Monday, 1 June 2015

Žižek's Hegel (3): Why should we tarry with the negative? (and other important questions)

Zizek (by Luca del Baldo)
In my previous post, I showed how Žižek avoids ending up in a conservative reading of Hegel's injunction to recognize "the rose in the cross of the present". The task of reason, according to this reading, is not to overcome present suffering (the negative, the cross), but to tarry with it and finding wisdom (the rose) in the suffering, and thereby to reconcile itself with it.

Žižek demolishes the assumptions on which this conservative reading rests, firstly, by stressing that dialectics only works retrospectively, from the standpoint of an already achieved reconciliation. There is thus no "logic" in dialectics that compels us to submit to the suffering of the present, to the "negative". It is only once reconciliation is achieved that we become able to recognize the negative as a condition of possibility and affirm it - but as long as we are still caught in the midst of an unreconciled present, there is nothing at all in Hegel's dialectics that says that we must affirm the negative.

This means that the distance separating Hegel from Marx isn't as big as is sometimes thought. It is, for example, impossible to use Hegel to argue that the proletariat should put up with capitalism instead of fighting against it. As long as capitalism is experienced as a "negative", Hegel would agree with Marx that the task is to change the world, rather than just interpreting it.

There is also a second way in which Žižek attacks the conservative reading. He shows that 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 includes one's efforts to change it. The reconciliation doesn't neutralize the contradictions, which continue to be operative in propelling history onwards even as they are "sublated". Again, this can be made easily comprehensible if we use the example of the struggle against capitalism. Might we not say that, to militant activists, the only way to make the existence of capitalism tolerable is to actively struggle against it? In other words, the struggle against capitalism is the very form into which its contradictions are sublated. Reconciliation is achieved in a way that doesn't neutralize the suffering brought about by the "negative", but it does sublate this suffering into a new form, namely that of the anti-capitalist struggle.

Both of these arguments demonstrate that, from a Hegelian perspective, there's never any need to put up with what we experience as "negative". To be sure, once reconciliation is achieved we will be able to see the constructive, enabling role of this negative, but not even such insights imply that we must seek to preserve the negative. The negative is constructive precisely in the sense that it invites us to overcome it.

But Žižek's interpretation in turn raises new questions. One question is why he urges us to "tarry with the negative". If there is no need to put up with the negative, what is the point of tarrying with it? Why should we bother to tarry if history always keeps changing anyway? Žižek clearly agrees with Hegel that it is only through the negative that we arrive at reconciliation. It is only by facing up to the negative that reconciliation - including reconciliation in the midst of change - becomes possible. But how is it possible for Žižek to argue this when he has already denied that there is any logical or historical necessity driving reason towards reconciliation? If there is no such necessity, then wouldn't it be possible to have reconciliation without affirming suffering?

Žižek does provide a simple answer to these questions, but in providing this answer he takes leave of Hegel in important respects and relies rather heavily on Lacan instead. His point appears to be that tarrying with the negative, in the sense of facing up to it, has a liberating psychological effect. The process leading to this liberation - which is one aspect of the wisdom symbolized by the "rose" - is not a logical one, but it isn't enitrely contingent either. There is an unconscious, psychological logic or mechanism at work behind it. Rather than miring us down in the status quo, it is what enables us to move forward and paradoxically "opens up the space for real change" by removing blockages (ibid. 322).

