Introduction: Eppur si muove

Slavoj Žižek

There are two opposed types of stupidity. The first is the (occasionally) hyper-intelligent subject who just doesn’t “get it,” who understands a situation logically, but simply misses its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I first visited New York, a waiter at a café asked me: “How was your day?” Mistaking the phrase for a genuine question, I answered him truthfully (“I am dead tired, jet-lagged, stressed out…”), and he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot … and he was right: this kind of stupidity is precisely that of an idiot. Alan Turing was an exemplary idiot: a man of extraordinary intelligence, but a proto-psychotic unable to process implicit contextual rules. In literature, one cannot avoid recalling Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Schwejk, who, when he saw soldiers shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no-man’s land and started to shout: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The arch-model of this idiocy is, however, the naïve child from Andersen’s tale who publicly exclaims that the emperor is naked—thereby missing the point that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked beneath our clothes.


The second and opposite figure of stupidity is that of the moron: the stupidity of those who fully identify with common sense, who fully stand for the “big Other” of appearances. In the long series of figures beginning with the Chorus in Greek tragedy—which plays the role of canned laughter or crying, always ready to comment on the action with some common wisdom—one should mention at least the “stupid” common-sense partners of the great detectives: Sherlock Holmes’s Watson, Hercule Poirot’s Hastings… These figures are there not only to serve as a contrast to and thus make more visible the detective’s grandeur; they are indispensable for the detective’s work. In one of the novels, Poirot explains to Hastings his role: immersed in his common sense, Hastings reacts to the crime scene the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react, and it is only in this way, by including in his analysis the expected reaction of the common-sense “big Other,” that the detective can solve the crime.


But does this opposition cover the entire field? Where, for instance, are we to put Franz Kafka, whose greatness resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present idiocy as something entirely normal and conventional? (Recall the extravagantly “idiotic” reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law). For this third position, we need look no further than the Wikipedia entry for “imbecile”: “Imbecile is a term for moderate to severe mental retardation, as well as for a type of criminal. It arises from the Latin word imbecillus, meaning weak, or weak-minded. ‘Imbecile’ was once applied to people with an IQ of 26–50, between ‘moron’ (IQ of 51–70) and ‘idiot’ (IQ 0–25).” So it is not too bad: beneath a moron, but ahead of an idiot—the situation is catastrophic, but not serious, as (who else?) an Austrian imbecile would have put it. Problems begin with the question: where does the root “becile” preceded by the negation (“im-”) come from? Although the origins are murky, it is probably derived from the Latin baculum (stick, walking stick, staff), so an “imbecile” is someone walking around without the help of a stick. One can bring some clarity and logic into the issue if one conceives of the stick on which we all, as speaking beings, have to lean, as language, the symbolic order, that is, what Lacan calls the “big Other.” In this case, the tripartite idiot-imbecile-moron makes sense: the idiot is simply alone, outside the big Other, the moron is within it (dwelling in language in a stupid way), while the imbecile is in between the two—aware of the need for the big Other, but not relying on it, distrusting it, something like the way the Slovene punk group Laibach defined their relationship towards God (and referring to the words on a dollar bill “In God we trust”): “Like Americans, we believe in God, but unlike Americans, we don’t trust him.” In Lacanese, an imbecile is aware that the big Other does not exist, that it is inconsistent, “barred.” So if, measured by the IQ scale, the moron appears brighter than the imbecile, he is too bright for his own good (as reactionary morons, but not imbeciles, like to say about intellectuals). Among the philosophers, the late Wittgenstein is an imbecile par excellence, obsessively dealing with variations of the question of the big Other: is there an agency which guarantees the consistency of our speech? Can we reach certainty about the rules of our speech?


Does not Lacan aim at the same position of the (im)becile when he concludes his “Vers un signifiant nouveau” with: “I am only relatively stupid—that is to say, I am as stupid as all people—perhaps because I got a little bit enlightened”?[1] One should read this relativization of stupidity—“not totally stupid”—in the strict sense of non-All: the point is not that Lacan has some specific insights which make him not entirely stupid. There is nothing in Lacan which is not stupid, no exception to stupidity, so that what makes him not totally stupid is only the very inconsistency of his stupidity. The name of this stupidity in which all people participate is, of course, the big Other. In a conversation with Edgar Snow in the early 1970s, Mao Zedong characterized himself as a hairless monk with an umbrella. Holding an umbrella hints at the separation from heaven, and, in Chinese, the character for “hair” also designates law and heaven, so that what Mao is saying is that—in Lacanese—he is subtracted from the dimension of the big Other, the heavenly order which regulates the normal run of things. What makes this self-designation paradoxical is that Mao still designates himself as a monk (a monk is usually perceived as someone who, precisely, dedicates his life to heaven)—so how can one be a monk subtracted from heaven? This “imbecility” is the core of the subjective position of a radical revolutionary (and of the analyst).


