The Metaphysics of Contingency (again)

OK, I have been away for a while working on stuff and enforced early retirement due to my MS but I should get back to blogging now. This is draft 1 of an article I have just sent off.



Ernst Bloch and the Spirituality of Utopia


Marxism is the depleted uranium of political philosophy. Its hard-headed materialist analysis is still good at punching through the armour plating of bourgeois ideology to reveal the soft internal contradictions of the system but it no longer has the power to generate the revolutionary heat it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Too many people feel to have been burnt by that heat. Of course this contradiction is not necessarily new and Ernst Bloch already argued in the 1930s that the struggle against fascism then needed not only the “cold stream” Marxism of socio-economic analysis, but also the “warm stream” of utopian desire and human liberation in order to be successful. (Bloch 1977, 141) At a time when it is the Right who are once again using leftist and anti-capitalist rhetoric to paint a picture of a pristine Golden Age that needs defending, it is the Left that is struggling to find an alternative vision for the future. Without that alternative vision, it is questionable — possibly for the first time in human history — whether there can be any future. Just at the point where sectoral crises are coming together in one headlong rush it is Marxism — which offers universal historical analysis if it offers anything — is found wanting.

Alain Badiou has maintained that the true crisis we are facing in the 21st-century is not that of capitalism, but of socialism. ( More precisely, he maintained that this is a “crisis of negation”. By this he means that the objective crisis of capitalism which showed its full force in the Second Great Crash of 2008 and which is still ongoing has not given rise to its own negation in the form of an alternative social vision. Instead, apart from some populist criticism of the very highest paid bankers, neoliberal ideology has managed to shift the blame for the crisis onto governments and states — and by extension to the people as a whole — for taking on too much debt. What is a crisis of capitalism is thus designated as a crisis of both public greed as well as those social structures designed during the post-war period to alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism.

This breathtaking sleight of hand in which the public sector is made to take the blame for a private sector crisis shows just how much ideology is still at base in thrall to capital, despite any crisis. At the time of writing the short term kerfuffle about offshore investments by the Prime Minister and other leading Conservative party members is causing some consternation and, although it points to a structural inequality in capitalist society, it will no doubt blow over to nobody’s great detriment. 100 years ago the more general crisis we are now experiencing would have provided plenty of ammunition for a Marxist critique of capital and a revolutionary platform for its abolition. So what has happened during those 100 years to make it the case that, as Fredric Jameson has said “it is easier to contemplate the end of the world than it is to see a better one in its place”? (Jameson NLR, 2003)

If the whole point of Marx’s work was to sketch out the possibilities for the transcendence of the existing and the establishment of a better world, we have to ask why it is that just at this point he is condemned by so many – not least by those who sincerely wish for a better world – as surplus to requirements.

Of course, on one level the answer to that question is obvious: it is precisely because the world is in crisis that radical answers which go beyond mere tinkering with some of the symptoms are bound to come under attack. Psychologically it is not always the case that things have to get really bad before we are prepared to make a change, but that the worse things get the more likely it is that we will resist change. But that is not the only level on which we have to operate. There are serious questions about Marx and Marxism that do need to be addressed, particularly by those who wish to see a reinvigoration of Marxism as a serious contender in the battle for hegemonic ideas.

The question I shall be addressing here therefore is whether Marxism has any relevance to the 21st-century, a century in which one Stalinist state has completely disappeared, to be replaced by Greater Russian neo-nationalist chauvinism, and a Maoist one has completely transformed itself into the most nakedly capitalistic country (under the control of the Communist Party) the world has ever known. Cuba still functions to a certain extent as a romantic pole of attraction to many on the left, but it too has questions to answer about how it has developed and what the legacy of Stalinism has done to its own revolutionary tradition regardless of the pressure exerted on it by American imperialism.

The question is whether it is possible to stand outside of our prejudices and to conduct rigorous critique of everything we believe in. This does not mean a capitulation in the face of what appear to be overwhelming political difficulties but should be the default position of anyone who follows Marx’s famous dictum: de omnibus dubitandum. To paraphrase Ernst Bloch, the great thing about Marxism should be that it creates its own heretics.