Tarrying with the "negative" is thus, paradoxically, not for the sake of putting up with it, but in order to lessen its grip on us and liberate possibilities for action. In emphasizing this, Žižek emphatically parts ways with interpretations such as Waszek's and reveals himself as being with Marx after all: the point really is to change the world rather than just interpreting it, although, more than Marx, he seems to be thinking that the road to change is only opened by constantly reinterpreting the world - by constantly performing new acts of re-totalization in relation to the present. Or even more explicitly:
To avoid a fatal misunderstanding: this crucial dialectical move from epistemological obstacle to ontological impossibility in no way implies that all we can do is reconcile ourselves to this impossibility, i.e., accept reality itself as imperfect. The premise of psychoanalysis is that one can intervene with the symbolic into the Real, because the Real is not external reality-in-itself, but a crack in the symbolic, so one can intervene with an act which re-configures the field and thus transforms its immanent point of impossibility. ‘Traversing the fantasy’ does not mean accepting the misery of our lives – on the contrary, it means that only after we ‘traverse’ the fantasies obfuscating this misery can we effectively change it. (ibid. 477)
If this sounds abstract, Žižek also provides an illustrative example: 
Take the role of the wife in a marriage in which patriarchal values continue to have a subterranean existence: the wife has to serve her husband, but in the context of a free and equal relationship; this is why the first act of rebellion is to openly proclaim one’s servitude, to refuse to act as free where one is de facto not free. The effects of such refusal are shattering, since in modern conditions, servitude can only reproduce itself as disavaowed. (ibid. 995 n60)
This idea that an ostensible affirmation of the negative can serve as a kind of shock that liberates us explains much that appears provocative in Žižek's writings. Take, for instance, his excursus on the political equivocality of the Slovenian post-punk group Laibach in The Metastases of Enjoyment, which "staged an aggressive inconsistence mixture of Stalinism, Nazism and Blut und Boden ideology".
The first reaction of enlightened Leftist critics was to conceive of Laibach as the ironic imitation of totalitarian rituals; however, their support of Laibach was always accompanied by an uneasy feeling: ‘What if they really mean it?... (ibid. 1994:71)
Žižek then argues that Laibach frustrates this totalitarian fantasy “precisely in so far as it is not its ironic imitation, but overidentification with it – by bringing to light the obscene superego underside of the system, overidentification suspends its efficiency” (ibid. 72). By appealing directly to the disavowed "illegal enjoyment" holding together the community, the group succeeded better in weakening the hold on people of the "racist fantasy" on people than rational argumentation of the Habermasian kind.
The translation of the racist fantasy into the universal medium of symbolic intersubjectivity (the Habermasian ethos of dialogue) in no way weakens the hold of the racist fantasy upon us. If we are to undermine this power of fantasy, a different political strategy is needed, a strategy that is able to incorporate what Lacan called 'la traversée du fantasme', a strategy of overidentification, which takes into account the fact that the obscene superego qua basis and support of the public Law is operative only in so far as it remains unacknowledged, hidden from the public eye. What if, instead of critical dissection and irony which reveal their impotence in the face of racism’s phantasmic kernel, we proceed a contrario and identify publicly with the obscene superego? (ibid. 71)
To take just one more example of how Žižek tries to deliver liberating shocks to the reader: in the early part of Less than Nothing, he explains that Hegelian dialectics means "opting for the bad". Whereas Hegel is usually understood as having criticized the abstract freedom of the revolutionary terror in France in favour of the concrete freedom of the modern rational state, Žižek states that the proper dialectical choice would be to opt for the "bad choice" of revolutionary terror. There was simply no way to choose the "rational state" directly in France, without first passing through the abstract freedom of the terror, which was needed to do away with the falseness of the ancient régime, clearing the ground for a reestablishment of concrete freedom on a higher level. Taken at face value, this is a dubious statement, which is inconsistent with what Žižek elsewhere says about dialectics being purely retroactive and non-teleological. The point of this argument, however, is hardly to make a serious statement about either Hegel or the revolution. Rather, I suspect that it must be found in his wish to deliver a liberating shock that will reconfigure the symbolic field. Žižek's seemingly radical and provokative endorsement of Lenin and the terror of the October Revolution (ibid. 2004a) can perhaps be interpreted in the same way - as a détour, a way of opening up the road to the good by endorsing the bad.

So why should we "tarry" with the negative? Because it liberates us. By affirming it we break its hold on us and become more able to participate in change. Reconciliation is the name of that kind of freedom. Hegel was right that reconciliation can only be reached through tarrying with the negative, but the process whereby this happens is not logical but rather psychological.

Objet a and the limitations of Hegel

Žižek, then, is clearly not a defender of the status quo. Instead, it is precisely for the sake of challenging this status quo that he urges us to tarry with the negative. Dialectics itself cannot lead us beyond the present, but that doesn't mean that there is no room for praxis, for trying to bring about social change. The point to which dialectics delivers us - the Aufhebung or negation of the negation - is also the "shocking" point at which we confront the fact of our freedom, the point where dialectics can no longer guide us.

