Friday, February 3, 2017

Vanishing Mediators...

So what did Hegel intend with his notion of "absolute knowing"? It can only be grasped against the background of the immanence of false appearance to truth: take away the illusion and you lose the truth itself- a truth needs time to make a journey through illusions in order to form itself. We must put Hegel back into the series Plato-Descartes-Hegel which corresponds to the triad of Objective-Subjective-Absolute: Plato's Ideas are objective, truth embodied; the Cartesian subject stands for the unconditional certainty of subjective self-awareness... and Hegel, what does he add? If "subjective" is what is relative to our subjective limitations, and if "objective" is the way things really are, what does "absolute" add? Hegel's answer: the "absolute" does not add some deeper, more substantial dimension- all it does is include (subjective) illusion in (objective) truth itself. The "absolute" standpoint makes us see how reality includes fiction (or fantasy), how the right choice only emerges after the wrong one:
absolute knowing is the point at which consciousness reflexively assumes the fact that the share of illusion or fantasy is constituitive of the progress of truth. The truth is not located outside fantasy, since fantasy is a key element of its deployment. This insight compels us to conceive of absolute knowing as the point of traversing the fantasy... absolute knowing is to be seens as the point at which fantasy acquires its place in philosophy... If fantasy first appeared as a negativum, i.e., as the point of failure of a specific philosophical wager, it is now conceived as a positive moment of the deployment of truth
Hegel thus enjoins us to invert the entire history of philosophy, which constitutes a series of efforts to clearly differentiate doxa from true knowledge: for Hegel. doxa is a constituitive part of knowledge, and this is what makes truth temporal and evental. This evental character of truth involves 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.
Note the precise formulation here: it is not that the truth-value of the proposition "the object O has the property x" depends upon the time to which the proposition refers - even when the time is specified, the truth-value depends upon the time at which the proposition itself is enunciated. Or, to quote the title of Dupuy's text, "When I 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 involve vulgar claims such as "like all things, love attachments are not eternal, they too change over the course of time," etc.; rather, it concedes that indissolubility is part of the very notion of marriage. The argument is that divorce always has a retroactive scope: this means not only that the marriage is now annulled, but also something more radical- the marriage should be annulled becuase it never was a true marriage. The same holds true for Soviet communism: it is clearly insufficient to say that, in the years of "stagnation" under Brezhnev, it "exhausted its potential, failing to keep up with the times"; what its miserable end demonstrates is that it was in an historical deadlock from its very beginning.

This is why the properly Hegelian view is fundamentally static: things become what they always already are, what constantly changes are static totalities. What historicist-evolutionary "mobilism" fails to grasp is the (properly dialectical) point, made long ago by (among others) T.S. Eliot, regarding the fact that each truly new artistic phenomenon not only represents a break with the entire past, but retroactively changes the past itself. At every historical conjuncture, the present is not only the present, but also encompasses a perspective on the past immanent to it- after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, say, the October Revolution is no longer the same historical event, it is (for the triumphant liberal-capitalist view) no longer the beginning of a new progressive epoch in the history of humanity, but the beginning of a catastrophic deviation in that history, a deviation that came to an end in 1991. The ultimate lesson of Hegel's anti-"mobilism": dialectics has nothing to do with a certain politics or practice being justified in or for a certain stage of development and then losing this justification in a later "higher" stage. Reacting to the revelations about Stalin's crimes at the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Brecht noted that the same political agent who earlier played an important role in the revolutionary process (Stalin) now became an obstacle to it, and praised this as a proper "dialectical" insight. But we should thoroughly reject this logic. In the dialectical analysis of history, on the contrary, each new stage "rewrites the past" and retroactively delegitimizes the previous one.