The question therefore is whether Badiou is right and the absence of a socialist alternative leaves the field open for endless exploitation of human labour, unchallenged by either ideology or politics and against which it is impossible to marshal any theoretical or practical resistance. To be sure, this crisis has indeed led to a certain extent to a rediscovery of Marx. His face has appeared on the cover of many incongruous publications, almost always asking the question of whether he was right or not about capitalism. Given that the crisis that emerged in 2008 is due to head down into its second phase at any moment it is likely that there will be renewed interest. The activities of the French students and workers on the streets in the Nuit debout – a sort of Paris spring 2016 — may well be a new harbinger of social transformation similar to the one in 1968. Whether Marx and Marxism will play any role in this transformation is questionable at least.

The conclusion many come to about Marx is often that, yes, in part he was right in his analysis, but any prescriptions he may have made turned out to have been worse than the original disease and that therefore the doctrine itself has to be rejected because of its supposedly universal consequences. Any concession that he may have been right about globalisation and the tendency of profit rates to fall is offset by constant references to the gulags in the Soviet Union or Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia or the general and specific lunacy that is indeed North Korea.

In this short essay I shall seek to explain why Marxism remains — despite all the complications and difficulties – worth pursuing but only if we see it as a means of analysis and not as a universal truth. Of course this contention itself has become a universal truth. Often, however, it is something that is mouthed as an exculpatory catechism, with very little honest power behind it. This essay will be an investigation of the works of Ernst Bloch, a Marxist who in his later years described himself as “not a non-Marxist” as a result of the guilt by association that all Marxists suffer. When rethinking Marxism we have to turn the title and the slogan on its head and point out that Marxism itself is a process of rethinking. The very use of the substantive “Marxism” belies an adherence to something that does not exist per se.

The nonexistence of the subject under discussion leads to two possible paths. The first is an untrammelled commitment to the original project regardless of its suitability to current conditions. The second is to open up the original project into what Ernst Bloch called an “open system”. There are then two further dangers within each of these paths. The first path tends to end either in dogmatism or burn out, the second in either collusive resignation or confused indecision. I would contend that most of the global Left finds itself in one of those four dead ends. The outcome ranges from hyperactive ultra-leftism and ideologically empty identity politics or total withdrawal from the field.

However, an interest in Marx and the insights his works provide are still able to give us into the way in which the world fits together and where the points of friction are within that fit. It still remains the case that any attempt to interpret the world, let alone change it, is made more difficult by a refusal to engage with Marx. However, I hope to avoid any dogmatic or reductionist assertions about why Marx still matters. An adherence to Marx must be one based on the merits of the case rather than the fullness of his beard. We need an open and self-critical defence of both the Marxist method and many of the Marxist conclusions. To use a Hegelian word much loved by Marx himself, the point is one of Aufhebung, a term which means to transcend something through its absorption and overcoming and not simply its rejection.

Of course one of the main characteristics of depleted uranium is that it leaves behind a toxic legacy that is very hard to clean up. Anyone who has tried to discuss Marxism outside of the hermetically sealed snow-globe of leftist discourse is very quickly reminded of how the rest of the world understands what is meant by it. For them it is synonymous with Gulags, famine, purges, mass murder and the Berlin Wall. It does no good to simply maintain an adherence to a pure strain of Marxism, one untainted by the dirty business of how to take power and how to hold on to it. This sort of platonic bolshevism leaves those using Marx open to dismissal as pure idealists.

On the other hand, if we do stand to questions of power then we are equally accused of harbouring the authoritarian tendencies inherent in all “totalitarian” systems of thought and action. We are damned as vague utopian idealists if we don’t have a plan for power and as potential mass-murderers if we do. The only permissible political stance in these times appears to be what Richard Rorty called a “North-Atlantic bourgeois liberalism” (Rorty CP, 1982, 14) complemented by weary cynicism and disavowal in which we say — a la Žižek — that we know full well that socialism is not possible but nevertheless continue to believe in its ultimate inevitable triumph.

The ideological hegemony exercised by our various capitalist masters has now expanded and deepened to the extent that even many good critical people have been taken in by its dazzling façade. But the more dazzling the facade, the greater the contrast with the darkness behind it. During his exile Bloch once described the US as a “cul de sac lit by neon lights” (Bloch Literarische Aufsätze 1965, 527) Evan Calder Williams, in his introduction to Combined and Uneven Apocalypse quotes Brecht’s Motto that ‘there will be singing about the dark times’ (Williams CUA, 1). I would complement this with the lines from Brecht’s poem An die Nachgeborenen (to those who come later) in which he starts by saying ‘truly we live in dark times’. The point of this poem is that dark times pass; that there will be those who come later and who will emerge from the biblical flood and that they will live in times when they will not be able to understand why we thought and did the things we did. Our very activities, like all other forms of successful historical endeavour, will have become ‘vanishing mediators’, i.e. essential to any transition to a new society but doomed to disappear from political view.

