Saturday, 30 May 2015

Žižek's Hegel (2): Should we stop trying to change the world then?

Here are some more reflections on Zizek's reading of Hegel in Less than Nothing. I discuss how Zizek tries to escape the conservative implications of "finding the rose in the cross" and why he thinks we can go on trying to change society despite reconciling ourselves to the present.

I ended the first part of my review about Žižek's by throwing out an objection. What happens if his reading of Hegel's Aufhebung is applied to the Marxist problem of the revolution? If Aufhebung is not a reconciliation of opposites, but the negative (the obstacle, the "bad") itself from another angle, doesn't it imply subjection to the status quo, learning to accept present suffering by viewing it from another angle? If reconciliation consists in the recognition that the negative is itself the solution, does that mean that we should stop trying to change society?

This might certainly be one, very conservative way of reading Hegel. As I mentioned in a previous post, Norbert Waszek seems to favour such a reading. Based on Hegel's statements about "tarrying with the negative" and finding "the rose in the cross of the present", he argues that to Hegel the task of reason consists in staying with suffering, tarrying with it, and finding its freedom in it.

There are passages where Žižek seems to endorse this reading of Hegel. If the only obstacle to reconciliation is our perspective on the world, then of course there is no need to "change the world" as Marx put it - all we need to do is to change our interpretation of the world.
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. (Žižek 2012: 201f)
Furthermore, against the Marxist reproach that the present is itself split and run through with contradiction and that “the only way to grasp it as a rational totality is from the standpoint of the revolutionary agent which will resolve those antagonisms” (ibid. 260), Žižek points out that Hegel rejects such a totalization from the future: “the only totality accessible to us is the flawed totality of the present, and the task of Though 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” (ibid. 260). Reconciliation, in other words, doesn't mean that we do away with the contradictions but that we reconcile ourselves with them.

However, despite formulations like these, Žižek avoids the conclusion that we should bow to the status quo. Instead he appears to construct an intricate argument about how we must in fact always keep on trying to change the world, without any guidance from dialectics, and that moments of reconciliation in fact play a crucial role in helping us do this.

His argument is not clearly stated and needs to be reconstructed by collecting bits and pieces from different passages and interpreting them in the light of each other. Below I present what I believe are the first two steps, and the most important ones, in his argument.

History is not a cross, because we are not nailed to it

Let us start by scrutinizing the conservative reading of Hegel's statements about tarrying with the negative and finding the rose in the cross a bit closer. Put simply this reading says that we need to put up with suffering and recognize its rationality in order to reach the higher wisdom symbolized by the "rose in the cross". This reading rests on two problematic assumptions. The first is that reconciliation will bring about a lasting pacification of suffering, a taming of the contradiction so that it will no longer spur us to try to change society. Once reason recognizes the rationality of the present, the suffering will have lost its propulsive force, its ability to drive history onwards.

Against this, one should carefully search out the ways in which the present itself is always on the move. It is simply not possible to affirm the status quo, resting in it and feeling reconciled with the world. Žižek is thus careful to point out that the Aufhebung doesn’t result in a harmonious state, in any lasting reconciliation. Hegel does not strive “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” (ibid. 8). Thus, there will always be contradictions and antagonisms that continue to spur us to action, but that action is open and contingent. Against, the conservatives, one may reply eppur si muove - "still, it moves". What? History, of course.

That history never comes to a rest means that there isn't really any stable, unchanging "cross" to which we can subject ourselves lastingly. If affirming the rose in the cross of the present is interpreted in a conservative fashion, as an injunction to affirm the status quo rather than change it, then it in fact has an enormous weakness: namely that reality never stands still. It keeps changing. The present isn't really a cross at all, at least not one to which we are nailed.

The question then arises how we can reconcile ourselves to this changing, moving reality, and the only way to do that is by abandoning the conservative attachment to the status quo. Instead, peace must somehow be found in acting itself, in praxis. As Lukács pointed out, that means that praxis is more “concrete” than mere interpretation or contemplation, which remains “abstract” since it is divorced from the movement of history.

This, perhaps, explains why Hegel so often returns to the example of the French Revolution. This revolution may very well be his prime model of the cross in which the rose must be found – not in the suffering of the status quo, but in the suffering accompanying one of the most preeminent moment in history when people were trying to change the world. Unlike what Lukács thought, however, action to change society cannot be guided by dialectics. To repeat: Žižek is clear about the fact that the course of future history can never be predicted. “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” (ibid. 220).

Moments of reconciliation

The conservative reading according to which we should acquiesce to the status quo also rests on a second presupposition, namely that there is a logical compulsion in Hegel's dialectics that would rationally lead us to seek reconciliation with the negative.

This is also denied by Žižek. Here the importance of his insistence that dialectics only works retrospectively becomes clear. The fact that necessity only arises in retrospect, in moments of reconciliation, means that there is never any injunction in dialectics to accept any unreconciled status quo. Nothing in dialectics says that we "must" reconcile ourselves to the present. To believe in such a "must" is to misconstrue the appearance of logical necessity arising after the fact of reconciliation with the real process whereby the latter comes about.

