The Sublime Object of Ideology

The Sublime Object of Ideology
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The Idea’s Constipation?

When a discipline is in crisis, attempts are made to change or supplement its theses within the terms of its basic framework – a procedure one might call ‘Ptolemization’ (since when data poured in which clashed with Ptolemy’s earth-centred astronomy, his partisans introduced additional complications to account for the anomalies). But the true ‘Copernican’ revolution takes place when, instead of just adding complications and changing minor premises, the basic framework itself undergoes a transformation. So, when we are dealing with a self-professed ‘scientific revolution’, the question to ask is always: is this truly a Copernican revolution, or merely a Ptolemization of the old paradigm?

Two examples of Ptolemization: there are good reasons to claim that ‘string theory’, which claims to provide the foundations for a unified theory (a single theoretical framework describing the four fundamental interactions between subatomic particles that were previously explained separately by relativity theory or quantum physics), remains an attempt at Ptolemization, and that we are still waiting for a new beginning which will require an even more radical change in the basic presuppositions (something like abandoning time or space as the basic constituent of reality).1 Likewise, in social theory, there are good reasons to claim that all the ‘new paradigm’ proposals about the nature of the contemporary world (that we are entering a post-industrial society, a postmodern society, a risk society, an informational society . . . ) remain so many Ptolemizations of the ‘old paradigm’ of classic sociological models.

The question is then: how do things stand with psychoanalysis? Although Freud presented his discovery as a Copernican revolution, the fundamental premise of the cognitive sciences is that psychoanalysis remains a ‘Ptolemization’ of classical psychology, failing to abandon its most basic premises. (Post-classical economists, incidentally, make the same claim about Marx: his critique of Smith and Ricardo amounts to a Ptolemization.) The Sublime Object of Ideology tries to answer this question by way of rehabilitating psychoanalysis in its philosophical core – as a theory indebted to Hegel’s dialectics and readable only against this background. This cannot but appear, perhaps, as the worst possible move to have made: trying to save psychoanalysis, a discredited theory (and practice), by reference to an even more discredited theory, the worst kind of speculative philosophy rendered irrelevant by the progress of modern science.

However, as Lacan taught us, when we are confronted with an apparently clear choice, sometimes the correct thing to do is choose the worst option. Thus my wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their old skins and emerging in a new unexpected shape.

Let us take Hegel’s dialectics at its most ‘idealist’ – with the notion of the sublation [Aufhebung] of all immediate-material reality. The fundamental operation of Aufhebung is reduction: the sublated thing survives, but in an ‘abridged’ edition, as it were, torn out of its life-world context, stripped down to its essential features, all the movement and wealth of its life reduced to a fixed mark. It is not that, after the abstraction of Reason has done its mortifying job with its fixed categories or notional determinations, speculative ‘concrete universality’ somehow returns us to the fresh greenness of Life; rather, once we pass from empirical reality to its notional Aufhebung, the immediacy of Life is lost forever. There is nothing more foreign to Hegel than a lamentation for the richness of reality that gets lost when we proceed to its conceptual grasp. Recall Hegel’s unambiguous celebration of the absolute power of Understanding from his Foreword to the Phenomenology: ‘The action of separating the elements is the exercise of the force of Understanding, the most astonishing and greatest of all powers, or rather the absolute power.’ This celebration is in no way qualified; that is, Hegel’s point is not that this power is nonetheless later ‘sublated’ into a subordinate moment of the unifying totality of Reason. The problem with Understanding is, rather, that it does not unleash this power to the end, that it takes it as external to the thing itself – hence the standard notion that it is merely our Understanding (‘mind’) that separates in its imagination what in ‘reality’ belongs together, so that the Understanding’s ‘absolute power’ is merely the power of our imagination, which in no way concerns the reality of the thing so analysed. We pass from Understanding to Reason not when this analysis, or tearing apart, is overcome in a synthesis that brings us back to the wealth of reality, but when this power of ‘tearing apart’ is displaced from being ‘merely in our mind’ into things themselves, as their inherent power of negativity.

