Friday, 15 May 2015

Žižek's Hegel (1): the obstacle is the solution

Bildresultat för zizek less than nothingŽižek's Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Verso 2012) is a long read. Here I'd like to make a few remarks on his interpretation of Hegel, especially two ideas that are central to it and which I find remarkably simple and interesting. The first is that dialectics only works retrospectively. The other is that Aufhebung or sublation doesn't consist in changing the negative; instead, it comes about through a change in the subject that enables it to view the negative from another angle and thus to reconcile itself to it. Both of these ideas seem to put Žižek on a collision course with Marxism, at least at first sight. I will therefore also discuss briefly how I think Žižek can be placed in relation to the Marxian tradition. The crucial point remains, as Marx put it, whether we should change the world or merely interpret it. My argument in brief will be that Žižek holds on to the goal of social change, but that the impetus of this seems to derive less from dialectics than from Lacan. I will divide my comments into a series of posts, beginning with the two main points of Žižek's Hegel interpretation here and saving the rest of the discussion for later.

Dialectics only works retrospectively

Žižek repeatedly points out that dialectics only works retrospectively, by “positing its own presuppositions”. Of course, the element of retrospectivity is stressed by Hegel himself, in his statement about the owl of Minerva that only flies at dusk, but what Žižek brings out much more clearly is that what Hegel refers to as "necessity" is also nothing but a retrospective effect. To Žižek, the fundamental reason that dialectics cannot serve as a tool for logically deriving or predicting the course of history is that history is an open and contingent process, the appearance of necessity only arising retrospectively. Rather than each category succeeding the other with logical necessity, “each passage in Hegel is a moment of creative invention”. The thing “forms itself in an open contingent process – the eternally past essence is a retroactive result of the dialectical process” (Žižek 2012: 468).

By stressing retrospectivity, Žižek is able to reject the common portrayal of Hegel's dialectic as a grand teleological narrative with no room for contingency. However, what is striking about this interpretation is that it doesn't dispense altogether with necessity. As Žižek points out, Hegel's dialectics operates through a “reversal of contingency into necessity” whereby “the outcome of a contingent process takes on the appearance of necessity: things retroactively ‘will have been’ necessary” (ibid. 213). History does not follow a necessary course, but consists in a series of "successive re-totalizations, each of them creating (‘positing’) its own past" (ibid. 272f). The process of becoming thus retroactively engenders its necessity: “the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself” (ibid. 231).

This relationship between contingency and necessity may at first appear curious, but it is not hard to think of examples that illustrate it. Think for instance of person who has experienced a tragic accident that changes his life for ever. Although the accident may well have occurred totally out of the blue, it is easy to imagine such a man saying in retrospect that without it he wouldn't have been the man he is now - that it was "necessary" for him to be the man he is. It is also easy to find examples in social theory. Take Michael Heinrich according to whose interpretation of Marx the “socially necessary labor” needed for a commodity to acquire a certain value can only be determined retrospectively, in the act of exchange. It seems quite possible to discern a dialectical "positing of presuppositions" in how Heinrich sees the constitution of value: rather than deriving value directly from the amount of labour put down in producing a commodity, as has often been done in readings of Marx's theory of value, this labour is only posited in retrospect as the "cause" of the commodity's value. To a certain extent we also find a similar operation in Foucault - might not the inversion described by him whereby discourse produces the subject supposed to express itself in language be seen as yet another case of this retrospective positing of presuppositions? The difference between Foucault and the dialectical approach described by Žižek is that to the latter there is no way to simply step out of the retrospective illusion of necessity, as it appears that Foucault tries to do. Thus the tragic event will continue to be consitutive of the man in our example - as a necessary part of my idea of him - even if I fully recognize its contingency. Similarly, in Marx the idea of value as an independent (discursive) entitity generating labour as a mere illusion would be senseless since it would undermine the very concept of value. So according to Žižek, rather than dispensing with necessity, we need to view history as both contingent and necessary at once, in a kind of parallax view.

If dialectics only works retrospectively, it cannot point the way forward to a communist revolution. Žižek makes the provocative claim that by stressing retroactivity, Hegel was in a sense a better materialist than Marx, who carried out an “idealist reversal of Hegel”:
[I]n 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. (ibid. 220)
Žižek in fact in several passages seems to suggest that a properly dialectical understanding of our situation requires us not to try to break out of the status quo, but instead to "tarry" with it, recognizing the negative as the very goal or solution we are looking for, and thus to reconcile ourselves to it. This is the second major element in his Hegel-interpretation and I will now turn to discuss it a bit more in detail.

