And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Thursday, June 27, 2019

On Misplaced Hope/Confidence...?

-Slavoj Zizek, "Was I right to back Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton? Absolutely"
Trump’s unexpected victory triggered a process of radicalisation within the Democratic Party – and this process is now our only hope

In the last couple of years, I have been often asked by friends (and by “friends”) whether I still stand by my preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, or would I now admit that I was terribly wrong. My answer is easy to guess: not only do I stand by what I said, but I think last year’s events fully confirmed my choice. Why?

As Yuval Harari noted, in his Homo Deus, people feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by 100 to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. When this agreement on basics falters, the only procedures at our disposal are negotiations or (civil) war. That’s why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations.

So how does this apply to the growing lack of the agreement on the basics in the US politics? What complicates the situation is that the disagreement that exploded is double: first, Trump broke the established order from the side of the populist right, and then the Democrats (Sanders and others) broke it from the left. These two ruptures are not symmetrical. The struggle between Trump and the liberal establishment is a cultural-ideological struggle within the same space of global capitalism, while the left began to question this global capitalist order itself.

This is why the only true struggle going on today is taking place within the Democratic Party itself.

Liberals who are panicked by Trump dismiss the idea that the president’s victory can start a process out of which an authentic left would emerge. Their counterargument is basically a comparison with Hitler’s rise to power. Many German communists welcomed the Nazi takeover as a new chance for the radical left (“now the situation is clear, democratic illusions have vanished, we are confronted by the true enemy”) – but, as we know, their appreciation was a catastrophic mistake.

The question is: are things the same with Trump? Is Trump a danger which should bring together a broad front akin to anti-fascist popular fronts, a front where decent conservatives will fight together with mainstream liberal progressives and (whatever remains of) the radical left?

I think such a broad front against Trump is a dangerous illusion: it would amount to the capitulation of the new left, to its surrender to the liberal establishment. The fear that a Trump victory would turn the US into a fascist state is a ridiculous exaggeration: the US has a rich enough texture of divergent civic and political institutions so that their direct fascist Gleichshaltung cannot be enacted (in contrast to, say, France where the victory of Le Pen would have been much more dangerous).

What happened in the US is that the Trump victory triggered a process of radicalisation in the Democratic Party – and this process is our only hope.

Saritha Prabhu’s opinion piece recently published in the Tennessean deserves to be quoted at length. It moved me almost to tears with its description of a simple truth:

“Brace yourself; there is a civil war coming soon in the Democratic Party. At the heart of today’s Democratic Party is an identity crisis and an ideological struggle. For starters, is the Democratic Party a party of the rich or a party of the little guy? For many years, they’ve been the party of the rich playing a good game of pretending to be for the little guy. And the Democratic establishment does it in insidious ways that are too clever by half: they are for the marginalised guy or gal in the race, gender, and sexuality issues because, hey, that doesn’t hurt their and their affluent constituents’ pocketbook much.

“But in the economic issues that matter, they often sock it to the average Democratic working-class voter: in the global trade deals that’ve offshored jobs and have decimated the American manufacturing base; in their looking the other way as illegal immigrants depress the wages of working-class Americans, and more. But as long as they talk and talk and talk some more – about abortion and transgender rights and racism (not that these aren’t relevant issues), they can have their cake and eat it too. But all this worked until 2016, but can’t be pulled off anymore. The Democratic establishment wing is still either clueless or stubborn, but they want good ol’ Joe Biden to come to the rescue and Make Oligarchic America Great Again.

“When you rip off their mask, what is revealed is troubling: the Party of Davos masquerading as the Party of Scranton, Pennsylvania, that essentially hoodwinks much of the electorate.”

Let’s make it clear: it was the rise of Trump which triggered the “civil war” in the Democratic Party – and, by the way, the proper name of this “civil war” is class struggle. So let’s not lose nerve, let’s rather use the opportunity inadvertently opened up by Trump.

The only way to really defeat Trump is for the left to win that civil war.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The 'Alienated' Philosopher

-Slavoj Zizek, "Marx as a Reader of Hegel, Hegel as a Reader of Marx"
The big political shift in Hegel’s development occurred when he abandoned his early fascination with the Romantic vision of the non-alienated society of Ancient Greece as a beautiful organic community of love (as opposed to the modern society of the Understanding, with its mechanical interaction between autonomous egotistical individuals). With this shift, Hegel began to appreciate the very thing that had previously repelled him: the “prosaic,” non-heroic character of modern societies with their complex division of professional and administrative labor, in which “no one simply could be heroically responsible for much of anything (and so could not be beautiful in action).”1 Hegel’s full endorsement of the prose of modern life, his ruthless dismissal of all longing for the heroic old times, is the (often neglected) historical root of his thesis about the “end of art”: art is no longer an adequate medium for expressing such a “prosaic” disenchanted reality, reality deprived of all mystery and transcendence.2

The young Hegel, especially in his System der Sittlichkeit, was still fascinated by the Greek polis as the organic unity of individual and society: here, social substance does not yet stand opposed to individuals as a cold, abstract, objective legality imposed from outside, but appears as the living unity of “customs,” of a collective ethical life in which individuals are “at home,” recognizing it as their own substance. From this perspective, cold universal legality is a regression from the organic unity of customs―the regression from Greece to the Roman empire. Although Hegel soon accepted that the subjective freedom of modernity has to be accepted, that the organic unity of the polis was forever lost, he nonetheless insisted on the need for some kind of return to a renewed unity, to a new polis that would offer individuals a deeper sense of social solidarity and organic unity beyond the “mechanistic” interaction and individualist competition of civil society.

Hegel’s crucial step towards maturity occurs when he really “abandons the paradigm of the polis” by reconceptualizing the role of civil society.3 First, civil society is for Hegel the “state of Understanding,” the state reduced to the police-apparatus regulating the chaotic interaction of individuals each of whom pursues his egotistic interests. This individualistic-atomistic notion of freedom and the notion of a legal order imposed on individuals as an external limitation of that freedom are strictly correlative. The need thus arises to pass from this “state of Understanding” to the true “state of Reason,” in which individuals’ subjective dispositions are harmonized with the social Whole, in which individuals recognize the social substance as their own. The key move occurs when Hegel fully develops the mediating role of civil society: the “system of multilateral dependence” whose ultimate modern form is the market economy―in which particular and universal are separated and opposed, in which every individual pursues only his private goals, in which organic social unity decomposes into external mechanical interaction―is in itself already the reconciliation of the particular and the universal in the guise of the famous “invisible hand” of the market, on account of which, by pursuing his private interests at the expense of others, every individual contributes to the welfare of all. It is thus not simply that one has to “overcome” the mechanical or external interaction of civil society in a higher organic unity: civil society and its disintegration plays a crucial mediating role, so that the true reconciliation (which does not abolish modern subjective freedom) has to recognize how this disintegration is in itself already its opposite, a force of integration. Reconciliation is thus radically immanent: it implies a shift of perspective with regard to what first appeared as disintegration. In other words, insofar as civil society is the sphere of alienation, of the separation between subjectivity persisting in its abstract individuality and an objective social order opposing it as an external necessity limiting its freedom, the resources for reconciliation should be found in this very sphere (in what appears, “at first sight, as the least spiritual, as the most alienating: the system of needs”4), not in the passage to another “higher” sphere. The structure here is that of the Rabinovitch joke: Rabinovitch wants to emigrate from the Soviet Union for two reasons: “First, I fear that, if the socialist order disintegrates, all the blame for the communist crimes will be put on us, the Jews.” To the state bureaucrat’s objection: “But nothing will ever change in the Soviet Union! Socialism is here to stay forever!” Rabinovitch calmly answers: “This is my second reason.” The true (second) reason can be enunciated only insofar as it is produced as a reaction to the bureaucrat’s rejection of the first reason. The civil society version is: “There are two reasons modern society is reconciled with itself. The first is the interaction within civil society …” “But civil-society interaction is a matter of constant strife, the very mechanism of disintegration, of ruthless competition!” “Well, this is the second reason, since this very strife and competition makes individuals thoroughly interdependent and thus creates the ultimate social link …”

The whole perspective thus changes: it is no longer that the organic Sittlichkeit of the polis disintegrates under the corrosive influence of modern abstract individuality in its multiple modes (the market economy, Protestantism, etc.), and that this unity should somehow be restored at a higher level: the point of Hegel’s analyses of antiquity, best exemplified by his repeated readings of Antigone, is that the Greek polis itself was already marked, cut through, by fatal immanent antagonisms (public-private, masculine-feminine, human-divine, free men-slaves, etc.) which belie its organic unity. Abstract universal individualism (Christianity), far from causing the disintegration of the Greek organic unity, was, on the contrary, the necessary first step towards true reconciliation. Likewise the market, far from being simply a corrosive force, provides the mediating process which forms the basis of a true reconciliation between the universal and the singular. Market competition really brings people together, while organic order divides them. The best indication of this shift in the mature Hegel concerns the opposition of customs and law: for the early Hegel, the transformation of customs into institutionalized law is a regressive move from organic unity to alienation (the norm is no longer experienced as part of my substantial ethical nature, but as an external force that constrains my freedom), while for the mature Hegel, this transformation is a crucial step forward, opening up and sustaining the space of modern subjective freedom.

