Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

by Stanley Fish

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In the space of barely more than five years, with the publication of four pathbreaking books, Slavoj Žižek has earned the reputation of being one of the most arresting, insightful, and scandalous thinkers in recent memory. Perhaps more than any other single author, his writings have constituted the most compelling evidence available for recognizing Jacques


In the space of barely more than five years, with the publication of four pathbreaking books, Slavoj Žižek has earned the reputation of being one of the most arresting, insightful, and scandalous thinkers in recent memory. Perhaps more than any other single author, his writings have constituted the most compelling evidence available for recognizing Jacques Lacan as the preemient philosopher of our time.

In Tarrying with the Negative, Žižek challenges the contemporary critique of ideology, and in doing so opens the way for a new understanding of social conflict, particularly the recent outbursts of nationalism and ethnic struggle. Are we, Žižek asks, confined to a postmodern universe in which truth is reduced to the contingent effect of various discursive practices and where our subjectivity is dispersed through a multitude of ideological positions? No is his answer, and the way out is a return to philosophy. This revisit to German Idealism allows Žižek to recast the critique of ideology as a tool for disclosing the dynamic of our society, a crucial aspect of which is the debate over nationalism, particularly as it has developed in the Balkans—Žižek's home. He brings the debate over nationalism into the sphere of contemporary cultural politics, breaking the impasse centered on nationalisms simultaneously fascistic and anticolonial aspirations. Provocatively, Žižek argues that what drives nationalistic and ethnic antagonism is a collectively driven refusal of our own enjoyment.

Using examples from popular culture and high theory to illuminate each other—opera, film noir, capitalist universalism, religious and ethnic fundamentalism—this work testifies to the fact that, far more radically than the postmodern sophists, Kant and Hegel are our contemporaries.

Editorial Reviews

Zizek (social sciences, U. of Ljubljana, Slovenia) suggests how some of Kant and Hegel's ideas are appropriate to the modern world, under such headings as the void called subject, the dialectical nonsequitur, and the loop of enjoyment. Paper edition (unseen), $16.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Tarrying with the Negative

Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

By Slavoj Zizek

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8182-2




1 "I or He or It (the Thing) Which Thinks"

The Noir Subject ...

One way to take note of the historical gap separating the 1980s from the 1950s is to compare the classic film noir to the new wave of noir in the eighties. What I have in mind here are not primarily direct or indirect remakes (the two DOA's; Against All Odds as a remake of Out of the Past; Body Heat as a remake of Double Indemnity; No Way Out as a remake of The Big Clock, etc., up to Basic Instinct as a distant remake of Vertigo) but rather those films which endeavor to resuscitate the noir universe by way of combining it with another genre, as if noir today is a vampirelike entity which, in order to survive, needs an influx of fresh blood from other sources. Two cases are exemplary here: Alan Parker's Angel Heart, which combines noir with the occult-supernatural, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which combines noir with science fiction.

Cinema theory has for a long time been haunted by the question: is noir a genre of its own or a kind of anamorphic distortion affecting different genres? From the very beginning, noir was not limited to hardboiled detective stories: reverberations of noir motifs are easily discernible in comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace), in westerns (Pursued), in political and social dramas (All the King's Men, The Lost Weekend), etc. Do we have here a secondary impact of something that originally constitutes a genre of its own (the noir crime universe), or is the crime film only one of the possible fields of application of the noir logic? That is, is noir a predicate that entertains toward the crime universe the same relationship as toward comedy or western, a kind of logical operator introducing the same anamorphic distortion in every genre to which it is applied, so that finding its strongest application in the crime film turns on nothing but historical contingency? To raise these questions in no way means indulging in hairsplitting sophistry: our thesis is that the "proper," detective noir as it were arrives at its truth—in Hegelese: realizes its notion—only by way of its fusion with another genre, specifically science fiction or the occult.