The present book is thus neither The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hegel, nor is it yet another university textbook on Hegel (which would be for morons, of course); it is something like The Imbecile’s Guide to Hegel—Hegel for those whose IQ is somewhere close to their bodily temperature (in Celsius), as the insult goes. But only something like it: the problem with “imbeciles” is that none of us, as ordinary speakers, knows what the “im” negates: we know what “imbecile” means, but we don’t know what “becile” is—we simply suspect that it must somehow be the opposite of “imbecile.”[2] But what if, here too, persists the mysterious tendency for antonyms (such as heimlich and unheimlich––about which Freud wrote a famous short text) to mean the same thing? What if “becile” is the same as “imbecile,” only with an additional twist? In our daily use, “becile” does not stand on its own, it functions as a negation of “imbecile,” so that, insofar as “imbecile” already is a negation of a kind, “becile” must be a negation of negation—but, and this is crucial, this double negation does not bring us back to some primordial positivity. If an “imbecile” is one who lacks a substantial basis in the big Other, a “becile” redoubles the lack, transposing it into the Other itself. The becile is a not-imbecile, aware that if he is an imbecile, God himself also has to be one.


So what does a becile know that idiots and morons don’t? The legend has it that, in 1633, Galileo Galilei muttered “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”) after recanting before the Inquisition his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun: he was not tortured, it was enough to take him on a tour and show him the torture devices … There is no contemporary evidence that he did in fact mutter this phrase, but today the phrase is used to indicate that, although someone who possesses true knowledge is forced to renounce it, this does not stop it from being true. But what makes this phrase so interesting is that it can also be used in the exact opposite sense, to assert a “deeper” symbolic truth about something which is literally not true—like the “Eppur si muove” story itself, which may well be false as a historical fact about Galileo’s life, but is true as a designation of Galileo’s subjective position while he was forced to renounce his views. In this sense, a materialist can say that, although he knows there is no God, the idea of a God nonetheless “moves” him. It is interesting to note that, in “Terma,” an episode from the fourth season of The X-Files, “E pur si muove” replaces the usual “The truth is out there,” meaning that, even if their existence is denied by official science, alien monsters nonetheless move around out there. But it can also mean that, even if there are no aliens out there, the fiction of an alien invasion (like the one in The X-Files) can nonetheless engage us and move us: beyond the fiction of reality, there is the reality of the fiction.[3]


Less Than Nothing endeavors to draw all the ontological consequences from this “Eppur si muove.” Here is the formula at its most elementary: “moving” is the striving to reach the void, namely, “things move,” there is something instead of nothing, not because reality is in excess in comparison with mere nothing, but because reality is less than nothing. This is why reality has to be supplemented by fiction: to conceal its emptiness. Recall the old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: “O, God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!” After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: “O, God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing!” After this spectacle, an ordinary poor Jew also stands up and proclaims: “O, God, I am nothing …” The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: “What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he too is nothing!” Effectively, one already has to be something in order to be able to achieve pure nothingness, and Less Than Nothing discerns this weird logic in the most disparate ontological domains, on different levels, from quantum physics to psychoanalysis.


This weird logic, the logic of what Freud called the drive, is perfectly rendered in the hypothesis of the “Higgs field,” widely discussed in contemporary particle physics. Left to their own devices in an environment in which they can pass on their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy; to put it another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, until we reach the vacuum state of zero energy. There are, however, phenomena which compel us to posit the hypothesis that there has to be something (some substance) that we cannot take away from a given system without raising that system’s energy. This “something” is called the Higgs field: once this field appears in a vessel that has been pumped empty and whose temperature has been lowered as much as possible, its energy will be further lowered. The “something” which thus appears is a something that contains less energy than nothing, a “something” that is characterized by an overall negative energy—in short, what we get here is the physical version of how “something appears out of nothing.”


Eppur si muove should thus be read in contrast to many versions of the extinction/overcoming of the drive, from the Buddhist notion of gaining a distance towards desire up to the Heideggerian “going-through” Will which forms the core of subjectivity. This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by an obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive. One should thus (also) invert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of how we relate to the proximity of death in the Kierkegaardian sense of the “sickness into death,” as the series of five attitudes towards the unbearable fact of immortality. One first denies it: “What immortality? After my death, I will just dissolve into dust!” Then, one explodes into anger: “What a terrible predicament I’m in! No way out!” One continues to bargain: “OK, but it is not me who is immortal, only the undead part of me, so one can live with it….” Then one falls into depression: “What can I do with myself when I am condemned to stay here forever?” Finally, one accepts the burden of immortality.


So why do we focus on Hegel? In the history of philosophy (or Western philosophy, which amounts to the same thing), this Eppur si muove arrived at its most consistent formulation in German Idealism, especially in Hegel’s thought. Since, however, the axiom of this book is that “One divides into two,” the central body of the book is split into a part on Hegel and a part on Lacan as a repetition of Hegel. In each case, the book follows the same systematic four-step approach. With Hegel, we begin with the obvious historical question: in what meaningful sense can one still be a Hegelian today, bearing in mind the radically changed historical constellation? Then comes a description of the basic mechanisms or formulae of the dialectical process, followed by the more detailed explication of Hegel’s basic thesis on the Absolute as not only Substance, but also Subject; finally, we raise the difficult non-trivial question of the limitations of the Hegelian project. With Lacan, and bearing in mind that Lacan’s theory is here interpreted as a repetition of Hegel, the first step is the presentation of Lacan’s (explicit and implicit) references to Hegel, that is, of Lacan as a reader of Hegel. What follows is the presentation of suture as the elementary mechanism of the signifying process, the mechanism which enables us to understand Lacan’s definition of the signifier as “that which represents the subject for another signifier.” The next logical step is to examine the object generated by the signifying process, the Lacanian objet a in all its dimensions. Finally, Lacan’s notion of sexual difference and his logic of non-All are submitted to a close reading which uncovers the ultimate limitation and deadlock of Lacanian theory.