What will become important once those mediators have vanished is the narrative that moves in to replace them. The narrative of the past is distorted in order to make it more palatable to the present. As we know from Nietzsche though, in the battle between pride and memory, memory is always the loser. The narrative of the future is, by definition, incomplete and under constant and often aimless construction. The present moment does not exist in that it is taken up with both the distorted past and disavowed future colliding to create a convincing chronological narrative. Memory construction is part of the construction of history and, married to the anticipation of the future, aids the metaphysical dimension of human past and future. Taken together with the darkness if the lived moment, there is no alternative to construction of all three temporal elements of existence. The result is metaphysics. But it is a materialist metaphysics that I have elsewhere called the Metaphysics of Contingency (Thompson/ Žižek Privatization of Hope, 2013, 82).

In purely materialist and biological terms we exist as individuals as the result of a collision of these contingent categories. History too is the product of the emergence of contingent realities. Traditional Marxism has sought to find a pattern within the contingencies that emerge, with the dialectical method inherited from Hegel turned on its head to produce a materialist (in)version.

The problem with traditional Marxism is that it has never really got beyond dialectical materialism in its most vulgar forms. There are of course thinkers who have attempted to do this. As soon as they leave the trusted path of Marxist orthodoxy, however, they are immediately written off as renegades, revisionists or even heretics. Wherever belief gangs up with orthodoxy in order to persecute thought, however, dogmatism is always the result. In Marxist discourse there is too often a desire to return to the safe ground of rationalist materialism. For this reason any Marxism worth its salt has to be heretical in its discussion of the role of the imagination and spirit. Within Bloch’s Marxism there was always a heretic trying to get out. Just as he believed that the human being is not yet complete, so he maintained that Marxism was an approach which was not yet complete as, for all its insights, the objective conditions that would allow it to flourish were not yet complete. This combination of the subjective and the objective conditions which puts neither above the other, but combines them into a Hegelian dialectical unity of opposites, is central to his thought and (sets him apart from but also) places him within both subjectivist idealism and objectivist Marxism without needing to abandon either.

To paraphrase Alain Badiou and to combine him with Ernst Bloch what Marxism needs is fidelity to an event that has not yet happened. This by definition requires commitment to the spirit of a utopian future and not to any sort of fixed reality. Bloch called this an “invariant of direction” embodied in a principle of hope, not merely as a blind optimism but as an educated hope based in the human desire for a better life. Where Spinoza saw hope as an inconstant quantity, Bloch saw it as the fundamental element of what it means to be human. Indeed the ability to develop an anticipatory consciousness based in the principle of hope is the very thing that separates us from all other species. However, what makes Bloch a Marxist rather than just another romantic philosopher, is that he saw material objective reality in the form of class antagonism and the uneven ownership of the means of production as the things which stand in the way of human liberation, rather than it being a problem of inadequate individual consciousness. Hope emerged not from the mind of God but from the mind of a species adapted to and constantly involved in developing ways to overcome material hunger. He agreed with Brecht when the latter said “first comes the bread, then the morality” but the search for morality (Moral to give it its proper German term, not necessarily the same as morality) was not something separate from bread but emerged from it. It is only when we can build a build a society through collective human labour can we arrive, as Bloch says, at a home, which we all recognise from our childhood but in which we have never yet been. (See Bloch PH, 1995, 1376)

The Brechtian sense that ‘Something’s Missing’ (See Jimmy Mahoney in Mahagonny) is about trying to define what a utopia really is and how it might be possible to attain it. For Bloch the Spirit of Utopia and the Principle of Hope were to be understood as tendencies and latencies, endlessly open possibilities dependent on the dialectical interplay between contingency and necessity, between what is and what might be. The utopia he wanted was not a programmatic one laid down in any blueprint but was processual and autopoietic, i.e. would emerge out of the process of its own becoming. He called this a ‘concrete utopia’ not because it already concretely existed but because the Hegelian origin of the term concrete went back to its roots as ‘con crescere’ a growing together and emergence of utopia out of reality. He called this a form of transcendence without the transcendent; a readiness to start from that which is possible – Aristotle’s Kata to dynaton – but to embrace within it that which might become possible – dynámei on. In dialectical terms this is the shift from quantity into quality, the movement from the gradual accretion of quantitative changes to a tipping point where everything changes. As Hegel puts it


