Less Than Nothing:
Hegel and the Shadow of
Slavoj Žižek's masterwork on the Hegelian legacy. For the last two centuries, Western philosophy has developed in the shadow of Hegel, whose influence each new thinker tries in vain to escape: whether in the name of the pre-rational Will, the social process of production, or the contingency of individual existence.
Hegel's absolute idealism has become the bogeyman of philosophy, obscuring the fact that he is the dominant philosopher of the epochal historical transition to modernity; a period with which our own time shares startling similarities.
Today, as global capitalism comes apart at the seams, we are entering a new transition. In Less Than Nothing, the pinnacle publication of a distinguished career, Slavoj Žižek argues that it is imperative that we not simply return to Hegel but that we repeat and exceed his triumphs, overcoming his limitations by being even more Hegelian than the master himself. Such an approach not only enables Žižek to diagnose our present condition, but also to engage in a critical dialogue with the key strands of contemporary thought-Heidegger, Badiou, speculative realism, quantum physics and cognitive sciences. Modernity will begin and end with Hegel.
Bron: Verso Books
Zie: Google Books
Less Than Nothing by Slavoj Žižek
A march through Slavoj Žižek's 'masterwork'
By Jonathan Rée
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has thousands of devoted fans, and it's easy to see why. He is cheeky, voluble and exuberant, and over the past 30 years he has turned high theory into performance art. He was born in communist Yugoslavia in 1949, and received a thorough grounding in Marxism and the principles of "dialectical materialism". In 1971 he got a job in philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, only to be dismissed two years later for being "un-Marxist". After a stretch of military service, he resumed his academic work and spent a few years in Paris with followers of the surrealistic psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In the 80s he adopted English as his working language and launched himself on an international career as a taboo-busting radical theorist.
Žižek is a gifted speaker – tumultuous, emphatic, direct and paradoxical – and he writes as he speaks. He has 50 books already to his credit, and plenty more on the way. His easy familiarity with the philosophical classics may leave some readers gasping for air, but he offers plenty of lifelines in the form of anecdotes, laddish jokes and inexhaustible references to popular culture. And he can always redeem himself, in the eyes of his admirers, by lashing out at multiculturalism, toleration, dialogue and other "liberal sacred cows". He has become the saint of total leftism: a quasi-divine being, than whom none more radical can ever be conceived.
Of course he relies on a formula: to be Žižekian is to hold that Freudian psychoanalysis is essentially correct, and that its implications are absolutely revolutionary. But Žižek's Freud is not everyone's. Old-fashioned Freudians believe that we have masses of juicy secrets locked up inside us, unacknowledged by our well-ordered rational consciousness and clamouring to be set free. For Žižek, however, as for Lacan before him, Freud's great insight was that everything about us – our vaunted rationality as much as our unavowable impulses – is soaked with craziness and ambivalence all the way through.
"The first choice has to be the wrong choice," as Žižek says in his monumental new book, because "the wrong choice creates the conditions for the right choice". There is no such thing as being wholly in the right, or wholly in the wrong; and this principle applies to politics as much as to personal life. Politics, as Žižek understands it, is a rare and splendid thing: no actions are genuinely political unless they are revolutionary, and revolution is not revolution unless it institutes "true change" – the kind of comprehensive makeover that "sets its own standards" and "can only be measured by criteria that result from it". Genuine revolutionaries are not interested in operating on "the enemy's turf", haggling over various strategies for satisfying pre-existing needs or securing pre-existing rights: they want to break completely with the past and create "an opening for the truly New". Authentic revolutions have often been betrayed, but as far as Žižek is concerned, they are never misconceived.
