Zizek’s gift to reviewers

If one manages to reach pg. 279-80 of Less Than Nothing, one finds an unsurpassable — and unsurpassably time-saving — insight:

The same principle of “less is more” holds for reading the body of a book: in his wonderful How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard demonstrates (taking an ironic line of reasoning which is ultimately meant quite seriously) that, in order to really formulate the fundamental insight or achievement of a book, it is generally better not to read it all–too much data only blurs our clear vision. For example, many essays on Joyce’s Ulysses–and often the best ones –were written by scholars who had not read the whole book; the same goes for books on Kant or Hegel, where a truly detailed knowledge only gives rise to a boring specialist exegesis, rather than living insights. The best interpretations of Hegel are always partial: they extrapolate the totality from a particular figure of thought or of dialectical movement. As a rule, it is not a reading of a thick book by Hegel himself, but some striking, detailed observation–often wrong or at least one-sided–made by an interpreter that allows us to grasp Hegel’s thought in its living movement.

Is not the same true of Zizek? (A note to my editor: that review will be done a lot sooner than I thought!)

UPDATE: Holy crap! A few pages later he responds at length to a blog post by Daniel Lindquist!

10 thoughts on “Zizek’s gift to reviewers

  1. Having now exhausted the resources of “Search Inside”-ing for my own name: Man, my writing from five years ago is pretty painful! In my defense, at the time I was still in law school (I quit after a semester of that, and went back to philosophy); three years of grad school has removed some of the rough edges from my prose, I think. Also I didn’t think anyone would ever read me except a few of my friends, so my earliest posts are self-indulgent even by my-own-blog-standards.

    I can’t seem to read page 290 on Amazon, and don’t have $40 to spare on the book at the moment. But the parts I could read felt like it presented a feud between two one-sided readings of Hegel: a Hegel who is self-consciously Christian (from my old blog post) and a Hegel who is proud of the French Revolution (Zizek’s quote from the world-history lectures). But Hegel clearly was both of these things. Presumably page 290 addresses this, but in the spirit of Kotsko’s post I want to comment before I’ve read the whole thing. (I will note that I never did finish “For They Know Not What They Do”!)

    The stuff Zizek quotes from me on page 291 is, I’m pretty sure, me regurgitating triads Hegel presents (and connects with one another) in his religion lectures. (I would verify this, but my Hegel books are at home in Bloomington; I’m currently visiting my parents in Dallas.) I see two criticisms here: one is that “on a close reading” I rely on multiple triads, and the other is that I can’t do justice to Hegel’s claim that the Absolute is only “a result of itself”.

    I’m not sure how the fact that I present these different triads (and I see three, not the two Zizek counts: Begetting-Father/Only-begotten-Son/Spirit-of-charity, God-and-“fallen”-world/Incarnate-Son/reconciling-Spirit, sinful-individual/adopting-God/community-of-the-Spirit) is an objection, which it looks like Zizek tries to claim it as. I would think that I (my Hegel) could just claim that the multiplicity of triads in the religious understanding of the Absolute in “the consummate religion” find their truth in the totality of these triads, or something like that: the “immanent” trinity that the Athanasian creed talks about at length gives a one-sided view of God if it is seen as being exhaustive, for God has to also be understood as becoming incarnate, dying, and raising himself from the dead and dwelling in the hearts of believers; God is only properly pictured if he is pictured in all of his moments, and these include the ones where he does stuff in history, not just the ones where he is depicted “in his eternal essence before the creation of a world and a finite mind”. That way of depicting the Absolute *is* a way of depicting the Absolute, but it is not a complete depiction of the Absolute. IIRC, this is just what Hegel says about these triads when he connects them up into a “syllogism” in the “Philosophy of Spirit”‘s sections on religion.