What, then, do Blade Runner and Angel Heart have in common? Both films deal with memory and subverted personal identity: the hero, the hardboiled investigator, is sent on a quest whose final outcome involves discovering that he himself was from the very beginning implicated in the object of his quest. In Angel Heart, he ascertains that the dead singer he was looking for is none other than himself (in an occult ritual performed long ago, he exchanged hearts and souls with an ex-soldier, who he now thinks he is). In Blade Runner, he is after a group of replicants at large in L.A. of 2012; upon accomplishing his mission, he is told that he is himself a replicant. The outcome of the quest is therefore in both cases the radical undermining of self-identity masterminded by a mysterious, all-powerful agency, in the first case the Devil himself ("Louis Cipher"), in the second case the Tyrell corporation, which succeeded in fabricating replicants unaware of their replicant status, i.e., replicants misperceiving themselves as humans. The world depicted in both films is the world in which the corporate Capital succeeded in penetrating and dominating the very fantasy-kernel of our being: none of our features is really "ours"; even our memories and fantasies are artificially planted. It is as if Fredric Jameson's thesis on postmodernism as the epoch in which Capital colonizes the last resorts hitherto excluded from its circuit is here brought to its hyperbolic conclusion: the fusion of Capital and Knowledge brings about a new type of proletarian, as it were the absolute proletarian bereft of the last pockets of private resistance; everything, up to the most intimate memories, is planted, so that what remains is now literally the void of pure substanceless subjectivity (substanzlose Subjektivitaet—Marx's definition of the proletarian). Ironically, one might say that Blade Runner is a film about the emergence of class consciousness.

This truth is concealed, in one film metaphorically, in the other metonymically: in Angel Heart, corporate Capital is substituted by the metaphorical figure of the Devil, whereas in Blade Runner, a metonymical impediment prevents the film from carrying out its inherent logic. That is to say, the director's cut of Blade Runner differs in two crucial features from the version released in 1982: there is no voiceover, and at the end, Deckard (Harrison Ford) discovers that he also is a replicant. But even in the two released versions, especially in the version released in 1992, a whole series of features points toward Deckard's true status: strong accent falls on the visual parallelism between Deckard and Leon Kowalski, a replicant questioned in the Tyrell building at the beginning of the film; after Deckard proves to Rachael (Sean Young) that she is a replicant by quoting her most intimate child-recollections she did not share with anyone, the camera provides a brief survey of his personal mythologies (old childhood pictures on the piano, his dream-recollection of a unicorn), with a clear implication that they also are fabricated, not "true" memories or dreams, so that when Rachael mockingly asks him if he also underwent the replicant test, the question resounds with ominous undertones; the patronizing-cynical attitude of the policeman who serves as Deckard's contact to the police chief, as well as the fact that he makes small paper models of unicorns, clearly indicates his awareness that Deckard is a replicant (and we can safely surmise that in the true director's cut he viciously informs Deckard of this fact). The paradox here is that the subversive effect (the blurring of the line of distinction between humans and androids) hinges on the narrative closure, on the loop by means of which the beginning metaphorically augurs the end (when, at the beginning of the film, Deckard replays the tape of Kowalski's interrogation, he is yet unaware that at the end he will himself occupy Kowalski's place), whereas the evasion of the narrative closure (in the 1982 version, the hints of Deckard's replicant status are barely perceptible) functions as a conformist compromise which cuts off the subversive edge.

How, then, are we to diagnose the position of the hero at the end of his quest, after the recovery of memory deprives him of his very self-identity? It is here that the gap separating the classical noir from the noir of the eighties emerges in its purest form. Today, even the mass media is aware of the extent to which our perception of reality, including the reality of our innermost self-experience, depends upon symbolic fictions. Suffice it to quote from a recent issue of Time magazine: "Stories are precious, indispensable. Everyone must have his history, her narrative. You do not know who you are until you possess the imaginative version of yourself. You almost do not exist without it." Classical noirs remain within these confines: they abound with cases of amnesia in which the hero does not know who he is or what he did during his blackout. Yet amnesia is here a deficiency measured by the standard of integration into the field of intersubjectivity, of symbolic community: a successful recollection means that, by way of organizing his life-experience into a consistent narrative, the hero exorcizes the dark demons of the past. But in the universe of Blade Runner or Angel Heart, recollection designates something incomparably more radical: the total loss of the hero's symbolic identity. He is forced to assume that he is not what he thought himself to be, but somebody-something else. For that reason, the "director's cut" of Blade Runner is fully justified in dispensing with the voice-off of Deckard (homophonous with Descartes!): in the noir universe, the voice-off narrative realizes the integration of the subject's experience into the big Other, the field of intersubjective symbolic tradition.