Back in the 1960s, one ‘progressive’ theorist of education touched a chord when he published the results of a simple experiment: he asked a group of five-year-olds to draw an image of themselves playing at home; then, he asked the same group to do it again two years later, after they had been through a year and a half of primary school. The difference was striking: the self-portraits of the five-year-olds were exuberant, lively, full of colours, surrealistically playful; two years later, the portraits were much more rigid and subdued, with a large majority of the children spontaneously choosing only the grey of the ordinary pencil, although other colours were at their disposal. Quite predictably, this experiment was taken as proof of the ‘oppressiveness’ of the school apparatus, of how the drill and discipline of school squash children’s spontaneous creativity, and so on and so forth. From a Hegelian standpoint, however, one should, on the contrary, celebrate this shift as an indication of crucial spiritual progress: nothing is lost in this reduction of lively colourfulness to grey discipline; in fact, everything is gained – the power of the spirit is precisely to progress from the ‘green’ immediacy of life to its ‘grey’ conceptual structure, and to reproduce in this reduced medium the essential determinations to which our immediate experience blinds us.

The same mortification occurs in historical memory and monuments of the past where what survive are objects deprived of their living souls. Here is Hegel’s comment apropos Ancient Greece: ‘The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone.’2 As with the passage from substantial God to the Holy Spirit, the properly dialectical reanimation is to be sought in this very medium of ‘grey’ notional determination:

The understanding, through the form of abstract universality, does give [the varieties of the sensuous], so to speak, a rigidity of being . . . but, at the same time through this simplification it spiritually animates them and so sharpens them.3

This ‘simplification’ is precisely what Lacan, referring to Freud, deployed as the reduction of a thing to le trait unaire [der einzige Zug, the unary feature]: we are dealing with a kind of epitomization by means of which the multitude of properties is reduced to a single dominant characteristic, so that we get ‘a concrete shape in which one determination predominates, the others being present only in blurred outline’: ‘the content is already the actuality reduced to a possibility [zur Möglichkeit getilgte Wirklichkeit], its immediacy overcome, the embodied shape reduced to abbreviated, simple determinations of thought’.4

The dialectical approach is usually perceived as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analysed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring to light the wealth of its links to other things, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of oneself, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. This, however, is the most dangerous trap to be avoided; for Hegel, the true problem is precisely the opposite one: the fact that, when we observe a thing, we see too much in it, we fall under the spell of the wealth of empirical detail which prevents us from clearly perceiving the notional determination which forms the core of the thing. The problem is thus not that of how to grasp the multiplicity of determinations, but rather of how to abstract from them, how to constrain our gaze and teach it to grasp only the notional determination.

Hegel’s formulation is here very precise: the reduction to the signifying ‘unary feature’ contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is. ‘Potentiality’ is thus not simply the name for the essence of a thing actualized in the multitude of empirical things (the idea of a chair as a potentiality actualized in empirical chairs). The multitude of a thing’s actual properties is not simply reduced to the inner core of this thing’s ‘true reality’; what is more important is that the signifying reduction accentuates (profiles) the thing’s inner potential. When I call someone ‘my teacher’, I thereby outline the horizon of what I expect from him; when I refer to a thing as ‘chair’, I profile the way I intend to use it in future. When I observe the world around me through the lenses of a language, I perceive its actuality through the lenses of the potentialities hidden, latently present, in it. What this means is that potentiality appears ‘as such’, becomes actual as potentiality, only through language: it is the appellation of a thing that brings to light (‘posits’) its potentials.

