Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Fichte’s Laughter 3.3-3.4

Žižek continues his discussion of Fichte in this chapter using what feels like a phoned in method: a few clever movie references here (sometimes with the date and sometimes without as if he can’t be bothered to check IMDB), some counter-intuitive thesis about Kant or Fichte here, interpolation of Fichte’s concepts via Lacan’s, etc. I have continued to be disappointed by Žižek’s showing in this book, but I’m going to try to distill out of this mess of references to other thinkers, films, and novels what I take to be the interesting point regarding Ficthe’s use of the concept Anstoß (which Žižek tells us has two primary meanings in German: “check, obstacle, hinderance, something that reists the boundless expansion of our striving, and an impetus, stimulus, something that incites our activity” (142).)

First, unsurprisingly and perhaps refreshingly, Žižek offers something different than the usual reading of Fichte (though he appears to largely be following Peter Preuss in this reading), a reading which takes Fichte to be the radical subjective idealist in the line of Kant-Fichte-Schelling-Hegel (already mentioned in the previous sections). Instead, Žižek claims, Fichte recognizes that both materialism and idealism lead to ridiculous conclusions, ones that hinder practical engagement (which Žižek suggests is the main goal of Fichte’s escape from philosophy), “Both materialism and idealism lead to consequences that make practical activity meaningless or impossible” (138). The first leads to determinism where the human being’s actions are meaningless in that free action is impossible and the second leads to one being merely a passive observer of their dream making meaning as independent reality impossible. Thus “Fichte’s wager” (drawing up the image of Pascal, obviously) is that in order to act like “a free moral agent, I have to accept the independent existence of other subjects like me, as well as the existence of a higher spiritual order in which i participate and which is independent of natural determinism” (138). Yet all of this is a leap of faith, one of practical necessity unsupported by theory as such. This, in part, explains a “mysterious subchapter” of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason where Kant explains how our lack of access to the noumenal realm is what creates the space for human freedom: “In short, the direct access to the noumenal domain would deprive us of the very “spontaneity” which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom” (140). It is only the betweenness of human beings that gives them their freedom as both in and outside of nature, which eventually leads to Žižek’s discussion of anstoß.

The reading of Anstoß is what modifies Žižek’s reading of Fichte’s Ego=Ego (or I=I), for:

“The Anstoß , the primordial impulse that sets in motion the gradual self-limitation and self-determination of the initially void subject, is not merely a mechanical external impulse; it also points towards another subject who, in the abyss of freedom, function as the challenge [Aufforderung] compelling me to limit/specify my freedom i.e. to accomplish the passage from the abstract egoist freedom to concrete freedom within the rational ethical universe – perhaps this intersubjective Aufforderung is not merely the secondary speciication of the Anstoß, but its exemplary original case” (142).

Žižek then goes on to compare the different between Kant’s Ding an sich and Fichte’s Anstoß with the difference between Lacan’s Thing and objet petit a. Within Kant’s philosophy itself Žižek locates Dawider or “what is out there opposing itself to us, standing against us” as an instance of Anstoß in Kant’s philosophy. This is where one of the movie references sheds light on the conceptual shape of Anstoß, bringing to mind the scene in Fight Club when the narrator beats himself up in front of his boss. It illustrates well the paradox of Anstoß: “it is not immediately external to the circular movement of reflection, but an object which is posited by this very circular (self-referential) movement” (146). Žižek puts this another way a few pages later writing, “This is also what makes Ficthe’s notion of Anstoß so difficult: Anstoß is not an object within the represented reality, but the stand-in, within relaity, of what is outside reality” (148).

This leads to some interesting discussion of the immanence/transcendence debate where Anstoß shows a kind of “higher immanence” (though this is my term, not his, so it is possible I have misread him) of the two. The notion of Antoß opens up our understanding of both the radical immanence of the Absolute within a particular appearance of it, while it is transcendent to that situation as other. Žižek misses an opportunity here to bring this into the wider discussion regarding naturalism and the relationship of science and philosophy, for this suggests that there is some kind of higher immanence that includes nature, but is not reducible to it. (For me this is of special interest as this is what Laruelle develops in his own work, which is drawn in part from Fichte’s.)