One of the commonplaces about the classic noir sets its philosophical background in French existentialism; however, in order to grasp the implications of the radical shift at work in the noir of the eighties, one has to reach back farther, to the Cartesian-Kantian problematic of the subject qua pure, substanceless "I think."

... Out of Joint

Descartes was the first to introduce a crack in the ontologically consistent universe: contracting absolute certainty to the punctum of "I think" opens up, for a brief moment, the hypothesis of Evil Genius (le malin genie) who, behind my back, dominates me and pulls the strings of what I experience as "reality"—the prototype of the Scientist-Maker who creates an artificial man, from Dr. Frankenstein to Tyrell in Blade Runner. However, by reducing his cogito to res cogitans, Descartes, as it were, patches up the wound he cut into the texture of reality. Only Kant fully articulates the inherent paradoxes of self-consciousness. What Kant's "transcendental turn" renders manifest is the impossibility of locating the subject in the "great chain of being," into the Whole of the universe—all those notions of the universe as a harmonious Whole in which every element has its own place (today, they abound in ecological ideology). In contrast to it, subject is in the most radical sense "out of joint"; it constitutively lacks its own place, which is why Lacan designates it by the mathem , the "barred" S.

In Descartes, this "out of joint" state is still concealed. The Cartesian universe stays within the confines of what Foucault, in his The Order of Things, called "classical episteme," that epistemological field regulated by the problematic of representations—their causal enchainment, their clarity and evidence, the connection between representation and represented content, etc. Upon reaching the point of absolute certainty in cogito ergo sum, Descartes does not yet conceive of the cogito as correlative to the whole of reality, i.e., as the point external to reality, exempted from it, which delineates reality's horizon (in the sense of Wittgenstein's well-known Tractatus metaphor on the eye that can never be part of the seen reality). Rather than the autonomous agent which "spontaneously" constitutes the objective world opposed to itself, the Cartesian cogito is a representation which, by following the inherent notional enchainment, leads us to other, superior representations. The subject first ascertains that cogito is a representation which belongs to an inherently deficient being (doubt is a sign of imperfection); as such, it entails the representation of a perfect being free of incertitude. Since it is obvious that a deficient, inferior entity or representation cannot be the cause of a superior entity or representation, the perfect being (God) had to exist. The veracious nature of God furthermore assures the reliability of our representations of external reality, and so forth. In Descartes' final vision of the universe, cogito is therefore just one among many representations in an intricate totality, part of reality and not yet (or, in Hegelese, only "in itself") correlative to the whole of reality.

What, then, marks the break between Descartes' cogito and Kant's "I" of transcendental apperception? The key to it is offered by Kant's Wittgensteinian remark, aimed at Descartes, that it is not legitimate to use "I think" as a complete phrase, since it calls for a continuation—"I think that ... (it will rain, you are right, we shall win ...)." According to Kant, Descartes falls prey to the "subreption of the hypostasized consciousness": he wrongly concludes that, in the empty "I think" which accompanies every representation of an object, we get hold of a positive phenomenal entity, res cogitans (a "small piece of the world," as Husserl put it), which thinks and is transparent to itself in its capacity to think. In other words, self-consciousness renders self-present and self-transparent the "thing" in me which thinks. What is lost thereby is the topological discord between the form "I think" and the substance which thinks, i.e., the distinction between the analytical proposition on the identity of the logical subject of thought, contained in "I think," and the synthetical proposition on the identity of a person qua thinking thing-substance. By articulating this distinction, Kant logically precedes Descartes: he brings to light a kind of "vanishing mediator," a moment which has to disappear if the Cartesian res cogitans is to emerge (CPR, A 354–56). This Kantian distinction is revived by Lacan in the guise of the distinction between the subject of the enunciation (sujet de l'énonciation) and the subject of the enunciated (sujet de l'énoncé): the Lacanian subject of the enunciation is also an empty, nonsubstantial logical variable (not function), whereas the subject of the enunciated (the "person") consists of the fantasmatic "stuff" which fills out the void of .

