. . . . . . Lacan: at What Point is He Hegelian? •

. . . . . . . . Slavoj Zizek
. . . . . . . . translated by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens

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1. The Hegelian Thing

Michel Foucault once proposed that philosophy as such could be labeled 'anti-Platonism'. All philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, have defined their projects by distancing themselves from Plato, precisely because Plato was the thinker whose enterprise marked off the field of philosophy. In the same way, one could say that what defines philosophy in the last two centuries is its dissociation from Hegel, the incarnate monster of 'panlogicism' (the total dialectical mediation of reality, the complete dissolution of reality in the self-movement of the Idea). Over against this 'monster', various attempts have affirmed that there is, supposedly, some element which escapes the mediation of the concept, a gesture that is already discernible in the three great post-Hegelian inversions [1] that opposed the absolutism of the Idea in the name of the irrational abyss of the Will (Schelling), the paradox of the existence of the individual (Kierkegaard) and the productive processes of life (Marx). Even Hegel's more favorable commentators, despite identifying with him, refuse to trespass the limit that constitutes Absolute Knowledge. Thus, Jean Hyppolite insists that the post-Hegelian tradition allows for the irreducible opening of the historico-temporal process by means of an empty repetition, destroying the framework of the progress of Reason ... To put it simply, each of these relations to the Hegelian system is always that of a "I know well, but all the same." [2] One knows well that Hegel affirms the fundamentally antagonistic character of actions, the decentring of the subject, etc., but all the same ... this division is eventually overcome in the self-mediation of the absolute Idea that ends up suturing all wounds. The position of Absolute Knowledge, the final reconciliation, plays here the role of the Hegelian Thing: a monster both frightening and ridiculous, from which it is best to keep some distance, something that is at the same time impossible (Absolute Knowledge is of course unachievable, an unrealizable Ideal) and forbidden (Absolute Knowledge must be avoided, for it threatens to mortify all the richness of life through the self-movement of the concept). In other words, any attempt to define oneself within Hegel's sphere of influence requires a point of blocked identification - the Thing must always be sacrificed...

For us, this figure of Hegel as 'panlogicist', who devours and mortifies the living substance of the particular, is the Real of his critic's, 'Real' in the Lacanian sense: the construction of a point which effectively does not exist (a monster with no relation to Hegel himself), but which, nonetheless, must be presupposed in order to justify our negative reference to the other, that is to say, our effort at distantiation. Where does the horror felt by post-Hegelians before the monster of Absolute Knowledge come from? What does this fantasmatic construction conceal by means of its fascinating presence? The answer: a hole, a void. The best way to distinguish this hole is by reading Hegel with Lacan, that is to say, by reading Hegel in terms of the Lacanian problematic of the lack in the Other, the traumatic void against which the process of signification articulates itself. From this perspective, Absolute Knowledge appears to be the Hegelian name for that which Lacan outlined in his description of the passe, the final moment of the analytic process, the experience of lack in the Other. If, according to Lacan's celebrated formula, Sade offers us the truth of Kant, [3] then Lacan himself allows us to approach the elementary matrix that summarizes the entire movement of the Hegelian dialectic: Kant with Sade, Hegel with Lacan. What is implied, then, by this relationship between Hegel and Lacan?

Today, things seem clear: although no one denies that Lacan owed a certain debt to Hegel, it is argued that all Hegelian references are limited to specific theoretical borrowings, and restricted to a well-defined period of Lacan's work. Between the late 1940s and the early 1950s, Lacan tried to articulate the psychoanalytic process in terms of an intersubjective logic of the recognition of desire and/or the desire for recognition. Already at this stage, Lacan was careful to keep his distance from the closure of the Hegelian system, from an Absolute Knowledge that was allied to the unachievable ideal of a perfectly homogeneous discourse, complete and closed in upon itself. Later, the introduction of the logic of the not-all (pas-tout) and the concept of the barred Other (A) would render this initial reference to Hegel obsolete. Can one imagine any opposition more incompatible than the one between Hegelian Absolute Knowledge - the closed 'circle of circles' - and the Lacanian barred Other - absolutely empty knowledge? Is not Lacan the anti-Hegel par excellence?

