Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On Zizek on Heidegger on Hegel

I recently read a new paper by Zizek on Heidegger's criticism of Hegel. The pdf can be downloaded here. Like much of Zizek's work, it is an impressive and exciting paper particularly in the way it clarifies and presents Lacan in relation to both Heidegger and Meillassoux. I suspect this paper is something of an opening volley in the battle to come with Zizek's publication of his magnum opus, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, in April of this year. Zizek has claimed that this century will come to be known as the Hegelian century and he no doubt hopes his book will be a major step in philosophy's recognition of this fact. It may be that one of the major things standing in the way of Zizek's Hegelian Return, at least on the Continental side of the issue, is the ongoing influence of Heidegger. Heidegger himself oriented his work, as he put it, on the front in opposition to Hegel and, I would claim, this opposition continued in one form or another throughout his career.

It is probably unsurprising that I am unconvinced by Zizek's defense of Hegel against Heidegger. This is an ongoing argument concerning what several of my colleagues and I call the "bad reading of Hegel". I am, by and large, a defender of the "bad reading" which maintains that Hegel meant his talk of the end of history seriously and that the ultimate goal, for Hegel, of historical and philosophical development is the achievement of a conceptual transparency in which subject and object, concept and world, individual and state achieve self-conscious unity (or, better yet, identity). 

Against the "bad reading" are various proposals which seek to claim something like the following: the transparency Spirit achieves at the "end of its history" consists not in any actual stable end achieved through the sublation of all contradictions but rather in the recognition of the dialectical nature of history and thought. In other words, the recognition of the inescapable and inevitable nature of the dialectic, and thus the location of all thinkers or philosophies within such an on going dialectic, is what it means for Spirit to ultimately achieve the Absolute. The Absolute becomes, on this reading, a recognition of the nature of our finitude. (Let me note that this is, at best, a rough sketch of what some of the "good reading" might consist in. It may be that adherents of the "good reading" will wish to offer a far more nuanced view. They are absolutely encouraged to do so here.) 

Zizek attributes the "bad reading", although he doesn't use this term, to the young Hegelians, Heidegger and the Heidegger-influenced major French Hegelians who were to have a major influence over existentialism and post-structuralism. This later group includes such figures as Koyre, Kojeve and Hyppolite. Their reading of Hegel is located, by Zizek, in their critique of Hegel's System as being unable to mediate the contradiction between the dialectical method and the ambition of the System to be a whole within which all contradictions would be sublated. As Zizek states it: 

"While Hegel's method approaches reality in its dynamic development, discerning in every determinate form the seeds of its own destruction and self-overcoming, his system endeavors to render the totality of being as an achieved order in which no further development is in view."

Zizek's strategy is to argue that this critique of Hegel is wrong because it relies upon a misreading of Hegel. In the course of his argument, however, he will also suggest that Hegel and Lacan have recognized something about the nature of subjectivity and language in comparison with which Heidegger's view is found to be inadequate. In response to this I would like to argue that Zizek's criticisms of Heidegger in fact fail because his conception of Heidegger's views of language are wrong, or at least partial at best. When we consider more fully some of Heidegger's views of language we find that he doesn't differ in many of the ways Zizek assumes from the views of Lacan, although of course there are undoubtedly other important differences between the two thinkers.     

Zizek builds his contrast between Heidegger and Lacan upon two different poetic images of language: Heidegger's claim that language is the house of Being and Lacan's claim that language is the torture-house of the subject. In contrast to Heidegger's sense that through an openness to the disclosive power of language one can draw close to Being, Zizek claims that it is precisely language that tyrannizes over the subject. The subject is constituted by language for Lacan but only to the extent that it is effaced, mutilated, by the necessity of its own ultimate non-appearance within language. As Zizek presents this, the characteristic which defines human subjectivity is the non-biological aspects of originally biological desires. For desires to be humanly experienced they must be mapped onto the symbolic framework offered by language and, in doing so, they must be tortured and forced into adherence. The object of desire, Lacan's objet petit a, is the mark of the amputation desire undergoes in being cut off from the original biology of the libido in order to be socially and symbolically structured. The subject is left forever pursuing this original unknowable object of desire through various, always doomed to inadequacy, diversions of desire. The Real of jouissance, then, is the unachievable point at which the subject could transparently appear as what it is to itself free of the demands of the structuring language. 

