, finally, if we locate the core of subjectivity in its ability to perform intentional acts, to realize conscious goals, then, paradoxically, the human subject is at its most fundamental a “disappearing subject.”[505] The habit’s “unreflective spontaneity”[506] accounts for the well-known paradox of subjectively choosing an objective necessity, of willing what unavoidably will occur: through its elevation into a habit, a reaction which was first something imposed on me from outside is internalized, transformed into something that I perform automatically and spontaneously, “from inside”:

If an external change is repeated, it turns into a tendency internal to the subject. The change itself is transformed into a disposition, and receptivity, formerly passive, becomes activity. Thus habit is revealed as a process through which man ends by willing or choosing what came to him from outside. Henceforth the will of the individual does not need to oppose the pressure of the external world; the will learns gradually to want what is.[507]

What makes habit so central is the temporality it involves: having a habit involves a relationship to the future, prescribing how I will react to some future event. Habit is a feature of the organism’s economizing of its forces, of building up a reserve for the future. That is to say, in its habits, subjectivity “embraces in itself its future ways of being, the ways it will become actual.”[508] This means that habit also complicates the relationship between possibility and actuality: it is stricto sensu the actuality of a possibility. This means is that habit belongs to the level of virtuality (defined by Deleuze precisely as the actuality of the possible): habit is actual, a capacity to react in a certain way that I fully possess here and now, and simultaneously a possibility pointing towards my reacting a certain way in the future.

Interesting conceptual consequences follow from this notion of habit. Ontologically, with regard to the opposition between particular accidents and universal essence, habit can be described as the “becoming-essential of the accident”:[509] once an externally caused accident has been repeated enough times, it is elevated into the universality of the subject’s inner disposition, into a feature that belongs to and defines its inner essence. This is why we can never determine the precise beginning of a habit, the point at which external occurrences change into habit—once a habit has been formed, its origins are obliterated and it appears as if it was always already there. The conclusion is thus clear, almost Sartrean: man has no permanent substance or universal essence; he is to his very core a creature of habit, a being whose identity is formed through the elevation of contingent external accidents or encounters into an internal(ized) universal habit. Does this mean that only humans have habits? Here, Hegel is much more radical—he takes a decisive further step and leaves behind the old opposition of nature as fully determined in its closed circular movement versus man as a being of openness and existential freedom: “for Hegel, nature is always second nature.”[510] Every natural organism has to regulate its exchange with its environment, the assimilation of the environment into itself, through habitual procedures which “reflect” into the organism, as its inner dispositions, its external interactions.

Because of the virtual status of habits, adopting a (new) habit is not simply a matter of changing an actual property of the subject; rather, it involves a kind of reflexivity, a change in the subject’s disposition which determines his reaction to changes, a change in the kind of changes to which the subject is submitted: “Habit does not simply introduce mutability into something that would otherwise continue without changing; it suggests change within a disposition, within its potentiality, within the internal character of that in which the change occurs, which does not change.”[511] This is what Hegel means by self-differentiation as the “sublation” of externally imposed changes into self-changes, of external into internal difference—only organic bodies differentiate themselves: an organic body maintains its unity by internalizing an externally imposed change into a habit to deal with future such changes.

If this is the case, however, if the whole of (organic, at least) nature is already second nature, in what does the difference between animal and human habits consist? Hegel’s most provocative and unexpected contribution concerns this very question of the genesis of human habits: in his Anthropology (which opens the Philosophy of Spirit) we find a unique “genealogy of habits” reminiscent of Nietzsche. This part of the Philosophy of Spirit is one of the hidden, not yet fully exploited, treasures of the Hegelian system, where we find the clearest traces of what one can only call the dialectical-materialist aspect of Hegel: the passage from nature to (human) spirit is developed here not as a direct external intervention of Spirit, as the intervention of another dimension disturbing the balance of the natural circuit, but as the result of a long and tortuous “working through” by means of which intelligence (embodied in language) emerges from natural tensions and antagonisms. This passage is not direct, for Spirit (in the guise of speech-mediated human intelligence) does not directly confront and dominate biological processes—Spirit’s “material base” forever remains pre-symbolic (pre-linguistic) habit.