Žižek refuses to indulge in sanctimonious regrets over the failings of 20th-century communism. He has always had a soft spot for Stalin, and likes to tell the story of Uncle Joe's response when asked which of two deviations was worse: both of them are worse, he said, with perfect Lacanian panache. Žižek's objection to Stalinism is not that it involved terror and mass murder, but that it sought to justify them by reference to a happy communist tomorrow: the trouble with Soviet communism, as he puts it, is "not that it is too immoral, but that it is secretly too moral". Hitler elicits similar even-handedness: the unfortunate Führer was "trapped within the horizon of bourgeois society", Žižek says, and the "true problem of nazism" was "not that it went too far … but that it did not go far enough".
In the past few years Žižek has grown bored with the "shitty politics" that made him famous, and Less Than Nothing – which he describes as "my true life's work" – is meant to provide a comprehensive philosophical justification for the attitudes he likes to strike. The germ of the book is a joke about a Jew applying to leave the Soviet Union. "I'm worried that communism is going to collapse, and we Jews will get the blame," Rabinovitch explains. "No need to worry," says the official. "Communism is here to stay." To which Rabinovitch replies, with sudden frankness: "Quite so, and that's my other reason." The truth, in short, emerges only in the wake of muddle and deceit.
Žižek celebrates the wisdom of Rabinovitch through a massive retelling of the entire history of western philosophy, beginning in ancient Greece, passing through 19th-century Germany, and ending with various oddballs he has met on the conference circuit, and a few louts engaged in what he calls "Žižek-bashing". The narrative is focused on Hegel, who understood better than anyone else how all our truths incorporate the errors and delusions from which they emerged. Hegel realised, as Žižek likes to put it, that radical change "retroactively posits its own presuppositions" – in other words, that it alters the past as well as the future – and this means, apparently, that he was a better "dialectical materialist" than Marx could ever be.
Sad bookworms such as me, with rows of ragged volumes of Hegel and Marx on our shelves, will find plenty of well-made points in these pages, but many readers may find themselves lapsing into baffled torpor. Even if you are attracted by Žižek's Hegelian fundamentalism, you are bound to wonder how it connects with his spectacular radicalism. After all it never led Hegel in that direction: he was notoriously timid about political change. And if we accept that there is no truth without error, we may well conclude that it is better to cling to the habits that were good enough for our ancestors than to stake the happiness of future generations on a gamble with incalculable stakes and uncertain prizes.
You may also wonder why Žižek spends so much time talking about philosophers, rather than talking about the things they talked about, let alone the things they neglected or ignored. No doubt he picked up the habit from Hegel; but Hegel was quite explicit about treating the philosophical canon not as a collection of strange books by idiosyncratic authors but as a single unified masterpiece composed by "the one living spirit". Philosophy, as Hegel conceived it, was rather like the Old and New Testaments as seen by evangelical Christians – an epitome of everything that can ever happen in the world, encompassing all we know, and all we need to know. For Hegel, there was no theoretical problem that could not be resolved – by proxy, so to speak – through an all-embracing commentary on philosophy's past.
Two hundred years later, Hegel's view of philosophy is at best a magnificent ruin, and no one can believe in it any more. Except Žižek, that is. He still has faith in "the unity of philosophy", and imagines that he is being profoundly political as he spends tens of thousands of words explaining what Plato really meant, or what is "truly materialist", "authentically Hegelian" or "properly apocalyptic". He never discusses poverty, inequality, war, finance, childcare, intolerance, crime, education, famine, nationalism, medicine, climate change, or the production of goods and services, yet he takes himself to be grappling with the most pressing social issues of our time. He is happy to leave the world to burn while he plays his games of philosophical toy soldiers.
Less than Nothing is marketed as Žižek's "masterwork" and a "true work of love", but it won't give much pleasure even to his fans. His talent for brief intellectual entertainments does not carry over into longer literary forms – let alone this "mega-book", as he calls it, which goes on considerably longer than War and Peace. He does not seem to realise that the purpose of a long book is to build steadily to a culminating revelation, rather than to go on and on until it stops, leaving the argument exactly where it was at the beginning. In the past I have found it hard to dislike Žižek, but after a month's forced march through Less Than Nothing it seems to be getting easier.