It was said (in the old days before smoking became stigmatized) that the second and the third most pleasurable things in the world were the drink before and the cigarette after. Accordingly, apart from the Hegelian Thing, Less Than Nothing also deals with a series of befores (Plato, Christianity, Fichte) and afters (Badiou, Heidegger, quantum physics). Plato’s Parmenides deserves a close reading as the first exercise in dialectics proper, celebrated by Hegel and Lacan. Since Hegel was the philosopher of Christianity, it is no wonder that a Hegelian approach to Christ’s death brings out a radical emancipatory potential. Fichte’s thought is enjoying a deserved comeback: although he sometimes appears to be just one step from Hegel, their universes are thoroughly different, since the way Fichte articulates the relationship between the I and its Other reaches well beyond so-called “subjective idealism.” Alain Badiou’s attempt to overcome Lacan’s anti-philosophy confronts us with the basic question of the possibility of ontology today. Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism. The philosophical implications and consequences of quantum physics are still unexplored—what if, beyond the false alternative of pragmatism (“it works, who cares what it means philosophically”) and New Age obscurantism, a Hegelian reading opens up the path for a new materialist interpretation?


((( On top of this, six interludes are inserted between the chapters of the two central parts, dealing with the reverberations of these philosophical topics in literature, art, science, and ideology, as well as in the work of philosophers opposed to the Hegel/Lacan axis. Three additional topics are elaborated apropos of Hegel: the ambiguities of Marx’s references to Hegel; the unique status of madness in Hegel’s theory of mind; the multiple points at which Hegel’s system generates an excess which threatens to explode its framework (rabble, sexuality, marriage). With regard to Lacan, the first interlude deals with the retroactivity of the signifying process; the second one opposes Lacan’s anti-correlationism to Quentin Meillassoux’s recent critique of post-Kantian correlationism;  the third one explores the limitations of the notion of the subject at work in the cognitive sciences. Finally, the conclusion elaborates the political implications of Lacan’s repetition of Hegel. )))


But how does this reference to Hegel fit our own historical moment? There are four main positions which, together, constitute today’s ideologico-philosophical field: first, the two sides of what Badiou appropriately baptized “democratic materialism”: (1) scientific naturalism (brain sciences, Darwinism…), and (2) discursive historicism (Foucault, deconstruction…); then, the two sides of the spiritualist reaction to it: (3) New Age “Western Buddhism,” and (4) the thought of transcendental finitude (culminating in Heidegger). These four positions form a kind of Greimasian square along the two axes of ahistorical versus historical thought and of materialism versus spiritualism. The thesis of the present book is double: (1) there is a dimension missed by all four, that of a pre-transcendental gap/rupture, the Freudian name for which is the drive; (2) this dimension designates the very core of modern subjectivity.


The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic exchange also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning: in a spontaneous fetishistic misperception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. What one should focus on here is the fundamental ambiguity of this notion of linguistic fetishism: is the idea that, in the good old modern way, we should distinguish between “objective” properties of things and our projections of meanings onto things, or are we dealing with the more radical linguistic version of transcendental constitution, for which the very idea of “objective reality,” of “things existing out there, independently of our mind,” is a “fetishistic illusion” which is blind to how our symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the very reality to which it “refers” or which it designates? Neither of these two options is correct—what one should drop is their underlying shared premise, the (crude, abstract-universal) homology between discursive “production” and material production.[4]


Kafka was (as always) right when he wrote: “One means that Evil has is the dialogue.” Consequently, this book is not a dialogue, since the underlying premise that sustains its double thesis is unashamedly Hegelian: what we refer to as the continent of “philosophy” can be considered as extending as much as one wants into the past or into the future, but there is a unique philosophical moment in which philosophy appears “as such” and which serves as a key—as the only key—to reading the entire preceding and following tradition as philosophy (in the same way that Marx claims that the bourgeoisie is the first class in the history of humanity which is posited as such, as a class, so that it is only with the rise of capitalism that the entirety of history hitherto becomes readable as the history of class struggle). This moment is the moment of German Idealism delimited by two dates: 1787, the year in which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared, and 1831, the year of Hegel’s death. These few decades represent a breath-taking concentration of the intensity of thinking: in this short span of time, more happened than in centuries or even millennia of the “normal” development of human thought. All that took place before can and should be read in an unashamedly anachronistic way as the preparation for this explosion, and all that took place in its aftermath can and should be read as precisely this—the aftermath of interpretations, reversals, critical (mis)readings, of German Idealism.


In his rejection of philosophy, Freud quoted Heinrich Heine’s ironic description of the Hegelian philosopher: “With his nightcap and his night-shirt tatters, he botches up the loopholes in the structure of the world.” (The nightcap and night-shirt are, of course, ironic references to the well-known portrait of Hegel.) But is philosophy at its most fundamental really reducible to a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies in our notion of reality and thus to provide a harmonious Weltanschauung? Is philosophy really a more developed form of the sekundäre Bearbeitung in the formation of a dream, of the effort to harmonize the elements of a dream into a consistent narrative? One can say that, at least with Kant’s transcendental turn, the exact opposite happens: does Kant not fully expose a crack, a series of irreparable antinomies, which emerges the moment we want to conceive reality as All? And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic. It is true that one finds in Hegel a systematic drive to cover everything, to propose an account of all phenomena in the universe in their essential structure; but this drive does not mean that Hegel strives to locate every phenomenon within a harmonious global edifice; on the contrary, the point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart. Hegel’s gaze upon reality is that of a Roentgen apparatus which sees in everything that is alive the traces of its future death.