This means that one cannot persuade a person to reconcile herself with the status quo using dialectical logic; there is simply no such logical coercion at work in it. The point of dialectics is not to logically demonstrate the rationality of reconciliation. In Žižek's interpretation it is reconciliation that comes first. Only after the fact do the "moments" leading up to reconciliation aquire the status of necessary, "logical" steps.

The fact that necessity only arises retrospectively, in the course of an open and contingent process, means that dialectics loses its justificatory function. The conventional interpretation of Hegel stresses how he justifies the status quo by showing how it reconciles opposing forces. But if Žižek is right that Hegel’s procedure is essentially retrospective, then it’s the other way round. It’s the contradictions that are justified as soon as we affirm the present. This, however, doesn't amount to a defence of the status quo since the present we affirm can very well be one of struggle.

To illustrate this, let us look at two quotes that provide a glimpse of moments when “all is reconciled”. The first is a famous fragment from Nietzsche's later writings:
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed. (Nietzsche 1968:532f)
The second is by Yabu Shirô, a Japanese activist and autonomist writer. In a grim report from an anti-war demonstrations at the time of the inva­sion in Iraq in 2003, he describes a clash with the riot police in which he is hit, his glasses fly away and he tumbles to the asphalt, a for­est of arms and legs barring his sight:
There, through a tiny opening was the gorgeous blue sky. My thoughts leapt out of my scull, merging with the things around me. Fused with my skin, the cold and distant materials pulsated as if they were alive. I was the asphalt in front of the station, I was the arrested safety boots, I was the anti-war blue sky – and I could have affirmed the whole world! (Yabu 2003:47)
The quotes suggests a form of reconciliation that is not arrived at through any specified logical or conceptual development. The "whole world" or "all eternity" are justified in retrospect in such moments. The quotes also illustrate moments when reconciliation does not arrest change, but occurs in the midst of it. The "whole world" is affirmed, including the struggle to change it. The struggle may in fact be an essential moment in making us feel reconciled with the world. Often, struggling against the negative is the only way to make its existence tolerable. The only way that I can put up with the continuing existence of hunger, oppression and suffering in the world is by doing what I can to extinguish them. Reconciliation doesn't presuppose any end to history, any arrival of a stable state after all change is exhausted.

Perhaps an example can help us understand this better. It is easy to recognize the constitutive role of, say, Hitler, Japanese aggression or “Hiroshima”, for the postwar order. By affirming this order, trying to protect it against the return of Nazism or war, we also in a sense affirm and redeem the "negative" experiences that made this order possible. This isn't as outrageous as it sounds. Affirming the constitutive role of these things does not make us Nazis or supporters of war and genocide. What is affirmed is rather the experience of Hitler, aggression and the atomic bomb - in effect, our abhorrence of them. In fact, it is activists against Nazism or against war that most actively keep Hitler and “Hiroshima” alive by invoking them and the need to “never again” repeat them or their acts. When they do this they do not just simply prop up the existing order, in which abhorrent things certainly still abound. They also attempt to change it into a better world in which war and genocide will not exist. They reconcile themselves to the past by struggling against it and by striving for a better future. 

This means that it is wrong to claim that Hegel’s philosophy ends up in justifying the status quo, in merely “interpreting” the world instead of changing it. As Žižek points out, Hegel’s position is quite compatible with struggling to change the world, since the moment of affirmation can very well arrive in the midst of such struggle. Unlike most Marxists, however, Žižek insists that the outcome of the struggle is unpredictable. All historical development is contingent; only retrospectively is "necessity" imposed.

So, to conclude, how does Žižek position himself in regard to what I have called the conservative reading of Hegel? As we have seen, he is not entirely clear here and sometimes he sounds as if reconciliation indeed simply means recognizing the futility of the struggle, “changing the perspective”, seeing that the obstacle is in fact a precondition and so on.

However, a closer reading reveals that Žižek in fact demolishes the two assumptions on which the conservative reading of Hegel rests. Firstly, there is nothing in dialectics that says that we must reconcile ourselves to just any present. Secondly, even when reconciliation occurs, it doesn't need to imply any submission to the status quo - it can be a reconciliation with the world that, as a crucial ingredient, includes one's efforts to change it.

But Žižek's interpretation in turn raises several new questions. Why, if history keeps changing anyway, does he continue to exhort us to tarry with the negative and try to find the "rose in the cross of the present"? What's the point of such an operation? And if dialectics is only useful retrospectively and cannot say anything about real causes behind historical change, what is it then, according to Žižek, that drives history onwards?

To be continued (in the next post)!


Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) The Will to Power (tr. W. Kaufman & R. J. Hollingdale), New York: Vintage.

Yabu, Shirō (2003) “Rojō de torikaese” (Take it back on the street), pp 46-47, in Noda Tsutomu et al (eds), No!! War, Tokyo: Kawadeshobō shinsha.

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

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