Hegel, Zizek & Substance As Subject

Multiculturalism, Sept 11th, & The Afghan Refugee Crisis

We live in a free society. We enjoy democratic rights. We have a high standard of living. We belong to an easy-going culture that tolerates difference. So what’s the problem ? From what standpoint can the Left hope to make a critique of the existing order, of capitalism in its current form ?

For Zizek it is Hegel’s conception of substance as subject that suggests one answer to this question. In the Phenomenology Hegel argues that substance — reality, has the same structure as the subject — consciousness, which is what makes possible their ultimate reconciliation in Spirit. In both cases this structure is incomplete, and its negation — what lies outside — is part of its very being, so that consciousness and reality are defined by constant movement, incessant change as they strive to close up this hole at the centre of their being. Spirit, in fact, is this movement which they share. Consciousness seeks to know the reality it is not, to make it its own, but it can never close the gap that makes it consciousness and not reality itself, while at the same time reality does contain consciousness, consciousness is real enough.

Without this striving to become something other than itself, there would be neither consciousness nor reality, for this is what they are. If consciousness were ever to merge with reality it would no longer be consciousness of reality, and reality would no longer be reality, the object of consciousness.

Society, the social substance, consists of the same structure, there is a hole in its very centre, and this hole contains just that which society excludes [negates], what it can not include or else it would self-destruct. And it is at this point of exclusion that a critique of society can begin.

How can we discover that which is excluded from our society, given that it is outside and not to be found anywhere around us ? For Zizek, following Lacan, it is in the ‘traumatic encounter with the Real’ that the truth of our society, of what has been excluded from it in order for it to exist at all, is to be discovered.

September 11th was just such an encounter. The trauma of Sept 11th lay not so much in the horror of the collapse of the Twin Towers, after all, destruction of this order makes up the staple of mainstream TV and cinema viewing. As both Zizek and Jean Baudrillard have pointed out, it is precisely because this kind of catastrophic event is so much a part of our culture that the terrorists’ target was in a sense chosen for them by us, suggested to them in countless Hollywood movies and even spelt out in detail by Tom Clancy in his bestselling novel about aircraft crashing into the World Trade Centre.

Instead the trauma lies in just that aspect of the event that the Western mind finds most impossible to come to terms with — the reality that there are people out there who are willing to give up their lives for a cause they believe in. It is this very idea that is simply unthinkable from the perspective of everyday New York life.

And it is due to this unthinkability that the West’s response to Sept 11th has been so inappropriate — as if bombing people already committed to die for their beliefs will teach them some kind of lesson, make them change their evil ways. A more consistent response would have been to shower Afghanistan from the air with consumer goods, a taste of the good life, and this is indeed the logic of the Western aid now set to pour into the country, whose goal after all is to make the Afghanis ‘just like us’.

Zizek’s point is that if the Afghanis were to become ‘just like us’ then we would no longer be ‘like us’ ourselves, because this ‘us’, the ‘us’ who go to work in the WTC and countless similar office buildings every day, could not exist without the exclusion of ‘them’, the poor and hungry of Africa, the sweatshop workers of China, a ‘them’ that includes the hundreds of Colombian and Mexican office cleaners and janitors who also died on Sept 11th.

But above all, this ‘them’ means those who refuse to absorb themselves in the day to day cycle of working and consuming, of making personal lifestyle choices, who insist on believing there is something higher, something more to life than this, and that society should be based on this ‘something more’.

The target of Zizek’s critique is the idea that if only ‘they’ were to become ‘like us’ then all would be well in the world, society would heal over the wound left from its encounter with the Real and ensure no more traumas lay in store for us. It is this illusion that defines ideology in Zizek’s eyes.

For the source of the hole, the gap through which the Real appears, is not ‘them’ but we ourselves, in the incomplete structure of our own society, its inconsistency, which explains why long before Al Qa'eda came into existence Western culture had already written the script for Sept 11th.

How consistent is our society ? How consistently do we apply the principles on which it is based ? Take tolerance, for example.

Australia prides itself on the tolerance we practice towards difference within our multicultural society. Any cultural position is allowed, it is purely a personal matter, and no one should have to suffer for their ethnic, religious, sexual or cultural identity. But does this tolerance not have a blind spot ? Is there not one cultural position that simply will not be tolerated within our tolerant society ?

What about the person whose cultural identity involves telling racist jokes ? Or sexist jokes for that matter, or homophobic, or... or... We will tolerate anything — except intolerance. That we will not tolerate.

So to what extent are we really a tolerant society ?

For the Left, of course, the question is not about the right to tell racist jokes. The real issue, however, becomes clearer once we begin to explore further what is excluded from our ‘tolerant’ society, from our democratic political process.

Let us begin with the obvious — Islamic fundamentalism, clearly not acceptable, One Nation populism, likewise. But just why are these political options beyond the pale ? Is it because they seek to impose a social project on society as a whole ? That they stand for a social order that would apply to all ?

And as such are they not condemned as fascist ? Fascist they may well be — but the problem for the Left does not lie with them, it lies with us. What about our social project, what about socialism, or communism, or more loosely a commitment to social justice, to the environment ? Are these not caught in the same net ? Are they not fascist too ?

In other words, is any social project whatsoever not excluded in this way ? Is it not defined in advance as fascist, or totalitarian, and unacceptable as such ?

It is here we find the hole in the centre of Western democracy — anyone can hold any political position they like so long as the existing social order is left untouched.