The basic coordinates of this time of the unbearable density of thought are provided by the mother of all Gangs of Four: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel.[5] Although each of these four names stands for a “world of its own,” for a unique radical philosophical stance, one can arrange the series of the four great German Idealists precisely with reference to the four “conditions” of philosophy elaborated by Badiou: Kant relates to (Newtonian) science, his basic question being what kind of philosophy is adequate to the Newtonian breakthrough; Fichte relates to politics, to the event that is the French Revolution; Schelling relates to (Romantic) art and explicitly subordinates philosophy to art as the highest approach to the Absolute; and Hegel, finally, relates to love, his underlying problem is, from the very beginning of his thought, that of love.


It all begins with Kant, with his idea of the transcendental constitution of reality. In a way, one can claim that it is only with this idea of Kant’s that philosophy reached its own terrain: prior to Kant, philosophy was ultimately perceived as a general science of Being as such, as a description of the universal structure of entire reality, with no qualitative difference from particular sciences. It was Kant who introduced the difference between ontic reality and its ontological horizon, the a priori network of categories which determines how we understand reality, what appears to us as reality. From here, previous philosophy is readable not as the most general positive knowledge of reality, but in its hermeneutic core, as the description of the historically predominant “disclosure of Being,” as Heidegger would have put it. (Say, when Aristotle, in his Physics, struggles to define life and proposes a series of definitions—a living being is a thing which is moved by itself, which has in itself the cause of its movement—he is not really exploring the reality of living beings; he is rather describing the set of pre-existing notions which determine what we always-already understand by “living being” when we designate an object as “alive.”)


The most appropriate way to grasp the radical character of the Kantian philosophical revolution is with regard to the difference between Schein (appearance as illusion) and Erscheinung (appearance as phenomenon). In pre-Kantian philosophy, appearance was conceived as the illusory (defective) mode in which things appear to us, finite mortals; our task is to reach beyond these false appearances to the way things really are (from Plato’s Ideas to scientific “objective reality”). With Kant, however, appearance loses this pejorative characteristic: it designates the way things appear (are) to us in what we perceive as reality, and the task is not to denounce them as “mere illusory appearances” and to reach over them to transcendent reality, but an entirely different one, that of discerning the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do? If, for Plato, a table that I see in front of me is a defective/imperfect copy of the eternal Idea of the table, for Kant, it would have been meaningless to say that the table I see is a defective temporal/material copy of its transcendental conditions. Even if we take a transcendental category like that of Cause, for a Kantian it is meaningless to say that the empirical relation of causality between two phenomena participates in (is an imperfect copy of) the eternal Idea of a cause: the causes that I perceive between phenomena are the only causes that there are, and the a priori notion of Cause is not their perfect model, but, precisely, the condition of possibility of me perceiving the relationship between phenomena as causal.


Although an insurmountable abyss separates Kant’s critical philosophy from his great idealist successors (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel), the basic coordinates which render possible Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit are already there in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. First, as Dieter Henrich put it concisely, “Kant’s philosophical motivation was not identical with what he took to be the original motivation for doing philosophy”[6]: the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task, while Kant’s motivation is a critique of all possible metaphysics. Kant’s endeavor thus comes afterwards: in order for there to be a critique of metaphysics, there first has to be an original metaphysics; in order to denounce the metaphysical “transcendental illusion,” this illusion must first exist. In this precise sense, Kant was “the inventor of the philosophical history of philosophy”[7]: there are necessary stages in the development of philosophy, that is, one cannot directly get at truth, one cannot begin with it, philosophy necessarily began with metaphysical illusions. The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy, which means that successful (“true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions; that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents. The “system” of philosophy is thus no longer a direct ontological structure of reality, but “a pure, complete system of all metaphysical statements and proofs.”[8] The proof of the illusory nature of metaphysical propositions is that they necessarily engender antinomies (contradictory conclusions), and since metaphysics tries to avoid the antinomies which emerge when we think metaphysical notions to their end, the “system” of critical philosophy is the complete—and therefore self-contradictory, “antinomic”—series of metaphysical notions and propositions: “Only the one who can look through the illusion of metaphysics can develop the most coherent, consistent system of metaphysics, because the consistent system of metaphysics is also contradictory”[9]—that is to say, precisely, inconsistent. The critical “system” is the systematic a priori structure of all possible/thinkable “errors” in their immanent necessity: what we get at the end is not the Truth that overcomes/sublates the preceding illusions—the only truth is the inconsistent edifice of the logical interconnection of all possible illusions … is this not what Hegel did in his Phenomenology (and, at a different level, in his Logic)? The only (but key) difference is that, for Kant, this “dialogic” process of truth emerging as the critical denunciation of the preceding illusion belongs to the sphere of our knowledge and does not concern the noumenal reality which remains external and indifferent to it, while, for Hegel, the proper locus of this process is the Thing itself.