    This is related to what I (my Hegel) wants to say about the Absolute being a “result of itself”: the Absolute in its truth is only what it is in the full course of its development, is another way Hegel says this. So Zizek is right to insist that there’s something right in saying that the Absolute “is at war with itself”, but this is understood one-sidedly if it is not seen as also being the Absolute’s being nothing but itself being with itself, and so being the free producer of itself: the asunderness of the Absolute in nature, the “fallenness” of individual humans, and the death of Christ are only speculatively grasped when seen as moments in the divine life which leads to reconciliation in spirit, the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in man, and the resurrection of Christ: these latter three moments are what the prior three moments are for, teleologically; they provide the context in which the prior moments become intelligible as the moments they are, just as a healthy adult horse let us understand a sick horse as sick, or a young horse as young. They are what they are only because they are on the way to being something else. Hegel is combining Aristotelian and Kantian/Fichtean points here: the Absolute is only what it makes itself to be (it is autonomous, like the pure “I”), and what the Absolute is in the process of its self-creation is only explicable by reference to the end of this process. This doesn’t mean that there is simply *no* Absolute before this end, anymore than Fichte’s call to his students to make themselves consistent with themselves (as is required by the purity of the “I”) means that his students are simply *not* selves before they have heeded this call: they are simply deficient as selves in some respects, just as the Absolute is not finished with its self-unfolding until it reconciles itself with itself in Absolute Spirit.

    Now, I don’t pretend to have given a compelling account of what it means for the Absolute (or spirit) to be “a result of itself”; I don’t think that this deep issue in Hegel can be handled in a blog post/comment, at least not by me, yet. It’s a really hard topic to get right; it’s Hegel’s version of Kant’s autonomy of reason, and is no easier to grasp than reason’s giving of the moral law to itself. Zizek has spent a lot of time trying to articulate how his version of this theme is supposed to work out, and I’m skeptical that it can work. But until I can do better than him in presenting positively the thoughts of German Idealism, there will be something unsatisfactory in any of my bashings of him. (I think Sebastian Rödl’s recent work is a much more satisfying working-out of this theme, but I am as yet unsure of some of his details; and Eckhart Förster’s “The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy” has convinced me that I’m not going to be able to do Hegel justice without studying Fichte more, so Fichte is what I’ve been spending my summer on. Unlike Zizek, I don’t think any of my thoughts on these issues were ready for publication.)

    In answer to Zizek’s rhetorical question: “Is the death of Christ not the ultimate proof that, in the tension between God and the fallen world, God is at war with himself, which is why he has to “enter” the fallen world world in the guise of his oppositional determination, as a miserable individual called Jesus?” — There is something right in the idea of God being at war with himself (remember God repenting of his creation in the story of Noah, and then repenting of this repenting (Genesis 6:6 and 8:21)), and there is something right in the idea that Jesus had to die to reconcile God to his fallen creation, and that it is only in the death of Christ that it becomes really clear what was it was that needed reconciling. Only because Christ died “as a miserable individual” did it become clear that it was the “miserable individual”, even unto miserable death, that was in need of reconciliation to God. I take this to be fairly clearly how Hegel thinks about the introduction of “subjective freedom” and the importance of the individual that he attributes to Christianity in world-history. But all of this becomes explicable as what it was only in the light of the end towards which it was developing: no Christ-as-Christ, no passion-as-passion, without the resurrection and Pentecost; and none of these become fully intelligible before the Reformation, whose principle of individual liberty becomes fully intelligible in modern philosophy, which comes to a satisfying result finally in Hegel’s own Science. So the death of Christ is not an “ultimate proof” of anything: it always has its significance only in the context of a teleological structure (a narrating of the life of Jesus), and I again claim that Zizek has seized one-sidedly on a moment of Hegel’s system. He fails to appreciate that the dead God is alive, too, and that his death is part of his life. (I typed “was part of his life” at first, but that is wrong: Christ retains his stigmata in his risen flesh; the death of God is not annulled in the new life of God, but is witnessed to even there.)

    Unrelated thought: I kind of want to implement a comment policy on my blog that things which should’ve been blog comments have to be blog comments before they can be published in widely-read (or at least -purchased) books.