So how does habit itself arise? In his genealogy, Hegel conceives habit as the third, concluding, moment of the dialectical process of the Soul, whose structure follows the triad of notion–judgment–syllogism. At the beginning, there is Soul in its immediate unity, in its simple notion, the “feeling soul”: “In the sensations which arise from the individual’s encounter with external objects, the soul begins to awaken itself.”[512] The Self is here a mere “sentient Self,” not yet a subject opposed to objects, but just experiencing a sensation in which the two sides, subject and object, are immediately united: when I experience a sensation of touch, it is simultaneously the trace of the external object I am touching and my inner reaction to it; sensation is a Janus-faced entity in which subjective and objective immediately coincide. Even in later stages of the individual’s development, this “sentient Self” survives in the guise of what Hegel calls a “magical relationship,” referring to phenomena that, in Hegel’s times, were designated with terms like “magnetic somnambulism” (hypnosis), all the phenomena in which my Soul is directly—in a pre-reflexive, non-thinking way—linked to external processes and affected by them. Instead of bodies influencing each other at a distance (Newtonian gravity), we have spirits influencing each other at a distance. Here, the Soul remains at the lowest level of its functioning, directly immersed in its environment. (What Freud called “oceanic feeling,” the source of religious experience, is thus for Hegel a feature of the lowest level of the Soul.) What the Soul lacks here is a clear self-feeling, a feeling of itself as distinguished from external reality, which is what happens in the next moment, that of judgment (Urteil—Hegel here mobilizes the word-play of Urteil with Ur-Teil, “primordial divide/division”):

The sensitive totality is, in its capacity as an individual, essentially the tendency to distinguish itself in itself, and to wake up to the judgment in itself, in virtue of which it has particular feelings and stands as a subject in respect of these aspects of itself. The subject as such gives these feelings a place as its own in itself.[513]

All problems arise from this paradoxical short-circuit of the feeling of Self becoming a specific feeling among others, and, simultaneously, the encompassing container of all feelings, the site where all dispersed feelings can be brought together. Malabou provides a wonderfully precise formulation of this paradox of the feeling of Self:

Even if there is a possibility of bringing together feeling’s manifold material, that possibility itself becomes part of the objective content. The form needs to be the content of all that it forms: subjectivity does not reside in its own being, it “haunts” itself. The soul is possessed by the possession of itself.[514]

This is the crucial feature: possibility itself has to actualize itself, to become a fact; or, the form needs to become part of its own content (or, to add a further variation on the same motif, the frame itself has to become part of the framed content). The subject is the frame/form/horizon of his world and part of the framed content (of the reality it observes), and the problem is that it cannot see or locate itself within its own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible. The possibility of locating oneself within one’s reality has to remain a possibility—however, and herein lies the crucial point, this possibility itself has to actualize itself qua possibility, to be active, to exert influence, qua possibility.

There is a link to Kant here, to the old enigma of what exactly Kant had in mind with his notion of “transcendental apperception,” of self-consciousness accompanying every act of my consciousness (when I am conscious of something, I am thereby always also conscious of the fact that I am conscious of it). Is it not an obvious fact that this is empirically not true, that I am not always reflexively aware of my awareness itself? Interpreters of Kant try to resolve this problem by claiming that every conscious act of mine can potentially be rendered self-conscious: if I want to, I always can turn my attention to what I am doing. But this is not strong enough: transcendental apperception cannot be an act that never need actually happen, that just could have happened at any point. The solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat.

This, then, is the status of the Self: its self-awareness is, as it were, the actuality of its own possibility. Consequently, what “haunts” the subject is his inaccessible noumenal Self, the “Thing that thinks,” an object in which the subject would fully “encounter himself.”[515] Of course, for Kant, the same goes for every object of my experience which is always phenomenal, that is inaccessible in its noumenal dimension; however, with the Self, the impasse is accentuated: all other objects of experience are given to me phenomenally, but, in the case of the subject, I cannot even get a phenomenal experience of me—since I am dealing with “myself,” in this unique case, phenomenal self-experience would equal noumenal access; that is, if I were to be able to experience “myself” as a phenomenal object, I would thereby eo ipso experience myself in my noumenal identity, as a Thing.

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject’s objectivizing himself: the subject is singular and the universal frame of “his world,” for every content he perceives is “his own”; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) in the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].”[516] This has to be read in a very precise way. Hegel’s point is not simply that madness signals a short-circuit between totality and one of its particular moments, a “fixation” of totality in this moment on account of which the totality is deprived of its dialectical fluidity—although some of his formulations may appear to point in this direction.[517] The “particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid” and resists being “reduced to its proper place and rank” is the subject himself, or, more precisely, the feature (signifier) that re-presents him (holds his place) within the structured (“systematized”) totality; and since the subject cannot ever objectivize himself, the “contradiction” here is absolute.[518] With this gap, the possibility of madness emerges—and, as Hegel puts it in proto-Foucauldian terms, madness is not an accidental lapse, a distortion, or an “illness” of human spirit, but is inscribed into an individual spirit’s basic ontological constitution, for to be human means to be potentially mad:

This interpretation of insanity as a necessarily occurring form or stage in the development of the soul is naturally not to be understood as if we were asserting that every mind, every soul, must go through this stage of extreme derangement. Such an assertion would be as absurd as to assume that because in the Philosophy of Right crime is considered as a necessary manifestation of the human will, therefore to commit crime is an inevitable necessity for every individual. Crime and insanity are extremes which the human mind in general has to overcome in the course of its development.[519]

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is