Besides it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth – there is a qualitative leap and the child is born – so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world. (Hegel The Phenomenology of the Spirit, OUP, 1977, 6f)

This new world (note here how close the Hegelian Geist is to the Christian Spirit) is also at the root of much Marxian thought. This is not to agree with those who have always maintained that Marxism is just another religious doctrine but, on the contrary, to posit that religion has always been a self-misunderstood form of anticipatory (and therefore communist) thinking. To be a Marxist (or at least not a non-Marxist) therefore requires a degree of speculative thought which, though based in materialism, has to go far beyond the merely contingent. It means one has to develop an understanding of the unknowable and speculative elements of human existence as a Metaphysics of Contingency.

In the second part of this essay I attempt to break down the Metaphysics of Contingency into its constituent elements before returning to reassemble the whole as an explanation of why spirit(uality) is actually an essential element of Marxism and not something external to it. The first section looks at the dialectics of contingency, the second at materialist metaphysics and the third the issue of non-synchronicity and the elements of time that exist outside of chronology as anticipation and memory.

In his discussion of Hegel in Absolute Recoil Žižek points out that as part of the process of sublation the vanished mediator returns in a form in which “there is a moment of contingency in every emergence of meaning.” (Žižek 2014. 21) What he does here is to emphasise the retrospective nature of this meaning. It is not that a specific contingent event is carried into the future on a fully conscious layer of meaning, but that when a contingent event emerges then its meaning has to be reconstituted from a historical process of which it itself is largely unaware. This means that contingency itself cannot be equated with mere chance. It is not just that an event emerges out of nowhere, but that the conditions that gave rise to that emergence are largely forgotten or ignored.

This self-unconscious determination is therefore often based — in non-materialist form — on the idea of the miracle and of a religious understanding of the emergence of meaning. In this way meaning itself is handed over to the process and the process becomes a fully spiritual one. This is, of course, the meaning of the idea that “God moves in mysterious ways.” In this version of history not only is there no meaning to be adduced but, in the more orthodox versions of religious understanding, the search for an underlying or causative meaning itself is blasphemous.

It is not that we are constantly dealing with the arbitrary nature of an emergent reality but that the process of emergence itself is not conscious and therefore needs, in order to be able to emerge properly, to develop a self-conscious narrative of its own necessity. The dialectic of contingency is therefore the interplay between chance and necessity, with necessity being only redeemed at a later juncture. In order for me to have being born it was necessary for all previous generations of my family to have come together in the way that they did in order to produce me. However, there is no substantive necessity for all those previous generations to have come about in the first place. This means that the dialectic of contingency is one in which we find unnecessary necessity working together with necessary un-necessity.

Expanding this principle out into evolution itself makes this conundrum slightly clearer. The interaction within and between species-emergence forms the basis of an unnecessary evolutionary dynamic. Any species that emerges from evolution does so in a way not determined by the outcome but by the process itself. As Marx puts it in the introduction to the Grundrisse: “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.” (Karl Marx Grundrisse, 105) In other words, the development of any species can only be known retrospectively. There is no point looking into the anatomy of “lower” species for what might come next. However, evolution is not necessarily a smooth transition and development of one form into another but proceeds by what we might call dialectical disruption. Traditionally this is seen in Hegelian terms as the dialectic of quantity into quality. Today we would probably be advised to avoid such categorisations and speak instead of a “tipping point”. (Gladwell The Tipping Point)