But, ironically, it is on the basis of Lacan's debt to Hegel that most critiques proceed: Lacan remains the prisoner of phallogocentrism due to a subterranean Hegelianism that confines textual dissemination within a teleological circle ... To such a critique, Lacanians could respond, rightly, by stressing the rupture of Lacanianism with Hegelianism - trying hard to save Lacan by emphasizing that he is not and never has been a Hegelian. But it is time to approach this debate in a different light, by expressing the relationship between Hegel and Lacan in an original way. From our perspective, Lacan is fundamentally Hegelian, but without knowing it. His Hegelianism is certainly not where one expects it - that is to say, in his explicit references to Hegel - but precisely in the last stage of his teaching, in his logic of the not-all, in the emphasis placed on the Real and the lack in the Other. - - And, reciprocally, a reading of Hegel in the light of Lacan provides us with a radically different image from that, commonly assumed, of the 'panlogicist' Hegel. It would make visible a Hegel of the logic of the signifier, of a self-referential process articulated as the repetitive positivization of a central void.

Such a reading would thus affect the definition of both terms. It would mark off a Hegel freed from the residues of panlogicism and/or historicism, a Hegel of the logic of the signifier. Consequently, it would become possible clearly to perceive the most subversive core of the Lacanian doctrine, that of the constitutive lack in the Other. This is why our argument is, fundamentally,"diatogical: it is impossible to develop a positive line of thought without including the theses that are opposed to it, that is to say, in effect, those commonplaces already mentioned concerning Hegel, which would see in Hegelianism the instance par excellence of the 'imperialism of reason', a closed economy in which the self-movement of the Concept sublates all differences and every dispersion of the material process. Such commonplaces can also be found in Lacan, but they are accompanied by another conception of Hegel which one does not find in Lacan's explicit statements about Hegel - for which reason we pass by these statements, for the most part, in silence. For us, Lacan 'does not know at what point he is Hegelian', because his reading of Hegel is inscribed within the tradition of Kojève and Hyppolite. [4] It would therefore be necessary, in order to articulate the connection between the dialectic and the logic of the signifier, to bracket for the moment any explicit reference by Lacan to Hegel. [...]

2. Three Stages of the Symbolic

It is only after clarifying the relationship between the Hegelian dialectic and the logic of the signifier that one is in the position to situate the 'Hegelianism' in Lacan. Let us take the three successive stages of the progression of the concept of the Symbolic in Lacan.

The first stage, that of 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis', [5] places the accent on the intersubjective dimension of speech: speech as the medium of the intersubjective recognition of desire. The predominant themes in this stage are symbolization as historicization and symbolic realization: symptoms, traumas, are the blank, empty, non-historicizable spaces of the subject's symbolic universe. Analysis, then, 'realizes in the symbolic' these traumatic traces, including them in the symbolic universe by conferring upon them after the fact, retrospectively, some signification. Basically, a phenomenological conception of language, close to that of Merleau-Ponty, is here retained: the goal of analysis is to produce the recognition of desire through 'full speech', to integrate desire within the universe of signification. In a typically phenomenological way, the order of speech is identified with that of signification, and analysis itself functions at this level: 'All analytical experience is an experience of signification.' [6]

The second stage, exemplified in the interpretation of "The Purloined Letter", is in some ways complementary to the first, just as language is complementary to speech. It places the emphasis on the signifying order as (that of) a closed, differential, synchronous structure: the signifying structure functions as a senseless 'automatism', to which the subject is subjected. The diachronic order of speech, of signification, is thus governed by a senseless, signifying automatism, by a differential and formalizable game that produces the effect of signification. This structure that 'runs the game' is concealed by the Imaginary relationship - one is here at the level of the 'schema L': [7]