What are the political implications of this stance? While Žižek avoids the conservative identification with the “rose in the cross”, at the same time he says that the meaning of our acts will never be apparent until in retrospect. If successful, the radical act will transform all yardsticks whereby to judge it anyway. Žižek himself raises the question what this means for the possibility of emancipatory political interventions: "Does it mean that we are condemned to acting blindly?". His answer is to emphasize freedom: “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 freedom?” (ibid. 263).

The problem with this answer seems to me to be two-fold. Firstly, it leaves the more basic question why we should change reality at all in the dark. Nothing in Žižek's argument about Aufhebung, the retrospectivity of dialectics or its compatibility with a certain form of contingent political action says anything about why the negative arises in the first place - yet this is where we find the source of the suffering and discontent that drives history onwards. Secondly, the use of the word "freedom" in the answer is, I feel, slightly misleading. It suggest an element of decisionism or arbitrariness in his philosophy, which gainsays the fact that, to him, the choice of a radical political stance is determined by something that isn't arbitrary at all. Badiou calls it fidelity to the truth-event. For Žižek, it is rather fidelity to desire, to jouissance, to what gives him enjoyment. Here his language becomes Lacanian rather then Hegelian.

Žižek's answer to what drives history onwards is that, ultimately, what irks us and drives us to act is the Lacanian objet a, the fantasy object through which the subject stages its desire and which arises because of the constitutive lack or void in the symbolic order, as a means to fill this lack and give it body where the word fails. Resisting integration in the symbolic order, it cannot be exposed to public view or acknowledged by the subject. All we can do is to close in on it through a variety of interventions in the symbolic order. 

To Žižek, the limitation of Hegel is shown by his inability to think this object (as well as related concepts such as the death drive; ibid. 2012: 455ff, 480, 492f, 500, 600). This is a crucial point in Žižek's argument because it marks the point where dialectics itself seems to fail. By resorting to Lacan and the notion of the objet a, he appears to acknowledge that there are certain things that cannot be mediatized properly, that fall outside the order of dialectics and that both negate and sustain it from the outside. On the one hand, this object serves as his explanation for why history moves at all, but on the other the "structure" necessitating this object must also constitute an obstacle to dialectics, a hard element resisting that persists across history and resists dialectical totalization.

This results in an uneasy tension in Žižek (which to some extent mirrors that between Hegel and Lacan). On the one hand, he is a Hegelian, which should mean that he should seek to grasp things "concretely" by searching out the way all things are mediated through the whole. On the other, he emphasizes the “reality of the mask”, the fact that fiction often counts for more than reality and that this happens when the fiction is built into or constitutive of the wider social order (just as for Marx commodity fetishism persists even after its illusory character has been revealed) (e.g. ibid. 44ff, 516ff). The primary model for this latter strand in his thought is Lacan and his stress that some fictions are needed to hold the symbolic edifice together, in particular the fiction of the objet a which stands in for and covers up the lack or inconsistency in that edifice. This in turn is reminiscent of the Kantian operation resorted to in order to construct a free, moral subject or to a public sphere of equal citizens - namely the bracketing of the wider social and natural context in which we are entangled. In order for me to act as a free subject or equal citizen, I need to disregard entanglements of causality. To function as an equal citizen, I need to disregard things like social embeddedness - in other words, I need to grasp myself as an abstract entity. Grasping myself "concretely" by paying attention to all aspects of my social being - personal affairs and loyalties, the real inequality of status and power that separates me from others, emotions and psychological problems etc. - would have made it impossible for me to participate in these fictions. It is this tension in Žižek that explains why he so often, in a way that is unusual for a Hegelian, states his support for fictions (for the “positive’power of ‘blindness’” etc.; ibid. 279). In this support for fictions, bracketing and the "mask", Žižek comes surprisingly close to Karatani Kôjin, a Kantian Marxist whom Žižek once criticized from a Hegelian standpoint (ibid. 2004b). It's quite interesting to see that they actually have quite a lot of things in common, and that both point to the unconscious (trauma in Karatani's case and objet a in Žižek's) as a phenomenon that escapes Hegel and functions as limitation to Hegelian dialectics.