This tipping point is actually the juncture where Subject and Substance come briefly into alignment. Of course, as Hegel, Bloch and Žižek point out, there is no distinct difference between subject and substance, the one being entirely enmeshed with the other within the dialectic. This enmeshing only becomes visible at opportune — usually revolutionary — moments. This is why revolutions form such an important background to the works of Hegel (1789), Bloch (1917) and Žižek (1789 +1917+1989+?). Revolutions are the point at which contingency produces a disruptive rather than stabilising narrative. Only revolution and love can have these disruptive/productive effects. As Wordsworth famously put it and as Hegel undoubtedly felt: Bliss was it in that very dawn to be alive/ but to be young was very heaven! – – Oh! Times/ in which the meagre, stale, the forbidding ways/ of custom, law and statute, took at once/ the attraction of a country in romance! (Wordsworth The Prelude, 196) The “times” he posits here are precisely the point in time at which contingent events emerge out of that which already exists to put a new complexion on “things” that already exist. It is the point at which Aristotle’s kata to dynaton (that which is possible) flows over qualitatively into dynamei on (that which may become possible). In other words Subject becomes Substance, if only for a fleeting moment, inevitably to be disappointed and re-sundered. But, as Žižek reminds us “the subject does not come first – it emerges through the self alienation of the substance. In other words, while we have no direct access to the substantial pre-subjective Real, we also cannot get rid of it.” (Žižek, 2014, 29) Seen in revolutionary terms this is precisely the moment at which forbidding ways take on the attraction of a country in romance! In modernity revolution transforms what would have been a religious phenomenon of God moving in mysterious ways into one in which romantic love takes the place of God. Revolutionary developments, by the same token, always take on a romantic dimension that has quasi-religious expression. This quasi religious dimension is then reified into the worship of revolutionary iconography — we need only think of the famous portraits of Che Guevara here — in which the Subject is transformed back into Substance as the Real of revolutionary transformation refuses to emerge fully.

Bloch has a quasi-mathematical formula for this revolutionary and emotional transformation: “S is not yet P; the Subject is not yet Predicate.” (Bloch Tübinger Einleitung, 219) In saying this he is inscribing the transitional and processual dynamic back into the relationship between subject and substance, or subject and object, as he terms his book on Hegel. What stops S becoming P is only a question of time and appropriate conditions. However, in order to insert the dialectics of contingency into this equation it is necessary to point out that all historical development is the emergence of contingent reality out of pre-existing real conditions. These contingent events then work back on real conditions in order to create movement itself. Once again, the Not Yet between the S and the P becomes more important than either the S or the P, both of which will themselves be transformed, either retrospectively in the case of Subject or proleptically in the case of Predicate. For this reason the very invisibility of the Not Yet, it’s motivating negativity, becomes the force that will take us from an unfixed S to an unfixed P.

Žižek arrives at a remarkably similar conclusion when he says: “[T]he subject does not come first: it is a predicate-becoming-subject, the passive screen asserting itself as a first principle, i.e., something posited which retroactively posits its presuppositions.” (Žižek, 2014, 29) Using both Bloch and Žižek we can therefore see that contingency, namely, the active yet unconscious process of emergence from the predicate-becoming-subject, is both a foreshadowing of the Aristotelian dynamei on and a retrospective view of kata to dynaton. Bloch is important in this context because he gives central importance to this blind spot between the two forms of possibility, calling it the Dunkel des gelebten Augenblicks (the darkness of the lived moment). Indeed, his last book (Experimentum Mundi, 1975) is a treatment of the inaccessibility of this gap between S and P.

This darkness or, to give it it’s more Hegelian expression — negativity, becomes the motivating force behind change because it contains within it an anticipatory consciousness that separates us from all other species. To be human is to anticipate a different future. At the same time it continues to carry within it

false memories of the past which are bent and shaped into the form that is required.

It is at this point that Bloch warns us against anamnesis; namely, the danger of merely looking backwards in order to recover ideas from the past which can be re-functioned for the future. This category, which emerges in the Platonic dialogues, has the appearance of being forward-looking but is in fact wedded to the uncertainties of the past. Plato asks how it is that we are to know what it is that we don’t know. Anamnesis needs to rely only on past experience in order to project into the future. Bloch, however, asks us to trust our anticipatory unconscious, which knows that something has to be better than that which exists but does not know yet what that thing might be. We might have an inkling of this from our past, but it is not a past that is correctly and accurately remembered but rather a past that only exists in the future.

The most important example of this anti-anamnetic position comes at the end of his Magnum Opus The Principle of Hope, where he states: “[ ] the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.” (Bloch 1995, 1376)

As Bloch explains in Subjekt-Objekt, however, an idea that is transmitted simply from the past becomes old as soon as it is thought. (Bloch 1971, 474) This is, of course, the fate that awaits the owl of Minerva, who can only take flight when it is already dark. Bloch uses this Hegelian motif as the prime example of the problems of anamnesis.

Contingency therefore has not only a contemporary function but also an anticipatory one as well. Our contingent existence and the way in which we interact with contingencies from the past also informs the way we anticipate the future. We know that it is impossible to leap over contingent events but we also know that we are able to shape the future on the basis of contingencies which arise at all points, but which may arise in a way not predicted by some dogmatic theory. Within the Marxist debate, for example, this leaping over of contingencies became central to the struggle for the legacy of the October Revolution. Stalin stuck strictly to the stagist interpretation not only because this allowed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to determine by central diktat what stage of history a given country was in, but also because it was central to Stalin’s stagist, self-serving and vulgar reading of the Hegelian dialectic.

