Death and All: Lacan as a Reader of Hegel

Chapter 8 of this book deals with the interplay between Lacan and Hegel and the way in which various attempts had been made to understand the influence of the latter on the former. In the next posting I will look at the way in which he claims that Hegel is a reader of Lacan, but now I shall stick to the chronologically more straightforward  reading.

Zizek points out that the early Lacan – the early 1950s – tried to carry out a project, under the influence of Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite, which every “serious philosopher would undoubtedly dismiss as nonsense: namely, to bring together Heidegger (who defines “care” as the fundamental feature of finite Dasein) and Hegel (the philosopher of infinite Absolute Knowledge in which the Universal and the Particular are fully mediated).” He then points out that Lacan shifted from Hegel to Kant on the basis of the unknowability and inaccessibility of the Real as opposed to Hegel’s appreciation of the absolute and absolute knowledge. As Zizek puts it: “is not the best description of Lacan’s central project that of a critique of pure desire, where the term “critique” is to be understood in its precise Kantian sense: maintaining the gap that forever separates every empirical (“pathological”) object of desire from its “impossible” object-cause whose place has to remain empty? And is not what Lacan calls “symbolic castration” this very gap which renders every empirical object unsatisfactory?”

So far, so good and so familiar, but as  we can imagine, Zizek does not take this most trodden path.

He points out that Lacan’s future antérieur involves a now which is viewed retrospectively from the future in the same way that Hegel’s concept of the end of history also involves a look back at the present from a future which has not yet happened. Speculation about the future may well be banned in Hegel, Lacan and, of course, Marx but any philosophy of the present must also have a futural dimension. As I pointed out in a previous post, Brecht does the same thing when he  addresses the not yet existent citizens of the future looking back on us now. Bloch too takes up this idea in his book of 1934: Erbschaft dieser Zeit, which literally means the Heritage of This Time i.e. what will the effects of this now be in the future and hence how should we go about deciding what to do in the now on the basis of that future inheritance. But again the question is asked us in this chapter as to how we get from this now to the possible future and what the processes are which are tied up in the transition.
Here Zizek brings in Hegel’s Cunning of Reason, that process by which time exposes and destroys that which is irrational so that that which is becomes rational and equates that with Lacan’s review of how psychoanalysis should function. We allow the analysand, in a sort of Socratic dialogue, to expose their own internal contradictions so that the apparent belief that they hold about themselves and about the world are exposed to the oxygen of simplicity.
If those beliefs are true they will survive, if not  they won’t. Translated to history this means that those historical Epoques which continue and thrive are, by definition, worthy of survival. Just as in Aristotle a natural master is defined by the fact that they are a master and a natural slave is defined by the fact that they remain a slave. But Hegel injects irony into this relationship, which he sees as the basic building block of the dialectic: “All dialectics lets hold that which should hold, treats it as if it fully holds [lässt das gelten, was gelten soll, als ob es gelte], and, in this way, it lets it destroy itself—the general irony of the world.” Again we have the use of the “as if” as a fundamental philosophical and psychoanalytical tool. In this way the Socratic dialogue means that the things that one says are transformed into prosopopeia. In history of course this means that those who appear to be in charge are destined to be challenged and destroyed by their own internal contradictions, which brings us back to Marx of course and to Zizek/Lacan’s with failure as the only route to success (how often has Zizek quoted the old Maoist dictum of “from failure to failure onto ultimate success!” Or or good old Beckett’s “fail again, fail better “). In this reading the “negation of the negation” fundamentally requires failure for success.
As Zizek puts it here: “This is where the standard reproach to Hegel (that he fails to fully confront negativity, failure, collapse, etc., since there is always a mechanism of redemption built into the dialectical process which guarantees that the utter failure will magically be converted into its opposite) falls short: the story of the Hegelian dialectical reversal is not the story of failure as a blessing in disguise, as a (painful but necessary) step or detour towards the final triumph that retroactively redeems it, but, on the contrary, the story of the necessary failure of every success (of every direct project or act), the story of how the only “success” the subject can gain is the reflexive shift of perspective which recognizes success in failure itself.”
It is the reconciliation of failure with the absolute so that it becomes part of the working out of the absolute, i.e. is then itself immanent to the absolute which restores, in Zizek’s eyes, negativity to the Hegelian dialectic, not just as the negation of the negation, a sort of mathematical positive, but as negativity an sich. Zizek:
“the very notion of Absolute Knowing as accomplished symbolization, the full revelation of Being, etc., totally misses the point of the Hegelian “reconciliation” by turning it into an Ideal to be reached, rather than something that is always already here and should merely be assumed. Hegelian temporality is crucial here: we enact “reconciliation” not by way of a miraculous healing of wounds, and so forth, but by recognizing “the rose in the cross of the present,” by realizing that reconciliation is already accomplished in what we (mis)perceived as alienation.”
But is the “Magical force of reversal” of negativity in an ultimate absolute reconcilliation merely a whistling in the dark in the face of Heidegger’s sum moribundus (being towards death)? And if so does it amount to nothing more than a sort of proleptically desired Hollywood ending. Zizek intimates as much when he points out in this chapter are that the ending of Great Expectations was changed by Dickens in order to give it a semblance of a happy ending, the original having a shadow of parting and death falling across Pip and Estella, as it does across all of us, whether or not we are happy. No, the acceptance of death as the “harshest of all anti-utopias” as Bloch called it, is actually the greatest triumph over death. The ultimate negativity of both individual and universal death in which, as Nietzsche pointed out, “the clever animals will have to die” can only be reversed by an acceptance of its reality. To say yes to everything in the full knowledge of the negativity contained within it is itself the defeat of negativity.
What is interesting is that Zizek recognises that this is a sleight of hand and says “We should thus have no qualms about admitting that there is something of the “cheap magician” about Hegel, in his trick of synthesis, of Aufhebung.” The old jokes about good news/bad news follow, but the point is made that ”

“This in turn means that Heidegger’s notion of death as the ultimate point of impossibility that cannot be dialectically “sublated” or included in a higher totality is no argument against Hegel: the Hegelian response is just to shift the perspective in order to recognize this negativity itself in its positive aspect, as a condition of possibility: what appears as the ultimate obstacle is in itself a positive condition of possibility, for the universe of meaning can only arise against the background of its annihilation. Furthermore, the properly dialectical reversal is not only the reversal of negative into positive, of the condition of impossibility into the condition of possibility, of obstacle into enabling agency, but, simultaneously, the reversal of transcendence into immanence, and the inclusion of the subject of enunciation in the enunciated content.”

Again we find a reading of Hegel, this time through Lacan, which once again locates transcendence in immanence, reverses transcendence into immanence so that the transcendent is not something that stands outside of reality in the form of some sort of metaphysical World Spirit but is contained within reality as the spirit of the world, which in the end means no more than that that which will become will become. To go back to the last posting on religion then we are back with the burning  bush’s words to Moses that I will become what I will become, death and all.

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One Response to Death and All: Lacan as a Reader of Hegel

  1. June-sub Park says:

    Great thanks for having us glimpse through Zizek’s new book!

    The contents, however, seem so far to be only repetitions of what he previously claimed and wrote, scattered around in hither and thither works: give me an hour or so then I can point out for nearly every sentence where it had already been placed.

    I expected a “theoretical” work, as he himself emphasized again and again, that not only puts his previous claims together but grounds them, a work that systematically exposes the very reference point of his claims i.e. Hegel. His reading of Hegel is revolutionary and I personally have no doubt that we can truly begin to think only with insights that he ascribed to Hegel. Yet this very reference point seems to remain only alluded so far, not exposed. This is already reflected at the level of the style: nearly most of the contents are devoted to the series of ‘Hegel didn’t mean this’, ‘Hegel didn’t claim that’, and only at the end we are given the inversion of the view that only alludes to the space opened by it. Where is the consequence? Where is the theoretical development that stems from this very beginning? This may be the very reason I found his analysis of Kant better than that of his Hegel, and that, for understanding his Hegel: there, you can dive into the crux of the matter instantly without much defence of Hegel; Hegel himself plays the role of criticizer in it.

    I understand that he had to struggle to bring Hegel into the scene where there were abundant claims on Hegel that are, in themselves. worthless. And I respect him for that. But now he got what he wanted: I cannot think of his conception of 1200-pages project on Hegel none other than his very recognition that now he is free from spending pages and pages just to rescue Hegel from misunderstandings, that now enough works had been done to start the real game.

    I shameless confess that I spent last 2 months reading 15 pages on “threefold reflection”, just to understand nothing of it: inspired by works of Zizek and Longuenesse, I took this section in SL central to understand Hegel’s entire theoretical edifice. I had put extreme care to read it against the background of Zizek’s reading of Hegel, but it seems that I even lack the language to begin understanding the work. It is true that Zizek himself had devoted some chapters on it, but the treatment of the theme changed over time. And I agree with this change: I don’t think the last supplementary interpretation given in “presupposing the positing” in Sublime Object is lucid enough. But this change is disparaing at the same time. He seems to use less of the term ‘positing reflection’ and instead use the pair ‘positing the presuppositions’ and ‘presupposing the positing’, and what is lost is the need to explicate the very term ‘positedness’, ‘positing’, and ‘presupposing’ in relation to reflection. I wouldn’t go into details, because I really think this section is such a chaos. I think Zizek himself would agree that the passage from positing to external reflection is much harder, mysterious, even, to understand than that from external to determinate reflection.

    That is why I had been delighted to find your kind positng of the new ToC. There were abundant titles that seemed to suggest a serious rendering of Hegel’s basic theoretical edifice, his Logic in particular. But so far, looking at you review, I’m a little disappointed. I cannot judge yet and I am not entitled to, unless I have the very book with me. So I would like to ask you if you could let me know if the book indeed does or does not contain such.

    Only now I agree with Zizek. His all other writings on culture, science, politics are all mere diversions. Now it should be not just Zizek himself who reproaches him for the diversions.

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