We realize, of course, the importance of these Imaginary impregnations (Prägung) in those partializations of the symbolic alternative which give the symbolic chain its appearance. But we maintain that it is the specific law of that chain which governs those psychoanalytic effects that are decisive for the subject: such as foreclosure (Verwerfung), repression (Verdrängung), denial (Verneinung) itself - specifying with appropriate emphasis that these effects follow so faithfully the displacement (Enstellung) of the signifier that imaginary factors, despite their inertia, figure only as shadows and reflections in this process. [8]

If the first stage was 'phenomenological', this one is rather more 'structuralist'. The problem of this second stage is that the subject -insofar as it is the subject of the signifier, irreducible to the Imaginary ego - is radically unthinkable: on the one hand, there is the Imaginary ego, the location of blindness and misrecognition, that is to say, of the axis a-a'; on the other hand, a subject totally subjected to the structure, alienated without remainder and in this sense de-subjectivized:

The coming into operation of the symbolic function in its most radical, absolute usage ends up abolishing the action of the individual so completely that by the same token it eliminates his tragic relation to the world ... At the heart of the flow of events, the functioning of reason, the subject from the first move finds himself to be no more than a pawn, forced inside this system, and excluded from any truly dramatic, and consequently tragic, participation in the realization of truth. [9]

The subject that liberates itself completely from the axis a-a and entirely realizes itself in the Other, accomplishing its symbolic realization, as subject without ego, without Imaginary blindness, will at once be radically de-subjectivized, reduced to a moment in the functioning of the Symbolic machine, the 'structure without subject'.

The third stage is certainly not, it must be understood, some kind of "synthesis' of the first two, a combination of the phenomenological perspective of speech and the structuralist perspective of language; these two stages are themselves already complementary, two versions of the same theoretical edifice. The third stage must break with this common edifice, this complementary relationship of a speech filled with signification and a self-sufficient structure, by positing a barred Other, incomplete, 'not-all', an Other articulated against a void, an Other which carries within it an ex-timate, non-symbolizable kernel. It is only by working from the barred Other () that one can understand the subject of the signifier (): if the Other is not fractured, if it is a complete array, the only possible relationship of the subject to the structure is that of total alienation, of a subjection without remainder; but the lack in the Other means that there is a remainder, a non-integratable residuum in the Other, objet a, and the subject is able to avoid total alienation only insofar as it posits itself as the correlative of this remainder: <> a. In this sense, one is able to conceive of a subject that is distinct from the ego, the place of Imaginary misrecognition: a subject that is not lost in the 'process without subject' of the structural combination.

One can also approach this conjuncture working from the question of desire: the barred Other means an Other that is not simply an anonymous machine, the automatism of a structural combinatory, but rather a desiring Other, an Other that lacks the object-cause of desire, an Other that wants something from the subject (Che vuoi?). One would want to say that the subject of the signifier ex-sists insofar as this dimension of the question insists in the Other - not as the question of the subject confronted with the enigma of the Other, but rather as a question that emerges from the Other itself.

At first sight, it might appear that the Lacanian reference to Hegel is fundamentally limited to the first stage, with its themes of symbolization as historicization, integration within the symbolic universe, etc. Throughout this period, the Lacanian reading of the Hegelian text is 'mediated' by Kojeve and Hyppolite, and the predominant themes are those of struggle and the final reconciliation in the medium of intersubjective recognition, which is speech. In effect, the achievement of symbolic realization, the abolition of the symptom, the integration of every traumatic kernel into the symbolic universe, this final and ideal moment when the subject is finally liberated from Imaginary opacity, when the blanks of its history are filled in by 'full speech' when the tension between 'subject' and 'substance' are finally resolved by this speech in which the subject is able to assume his desire, etc. - is it not possible to recognize this state of plenitude as a psychoanalytic version of Hegelian 'Absolute Knowledge': a non-barred Other, without symptom, without lack, without traumatic kernel?