Schopenhauer famously compared Kant “to a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife”—the situation of Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus. For Schopenhauer, of course, the point of the comparison is that the masked beauty is philosophy and the wife Christianity—Kant’s radical critique is really just a new attempt to support religion, his transgression is a false one. What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it? What if this critical game radically changes the nature of religion, so that Kant effectively did undermine what it was his goal to protect? Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right?


Fichte’s “radicalization” of Kant is the most problematic link in the chain of German Idealists: he was and is dismissed, ridiculed even, as a half-crazy solipsistic “subjective idealist.” (No wonder that, for the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition, Kant is the only German Idealist to be taken seriously—with Fichte, we enter the domain of obscure speculation.) Being the least popular, it takes the greatest effort to get to the true core of his thought, his “fundamental insight” (Fichte’s Grundeinsicht—the title of Dieter Henrich’s study on Fichte). However, his work is worth the effort: as with all truly great thinkers, a proper understanding of his work reveals an unsurpassed description of the deep structure of engaged subjectivity.


Schelling’s thought is to be divided into two phases, the early “philosophy of identity” and the late “philosophy of revelation”—and, as is so often the case, Schelling’s true breakthrough occurs between the two, in the short period between 1805 and 1815 when he produced his two absolute masterpieces, the treatise on human freedom and the three versions of the “ages of the world” manuscript. A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark “ground of Being” which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is “in God more than God himself.” For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.


In Schelling, the ultimate figure of Evil is not Spirit as opposed to Nature, but Spirit directly materialized in Nature as un-natural, as a monstrous distortion of natural order, from evil spirits and vampires to monstrous products of technological manipulations (clones, etc.). Nature in itself is Good, in it, the evil-ground is by definition always subordinated to the Good: “at each stage of nature prior to the appearance of man the ground is subordinated to existence; in other words, the self-will of the particular is necessarily subordinated to the universal will of the whole. Hence, the self-will of each individual animal is necessarily subordinated to the will of the species, which contributes to the harmony of the whole of nature.”[10] When, with the emergence of man, the ground of existence is allowed to operate on its own, egotistically asserting itself, this does not only mean that it asserts itself against divine love, the harmony of the whole, the universal (non-egotistic) will—it means that it asserts itself in the very form of its opposite: the horror of man is that, in it, Evil becomes radical: no longer simple egotistic evil, but Evil masked (appearing) as universality, as is exemplarily the case in political totalitarianism, in which a particular political agent presents itself as the direct embodiment of the universal Will and Freedom of humanity.[11]


Nowhere is the difference between Hegel’s thought and Schelling’s late philosophy more palpable than apropos the question of the beginning: while Hegel begins with the poorest notion of being (which, in its abstraction, its lack of determinations, equals nothing), Schelling’s “negative philosophy” (which remains part of his system, but supplemented by “positive” philosophy) also begins with the affirmation of a negation, of a void, but this void is the affirmative force of the will’s desire: “all beginning lies in an absence; the deepest potency, which holds fast to everything, is nonbeing and its hunger for being.”[12] From the domain of logic and its a priori notions, we pass into the domain of actual life, whose starting point is a yearning, the “hunger” of a void to be filled in by positive actual being. Schelling’s critique of Hegel is thus that, in order to really pass from being/nothingness to actual becoming which results in “something” positive, the “nothing” with which we begin should be a “living nothing,” the void of a desire which expresses a will to generate or get hold of some content.


The enigma of Henrich’s reading of German Idealism is why he systematically downplays the role of Schelling, especially the middle Schelling of Freiheitschrift and Weltalter. This is mysterious because it was precisely this middle Schelling who explored in the greatest depth what Henrich designates as Fichte’s (and German Idealism’s) central problem, that of the “Spinozism of freedom”: how to think the Ground of Freedom, a trans-subjective Ground of subjectivity which not only does not constrain human freedom but literally grounds it? Schelling’s answer in Freiheitschrift is literally Ground itself: human freedom is rendered possible by the distinction, in God itself, between the existing God and its own Ground, what in God is not yet fully God. This accounts for Schelling’s uniqueness, also with regard to Hölderlin’s “On Judgment and Being”: like the late Fichte (although in a totally different mode, of course), Schelling arrives at the trans-subjective Ground of subjective freedom, but for Hölderlin (and Fichte), this trans-subjective order of Being (or divine Life) is fully One, pre-reflective, indivisible, not even self-identical (because self-identity already involves a formal distance of a term from itself)—it was only Schelling who introduced a radical gap, instability, discord, into this very pre-subjective/pre-reflexive Ground. In his most daring speculative attempt in Weltalter, Schelling tries to reconstruct (to “narrate”) in this way the very rise of logos, of articulated discourse, out of the pre-logical Ground: logos is an attempt to resolve the debilitating deadlock of this Ground. This is why the two true highpoints of German Idealism are the middle Schelling and the mature Hegel: they did what no one else dared to do—they introduced a gap into the Ground itself.


Hölderlin’s famous fragment “On Judgment and Being” deserves further mention, since it is often taken as an indication of a kind of “alternative reality,” of a different path that German Idealism might have taken in order to break out of the Kantian inconsistencies. Its underlying premise is that subjective self-consciousness strives to overcome the lost unity with Being/the Absolute/God from which it has been irrevocably separated by the “primordial division [Ur-Theilung],” the discursive activity of “judgment [Urteil]”:


Being [Seyn]—expresses the joining [Verbindung] of Subject and Object. Where Subject and Object are absolutely, not just partially united [vereiniget], and hence so united that no division can be undertaken, without destroying the essence [Wesen] of the thing that is to be sundered [getrennt], there and not otherwise can we talk of an absolute Being, as is the case in intellectual intuition.