Such retroactive delegitimization makes "vanishing mediators" of past phenomena: although a past phenomenon can be a necessary moment in the emergence of a new form, its role becomes invisible once the New has arrived. Let us take an unlikely example: Ayn Rand's first novel written in English, "We the Living", set in Petrograd between 1922 and 1925. Kira Argounova, the young daughter of a bourgeois family and a strong-willed independent spirit, manages to enroll in the Technological Institute where she aspires to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. At the Institute Kira meets Andrei Taganov, an idealistic communist and high ranking officer in the GPU (the secret police); the two share a mutual respect and admiration for each other in spite of their differing political beliefs. Kira finds Andrei to be the one person she can trust, and with whom she can discuss her most intimate thoughts and views. Not even her passionate lover, Leo Kovalensky- a handsome member of the nobility with a free spirit to match Kira's own- can fulfill this role for her. When Leo contracts tuberculosis and cannot get State help for his stay at the sanatorium, Kira feigns love for Andrei and agrees to become his mistress in order to secure his help in getting medical treatment for Leo. Months later, after Leo has been cured, he gets involved in black market speculation. Andrei is tipped off about this venture and, unaware of Kira's love for Leo, arrests him for crimes against the State. Eventually he finds out about Kira's relationship with Leo, and the ensuing confrontation between Andrei and Kira is the most poignant scene in the story. When Kira tells Andrei that she has faked her love for him just to get support for Leo, her true love, his reaction is not the expected one of rage and vengeance, but one of regret at the suffering he has unknowingly caused Kira, and understanding the depth of her love for Leo, for whom she was sacrificing herself. In order to redress the situation, Andrei promises to bring Leo back to her; after Leo's release from prison, Andrei loses his position in the Party and commits suicide.

Although staunchly anti-communist, the novel remains ambiguous: what is surprising is not only the highly ethical reaction of the Bolshevik hero Andrei when he learns that Kira does not love him; even more surprising is the fact that this ethical reaction seems to be part of the communist persona. What is evil here is not simply the Bolshevik revolution as such, but its betrayal, which culminates in the pact between the revolutionaries who have betrayed their vocation and the old corrupt bourgeoisie. It is as if, although the revolution was flawed in its very essence and its corruption was unavoidable, the only path to truth leads through revolution: it is Andrei, a communist (and even a GPU officer) who, confronted with a tribunal, gives the original version of the staple Randian speech praising the individual spirit and rejecting collectivism, a speech whose later versions are Howard Roark's in front of the jury in "Fountainhead" and John Galt's long radio speech in "Atlas Shrugged". Andrei is thus a kind of vanishing mediator: the proto-figure of the Randian hero whose communist roots, still visible here, disappear in her late "mature" anti-communism. The first step in an effective critique of ideology is to render such vanishing mediators visible again- in the case of Rand, to show how even an extreme anti-communist stance was secretly based upon communist premises. (At a different level, the same holds for "The Fountainhead": is not the architecture of Howard Roark, the novel's hero modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright, also uncannily similar to the Soviet modernism of the 1920's?)
Not the least irony of such retroactive de-legitimization of communism in Rand's work is that the same procedure was widely practiced by the target of her criticism, Stalinism itself. This is why, in contrast to Leninism, Stalisnism had no use for the category of the renegade: for Lenin, Kautsky was a "renegade," which meant that he was once one of us, but the betrayed the Cause; in Stalinism, however, there are no renegades, only traitors. When Stalin moved against Trotsky in the mid-1920s, it did not mean that he considered Trotsky a "renegade," someone who had served the revolution in the past but then lost his way- on the contrary, Trotsky became a "vanishing mediator" of the revolutionary process, and the Stalinists claimed that he had sabotaged the revolutionary struggle from the very beginning, totally ignoring his role in organizing the Red Army.

This is why Hegelian dialectics is not a vulgar evolutionism according to which a phenomenon may be 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. This brings us to the crux of the matter, the crux which is, as expected, the subject itself. The Hegelian-Lacanian subject is the ultimate vanishing mediator: it is never present here-and-now, in every present constellation it already vanishes in its symbolic representation. In other words, the "subject" is an X which always already vanishes in its representations, and this is what makes this concept an eminently dialectical one.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism"

2 comments:

FreeThinke said...

If only the Duck WOULD vanish, life in the blogosphere would doubtless become infinitely less rebarbative and far more agreeable, although there are several other waspish personalities that rival –– and even surpass –– the Duck in obnoxious, superbly irritating attributes.

Stanley Kowalski said...

He is a kinda "vanishing mediator"...