Which, then, is the dimension of the law that the law cannot admit publicly? The best way to discern it is through a logical paradox deployed by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in his admirable text on Hitchcock’s Vertigo:

An object possesses a property x until the time t; after t, it is not only that the object no longer has the property x; it is that it is not true that it possessed x at any time. The truth-value of the proposition “the object O has the property x at the moment t’ therefore depends on the moment when this proposition is enunciated.”2

One should note here the precise formulation: it is not that the truth-value of the proposition “the object O has the property x” depends on the time to which this proposition refers – even when this time is specified, the truth-value depends on the time when the proposition itself is enounced. Or, to quote the title of Dupuy’s text, ”when I’ll die, nothing of our love will ever have existed.” Think about marriage and divorce: the most intelligent argument for the right to divorce (proposed, among others, by none other than the young Marx) does not refer to common vulgarities in the style of “like all things, love attachments are also not eternal, they change in the course of time,” etc.; it rather concedes that indissolvability is in the very notion of marriage. The conclusion is that divorce always has a retroactive scope: it does not only mean that marriage is now annulled, but something much more radical – a marriage should be annulled because it never was a true marriage. And the same holds for Soviet Communism: it is clearly insufficient to say that, in the years of Brezhnev “stagnation,” it “exhausted its potentials, no longer fitting new times”; what its miserable end demonstrates is that it was a historical deadlock from its very beginning.

Perhaps, this paradox provides a clue for the twists and turns of the Hegelian dialectical process. Let us take Hegel’s critique of the Jacobin revolutionary Terror as an exercise in abstract negativity of the absolute freedom which cannot stabilize itself in a concrete social order of freedom, and thus has to end in the fury of self-destruction. However, one should bear in mind that, insofar as we are dealing here with a historical choice (between the “French” way of remaining within Catholicism and thus being obliged to engage in the self-destructive revolutionary Terror, and the “German” way of Reformation), this choice involves exactly the same elementary dialectical paradox as the one, also from The Phenomenology of Spirit, between the two readings of “the Spirit is a bone” which Hegel illustrates by the phallic metaphor (phallus as the organ of insemination or phallus as the organ of urination): Hegel’s point is not that, in contrast to the vulgar empiricist mind which sees only urination, the proper speculative attitude has to choose insemination. The paradox is that the direct choice of insemination is the infallible way to miss it: it is not possible to choose directly the “true meaning”, i.e. one has to begin by making the “wrong” choice (of urination) – the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, “wrong,” reading. And the same goes for social life in which the direct choice of the “concrete universality” of a particular ethical life-world can only end in a regression to pre-modern organic society that denies the infinite right of subjectivity as the fundamental feature of modernity. Since the subject-citizen of a modern state can no longer accept his immersion in some particular social role that confers on him a determinate place within the organic social Whole, the only way to the rational totality of the modern State leads through revolutionary Terror: one should ruthlessly tear up the constraints of the pre-modern organic “concrete universality,” and fully assert the infinite right of subjectivity in its abstract negativity. In other words, the point of Hegel’s analysis of the revolutionary Terror is not the rather obvious insight into how the revolutionary project involved the unilateral direct assertion of abstract Universal Reason, and was as such doomed to perish in self-destructive fury, since it was unable to organize the transposition of its revolutionary energy into a concrete stable and differentiated social order; Hegel’s point is rather the enigma of why, in spite of the fact that revolutionary Terror was a historical deadlock, we have to pass through it in order to arrive at the modern rational State.

This is why Hegelian dialectics is not a vulgar evolutionism claiming that a phenomenon was justified in its own time, but deserves to disappear when its time passes: the “eternity” of dialectics means that the de-legitimization is always retroactive, what disappears “in itself” always deserved to disappear. Recall also the paradox of the process of apologizing: if I hurt someone with a rude remark, the proper thing for me to do is to offer him a sincere apology, and the proper thing for him to do is to say something like “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I wasn’t offended, I knew you didn’t mean it, so you really owe me no apology!” The point is, of course, that, although the final result is that no apology is needed, one has to go through the entire process of offering it: “you owe me no apology” can only be said after I DO offer an apology, so that, although, formally, “nothing happens,” the offer of apology is proclaimed unnecessary, there is a gain at the end of the process (perhaps, even, the friendship is saved). (A scene in Ernst Lubitch’s wonderful To Be Or Not to Be, a short dialogue between the two famous Polish theatre actors, Maria Tura and her self-centred husband Josef, playfully subverts this logic. Josef tells his wife: “I gave orders that, in the posters announcing the new play we are starring in, your name will be at the top, ahead on mine – you deserve it, darling!” She kindly replies: “Thanks, but you really didn’t have to do it, it was not necessary!” His answer is, of course: “I knew you would say that, so I already cancelled the order and put my name back on the top…”) There is a well-known joke about cooking which relies on the same logic: “How anyone can make a good soup in one hour? You prepare all the ingredients, cut the vegetables, etc., boil water, put the ingredients into it, cook it in not too hot water for half an hour, occasionally stirring the water; when, after three quarters of an hour, you discover that the soup is tasteless and unpalatable, you throw it away, open up a good can of soup and quickly warm it up.” This is how we, humans, make soup.

Footnotes

  1. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Quand je mourrai, rien de notre amour n’aura jamais existé,” unpublished manuscript of the intervention at the colloquium Vertigo et la philosophie, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, October 14 2005.
  2. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Quand je mourrai, rien de notre amour n’aura jamais existé,” unpublished manuscript of the intervention at the colloquium Vertigo et la philosophie, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, October 14 2005.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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