It would thus appear that, with the introduction of a barred Other, any overt reference to Hegel is at least relegated to the background: the barred Other means precisely the constitutive impossibility of an Absolute Knowledge, of the achievement of symbolic realization, because there is a void, a lack of the signifier that accompanies the movement of symbolization, or rather, on another level, because there is a nonsense, which necessarily emerges as soon as there is the advent of sense. The conceptual field of Lacan's third stage would thus be a field of the Other that resists on all sides the achievement of 'realization', an Other emptied out by a hypothetical kernel of a Real-impossible whose inertia blocks the dialecticization, the 'sublation' in and through the symbol - in short, an anti-Hegelian Other par excellence.

3. Das Ungeschehenmachen

Before succumbing too quickly to this seductive image of an anti-Hegelian Lacan, it is worth developing the logic of the three stages of Lacanian doctrine. This can be done by means of several determinants. For example, it is possible to demonstrate that each of these three stages corresponds to a specific conception of the end of the analytic process: 1) symbolic realization, the achievement of the historicization of symptoms; 2) the experience of symbolic castration ('originary repression') as a dimension that opens for the subject access to his desire at the level of the Other; 3) the traversing of the fantasy, the loss of the object that plugs the hole in the Other. Nevertheless, the preferable choice of a determinant is that of 'death drive': for the simple reason that the link between 'death drive' and the symbolic order - everything else remaining constant in Lacanian theory - is articulated in a different way in each of the stages:

1) In the 'Hegelian-phenomenological' stage, it acts as a variation on the Hegelian theme of the "word as the murder of the thing': the word, the symbol, is not a simple reflection, substitution or representation of the thing; it is the thing itself, that is to say, the thing is aufgehoben, suppressed-interiorized, in its concept which exists in the form of a word:

Remember what Hegel says about the concept - The concept is the time of the thing. To be sure, the concept is not the thing as it is, for the simple reason that the concept is always where the thing isn't, it is there so as to replace the thing ... Of the thing, what is it that can be there? Neither its form, nor its reality, since, in the actual state of affairs, all the seats are taken. Hegel puts it with extreme rigor -the concept is what makes the thing be there, while, all the while, it isn't.
This identity in difference, which characterizes the relation of the concept to the thing, that is what also makes the thing a thing and the fact symbolized... [10]

'Death drive' thus stands for the annihilation of the thing in its immediate, corporal reality upon its symbolization: the thing is more present in its symbol than in its immediate reality. The unity of the thing, the trait that makes a thing a thing, is decentered in relation to the reality of the thing itself: the thing must 'die' in its reality in order to arrive, by traversing its symbol, at its conceptual unity.

2) In the following, 'structuralist' stage, 'death drive' is identified with the symbolic order insofar as it follows its own laws beyond the Imaginary experience of the subject, that is to say, 'beyond the pleasure principle' - a mechanism which, by means of its automatism, breaks, disturbs the subject's equilibrium and Imaginary homeostasis. The symbolic order:

isn't the libidinal order in which the ego is inscribed, along with all the drives. It tends beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the limits of life, and that is why Freud identifies it with the death instinct. ... The symbolic order is rejected by the libidinal order, which includes the whole of the domain of the imaginary, including the structure of the ego. And the death instinct is only the mask of the symbolic order ..." [11]

3) In the third stage, in which Lacan places the accent on the Real as the impossible/non-symbolizable kernel, 'death drive' becomes the name for that which, following Sade, takes the form of the 'second death': symbolic death, the annihilation of the signifying network, of the text in which the subject is inscribed, through which reality is historicized - the name of that which, in psychotic experience, appears as the 'end of the world', the twilight, the collapse of the symbolic universe. [12] To put it another way, 'death drive' designates the ahistorical possibility implied, exposed by the process of symbolization/historicization: the possibility of its radical effacement.