In general, then, language represents the primordial loss through which the subject is created as a lack and by which the subject is motivated through the torture of a quest for renewed wholeness. The goal of psychoanalysis becomes, on this model, the work of making these inescapable conflicts apparent, not so that the subject may escape the torture-house of language for to do so would be to no longer be a subject or human, but rather so that the subject may gain some perspective on the form this quest takes within its own life so that impossible expectations can be deflated. But there is also opened up a more redemptive work as well, for the extent to which language makes available truth is precisely the extent to which its basic structures are destabilized. Openness to the disclosures of language does not offer truth, then, but rather violent active wrenching manipulations of language do. As Zizek states it:

This is what Heidegger ignores: this dark, torturing other side of our dwelling in language and this is why there is also no place for the Real of jouissance in Heidegger's edifice, since the torturing aspect of language concerns primarily the vicissitudes of libido. This is also why, in order to get the truth to speak, it is not enough to suspend the subject's active intervention and let language itself speak - as Elfriede Jelinek put it with extraordinary clarity: "language should be tortured to tell the truth."

 There are a few things we can say immediately to Zizek's Lacanian critique of Heidegger. First, it is worth noting that the contrast between language as the house of being and language as a prison, or torture, house is one of tone more than content. In either case language is both what is necessary for humans to be human, for beings and Being to show up at all. Heidegger, concerned as he was with modern epistemology, felt the need to stress that what for a Descartes would show up as language's distancing of us from reality is, rather, the very miracle of our openness to Being in the first place. The finitude of disclosure is not some deadly failing, but rather an essential characteristic of what it is be human, the respect for which is required to live a fully meaningful rich human life. Heidegger and Lacanian psychoanalysis alike seek to reconcile the patient to the richness concealed within language's limits. But this is all a small point. There are two deeper points to make.

First, Heidegger's "language is the house of being" is not as easy to interpret as Zizek may have us think. Heidegger's philosophy of language is both more complex and, perhaps, less monolithic than it may appear. Although there are places where Heidegger strongly suggests that language is the most basic form of world-disclosure, for example in the "Origin of the Work of Art", there are other times when language's role is different. Within Being and Time, for example, the three equiprimordial characteristics of Dasein are attunement (befindlichkeit generally translated as "state-of-mind" which has too mentalist a flavor for my taste), understanding and discourse. The point that they are equiprimordial stresses that no one characteristic is the foundation of the others. Language would fall within the framework of discourse. But what is important to note here is that our pre-ontological understanding of Being is also always already revealed in our general attunement to the world (say through a mood of joy, awe, boredom or anxiety) and our worldly understanding which itself is better described in terms of an implicit knowing-our-way-around rather than an explicit and discursive form of knowledge. In being able to navigate my way about a task in my office I am also, in a practical sense, understandingly oriented towards Being. Discourse shows up in the fact that attunement and understanding, while not themselves basically or whole discursive, have the ability to be interpreted through speech and have always already been so interpreted to some extent. This interpretation is not, however, ever exhaustive of our attunement or understanding. Words fail to fully capture, express or interpret what it is that we know when we understand Being through our daily activities or our general attunement with the world. Equiprimordiality, then, expresses an ongoing hermeneutic relationship between all three of these characteristics with each influencing, changing and responding to the others without any of the three ever fully eclipsing the others. If we focus on the relationship between understanding and discourse we can find this same distinction within Heidegger's lectures on Aristotle in Plato's Sophist where nous is presented as a pre-linguistic sense of the world which only later arrives at partial articulation in speech. 

Keeping in mind, then, what we have said we might compliment Zizek's focus on "language is the house of Being" with another poetic image drawn from the close of Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism":

In this way language is the language of Being, as clouds are the clouds of the sky.

Clouds, to a large extent, are what we see of the expanse of the sky. When we look at the sky we most often see what is foregrounded against the background of the expanse. Clouds tell us something of the sky, but never all there is to know. They are always elements within the expanse, expressions of it. Moments when clouds draw closest to revealing the sky in its totality, during a storm for example, are precisely the moments when the sky is blotted from sight. Clouds are, then, as much expressions as they are concealments. Furthermore, clouds only exist (excepting perhaps ground level fogs or non-weather related clouds of steam or smoke) within and as a part of the sky. And, indeed, houses are similar. It is a house within which one is as often hidden from sight as revealed and there are few things as lonely, but as common, as an empty house. In other words, though language is the house of Being language might often be an empty of abandoned house.

Putting aside our poetic excursion we might summarize by stating, then, that for Heidegger (at the very least often within his career if not, perhaps, always) language always fails to capture, not only the totality of Being, but even the totality of what we understanding of Being. But things are even worse than this, for discourse has an inherent tendency to become empty talk, a mere repeating of traditionally inherited formulations. This danger would become, in Heidegger's later work, the danger of enframing in which a specific way of speaking, thinking and acting had not only become an empty and concealing/destructive repetition but also a denial of its own nature. In other words, as idle talk and ossified tradition become technological enframing in Heidegger it becomes clearer and clearer that language is just as much the prison-house of Being as it is anything else. Contemporary Dasein, constituted as it is by the attunement (boredom) understanding (objectifying calculation and manipulation) and discourse (mathematical logic perhaps) found within enframing is just as tortured (transformed into raw material for purposeless domination) and haunted by pointless quests (the endless pursuit of the larger, faster, and newer without any real understanding why) as the Lacanian subject. 