Where does this leave the Left ? Clearly it can not accept these limitations for its goal is precisely to transform the social order. Somehow a breach must be found, some way of changing what is politically possible and what is not. For Zizek the resistance of the excluded to their exclusion offers one such possibility. We can see how this works in the approach Zizek would adopt towards the refugee crisis. For Zizek, it is the soft liberal humanitarian approach to the boat people that the Left must reject above all, the position that argues as a tolerant, humane society we can not turn our backs on these poor people. To Zizek this is pure ideology.

Instead it is the right wing response to the refugee problem that should be the point of entry for the Left. For when the Right argue that the boat people represent the tip of the iceberg, that accepting them will open the floodgates and lead ultimately to the complete destruction of our way of life, Zizek’s response would be, ‘Yes, that’s exactly why we should accept them’.

Hegel, Zizek & The End Of History

Has history come to an end ? Can history come to an end ? At first glance the idea seems absurd in our fast changing world, there seems to be no shortage of historic events taking place around us, history appears to be alive and kicking. And yet...

The theme of the End of History is not the sole property of right wing liberals, the likes of Francis Fukuyama. For Zizek too, history and its future is very much a problem, a challenge for the Left.

For Zizek as for Fukuyama, the question of history, of historicity, is first posed by Hegel. Zizek’s intellectual line is made up of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who in turn was exposed to Hegel’s philosophy through Alexandre KojÚve’s famous lectures on the Phenomenology, and it is KojÚve who first revives Hegel’s idea that history can and has come to an end.

KojÚve leaves no room for doubt — not only has history come to a halt, it ended with Hegel, just as Hegel himself had claimed a century and a half earlier. Since 1807 we have been living at the endpoint of human history.

How could KojÚve make such a claim ? Was he totally ignorant of all that had taken place since Hegel completed his system of philosophy ? Far from it, but for KojÚve all the events of the past two centuries fall under a single process, the same process first outlined by Hegel in his History of Philosophy, namely the spread of universal freedom, embodied in the modern, liberal, democratic state. The process might not yet be complete, not every corner of the planet has been brought into the fold, but this is simply a matter of time.

It is not a matter of history.

What is history ? For KojÚve, as for Hegel, history is not events, still less is it change. History is a narrative, hiSTORY, it is the story we tell that tells us how we got to be where we are. In Hegel’s version it is the story of freedom, of how freedom makes its appearance in the world and comes to realise its nature by spreading itself universally, across humanity, for this freedom is in fact the essence of what it is to be human.

Hegel’s history therefore is a backwards teleology — history has a goal, an end, and this end is where we are now, so that what defines a past event as historical is that we are now able to identify it as one of the events that led up to the present. In other words it is the present that defines what is historical and what is not. But history is not simply this story. For Hegel the movement of history is not the flow of historical events, even where these have led up to the present. History occurs with the telling of a new story for the first time, history is the REwriting of history. This rewriting, and only this rewriting, is history in the true sense. Zizek, as he often does, puts it in the form of a joke —

A Hegelian student is asked by his history teacher,

‘Is it true that Napoleon won the battle of Austerlitz ?'

To which the student replies,

‘We'll see.'

This is exactly the answer Hegel would be seeking, for with Hegel it is not the past that makes the present but the present that makes the past that makes the present.

And of course the ability to impose a new story on history, to decide over and over again whether Napoleon did or did not win the battle of Austerlitz, [did Germany really lose World War II looking back from the 1970’s, did Britain really win ?] it is precisely this ability that defines the freedom that makes us human in Hegel’s eyes. Just as history is the history of freedom, freedom is the freedom to make history. It is in this sense that Marx turns out to be a true Hegelian. For what Marx does is to rewrite Hegel’s story, replacing freedom with the market, so that Hegel’s history becomes none other than the universal spread of the commodity relation, idealised in the form of the liberal state of property-owning citizens. In Marx’s version history can not come to a halt here because this state masks the brutal reality of class relations under capitalism, and because it does not realise the real essence of what it is to be human for Marx, which is to be social individuals — determining the nature of the society we live in while our own individual natures are in turn defined by this same society we ourselves determine. It is the universal spread of communism, not bourgeois freedom, that is now the final end of history. History is the history of social human beings coming to the point where they make their own history.

Except that history didn’t turn out that way. Instead we have had something else — the End of History, otherwise known as the death of the Grand Narrative, the PostModern Condition. History has ended because no one believes in stories any more.

For Zizek the irony is that this gives Hegel the last word over Marx — history has been rewritten and Marx put in his historical place — communism as a modernising force among backward nations that now gives over to liberal capitalism. However Zizek is light years from the triumphalism of Fukuyama, for in Zizek’s view Hegel has the edge on Marx because it is Hegel’s conception of history that leaves the door open for — history. Hegel can account for the postmodern end of history — as itself history — whereas Marxism cannot.

Zizek’s point is that Hegel’s conception, even though it tells a story about universal freedom, still allows for new historical departures, Marxism being one and postmodernism [or neo-liberalism, arguably the same thing] another. Marx’s position, however, imagines a society for which history ['pre-history’ in Marx’s own words] in Hegel’s sense of the term is no more. Once we have communism we stay with it, even though the exact form of communist society may change radically over time, what is not allowed is a departure from communism that would rewrite the [hi]story that Marx has told.

It is from Hegel then, that Zizek derives his political stance. What is required is to kickstart history again, and the way to do that is by doing the impossible, by carrying out an act that rewrites history, that redefines what is possible politically and what is not. For Zizek there is nothing from within today’s political landscape that offers the Left anything positive, instead what must be done is to look outside the frame, to change the rules, to transform the landscape, so that once more we can move to a new end of history, our end, the one we have chosen to write and fought to realise.

Davie Maclean
Jan 25th 2002