Once we grasp Aufhebung in this way, we can immediately see what is wrong with one of the main topics of the pseudo-Freudian dismissal of Hegel: the notion of Hegel’s System as being the highest and most overblown expression of an oral economy. Is not the Hegelian Idea effectively a voracious devourer which ‘swallows up’ every object it comes upon? No wonder Hegel saw himself as Christian: for him, the ritual eating of bread transubstantiated into Christ’s flesh signals that the Christian subject can integrate and digest God himself without remainder. Is, consequently, the Hegelian conceiving/grasping not a sublimated version of digestion? Hegel writes,

If the individual human being does something, achieves something, attains a goal, this fact must be grounded in the way the thing itself, in its concept, acts and behaves. If I eat an apple, I destroy its organic self-identity and assimilate it to myself. That I can do this entails that the apple in itself, already, in advance, before I take hold of it, has in its nature the determination of being subject to destruction, having in itself a homogeneity with my digestive organs such that I can make it homogeneous with myself.5

Is what he offers not a lower version of the cognition process itself in which, as he likes to point out, we can only grasp the object if this object itself already ‘wants to be with/by us’? One should push this metaphor to the end: the standard critical reading constructs the Hegelian absolute Substance-Subject as thoroughly constipated – retaining within itself the swallowed content. Or, as Adorno put it in one of his biting remarks (which, as is all too often the case with him, misses the mark), Hegel’s system ‘is the belly turned mind’6 pretending that it swallowed the entire indigestible Otherness . . . But what about the counter-movement: Hegelian shitting? Is the subject of what Hegel calls ‘absolute Knowledge’ not also a thoroughly emptied subject, a subject reduced to the role of pure observer (or, rather, registrar) of the self-movement of the content itself?

The richest is therefore the most concrete and most subjective, and that which withdraws itself into the simplest depth is the mightiest and most all-embracing. The highest, most concentrated point is the pure personality which, solely through the absolute dialectic which is its nature, no less embraces and holds everything within itself.7

In this strict sense, the subject itself is the abrogated/cleansed substance, a substance reduced to the void of the empty form of self-relating negativity, emptied of all the wealth of ‘personality’ – in Lacanese, the move from substance to subject is the one from S to $, that is, the subject is the barred substance. (Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, make the critical point that the Self bent on mere survival has to sacrifice all content that would make such a survival worthwhile; Hegel, on the contrary, views such a constitutive sacrifice positively.) Schelling referred to this same move as contraction (again, with the excremental connotation of squeezing the shit out of oneself, dropping it out): the subject is the contracted substance.

Does then the final subjective position of the Hegelian system not compel us to turn the digestive metaphor around? The supreme (and, for many, the most problematic) case of this counter-movement occurs at the very end of the Logic, when, after the notional deployment is completed, reaching the full circle of the absolute Idea, the Idea, in its resolve/decision, ‘freely releases itself’ into Nature, lets Nature go, leaves it off, discards it, pushes it away from itself, and thus liberates it.8 Which is why, for Hegel, the philosophy of nature is not a violent reappropriation of this externality; it rather involves the passive attitude of an observer: as he puts it in the Philosophy of Mind, ‘philosophy has, as it were, simply to watch how nature itself sublates its externality’.9

The same move is accomplished by God himself who, in the guise of Christ, this finite mortal, also ‘freely releases himself’ into temporal existence. The same goes for early modern art, where Hegel accounts for the rise of ‘dead nature’ paintings (not only landscapes and flowers, etc., but even pieces of food or dead animals) as being due precisely to the fact that, in the development of art, subjectivity no longer needs the visual medium as its principal means of expression – that is, because the accent has shifted to poetry as a more direct presentation of the subject’s inner life, the natural environs are ‘released’ from the burden of expressing subjectivity and, thus freed, can be asserted on their own terms. Furthermore, as some perspicuous readers of Hegel have already pointed out, the very sublation of art itself in the philosophical sciences (in conceptual thought), the fact that art is no longer obliged to serve as the principal medium of the expression of the spirit, frees it, allows it to gain autonomy and stand on its own. Is this not the very definition of the birth of modern art proper, an art no longer subordinated to the task of representing spiritual reality?