In response to the threat of enframing, then, it may indeed be the case that language is in need of torture and it is a torture with which Heidegger had been familiar throughout his career. Because tradition always comes to us to a greater or lesser extent reified through an empty repeating it requires a break with the standard manners of speech and understandings of the tradition for disclosive power to be returned to either tradition or language. Early in Heidegger's career this took the form of the de-struction of the historical tradition. History has to be de-structured so that it may once again reveal what it has to say. In turn the openness to poetic disclosure Heidegger would express an interest in later in his life can only show up, in opposition to enframing, as an actively difficult pursuit dramatically different from normal ways of thought and speech. To not speak in terms of calculative means-end rationality, to not think in terms of practical maximization of returns, is to speak and think in a way that contemporary language and thought attempts to foreclose. There is as much a violence here as there is in the rather unexpected interpretations Heidegger had offered of traditional philosophical figures in the course of the de-structuring of philosophy's history. 

The second point I wish to make in response to Zizek's Lacanian critique will only be mentioned briefly. It is that the role played by the term "biological", and for that case "libido", in Zizek's paper marks a problem for Zizek's-Lacan and not a lack for Heidegger. Perhaps it is for the sake of brevity that Zizek has appealed to the standard psychoanalytic view of the libido as representing a complex of originally bodily and natural drives which are then structured by social and linguistic forces. I tend to read Lacan in a way that problematizes to a much greater extent the role of the body, especially any "natural" body. In general I suspect Zizek himself favors such a reading as well as, indeed, the Marxist tradition Zizek locates himself within does. One of the major characteristics of Heidegger's thought, and perhaps one of the sadly few elements we can look on as in any sense positive during his Nazi period, is his consistent rejection of any positing of basic biological characteristics or facts. This is why Heidegger, for whatever else he may have been, was never racist in the Nazi biologistic sense. If, from Zizek's view, the failure of Heidegger's views of language rests in his rejection of some tension between natural-body and social-language I suspect Zizek's own Marxist tradition and Lacan himself will fare little better. The story Zizek tells, then, is a little too neat and needs to be complicated by the manner in which the very forces redirected and structured by language in order to form the subject are themselves artifacts with social, historical and linguistic origins. Hegel himself would, likewise, suggest that biological desires or drives are not givens, but rather show up mediated at a certain level of the historical dialectic and, as such, are inadequate expressions of the human condition.

Finally I would like to take a moment to actually discuss Hegel and Heidegger's relation to him, a subject which admittedly this post and Zizek's paper deals with surprisingly little. Any full response to Zizek's paper would have to make his claim for a Lacanian-Hegel its crux. In other words, the real question would have to be whether the "bad reading" or "good reading" of Hegel is correct. But Zizek does little, here at least, to defend his interpretation of Hegel. He relies simply on the suggestion that Hegel's claim that "there is nothing which is not logos" could be interpreted as stating that logos is, in its very nature, not-all but rather is inescapably incomplete, contradictory and in tension with itself. This would be the "good reading" assertion of Hegel's recognition of the inescapable nature of dialectic. We can, of course, find a fuller defense of this claim in Zizek's other works and I suspect we will find it extensively developed and defended in his upcoming book which I anxiously await. My ultimate suspicion, though, is that what we witness here is a rhetorical rather than an interpretive move. Hegelians are in a position, I suspect, much like Marxists and, indeed, Heideggerians. They face a body of thought with great promise which, nonetheless, is marked by internal and historical failures. It seems right that Hegel needs to be rethought and made more fully applicable to our historical moment, but this rethinking need not masquerade as a claim that Hegel really meant to speak (or indeed did speak) other than he did. Students of Marx have done very well to admit that Marx's thought faced certain failures and needs to be rethought and reformulated. Students of Heidegger should do the same. We need not cover up or deny inconsistencies or deny that we are continuing, rather than simply explaining, the work of the thinkers we engage with.

