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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Zizek on the Cogito

Posted by John Holbo on 01/03/08 at 08:31 AM

There’s a Zizek essay on “Tolerance” up in Critical Inquiry‘s ‘rough cuts’ sections.

I’m not done yet, and it isn’t all bad - but it isn’t good. For example, there’s this:

The main feature of cogito is its insubstantial character: “It cannot be spoken of positively; no sooner than it is, its function is lost.” Cogito is not a substantial entity, but a pure structural function, an empty place - as such, it can only emerge in the interstices of substantial communal systems. The link between the emergency of cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal ...

OK. Cut. That’s rough enough.

If certain thinkers had a sort of a swear jar: like, every time you write ‘interstices’, you have to put a dollar (or Euro) into the jar. When it’s full you donate the contents to charity. That would, I think, not prevent you from using the word, in need. But it might give you pause in any given instance. Then - suspended like that - what fugitive thoughts might not sneak past the stiff picket of your words!

Example: it might occur to you that the main feature of the cogito can hardly be its insubstantial character, which it naturally shares with all arguments. They aren’t like rocks or cows, these arguments. You can’t kick the cogito, nor can you kick modus ponens.

But perhaps the idea is that ‘cogito’ does not name a substantial thing. Well, no. See above. It names an argument. Why would you expect it to name a substance?

But perhaps the idea is that ‘cogito’ is about an insubstantial thing. Well, not obviously. Certainly Descartes thought that that res cogitans was substantial. That’s why it was called ‘res’. Theories differ as to the nature of mind, to be sure, but you can hardly just haul off and assume the mind has no substance. It isn’t a thinking thing, a brain, or anything of the sort.

But surely he is getting at the peculiar character of the cogito, as brought out by that quote there (from Transcritique, by the by). The cogito is only valid while you think it. This is indeed its peculiarity, causing oceans of learned ink to be spilled. Is it even an argument? It’s a self-verifying - while you think it - proposition. (Maybe.) Not a deduction at all. (Often in logic, ‘argument’ is defined as a thing consisting of at least two propositions; at least one premise, at least one a conclusion. Then the cogito is not an argument. Fair enough.) So is this what Zizek is talking about? Well, if it is, he certainly chose the wrong word to describe it. One proposition may be less of an argument than two propositions, but it is not less ‘substantial’. It isn’t any easier to kick two than one, in such a case.

But perhaps the fact that the argument is not just about the mind, but about a relation between ‘I’ and my ‘mind’? No, no. Stop digging. Look here. I know it’s only a single word, so it looks like a name, like Malvolio. All the same, ‘cogito’ is a sentence, like ‘I’m going to the store’. No one expects the thing ‘I’m going to the store’ means to be a substance. Why would it be? It’s a state of affairs, or fact, or event, something of the sort. There are lots of arguments about states of affairs and facts and events. There is nothing remarkable whatsoever about the fact that Descartes composed an argument - or just a statement - about a state of affairs.

But perhaps the idea is that the fact that the argument is only sound at the moment you think it makes it peculiarly evanescent - little flickering flame of an argument, since a little flickering flame of a thought? No, no. Still isn’t helping. ‘Cogito’ names a type, not a token. You can’t cause the cogito, qua argument - proposition, whatever it is - to flicker in and out of existence.  No more than you can cause the color red to flicker out by painting a red ball blue. What varies through time is the validity or soundness of given instances of the argument. And surely no one is surprised that the soundness of a given argument is ‘not substantial’. The fact that a thought about a thought only lasts as long as the thought itself is a tautology, not a proof of singular insubstantiality.

But perhaps the fact that the cogito is, in some sense, about the person who is making the argument, in the process of making the argument. Well, yes. It’s self-reflexive, somehow. But why does that make it insubstantial?

Moving right along. “A pure structural function, an empty place.” I’m not exactly sure what he means by this, but its supposed to be some special feature that follows from the peculiar insubstantiality. So we’ll need the latter, which we haven’t got, before we can figure out what is going on here. All arguments are, in a sense, ‘structural functions’ - if by that you just mean, sort of, ‘form’. And they are ‘empty places’ in a somewhat metaphoric sense. You can’t ask exactly where any given argument is, any more than you can ask where the number 3 is. They are abstract and have no definite spatial coordinates. (But surely we were aware of this already. And this is not a feature peculiar to the cogito.)

“As such, it can only emerge in the interstices of substantial communal systems.” OK, that’s just a non sequitar. What follows about ‘emergency’ and ‘disintegration’ is even more so. It sounds exciting, like the self is emerging and disintegrating and so forth. When, after all, at most what is emerging and disintegrating is the soundness of an argument about the self. The epistemic and justificatory status of a proposition is shifting. The self isn’t going up in flames or anything so dramatic. Sheesh. At any rate, from the fact that something is abstract, there is no call to go assuming it is socially or communally constructed or emergent - even setting aside any interstices.

If you want to make an argument against abstracta - want to try to reduce them to social something-or-other - then go to. (I’m skeptical.) But be aware: there is nothing unusually abstract about the cogito. What is unusual about it is that it’s only one proposition long. And two propositions are no less abstract than one, surely. So an argument for the social constitution of abstracta that begins from the premise that the cogito is unusually ‘insubstantial’ doesn’t sound promising. Anyway, if the self turns out to reduce to social stuff, presumably it has some substance, after all.

But what’s the point of picking on this stuff? Maybe I’m missing the big picture of what is going on here. No, I’m seeing the big picture, despite Zizek’s attempts too disguise it. Look, what Zizek is getting at is really pretty basic. He’s waving his hands in the direction of the familiar thought that people aren’t these totally disconnected atoms. They’re all social and stuff. It’s holistic, a web of life. It takes a village. The problem is: if Zizek just said ‘the problem with liberalism is that it doesn’t see that it takes a village to raise a child’, that would sound lame. Even if he made it clear that he means it in a sort of sinister, not warm-fuzzy way. Every child is, in fact, raised in a kind of village, and villages can be problematic environments. We don’t raise them in isolation tanks. Yes. Quite. Probably that seems like a good thing. But this fact has awkward consequences for liberals. Children are raised by their parents. Yes, liberals are aware that this is problematic for liberalism. Liberals already know that liberalism would be tidier if an impossible sort of autonomy were a realistic prospect. But everyone knows it isn’t. The question is how to think about liberalism, given the awkward fact that we are all connected to one another, embedded in these thick cultural and social contexts, so forth. Piling a lot of nonsense about the cogito on top has the effect of superficially sounding like somehow we are boldly taking it to a profound new level - thinking brave new thoughts. But, frankly, Zizek isn’t thinking at all about the cogito. Otherwise this stuff wouldn’t sound half so silly. And he isn’t really thinking about the problems of liberalism either. (He’s expending just enough brain power on the cogito to prevent any interesting thoughts about liberalism, I would estimate.) He’s just thinking the relatively vague, familiar thought that we are all kinda interconnected in a way that is problematic for liberal notions of toleration and autonomy. How the hell is that supposed to help?

But other parts of the paper aren’t so bad, admittedly.


John: Sweet.  I think you hit the head on the nail there at the end—Zizek has a style that is about making fairly simple, perhaps even interesting, arguments sound more dramatic than needs be.  And by doing so, he inevitably fucks up the argument.

I used to spend my time defending Bhabha by admitting just that: behind all the mush-mouth, there were some decent insights and, at the time, new directions for literary scholarhship.  But then it became clearer and clearer that Bhabha simply wasn’t grasping his own insights, that the mush-mouth was a symptom of not working out his arguments carefully.  His lack of any real scholarship after *The Location of Culture* suggests that that collection was rushed out, thrown together to secure an academic position. 

In other news, shorter Toni Morrison: “It takes a village to make us and a village to break us.”

By on 01/03/08 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Zizek is so old, so tired.  Here’s a quote:

“Contemporary liberalism forms a complex network of
ideologies, institutional and non-institutional practices;
however, underlying this multiplicity is a basic opposition
on which the entire liberal vision relies, the opposition
between those who are ruled by culture, totally determined
by the life-world into which they were born, and those who
merely “enjoy” their culture, who are elevated above it,
free to choose their culture.”

Why doesn’t he just start going on about “rootless cosmopolitans” and get it over with?

Let’s see how many nonsensical reactions (all of which I’ve seen used) I can predict and preempt:

1.  John, you’re a historian of philosophy.  Don’t think that you can actually do philosophy.

2.  Unless you are raised in the continental tradition, you miss the ineffable ways in which Zizek’s words can not be interpreted in the same way as when analytical philosophers use those words.

3.  You haven’t read the important part of Zizek yet.  There are notes to his video lectures that would explain the whole thing, if you would just bother to read them.

4.  Oh, sure, this particular article by Zizek is bad.  But other writings of his aren’t.  Why are you talking about this one?

4. a. Zizek has some really important thoughts that this article just doesn’t happen to share.

4. b. Zizek is attempting a super-head-fake-out with his psychological Kung Fu master skills which this is part of which naturally you don’t understand.

5.  The kids like Zizek.  Criticize him and you lose the kids!

By on 01/03/08 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t finished your piece (just as you haven’t finished SZ’s), but I got caught here:

Often in logic, ‘argument’ is defined as a thing consisting of at least two propositions; at least one premise, at least one a conclusion. Then the cogito is not an argument. Fair enough.

I thought it was:

Premise: Cogito.
Conclusion: Sum.

with the whole thing called “the cogito“.  So isn’t that an argument, or am I missing something?

By Dave Maier on 01/03/08 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Zizek means by the word “cogito” has been well established for about 15 years at this point, at least since Tarrying With the Negative.  “Cogito” does not name the argument, but one aspect of subjectivity, which Zizek takes to be more originary and important: namely, the sheer abyss of self-relating negativity.  The “sum” part of the argument is an attempt to cover over that abyss with some relatively stable substance, hence the res cogitans (or in something like Zizek’s terms, the person’s social substance). 

In essence, Zizek thinks that what’s really important about Descartes is the abyss of negativity rather than what Descartes thought was most important—namely, establishing the subject as a fulcrum of certainty.  And so it does make perfect sense to say that the purely negative side of subjectivity manifests itself more clearly in periods when the social substance is collapsing, or in social situations that are inherently instable, since the deprivation of one’s social substance (one’s “sum,” as it were) necessarily leaves only the emptiness of the “cogito.”

This is an extremely basic point in Zizek’s philosophy and is indeed the central theme of one of his best-known books, The Ticklish Subject.  For more detail, see my forthcoming book, Zizek and Theology (available for preorder on Amazon.co.uk!), chapter 2.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clarification: In terms of Descartes’s Meditation, the part that Zizek names as “cogito” is the insane hyperbolic doubt that even doubts whether the subject exists (hence “self-relating negativity").  People tend to read Descartes as having “touched bottom” at the “cogito ergo sum,” but Zizek believes that the insane level of doubt is the real “bottom,” from which Descartes pulls back with the res cogitans.

Having just recently read the Meditations, I believe Zizek’s reading to be a plausible one, though it’s obviously not the textbook reading.

(Also, predictably, he gets the division between the “cogito” and “ergo sum” from Lacan.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Adam!  I actually own Tarrying, believe it or not, but I’ve never cracked it.  (The sheer abyss of self-relating negativity - of course!  Why didn’t I think of that!?)

By Dave Maier on 01/03/08 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, It’s convenient that you own Tarrying, and I commend it to you.  Thankfully, though, one doesn’t have to read just Tarrying to get this point about the cogito—it can be found in virtually every one of his books published since then.  It’s almost impossible to miss!

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: To come back to the question of Ẑiẑek the Obfuscator for a minute, I’ve got a question—

Though your description of Ẑiẑek’s take on the Cogito makes sense qua Descartes, and though Holbo may be mistaken in scanning Zizek’s use of “Cogito” as equivalent with “The Cogito” as it exists Philosophico-colloquially [as shorthand for Descartes’ argument]—Holbo’s comments about the non sequitur and his conclusionary paragraph seem trenchant. 

There are a lot of ways to describe the problem: basically, it seems that Ẑ. doesn’t bother to support for his statements (to call them ‘arguments’ would be a stretch)—a problem he circumvents (or creates wholesale) by using a florid rhetorical style and by insisting on a neologistic-reimagined technical vocabulary.  (The Sheer Abyss of Self-Relating Negativity makes sense on some level to me, but I can understand why it doesn’t pass a lot of Good-Philosophy litmus tests).  Thus, Ẑiẑek neatly sidesteps the need to support any statement—instead, he simply denotes terms as he sees them and announces his conclusions, with the implication that you’re misinterpreting him if you don’t get with his vocab.  Does this intuition vibe with you on any level?  Am I totally off base here?

By on 01/03/08 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On what level is it unfair to insist that one must understand Zizek’s vocabulary in order to interpret him correctly?  In order to have proper grounds to argue that Zizek is dressing up banal notions in overly fancy terminology, you first have to understand what said terminology is actually saying, right?

The passage that John quotes summarizes a line of argument that will be familiar to any virtually any reader of Zizek and that he explains at great length elsewhere—why should he have to start from scratch every single article?  This post is the equivalent of reading a Derrida article from 1995 and complaining that he doesn’t support his statement that Western metaphysics has privileged speech over writing.  Or criticizing a late article by Kant for cavalierly asserting that synthetic judgments a priori are possible.  Etc., etc.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, you’ve got your diacritical marks on upside down.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 08:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I. Eaton ... didn’t coin the concept or phrase “self-relating negativity.” He’s not creating it out of thin air.  The likes of Fichte, Schlegel, Hegel, Schelling were tossing it around at least since the early 19th century.  And this doesn’t even consider people like Jacob Boehme, from whom Hegel and Schelling sometimes cribbed.  I really don’t see what is so hard to fathom about Z. working from w/in a tradition of thought (i.e., German idealism), unless your preconceived notion is that he is doing nothing but hand-waving.

By Brad Johnson on 01/03/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops——Insert: Symbol got me all fucked up.  That’s what I get for trying to be precise/pedantic/pretentious. 

I guess I didn’t make myself clear enough previously: I’m not beefing with those who insist upon the use of a specific technical vocabulary for a proper understanding of their thought, nor do I expect a thinker to recap his or her dialect-ic refinements in every essay.  But where Žižek’s writing departs from the work of thinkers such as Kant is in his privileging of a rhetorical mode that presents a set of technical definitions as internally sacrosanct, self-referencing.  Not to say that this is how it goes at all times with Žižek —but, Holbo was right, I think, to point out that Žižek was being more or less lazy or reflexive in his reference of the “interstices of substantial communal systems” (and the subsequent arc of village-etiology talk).

By on 01/03/08 at 08:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Brad.  I’m not saying that a philosophical vocabulary should be historically ‘on lock’—and I’m not predisposed to dissing continental philosophers and a promulgation of concepts &c.  My approach to this question is one of attempting (just for fun, for my own personal edification, not in some heavy-handed axe-grinding attempt at shaming Žižek out of the dialogue) to come to some kind of place between those who write theology books about Žižek and those who can’t see any value in anything the man says.  I don’t think it would kill Adam to acknowledge Žižek’s pop-cultural/political-philosophical project as less than omniscient.

By on 01/03/08 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Interstices” is a kind of ugly word.  I wouldn’t use it in my own writing.  But that’s a stylistic question, not a conceptual one.

I do not see how your argument against Zizek’s idiosyncratic terminology fails to be an argument against technical terminology tout court—other than a vague sense that Zizek is somehow not “good,” whereas Kant is.

I have never claimed omniscience for Zizek’s project or (what would make more sense) Zizek himself.  You seem to be misreading the title of my book—it’s about Zizek’s relationship to the academic discipline of theology, not about how Zizek is God.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/03/08 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What Zizek means by the word “cogito” has been well established for about 15 years at this point, at least since Tarrying With the Negative.  “Cogito” does not name the argument, but one aspect of subjectivity, which Zizek takes to be more originary and important: namely, the sheer abyss of self-relating negativity.”

That’s useful to know but it doesn’t really help. I had vaguely remembered that Zizek had a special usage but assumed it didn’t apply, because he was responding to “Transcritique”. That is, he was discussing Descartes’ argument, not his own eccentric use of ‘cogito’. I should have added that to my list. How does it help make sense of this passage, Adam, if we understand ‘cogito’ in this new way’. It doesn’t seem to follow that ‘cogito’ is unusually insubstantial. And, as I. Eaton points out, the important part, for argument purposes, is still a complete non sequitar. No?

By John Holbo on 01/03/08 at 09:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I went back to to be sure and the context makes clear that Zizek thinks he’s talking about the cogito, in the sense of Descartes’ argument: “although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity.” So forth. So, while it seems fair - and helpful - to note that Zizek has his own notion of cogito, that just explains how he got confused. It doesn’t explain away the confusion.

By John Holbo on 01/03/08 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: I didn’t mean to claim that you meant to claim omniscience re Žižek, and I don’t want to be reductionistic here, but it seems that in moments like this it is not the work of the philosopher-in-question nor the merits of the arguments presented that determine the course of conversation, but a fan-esque, team-spirit mentality that drives the argumentation.  Of course, I don’t think that the theory/continental divide boils down to this pop-psyche argument and proponents of each side would rightly be insulted if such a claim was totalized.  I want to be particularly careful to make sure that I’m not unduly arrogant w/r/t people on the opposite side of the theoretical spectrum as myself: yet, the unspoken presupposition behind most of these arguments seems to boil down to the insipidity of one’s opponents—I can’t buy that.  So, shoot me if I look for an explanation outside of the arguments-as-denoted, for I’m honestly confused about how people at what is more-or-less the pinnacle of academia can be so diametric in their intellectual opposition to each other’s positions, assumptions, language-use &c.  My attempt at pointing to Žižek’s rhetorical quiddities at certain moments in certain rough essays was an attempt at illumining a possible explanation of the controversy/popularity of Žižek, in that, okay, he can be successfully characterized as rhetorically overbearing or insulate. 

As for Žižek ’s idiosyncratic terminology—I guess I was hoping I wouldn’t have to lay out a specific description of that-which-might-be-criticized-in-Žižek’s-work.  Yeah: I’m kinda piggybacking my whole Is-Žižek-‘mush-mouthing’ thought onto the ideas present in Holbo’s essay, of which the central thesis is (in my reading, Dr. Holbo) that Žižek’s description of the culturally-contingent causal-mechanism-of-everything is dressed up in unnecessary rhetoric, a semi-Continental room of idiomatic smoke-and-mirrors.  All of this is prefigured by my hope that it would be already accepted that Žižek is not a universally accepted bringer-of-the-gospel, and that people would like to attempt to meet somewhere in the middle.  Again: I’m not critiquing Žižek’s penchant for technical language in itself, but only in such moments when a technically-loaded word obscures the thinker to difficulties entailed by said word’s use.

By on 01/03/08 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I went back to to be sure and the context makes clear that Zizek thinks he’s talking about the cogito, in the sense of Descartes’ argument: “although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity.”

Wait a second.  That sounds to me like the exact opposite: that Z is referring not to the argument, but to the “self-relating negativity” which Descartes uses the argument to justify seeing as a substance, which is the “positive ontological entity” Spinoza (rightly) criticizes (qua ontologically self-sufficient in the Cartesian manner).  So I suppose Z is saying that Spinoza didn’t get what exactly Descartes’s mistake was, as there is a difference between criticizing something for not being seen as an aspect of the one and only substance, on the one hand, and criticizing it for having had its essential negativity illegitimately papered over, on the other.

But what do I know.  For the record, now that it’s been explained to me, I have no problem with Z’s usage (nor, for that matter, with keeping the subject’s essential negativity around for a while at least, if it will help nip Cartesianism in the bud).  I guess I should read Tarrying after all.

By Dave Maier on 01/03/08 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One further point: I. Eaton wrote, “But where Žižek’s writing departs from the work of thinkers such as Kant is in his privileging of a rhetorical mode that presents a set of technical definitions as internally sacrosanct”

Adam responded that he never said Zizek was omniscient. That’s fair. But I think it is also fair to say, Adam, that you treat Zizekian terminology as internally sacrosanct, to an unusual degree. That is, you have certainly rather strongly hinted that just picking at individual points is illegitimate. You have to engage the whole project internally, in Zizek’s own terms. You will reply that you only demand that people understand what Zizek is saying before critiquing. So the standard here is just the same as elsewhere. But I think actually it goes a bit beyond that. You are demanding that critics not only learn to speak Zizekian but that the critique of Zizek actually be spoken in Zizekian. But there is no particular reason to accede to the latter demand, it seems to me. I think the present case is a good illustration because it drags in, at the third corner, another heavy-weight: Descartes (and Spinoza, for good measure). To understand arguments about Descartes we need to understand the cogito, and it is no good just translating that word into Zizekian. We need to understand it in Cartesian terms as well.

Does this seem fair: you demand that critiques of Zizek be in Zizek’s own terms, in effect?

By John Holbo on 01/03/08 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, what I meant to point out was that ‘cogito’ is modified by Cartesian, rather than Zizekian. And we are being told that the relevant axis of consideration is this ‘positive ontological entity’ stuff. But it isn’t really true that Spinoza addressed the question of whether Descartes’ argument was a ‘positive ontological entity’ or not. He worried about the argument’s status, validity, and the ontological status of the thing it was about.

By John Holbo on 01/03/08 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, You are being overliteral about the fact that Zizek is using the word “cogito” (i.e., still assuming that it’s referring to Descartes’ argument as such rather than whatever [non]entity is at issue in said argument).  I don’t know if you think that this is some kind of Socratic thing whereby you are teaching us all a valuable lesson, but it’s not helping the discussion as far as I can tell.

As far the Spinoza reference goes, he’s saying that Spinoza critiqued the “official” version of Descartes but actually tacitly endorsed what Zizek takes to be the real innovation of Descartes, namely, the idea of subjectivity as a self-relating negativity.  Zizek at least thinks he’s getting his notion of the “cogito” from Descartes’s argument—if you don’t think his reading of a separate moment of insane hyperbolic doubt is accurate to Descartes (and it seems like you could hardly deny it, based on the text), then you’d have to make that argument.  You could also disagree with him that said moment is the most important thing about Descartes.  But overall, I think that (a) what he’s saying about the “cogito” and (b) its relationship to Descartes are both perfectly clear, both in their summary form here and in the more extended expositions elsewhere.

Finally, I do not believe that I am asking that critiques of Zizek be couched in Zizekian language.  I am asking something very minimal: namely, that an actual understanding of Zizek be evinced.  Stating Zizek’s position in Zizek’s own terms is probably the easiest way to demonstrate this, but using other, “easier” language is fine, too.  Your problem here is that you do not demonstrate knowledge of Zizek’s position and in fact demonstrate a major gap in your knowledge, by “free associating” on what Zizek might mean by this cogito thing when it is actually almost painfully obvious.  Aside from ideology critique, this subjectivity thing is the most obvious theme in his thought.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you think that ‘cogito’ is a name for a ‘separate moment of insane hyperbolic doubt’. Separate from what? I take it, the argument. But surely ‘cogito’ is standardly taken to be a name for the argument, not for a thing that is separate from it. What does Zizek think the thing people standardly call ‘the cogito’ is called, since he has annexed that term for some other purpose?

I don’t deny that Zizek is getting his notion of ‘cogito’ from Descartes argument. That is, he read Descartes and came up with this new use for the term ‘cogito’. But that is not to say that his sense of ‘cogito’ IS Descartes’ argument.

“Your problem here is that you do not demonstrate knowledge of Zizek’s position and in fact demonstrate a major gap in your knowledge, by “free associating” on what Zizek might mean by this cogito thing when it is actually almost painfully obvious.”

Look, I don’t think it can possibly be painfully obvious. The passage, as it stands, is at best terribly misleading. Zizek implies that he is talking about the ‘cogito’ in a Cartesian sense and the fact that he adds stuff about what Spinoza said about the ‘cogito’ clinches the deal. Why would I assume he really meant something else? Especially given that reading ‘cogito’ in a Zizekian sense doesn’t improve the sense of the passage. It just gives the kaleidoscope a twist, resulting in a different sort of nonsense. Understanding ‘cogito’ in a Zizekian sense, all the stuff about Descartes and Spinoza just comes out wrong, as readings. And we still have no way of lending significant support to Zizek’s main claim: “As such, it can only emerge in the interstices of substantial communal systems.” That’s still a non sequitar. Unless you can show otherwise.

I think your use of ‘free association’ is also a bit non-standard. If someone says he is using ‘cogito’ in a Cartesian way and then I (freely, of my own accord) associate his usage with Descartes, that is, I suppose, technically ‘free association’. But the term connotes randomness and intellectual non-rigor. I would thank you not to apply those connotations to my arguments without better cause.

Seriously, if we are done with feigning indignation, we might proceed to consider whether I am wrong that, even understanding ‘cogito’ in this fresh, Zizekian sense, we still don’t get anywhere. How does Zizek’s sense support the interstices-communal thing?

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 01:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I answer your last question in my very first comment in this thread.  None of this is difficult to understand.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To help a bit with that last thing: all I remember about Zizek’s discussion of the cogito from “Tarry” is that it struck me at the time as Lichtenbergian. That is, I took him to be saying that he affirmed Lichtenberg’s famous objection (with extra Lacanian stuff that I didn’t see much point to, at the time.) It never occurred to me that, ever after, ‘cogito’ would become a name for the artist formerly known as ‘Lichtenberg’s objection to the cogito’. But now that we are over that hump, what next?

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I must be very dense because I’m just not understanding it. Here is what I take to be the relevant portion of your first comment:

Given this novel sense of ‘cogito’

“it does make perfect sense to say that the purely negative side of subjectivity manifests itself more clearly in periods when the social substance is collapsing, or in social situations that are inherently instable, since the deprivation of one’s social substance (one’s “sum,” as it were) necessarily leaves only the emptiness of the “cogito.”

But the question is why one’s ‘sum’ is social ‘substance’. You may say this follows from something in Lacan. But Zizek said it followed from something to do with what was wrong with Spinoza’s critique of Descartes. There’s a bit of a gap here. Please don’t feign that Lacanian subtext is ‘not difficult to understand’. Lacanian text is difficult to understand, and pushing it underground doesn’t make it clearer, whatever other advantages laying pipe under the road may afford. Just tell me how you take the argument to go. And if the stuff that Zizek’s skipping past in the bit I quote is just so infernally complicated that you cannot possibly explain it, and I must await your book, then at least drop the ‘easy to understand’ schtick.

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 01:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I confess to not having read through the Zizek screed and located the precise passage at issue, and I’m an non-fan oWf Zizek,- (and thoroughly despise Lacan),- but I fail to see what the fuss is about. Leaving aside the criticism of liberalism as being rooted in a cultureless, asocial conception of the autonomous, atomistic individual and its artificial projection onto socio-political reality by transcendental and/or naturalistic means, and the concommitant Enlightenment fallacy that the understanding of “nature”, peculiarly harmonistically conceived, constitutes a self-sufficient basis for socio-political criticism, the cited snippet from the Zizek screed doesn’t seem to me to be terribly difficult to understand,- (and has nothing to do with the imported concerns with the “ontological” status of abstracta or arguments). In the first place, IIRC, the distinctive use of the term “cogito” goes back to Augustine, and behind the Zizek/Lacan usage stands Sartre, and further back, as already mentioned, Hegel, for whom the subject/consciousness/cogito was a negative of the world and, as a synthesizing power qua absolute spirit, infinite self-relation in otherness. To cite Kierkegaard, at once of sorts an Augustinian, a Cartesian and an Hegelian, “the self is a relation which relates itself to itself”,- (an inadequate formula, but it’ll do for present purposes). That the self/cogito/subject,- (I don’t want to be picky about terms),- is relational means that it is not substantial, which should be clear enough, and that such a self-relating “entity” is a negative of the (given) world, virtually photographically in mimetic terms and counterfactually/transformatively in symbolic terms, (though not without interaction with other such “entities") requires no stretch of the imagination. To say that the “cogito” is empty follows well enough: it is an absence of the world that is nonetheless within, enveloped by, the world. To be structured means to be subject to and even constituted by (systems of) rules, as should be fairly unobjectionably the case with natural language,- and, by extention, the “cogito”, which comes to speak in it. (There can be a number of versions of such an account of structure and its effect on the formation of human selfhood, with differing consequents or implications, but the basic claim strikes me as obvious, unobjectionable. That it is a “structural function” is just a piece of pseudo-mathematical jargon that comes with linguistics). The key point here then turns on the Lacanian distinction, dividing the traditional notion of the “cogito”, between the subject of the enunciating and the subject of the enunciated, between who or what says and who or what is said. The “cogito’ here, then, is that which at once occasions and disappears into and from its expressions or representations, which escapes itself in being itself, which at once exceeds and fails itself. The “cogito”, as the thinking occurring behind and within its enunciation, precisely through its enunciation, passes over into its otherness, and at once is suppressed by and evades the reification of its represented self, which is why it is “intersticial”, even to itself. It is precisely not, in these terms, a or the “substantial” self, but what or who at once draws together the relations of the biographical and socio-cultural “substantial’ self and falls behind, evades and projects beyond its own “substantial” or reified existence. It is the (absence of) thinking behind the expression/representation of thought. Or, in other words, it is a matter of the difference from self behind any relation to self. It is precisely not a matter of any abstractness of proposition or argument or of the conceptual terms thereby referenced, but rather of the concreteness of any instance of enunciation that lies behind the constituion of a “substantial” self. Which, (not having read the screed), goes to the point that Zizek is presumably bringing to bear against “liberalism”: not only does it deny the conditioned, socio-cultural constitution of the self, but it mis-identifies the locus of its irreducible particularity precisely by identifying it with (the reification of) a socio-culturally “substantial” self, which it already denies. Liberalism thereby misses,- (though its anti-political neutralization of the political in terms of moralism, economism, and technocraticism),- the whole politics of affiliation, which makes for the (conflictual) political realm. The one who says “I love you” is precisely not the one who represents himself as worthy, demanding, or capable of love. The opportunity to conceive of the politics of love (and of hatred) is thereby missed.

By on 01/04/08 at 02:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John C. Halasz: I love you, man.

By Dave Maier on 01/04/08 at 03:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The opportunity to conceive of the politics of love (and of hatred) is thereby missed.”

It’s true that Zizek only annoys me. I don’t hate him.

I am probably guilty of making too much of a fuss about how there’s not much to fuss about. I agree with john about what Zizek is getting at. But it seems to me relatively old and familiar. Liberals know about the ‘we are all social, not perfect autonomous atoms’ thing. It seems to me that the sum total of the anti-liberal critique amounts to trying to dress this old un-fussworthy point in sufficiently strange garb that it may not be recognized for what it really is.

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 03:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: re this

I didn’t come to the conversation at the Valve with intent to blandly mouth anti-Žižekian talking points—ultimately, I wanted some kind of conversation about the method of Žižek’s rhetorical approach to the history of philosophy, hopefully with the aim of clarifying (for my own limited understanding) of how intelligent kids on the same playground can’t agree on the rules for Jacks.  (So…I guess on my philosophical playground, Žižek = Jacks....). 

The problem in your approach to discussion of the Slovenian thinker isn’t that you understand Žižek as omniscient (that’s a poor choice of word on my part, one that I attempted to clarify above), but that there is on your part an implied certitude—faith, perhaps, some extension of the need to justify every word that has flowed from the mouth of god—before the barbarians poison his social-self for future generations. 

As for Holbo: Though I think Holbo is usually perspicuous in his critique, as I re-read the comment thread, I have no problem saying that in this case he does seem to be off base in his attack against Žižek’s thought: if one accepts your definition of cogito(ž) then the inanity of the passage as described by Holbo in the original post just doesn’t stand.  In the court of my opinion, you win this round.  I think it’s a sign of some odd defensiveness that you need to refer to me as “ignorant” and “axiomatic” in my apparent belief that Žižek is a “charlatan” in your desire to smack Holbo—I thought when I came in that I came with good faith and a desire to talk about Žižek’s rhetorical mode as potentially undermining to his cause. 

I stand by my confusion about the function of Žižek’s cogito w/r/t/ the self qua the community: it seems a stretch of tendentious abstraction.  And I don’t think I have to evince a grasp the entire body of Žižek’s work to note inconsistencies of sense in a sentence.

By on 01/04/08 at 04:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Following up I. Eaton: I am happy to concede that Zizek must be using ‘cogito’ in this technical, para-Cartesian sense, and that I missed that. (It was easy to miss, I think.)

It follows that the litany of candidate inanities I lay at Zizek’s doorstep in the post can indeed be swept aside. But we still need to see how this new sense of ‘cogito’ repairs the sense of what Zizek says.

By John Holbo on 01/04/08 at 04:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I too am surprised that Holbo did not pick up that Zizek was using “cogito” in his own peculiar sense, given that he often talks about it in this very sense (which I am lead to believe he takes from Lacan). I’m also surprised Holbo did not do the same with “Cartesian”, “Descartes” etc. since Zizek also often uses those terms to talk about his weird Lacanian-"void"-thing (the barred subject?). Why Zizek should be suspected of suddenly talking about the thing Bernard Williams wrote about rather than his own Lacanian hobby-horse is something I couldn’t say, given that he never seems to talk of anything else; why start now?

I take the quoted bit to be getting at something like the distinction between the “empirical ego” and the “I” of apperception - the “I or he or it (the thing) which thinks”. ("Transcritique" is about how Marx is really some sort of Kantian, if I recall the book review I read correctly, so it would be plausible that this sort of “Paralogisms"-centric sense of “cogito” would be in play, even in the source Zizek is quoting.) The “I” of apperception is never any “thing” one is thinking of; all of that is more of the empirical ego, and so not the “I” which is the “subject” opposed to every “object”. This is its “insubstantiality”—the “I” of “I think” is the mere form of apperception, the “I think” which must be able to accompany all of my representations, and not a distinct “thing” at all, ergo not a simple spiritual substance (or a complex material bundle of properties). (This is all meant to be a hasty version of the arguments of the “Paralogisms”; I admit it may be too hasty to do the work demanded of it.)

The “emergence” of this “I” from “interstices of substantial communal systems” is not Kantian, but is part of Zizek’s Lacanian whatsits; all of that stuff about the “quilting point” and the origin of the “Big Other” etc. Cases where society is “breaking down” make it more clear that there is this distinction between the “I” of apperception and the empirical ego, the “cogito” and the social self, is a real distinction (since the “empirical ego” seems even more likely to fragment than in normal situations, and “a composite soul would no longer be a soul"), but the distinction is supposed to hold generally: the “I” of apperception (Zizek’s “cogito") is there because of some sort of Lacanian what-have-you about language and signifiers and gaps, and not because of some contingent fact about social alienation in particular cases (such as Spinoza’s exile from the Jewish community in Spain). Thus Zizek mentions that Spinoza’s case should just be a way for us to see the “displacement” in all “great philosophers”, and then goes on to speak of it as an opposition between Reason and “the order of (social) being”. Which is a distinction that would include more than just “the great philosophers”; everyone can “Reason” in this sense.

A caveat: I have not read most of the linked essay; I read a few pages to check for context for the quoted bit. It is perhaps also worth repeating that I think Zizek bungles Hegel constantly, and would say that he doesn’t do any better on this point. But I think what he’s bungling has to do with the transcendental unity of apperception, not whether or not an argument is “substantial.” (I’m further inclined to think that Zizek can only go from talking about apperception to talking about politics because of the way he bungles the topic, which may make it harder to see what the one could possibly have to do with the other—without the Lacanian stuff about the subject, the criticisms of liberalism look pretty stale, while with them they seem new and exciting. So Holbo only sees stale criticisms, since he doesn’t buy the Wacky Lacanian Metaphysics.)

I do like the idea of philosophical swear-jars, though.

(Capcha: Alone52!)

By Daniel on 01/04/08 at 04:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Couldn’t a lot of space have been saved by just writing 2, strong 3?

So far as I could tell, Zizek is writing what leftists have written about liberals for the last century or so.  It’s approximately of the same value as a conservative warning you that those left-liberals are dangerous Jacobins who are going to sweep away all established social relations—but by “Jacobins”, they mean liberal fascists, as you’d know if you’d read anything they’d written, I mean really.

By on 01/04/08 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Please stop.

John, Zizek is contextualizing Descartes in his historical moment and in the philosophical tradition of the Enlightenment, which he takes to have found its most rigorous development in German Idealism, a development that is carried on in Lacan.  In that tradition, Descartes’s figure of the subject as an “insane” self-relating negativity (that is able to doubt even that it exists) is what really gets developed, not the res cogitans.  Even Descartes’s immediate successor, Spinoza, strongly critiqued the res cogitans—but for Zizek, he embodies the negativity of subjectivity because of his exclusion even from the community of the excluded (the Jewish community). 

In Descartes himself, the social nature of the substantive side of subjectivity is not thematized, but it is also not completely foreign to Descartes’s text.  Particularly in the autobiographical section of the Discourse on Method, for instance, it’s clear that his method of doubt grows out of his growing alienation from his “social substance,” represented above all by the intellectual tradition that he found unsatisfactory—and this alienation was brought about in part by the fact that Descartes was physically “dislodged” from his social substance through travel.  And Descartes’s experience of losing the sense of his social substance as self-evident of course echoes the broader experience of the early modern period. 

So the properly modern form of subjectivity (self-relating negativity) arose during a period of general upheaval and in the work of a man who himself was significantly alienated from his social substance.  Hence, as I said above, in my very first comment, it makes perfect sense to say that the negative side of subjectivity manifests itself most clearly in times of social upheaval or in those populations that are alienated from the social substance (i.e., in the “interstices").

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment


social substance

What’s this? In particular, is it a Lacanian usage? I ask because, not so long ago, I read a piece by-at larval subjects* that contained the following paragraph:

However, if we consider the newborn infant or the feral child, and if we consider the disappearance of societies, their dissolution in history, we see that the social is not something that can be thought as a substance [emphasis mine, BB], but is rather something that must be constituted, produced, engendered. And not only must the social be produced or engendered, it must be produced or engendered again and again in the order of time as a series of ongoing actions, operations, or events. The social, in short, is a process.

I thought it rather a peculiar passage, as it seemed self-evident to me that “the social” is a process, not something that can be usefully thought of as a substance. If, however, there is a school of thought that thinks of “the social” as some kind of substance - well, that’s mighty odd. But at least that explains why someone would want to deny the utility of such thinking.

* http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/12/15/territories-of-music-productions-distributions-and-sonorous-individuations/

By Bill Benzon on 01/04/08 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “social substance” refers basically to the Lacanian “big Other,” which Zizek understands to be a further development of Hegel’s “objective spirit.”

LS’s paragraph there doesn’t seem to be exactly in line with Zizek’s understanding, but it’s not totally incompatible—part of the confusion here being that “substance” is not exactly a univocal word.  LS seems to be saying that the social must not be thought of as an inert, unchanging “thing.” Surely we can all agree on that.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Adam. That clarifies one little matter.

LS’s paper interested me because, once it got going, it was about music. Not only that, it was trying to theorize music as a collective activity that was not, however, totally absorptive in the manner of the Borg. I’ve devoted a great deal of time and attention to understanding music as basically collective. In the process I found it useful to add my 2-cents to the ongoing critique of Descartes.

By Bill Benzon on 01/04/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, this comment showcases the difficulties inherent in these conversations.  Everything up until the last sentence is sweet explication of the sort John needed.  Then, in the last sentence, you condense it all back into the cryptic form you employed in your first comment, and it was impenetrable again.  I know it’s basic to you, but the rest of us find the condensed versions difficult to follow.

By SEK on 01/04/08 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll try again on that last sentence:

The negativity is always “there,” but in normal circumstances, it is covered over by some kind of relatively stable social identity, which, as the word “social” implies, can only exist if it finds its place in some relatively stable social order.  This identity is always tenuous, and sometimes it ends up falling apart for some reason or another, thus re-exposing the sheer negativity that the social identity was meant to domesticate.  In situations where social identity is not stable in the first place—where the social order itself is falling apart and taking individual subjects down with it, or among social groupings whom the social order does not fully recognize—the negative side of subjectivity is much more likely to emerge.

In terms of Descartes, you could say that the more originary negative side of subjectivity was exposed when, for various reasons, he no longer was able to recognize himself in the surrounding socio-intellectual order.  Thrown upon his own resources, he has only the negativity of doubt to work with, and he follows that path to the absolute end, even doubting that he himself exists.  To pull himself out of this abyss, he then posits the res cogitans as a particular entity within a stable and certain system—that is, he finds a new place in a new (albeit artificial) type of order.  And, on a kind of shallow biographical level, you could say that in real life he identified as the res cogitans—obedience to the prevailing laws and social norms, etc., was a strategy to make sure that he could continue to pursue and develop his system of certain knowledge. 

So the negative aspect of subjectivity emerges out of the collapse of a previous identity/order, and in this case the negativity is re-domesticated (in the res cogitans).  Zizek thinks the emergence of the negative aspect is the really new and important thing in Descartes and that his re-foundation of certainty was in a sense a betrayal of his discovery of subjectivity as self-relating negativity.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the Greeks said something about chaos and order, about the chaos seething beneath all orders, and the need for orders to give at least a passing stability to the sheer chaos of the world. 

Adam, is Zizek (or the Laclau and Mouffe argument about the antagonisms beneath all equivalences, which Zizek references in *The Sublime Object*) saying anything *more* than that?  That in the face of confusion and threat, we look for a talisman, a security blanket, an ideology?

By on 01/04/08 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, he is saying more than that.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/04/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The negativity is always “there,” but in normal circumstances, it is covered over by some kind of relatively stable social identity, which, as the word “social” implies, can only exist if it finds its place in some relatively stable social order.  This identity is always tenuous, and sometimes it ends up falling apart for some reason or another, thus re-exposing the sheer negativity that the social identity was meant to domesticate.  In situations where social identity is not stable in the first place—where the social order itself is falling apart and taking individual subjects down with it, or among social groupings whom the social order does not fully recognize—the negative side of subjectivity is much more likely to emerge.”

I think the question was more: what reason does Zizek give for thinking this is true? Pretty clearly metaphysical/epistemological arguments about the cogito are a few steps down from this sort of thing, hence can’t really be the support for it. So why does the negativity stuff give reason to believe the social stuff.

To put it another way, in terms of an example I used a few months ago. There might be a certain view according to which nothing material is really ‘solid’ - it’s just mostly empty space. But it hardly follows that no one can buy a solid desk. The metaphysical stuff about the self is as far away from the social stuff, so it would seem, as fundamental theories of matter are from the pragmatics of furniture buying. This is why all the Lacan-explains-Kant stuff always strikes me as manifestly hopeless. Lacan can’t possibly work as an explanation of Kant because it obviously comes in at the wrong level. (Maybe it’s right about something else, but it can’t be right about what Kant is saying.)

This is a bit more promising: “So the negative aspect of subjectivity emerges out of the collapse of a previous identity/order, and in this case the negativity is re-domesticated (in the res cogitans).”

But this changes the character of the argument fundamentally. It isn’t the cogito or the mind, but the ‘redomestication’ of it. That is, it is a view of mind is advocated, and this has ideological consequences (broadly). But that is a different sort of claim, I would have thought.

By John Holbo on 01/05/08 at 02:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ultimately, the “point of contact” between psychoanalysis and all this other metaphysical stuff is the Lacanian notion of the death drive, which is the self-relating negativity that forms the very kernel of the subject.

(I didn’t feel like I really understood his use of the notion of death drive until I did the research for my book—i.e., reading ten of his books in rapid succession, then going back through them and taking notes.)

The stuff on brain science in Parallax View is an attempt to ground the death drive empirically—to find something in the structure of the brain that is reflexive (self-relating) and that is able to say “no” to some determinate course of action (negativity).  For Zizek, the death drive is what allows for actual human freedom.  And the overall project of the book is to rework the Enlightenment project in light of the notion of death drive—to ask again what it would mean to no longer need a master, in Kant’s sense.  (This is the “more” to which I was referring in response to Luther’s question.)

I understand that the previous paragraph is pretty opaque.  What I’m trying to say is that Zizek does at least attempt to provide grounds for bringing all of this together and for believing that the theory stuff is true on something other than a dogmatic a priori level.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/05/08 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess we (you) are about done here, but I just want to register my question, and if it just means I have to read Tarrying With the Negative (which I can’t locate, darn it), then so be it.

I think my attitude is sort of like John’s here (i.e. 1/5 2:21 AM).  But it’s not that I need a reason to believe “the social stuff” – which sounds plausible enough – but that once “self-relating negativity” is in the picture, I want to hear more about that, i.e., at the level of, and in the context of, the German Idealist development of that idea.  By the time we get to Lacan and the psychoanalytic context, I’ve lost the thread, and am not sure whether I’m simply not interested – a definite possibility – or whether I have reason to believe that a wrong turn or overshooting the mark has occurred, as I don’t see how anything which is ("merely") a matter of empirical psychology can tell us what objectivity is (and thus subjectivity).

The reason I think I’m not completely lost is that I had already gotten, I think, that

Zizek thinks the emergence of the negative aspect is the really new and important thing in Descartes and that his re-foundation of certainty was in a sense a betrayal of his discovery of subjectivity as self-relating negativity.

So Descartes did something right and something wrong w/r/t the subject.  Fine.  Now that’s not the only sense in which he did this.  He was right to take another look at the ancient as-yet-unresolved problem of skepticism (just as are, so much later (following Thompson Clarke), Barry Stroud and Stanley Cavell); but his dualistic metaphysics, instead of solving the problem, brings it out into the open (itself an important development).  Also, he was right to address the pressing problem of how to understand the seemingly miraculous utility of the mathematization of empirical science in the wake of Galileo et al.; but again, the resulting metaphysics seems merely to bring the unresolved – dare I say unaufgehoben? – Platonism out into the open (in a new form).

Now I don’t see how Spinoza is supposed to fit in here (and I really don’t see what his being an exile from an exiled community has to do with it), but once the idea of “self-relating negativity” is in the air, I’d like to know what its role in *Hegel* is supposed to be.  Surely there – and not later on – is where the Cartesian rubber hits the post-Kantian road.

This is kind of related to my reaction to the long ontology thread at Adam’s, but I’ll spare you.  I see this thread didn’t blow up into the threatened kerfuffle, so I think congratulations are due all around.

By Dave Maier on 01/05/08 at 09:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hegel is hugely important for Zizek.  In Tarrying, he says that Kant is the first to face the consequences of Descartes’ innovation, but Hegel is the one who carries those consequences to the end.  And just generally, every one of his books has a ton of Hegel in it.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/06/08 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This didn’t register yesterday, so I thought I’d try again.

Dave Maier:

It was immediately apparent to me, taken as read, that the substance referred to in “substantial self” was Hegelian Sittlichkeit, and that the progression from Descartes to Spinoza to Kant was being read in Hegelian fashion, recognizing a moment of truth wrapped up in a “false” shell and attempting to integrate the various partial truths of his predecessors in a more comprehensive framework. The master narrative then is “substance becomes subject”. But that means the substance at issue between Descartes and Spinoza is being re-interpeted from Hegel’s post-Kantian perspective. (Spinoza was particularly important for Hegel, as suggesting the notion of the absolute as the identity of subject and object; the re-emphasis on Descartes is probably more Lacanian than Hegelian). For Kant, conceptual synthesis was essential to rendering at all possible our knowledge/experience of the world. Hegel starts from a Fichtean reading of Kant, emphasizing the active and practical-based role of “mind” in synthesizing the world as we know and experience it, and attempts to tremendously extend it in his conceptual-reflective dialectic, whereby the world that we inhabit comes to be conceived through successive syntheses as a rational whole. One of his key insights is that a judgment or proposition, in order to be asserted or affirmed, must also be capable of being negated; and any proposition, as a limited, must run against contrary conditions, whereby it, as it were, contradicts itself, and must be negated, subjected to a new conceptual synthesis that takes account of the contrary experience and the differences in things. That goes a way toward explaining why Hegel considers thinking/conceptual synthesis/subjectivity as a power of negation, as negativity. But the root of Hegelian difference is the difference between consciousness and world, and for something to differ from something else, it must also be related to something else. For consciousness to differ from the world it must relate to the world, but also as differing from the world, it must at least implicitly be relating back to itself. For Kant, the capstone of conceptual synthesis was the transcendental unity of apperception, the I think of self-consciousness, which Fichte styled the absolute ego. Hegel took exception to that, insisting that the implicit self-relation at the root of consciousness could only become explicit if consciousness related itself to another consciousness, and thereby became self-conscious, which argument is staged as the famous “master-slave dialectic”, which is partly a critique of Fichte’s absolute, transforming the locus of conceptual synthesis from an individual ego to a collective suprapersonal “entity”, Geist or spirit, (which nonetheless is to be accessible to the reflective processes of conscious thinking). Which roughly is how “substance”, as the or a necessary presupposition for conceiving of the being of the world comes to be characterized in social and at least implicitly historical terms, starting with the fourth book of PhG in which spirit externalizes itself in and as an “ethical world”, Sittlichkeit.

Well, I don’t know if this potted account of Hegel’s relation to the history of philosophy helps much in grasping the notion of “self-relating negativity”. Suffice it to say that “the self is a relation which relates itself to itself” only through its relations to others, (who, pace Hegel, are not identical to or extentions of the self), and that the social level is generated through interacting social relations, all those combining and differing selves and others interacting and communicating across the world, which is a distinctive ontological level, which can’t adequately be characterized either in terms of substance or mind, being or nothingness, but requires those self-and-other-referring beings, whatever you want to call them, and their myriad negations, to put social “things” into play. (Something might be a substance, a lump of food, say, but it is only when it is a pizza with a list of ingredients on the box and a price attached that it is a social “thing"). The point about the political is that it only emerges and is sustained through acts or activations of affiliation, in which decisions and groupings of friend/ally and enemy/opponent must be made across an inevitably conflictual social terrain, and that involves, indeed is constituted by, the “negation” or disintegration of any given “substantial” community. Which, indeed, tends to expose or bring out into the open those “self-referring negativities” that lurk within the stabilizations of “substantial” selves. Perhaps it is only by virtue of such “self-referring negativity”, which by no means is reducible to selfishness, that political “propositions” can be projected and sustained.

I think that part of the problem here is that Prof. Holbo is reading things in terms of the Analytic project of a naturalistic philosophy of mind, and others might read the same textual history in a different manner, importing different concerns into the readings. Also, such different styles of reading might be refunctioning those texts and their conceptual tropes for other purposes. Prof. Holbo seems, in Analytic fashion, to want to read those text as timeless, ahistorical arguments, as if the texts themselves were not involved in refashioning historical problematics and themselves transmitted through successive refashionings of historical problematics, and as if, of course, he were not importing his own problematics into those texts. It’s not clear to me, for example, that Descartes conceive of “mind” in terms of “intentionality” as its fundmental characteristic. Sure, he was making an argument, as all philosophers do in one way or another, but mostly he was discoursing on “method”. And he was primarily concerned with securing the veracity of representations. That he took the identification of thinking with its own thought to provide a ground for hypostatizing “mind” as a “substance”,- (really, in term of Aristotle’s notion of substance, a substantiality),- might actually be secondary or functional to securing the grounds for further claims about innate ideas, the ontological proof, etc. But what’s probably most striking about the cogito historically is that, by withdrawing into the isolated island of the self-certainty of the thinking subject, Descartes managed to evade a welter of conflicting claims, both those of the heritage of the Renaissance/Reformation and those of the socio-political turbulence of the times. (Toulmin notes that not only was he writing during the Thirty Years War, but actively participated in it). “These claims are at least certain; nothing else is worthy of account.”

Me, I don’t see how any full-fledge account of “mind” can be anything but fundamentally social. All those cross-secting intentionalities and negations must amount to some “thing”.

By on 01/06/08 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks John!  Some of that is familiar, but I think some of us (raises hand sheepishly) would do well to consider the difference it makes to the story we tell that goes “Kant said ________; but Hegel said ___________” if we include clauses that go “Fichte said ___________; then Schelling said __________” (or even “Reinhold said __________; and Herder said __________").

That said, I do affirm that (as you suspect of unnamed “others") I share Zizek’s tendency to read these guys through what *I* say rather than what (solely or in some senses even primarily) what *they* said.  (There are Hegel scholars already; you don’t need me for that – also, it isn’t 1800 anymore.) So in other words, once we consider that difference I just mentioned, we need not necessarily conclude that the latter stories are ipso facto superior – or even more accurate, for our purposes.  Incidentally, this tendency in Zizek puts an interesting spin on Adam’s (intuitively compelling) demand that if we’re going to criticize Zizek (which I’m not) then we should criticize him for what *he* said, not what *we* say.  Sauce for the goose?

In any case I would hesitate to accuse Holbo (and I deny it as well on my own behalf) of “read[ing] those text[s] as timeless, ahistorical arguments” simply in applying them to our contemporary concerns.  (I mean, we try not to be crude about it.) And he and I are hardly typical Analytics.  I agree, though, that this can lead to some cross-purposes.  I just don’t want to hear (too much of) that “more-historically-sensitive-than-thou” stuff.

Me, I don’t see how any full-fledge[d] account of “mind” can be anything but fundamentally social.

I don’t think anyone here would disagree with that.  But surely the key moves toward that conclusion occur way before the externalization of Spirit as Sittlichkeit.  I think that’s all we’re saying.  Or at least that’s what I’m saying.

By Dave Maier on 01/06/08 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Prof. Holbo seems, in Analytic fashion, to want to read those text as timeless, ahistorical arguments”

You think historicism is an ahistorical approach? That does have the advantage of paradox, I concede.

By John Holbo on 01/06/08 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I believe he means that you neglect the fact that Descartes’s text is part of an ongoing tradition (or “history,” we might call it) of interpretation.  Nor indeed to you merely neglect it—you tend to act as though philosophers who regard philosophical texts as part of an ongoing tradition as being in error. 

This tendency is what I have previously called a tendency toward “reification” of philosophers: you appear to believe that you have access to a single authoritative meaning for each philosopher.  Though you are not a typical analytic philosopher, everything I know of analytic philosophy leads me to believe that this trait is characteristic of those with an analytic training.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 06:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"to act as though” s/b “regard”

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 06:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"you tend to act as though philosophers who regard philosophical texts as part of an ongoing tradition as being in error.”

Look, if you say something like ‘Spinoza critiqued Descartes’ cogito’, and you understand ‘cogito’ in a Zizekian sense, then the sentence turns out to be false. Hence the motive for understanding ‘cogito’ in a Cartesian sense, in such contexts. In general, trying to read historical thinkers in their own terms, the better to understand them, is one form of historicism. Often you don’t want to impute thoughts to them about what came later in the tradition, because it hadn’t happened yet. So they didn’t think it. This is pretty elementary.

I understand that you are emphasizing a more Hegelian spirit, shall we say. But that still doesn’t help in cases like the present one. (Except as an explanation of how Zizek came to say some things that were incidentally anachronistic.)

So, moving right along, I obviously don’t “appear to believe that [I] have access to a single authoritative meaning for each philosopher.” I said Descartes is not a Zizekian. But only because that’s pretty obvious.

Also, ‘reification’ does not mean what you think it does. It is not the thing people do when they try to read a philosopher in his own terms, rather than those of a different philosopher. You are always telling me that this is a good thing - reading Zizek in his own terms? Does it follow that you are, too, are guilty of ‘reification’? No.

Finally, if you are going to get all hot and bothered about one commenter accidentally accusing you of delusions of ‘omniscience’ - and then retracting the comment - I’ll thank you not to accuse all analytic philosophers of suffering from delusions of omniscience. And if you simply must lay such charges, please do not do so on the basis of one example alone. And if you must induct from a single example, try not to make it a counter-example. Yeesh.

By John Holbo on 01/07/08 at 06:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This all reminds me of all those references to Hegel’s philosophy that should really read “Kojeve’s reading of Hegel.”

By on 01/07/08 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

He says that Spinoza critiqued Descartes’s cogito as a substantial entity.  Hence, Spinoza read Descartes in the more traditional way—while himself (in Zizek’s terms) more directly embodying the negative version of the cogito that Zizek finds to be important and that wasn’t really thematized until Kant.  There is no anachronism.  It’s condensed, but it’s not confused.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 11:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That is to say, both Zizek’s sense of the term and the more traditional sense are present in the paragraph.  Zizek is well aware that Spinoza understood Descartes differently from how Zizek does.  By reading it with those two senses in mind, you get a paragraph that makes sense.  By forcing it to be either one or the other, you get a paragraph that does not make sense.  There does not seem to be any good reason to prefer the latter route over the former. 

Even if you would not write a paragraph that contained two senses of “cogito” (viz., the one understood by Spinoza shortly after Descartes’s writing and the one understood by Zizek in light of a much longer tradition of interpretation) and even if you regard it as somehow wrong or suspect to do so, the fact remains that Zizek is actually doing so and that a proper understanding of the paragraph requires acknowledging that.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “Even if you would not write a paragraph that contained two senses of “cogito””

Ahem. You’ve been complaining, lo these past two days, about my grim determination to split senses of ‘cogito’ - a practice you heretofore denounced as ‘silly’. So don’t turn around now and accuse ME of refusal to write a paragraph containing two senses of ‘cogito’. It might be right that I would not write a paragraph that contained two senses of ‘cogito’. But that’s only because I’ve averaging about 4.5.

Right. We are now in agreement that there must be overlaid, distinct senses of ‘cogito’ in play - sometimes within a single occurrence of the word. I will forebear to argue further about whether this means Zizek is being confusedly or confusingly anachronistic, or merely ‘condensed’, because I just don’t care.

How is Spinoza’s understanding of the ‘cogito’ closer to the ‘negative version’ that Zizek likes? This I do not see. Spinoza’s actual critique of the ‘cogito’, as I remember it - namely you are supposed to start with God, not the self, plus non-timeless truths (such as the cogito) have no proper place in a geometric exposition of first philosophy - seems to me orthogonal to everything Zizek is preoccupied about.

By John Holbo on 01/07/08 at 12:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He’s saying that Spinoza, the man, embodies his sense of the negative cogito.  He’s not saying that Spinoza consciously embraces Zizek’s understanding of the Cartesian cogito.  He says this about Spinoza in dozens of places—he’s the “philosopher as such” because of his exclusion from substantive communal ties (cf. the intro to Parallax View).

I will concede that, in itself, the cited passage is confusing.  When recognized as a summary of an argument Zizek makes a million times elsewhere, however, it is relatively clear.

And no, not “within a single occurence of the word.”

(In my opinion, the best critique of this article is that it’s basically pure boilerplate stuff.  But as such, it should not be actively confusing to readers familiar with Zizek’s old tricks.)

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And no, not ‘within a single occurence of the word.’”

OK: “although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity.”

Which sense of cogito is ‘it’? Cartesian or the Zizekian? If the Cartesian, why is he emphasizing the positive ontological entity? (See my post.) If the Zizekian, why is he saying Spinoza targeted it?

What you’ve got, in general, is a cloudy sense of several senses, atmospherically suspended over the lot. I agree that you can follow the gist, and I missed that the first time out. (Very like a whale. Now I see it.) But you can’t get better than a gist. You may say that shouldn’t be confusing, but I find it so. Mostly because I keep asking why I should believe what he says, and obviously you can’t really have a reason to believe a gist.

Maybe you call that boilerplate. To me it doesn’t seem that solid.

By John Holbo on 01/07/08 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But you can’t get better than a gist.

Well, it does seem to me that that’s how that kind of language works. The gist’s the point and, because it’s gist, it’s open to endless interpretation.

By Bill Benzon on 01/07/08 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It would be really refreshing if you could do a post critiquing Zizek’s ideas without getting pissy about his presentation.  If you don’t think there’s good reason to buy into Zizek’s theory of subjectivity, then surely there must be reasons for that beyond your dislike of his writing style, right?

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A sincere question:

How can subjectivity be negativity if negating is simply one of the things the subject does?  Why privilege Descartes’ doubt over some chump’s faith?  I kind of get it when Lacan is introduced: we cannot handle the Real, underneath everything is the Real, and the Real is no thing, is negativity.  But that seems like an unprovable assertion—a statement of faith. 

I imagine I’ll be told to go back to college and study more philosophy.  But hell, I was taught *The Phenomenology of Spirit* by one of Cixous’s students, and I still don’t know.

(I do love the passage where Hegel suggests that animals at least are aware that the material world is not everything because, by eating the world, they negate it and assimilate it into the self.)

By on 01/07/08 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Indeterminacy of interpretation is the new infinity.

By on 01/07/08 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"It would be really refreshing if you could do a post critiquing Zizek’s ideas without getting pissy about his presentation.”

Adam, on some level our philosophical preconceptions may just be so far apart that we can’t proceed. I don’t know what Zizek’s reasons are for believing what he does about negativity because, despite having read his books, I don’t feel I have access to things of the right size and shape to count as reasons to believe the things Zizek says. So the reason I don’t believe them hardly goes beyond ‘that certainly sounds wrong.’ There does not seem to be much weighing in the other scale. Except for gist. You need a lot of gist to outweigh ‘that sounds wrong’.

As to the pissiness. It seems you are taking ‘piss’ as an approximate synonym for ‘reasons’. Some sort of ‘spirit is a bone’ joke, eh?

By John Holbo on 01/07/08 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, Zizek thinks that the gesture of negation is most important because it is the necessary precondition of any kind of creativity and freedom.  One normally goes with the flow, determined by outside causes—but sometimes a “No!” erupts and opens up the space for something new.

John, Oh well.

By Adam Kotsko on 01/07/08 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"(I do love the passage where Hegel suggests that animals at least are aware that the material world is not everything because, by eating the world, they negate it and assimilate it into the self.)”

Isn’t the point there about sensations, rather than the material world? Dumb animals know enough to not think that sensation is somehow “ultimate”, as if we could not get beyond it, since they do not “stop” at their sensations, “but straightaway gobble them up.” (With the joke being that even animals are wise enough to not think that we are “stuck” at gazing at our sense-data, but folk like Jacobi and Hume think that this is pretty much what our cognitive interaction with the world is like: There are these sense-data given to us, and all we can do is shuffle them around, associating them with one another. Where in actuality Hegel thinks that what is given to us in sensation is always something suitable to be aufgehoben as a moment in a universal, as something already conceptual in itself, and so not something to “stop” at.)

It is a good passage, though. PhdG has a lot of pretty decent jokes in it.

Does the “spirit is a bone” (penis) joke work in German, or is this one of those “speculative insights” that we have to depend on English to impart?

By Daniel on 01/08/08 at 01:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That self-consciousness or spirit is a skull bone is the concluding punch-line of the “Phrenology” section of PhG. Hegel does note, though, somewhere thereabouts that the organ of man’s highest attainment, procreation, is also an organ of excretion.

By on 01/08/08 at 03:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Halasz: The “somewhere” is the final few sentences of the section of PhdG on Phrenology. Section 346 in Miller’s translation: “The depth which Spirit brings forth from within--but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain--and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying [in the “infinite judgement” that “Spirit is a bone"], are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of procreation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgement, qua infinite, would be the fulfillment of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgement that remains at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination.”

I’m just curious if the “bone” pun works in German. As far as I can find, “knochen” doesn’t seem to have any vulgar connotations. But then I don’t have much in the way of experience when it comes to looking up bawdy German puns.

By Daniel on 01/08/08 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This may be a dead thread, but here goes anyway:

Having just taught the Meditations this fall, I can say in agreement with Adam that Zizek’s reading of it is justifiable, and that if you have a problem with the way Zizek and Lacan use the term “cogito,” the problem is really with Descartes. Descartes took a proposition stating an action—“I think”—and identified it with a substantial presence, the “thinking thing” in me which is distinct from my body.

If, in response to this, you exclaim that evanescent flashes of thought, a presence (if we want to call it that) that seems to constantly consume itself and vanish back into the ether, are hardly sufficient grounds for inferring a presence, you are actually agreeing with the position Zizek and Lacan have taken. For them, thought is the kind of thing that can take up a position with respect to itself, reflexively, and yet simultaneously cannot define that thing (itself) to which it relates.

I won’t speculate, for the time being, about whether the way Zizek applies his thought to tolerance and liberalism is particularly profound; as most of the people involved in this conversation know, I haven’t been very impressed with his recent work.

Nonetheless, it is easy to support his underlying argument about the Cartesian subject. We are most aware of “ourselves” as independent entities when we feel alienated from our environment; what appears to be self-relating negativity is actually a negative relation to a group of others. (Ah, high school, and movies about high school.) Likewise, we might think of the difference between the “cogito” and the “sum” as the difference between how readers perceive writers, as the coherent sources of densely interpretable and coordinated works, and how writers perceive themselves, usually with considerable anxiety, uncertainty, and feelings of having been merely haphazardly articulate.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, I just said “The spirit is a bone” to a bunch of Germans, and they all laughed. On the other hand, I was wearing a funny hat. It may have been because of the hat that they laughed. I must burn it and purchase another.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/10/08 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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