Mythology, Madness and Laughter – Fichte’s Laughter 3.5.-3.7

Žižek continues his reading of Fichte by renewing his claim that what is radical in Fichte’s thought is the “absolutely central role of the notion of limitation” or finitude (151). Žižek holds that this is what separates Fichte from the “idealist realism” of Descartes or Leibniz, because “for Fichte, the relationship of the I and the non-I is one of mutual limitation” (152). This is a consequence of the practical focus on Fichte’s work, for the I is orientated towards the outside, which it can only experience as “pathic”, as an obstacle to its activity, while it nevertheless being necessary to continue to be oriented in this way. Here Žižek returns to a rather facile (in my view) division between human beings and animals to argue for his point, saying that what separates human beings from other animals is that human beings are aware that they are being limited, while animals simply come up against an obstacle wh2ereby they are simply constrained. In short, the animal has no transcendental subjectivity. I’ll return to this point at the end in my reflections, but I don’t think our discussion of this division needs to be repeated.

The question of the mutual limitation opens up to what Žižek sees as the problem of Fichte (along with some other interpreters): “how to pass from the I to the non-I as an in-itself that has a consistency outside the I’s reflexive self-movement?” (154). The solution proposed by Pierre Livet is that of a non-external I (or non-I) within the I itself. For a psychoanalytic reader like Žižek there is a similarity to the Lacanian-Freudian figure of the neighbour, the primordial Other, yet he tells us this doesn’t quite work since the Neighbour qua Thing is not another subject.

Žižek’s concern during this essay is to convince his readers that Fichte deserves “another chance”. So he spends a few of his asides (and this is really another essay made up of asides) covering the common history of philosophy reading of Fichte as the worst of German Idealism, as the most radical and ridiculous solipsistic thinker. Žižek suggests that this reading is common to the unlikely bedfellows Russell and Lacan, showing the pervasiveness of this view. Yet, this reading, Žižek suggests, is not supported when we think though Fichte’s philosophy in relation to our most concrete experience. That experience is simply the finite I’s practical engagement:

“when I (finite subject) ‘posit’ an ideal/unattainable practical goal, the finite reality outside me appears as ‘not-self’, as an obstacle to my goal to be overcome, transformed. In the wake of Kant this is Fichte’s ‘primacy of practical reason’: the way I perceive reality depends on my practical project – no project, no obstacles, my cognitive recognition of reality around me is always conditioned/colored by my practical project” (155).

Consequently we only ever encounter ‘the Real’ through a practical project. There is no meeting of the Real in the abstract outside of a project. In this way even the in-itself has to be understood as a mode of appearing, the in-itself is only ever able to be thought in relation to a positive, practical project, even if is not thereby “known”.

Žižek tells us that this is actually Fichte’s solution to the problem of solipsism:

“although, at the level of theoretical observation of reality, we are passive receivers, while, at the level of practice, we are active, we intervene, impose our project onto the world, one cannot overcome solipsism from a theoretical standpoint, but only from a practical one” (158).

This is finally where the “laughter” of the title comes into play. It is Fichte’s laughter at those commonsense readings of his own work, those readings which laugh at the subjective idealist and suggest he hit his head against the wall to see if is alone in the world. The logic of German Idealism, at least as it is takes form in Fichte after Kant, is that there is an excess to the representations (from the Self) of the object, the non-Self, that demands that the excess lie in the subject. Žižek does not really tell us about the being of this excess though, but attempts to give some kind of explanation by comparing it to those strange betweens we find in science fiction between the dead and the living in the undead, or between the animal and the human in the inhuman. This between does not have any substantial being, once it is turned into something substantial it ceases to be this between, it becomes a “something” that can be represented.

Žižek again turns to the concept of Anstoß claiming that this “ex-timate obstacle” is how we pass from the I to the not-I, for it is neither non-I nor an object. He claims that is, in Lacanian logic, “the nothing counted something” (163) or, again, like the objet petit a, “the object-cause of desire, which is also a positivization of a lack, a stand-in for a void” (164). This requires and illuminates a distinction between what we can only think and what we know: “we can only think the Anstoß, we cannot know it as a determinate object-of-representation” (164).

Žižek then concludes the essay with a summary, concluding, “So, perhaps, before dismissing him as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance” (167). Perhaps, though, it is Seidel’s reading that has to be given a chance, seeing as Žižek’s essay appears to depend more on it than on Fichte’s work as such. It all begs the question, has Žižek given us a reason to give Fichte a chance? I did find the focus on practical reason very interesting, but does this “between” of the undead explain anything about what it means to be a subject? And why must this subject always be a human subject placed in a hierarchical relationship with other animals? While at times Žižek wants to play the darkness card, this shows a real failure of nerve, a fear that human beings might not be enough, even as he tries to protect our status as unique by claiming that that uniqueness comes from being able to think our fear. What theoretical power lies in this absolute distinction and why does Žižek cling to it in both his essays?

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