Critical comments: Žižek and Adorno

I have stressed two elements in Žižek's reading of Hegel (see the first part of my review). First, that reconciliation is just the negative from another angle, and, secondly, that dialectics only works retrospectively, the appearance of logical necessity only being imposed after the fact, in moments when reconciliation is already achieved. How do these two elements hang together? They work together best in moments when the subject achieves a form of reconciliation with the past - when, looking back at past suffering and obstacles, it realizes that they were conditions of possibility.

Žižek's interpretation is in a way self-evident and straightforward. It is clear that to Hegel, totality is not a harmonious stage arriving at the end of history, when all contradictions have been resolved, but this very history itself. It is with this history, with all its contradictions, that reconciliation has to be sought. There is thus no question of overcoming and leaving behind the contradictions. On the contrary, they are essential moments in the whole that needs to be affirmed. This can be illustrated by Hegel's own explanation of the dialectic: 
The higher dialectic of the concept consists not merely in producing and apprehending the determination as an opposite and limiting factor, but in producing and apprehending the positive content and result which it contains; and it is this alone which makes it a development and immanent progression. (Hegel 1991:60)
To point out that Aufhebung leaves the contradiction in place, that it resolves nothing, is thus not new. Adorno too says in a lecture on Hegel that "the so-called synthesis is nothing but the expression of the non-identity of thesis and antithesis" (Adorno 2008: 30).

Retrospectivity is also not a new theme in the interpretation of dialectics. Robert Fine (2001), for instance, reminds us that Hegel's dialectics serves only the purpose of comprehending the present, having nothing to do with historical prediction. In Marx's Capital too, dialectics is not so much a tool for predicting change as for comprehending capitalism (as fact that has led some commentators to argue that change must take a form of breaking with the dialectic; e.g. Postone 1993).

What, then, is new in Žižek's interpretation, and why does it provoke?

To begin with retrospectivity, the provocative novelty seems to be Žižek's stress on the fact that "necessity" is nothing but a retrospective construct that is imposed on history in moments of achieved reconciliation and which has nothing to do with the real historical processes, which are open and contingent. History thus appears in a kind of unstable double exposure - as necessary or contingent or both at once. This seems to distinguish him quite clearly from both Hegel himself and from Marx, who both tended to view history from a standpoint of an assumed (future) reconciliation which led the contingent side of the process to fall out of view.

From the point of view of how to interpret dialectics, the interesting point here would be that Žižek delimits the validity of dialectics. If dialectics is the motion whereby thought creates "necessity", then the open and contingent processes of history seem to fall outside dialectics. Change happens unrelated to the latter. Foucault knew that, although he tended to focus on the contingent side of history, neglecting the process whereby a retrospective necessity is created. Perhaps there is more of a similarity between Žižek and thinkers like Adorno and Jameson, who both move very much inside the created dialectical totality, trying to break out of it by criticizing it immanently. To both of the latter thinkers, history exists as a force that breaks in on the dialectic, disrupting it from the outside. Although it cannot be captured through our concepts, it can be known through its indirect effects, namely in the way it "shocks" and wrecks havoc with our concepts. The difference between Žižek and Adorno would seem to lie in the value they accord to moments of reconciliation. While Žižek tends to simply assume the desirability of reconciliation, Adorno is much more skeptical, tending to be concerned above all with what is suppressed or forgotten in such moments of reconciliation (the non-identical).

This difference can be clearly brought into view if we turn to the second major element of Žižek's Hegel-interpretation, namely the idea that Aufhebung is nothing but the negative from another angle. While a stimulating thought and undoubtedly useful to capture important aspects of Aufhebung, doubts can be raised that this was what Hegel meant. It is telling that Žižek usually illustrates the idea with his own examples - such as the Rabinovitch joke or Adorno's antagonistic definition of society - rather than with Hegel himself. The one Hegelian example that he discusses at length, that of the abstract freedom of Jacobin terror being sublated into the concrete freedom of the modern, rational state, doesn't fit this interpretation of Aufhebung very well. The modern, rational state wasn't just Jacobin terror "from another angle".

What, then, is the point of this idea? One, surely, is to prop up Hegel's 'critical' credentials by showing how his dialectics never absorbs what he called the "tremendous power of the negative" into any higher synthesis. If the synthesis is simply the negative itself, then it follows that dialectics never impairs or diminishes its force.