This gap which separates the empirical I's self-experience from the I of transcendental apperception coincides with the distinction between existence qua experiential reality and existence qua logical construction, i.e., existence in the mathematical sense ("there exists an X which ..."). The status of Kant's I of transcendental apperception is that of a necessary and simultaneously impossible logical construction ("impossible" in the precise sense that its notion can never be filled out with intuited experiential reality), in short: of the Lacanian real. Descartes' error was precisely to confuse experiential reality with logical construction qua the real-impossible.

Kant's reasoning is here far more refined than it may appear. In order to appreciate fully its finesse, one has to make use of Lacan's formula of fantasy [??] a): "I think" only insofar as I am inaccessible to myself qua noumenal Thing which thinks. The Thing is originally lost and the fantasy-object (a) fills out its void (in this precise Kantian sense Lacan remarks that a is "the stuff of the I"). The act of "I think" is trans-phenomenal, it is not an object of inner experience or intuition; yet for all that, it is not a noumenal Thing, but rather the void of its lack: it is not sufficient to say about the I of pure apperception that "of it, apart from them [the thoughts which are its predicates], we cannot have any concept whatsoever" (CPR, A 346). One has to add that this lack of intuited content is constitutive of the I; the inaccessibility to the I of its own "kernel of being" makes it an I. This is what Kant is not quite clear about, which is why he again and again yields to the temptation of conceiving of the relationship between the I of pure apperception and the I of self-experience as the relationship between a Thing-in-itself and an experiential phenomenon.

When, consequently, Kant remarks that, "in the synthetic original unity of apperception, I am conscious of myself, not as I appear to myself, nor as I am in myself, but only that I am" (CPR, B 157), the first thing one has to notice here is the fundamental paradox of this formulation: I encounter being devoid of all determinations-of-thought at the very moment when, by way of the utmost abstraction, I confine myself to the empty form of thought which accompanies every representation of mine. Thus, the empty form of thought coincides with being, which lacks any formal determination-of-thought. Here, however, where Kant seems at his closest to Descartes, the distance that separates them is infinite: in Kant, this coincidence of thought and being in the act of self-consciousness in no way implies access to myself qua thinking substance: "Through this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of the thoughts = X. It is known only through the thoughts which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever" (CPR, A 346). In short: we can provide no possible answer to the question "How is the Thing which thinks structured?" The paradox of self-consciousness is that it is possible only against the background of its own impossibility: I am conscious of myself only insofar as I am out of reach to myself qua the real kernel of my being ("I or he or it (the thing) which thinks"). I cannot acquire consciousness of myself in my capacity of the "Thing which thinks." In Blade Runner, Deckard, after learning that Rachael is a replicant who (mis)perceives herself as human, asks in astonishment: "How can it not know what it is?" We can see, now, how, more than two hundred years ago, Kant's philosophy outlined an answer to this enigma: the very notion of self-consciousness implies the subject's self-decenterment, which is far more radical than the opposition between subject and object. This is what Kant's theory of metaphysics ultimately is about: metaphysics endeavors to heal the wound of the "primordial repression" (the inaccessibility of the "Thing which thinks") by allocating to the subject a place in the "great chain of being." What metaphysics fails to notice is the price to be paid for this allocation: the loss of the very capacity it wanted to account for, i.e., human freedom. Kant himself commits an error when, in his Critique of Practical Reason, he conceives of freedom (the postulate of practical reason) as a noumenal Thing; what gets obfuscated thereby is his fundamental insight according to which I retain my capacity of a spontaneous-autonomous agent precisely and only insofar as I am not accessible to myself as a Thing.


Excerpted from Tarrying with the Negative by Slavoj Zizek. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Slavoj Žižek is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of numerous books, including The Sublime Object of Ideology and Enjoy Your Symptom!.

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