But this Being must not be equated [verwechselt] with Identity. When I say: I am I, the Subject (Ego) and the Object (Ego) are not so united that absolutely no sundering can be undertaken, without destroying the essence of the thing that is to be sundered; on the contrary the Ego is only possible through this sundering of Ego from Ego. How can I say “I” without self-consciousness? But how is self-consciousness possible? Precisely because I oppose myself to myself; I sunder myself from myself, but in spite of this sundering I recognize myself as the same in the opposites. But how far as the same? I can raise this question and I must; for in another respect [Rüksicht] it [the Ego] is opposed to itself. So identity is not a uniting of Subject and Object that takes place absolutely, and so Identity is not equal to absolute Being.


Judgment: is in the highest and strictest sense the original sundering of Subject and Object most intimately united in intellectual intuition, the very sundering which first makes Object and Subject possible, their Ur-Theilung. In the concept of division [Theilung] there lies already the concept of the reciprocal relation [Beziehung] of Object and Subject to one another, and the necessary presupposition of a whole of which Object and Subject are the parts. “I am I” is the most appropriate example for this concept of Urtheilung in its theoretical form, but in practical Urtheilung, it [the ego] posits itself as opposed to the Non-ego, not to itself.


Actuality and possibility are to be distinguished as mediate and immediate consciousness. When I think of an object [Gegenstand] as possible, I merely duplicate the previous consciousness in virtue of which it is actual. There is for us no thinkable possibility, which was not an actuality. For this reason the concept of possibility has absolutely no valid application to the objects of Reason, since they come into consciousness as nothing but what they ought to be, but only the concept of necessity [applies to them]. The concept of possibility has valid application to the objects of the understanding, that of actuality to the objects of perception and intuition.[13]


Hölderlin’s starting point is the gap between (the impossible return to) the traditional organic unity and the modern reflexive freedom: we are, as finite, discursive, self-conscious subjects cast out of oneness with the whole of being to which we nevertheless long to return, yet without sacrificing our independence—how are we to overcome this gap? His answer is what he calls the “eccentric path”: the split between substance and subjectivity, Being and reflection, is insurmountable, and the only reconciliation possible is a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles. While the content remains non-reconciled, reconciliation occurs in the narrative form itself—the exact inverse of the logical assertion of the subject’s identity (I = I) where the very form (division, redoubling, of the I’s) undermines content (identity).


Hölderlin’s solution should be put in its context and conceived as one of the three versions of how to solve the same problem—the gap between subjective autonomy and the organic Whole that characterizes modernity; the other two versions are Schiller’s and Schlegel’s. For Schiller, free human life within nature and culture is possible if it achieves that kind of internal organization, determination from within, or harmony of parts that is characteristic of both natural and artistic beauty. In a beautiful natural object, we find, as it were, “the person of the thing”; we have a sense of “the free consent of the thing to its technique” and of “a rule which is at once given and obeyed by the thing,” and this is a model for the free consent of an individual to the worth of a social repertoire or way of life. Friedrich Schlegel, on the contrary, seeks to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry—a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness. It is easy to see how these three positions form a kind of triangle: Schiller—Schlegel—Hölderlin. Schiller believes in the subject’s integration into the organic substantial order—free selfhood can wholly appear in beautiful nature and art; Schlegel asserts the force of subjectivity as the constant unsettling of any substantial harmony (one can claim that, in German Idealism, this opposition repeats itself in the guise of Schelling versus Fichte—the positivity of the Ur-Grund prior to reflection versus the “eternal restlessness” of subjectivity).


Hegel occupies here a fourth position—what he adds to Hölderlin is a purely formal shift of transposing the tragic gap that separates the reflecting subject from pre-reflexive Being into this Being itself. Once we do this, the problem becomes its own solution: it is our very division from absolute Being which unites us with it, since this division is immanent to Being. Already in Hölderlin, division is redoubled, self-relating: the ultimate division is not the Subject-Object division, but the very division between division (of Subject-Object) and unity. One should thus supplement the formula of “identity of identity and non-identity” with “division between division and non-division.” Once we accomplish this step, Being as the inaccessible pre-reflexive Ground disappears; more precisely, it reveals itself as the ultimate reflexive category, as the result of the self-relating division: Being emerges when division divides itself from itself. Or, to put it in Hölderlin’s terms, the narrative is not merely the subject coping with its division from Being, it is simultaneously the story Being is telling itself about itself. The loss supplemented by the narrative is inscribed into Being itself. Which means that the last distinction on which Hölderlin insists, the one between intellectual intuition (the immediate access to Being, the subject’s direct one-ness with it) and the “eccentric” narrative path (that mediates access to Being through narrative reconciliation), has to fall: the narrative already does the job of intellectual intuition, of uniting us with Being. Or, in more paradoxical terms: the standard relationship between the two terms should be turned around. It is intellectual intuition which is merely a reflexive category, separating us from Being in its very enacting of the subject’s immediate one-ness with Being, and it is the narrative path which directly renders the life of Being itself:


That “the truth is the whole” means that we should not look at the process that is self-manifestation as a deprivation of the original Being. Nor should we look at it only as an ascent to the highest. The process is already the highest. … The subject for Hegel is … nothing but the active relationship to itself. In the subject there is nothing underlying its self-reference, there is only the self-reference. For this reason, there is only the process and nothing underlying it. Philosophical and metaphorical models such as “emanation” (neo-Platonism) or “expression” (Spinozism) present the relationship between the infinite and the finite in a way that fails to characterize what the process (self-manifestation) is.[14]


It is, therefore, Hölderlin, not Hegel, who remains here metaphysical, clinging to the notion of a pre-reflexive Ground accessible through intellectual intuition—what is properly meta-physical is the very presupposition of a substantial Being beyond the process of (self)differentiation. (This is also the reason why—as we can see in the last paragraph of the fragment—Hölderlin subordinates possibility to actuality.) This is why Hegel appropriates the solution of Hölderlin’s Hyperion (what, in reality, cannot be reconciled is reconciled afterwards, through its narrative reconstruction) against Hölderlin himself: in a clear parallel to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Hölderlin sees the solution in a narrative which retroactively reconstructs the very “eccentric path” (the path of the permanent oscillation between the loss of the Centre and the repeated failed attempts to regain the immediacy of the Centre) as the process of maturation, of spiritual education. This solution does not imply discursive constructivism (the consistency of our reality is that of an après-coup narrative), but a much more radical Hegelian position: while the discursive constructivism can be read as a neo-Kantian language-transcendentalism (as Gadamer put it in his paraphrase of Heidegger’s thesis on “language as a house of being,” “to be is to be understood”; that is, the horizon of understanding sustained by language is the ultimate transcendental horizon of our approach to being), that is, while the discursive transcendentalism focuses on how what we experience as “reality” is always-already mediated/constructed by language, Hölderlin’s solution shifts the focus to how (as Lacan put it) the signifier itself falls into the real, that is, how the signifying intervention (narrativization) intervenes into the real, how it brings about the resolution of a real antagonism.


Hegel thus remains the peak of the entire movement of German Idealism: all four are not equal, they are three plus one. But why? What makes Hegel unique? One of the ways to circumscribe this uniqueness of Hegel is to use the Lacanian notion of the “lack in the Other” which, in Hegel’s case, points towards the unique epistemologico-ontological mediation absent in all three other Idealists: the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth). It is the premise of the present book that this “fundamental insight” of Hegel has lost none of its power today; that it is far more radical (and a far greater threat to metaphysical thinking) than all the combined anti-totality topics of contingency-alterity-heterogeneity.[15]


One can well imagine a truly obscene version of the famous “The Aristocrats” joke that easily beats all the vulgarity of family members vomiting, defecating, fornicating, and humiliating each other in all possible ways: when asked to perform, they give the talent agent a short course in Hegelian thought, debating the true meaning of negativity, of sublation, of Absolute Knowledge, and so forth, and, when the bewildered agent asks them the name of the weird show, they enthusiastically reply: “The Perverts!” Indeed, to paraphrase the good old Brecht’s slogan “What is the robbing of a bank against a founding of a new bank?”: what is the disturbing shock of family members defecating into one another’s mouths compared to the shock of a proper dialectical reversal?[16]


However, the aim of Less Than Nothing is not to simply (or not so simply) return to Hegel, but, rather, to repeat Hegel (in the radical Kierkegaardian sense). Over the last decade, the theoretical work of the Party Troika to which I belong (along with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič) had the axis of Hegel-Lacan as its “undeconstructible” point of reference: whatever we were doing, the underlying axiom was that reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa) was our unsurpassable horizon. Recently, however, limitations of this horizon have appeared: with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock—in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots…), all of which failed. So where do we stand now?


My wager was (and is) that, through their interaction (reading Hegel through Lacan and vice versa), psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics mutually redeem themselves, shedding their accustomed skin and emerging in a new unexpected shape. The book’s motto could have been Alain Badiou’s claim that “the anti-philosopher Lacan is a condition of the renaissance of philosophy. A philosophy is possible today only if it is compatible with Lacan.”[17] Guy Lardreau made the same point with regard to the ethico-political space when he wrote that Lacan “is the only one thinking today, the only one who never lies, le chasse-canaille [the scoundrels-hunter]”—and “scoundrels” here are those who propagate the semblance of liberation which only covers up the reality of capitalist perversion, which, for Lardreau, means thinkers such as Lyotard and Deleuze, and for us many more. What Badiou shares with Lardreau is the idea that one should think through Lacan, go further than he did, but that the only way beyond Lacan is through Lacan. The stakes of this diagnosis are clearly political: Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination—the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. Lardreau, together with Christian Jambet, first tried to develop this opening by focusing on the link between domination and sexuality: since there is no sexuality without a relation of domination, any project of “sexual liberation” ends up generating new forms of domination—or, as Kafka would have put it, revolt is not a cage in search of a bird, but a bird in search of a cage. Based on this insight that a revolt has to be thoroughly de-sexualized, Lardreau and Jambet outlined the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation. However, confronted with the destructive violence of the Cultural Revolution and especially of the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea, they abandoned any notion of a radical emancipation in social relations and ended up in a split position of affirming the lesser evil in politics and the need for an inner spiritual revolution: in politics, we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one.[18] The present book rejects this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan.