Žižek ends the sections suggesting that Fichte leaves us in a place where the wager of Fichte also opens up to a correlative possibility of radical despair. For, in the light of Fichte’s notion of Anstoß, which collapses the neat divisions that materialism and idealism set up, we can no longer simply write off the failure of the Ideal as a failure on our subjective ability to realize the Ideal, but now we must own up to the suspicion that “the Ideal is in itself in validated, that it simply is not worth it” (151).

4 thoughts on “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Fichte’s Laughter 3.3-3.4

  1. I found this essay not too bad; at least it was saying more than Z’s previous. There’s an interesting attempt to read F in less naive ways than normal, and an interesting link made between F’s theoretical and practical philosophy (which was always fairly explicit) via similarities between Aufforderung and Anstoss (which was less obvious). Arguably Hegel already made the link in adapting Fichte’s notion of ‘recognition’, putting it centre-stage and making it to do simutaneously theoretical and practical work (Robert R. Williams’ books are good on this). I’m a bit sceptical about how far Z actually gets with his reading of F by the end, though. It still leaves space for the realist (Fichte’s dogmatist) to respond that otherness is ultimately self-generated, and so F has not really reached the ‘Great Outdoors’. That would be something of a mistaken reading IMHO, but Z doesn’t make a very convincing case for why it’s mistaken.

  2. Utisz,

    Thanks for this. Would you say a bit more about you think Fichte could be said to reach “the Great Outdoors”? I’d be interested in seeing Z’s argument extended and made good on, if you’re up for it (or, since that’s probably a ridiculous request for a comment, maybe a sketch of what you think it would look like).

  3. I only finished reading the essay this morning so any thoughts are very germinal, but I think one could build on Z’s point (which I think is accurate) that subjectivity and the Absolute are not ultimately opposed, but that subjectivity is a moment of the Absolute, a necessary appearance or doubling of it.

    Secondly, we associate Schelling with having rewritten the Absolute as Nature, but nature is very much present in Fichte as well. Nature in fact seems to be presupposed by the idea of Streben. It’s not that striving goes on only within consciousness or self-consciousness (Fichte by the way had already escaped from solipsism in his Grundlage des Naturrechts), but that the I (or I’s) finds itself/themselves practically frustrated by nature and natural necessity (Daniel Brezeale makes this point in his article in The Age of German Idealism, ed. Solomon). Zizek suggests that striving is simply reproduced within the I, or even that it is the I who is really setting its own obstacles, but I think this argument fits Sartre (who Z quotes to make it) better than Fichte.

    That’s only sketchy, but it already starts to make more problematic ideas of Inside and Outside that are normally reproduced in the realist criticism: that idealists are stuck inside a correlationist circle that cannot think a nature independent of humans. If Fichte’s noumenal X really correlated directly with the mind, then where would obstacles arise?

    Central to Fichte is the idea that free agents can only exist as finite individuals striving to overcome their own limitations and to transform nature in accordance with the idea of freedom. Put these ideas together and you still get something that will offend ecological sensibilities, perhaps rightly so, but I wonder if it doesn’t actually represent in philosophical terms pretty closely what human societies have historically tried to do with respect to nature, to affirm their freedom whilst trying to subdue nature understood as a realm of necessity? I think Lukacs says something to this effect somewhere: Fichte is true in a kind of infernal way.

    At the end of the day I don’t have any great investment in defending Fichte; a lot of his thought may be irredeemable. I think Hegel saw that there were still too many loose ends in Fichte’s attempt to get to the Absolute, some of which Schelling tied up, but which neither ultimately satisfactorily solved.

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