The way abrogation relates to sublation is not that of a simple succession or external opposition, not ‘first you eat, then you shit’. Shitting is the immanent conclusion of the entire process: without it, we would be dealing with the ‘spurious infinity’ of an endless process of sublation. The process of sublation itself can only reach its end by way of the counter-move:

contrary to what one would initially imagine, these two processes of sublation and abrogation are completely interdependent. Considering the last moment of absolute spirit [Philosophy], one readily notes the synonymy between the verbs aufheben and befreien [‘to liberate’], as well as ablegen [‘to discard’, ‘to remove’, ‘to take away’]. Speculative abrogation, in no way alien to the process of Aufhebung, is indeed its fulfilment. Abrogation is a sublation of sublation, the result of the Aufhebung’s work on itself and, as such, its transformation. The movement of suppression and preservation produces this transformation at a certain moment in history, the moment of Absolute Knowledge. Speculative abrogation is the absolute sublation, if by ‘absolute’ we mean a relief or sublation that frees from a certain type of attachment.10

True cognition is thus not only the notional ‘appropriation’ of its object: the process of appropriation goes on only as long as cognition remains incomplete. The sign of its completion is that it liberates its object, lets it be, drops it. This is why and how the movement of sublation has to culminate in the self-relating gesture of sublating itself.

So, what about the obvious counter-argument? Is the part which is abrogated, released, not precisely the arbitrary, passing aspect of the object, that which the notional mediation/reduction can afford to drop as being the part which is in itself worthless? This, precisely, is the illusion to be avoided, for two reasons. First, it is precisely as discarded that the released part is, on the contrary, and if one may be permitted to insist on the excremental metaphor, the manure of spiritual development, the ground out of which further development will grow. The release of Nature into its own thus lays the foundation of Spirit proper, which can develop itself only out of Nature as its inherent self-sublation. Second (and more fundamentally), what is released into its own being in speculative cognition is ultimately the object of cognition itself which, when truly grasped [begriffen], no longer has to rely on the subject’s active intervention, but develops itself following its own conceptual automatism, with the subject reduced to a passive observer who, allowing the thing to deploy its potential without any intervention of his own (Zutun), merely registers the process. This is why Hegelian cognition is simultaneously both active and passive, but in a sense which radically displaces the Kantian notion of cognition as the unity of activity and passivity. In Kant, the subject actively synthesizes (confers unity on) the content (sensuous multiplicity) by which he is passively affected. For Hegel, on the contrary, at the level of Absolute Knowledge, the cognizing subject is thoroughly passivized: he no longer intervenes in the object, but merely registers the immanent movement of the object’s self-differentiation/self-determination (or, to use a more contemporary term, the object’s auto-poietic self-organization). The subject is thus, at its most radical, not the agent of the process: the agent is the System (of knowledge) itself, which ‘automatically’ deploys itself without any need for external pushes or impetuses. However, this utter passivity simultaneously involves the greatest activity: it takes the most strenuous effort for the subject to ‘erase itself in its particular content, as the agent intervening in the object, and to expose itself as a neutral medium, the site of the System’s self-deployment. Hegel thereby overcomes the standard dualism between System and Freedom, between the Spinozist notion of a substantial deus sive natura of which I am a part, caught up in its determinism, and the Fichtean notion of the subject as the agent opposed to inert matter, trying to dominate and appropriate it: the supreme moment of the subject’s freedom is to set free its object, to leave it free to deploy itself: ‘The Idea’s absolute freedom consists in [the fact] that it resolves to freely let go out of itself the moment of its particularity.’11

‘Absolute freedom’ is here literally absolute in the etymological sense of absolvere: releasing, letting go. Schelling was the first to criticize this move as illegitimate: after Hegel completed the circle of the logical self-development of the Notion, and being aware that the whole of this development took place in the abstract medium of thought, he had somehow to make the passage back to real life – however, since there were no categories in his logic to accomplish this passage, he had to resort to terms like ‘decision’ (the Idea ‘decides’ to release Nature from itself), terms which are not categories of logic, but of the will and practical life. This critique clearly misses the way the act of releasing the other is thoroughly immanent to the dialectical process, is its conclusive moment, the sign of the conclusion of a dialectical circle. Is this not the Hegelian version of Gelassenheit?

This is how one should read Hegel’s ‘third syllogism of Philosophy’, Spirit-Logic-Nature: the starting point of the speculative movement rendered by this syllogism is spiritual substance into which subjects are immersed; then, through strenuous conceptual work, the wealth of this substance is reduced to its underlying elementary logical/notional structure; once this task is accomplished, the fully developed logical Idea can release Nature out of itself. Here is the key passage:

The Idea, namely, in positing itself as absolute unity of the pure Notion and its reality and thus contracting itself into the immediacy of being, is the totality in this form – nature.12

But this determination has not issued from a process of becoming, nor is it a transition, as when above, the subjective Notion in its totality becomes objectivity, and the subjective end becomes life. On the contrary, the pure Idea in which the determinateness or reality of the Notion is itself raised into Notion, is an absolute liberation for which there is no longer any immediate determination that is not equally posited and itself Notion; in this freedom, therefore, no transition takes place; the simple being to which the Idea determines itself remains perfectly transparent to it and is the Notion that, in its determination, abides with itself. The passage is therefore to be understood here rather in this manner, that the Idea freely releases itself in its absolute self-assurance and inner poise. By reason of this freedom, the form of its determinateness is also utterly free – the externality of space and time existing absolutely on its own account without the moment of subjectivity.13 Hegel repeatedly insists here on this ‘absolute liberation’ being thoroughly different from the standard dialectical ‘transition’. But how? The suspicion lurks that Hegel’s ‘absolute liberation’ relies on the absolute mediation of all otherness: I set the Other free only after I have completely internalized it . . . However, is this really the case?

One should here reread Lacan’s critique of Hegel: what if, far from denying what Lacan calls the ‘subjective disjunction’, Hegel on the contrary asserts a previously unheard-of division that runs through the (particular) subject as well as through the (universal) substantial order of ‘collectivity’, uniting the two? That is to say, what if the ‘reconciliation’ between the Particular and the Universal occurs precisely through the division that cuts across the two? The basic ‘postmodern’ reproach to Hegel – that his dialectics admits antagonisms and splits only to resolve them magically in a higher synthesis-mediation – strangely contrasts with the good old Marxist reproach (already formulated by Schelling) according to which Hegel resolves antagonisms only in ‘thought’, through conceptual mediation, while in reality they remain unresolved. One is tempted to accept this second reproach at face value and use it against the first one: what if this is the proper answer to the accusation that Hegelian dialectics magically resolves antagonisms? What if, for Hegel, the point, precisely, is to not ‘resolve’ antagonisms ‘in reality’, but simply to enact a parallax shift by means of which antagonisms are recognized ‘as such’ and thereby perceived in their ‘positive’ role?

The passage from Kant to Hegel is thus much more convoluted than it may appear – let us approach it again by way of their different attitudes to the ontological proof of God’s existence. Kant’s rejection of this proof takes as its starting point his thesis that being is not a predicate: if one knows all the predicates of an entity, its being (existence) does not follow, that is, one cannot conclude a being from a notion. (The anti-Leibniz line is obvious here, since, according to Leibniz, two objects are indistinguishable if all of their predicates are the same.) The implication for the ontological proof of God is clear: in the same way that I can have a perfect notion of 100 thalers and yet still not have them in my pocket, I can have a perfect notion of God and yet God still may not exist. Hegel’s first remark on this line of reasoning is that ‘being’ is the poorest, most imperfect, notional determination (everything ‘is’ in some way, even my craziest phantasmagorias); it is only through further notional determinations that we get to existence, to reality, to actuality, which are all much more than mere being. His second remark is that the gap between notion and existence is precisely the mark of finitude; it holds for finite objects like 100 thalers, but not for God: God is not something I can have (or not have) in my pocket . . .

On a first approach, it may seem that the opposition between Kant and Hegel is here ultimately that between materialism and idealism: Kant insists on a minimum of materialism (the independence of reality with regard to notional determinations), while Hegel totally dissolves reality in its notional determinations. However, Hegel’s true point lies elsewhere: it involves a much more radical ‘materialist’ claim that a complete notional determination of an entity – to which one would only have to add ‘being’ in order to arrive at its existence – is in itself an abstract notion, an empty abstract possibility. The lack of (a certain mode of being is always also an inherent lack of some notional determination – say, for a thing to exist as part of opaque material reality, a whole set of notional conditions-determinations have to be met (and other determinations have to be lacking). With regard to 100 thalers (or any other empirical object), this means that their notional determination is abstract, which is why they possess an opaque empirical being and not full actuality. So when Kant draws a parallel between God and the 100 thalers, one should ask a simple and naive question: does Kant really possess a (fully developed) concept of God?

This brings us to the true finesse of Hegel’s argumentation, which is directed in two ways, both against Kant and against Anselm’s classic version of the ontological proof of God. Hegel’s argument against Anselin’s proof is not that it is too conceptual, but that it is not conceptual enough: Anselm does not develop the concept of God, he just refers to it as the sum of all perfections which, as such, is precisely beyond the comprehension of our finite human minds. Anselm merely presupposes ‘God’ as an impenetrable reality beyond our comprehension (i.e., outside the notional domain), in other words, his God is precisely not a concept (something posited by our conceptual work), but a purely presupposed pre- or non-conceptual reality. Along the same lines, albeit in the opposite sense, one should note the irony in the fact that Kant talks about thalers, that is, about money, whose existence as money is not ‘objective’, but depends on ‘notional’ determinations. It is true, as Kant says, that having a concept of 100 thalers is not the same as having them in your pocket; but let us imagine a process of rapid inflation which totally devalues the 100 thalers in your pocket; in this case, the same object is there in reality, but it is no longer money, having become a meaningless and worthless coin. In other words, money is precisely an object whose status depends on how we ‘think’ about it: if people no longer treat this piece of metal as money, if they no longer ‘believe’ in it as money, it no longer is money.

With regard to material reality, the ontological proof of God’s existence should thus be turned around: the existence of material reality bears witness to the fact that the Notion is not fully actualized. Things ‘materially exist’ not when they meet certain notional requirements, but when they fail to meet them – material reality is as such a sign of imperfection. With regard to truth, this means that, for Hegel, the truth of a proposition is inherently notional, determined by the immanent notional content, not a matter of comparison between notion and reality – in Lacanian terms, there is a non-All [pas-tout] of truth. It may sound strange to invoke Hegel apropos the non-All: is Hegel not the philosopher of All par excellence? However, Hegelian truth is precisely without any external limitation/exception that would serve as its measure or standard, which is why its criterion is absolutely immanent: one compares a statement with itself, with its own process of enunciation.

When Alain Badiou emphasizes the undecidability of a Truth-Event, his position is radically different from the standard deconstructionist notion of undecidability.14 For Badiou, undecidability means that there are no neutral ‘objective’ criteria for an Event: an Event appears as such only to those who recognize themselves in its call; or, as Badiou puts it, an Event is self-relating, it includes itself – its own nomination – among its components. While this does mean that one has to decide about an Event, such an ultimately groundless decision is not ‘undecidable’ in the standard sense; it is, rather, uncannily similar to the Hegelian dialectical process in which, as Hegel himself made clear already in the Introduction to his Phenomenology, a ‘figure of consciousness’ is not measured by any external standard of truth but in an absolutely immanent way, through the gap between itself and its own exemplification/staging. An Event is thus ‘non-All’ in the precise Lacanian sense of the term: it is never fully verified precisely because it is infinite/unlimited, that is, because there is no external limit to it. And the conclusion to be drawn here is that, for the very same reason, the Hegelian ‘totality’ is also ‘non-All’.

Back to our main line of argument. What this means is that the externality of Nature with regard to the Idea is not that of the Idea’s constitutive exception: it is not that Nature is set free as the exception that guarantees the Wholeness of the Idea’s self-mediation. It is not the case that, once this mediation is completed (that is, after the Idea’s dialectical progress can no longer be propelled by the Idea’s own incompleteness – its failure to correspond to its own notion), the completed Idea needs an external Other (Nature) to sustain the complete and closed circle of its self-mediation. Nature is, rather, the mark of the non-All of the Idea’s totality.

So, to pursue the rather tasteless metaphor, Hegel was not a sublimated coprophagist, as the usual notion of the dialectical process would lead us to believe. The matrix of the dialectical process is not that of excrementation-externalization followed by a swallowing (reappropriation) of the externalized content, but, on the contrary, of appropriation followed by the excremental move of dropping it, releasing it, letting it go. What this means is that one should not equate externalization with alienation. The externalization which concludes a cycle of dialectical process is not alienation, it is the highest point of dis-alienation: one really reconciles oneself with some objective content not when one still has to strive to master and control it, but when one can afford the supreme sovereign gesture of releasing this content from oneself, of setting it free. Which is why, incidentally, and as some of the sharper interpreters have pointed out, far from subduing nature totally to man, Hegel opens up an unexpected space for ecological awareness: for Hegel, the drive to exploit nature technologically is still a mark of man’s finitude; in such an attitude, nature is perceived as an external object, an opposing force to be dominated, while a philosopher, from his standpoint of Absolute Knowledge, experiences nature not as a threatening force to be controlled and dominated, but as something to be left to follow its inherent path.

What this means is that the Hegelian Subject-Substance has nothing to do with any kind of mega-Subject controlling the dialectical process: there is no one pulling the strings or controlling the process – the Hegelian System is a plane without a pilot. Here, Louis Althusser went wrong when he opposed the Hegelian Subject-Substance, the ‘teleological’ process with-a-subject, to the materialist-dialectical ‘process without a subject’. The Hegelian dialectical process is in fact the most radical version of a ‘process without a subject’, in the sense of an agent controlling and directing the process, be it God or humanity or class as a collective subject. In his later writings, Althusser was becoming aware of this, while remaining thoroughly unaware of how the fact that the Hegelian dialectical process is a ‘process without a subject’ means exactly the same as Hegel’s fundamental thesis that ‘it is crucial to grasp the Absolute not only as Substance, but also as Subject’: the emergence of a pure subject qua void is strictly correlative to the notion of ‘System’ as the self-deployment of the object itself with no need for any subjective agent to push it forward or to direct it.

Perhaps what the critics of Hegel’s voracity need, then, is a dose of an effective laxative.

[Extract from the second edition of The Sublime Object of Ideology, pp. vii-xxii. Get it from Amazon.]


  1. See Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company 2006.
  2. G. W, F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 455.
  3. G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, London and New York: Humanities Press, 1976, p. 611.
  4. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 17.
  5. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion III, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, p. 127.
  6. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, New York: Continuum, 1973, p. 34.
  7. Hegel, Science of Logic, p. 841.
  8. Ibid., p. 843.
  9. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, Para. 381, p. 14.
  10. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel, London: Routledge, 2005. p. 156.
  11. G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences, Part I: Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892, Par. 24.
  12. Hegel, The Science of Logic, p. 843
  13. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Par. 57.
  14. See Alain Badiou, L’être et l’événement, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1989.

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. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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