The problem here, of course, is whether the market dynamic really provides what it promises. Does it not in fact generate a permanent destabilization of the social body, especially by increasing class distinctions and giving rise to a “mob” deprived of the basic conditions of life? Hegel’s solution here was very pragmatic―he opted for secondary palliative measures like colonial expansion and, especially, the mediating role of estates (Stände). And his dilemma is still ours today, two hundred years later. The clearest indication of Hegel’s historical limit lies in his double use of the same term Sitten (customs, social ethical order): it stands for the immediate organic unity that has to be left behind (the Ancient Greek ideal), and for the higher organic unity which should be realized in a modern state.

It is easy to play the historicist card here and claim that Hegel was unable to grasp the capitalist dynamic proper because of the limitation of his historical experience. Jameson is right to draw attention to the fact that, “despite his familiarity with Adam Smith and emergent economic doctrine, Hegel’s conception of work and labor―I have specifically characterized it as a handicraft ideology―betrays no anticipation of the originalities of industrial production or the factory system”5―in short, Hegel’s analyses of work and production cannot be “transferred to the new industrial situation.”6 There is a series of interconnected reasons for this limitation, all grounded in the constraints of Hegel’s historical experience. First, his notion of the industrial revolution involved only Adam-Smith-type manufacturing where the work process was still that of a group of individuals using tools, not yet that of the factory in which the machinery sets the rhythm and individual workers are de facto reduced to organs serving the machinery, to its appendices. Second, he could not yet imagine the way abstraction rules would develop in capitalism: when Marx describes capital’s mad self-enhancing circulation, which reaches its apogee in today’s meta-reflexive speculations on futures, it is far too simplistic to claim that the specter of this self-engendering monster pursuing its interests with no regard for human or environmental concerns is an ideological abstraction, and that, behind this abstraction, there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital’s circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this “abstraction” is not only characteristic of our (the financial speculator’s) misperception of social reality, but that it is “real” in the precise sense of determining the structure of material social processes themselves: the fate of whole swathes of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the “solipsistic” speculative dance of Capital, which pursues its goal of profitability with blessed indifference to how its movements will affect social reality. Therein lies the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than the direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: it is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their “evil” intentions, but is purely “objective,” systemic, anonymous.

Here we encounter the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real: “reality” is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable “abstract” spectral logic of Capital that determines what goes on in social reality. This gap is tangible in the way the economic situation of a country can be considered to be good and stable by the international financial experts, even when the majority of its people are worse off than before―reality does not matter, what matters is the situation of Capital. And, again, is this not more true than ever today? Do not phenomena usually classed as features of “virtual capitalism” (future trading and similar financial speculations) point towards the reign of “real abstraction” at its purest, much more radical than in Marx’s time? In short, the highest form of ideology does not involve getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending to address directly “real people with their real problems.” Visitors to the London Stock Exchange are given a free leaflet explaining how the stock market is not about mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products―this is ideology at its purest.

Here, in the analysis of the universe of Capital, we should not only push Hegel towards Marx, Marx himself should be radicalized: it is only today, in relation to global capitalism in its “post-industrial” form, that, to put it in Hegelian terms, really existing capitalism is reaching the level of its notion. Perhaps, we should once again follow Marx’s old anti-evolutionist motto (incidentally, taken verbatim from Hegel) that the anatomy of man provides the key to the anatomy of a monkey―i.e., that, in order to describe the inherent notional structure of a social formation, we must start with its most developed form. Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use-value and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potential of this opposition is fully realized, the domain of exchange-value acquires autonomy, is transformed into the specter of self-propelling speculative capital which uses the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its temporary disposable embodiment. Marx derived his notion of economic crisis from this very gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money―this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in ever more serious crises. The ultimate root of the crisis is for Marx the gap between use- and exchange-value: the logic of exchange-value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people. It may appear that this analysis is highly relevant today, when the tension between the virtual universe and the real is reaching almost unbearable proportions: on the one hand, we have crazy solipsistic speculations about futures, mergers, etc., following their own inherent logic; on the other hand, reality is catching up in the guise of ecological catastrophes, poverty, the collapse of social life in the Third World, and the spread of new diseases.

This is why cyber-capitalists appear as the paradigmatic capitalists today―why Bill Gates can dream of cyberspace as providing the frame for what he calls “frictionless capitalism.” What we have here is an ideological short-circuit between two versions of the gap between reality and virtuality: the gap between real production and the virtual or spectral domain of Capital, and the gap between experiential reality and the virtual reality of cyberspace. The real horror of the motto “frictionless capitalism” is that, even though actual “frictions” continue to insist, they become invisible, forced into a netherworld outside our “postmodern” and post-industrial universe; this is why the “frictionless” universe of digitalized communication, technological gadgets, etc., is constantly haunted by the notion of a global catastrophe lurking just around the corner, threatening to explode at any moment.

It seems as if the gap between my fascinating cyberspace persona and the miserable flesh which is “me” off-screen translates into the immediate experience of the gap between the Real of the speculative circulation of capital and the drab reality of the impoverished masses. However, is this recourse to a “reality” which will sooner or later catch up with the virtual game really the only way to pursue a critique of capitalism? What if the problem of capitalism is not this solipsistic dance, but precisely the opposite: that it continues to disavow its gap with “reality,” that it presents itself as serving the real needs of real people? The paradox of this virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself. Does not today’s virtual capitalist function in a homologous way―his “net value” is zero, he just operates with the surplus, borrowing from the future?

This compels us to thoroughly reformulate the standard Marxist topic of “reification” and “commodity fetishism,” insofar as the latter still relies on a notion of the fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation. Paradoxically, fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is “dematerialized,” turned into a fluid “immaterial” virtual entity; money fetishism will culminate with the passage to its electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality will disappear―electronic money is the third form, after “real” money, which directly embodies its value (in gold or silver), and paper money which, although a “mere sign” with no intrinsic value, still clings to a material existence. And it is only at this stage, when money becomes a purely virtual point of reference, that it finally assumes the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you $1000, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I still owe you $1000, the debt is inscribed somewhere in virtual digital space.

Does the same not hold also for warfare? Far from pointing towards twenty-first-century warfare, the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 was rather the last spectacular act of twentieth-century warfare. What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an “immaterial” war in which the attacks are invisible―viruses, poisons, which can be everywhere and nowhere. At the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, there are no big explosions, and yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates. We are entering a new era of paranoid warfare in which the greatest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons. It is only with this thoroughgoing “dematerialization”―when Marx’s famous thesis from The Communist Manifesto, that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air,” acquires a much more literal meaning than the one he had in mind, when our material social reality is not only dominated by the spectral or speculative movement of Capital but is itself progressively “spectralized” (the “Protean Self” replacing the old self-identical Subject, the elusive fluidity of its experiences superseding the stability of owned objects), in short, when the usual relationship between solid material objects and fluid ideas is inverted (objects are progressively dissolved in fluid experiences, while the only stable things are virtual symbolic obligations)―it is only at this point that what Derrida called the spectral aspect of capitalism is fully actualized.

This is why the key feature of contemporary capitalism is not only the hegemony, but also the (relative) autonomy of financial capital: it may seem like the banks are just engaging in speculation, shuffling numbers here and there, and nobody is exploited, since exploitation happens in “real” production. But why did we have to give billions of dollars to the banks in 2008 and 2009? Because, without a functioning banking system, the entire (capitalist) economy collapses. Banks should thus also count as privatized commons: insofar as private banks control the flow of investments and thus represent, for individual companies, the universal dimension of social capital, their profit is really a rent we pay for their role as universal mediator. This is why state or other forms of social control over banks and collective capital in general (like pension funds) are crucial in taking a first step towards the social control of commons. Apropos the reproach that such control is economically inefficient, we should recall not only those cases in which such control was very effective (this was, for example, how Malaysia avoided crisis in the late 1990s), but also the obvious fact that the 2008 financial crisis was triggered precisely by the failure of the banking system.

Let us take a closer look at Marx’s classical description of the passage from money to capital, with its explicit allusions to the Hegelian and Christian background. First, there is the simple act of market exchange in which I sell in order to buy―I sell the product I own or have made in order to buy another one which is of some use to me: “The simple circulation of commodities―selling in order to buy―is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants.”7 What happens with the emergence of capital is not just the simple reversal of C-M-C (Commodity-Money-Commodity) into M-C-M, i.e., of investing money in some commodity in order to sell it again and thus get back to (more) money; the key effect of this reversal is the eternalization of circulation: “The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.”8 Crucial here is the difference between the traditional miser, hoarding his treasure in secret, and the capitalist who augments his treasure by throwing it into circulation:
The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.9
This madness of the miser is nonetheless not something which simply disappears with the rise of “normal” capitalism, nor is it a pathological deviation. It is rather inherent to it: the miser has his moment of triumph in the economic crisis. In a crisis, it is not―as one would expect―money which loses its value, so that we have to resort to the “real” value of commodities; commodities themselves (the embodiment of “real [use] value”) become useless, because there is no one to buy them. In a crisis,
money suddenly and immediately changes from its merely nominal shape, money of account, into hard cash. Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes value-less, and their value vanishes in the face of their own form of value. The bourgeois, drunk with prosperity and arrogantly certain of himself, has just declared that money is a purely imaginary creation. “Commodities alone are money,” he said. But now the opposite cry resounds over the markets of the world: only money is a commodity … In a crisis, the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money, is raised to the level of an absolute contradiction.10
It is crucial how, in describing this elevation of money to the status of the only true commodity (“The capitalist knows that all commodities, however scurvy they may look, or however badly they may smell, are in faith and in truth money, inwardly circumcised Jews”11), Marx resorts to the precise Pauline definition of Christians as “inwardly circumcised Jews”: Christians do not need actual circumcision (the abandonment of ordinary commodities with use values, dealing only with money), since they know that each of these ordinary commodities is already “inwardly circumcised,” that its true substance is money. In a certain sense, this self-engendering speculative movement of Capital can also be said to indicate a limit of the Hegelian dialectical process, and one that eludes Hegel’s grasp. It is in this sense that Lebrun mentions the “fascinating image” of Capital presented by Marx (especially in his Grundrisse): “a monstrous mixture of the good infinity and the bad infinity, the good infinity which creates its presuppositions and the conditions of its growth, the bad infinity which never ceases to surmount its crises, and which finds its limit in its own nature.”12 Actually, it is in Capital itself that we find this Hegelian description of the circulation of capital:
in the circulation M-C-M, both the money and the commodity represent only different modes of existence of value itself, the money its general mode, and the commodity its particular, or, so to say, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form to the other without thereby becoming lost, and thus assumes an automatically active character. If now we take in turn each of the two different forms which self-expanding value successively assumes in the course of its life, we then arrive at these two propositions: Capital is money: Capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the active factor in a process, in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it at the same time changes in magnitude, differentiates itself by throwing off surplus-value from itself; the original value, in other words, expands spontaneously. For the movement, in the course of which it adds surplus-value, is its own movement, its expansion, therefore, is automatic expansion. Because it is value, it has acquired the occult quality of being able to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or, at the least, lays golden eggs.Value, therefore, being the active factor in such a process, and assuming at one time the form of money, at another that of commodities, but through all these changes preserving itself and expanding, it requires some independent form, by means of which its identity may at any time be established. And this form it possesses only in the shape of money. It is under the form of money that value begins and ends, and begins again, every act of its own spontaneous generation.13
Note how Hegelian references abound here: with capitalism, value is not a mere abstract “mute” universality, a substantial link between the multiplicity of commodities; from the passive medium of exchange, it turns into the “active factor” of the entire process. Instead of just passively assuming the two different forms of its actual existence (money―commodity), it appears as the subject “endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own”: it differentiates itself from itself, positing its otherness, and then again overcomes this difference―the entire movement is its own movement. In this precise sense, “instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters … into private relations with itself”: the “truth” of its relating to its otherness is its self-relating, in its self-movement, capital retroactively “sublates” its own material conditions, changing them into subordinate moments of its own “spontaneous expansion”―in pure Hegelese, it posits its own presuppositions.

Crucial in the quoted passage is the expression “an automatically active character,” an inadequate translation of the German words used by Marx to characterize capital as “automatischem Subjekt,” an “automatic subject,” an oxymoron uniting living subjectivity and dead automatism. This is what capital is: a subject, but an automatic one, not a living one―and, again, can Hegel think this “monstrous mixture,” a process of subjective self-mediation and retroactive positing of presuppositions which, as it were, gets caught up in a substantial “spurious infinity,” a subject which itself becomes an alienated substance?

This is perhaps also the reason why Marx’s reference to Hegel’s dialectics in his “critique of political economy” is ambiguous, oscillating between taking it as a mystified expression of the logic of capital and taking it as a model for the revolutionary process of emancipation. First, there is the dialectic as the “logic of capital”: the development of the commodity-form and the passage from money to capital are clearly formulated in Hegelian terms (capital is money-substance turning into the self-mediating process of its own reproduction, etc.). Then, there is the Hegelian notion of the proletariat as “substance-less subjectivity,” the grandiose Hegelian scheme of the historical process moving from pre-class society to capitalism in a gradual separation of the subject from its objective conditions, so that the overcoming of capitalism means that the (collective) subject re-appropriates its alienated substance. Perhaps this oscillation between the two is conditioned by a third term: the precise status of the social antagonism (“class struggle”). The problem here is whether Hegel can think the class struggle, or whether Kant gets closer to it with his antinomies, which just have to be ontologized, conceived as a paradoxical feature of reality itself. But does not such an ontologization contradict Marx’s notion of class struggle as historically limited, as an antagonism to be overcome with the disappearance of capitalism? In response, one can argue that neither Marx nor Freud are really able to think antagonism: ultimately, they both reduce it to a feature of (social or psychic) reality, unable to articulate it as constitutive of reality itself, as the impossibility around which reality is constructed―the only thought able to do this comes later, originating in the differential logic of “structuralism.”

Marx’s reading of Hegel’s dialectic as an idealist formulation of the logic of capitalist domination fails to go all the way: what the Hegelian dialectical process deploys is the (mystified) expression of the mystification immanent to the circulation of capital, or, in Lacanian terms, of its “objectively-social” fantasy―to put it in somewhat naïve terms, for Marx, capital is not “really” a subject-substance which reproduces itself by way of positing its own presuppositions and so on; what this Hegelian fantasy of capital’s self-generating reproduction obliterates is workers’ exploitation, that is, how the circle of capital’s self-reproduction draws its energy from the external (or, rather, “ex-timate”) source of value, how it has to parasitize workers. So why not pass directly to a description of workers’ exploitation, why bother with fantasies which sustain the functioning of capital? It is crucial for Marx to include in his description of capital this intermediary level of “objective fantasy,” which is neither the way capitalism is actually experienced by its subjects (they are good empirical nominalists unaware of the “theological niceties”) nor the “real state of things” (workers exploited by capital). But the problem is how to think together the Hegelian circulation of capital and its de-centered cause, the labor force, that is, how to think the causality of a productive subject external to the circulation of capital without resorting to the Aristotelian positivity of workers’ productive potential? For Marx, the starting point is precisely such a positivity: the productive force of human labor; and he accepts this starting point as unsurpassable, rejecting the logic of the dialectical process which, as Hegel put it, progresses “from nothing through nothing to nothing.”

In short, capital is money which is no longer a mere substance of wealth, its universal embodiment, but value which, through its circulation, generates more value, value which mediates or posits itself, retroactively positing its own presuppositions. First, money appears as a mere means for the exchange of commodities: instead of endless bartering, we first exchange our product for the universal equivalent of all commodities, which can then be exchanged for any commodity we may need. Then, once the circulation of capital is set in motion, the relationship is inverted, the means turns into an end-in-itself, the very passage through the “material” domain of use-values (the production of commodities which satisfy individuals’ particular needs) is posited as a moment of what is substantially the self-movement of capital itself. From this moment on, the true aim is no longer the satisfaction of individuals’ needs, but simply more money, the endless repeating of the circulation as such. This arcane circular movement of self-positing is then equated with the central Christian tenet of the identity of God-the-Father and his Son, of the immaculate conception in which the single Father directly (without a female spouse) begets his only Son and thus forms what is arguably the ultimate single-parent family.

Is capital then the true Subject or Substance? Yes and no: for Marx, this self-engendering circular movement is―to put it in Freudian terms―precisely the “unconscious fantasy” of capitalism which parasitizes the proletariat as “pure substanceless subjectivity”; for this reason, capital’s speculative self-generating dance has a limit, and brings about the conditions for its own collapse. This insight allows us to solve the key interpretive problem of the passage quoted above: how are we to read its first three words, “in truth, however”? First, of course, they imply that this truth has to be asserted against some false appearance or experience: the everyday assumption that the ultimate goal of capital’s circulation is still the satisfaction of human needs, that capital is just a means to bring about this satisfaction in a more efficient way. However, this “truth” is not the reality of capitalism: in reality, capital does not engender itself, but extracts the worker’s surplus-value. There is thus a necessary third level to be added to the simple opposition of subjective experience (of capital as a means of satisfying people’s needs) and objective social reality (of exploitation): namely, the “objective deception,” the disavowed “unconscious” fantasy (of the mysterious self-generating circular movement of capital), which is the truth (although not the reality) of the capitalist process. Again, to quote Lacan, truth has the structure of fiction: the only way to formulate the truth of capital is through a reference to this fiction of its “immaculate” self-generating movement. And this insight also allows us to locate the weakness of the above-mentioned “deconstructionist” appropriation of Marx’s analysis of capitalism: although it emphasizes the endless process of deferral which characterizes this movement, as well as its fundamental inconclusiveness, its self-blockage, the “deconstructionist” retelling still describes the fantasy of capital―it describes what individuals believe, although they do not know it.

What all this means is that the urgent task is to repeat Marx’s “critique of political economy,” but without succumbing to the temptation of the multiple ideologies of “post-industrial” society. The key change concerns the status of private property: the ultimate element of power and control is no longer the last link in the chain of investment―the firm or individual who “really owns” the means of production. The ideal capitalist today functions in a wholly different way: investing borrowed money, “really owning” nothing, maybe even indebted, but nonetheless still controlling things. A corporation is owned by another corporation, which again borrows money from banks, which may ultimately manipulate money owned by ordinary people like ourselves. With Bill Gates, the notion of “private property of the means of production” becomes meaningless, at least in its standard sense.

It is easy to miss the irony here: the fact that Marx needed Hegel to formulate the logic of capital (the crucial breakthrough in Marx’s work occurred in the mid-1850s, when, after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, he started to read Hegel’s Logic again) means that what Hegel was not able to see was not some post-Hegelian reality but rather the properly Hegelian aspect of the capitalist economy. Here, paradoxically, Hegel was not idealist enough, for what he did not see was the properly speculative content of the capitalist economy, the way financial capital functions as a purely virtual notion processing “real people.” And does not exactly the same hold for modern art? Robert Pippin endorses Hegel’s thesis on the “end of art”―with a qualification: it does not refer to art as such, but only to representational art, to the art which relies on some pre-subjective substantial notion of “reality” that art should reflect, re-present in the medium of sensuous materials:
Representational art cannot adequately express the full subjectivity of experience, the wholly self-legislating, self-authorizing status of the norms that constitute such subjectivity, or, thus, cannot adequately express who we (now) are. Only philosophy can “heal” such a self-inflicted wound and allow the self-determining character of experience its adequate expression. (“Only philosophy,” that is, on Hegel’s official account. I am trying to suggest here that there is no reason a form of art, like abstraction, could not make such a point in a nondiscursive way.)14
This is how Pippin reads―in a consciously anachronistic way, with the benefit of the hindsight of those who live two centuries after Hegel―Hegel’s prophecy, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, that post-Romantic art will enact the “self-transcendence of art but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself”:15 art transcends itself as representational art, it overcomes its limitation to the representational sphere. What Hegel could not grasp (insofar as his thought was, as every thought is, “his time conceived in thought”) was the notional possibility of an art that would overcome in itself, as art, the medium of representation, and thus function as an art adequate to the total reflexivization (subjective mediation) of life conceptualized in his absolute Idealism.16

The interest of Pippin’s gesture resides in the fact that he rejects the standard story which goes something like this: with Hegel, Western metaphysics reached its apogee in the figure of Absolute Knowing, the actual infinity of the total conceptual mediation of all reality―nothing can any longer resist the power of notional conceiving; God himself is, as Hegel put it with an implicit but all the more unsurpassable acerbic irony, “an interesting representation” (meaning: a mere representation, Vorstellung, whose truth is its notional content). However, post-Hegelian philosophy, in all its versions, is a reaction against this totality of absolute notional self-mediation, against this all-powerful Spirit which swallows everything up. Finitude (either human finitude as such, man’s separatedness from God; or the finitude of man’s sensual life and material production) is fully reasserted, meaning, among other things, that art regains its rights against philosophy. The first step in this direction was already taken by Schelling in his System of Transcendental Idealism, where he places art above philosophy as the highest synthesis of Spirit and Nature, of Subject and Object, of thought and senses: philosophy is limited to the thinking subject opposed to nature, to sensuous reality; the harmonious balance of the two sides is achieved only in a work of art.

When, however, Pippin envisages a new possibility for art after Hegel, he does not ground it in any limitation of Reason, of reflexive mediation: for him, the modernist break (abstract art) has nothing to do with the reassertion of the unsurpassable horizon of finitude. Pippin remains faithful to Hegel: there is no transcendent Truth from which we, as finite humans, remain forever cut off, either in the form of an Infinite Reality which art cannot properly represent, or in the form of a Divinity too sublime to be grasped by our finite mind. In other words, the point of Pippin’s rehabilitation of art is not that the Absolute cannot be directly conceptually grasped, that it can only be hinted at, evoked as an unfathomable X, in artistic metaphors; his rehabilitation of art has nothing to do with the assertion of an irrational spirituality, too subtle to let itself be caught in the crude analytical categories of human Reason, of a spirituality which can only be experienced in the form of artistic intuition. Modernist art is thoroughly reflexive, in contrast to traditional art which still relies on a non-reflected acceptance of some substantial medium or reality; it is reflexive in the radical sense of questioning its own medium. This is what “abstraction” means: a reflexive questioning of the very medium of artistic representation, so that this medium loses its natural transparency. Reality is not just “out there,” reflected or imitated by art, it is something constructed, something contingent, historically conditioned―and therein resides the legacy of German Idealism, which
destroyed the classical picture of the sensible-intelligible relation. Sensibility could not now be understood as an unclear representation of the world that reason could work to clarify or could represent better, nor could it be understood as a vivid, “lively” impression, guiding the abstracting and generalizing intellect … The content of sensibility was, after Kant, to be understood as the material object of the understanding’s synthesizing, active work … Sensory data became representative as a result of this work by the understanding, and considered apart from such enforming, conceptualizing activity, it counted as mere stuff, preintelligible materiality.17
The consequence of all this for the visual arts is that “painterly and indeed sensible representations cannot be understood on some mimetic model of seeing through the image (or sensation) to the object itself”:18
“Abstraction” in this Hegelian sense does not mean abstraction of “everything that was not intrinsic to art as such,” but abstraction from dependence on sensual immediacy, and so a kind of enactment of the modernist take on normativity since Kant: self-legislation … Paintings by Pollock and Rothko are not presentations of paint drips and color fields and flat canvas. They thematize and so render self-conscious components of sensible meaning that we traditionally would not see and understand as such, would treat as given. Said another way, they present the materiality of such components in their conceptual significance; such materiality is mentioned, cited, or quoted, as well as used, as well as occupying space on a stretched canvas. And this can make sense because the “result” character of even sensible apprehension … has come to be part of the intellectual habits of mind of modern self-understanding, even if unattended to as such.19
This is why one can only agree with Pippin’s endorsement of Michael Fried’s rejection of modernism and postmodernism as consecutive “stages” of historical development; “postmodernism” is rather the name for a regression, for a refusal to follow the consequences of the modernist break:
There was no failure of modernism, no exhaustion by the end of abstract expressionism. Rather, there was (and still is) a failure to appreciate and integrate the self-understanding reflected in such art (the same kind of failure to appreciate modernism, or the same kind of straw-men attacks, in what we call postmodernism). The aftermath―minimalism, “literalism,” op and pop art, postmodernism―can be understood better as evasions and repressions than as alternatives.20
Or, to put it in Badiou’s terms, there is no postmodernist Event: postmodernism is not an Event proper, but, at its most basic, a reactive formation, a way of betraying the modernist break, of re-integrating its achievement into the dominant field. The apparent “radicality” of some postmodern trends should not deceive us here: this―often spectacular―“radicality” is there to fascinate us with its deceptive lure, and thus to blind us to the fundamental absence of thought proper. Suffice it to recall recent trends in the visual arts: gone are the days of simple statues or framed paintings―what we see now are the frames themselves without paintings, dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body (gastroscopy and colonoscopy), the inclusion of odors in the exhibition, and so on and so forth. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses are part of the system itself, what the system feeds on in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps this gives us one possible definition of postmodern art as opposed to modernist art: in postmodernism, the transgressive excess loses its shock value and is fully integrated into the established art market.

This weird postmodern space where excesses lose their subversive edge brings us to a further critical point which concerns the properly modern capitalist class struggle in its difference from traditional caste and feudal hierarchies: since Hegel’s notion of domination was limited to the traditional struggle between master and servant, what he could not envisage was the kind of relationship of domination which persists in a post-revolutionary situation (referring here to the “bourgeois” revolution doing away with traditional privileges), where all individuals recognize each other as autonomous free subjects. This “prodigious social leveling” of a modern democracy
certainly does not exclude the emergence of wealth and of profound distinctions between rich and poor, even in the socialist countries. Nor is it in any way to be understood as the end of classes in their economic sense: there are still workers and managers in these societies, there is still profit and exploitation, reserve armies of the unemployed, and so on and so forth. But the new cultural equality … is infused with a powerful hatred of hierarchy and special privileges and with a passionate resentment of caste distinctions and inherited cultural superiority. It is permitted to be wealthy, so long as the rich man is as vulgar as everyone else.21
A situation which, one might add, opens up the unexpected possibility of a genuinely proletarian re-appropriation of “high culture.”

All these cases of Hegel’s historical limitation seem to themselves call for an Hegelian analysis: laborers reduced to an appendix of machinery; reality dominated by the virtual/ideal self-movement of capital’s circulation; a hierarchy persisting in the very form of “plebeianization”―paradoxical reversals which seem to give body to all the twists and turns of the most sophisticated dialectic. What kind of “reconciliation” can we then imagine in these new conditions? Apropos Hegel’s “reconciliation” in a modern post-revolutionary state, Jameson outlines a higher, “enlarged” version of Hegelian reconciliation, a version appropriate for our global capitalist epoch: the project of a “human age” characterized by “production-for-us” (the end of classes) and ecology.22 Jameson’s view is that, far from standing for the ultimate “end of history,” the reconciliation proposed at the end of the chapter on Spirit in the Phenomenology is a temporary, fragile synthesis―Hegel himself was aware that this reconciliation was under threat, as is clear from his panicky reaction to the revolution of 1830 and the first signs of universal democracy (recall his furious rejection of the British electoral Reform Bill, the first step towards universal elections). Is it then not consistent that, in view of the new contradictions of the nineteenth-century capitalist system which exploded the fragile Hegelian synthesis, a renewed Hegelian approach which remains faithful to the idea of concrete universality, of universal rights for all, “calls in its very structure for the subsequent enlargements of later history”23 and for a new project of reconciliation? Such a move is nonetheless illegitimate: it does not take into account in a sufficiently radical way that the same paradox as that of the retroactive positing of presuppositions holds also for the future.

This is why Hegel was right to insist that the owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk; and also why the twentieth-century communist project was utopian precisely insofar as it was not radical enough―that is, insofar as the fundamental capitalist thrust of unleashed productivity survived in it, deprived of its concrete contradictory conditions of existence. The inadequacy of Heidegger, Adorno and Horkheimer, and so on, lies in their abandonment of the concrete social analysis of capitalism: in their very critique or overcoming of Marx, they in a certain way repeat Marx’s mistake―like him, they take unleashed productivity as something ultimately independent of the concrete capitalist social formation. Capitalism and communism are not two different historical realizations, two species, of “instrumental reason”―instrumental reason as such is capitalist, grounded in capitalist relations, and “really existing socialism” failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to “have one’s cake and eat it,” to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient. Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described. In other words, our wager is that, even if we take away the teleological notion of communism (the society of fully unleashed productivity) as the implicit standard by which Marx measures the alienation of existing society, the bulk of his “critique of political economy,” his insights into the self-propelling vicious cycle of capitalist (re)production, survives.

The task of contemporary theory is thus double: on the one hand, to repeat the Marxist “critique of political economy” without the utopian-ideological notion of communism as its inherent standard; on the other hand, to imagine really breaking out of the capitalist horizon without falling into the trap of returning to the eminently premodern notion of a balanced, (self-)restrained society (the “pre-Cartesian” temptation to which most contemporary ecology succumbs). A return to Hegel is crucial in order to perform this task, a return which dispenses with all the classic anti-Hegelian topics, especially that of Hegel’s voracious narcissism, of the Hegelian Idea swallowing up or internalizing the whole of reality. Instead of trying to undermine or overcome this “narcissism” from the outside, emphasizing the “preponderance of the objective” (or the fact that “the Whole is the non-true,” and every other similar motif in Adorno’s rejection of “identitarian” idealism), one should rather problematize this figure of Hegel by asking a simple question: which Hegel is our point of reference here? Do not both Lukács and Adorno refer to the “idealist-subjectivist” (mis)reading of Hegel, to the standard image of Hegel as the “absolute idealist” who posited Spirit as the true agent of history, its Subject-Substance? Within this framework, Capital can effectively appear as a new embodiment of the Hegelian Spirit, an abstract monster which moves and mediates itself, parasitizing the activity of actual, really existing individuals. This is why Lukács also remains all too idealist when he proposes simply replacing the Hegelian Spirit with the proletariat as the Subject-Object of History: Lukács is here not really Hegelian, but a pre-Hegelian idealist.

If, however, one problematizes this figure, another Hegel appears, a more “materialist” Hegel for whom the reconciliation between subject and substance does not mean that the subject “swallows” its substance, internalizing it into its own subordinate moment. Reconciliation rather amounts to a much more modest overlapping or redoubling of the two separations: the subject has to recognize in its alienation from substance the separation of substance from itself. This overlapping is what is missed in the Feuerbachian-Marxian logic of dis-alienation in which the subject overcomes its alienation by recognizing itself as the active agent which has itself posited what appears to it as its substantial presupposition. In the Hegelian “reconciliation” between subject and substance, there is no absolute Subject which, in total self-transparency, appropriates or internalizes all objective substantial content. But “reconciliation” also does not mean (as it does in the line of German Idealism from Hölderlin to Schelling) that the subject should renounce the hubris of perceiving itself as the axis of the world and accept its constitutive “de-centering,” its dependency on some primordial, abyssal Absolute beyond or beneath the subject/object divide, and, as such, also beyond the subject’s conceptual grasp. The subject is not its own origin: Hegel firmly rejects Fichte’s notion of the absolute I which posits itself and is nothing but the pure activity of this self-positing. But the subject is also not just a secondary accidental appendix or outgrowth of some pre-subjective substantial reality: there is no substantial Being to which the subject can return, no encompassing organic Order of Being in which the subject has to find its proper place. “Reconciliation” between subject and substance means the acceptance of this radical lack of any firm foundational point: the subject is not its own origin, it comes second, it is dependent upon its substantial presuppositions; but these presuppositions also do not have a substantial consistency of their own but are always retroactively posited.

What this also means is that communism should no longer be conceived as the subjective (re)appropriation of the alienated substantial content―all versions of reconciliation as “subject swallows the substance” should be rejected. So, again, “reconciliation” is the full acceptance of the abyss of the de-substantialized process as the only actuality there is: the subject has no substantial actuality, it comes second, it emerges only through the process of separation, the overcoming of its presuppositions, and these presuppositions are also just a retroactive effect of the same process of their overcoming. The result is thus that there is, at both extremes of the process, a failure or negativity inscribed in the very heart of the entity we are dealing with. If the status of the subject is thoroughly “processual,” this means that it emerges only through the failure to fully actualize itself. This brings us again to one possible formal definition of the subject: a subject tries to articulate (“express”) itself in a signifying chain, this articulation fails, and in and through this failure, the subject emerges: the subject is the failure of its signifying representation―which is why Lacan writes the subject of the signifier as $, as “barred.” In a love letter, the very failure of the writer to formulate his declaration in a clear and effective way, his vacillations, the letter’s fragmentary style, and so on, can in themselves be proof (perhaps the necessary and only reliable proof) that the love he professes is authentic―here, the very failure to deliver the message properly is the sign of its authenticity. If the message is delivered too smoothly, it will arouse the suspicion that it is part of a well-planned approach, or that the writer loves himself, the beauty of his writing, more than his love-object, that the latter is effectively reduced to a pretext for engaging in the narcissistically satisfying activity of writing.

And the same goes for substance: substance is not only always already lost, it only comes to be through its loss, as a secondary return-to-itself―which means that substance is always already subjectivized. In the “reconciliation” between subject and substance, both poles thus lose their firm identity. Take the case of ecology: radical emancipatory politics should aim neither at complete mastery over nature nor at humanity’s humble acceptance of the predominance of Mother Earth. Rather, nature should be exposed in all its catastrophic contingency and indeterminacy, and the unpredictable consequences of human agency fully assumed―viewed from this perspective of the “other Hegel,” the revolutionary act no longer involves the Lukácsian substance-subject as its agent, as the agent who knows what it is doing while acting.

Hegel is, of course, fully aware of the fact that our thinking wants to “jump ahead of its time” and project a future; his point is that such thinking is always and by definition “ideological,” mistaken: its intervention into Being generates something unexpected, totally different from what was projected. Therein resides the lesson of the French Revolution: the pure thought of universal equality and freedom, imposing itself onto social Being, generated the Terror. Marx’s counter-argument here is that his revolutionary theory is not a utopian projection into the future: it merely extrapolates tendencies and possibilities from the antagonisms of the present. Hegel is wrong in his basic presupposition that one can rationally grasp the Present as a Totality: it cannot be done because our historical Present is in itself split, traversed by antagonisms, incomplete―the only way to concretely grasp it as a rational totality is from the standpoint of the revolutionary agent which will resolve those antagonisms. Present antagonisms are not “readable” on their own terms; they are like the Benjaminian traces which are readable only from the future. What Hegel rejects is precisely such a totalization-from-the-future: the only totality accessible to us is the flawed totality of the present, and the task of Thought is to “recognize the Heart in the Cross of the present,” to grasp how the Totality of the Present is complete in its very incompleteness, how this Totality is sustained by those very features which appear as its obstacles or fatal flaws.

The task here is to leave behind the standard “subjectivist” reading of Hegelian “reconciliation” whose clearest instance is Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness but which also underlies Marx’s reference to Hegel.24 According to this reading, in reconciliation, the subject recognizes itself in the alienated substance (substantial content); that is, it recognizes in it the reified product of its own work, and thereby re-appropriates it, transforms it into a transparent medium of its self-expression. The key feature here is that the subject, the agent of re-appropriation, is in the singular (even if it is conceived as a collective subject); what thereby disappears is the dimension of what Lacan calls the “big Other,” the minimally “objectivized” symbolic order, the minimal self-transcendence which alone sustains the dimension of intersubjectivity―intersubjectivity can never be dissolved into the direct interaction of individuals.

This is why one should reject not only the (in)famously stupid “dialectical-materialist” substitution of “idea” with “matter” as the absolute (so that dialectics becomes a set of dialectical “laws” of matter’s movement), but also Lukács’s more refined “materialist reversal of Hegel,” his substitution of Hegel’s “idealist” subject-object (the absolute Idea) with the proletariat as the “actual” historical subject-object. Lukács’s “reversal” also implies a formalist and non-Hegelian separation of the dialectical method from the material to which it is applied: Hegel was right to describe the process of the subject’s alienation and re-appropriation of the “fetishized” or reified substantial content, he just did not see that what he described as the Idea’s self-movement is actually an historical development which culminates in the emergence of the substanceless subjectivity of the proletariat and its re-appropriation of the alienated substance through a revolutionary act. The reason we should reject this “materialist reversal” is that it remains all too idealist: locating Hegel’s idealism in the “subject” of the process (the “absolute Idea”), it fails to see the subjectivist “idealism” inherent in the very matrix of the dialectical process (the self-alienated subject which re-appropriates its “reified” substantial content, positing itself as the absolute subject-object).

There are two ways to break out of this “idealism”: either one rejects Hegel’s dialectics as such, dismissing the notion of the subjective “mediation” of all substantial content as irreducibly “idealist,” proposing to replace it with a radically different matrix (Althusser: structural (over)determination; Deleuze: difference and repetition; Derrida: différance; Adorno: negative dialectics with its “preponderance of the objective”); or one rejects such a reading of Hegel (focused on the idea of “reconciliation” as the subjective appropriation of the alienated substantial content) as “idealist,” as a misreading which remains blind to the true subversive core of Hegel’s dialectic. This is our position: the Hegel of the absolute Subject swallowing up all objective content is a retroactive fantasy of his critics, starting with late Schelling’s turn to “positive philosophy.” This “positivity” is found also in the young Marx, in the guise of the Aristotelian reassertion of positive forces or potentials of Being pre-existing logical or notional mediation. One should thus question the very image of Hegel-the-absolute-idealist presupposed by his critics―they attack the wrong Hegel, a straw man. What are they unable to think? The pure processuality of the subject which emerges as “its own result.” This is why talk about the subject’s “self-alienation” is deceptive, as if the subject somehow precedes its alienation―what this misses is the way the subject emerges through the “self-alienation” of the substance, not of itself. We should therefore reject the young Marx’s celebration of the subject’s productive powers or potentials, of its essential nature―Marx is here secretly Aristotelian, presupposing a “substantial” subject which pre-exists the deployment of these potentials in history; that is, his critical move
represents a kind of regression to an Aristotelian or naturalist essentialism, one which borrows a teleological logic of such “natures” that abandons rather than completes the Hegelian project. The key and very controversial point to be defended is: Hegel’s self-making model is not derived from the Aristotelian notions of natural growth and maturation into some flourishing state.25
One standard criticism addressed by some late partisans of “dialectical materialism” against the “subjectivist” Marxism of the young Lukács is that there is at least one key advantage of “dialectical materialism”: since it locates human history in the general frame of an all-encompassing “dialectics of nature,” it is much more appropriate for grasping the ecological problematic. But is this really so? Is it not, on the contrary, that the dialectical-materialist vision with its “objective laws of nature” justifies a ruthless technological domination over and exploitation of nature? While the philosophically much more refined Adornian view of nature as the encompassing Other of humanity, out of which humanity emerged and to which it forever remains indebted (from Dialectic of Enlightenment), clearly sees this, it does not offer much more than the well-known clichés of the “critique of instrumental reason”: it fails to provide a clear way to think “nature” philosophically, in its priority to humanity.

We can see now why Adorno’s project of “negative dialectics,” which sees itself as the overcoming of Hegel’s “positive” dialectics, misses the point. “Negative dialectics” wants to break out of the confines of the “principle of identity” which enslaves or subordinates every otherness through conceptual mediation. In Hegel’s idealism, negativity, alterity, and difference are asserted, but only as subordinate secondary moments serving their opposite―the absolute Subject re-appropriates all otherness, “sublating” it into a moment of its own self-mediation. Adorno counters this with his “primacy of the objective”: instead of appropriating or internalizing all otherness, dialectics should remain open towards it, granting ultimate primacy to the objective over the subjective, to difference over identity. What if, however, the image of Hegel’s dialectic this critique presupposes is wrong? What if, in its innermost core, Hegel’s dialectic is not a machine for appropriating or mediating all otherness, for sublating all contingency into a subordinated ideal moment of the notional necessity? What if Hegelian “reconciliation” already is the acceptance of an irreducible contingency at the very heart of notional necessity? What if it involves, as its culminating moment, the setting-free of objectivity in its otherness? In this case, it is Adorno’s “negative dialectics” which, paradoxically, remains within the confines of “identitarian” thought: the endless critical “work of the negative” which is never done, since it presupposes Identity as its starting point and foundation. In other words, Adorno does not see how what he is looking for (a break-out from the confines of Identity) is already at work at the very heart of the Hegelian dialectic, so that it is Adorno’s very critique which obliterates the subversive core of Hegel’s thought, retroactively cementing the figure of his dialectic as the pan-logicist monster of the all-consuming Absolute Notion.

Does this mean that the ultimate subjective position we can adopt is that of a split which characterizes the fetishistic disavowal? Is it the case that all we can do is take the stance of: “although I know very well that there is no big Other, that the big Other is only the sedimentation, the reified form, of intersubjective interactions, I am compelled to act as if the big Other is an external force which controls us all”? It is here that Lacan’s fundamental insight into how the big Other is “barred,” lacking, in-existent even, acquires its weight: the big Other is not the substantial Ground, it is inconsistent or lacking, its very functioning depends on subjects whose participation in the symbolic process sustains it. In place of both the submersion of the subject in its substantial Other and the subject’s appropriation of this Other we thus have a mutual implication through lack, through the overlapping of the two lacks, the lack constitutive of the subject and the lack of/in the Other itself. It is perhaps time to read Hegel’s famous formula “One should grasp the Absolute not only as substance, but also as subject” more cautiously and literally: the point is not that the Absolute is not substance, but subject. The point is hidden in the “not only … but also,” that is, in the interplay between the two, which also opens up the space of freedom―we are free because there is a lack in the Other, because the substance out of which we grew and on which we rely is inconsistent, barred, failed, marked by an impossibility.

But what kind of freedom is thereby opened up? Here we should raise a clear and brutal question in all its naïveté: if we reject Marx’s critique and embrace Hegel’s notion of the owl of Minerva which takes flight only at dusk―that is, if we accept Hegel’s claim that the position of an historical agent able to identify its own role in the historical process and to act accordingly is inherently impossible, since such self-referentiality makes it impossible for the agent to factor in the impact of its own intervention, of how this act itself will affect the constellation―what are the consequences of this position for the act, for emancipatory political interventions? Does it mean that we are condemned to acting blindly, to taking risky steps into the unknown whose final outcome totally eludes us, to interventions whose meaning we can establish only retroactively, so that, at the moment of the act, all we can do is hope that history will show mercy (grace) and reward our intervention with at least a modicum of success? But what if, instead of conceiving this impossibility of factoring in the consequences of our acts as a limitation of our freedom, we conceive it as the zero-level (negative) condition of our freedom?

The notion of freedom as known necessity found its highest expression in Spinoza’s thought, and no wonder that Spinoza also provided the most succinct definition of the personalized notion of God: the only true God is nature itself―that is, substance as causa sui, as the eternal texture of causes-effects. The personalized notion of God as a wise old man who, sitting somewhere up there in the heavens, rules the world according to his caprice, is nothing but the mystified positive expression of our ignorance―when our knowledge of actual natural causal networks is limited, we as it were fill in the blanks by projecting a supreme Cause onto an unknown highest entity. From the Hegelian view, Spinoza just needs to be taken more literally than he was ready to take himself: what if this lack or incompleteness of the causal network is not only epistemological but also ontological? What if it is not only our knowledge of reality but reality itself which is incomplete? In this case, is not the personalized notion of God also an indication (a mystified indication, but nonetheless an indication) of the ontological incompleteness of reality itself? Or, to put it in terms of the classical Hegelian distinction between what I want or mean to say and what I actually say, when I say “God,” I want to name the transcendent absolute Person who governs reality, but what I really say is that reality is ontologically incomplete, that it is marked by a fundamental impossibility or inconsistency.

In this sense Dostoyevsky was right: it is only the personalized God―insofar as he is the name for a desiring/lacking Other, for a gap in the Other―who gives freedom: I am not free by being the creator and master of all reality, when nothing resists my power to appropriate all heterogeneous content; I am free if the substance of my being is not a full causal network, but an ontologically incomplete field. This incompleteness is (or, rather, can also be) signaled by an opaque desiring God, a God who is himself marked by imperfections and finitude, so that when we encounter him, we confront the enigma of “What does he want?” an enigma which holds also for God himself (who does not know what he wants).

But, again, what does this mean for our ability to act, to intervene in history? There are in French two words for the “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for the future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of tendencies which are already present, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present―avenir is what is to come (à venir), not just what will be. For example, in the contemporary apocalyptic situation, the ultimate horizon of the “future” is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of ecological breakdown, global economic and social chaos, etc.―even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the future catastrophe is through acts which interrupt this drifting towards the dystopian “fixed point,” acts which take upon themselves the risk of giving birth to some radical Otherness “to come.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it designates not the impossibility of change, but precisely what we should be striving for―to break the hold the catastrophic “future” has over us, and thereby to open up the space for something New “to come.”

1 Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 296.

2 Hannah Arendt’s refusal to carry out this shift is what links her to Heidegger: she rejected the “prosaic” character of modern “bourgeois” life.

3 Jean-François Kervégan, “ ‘La vie éthique perdue dans ses extrêmes…’ Scission et réconciliation dans la théorie hégélienne de la ‘Sittlichkeit,’” in Olivier Tinland, ed., Lectures de Hegel, Paris: Le Livre de Poche 2005, p. 283.

4 Ibid., p. 291.

5 Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations, London: Verso Books 2010, p. 68.

6 Ibid.

7 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New York: Random House 1906, p. 169.

8 Ibid., pp. 169–70.

9 Ibid., pp. 170–1.

10 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1976, pp. 236.

11 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Moore and Aveling, p. 172.

12 Gérard Lebrun, L’envers de la dialectique: Hegel à la lumière de Nietzsche, Paris: Seuil 2004, p. 311.

13 Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Moore and Aveling, pp. 171–2.

14 Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, p. 300.

15 G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1975, p. 80.

16 It would be interesting for Hegelian Higher Criticism to engage in a debate about the possible candidates for this post-Hegelian artistic version of the total subjectivization of substance: is it only the modernist break proper―Schoenberg’s atonality in music, Kandinsky’s abstraction in painting, etc.―or can figures like Richard Wagner also be read in this way?

17 Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity, p. 297.

18 Ibid., p. 304.

19 Ibid., pp. 304–5.

20 Ibid., p. 301.

21 Jameson, The Hegel Variations, p. 101.

22 Ibid., pp. 113–15.

23 Ibid., p. 115.

24 See Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press 1975.

25 Robert Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008, p. 17.

Pride's Many Unusual Forms...

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Kant and Sade

- Slavoj Žižek, "Kant and Sade: The Ideal Couple"
Of all the couples in the history of modern thought (Freud and Lacan, Marx and Lenin…), Kant and Sade is perhaps the most problematic: the statement “Kant is Sade” is the “infinite judgement” of modern ethics, positing the sign of equation between the two radical opposites, i.e. asserting that the sublime disinterested ethical attitude is somehow identical to, or overlaps with, the unrestrained indulgence in pleasurable violence. A lot-everything, perhaps-is at stake here: is there a line from Kantian formalist ethics to the cold-blooded Auschwitz killing machine? Are concentration camps and killing and genocides as a neutral business the inherent outcome of the enlightened insistence on the autonomy of Reason? Is there at least a legitimate lineage from Sade to Fascist torturing, as is implied by Pasolini’s film version of Saló, which transposes it into the dark days of Mussolini’s Saló republic? Lacan developed this link first in his Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1958-59), [1] and then in the Écrits “Kant with Sade” of 1963. [2]


For Lacan, Sade consequently deployed the inherent potential of the Kantian philosophical revolution, in the precise sense that he honestly externalized the Voice of Conscience. The first association here is, of course: what’s all the fuss about? Today, in our postidealist Freudian era, doesn’t everybody know what the point of the “with” is the truth of Kant’s ethical rigorism is the sadism of the Law, i.e. the Kantian Law is a superego agency that sadistically enjoys the subject’s deadlock, his inability to meet its inexorable demands, like the proverbial teacher who tortures pupils with impossible tasks and secretly savors their failings?

Lacan’s point, however, is the exact opposite of this first association: it is not Kant who was a closet sadist, it is Sade who is a closet Kantian. That is to say, what one should bear in mind is that the focus of Lacan is always Kant, not Sade: what he is interested in are the ultimate consequences and disavowed premises of the Kantian ethical revolution. In other words, Lacan does not try to make the usual “reductionist” point that every ethical act, as pure and disinterested as it may appear, is always grounded in some “pathological” motivation (the agent’s own long-term interest, the admiration of his peers, up to the “negative” satisfaction provided by the suffering and extortion often demanded by ethical acts); the focus of Lacan’s interest rather resides in the paradoxical reversal by means of which desire itself (i.e. acting upon one’s desire, not compromising it) can no longer be grounded in any “pathological” interests or motivations and thus meets the criteria of the Kantian ethical act, so that “following one’s desire” overlaps with “doing one’s duty.” Suffice it to recall Kant’s own famous example from his Critique of Practical Reason:

Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passions if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer may be.”3 Lacan’s counterargument here is: what if we encounter a subject (as we do regularly in psychoanalysis), who can only fully enjoy a night of passion if some form of “gallows” is threatening him, i.e. if, by doing it, he is violating some prohibition? [3]

There was an Italian film from the 60’s, Casanova 70, starring Virna Lisi and Marcello Mastroianni that hinged on this very point: the hero can only retain his sexual potency if doing “it” involves some kind of danger. At the film’s end, when he is on the verge of marrying his beloved, he wants at least to violate the prohibition of premarital sex by sleeping with her the night before the wedding-however, his bride unknowingly spoils even this minimal pleasure by arranging with the priest for special permission for the two of them to sleep together the night before, so that the act is deprived of its transgressive sting. What can he do now? In the last shot of the film, we see him crawling on the narrow porch on the outside of the high-rise building, giving himself the difficult task of entering the girl’s bedroom in the most dangerous way, in a desperate attempt to link sexual gratification to mortal danger… So, Lacan’s point is that if gratifying sexual passion involves the suspension of even the most elementary “egotistic” interests, if this gratification is clearly located “beyond the pleasure principle,” then, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, we are dealing with an ethical act, then his “passion” is stricto sensu ethical… [4]

Lacan’s further point is that this covert Sadean dimension of an “ethical (sexual) passion” is not read into Kant by our eccentric interpretation, but is inherent to the Kantian theoretical edifice. [5] If we put aside the body of “circumstantial evidence” for it (isn’t Kant’s infamous definition of marriage-“the contract between two adults of the opposite sex about the mutual use of each other’s sexual organs”-thoroughly Sadean, since it reduces the Other, the subject’s sexual partner, to a partial object, to his/her bodily organ which provides pleasure, ignoring him/her as the Whole of a human Person?), the crucial clue that allows us to discern the contours of “Sade in Kant” is the way Kant conceptualizes the relationship between sentiments (feelings) and the moral Law.

Although Kant insists on the absolute gap between pathological sentiments and the pure form of moral Law, there is one a priori sentiment that the subject necessarily experiences when confronted with the injunction of the moral Law, the pain of humiliation (because of man’s hurt pride, due to the “radical Evil” of human nature); for Lacan, this Kantian privileging of pain as the only a priori sentiment is strictly correlative to Sade’s notion of pain (torturing and humiliating the other, being tortured and humiliated by him) as the privileged way of access to sexual jouissance (Sade’s argument, of course, is that pain is to be given priority over pleasure on account of its greater longevity-pleasures are passing, while pain can last almost indefinitely). This link can be further substantiated by what Lacan calls the Sadean fundamental fantasy: the fantasy of another, ethereal body of the victim, which can be tortured indefinitely and nonetheless magically retains its beauty (see the standard Sadean figure of a young girl sustaining endless humiliations and mutilations from her deprived torturer and somehow mysteriously surviving it all intact, in the same way Tom and Jerry and other cartoon heroes survive all their ridiculous ordeals intact).

Doesn’t this fantasy provide the libidinal foundation of the Kantian postulate of the immortality of the soul endlessly striving to achieve ethical perfection, i.e., is not the phantasmic “truth” of the immortality of the soul its exact opposite, the immortality of the body, its ability to sustain endless pain and humiliation?

Judith Butler pointed out that the Foucaultian “body” as the site of resistance is none other than the Freudian “psyche”: paradoxically, “body” is Foucault’s name for the psychic apparatus insofar as it resists the soul’s domination. That is to say, when, in his well-known definition of the soul as the “prison of the body,” Foucault turns around the standard Platonic-Christian definition of the body as the “prison of the soul,” what he calls “body” is not simply the biological body, but is effectively already caught into some kind of pre-subjective psychic apparatus. [6] Consequently, don’t we encounter in Kant a secret homologous inversion, only in the opposite direction, of the relationship between body and soul: what Kant calls “immortality of the soul” is effectively the immortality of the other, ethereal, “undead” body?


It’s via this central role of pain in the subject’s ethical experience that Lacan introduces the difference between the “subject of the enunciation” (the subject who utters a statement) and the “subject of the enunciated (statement)” (the symbolic identity the subject assumes within and via his statement): Kant does not address the question of who is the “subject of the enunciation” of the moral Law, the agent enunciating the unconditional ethical injunction-from within his horizon, this question itself is meaningless, since the moral Law is an impersonal command “coming from nowhere,” i.e. it is ultimately self-posited, autonomously assumed by the subject himself). Via the reference to Sade, Lacan reads absence in Kant as an act of rendering invisible, of “repressing,” the moral Law’s enunciator, and it is Sade who renders it visible in the figure of the “sadist” executioner-torturer-this executioner is the enunciator of the moral Law, the agent who finds pleasure in our (the moral subject’s) pain and humiliation.

A counterargument offers itself here with apparent self-evidence: isn’t all this utter nonsense, since, in Sade, the element that occupies the place of the unconditional injunction, the maxim the subject has to follow categorically, is no longer the Kantian universal ethical command Do your duty! but its most radical opposite, the injunction to follow to their utmost limit the thoroughly pathological, contingent caprices that bring you pleasure, ruthlessly reducing all your fellow humans to the instruments of your pleasure? However, it is crucial to perceive the solidarity between this feature and the emergence of the figure of the “sadist” torturer-executioner as the effective “subject of the enunciation” of the universal ethical statement-command. The Sadean move from Kantian Respect-to-Blasphemy, i.e. from respecting the Other (fellow being), his freedom and autonomy, and always treating him also as an end-in-itself, to reducing all Others precisely to mere dispensable instruments to be ruthlessly exploited, is strictly correlative to the fact that the “subject of the enunciation” of the Moral Injunction, invisible in Kant, assumes the concrete features of the Sadean executioner.

What Sade accomplishes is thus a very precise operation of breaking up the link between two elements which, in Kant’s eyes, are synonymous and overlapping: [7] the assertion of an unconditional ethical injunction; the moral universality of this injunction. Sade keeps the structure of an unconditional injunction, positing as its content the utmost pathological singularity.

And, again, the crucial point is that this breaking up is not Sade’s eccentricity-it lays dormant as a possibility in the very fundamental tension constitutive of the Cartesian subjectivity. Hegel was already aware of this reversal of the Kantian universal into the utmost idiosyncratic contingency: isn’t the main point of his critique of the Kantian ethical imperative that, since the imperative is empty, Kant has to fill it with some empirical content, thus conferring on contingent particular content the form of universal necessity?

The exemplary case of the “pathological,” contingent element elevated to the status of an unconditional demand is, of course, an artist absolutely identified with his artistic mission, pursuing it freely without any guilt, as an inner constraint, unable to survive without it. The sad fate of Jacqueline du Pré confronts us with the feminine version of the split between the unconditional injunction and its obverse, the serial universality of indifferent empirical objects that must be sacrificed in the pursuit of one’s Mission. [8] (It is extremely interesting and productive to read du Pré’s life story not as a “real story,” but as a mythical narrative: what is so surprising about it is how closely it follows the preordained contours of a family myth, the same as with the story of Kaspar Hauser, in which individual accidents uncannily reproduce familiar features from ancient myths.) Du Pré’s unconditional injunction, her drive, her absolute passion was her art (when she was 4 years old, upon seeing someone playing a cello, she already immediately claimed that this is what she wanted to be…). This elevation of her art to the unconditional relegated her love life to a series of encounters with men who were ultimately all substitutable, one as good as the other-she was reported to be a serial “man eater.” She thus occupied the place usually reserved for the MALE artist-no wonder her long tragic illness (multiple sclerosis, from which she was painfully dying from 1973 to 1987) was perceived by her mother as an “answer of the real,” as divine punishment not only for her promiscuous sexual life, but also for her “excessive” commitment to her art…


This, however, is not the whole story. The decisive question is: is the Kantian moral Law translatable into the Freudian notion of superego or not? If the answer is yes, then “Kant with Sade” effectively means that Sade is the truth of the Kantian ethics. If, however, the Kantian moral Law cannot be identified with superego (since, as Lacan himself puts it in the last pages of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, moral Law is equivalent to desire itself, while superego precisely feeds on the subject’s compromising his/her desire, i.e. the guilt sustained by the superego bears witness to the fact that the subject has somewhere betrayed or compromised his/her desire), [9] then Sade is not the entire truth of Kantian ethics, but a form of its perverted realization. In short, far from being “more radical than Kant,” Sade articulates what happens when the subject betrays the true stringency of the Kantian ethics.

This difference is crucial in its political consequences: insofar as the libidinal structure of “totalitarian” regimes is perverse (the totalitarian subject assumes the position of the object-instrument of the Other’s jouissance), “Sade as the truth of Kant” would mean that Kantian ethics effectively harbors totalitarian potentials; however, insofar as we conceive of Kantian ethics as precisely prohibiting the subject to assume the position of the object-instrument of Other’s jouissance, i.e. to calling on him to assume full responsibility for what he proclaims his Duty, then Kant is the antitotalitarian par excellence…

The dream about Irma’s injection that Freud used as the exemplary case to illustrate his procedure of analyzing dreams is a dream about responsibility-(Freud’s own responsibility for the failure of his treatment of Irma)-this fact alone indicates that responsibility is a crucial Freudian notion.

But how are we to conceive it? How are we to avoid the usual trap of the mauvaise foi of the Sartrean subject responsible for his existential project, i.e. of the existentialist motif of ontological guilt that pertains to the finite human existence as such, as well as the opposite trap of “putting the blame on the Other” (“since the Unconscious is the discourse of the Other, I am not responsible for its formations, it is the big Other who speaks through me, I am merely its instrument…”)?

Lacan himself pointed the way out of this deadlock by referring to Kant’s philosophy as the crucial antecedent of the psychoanalytic ethics of the duty “beyond the Good”. According to the standard pseudo-Hegelian critique, the Kantian universalist ethic of the categorical imperative fails to take into account the concrete historical situation in which the subject is embedded, and which provides the determinate content of the Good: what eludes Kantian formalism is the historically specified particular Substance of ethical life. However, this reproach can be countered by claiming that the unique strength of Kant’s ethics resides in this very formal indeterminacy: moral Law does not tell me what my duty is, it merely tells me that I should accomplish my duty, i.e. it is not possible to derive the concrete norms I have to follow in my specific situation from the moral Law itself-which means that the subject himself has to assume the responsibility of “translating” the abstract injunction of the moral Law into a series of concrete obligations.

In this precise sense, one is tempted to risk a parallel with Kant’s Critique of Judgement: the concrete formulation of a determinate ethical obligation has the structure of aesthetic judgement, i.e. of a judgement by which, instead of simply applying a universal category to a particular object or of subsuming this object under an already given universal determination, I as it were invent its universal-necessary-obligatory dimension and thereby elevate this particular-contingent object (act) to the dignity of the ethical Thing.

So there is always something sublime about pronouncing a judgement that defines our duty: in it, I “elevate an object to the dignity of the Thing” (Lacan’s definition of sublimation). The full acceptance of this paradox also compels us to reject any reference to “duty” as an excuse: “I know this is heavy and can be painful, but what can I do, this is my duty…” The standard motto of ethical rigor is “There is no excuse for not accomplishing one’s duty!”; although Kant’s Du kannst, denn du sollst! (“You can, because you must!”) seems to offer a new version of this motto, he implicitly complements it with its much more uncanny inversion: “There is no excuse for accomplishing one’s duty!” [10] The reference to duty as the excuse to do our duty should be rejected as hypocritical; suffice it to recall the proverbial example of a severe sadistic teacher who subjects his pupils to merciless discipline and torture. Of course, his excuse to himself (and to others) is: “I myself find it hard to exert such pressure on the poor kids, but what can I do-it’s my duty!” The more pertinent example is that of a Stalinist politician who loves mankind, but nonetheless performs horrible purges and executions; his heart is breaking while he is doing it, but he cannot help it, it’s his Duty towards the Progress of Humanity…

What we encounter here is the properly perverse attitude of adopting the position of the pure instrument of the big Other’s Will: it’s not my responsibility, it’s not me who is effectively doing it, I am merely an instrument of the higher Historical Necessity… The obscene jouissance of this situation is generated by the fact that I conceive of myself as exculpated for what I am doing: isn’t it nice to be able to inflict pain on others with the full awareness that I’m not responsible for it, that I merely fulfill the Other’s Will…this is what Kantian ethics prohibits. This position of the sadist pervert provides the answer to the question: How can the subject be guilty when he merely realizes an “objective”, externally imposed necessity? By subjectively assuming this “objective necessity,” i.e. by finding enjoyment in what is imposed on him. So, at its most radical, Kantian ethics is NOT “sadist,” but precisely what prohibits assuming the position of a Sadean executioner.

In a final twist, Lacan thus nonetheless undermines the thesis of “Sade as the truth of Kant.” It is no accident that the same seminar in which Lacan first deployed the inherent link between Kant and Sade also contains the detailed reading of Antigone in which Lacan delineates the contours of an ethical act that DOES successfully avoid the trap of the Sadean perversion as its hidden truth-in insisting on her unconditional demand for her brother’s proper burial, Antigone does NOT obey a command that humiliates her, a command effectively uttered by a sadistic executioner… So the main effort of Lacan’s seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis is precisely to break up the vicious cycle of Kant avec Sade. How is this possible? Only if-in contrast with Kant-one asserts that the faculty of desiring is not in itself “pathological.” In short, Lacan asserts the necessity of a “critique of pure desire”: in contrast to Kant, for whom our capacity to desire is thoroughly “pathological” (since, as he repeatedly stresses, there is no a priori link between an empirical object and the pleasure this object generates in the subject), Lacan claims that there is a “pure faculty of desire,” since desire does have a non-pathological, a priori object-cause-this object, of course, is what Lacan calls objet petit a.

[1] Lacan, Jacques, Le séminaire, Livre VII: L’éthique de la psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1986, chap. VI.

[2] Lacan, J., “Kant avec Sade,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, p. 765-790.

[3] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan, 1993, p. 30.

[4] /…/ if, as Kant claims, no other thing but the moral law can induce us to put aside all our pathological interests and accept our death, then the case of someone who spends a night with a lady even though he knows that he will pay for it with his life, is the case of the moral law.” Alenka Zupančič, “The Subject of the Law,” in Cogito and the Unconscious, ed. by Slavoj Žižek, Durham: Duke UP 1998, p. 89.

[5] he most obvious proof of the inherent character of this link of Kant with Sade, of course, is the (disavowed) Kantian notion of “diabolical Evil,” i.e. of Evil accomplished for no “pathological” reasons, but out of principle, just for the sake of it.” Kant evokes this notion of Evil elevated into a universal maxim (and thus turned into an ethical principle) only in order to disclaim it immediately, claiming that human beings are incapable of such utter corruption; however, shouldn’t we counter this Kantian disclaimer by pointing out that de Sade’s entire edifice relies precisely on such an elevation of Evil into an unconditional (“categorical”) imperative? For a closer elaboration of this point, see Chapter Chapter II of Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso 1996.

[6] Butler, Judith, The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1997, p. 28-29.

[7] David-Menard, Monique, Les constructions de l’universel, Paris: PUF 1997.

[8] Du Pré, Hilary and Piers, A Genius in the Family. An Intimate Memoir of Jacqueline du Pré, London: Chatto and Windus 1997.

[9] Alenka Zupančič, op.cit., as well as Bernard Baas, Le désir pur, Louvain: Peeters 1992.

[10] For a more detailed account of this key feature of Kant’s ethics, see Chapter II of Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso 1996.