  2. This reminds me: Did Zizek ever reply to Holbo’s stuff on him? I always enjoyed the Holbo-Zizekian disputes, and now it feels like “they mostly took place in blog comments” and “Zizek’s defenders thought they were horribly off-base” are not viable excuses for Zizek not to address the criticisms.

  3. If you search for your name and the title of the post, there’s another Zizek piece where the text relevant to you seems to be basically identical — so you can read the missing part.

    I think I’m going to ask him how he came across your post.

  4. To my knowledge, he’s never responded to Holbo. You’re right that his response to your blog post sets a dangerous precedent, though.

    I’m sure that if Zizek did respond to Holbo’s critiques, Holbo would respond in a respectful and concise way.

  5. “If you search for your name and the title of the post, there’s another Zizek piece where the text relevant to you seems to be basically identical — so you can read the missing part.”

    Thanks, I found it in “Umbr(a)” on Google Books. I was apparently responded to in print over a year ago!

    “I think I’m going to ask him how he came across your post.”

    I would appreciate this.

    On the page I missed: I think Zizek is reading too much into the urination/insemination metaphor from the end of “Observing Reason” in PhG (and, as best I could find, “spirit is a bone” doesn’t have a sexual reading in 19th century German, sadly — I actually did try to find this out a few years back, even asking a few professors at IU about it, and couldn’t find the relevant noun attested to as a slang for penis until later in the 20th century — so I don’t think that aspect of his reading holds up to the text), and this is tied to his misreading of that chapter generally. On his reading of “Observing Reason”, Hegel has to think something like “viewing others as mere things is a necessary prerequisite to viewing them as fellow subjects, as minded; only after this view of them as things is in place can it be sublated by recognition of them as spirit”. But this makes Hegel too much like a traditional skeptic of our knowledge of other minds (in Cavell’s sense — someone who thinks that there’s a problem about this knowledge — so that both a “Humean” who thinks we can’t know other minds and a “Cartesian” who thinks we know other minds by inference from our knowledge of our own minds and knowledge of the accompanying movements of our bodies (which are like the movements of others’ bodies) count as “skeptics”). Hegel is a good student of Fichte, and I think he follows him here: there cannot be a single human being, Fichte says, and our knowledge of other minds is equiprimordial with our knowledge of other bodies (both being prerequisites for the I’s absolute self-positing, as Fichte argues in “Foundations of Natural Right” — Allen Wood has an article on this, and talking with him about Fichte and Hegel is part of what convinced me of this point). Seeing urination/insemination as equiprimordial also fits Hegel’s metaphor more closely: penises really do exist for both of these purposes simultaneously, in a biological sense. There’s not a priority there: if penises did not exist for reproduction, there would be no organism which is capable of urination, either, since the “organism” in question could not reproduce itself. And in keeping with German Idealist views on organism (following Kant in the KdU), any particular organ is understood as an organ only as the whole organism is understood as an organism, with these reciprocally causing each other: so there can be no understanding of an organ of urination as being what it is without understanding the whole structure and life-cycle of the organism in question — so neither can the organ of urination be seen as that without also being seen as the organ of insemination. Zizek is importing binaries to Hegel.

    I do think his footnote (5 in “Umbr(a)” about needing to read Hegel in the “wrong (traditional)” way before you can read him in the “right (Zizekian)” way is helpful for seeing how he approaches Hegel, though. There really are philosophers like this: Much of Plato’s dialogues, Descartes’s “Meditations”, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus all have this form. But I don’t think Hegel does: he’s really hard to read, so inevitably he will be misread before he’s read correctly, but I don’t think his writings include the kind of *intentional* errors that Climacus or the author of the TLP guide their readers into. Giving an account of how CUP or TLP is supposed to affect the readers requires that one sees how things must be grasped twice (before and after their conclusions are seen, roughly), but I don’t think you need to do this with Hegel: his texts aren’t meant to require rereading. It’s not as if the reader is supposed to reach a certain point in PhG and suddenly be alerted to the fact that they *must* have been reading an earlier portion of the book wrong. Or at least, I don’t see anything in Hegel alerting the reader to this sort of fact. Hegel’s “speculative propositions” are meant to be read in multiple ways, but those readings are supposed to be synchronous, not diachronous: they are supposed to have multiple readings at once, not first one reading and then another. Different ways of writing.

    On the stuff about the French Revolution: I know Zizek has written about this topic a great deal, so I won’t pretend to give a fair treatment of it; I’ll just respond to the one page in response to me. I think Zizek makes three mistakes about Hegel here. The first is a false dichotomy: he correctly notes that Hegel’s view of the French Revolution is not that it was good at the start and then went bad by accident (what Zizek calls the “liberal” view), but from this he infers that Hegel was in favor of the Terror on general procedural grounds, that one must always “choose the worse” to first make progress possible. But there is a third option: Hegel thinks that the French Revolution went as well as it could have (and so is not a “liberal”), but thinks that it only went that way because it was *French*, and that in other places progress can happen without Terror. Hegel doesn’t need general “paradoxical logic of choice”-based grounds for thinking that the Terror was an unavoidable step between France as a Catholic Monarchy and France as a Republic. And this is the second mistake I see: Hegel was, historically, not in favor of a revolution in Germany like the one in France (at least not after his student writings, which are admittedly less clear about the point — but I think even there he hoped for a “spiritual” revolution that would make a political one superfluous). His stated reason for this (which I believe is already in the part of PhG about the Terror, but again, Hegel texts are in another state) is that France could only be made rational via Terror because its substance was so warped by Roman Catholicism; Germany is a Protestant nation, and so its subjects are already inwardly free and spiritual in a way that the French/Catholics aren’t. So Germany can mobilize the rationality of the substance of the existing state in a way that France can’t, because it has a better shape qua objective spirit: Germany can develop its concrete universality in improving its state because it is already concretely universal in its religion. France isn’t, and so can’t. (I think Hegel’s anti-Catholic bigotry is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s ambiguous that this is what he sees as making France go all pear-shaped.) So Zizek is committed, as far as I can see, to an esoteric reading of Hegel as in favor of a revolution in Germany like the one in France, which I just see no evidence for, apart from wishful thinking on the part of Hegel’s post-Marx fans. And this is related to the third mistake: Zizek presents the Terror as a “choice for the worse” as opposed to the “”good old” organic order”, but in Hegel’s view these options (which are the only two France had) are both worse: because the culture in France was bad (Catholic), it could either smash everything abstractly in the Terror or remain a miserable unspiritual mass as an absolute monarchy. Neither one is good, from Hegel’s point of view. And neither one makes immediately possible the establishment of a genuinely rational state in France, as Zizek presents Hegel as thinking the Terror did: I think Hegel held a contrary opinion when he was enthusiastic about Bonapartism in Jena, but he correctly (by his own lights) soured on the contemporary state on France in his Berlin period. The properly Hegelian-Scientific order is not “good-old”-organic-order/abstract-universality/concrete-universality but concete-universality/concrete-universality/concrete-universality: the self-development of the spirit which is already present is what is needed, not an imposition of spirit onto something unspiritual: Spirit only comes from spirit, as Hegel says in the introduction to the “Philosophy of Spirit”. France couldn’t become a true Republic because it never had a Reformation, and *that* is a temporal gap that cannot be skipped over (again, in Hegel’s view).

  6. “I’m sure that if Zizek did respond to Holbo’s critiques, Holbo would respond in a respectful and concise way.”

    I would actually be curious to see if Holbo’s tone would shift if he knew Zizek was actually seeing his criticisms. It might, or might not. (Some amount of snark would surely remain, but how much?) But you’re surely right that he would be very brief, probably no more than fifty or sixty thousand words.

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