[1] Jacques Lacan, “Vers un signifiant nouveau,” Ornicar? 17–18 (1979), p. 23.

[2] See Alain Badiou, Le fini et l’infini, Paris: Bayard 2010, p. 10.

[3] Freud’s own eppur si muove was the saying of his teacher Charcot which Freud often repeated: “La théorie, c’est bon, mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister” (“Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent [facts which do not fit it] from existing”), and it goes without saying that the same ambiguity holds for this version, i.e., that it should not be reduced to simple empiricism.

[4] This “discursive materialism” relies on the so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy which emphasizes how language is not a neutral medium of designation, but a practice embedded in a life world: we do things with it, accomplish specific acts… Is it not time to turn this cliché around: who is it that, today, claims that language is a neutral medium of designation? So, perhaps, one should emphasize how language is not a mere moment of the life-world, a practice within it: the true miracle of language is that it can also serve as a neutral medium which just designates a conceptual/ideal content. In other words, the true task is not to locate language as a neutral medium within a life-world practice, but to show how, within this life-world, a neutral medium of designation can nonetheless emerge.

[5] I, of course, fully endorse the results of the new research which demonstrated conclusively not only that there is no simple linear progression in the order of succession of these four names—Fichte and Hegel clearly “misunderstood” Kant in their critique, Schelling misunderstood Fichte, Hegel was totally blind to what is arguably Schelling’s greatest achievement, his treatise of human freedom—but also that, often, one cannot even directly pass from one name to another: Dieter Henrich showed how, in order to grasp the inner logic of the passage from Kant to Fichte, one should take into account Kant’s first critical followers, Reinhold, Jacobi and Schulze, in other words, how Fichte’s early system can only be properly understood as a reaction to these early critics of Kant.

[6] Dieter Henrich, Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2008, p. 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bret W. Davis, Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to the Gelassenheit, Evanston: Northwestern University Press 2007, p. 107.

[11] For a more detailed analysis of this reversal, see my The Indivisible Remainder, London: Verso Books 1996.

[12] F. W. J. Schelling, Sämmtliche Werke, Part 2, Vol. 1, Stuttgart-Augsberg: J. G. Cotta, 1856–61, p. 294, as quoted and translated by Bruce Matthews in his introduction to Schelling’s The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Albany: SUNY Press 2007, p. 34.

[13] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Über Urtheil und Seyn” (1795), as translated in H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Development: Toward the Sunlight 1770–1801, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1972, pp. 515–16.

[14] Henrich, Between Kant and Hegel, pp. 289–90.

[15] I am here deeply indebted to Catherine Malabou, L’avenir de Hegel, Paris: J. Vrin 1996 (available in English as The Future of Hegel, trans. Lisabeth During, New York: Routledge 2005). L’avenir de Hegel is—together with Gerard Lebrun’s La patience du concept and Beatrice Longuenesse’s Hegel et la critique de la métaphysique—one of the books on Hegel that, in an almost regular rhythm of every decade or two, mysteriously surface in France, books which are epochal in the strictest meaning of the word: they redefine the entire field into which they intervene—literally, nothing remains the same after one immerses oneself in one of these books. One cannot but fully agree with Derrida when he wrote that “nothing will ever absolve us from following step by step, page by page, the extraordinary trajectory of The Future of Hegel … I once again urge all to read this book.”

To this series we should add Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2011), the latest “the book” on Hegel, confirming the suspicion that—over the past few decades, at least—only a woman can write a really good book on Hegel.

[16] For “The Aristocrats” see the Wikipedia entry for “The Aristocrats (joke).” One should nonetheless insist that, instead of relying on the reversal of superficial innocence into a dirty (sexualized) message, good jokes more often practice the opposite reversal of vulgar obscenity into innocence, as in the wonderfully stupid (apolitical!) Russian joke from the time of the Soviet Union: two men, strangers to each other, sit in the same compartment on a train. After a long silence, one suddenly addresses the other: “Have you ever fucked a dog?” Surprised, the other replies: “No—have you?” “Of course not. I just asked to start a conversation!”

[17] Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, London: Verso Books 1999, p. 84. Who is anti-philosopher to whom? Badiou somewhere speculates that Heraclitus is the anti-philosopher to Parmenides, the sophists to Plato (although they temporarily and logically precede him), Pascal to Descartes, Hume to Leibniz, Kierkegaard (and Marx?) to Hegel, and even Lacan to Heidegger. However, this picture has to be complicated: is Kant’s thought—or even the entirety of German Idealism with its central motif, the primacy of practical over theoretical reason—not the anti-philosophy to classical metaphysics in its last great mode (of Spinoza and Leibniz)? Or is Sade—in the Lacanian reading—not the anti-philosopher to Kant, so that Lacan’s “avec” means to read a philosopher through his anti-philosopher? And is Hegel’s true anti-philosopher not already the late Schelling? Or, a step even further, is Hegel’s uniqueness not that he is his own anti-philosopher?

[18] Following this path, Jambet immersed himself in the thought of Molla Sadra, the great Iranian thinker from the seventeenth century—a position which is not foreign to the Gnostic turn of European thinkers like Peter Sloterdijk. See Christian Jambet, The Act of Being, New York: Zone Books 2006.