However, the dialectic of contingency contains within it an anticipatory moment that enables us both to plan for the unforeseen but also to map out what we think this unknown known, to use Žižek’s Rumsfeldian categories, might possibly hold for us.

Bloch’s interpretation of fascism, for example, falls precisely into this anticipatory and contradictory gap. He saw it as something that at one and the same time mobilised an anamnetic memory of a supposedly glorious past but at the same time, and possibly more importantly, painted a picture of the future which could be easily expressed and understood. It is not for nothing that the movement that we call today the Conservative Revolution laid much of the groundwork for this process. In this context it was necessary for fascism to mobilise against contemporary liberal democratic and bourgeois morality both in the name of the restoration of old values as well as the implementation of a new order. It both conserved and revolutionised all existing values. The dialectic of contingency required not simply a leaping over of the liberal democratic stage but it’s utter annihilation as a precondition for the emergence of the New.

It is for this reason that Bloch saw fascism as an essentially religious movement, mobilising both religious categories from the past (Joachim di Fiore’s Third Reich) as well as a messianic Führer-fixated model of the future. This conclusion brings me on to my second category; namely, Materialist Metaphysics. It is in this gap opened up by transition from Subject to Predicate that not only anamnetic memories of past events take up a central position, but also an anticipatory imagination of what might and should come next. Having established that the non-substantial difference between Subject and Predicate produces the gap into which the Not Yet rushes, we must further examine what form this not-yet-ness takes.

At this point it might be objected that what I am doing here is merely a continuation of Plekhanov’s famous contention (although he doesn’t demonstrate quite how this happens) that Hegel is the point at which philosophical Idealism shades over into a Materialism that was simply waiting to emerge.[1] However, rather than looking back to d’Holbach, Plekhanov and the various other philosophers whose metaphysics remained determinedly mechanistic, Bloch attempts to liberate matter from the given and put it in the service of the what-might-be or dynamei on. This anticipatory consciousness meant that just as he argued in his 1968 book Atheism in Christianity that even etymologically religion (re-ligio) meant a tying down or tying back to a preordained message, so materialism too found and finds it difficult to liberate itself from its very deterministic and vulgar form. By returning to an Aristotelian conception of potentia within matter Bloch sought to show that a religious understanding of the universe was one that was constrained merely by the times that produced it.

Equally, materialism became stuck in its own times and unable to see beyond given parameters. It is for this reason that he develops a very close interest in quantum theory and the ways in which it promised liberation from the Klotzmaterialismus (clunky materialism) of previous scientific models. In today’s terms his atheism would be profoundly opposed to that of the “new atheists” who see reality as some fixed quantity against which religious forces are pitted. Just as Žižek does today, Bloch was keen to understand what it was in religion that continued to exert such gravitational force on human consciousness. A simple frontal war with religion would be counter-productive. Instead, as the title of his 1968 book shows, atheism could only be developed from within the religious traditions of a particular country. For Bloch, coming from a Jewish background within a family that had converted to Christianity, the latter faith provided the springboard from which it was possible to understand and implement an open atheism. Bloch, anticipating Žižek by a few decades maintained: “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.” (Bloch 1972, 9)

Žižek today argues similarly that he is a Christian atheist, not merely because he has been socialised in the Christian West, but because the Hegelian concept of the social development of humanity sees Christianity as the final — effectively secular — form of religious belief. Only through Christianity, according to these two thinkers, is it possible to move forward to atheism, all other religions still being bound back into a more or less dogmatic ideological fidelity to certain traditions and ideas. Žižek, on the other hand, says that Christianity requires nothing but a commitment to an absent God. Indeed the religion itself is based upon the idea that God is not to be found in any metaphysical realm, but is represented as the “son of man” rather than the “son of God”. (See Bloch, 1968) That, after all, is the very purpose of the crucifixion. The point at which Christ asks “why hast thou forsaken me?” is the very point at which Christ himself becomes God and immediately dies.