But does this attempt to rescue dialectics succeed? I think one way to measure this is to look closer at Žižek's criticism of Adorno. What Adorno says is, in nuce, that although Hegel pays attention to the negative, he ultimately sacrifices it by reincorporating it into a positive dialectics. According to Žižek, however, Adorno's criticism presupposes a wrong image of Hegel:
What if, in its innermost core, Hegel’s dialectics 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? (Žižek 2012:262)
Žižek's rebuttal of Adorno may seem ingenious, but I question its cogency. Even granted that to Hegel necessity is only imposed on history retrospectively in moments of reconciliation, it is imposed, and when it is the contingent elements are sublated, incorporated as meaningful moments in a bigger totality in which, to speak with Žižek, the “obstacles”are affirmed as positive presuppositions. This means that in such moments, whatever remains meaningless or disruptive of meaning - in other words, what Adorno called the non-identical - is screened out. Recognizing the contingency of this process is not at all sufficient to do justice to non-identity, since this contingency falls out of view as soon as reconciliation is achieved.

Žižek, to be sure, might reply that any moment of reconciliation is only temporary, and that each such moment is bound to be disrupted by history, by things that are "non-identical" to it. There is nevertheless in Žižek a tendency to try to look at the present from the vantage-point of reconciliation, priviliging it as the standpoint which we "should" try to reach. His interpretation works best in those moments of reconciliation in which we retrospectively affirm past obstacles, but this retrospective affirmation is possible only to the extent that we are happy with the present. What is missing is an awareness that any reconciliation that remains partial - that overlooks the continuing presence of the non-identical - is ideological. In contrast to Žižek, Adorno never affirms the present. Since he deliberately chooses to look at the present as un-redeemed, it follows that he never justifies the negative either. "'I have seen the world spirit'", he writes about Hitler's robot-bombs, "but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel's philosophy of history" (Adorno 1978: 55).

It would be unfair, of course, to reject Žižek's attempt to find critical inspiration in Hegel simply because he fails to do justice to non-identity. Adorno is notoriously unclear about how his "negative dialectics" can be wedded to any meaningful political action. In the absence of such action, doesn't his philosophy amount to a de facto acquiescence to the status quo? Žižek at least manages to enlist Hegel for radical social change by showing how we can reconcile ourselves to the negative by struggling against it. In such moments of reconciliation, we affirm the present, like Hegel, but this present is itself not static. It too is riven by contradictions and longings (“adventurous”, as Bloch called it). This is why being part of the present, being reconciled with it, also means participating in change, being part of the movement through which change happens.

I will let the last shot go to Adorno, however. Moments when we feel reconciled with ourselves and the world in the midst of struggle may feel wonderful, but there is also a danger to them. Even such moments can be ideological to the extent that they disregard or suppress non-identity. Happiness can be brutal. What is needed is not just to change society, but also to avoid replicating the badness we are fighting. Avoiding brutality and insensitivity doesn't have to imply quietism or withdrawal from political action. There are also other options. Maybe there are forms of reconciliation that are so angelic or playful or so close to the condition of peaceful death that they oppress no one. Adorno, in some of his most memorable passages, spoke of such a utopian condition - which he described as one in which we could be different without fear and in which powerlessness would not invite violence - but at the same time portrayed it as so distant and hard to realize that it could only function critically, as a painful dream spurring us to relentlessly criticize the present. But isn't play - a mode of relating to reality that Benjamin was more appreciative of than Adorno - one possible way to at least at times and in part approach that utopian condition? Isn't this perhaps also the kind of reconciliation that Žižek has in mind, and that would fit in with his appreciation of fiction and his portrayal of dialectics as a kind of parallax view that constantly oscillates between necessity and contingency? If nothing else works, isn't there also the stoic option, of which even Adorno might approve, of trying to change the world to the best of our abilities even as we renounce the moments of reconciliation, at least until the time comes when play will again become possible?


Adorno, Theodor W. (1978) Minima Moralia, London: Verso.

Adorno, Theodor W. (2008) Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966 (ed. Rolf Tiedemann), Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fine, Robert (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt, London: Routledge.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, Moishe (1993) Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj (1994) The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality, London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj (2004a) “What Is To be Done (with Lenin)?”, In These Times, January 21, (accessed 2011-10-07).

Žižek, Slavoj (2004b) “The Parallax View”, New Left Review 25 (Jan – Feb): 121-134.

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

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