I am a Hegelian – but which Hegel am I referring to here? Where am I speaking from?

To simplify it to the utmost, the triad that defines my philosophical stance is that of Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. Spinoza is arguably the pinnacle of realist ontology: there is substantial reality out there, and we can get to know it through our reason, dispelling the veil of illusions. Kant’s transcendental turn introduces a radical gap into this order: we cannot ever gain access to the way things are in themselves, our reason is constricted to the domain of phenomena, and if we try to reach beyond phenomena to the totality of being, our mind gets caught in necessary antinomies and inconsistencies. What Hegel does is he posits that there is no reality in-itself beyond phenomena, which does not mean that all there is is the interplay of phenomena. Phenomenal world is marked by the bar of impossibility, but beyond this bar there is nothing: no other world, no positive reality. So we are not returning to a pre-Kantian realism; it is just that what for Kant is the limitation of our knowledge, the impossibility to reach the thing-in-itself, is inscribed into this thing itself.[1]

But, again, can Hegel still play this role of the unsurpassable horizon for our thinking? Does the true rupture with traditional metaphysical universe, the rupture which defines the coordinates of our thinking, not take place later?

The safest indication of the rupture is our gut feeling that overwhelms us when we read some classical metaphysical. Something tells us that today, we simply cannot any longer think like that… And does such a gut feeling also not overwhelm us when we read Hegel’s speculations about the absolute Idea, etc.? There are a couple of candidates for the rupture, which makes Hegel no longer our contemporary, beginning with the post-Hegelian turn of Schelling, Kierkegaard and Marx. But such a turn can be easily accounted for in the terms of an immanent reversal of German Idealism.

With regard to philosophical issues that have predominated in the last decades, a new and more convincing case for the rupture was made by Paul Livingstone who, in his The Politics of Logic[2], located it in the new space symbolized by the names “Cantor” and “Goedel.” Here, of course, “Cantor” stands for set theory, through self-relating procedures (an empty set, a set of sets), compelling us to admit an infinity of infinities. “Goedel,” for his part, is notable for his two incompleteness theorems, demonstrating that – to simplify it to the utmost – an axiomatic system cannot demonstrate its own consistency since it necessarily generates statements that can neither be proved nor disproved by it.

With the rupture I have referred to, we enter a new universe that compels us to leave behind the notion of a consistent view of (all of) reality. (Even Marxism, at least in its predominant form, can still be viewed as a mode of thinking that belongs to the old universe: it elaborates quite a consistent view of social totality, in some versions even of “the all” of reality.) However, the new universe has nothing whatsoever to do with the irrationalism of Lebensphilosphie whose first representative was Schopenhauer, i.e., with the idea that our rational mind is just a thin surface and that the true basis of reality are irrational drives. We remain within the domain of reason, and this domain is deprived of its consistency from within: immanent inconsistencies of reason do not imply that there is some deeper reality which escapes reason. Rather, these inconsistencies are in some sense “the thing itself.” We find this ourselves in a universe where inconsistencies are not a sign of our epistemological confusion, of the fact that we missed “the thing itself” (which by definition cannot be inconsistent), but, on the contrary, a sign that we touched the real.

The root of inconsistencies is, of course, the paradoxes of self-relating, of a set becoming one of its own elements, of a set including an empty set as one of its sub-sets, as its own stand-in among its sub-sets. The Hegelo-Lacanian perspective conceives these paradoxes as an indication of the presence of subjectivity: the subject can emerge only in the imbalance between a genus and its species. The void of subjectivity is ultimately the empty set as the species, in which a genus encounters itself in its oppositional determination, as Hegel would have put it. But how can the same feature be a sign of subjectivity and simultaneously the sign that we touched the real? Do we not touch the real precisely when we succeed in erasing our subjective standpoint and perceive things ”the way they really are,” independently of our subjective standpoint? The lesson of both Hegel and Lacan is exactly the opposite one: every vision of “objective reality” is already constituted through (transcendental) subjectivity, and we only touch the real when we include into the scope of our vision the cut-in-the-real of subjectivity itself.     

The metaphysics of subjectivity deals with these paradoxes by means of the notion of reflexivity as the basic feature of self-consciousness, of our mind’s ability to relate to itself, to be aware not only of objects but also of itself and of how it relates to objects. The elementary gesture of reflexivity is that of taking a step back and including into the picture or situation one is observing or analyzing one’s own presence. Only in this way one can get the full picture.

When, in a detective novel, the investigator is analyzing the scene of crime, he has to include in it his own presence, his own gaze. Sometimes, the crime is literally staged for him, to attract his gaze, to involve him in the story. In some movies, the detective who investigates a murder discovers that he is directly its addressee, i.e., that the murderer intended the crime as a warning to him. Similarly, in one of the Perry Mason novels, Mason witnesses the police interrogation of a couple suspected of murder and cannot understand why the husband more than willingly narrates all the details of what the couple was doing on the day of the murder. Then, he gets it: the true addressee of the husband’s detailed report was his wife, i.e., he used the opportunity of being together (the two were kept separated in the prison) to tell her their false alibi, the lie they should both stick to… One can also imagine a story, in which a suspected murderer tells to the police a story veiled as blackmailing threat to one of the police detectives themselves. What all these cases share is the fact that to understand a statement, one has to identify its addressee. That’s why a detective needs a figure like Holmes’s Watson or Poirot’s Hastings, somebody who stands for the big Other in its aspect of common sense, the gaze the murderer had in view when he committed the crime.

What becomes palpable with Cantor/Goedel’s rupture is the full amount of self-referential paradoxes that pertain to subjectivity. Once we include our own position in the picture of “the all,” there is no way back to a consistent world-view. The Cantor/Goedel rupture thus renders impossible a consistent totality. We have to choose between totality and consistency –

we cannot have both at the same time – and this choice is actualized in the two orientations of twentieth-century thought baptized by Livingston generic (Badiou’s stance of opting for consistency at the expense of totality) and paradoxico-critical (opting for totality at the expense of consistency: not quite convincingly Livingstone throws into this pot Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben and Lacan).

At this point we notice the first strange fact in Livingston’s edifice, a surprising imbalance. Although paradoxico-critical and generic are presented as two ways to deal with the new universe which renders a consistent totality impossible, we get on the one side a multiplicity of very divergent thinkers and on the other side one name alone, Badiou. The implication of this imbalance is clear: it demonstrates that the true topic of Livigston’s book is, namely how to provide a proper paradoxico-critical answer to Badiou’s generic approach. Livingston treats Badiou with great respect and is well aware that the logical and political foundations of his generic position are elaborated in a much more precise manner than the respective positions of the main representatives of the paradoxico-critical approach. What makes Badiou so important is that he explicitly elaborates his position on the topic indicated by the title of Livingston’s book, “the politics of logic”: the profound political implications of the philosophico-logical topic of consistency, totality, and the paradoxes of self-reference. Do such paradoxes not lie at the very heart of every power edifice, which has to impose itself in an illegitimate way and then retroactively legitimize its exercise of power? 

While I deeply appreciate Livingston’s approach, my differences with him are multiple. First, the basic duality of the universe of thought that precedes the Cantor/Goedel rupture is, for me, not the one between the ontotheological and the criteriological, but the one between the ontological (in the sense of realist universal ontology) and the transcendental – between Spinoza and Kant, to give two exemplary names. Second, the true rupture with this universe is enacted already by Hegel, and post-Hegelian thought is a regression with regard to Hegel. Livingston’s stance towards Hegel is clear: while he admits that Hegel’s dialectics is an exemplary case of inconsistent totality, he claims that in Hegel’s thought this inconsistency is ultimately “sublated” in a larger totality of rational self-development, so that antagonisms and contradictions are reduced to subordinate moments of the One. Although this view may appear almost self-evident, one should nonetheless question it. After all, Hegel differs from paradoxico-critical stance not because in his thought all antagonisms and contradictions are “sublated” in the One of dialectical totality; the difference is much more subtle.       

To explain this difference, let’s make a detour through Lacan. For a Lacanian, it is immediately evident that Livingston’s duality of the generic and the paradoxico-critical perfectly fits the duality of the masculine side and the feminine side of the “formulas of sexuation.” Badiou’s generic position is clearly “masculine”: we have the universal order of being (the ontological structure of which is described in detail in Badiou’s work), and the exception of truth-events which can happen occasionally. The order of being is consistent and continuous, obeying strict ontological rules, allowing no self-referential paradoxes. It is a universe with no pre-established unity, a universe composed of multitudes of multitudes, of many worlds and many languages.

Badiou provides a great lesson against the traditional wisdom, according to which life is a circular movement and ultimately everything returns to dust.[3] This closed circle of reality, of its generation and corruption, is not all there is: miracles happen from time, the circular movement of life is suspended by the irruption of something that traditional metaphysics and theology called eternity, a moment of stasis in the double sense of the term (fixation, freeze of the movement of life, and simultaneously disturbance, unrest, the rise of something that resists the regular flow of things). Think about falling in love: it is a radical disturbance of my life as usual, and my life gets frozen by the fixation on the beloved…

In contrast to this logic of the universal order of being and its eventual exception, paradoxico-critical approach focuses on the immanent inconsistencies and disturbances of the order of being itself. There is no exception to being – not because the order of being is all there is but because, to put it in speculative terms, paradoxico-critical analysis demonstrates how this order is already in itself its own exception, sustained by permanent violations of its own rules. Although Badiou describes in precise terms how the voids and gaps (between presence and representation) in the order of being render an event possible, he defines the event as a miraculous intrusion which disturbs the continuity of being, as something that is not a part of being.[4]

From a paradoxico-critical standpoint, however, the order of being is constitutively pulverized and disturbed from within. In Freudian terms, and insofar as Badiou constantly refers to the order of human being as the survivalist search for pleasures, one could say that Badiou neglects the dimension of what Freud called “the death drive,” the disruptive force of non-being at the heart of being. In this way, we pass from “masculine” to “feminine” logic: instead of the universal order of being disturbed by eventual exceptions, being itself is branded by a basic impossibility, not-all.

Livingston perspicuously notices the price Badiou has to pay for his universal and consistent mathematical ontology: he has to posit as the basic constituents of reality the multitude and the void, “multitudes of multitudes” that emerge out of the void and not through the self-differentiation of the One. In the Cantor-Goedel universe, we can get a consistent universality only if the One is excluded from it at the most basic level: One emerges the second time, as a result of the operation of counting that constitutes a world out of multitude. At this level, we also have an irreducible multiplicity of worlds. Bodies, worlds, languages – they are all multiple, impossible to totalize under some One. The only true universality, the only universality able to impose a One which traverses the multiplicity of bodies and languages (and also of “worlds”), is the universality of an event. In politics, at the level of being, there is just a multiplicity of bodies and languages, or of “worlds” (cultures), so all we can get at this level is some kind of liberal multiculturalism and tolerance for irreducible difference. Every project of imposing a universal Project that would unite all culture – like Communism – has to appear as an oppressive violent imposition.

In contrast to Badiou’s generic approach, paradoxico-critical approach does not accept the ontological priority of the multiple over the One: of course, every One is undermined, failed, fractured by antagonisms and inconsistencies, but it is there from the beginning, as the impossibility that opens up the space for multiplicity. With regard to language, the Bible is right with its parable of the tower of Babylon: a multiplicity of languages presupposes the failure of the One Language. This is what Hegel aims at with his notion of “concrete universality”: the enchainment of failures. Multiple forms of state arise because state is in itself an inconsistent/antagonist notion.

To put it in a different way, the elementary move of concrete universality is to turn the exception to a universal into the element that grounds this universal itself. Let’s take a perhaps surprising case, that of the Jews and the State of Israel. Alain Finkielkraut wrote: “The Jews, they have today chosen the path of rooting.”[5] It is easy to discern in this claim an echo of Heidegger who said, in his Spiegel interview, that all essential and great things can only emerge from our having a homeland, from being rooted in a tradition. The irony is that we are dealing here with a weird attempt to mobilize anti-Semitic clichés in order to legitimize Zionism: anti-Semitism reproaches the Jews for being rootless, and it is as if Zionism tries to correct this failure by belatedly providing the Jews with roots… No wonder that many conservative anti-Semites ferociously support the expansion of the State of Israel! However, the trouble with the Jews today is that they are now trying to get roots in a place which for thousands of years was not theirs but inhabited by other people. The solution is here not to re-normalize the Jews into yet another rooted nation, but to turn the perspective around: what if the Jews as the exception are a true stand-in for universality, i.e., what if, at the most radical level, “we are all Jews”? What if being-rootless is the primordial state of being-human, and our roots are a secondary phenomenon, an attempt to obfuscate our constitutive rootlessness?

But Hegel makes a step further than what Livingston describes as the paradoxico-critical stance. For Hegel, the One of self-identity is not just always inconsistent, fractured, antagonistic, etc.; identity itself is the assertion of radical (self-)difference. To say that something is identical with itself means that it is distinct from all its particular properties, that it cannot be reduced to them. “A rose is a rose” means that a rose is something more than all its features: there is some je ne sais quoi which makes it a rose, something “more in a rose than the rose itself.” As this last example indicates, we are also dealing here with what Lacan called objet petit a, the mysterious X beneath all its properties that makes an object what it is, that sustains its unique identity. More precisely, this “more” oscillates between the sublime and the ridiculous or vulgar, if not obscene: to say “a law is a law” means that, even if it is unjust and arbitrary, an instrument of corruption even, a law remains a law and has to be respected. The minimal structure of identity (which is always a self-identity since it is, as Hegel knew it, a category of reflection) is thus 1-1-a: a thing is itself in contrast with its determinate properties, and objet a is the unfathomable excess that sustains this identity.

This, finally, brings us to the subtle difference between Hegel and the paradoxico-critical approach. It is not that Hegel subordinates inconsistencies and antagonisms to some higher unity. It is, on the contrary, that for Hegel identity, the unity of the One, is a form of self-differentiation. Identity is difference brought to the extreme of self-relating. The unity of the One is not permanently threatened by cracks and inconsistencies; the unity of the One is the crack as such. What this means is that the Hegelian totality is paradoxical, inconsistent, but not “critical” in the sense of resisting the power center. It is not caught in the eternal struggle to undermine or displace the power center, in search of cracks and “undecidable” excesses that disturb and deconstruct the power edifice. Or, to put it in the Hegelian terms of speculative identity, power is its own transgression, grounded in violations of its own founding principles. Although paradoxico-critical approach brings out the inconsistencies that are constitutive of our identities, its critical stance commits it to the goal of overcoming these inconsistencies. This goal is, of course, out of reach, forever missed and postponed, which is why paradoxico-critical approach perceives itself as an endless process. Derrida, the ultimate paradoxico-critical thinker, likes to talk about deconstruction as an infinite pursuit of justice, and, in politics, about “democracy to come” (never already-here).

In clear contrast to this position, Hegel is NOT a critical thinker.His basic stance is that of reconciliation – not reconciliation as a long-term goal but reconciliation as a fact which confronts us with the unexpected bitter truth of the actualized Ideal. If there is a Hegelian motto, it is something like: find a truth in how things turn wrong!

The message of Hegel is not “the spirit of trust” (the title of Brandom’s latest book on Hegel’s Phenomenology) but rather the spirit of distrust. His premise is that every large human project turns wrong and only in this way attests to its truth. French Revolution wanted universal freedom and climaxed in terror, Communism wanted global emancipation and gave birth to Stalinist terror… Hegel’s lesson is thus a new version of the Big Brother’s famous slogan from Orwell’s 1984 ”freedom is slavery”: when we try to enforce freedom directly, the result is slavery. So, whatever Hegel is, he is decidedly not a thinker of a perfect ideal that we approach infinitely. Heinrich Heine (who was Hegel’s student in the philosopher’s last years) propagated the story that he once told Hegel he cannot endorse Hegel’s formula “all that is actual is rational,” and that Hegel looked carefully around and told his student not too loudly: “Perhaps, I should say: all that is actual should be rational.” Even if factually true, this anecdote is philosophically a lie, if not an outright invention of Heine, as it represents Hegel’s attempt to cover up from his student the painful truth of his thinking.

Renouncing the critical stance does not imply renouncing social change: it just raises the stakes of this change. Let’s take the touchy case of receiving immigrants. Pia Klemp, captain of the ship Iuventa which was saving refugees in the Mediterranean, concluded her explanation why she decided to refuse the Grand Vermeil medal awarded to her by the city of Paris with the slogan: “Documents and housing for all! Freedom of movement and residence!” If this means that – to cut a long story short – every individual has the right to move to a country of his/her choice, and that this country has the duty to provide him/her with residence, then we are dealing here with an abstract vision in the strict Hegelian sense: a vision which ignores the complex context of social totality. The problem cannot be solved at this level. The only true solution is to change the global economic system, which produces immigrants. The task is thus to make a step back from direct criticism to the analysis of the immanent antagonism of the criticized phenomenon, with the focus on how our critical position itself participates in the phenomenon it criticizes. 



The long text “What is Žižek For” published in the latest issue of Current Affairs is the last in the series of attacks on me which aim to achieve a kind of “final solution” of my “problem” – my disappearance from public space, or, to quote the title of one of the Left Forum panels from 2014, “Žižek delenda est.” The first thing that strikes the eye in all these attacks is the breathtaking brutality of criticism, quite exceptional in our Politically Correct atmosphere: I am denounced as an incomprehensible clown, charlatan, reactionary racist, inconsistent and with no attention span…

When one tries to follow the line of argumentation of my critic, the first surprising thing one learns is that, beneath the Leftist mask, I am a reactionary racist, and this accusation is “proven” by the claim that I support Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations. Why? Because I drew attention to the (for me, at least) obvious fact that there are important differences in the predominant stance towards sex and authority between Western European and Muslim communities. Does this make me a racist?

The specificity of Muslim cultural identity is well documented. As for the UK, refer to this survey (see also the report on this survey in The Guardian). The report on older research is also found in The Guardian. For a more global overview, see this text, as well as this one. Plus one should mention a Gallup survey from 2009 which revealed negative attitudes towards homosexuality among European Muslims: in France, 35% of Muslims viewed homosexuality as “morally acceptable” (versus 78% of the general public); in Germany, 19% of Muslims viewed it as morally acceptable (versus 68% of the general public); in the UK, none of the Muslim respondents viewed homosexuality as morally acceptable (versus 58% of the general public who did). While one can quarrel about the methodological deficiencies of these researches, plus while one should also take into account differences between regions, the overall picture seems clear and convincing. One should openly confront these facts precisely to prevent their populist-racist exploitation.

But, again, does mentioning these differences between ways of life make me a reactionary racist? No, because I don’t argue that our European way of life is simply superior, so that we have the right to impose it onto others. Neither do I argue that all we can do is strive for a peaceful coexistence of different ways of life as the only way to avoid their clash. My basic strategy is to shift the accent from the clash between civilizations to the clashes within each civilization: we are fighting conservative-populist revival in our countries, and, as the Arab Spring demonstrated, the Muslim world is far from a homogeneous fundamentalist block. Far from endorsing Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations,” I mock it as “Huntington’s disease of today’s global capitalism.” Here are some relevant passages from my work:

“According to Huntington, after the end of the Cold War, the “iron curtain of ideology” has been replaced by the “velvet curtain of culture.” Huntington’s dark vision of the “clash of civilizations” may appear to be the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s bright prospect of the End of History in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy – what can be more different from Fukuyama’s pseudo-Hegelian idea that the final Formula of the best possible social order was found in capitalist liberal democracy, than a »clash of civilizations« as the main political struggle in the XXIst century? How, then, do the two fit together? / From today’s experience, the answer is clear: the »clash of civilizations« IS politics at »the end of history«. The ethnic-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of »post-politics« when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic, religious) tensions. Today’s rise of “irrational” violence is thus to be conceived as strictly correlative to the depoliticization of our societies, i.e., to the disappearance of the proper political dimension, its translation into different levels of “administration” of social affairs. If we accept this thesis on the “clash of civilizations,” the only alternative to it remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations (or of “ways of life,” a more popular term today): forced marriages and homophobia (or the idea that a woman going alone to a public place calls for a rape) are OK, just that they are limited to another country which is otherwise fully included into the world market.”

The conclusion I draw from this is that we should replace the thesis on the clash of civilizations with the thesis on a clash within each civilization, so that the task is to connect our struggle with their struggle – the only true universality is the universality of a shared struggle:

“We are definitely in the midst of the clash of civilizations (the Christian West versus radicalized Islam), but in fact there are clashes within each civilization… / The task is to build bridges between “our” and “their” working class, engaging them in a struggle for solidarity. Without this unity (which includes the critique and self-critique of both sides), class struggle proper regresses into a clash of civilizations.”

If this is reactionary racism, so be it…

So what about the other two big criticisms: that I repeat (”plagiarize”) myself, and that my philosophical thinking is confused and inconsistent, the empty posturing of a charlatan? Yes, I “repeat” myself – in the last decade, I struggle with the same problem, as many philosophers do. As to the content, what my critic does obviously bear witness to is his, not my, short attention span: unable as he is to reproduce a minimal line of thought, he picks up short sentences and then puts them side by side, hoping that this would render palpable the inconsistent nonsense of my thought. Here is an exemplary case of this procedure:

“How can something exist, and yet simultaneously nothing exist — or rather, less-than-not-exist? Furthermore, who — or what — is “supplementing reality by fiction,” if (less than) nothing exists? Are (e.g.) novels being written by things that don’t exist — or perhaps by things that don’t even not exist? Does Žižek exist? If he doesn’t — or if he doesn’t even not exist — then who the hell wrote the book I’m reading? What’s more, who the hell is reading it?”

Yes, this certainly is nonsense, but not mine… I challenge a reader to just compare what my critic writes about me on a certain topic with my own text, and see the difference. And this is it. A lot more could be said about the political and ideological background of this attack, but I am not ready to spend on it even a minute more of my time.



[1] For the ultimate presentation of my position, see Slavoj Žižek, Sex and the Failed Absolute, London: Bloomsbury Press 2019.

[2] See Paul M. Livingston, The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism, New York: Routledge 2012.

[3] There is nothing anti-Leftist about such a stance of final doom – one can even argue that all authentic Leftists subscribe to it. In rock music, the ultimate expression of this stance was provided by “The Weaver’s Answer,” a song by the English Trotskyite band Family. The song, released as a single in 1969, describes the view upon a subject’s life from the standpoint of the “weaver” (fate, death), where even a happy family life ends up in loneliness and despair. The true genius of Family becomes evident when we compare “The Weaver’s Answer” with “Good News Bad News,” the first song of their next album Anyway (1970). This song takes over the first melodic motif of “The Weaver’s Answer,” but it cuts this motif short while the words engage in a desperate questioning of the existing political order, like “why change the rules / say those on the top / to those at the bottom / caught looking up.” This cutting short of the melodic line nicely renders the interruption, the violent outburst which prevents the formulation of a full statement of wisdom (about the ultimate vanity of life). This, of course, in no way implies there is place only for bitterness and rage in Family’s songs: their biggest hit “No Mule’s Fool” is a wonderful portrait of a boy’s happy coexistence with his lazy mule. The three songs together thus provide a consistent triad of moments of ordinary happiness, the universalization of this particular moments of happiness into a basic doom of life, and, finally, singular moments of desperate resistance to doom and oppression.

[4] One can note here a paradox in Livingston’s description of Badiou’s theoretical edifice: although, according to Livinsgton, Badiou opts for consistency instead of totality, his vision is not that of universe as an inconsistent mess in which only local consistent spaces emerge. Insofar as we conceive being as “all there is” (and, in this sense, as a totality), this totality is consistent (as described in Badiou’s ontology) – inconsistency emerges only through rare evental exceptions.

[5] In Le Monde, 29.01.15.