One of Heidegger's earliest influences was a thinker who understood himself to be precisely continuing the work of Hegel without engaging in what he understood to be some of Hegel's excesses. The thinker I have in mind is Dilthey, and it is with Dilthey that Heidegger's own opposition to Hegel largely begins.  As I have argued in my paper "Pushing the Hegelian Front: On Heidegger's Renovation of Dilthey" which I presented at SPEP in 2010, one of the major ideas Heidegger drew from Dilthey was his focus on the importance of Hegel's concept of Objective Spirit along with a rejection of the move to Absolute Spirit. Objective Spirit is the manner in which Spirit knows itself through the concrete structures and artifacts of a culture. Practices, ways of speaking, texts, tools, buildings, and so on all are elements of Objective Spirit. They each express a certain self-understanding of a culture but they do so only partially and incompletely. Their translation into understanding is always incomplete precisely in the way that the interpretation of attunement and understanding into discourse, for Heidegger, is always incomplete and leaves some portion of our relation to, and understanding of, Being unexpressed. For Hegel, at least from my view and that of Dilthey, the move from Objective Spirit to Absolute Spirit is a move in which Spirit is no longer limited by anything external in its self-understanding and need only concern itself with ever increasing self-transparency. The realms of Absolute Spirit are, then, art, religion and philosophy with each phase presenting more fully and transparently Spirit's own self-understanding. The conceptual understanding achieved in philosophy represents an escape from the sensuous and allegorical elements of art and religion such that absolute transparency is possible. There is nothing philosophy wishes to state that its language keeps it from being able to state. At last message and medium meet. What it says and what it means are one and the same. Dilthey, however, locates art, religion and philosophy within Objective Spirit which means that even they fail to escape from historical sensuous limitations and even they fail to ever arrive at complete self-transparency. Hermeneutics is, then, always called for because even the purest of conceptual philosophical texts, say Hegel's Logic, fail to fully say what they mean in completely adequate language. For Heidegger this is a fundamental characteristic of the nature of language; it always has something of the earth (in the sense he uses the term in the "Origin of the Work of Art") remaining in it. Language is never used up in totally bringing to disclosure what it means, but some element of its meaning always withdrawals or resonates at the level of attunement and practical understanding rather than the level of pure discursive thought. We can think, here, in terms of the sensuous nature of even the most abstract conceptual philosophical language. Certain words will always mean more than they say and often say more than they mean. Sounds will summon forth emotional implications, the very look of the words will influence their meaning. In short, Spirit's relationship to itself is always hermeneutic and never transparent and, further, it is always mediated by the characteristics of its historical time and place. There is a lot more to say about Heidegger's relation to Hegel, particularly when it comes to the nature of the dialectic, but I think I have said enough for now. Those who are interested in the issue of the dialectic may wish to look at my previous post in which I presented some of the characteristics of Heidegger's rejection of the dialectic.   




  1. So I now have about 70 pages that might at least partially respond to this post if you are interested. I will, however, edit it down to a blog worthy comment later this week.

  2. Yeah, 70 pages might be a bit much for a blog comment. Do try to work it into some kind of comment though, and I would love to read the full text if you want to email it to me.

    1. Zizek is simple minded as usual. If nothing nihiliating in Heidegger names “self-relating negativity,” in Hegel, then obviously this turn of Heidegger is departing from the cave where Zizek stands whimpering about the "something that does NOT (and cannot ever) appear" (in the cave) as if Heidegger was not aware of this. Ridiculous.

      I agree that there is a question of tone more then content, but is there even a question of tone? Since Heidegger is extremely critical of beings being strangled by das Man's increasingly hellacious hold.

      Actually Jelinek is Heideggerian and Zizek doesn't understand this.

      I greatly admire Lacanian psycoanalysis and its luxuriant place beside we who are seduced and dazzled by the figures of the the cave.

      Wrongheaded or not I will end my spiel by saying that Zizek is trying to rescue his psychoanalytic troop and is in this reactionary and obscurantist, and shall never become a philosopher.

      One last example: "Language as the “big Other” is not an agent of wisdom to whose message we should attune ourselves"

      Zizek idiotically misses the point here. One searches language in order to go underneath oneself and as a would be destroyer of our own wisdom by learning its undermost origin. Zizek mistakes Heidegger's deep regard and respect for our forerunners and the even the cave itself that would left to its devices become Absolute Cave Spirit, he mistakes this for the wonder proper to the task of the questioner who would think. He mistakes the preparation in the cave for the journey itself, in his typical pedestrian fashion.

      The Carnap quote is also stupendously inane, for the degree in which it is inappropriate, and proves without a doubt that Zizek is clueless.

      Anyway, sorry for the trouble, but this rant helped me to see Zizek's mistake more clearly. As I hadn't fully noticed it before. Unconscious paradigms or sheer willful misreading or tactical ploy for Slovakian Lacanisnism, hard to say for sure.

  3. It's not "Slovakian", it's Slovenian Lacanianism. Slovenia and Slovakia are two different countries. :rolleyes: