Tag Archive | Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?

The recent announcement that Žižek’s book on Hegel is coming in April has, appropriately, generated, at one of the same time, excitement and hesitation over the prospect that we might finally get a systematic, focused work on Hegel by the Slovenian philosopher, but one that might nonetheless be strewn with the well-known Žižekian rabbit-trails of cultural anecdotes. (Some of the feelers are out: here and here and here). My own estimation is that the book might, while approaching a tome in page-count, read similarly to his recent piece in The Speculative Turn, to which I rearticulate in what immediately follows.

In the piece entitled ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, Žižek perturbs the ridiculous caricature of Hegel as the ‘absolute idealist’, which has been thoroughly scrutinized after the break with traditional metaphysics, presenting instead a new figure of Hegel that is congenial to materialism. The main feature of Žižek’s alternative use of dialectical reason is the “weird certainty” that “things will always ‘go wrong’”, that “the only ‘truth’ is the very endless process of ‘generation and corruption’” (p. 211). As Žižek continues on the same page, that each position “will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction” implies “a consistent all-encompassing meaningful story” is only ever told after the fact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, as Žižek likes to say, necessity itself is contingent.

In the course of the dialectical development the open-contingent process of real suffering and antagonisms generate new forms of life. On this view it is inaccurate to “impute to Hegel the standard teleological notion of a hidden Reason which pulls the strings of the historical process”, what is typically referred to as absolute Knowledge (ibid.). History never follows a plan established in advance. The historical process is itself undecided. What we have rather are a multitude of unexpected moments that threaten the stability and cohesion of established social and cultural norms that were hitherto guaranteed. Such momentous turns thus shatter all established forms and enforce new orders.

Once again, a new state of a situation “is a little better outlined” only in retrospect, once the sound and fury halts and the course of history is recollected by those who look at it backwards. Revolutionary breaks from the past are exactly that, impossible unforeseen ruptures, but, once what took place is conceived retrospectively, to the lay mind it is a linear, miraculous progression. The conditions for humankind in ape, for instance, are easily discerned retroactively but astonishing if we begin from the necessity of human life. This is why the “Strong Anthropic Principle” in cosmology accounts is false:

we start from human life, which could have evolved only within a set of very precise preconditions, and then, moving backwards, we cannot but be astonished at how our universe was furnished with precisely the right set of characteristics for the emergence of life—just a slightly different chemical composition, density, etc., would have made life impossible… (p. 216)

For all that, it would be misguided to imply that Spirit is a positive force “which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff”, as though it were some kind of Agent underlying and directing the historical process itself (p. 219). Spirit, for Žižek’s Hegel, is nothing but the incessant movement of upheavals and twists. It cannot therefore be said of Hegel that dialectics has a perfunctory mechanical character, indifferently swallowing historical antagonisms and “delivering them packed in the same triadic form” (p. 222). This critique of Hegel is complicated by Žižek who for pages fights with this quite orthodox angle, contending on the contrary that the only assurance for Hegel is that “every social reconciliation is doomed to fail” (ibid.)

But rather than assessing the endless ‘really real’ process of generation and corruption as ‘ontological shit’, as some incorrectly advocate Žižek doing (see here for a contemporary run-down), the overwhelming power of destruction is its own reward. In pure Hegelese, catastrophe is itself triumph. No effective reversal of negativity into positive greatness is necessary. The reconciliation of historical thought proper is the radically changed meaning of miserable reality itself: in a purely formal shift, which perceives and relates to negativity as the only greatness there is, one should, as Hegel insists, “recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present.” Or again, we do not have to change reality but our perspective, presenting defeat as victory.

If Žižek’s reworked understanding of the Hegelian dialectical process in The Speculative Turn is anything to go by, Less Than Nothing promises to be a robust engagement on the materialist side of diagnosing the false stability of our organized lives and advocating the emergence of the radically New, a prospect I am strongly looking forward to.

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