The negative isn't an obstacle

A point which Žižek makes again and again throughout the book - and also in several previous books, like The Sublime Object of Ideology or Tarrying with the Negative - is that the Hegelian Aufhebung (or sublation) is not a reconciliation of opposites, a reappropriation of alienated content in a higher "synthesis", but merely the negative itself from another angle. Two favorite examples which he often uses to illustrate this operation are the Rabinovitch joke and Adorno's antagonistic definition of society (below I quote them from The Sublime Object of Ideology for convenience):
Rabinovitch [is] a Jew who wants to migrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why; Rabinovitch answers: 'There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, there will be a counter-revolution and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms...' 'But', interrupts the bureaucrat, 'this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!' 'Well', responds Rabinovitch calmly, 'that’s my second reason'. (Žižek's 1989:176)

Adorno starts from the fact that today it is not possible to formulate one appropriate definition of Society: as soon as we set to work, a number of opposing, mutually excluding determinations present themselves: on the one hand those which lay stress upon Society as an organic whole encompassing individuals; on the other those which conceive Society as a bond, a kind of contract between atomized individuals... In a first approach, this opposition presents itself as an epistemological obstace, as a hindrance preventing us from grasping Society as it is in itself - making out of Society a kind of Kantian Thing-in-itself which can be approached only through partial, distorted insights: its real nature escapes us forever. But in a dialectical approach, this contradiction which appears at first as an unresolved question is already in itself a solution: far from barring our access to the real essence of Society, the opposition between 'organicism' and 'indivicualism' is not only epistemological but is already at work in the 'Thing-in-itself'. In other words, the antagonism between Society as a corporate Whole transcending its members and Society as an external, 'mechanical' net connecting atomized individuals is the fundamental antagonism of contemporary society; it is in a way its very definition. (ibid. 177)
In both cases, the resolution leaves the negative as it is, showing that what at first presents itself as an objection or obstacle is the very solution one is looking for. Rabinovitch unexpectedly turns the official's objection into a support for his decision and Adorno uses the obstacles to a definition as the basis for the very definition itself. In the Hegelian reversal, Žižek writes, "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” (ibid. 2012:197). The resisting element, the obstacle, is in each case turned into "a positive condition of possibility” (ibid. 471). To add a further example used by Žižek, to Christians the distance from God can be recast as God's distance from himself, so that the distance paradoxically becomes what unites me with him. Just as in the case of the definition of society, here a dialectical reversal or reconciliation is brought about since "by way of transposing what appears as an epistemological limit into the Thing itself, Hegel shows how the problem is its own solution” (ibid. 477). This shift of perspective always comes about retrospectively. Thus: "we never directly realize a goal – we pass from striving to realize a goal to a sudden recognition that it is already achieved" (ibid. 203). Or: “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” (ibid. 204).

This idea of the obstacle revealing itself as a condition of possibility is repeated again and again in the book, and rendered in a variety of similar-sounding formulas. With each repetition, Žižek takes the opportunity to develop a particular aspect of corollary of this interpretation of Aufhebung. One of these corollaries is that the basic number of Hegelian dialectics is not three, as usually thought, but two. Hegel’s dialectics lacks a “Third” that unites, reconciles and stabilizes the opposites (ibid. 112, 303, 473f). What is usually regarded as the "Third" is just the second moment, or the negation, from another perspective. Objectively, nothing changes. The only change that takes place is in the subject - in the form of the realization that there never really was a conflict, that the obstacle was in fact a condition of possibility, that the goal is already achieved.

This also means that the Aufhebung (or reconciliation or "negation of negation") can no longer be seen an overcoming of alienation in the sense of a reappropriation of the lost “positive” content of the original starting point or “thesis”. The negation of negation is thus not an overcoming of a splitting or externalization. It is also not an overcoming of 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... (ibid. 198)
Psychologically, the negation of the negation happens as one realizes that the enemy or obstacle one is struggling against is constitutive of one's goal, that the goal would in fact lose meaning without the obstacle - when "the struggling subject" realizes that it "needs the figure of the enemy to sustain the illusion of his own consistency":
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... 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. (ibid. 200)
So far so fine. But let us venture a first objection.What happens if this reading of Aufhebung is applied to the classic Marxist problem of the revolution? Doesn’t it result in an advocacy of subjection to the status quo, to the negative suffering of the present (referred to by Hegel as "the rose in the cross")? If we translate the formula to more quotidian language: wouldn’t it mean that, for instance, workers should recognize exploitation as their true "condition of possibility", that they should just learn to view capitalism "from another angle"? For Žižek, it doesn't. But the explanation for that will have to wait until the next post.


Žižek, Slavoj (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

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