Metaphysical materialism becomes a necessary correlate to the dialectics of contingency as it describes the space into which anticipatory consciousness, liberated from both re-ligio and reductionist materialism can be projected while at the same time rejecting neither religious development towards atheism nor materialist development towards complexity and the “multiversal”. This process also liberates Aristotelian potentia from its own theological limitations. (Bloch, 1952)[2]

Hegel, in a late development, spoke of an intermediary Objektiver Geist located somewhere between subjectivity and the Absolute. It is in the workings of this objective spirit that we find the emergence of practical arrangements for civil society. In philosophical terms, however, it also provides a conceptual framework for the interaction between contingency and necessity in that structures that emerge also need some sort of metaphysical underpinning. In his Philosophy of Right as well as in the Encyclopedia he points out that in order to be able to break out of immediate subject of circumstances and moved towards the Absolute, it was necessary to develop a narrative of transition and change. In dialectical terms however, the narrative adopted in order to explain transition and change itself becomes the motivating force behind transition and change.

Hegel, no less a product of his time than any other philosopher at any other time, confronted with the reality of his age, which was one of revolution in both society and science, played no other role than to help construct this narrative. He remains one of the most important philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries precisely because his overarching narrative is one of transition from one historical state to another. The objective spirit that emerges, he contends, fills in the gap between what is and what might be. It is this transitional role of the objective spirit that Marx takes and turns on its head, arguing that it is the material conditions of production that revolutionise society and not simply the ideas of “men”. In order to be able to take conscious control of transition it is necessary to wrest that control from the hands of metaphysical Gods and put it in the hands of humanity.

The agency of the proletariat is notoriously central to this philosophical step in that it represented the only class that could become universal. The partial and particular interests of all other classes stood against the development towards human control of society, regardless of their ideological commitment to a scientific narrative of progress. In the end their material interests prevented them from recognising the categorical imperative of a totalising revolution. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue about the positive and negative aspects of this Marxist position, but I do argue here that the Marxist narrative of historical change is itself part of metaphysical materialism in that it posits the possibility of change out of existing conditions.

For Hegel this change in social being was brought about by changes in self-consciousness. For Marx, as we know, it was being that determined consciousness. Somewhere between the two positions — the idealist and the materialist — there exists an indeterminate and unknowable realm in which the interplay of ideas and reality produces what I call the Metaphysics of Contingency. Objective Spirit is actually the product of contingent reality taking place at the ‘decisive moment’ in historical development, the Augenblick which gives us access to the ability to construct both a retrospective narrative and an anticipatory consciousness. As we know from Bloch though, this Augenblick is distorted and unfocussed and requires an oblique look.

This theoretical and ideological development remains an open one in which any attempts to tie thought back to dogmatic certainties can only be negative. The key operater here becomes once again the Not Yet. It would be a mistake to imagine, however, that Bloch uses the Not Yet as some sort of anticipatory stand in for the Real or the Absolute. That which is Not Yet is also that which is. In a classical Hegelian reversal we can say that Not Yet is the true confluence of subject and substance. If we take the Not Yet as defining something — in structuralist terms – that is present through its absence then it becomes akin to Hegel’s Geist. Just as with Bloch’s Not Yet, Hegel posits that the spirit itself is not something that is inflicted upon subject by substance but is something present from the very beginning of the Subject. Indeed, the Subject is nothing without the Substance of its own spirit. In order to be able to overcome this absent spirit it is necessary to see it as a central part of its own existence rather than as something external to and imposed upon substance. As the AA puts it in more prosaic terms: “you are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”

This unmasks the religious dimension in both Hegel and Bloch in that the not-yetness in the latter and the self-healing nature of the spirit in the former have clear parallels in Christian theology. On this reading Original Sin is not some external Substance that is done to an otherwise pristine natural Subject to which we are always attempting to return, but is an essential part of the Subject’s desire and movement towards it’s sublation into the Absolute. For Hegel the Fall is not something done to us through the sinfulness of the individual subject (in this case Eve, in the patriarchal tradition) but is an essential part of what it is to wish to rise. But rise from what and to what? What is the self-liberating dynamic that human beings have conceived for themselves?

In both Hegel and Bloch we find the idea that an entity arises out of its own loss. Etwas Fehlt (something is missing) is the phrase Ernst Bloch borrows from Brecht in order to illuminate this point. The thing of the something is only constituted by the fact that it is missing. Negativity — or the absence of Something – is the very means by which that Something is constituted. Not–Yetness is the space in which this gradual constitution takes place. But at the same time appearance is the only way that essence can be discerned. Both Bloch and Žižek constantly shy away from the use of Nietzsche but this point can be best explained with his famous dialectical comment (later disavowed as a youthful mistake) that Apollo and Dionysus speak in contradictory and complementary unity through each other.

Of course in a historical sense the Kantian line of the gradual establishment of human freedom is a continuation of the progressive narrative that emerges in the 18th century and which itself can be argued to have arisen out of the Christian narrative of salvation. What is important here, however, is not the progressive but the narrative element. The reason that Hegel is such a vitally important philosopher in the Western tradition — and also the reason why he remains one of the most controversial – is that he stands on the cusp between an idealist and a materialist understanding of historical “progress”.

The spiritual is to be found in mathematical terms too. The symbol for Infinity is in fact a Möbius strip. The square root of -1 and Infinity are both imaginary numbers that can only exist as concepts and not in reality. In his recent play X and Y, Marcus de Sautoy, plays with exactly this gap between what can exist as a concept against the reality of the existence of the thing. In Ernst Bloch the point of the Not Yet is that it stands in for the Not Ever. Rather than arrive at infinity we are condemned to waiting for Godot, again a concept that can exist only as an imaginary number. Equally with God, we can imagine “his” existence as a concept but even those who believe in him cannot ever attain closeness to God other than through death. This is what Heidegger meant by sum moribundus, that the reality of our existence is one limited on the ontic level by our individual death and on the ontological level by entropy and the absolute of the universe. Ernst Bloch posited that death is the greatest of all anti-utopias. Given that death is inevitable, both ontically and ontologically, this implies that an “out”, as du Sautoy puts it is not possible. In his play he seeks to make a Möbius strip from a page of Shakespeare. There can be no better representation of the metaphysics of contingency in that in order to be able to express the impossible we have to turn from mathematics to literature, culture and the intangible. In order to be able to express the impossibility of attaining communism or socialism we are equally required to turn from reality to theory. This is the reason that thinkers such as Badiou and Žižek turn to either imaginary numbers or imaginary realities that stand in for the Real.

Žižek shows how Hegel does this:


Hegel’s point here, predictably, is that such a limitation leads to what he calls the ‘bad’ (or ‘spurious’) Infinity: I know there is something beyond, but all I can do is replace one phenomenal determination with another in a process that goes on endlessly. In short I may replace one finite entity with another without ever reaching Infinity itself, so that Infinity is present only as a void that pushes me from one to another finite determination. In effect, I find myself in the world divided into Something(s) and Nothing, and all that is left to me is to produce more and more new Somethings to fill the void of Nothing.


This, I maintain, is the Metaphysics of Contingency; the constant construction, conscious or otherwise, dear of t LRBhe contingent conditions for an infinity that can never be reached. As Adorno said, the great contribution that Ernst Bloch made to philosophy was to restore honour to the word utopia. He did this precisely by changing it from a finite concept into a reality that can never be achieved but towards which we must always strive.



Ernst Bloch Avicenna und die Aristotelische Linke Suhkamp, 1952

Ernst Bloch Atheismus im Christentum Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968

Ernst Bloch Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970

Ernst Bloch Subjekt-Objekt: Erläuterungen zu Hegel Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971

Ernst Bloch Atheism in Christianity (Translated by JT Swan) New York: Herder and Herder, 1972

Ernst Bloch Experimentum Mundi Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977

Ernst Bloch The Principle of Hope (vol. 3) MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1995

Malcom Gladwell The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Little Brown, 2000

GWF Hegel The Phenomenology of the Spirit, OUP, 1977

Fredric Jameson Future City New Left Review (NLR), May-June 2003,

Karl Marx Grundrisse, Penguin Books, Harmondsorth, 1973

Richard Rorty ‘The World Well Lost’ in Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1982

Peter Thompson/ Slavoj Žižek (eds) The Privatization of Hope Columbia UP, 2013

Evan Calder Williams Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism Winchester and Washington, Zero Books, 2010

William Wordsworth The Prelude OUP, 1970

Slavoj Žižek Absolute Recoil Verso, London, 2014

[1] For a discussion off this see Evgeny V. Pavlov ‘Comrade Hegel: Absolute Spirit Goes East’ in Crisis and Critique Vol. 3/1, 2016, pp. 157-189

[2] The translation Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left by Loren Goldmann and Peter Thompson, forthcoming, Columbia University Press, 2016.


One Response to The Metaphysics of Contingency (again)

  1. Derek Shells says:

    I love your website, it has nice articles, Thank you!

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