The Freudian concept which best designates this act of annihilation is das Ungeschehenmachen, 'in which one action is cancelled out by a second, so that it is as though neither action had taken place', [13] or more simply, retroactive cancellation. And it is more than coincidence that one finds the same term in Hegel, who defines das Ungeschchenmachen as the supreme power of Spirit. [14] This power of 'unmaking' the past is conceivable only on the symbolic level: in immediate life, in its circuit, the past is only the past and as such is incontestable; but once one is situated at the level of history qua text, the network of symbolic traces, one is able to wind back what has already occurred, or erase the past. One is thus able to conceive of Ungeschehenmachen, the highest manifestation of negativity, as the Hegelian version of 'death drive': it is not an accidental or marginal element in the Hegelian edifice, but rather designates the crucial moment of the dialectical process, the so-called moment of the 'negation of negation', the inversion of the 'antithesis' into the 'synthesis': the 'reconciliation' proper to synthesis is not a surpassing or suspension (whether it be 'dialectical') of scission on some higher plane, but a retroactive reversal which means that there never was any scission to begin with - 'synthesis' retroactively annuls this scission. This is how the enigmatic but crucial passage from Hegel's Encyclopaedia must be understood:

The accomplishing of the infinite purpose consists therefore in sublating the illusion that it has not yet been accomplished. [15]

One does not accomplish the end by attaining it, but by proving that one has already attained it, even when the way to its realization is hidden from view. While advancing, one was not yet there, but all of a sudden, one has been there all along - 'too soon' changes suddenly into 'too late' without detecting the exact moment of their transformation. The whole affair thus has the structure of the missed encounter: along the way, the truth, which we have not yet attained, pushes us forward like a phantom, promising that it awaits us at the end of the road; but all of a sudden we perceive that we were always already in the truth. The paradoxical surplus which slips away, which reveals itself as 'impossible' in this missed encounter of the 'opportune moment', is of course objet a: the pure semblance which pushes us toward the truth, right up to the moment when it suddenly appears behind us and that we have already arrived ahead of it, a chimerical being that does not have its 'proper time', only ever persisting in the interval between 'too soon' and 'too late'.


[1] Zizek's language here is also, ironically, that of Louis Althusser, who rejects any such materialist 'inversion' of the Hegelian dialectic. See his 'On the Materialist Dialectic: On the Unevenness of Origins', in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, London and New York, Verso, 1969, pp. 161-218 [transl. note].

[2] This formula of the 'fetishist denial' was developed by Octave Mannoni in his 'I Know Well, but All the Same ...', in Perversion and the Social Relation, ed. Molly Anne Rothenberg, Dennis A. Foster and Slavoj Zizek, Durham, Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 68-92.

[3] Lacan's precise formulation is as follows: 'Philosophy in the Bedroom comes eight years after the Critique of Practical Reason. Once we observe their correspondence, then we may demonstrate that one completes the other, and even suggest that (Sade's Philosophy) presents the truth of the Critique.' Jacques Lacan, 'Kant avec Sade', in Écrits, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1966, p. 244 [transl. note].

[4] Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the 'Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. Raymond Queneau and Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr., Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1969; Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1974 [transl. note].

[5] Jacques Lacan, 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis', in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink, New York, W. W. Norton, 2002, pp. 31-106 [transl. note].

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, New York, W. W. Norton, 1988, p. 325.

[7] Lacan develops the 'schema L' in the following texts: 'On a Question Prior to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis', in Écrits: A Selection, p. 183; Seminar II: the Ego in Freud's Theory, pp. 321-6; Seminar III: The Psychoses, 1955-56, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg, New York, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 13-15, 161-2 [transl. note].

[8] Jacques Lacan, 'Seminar on "The Purloined Letter'", trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp.28-9.

[9] Jacques Lacan, Lacan, Seminar II, 168.

[10] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan I: Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp.242-3.

[11] Jacques Lacan, Seminar II, p. 326.

[12] Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter. London and New York, Routledge, 1992, pp. 209-12 [transl. note].

[13] Sigmund Freud, 'Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety', in The Penguin Freud Library, 10: On Psychopathology, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, p. 274.

[14] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 402.

[15] G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia of Logic: Part I of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusädtze, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting and H. S. Harris, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1991, p. 286.

This essay was originally published in French in Le plus sublime des hystériques - Hegel passe, Broché, Paris, 1999. It appears in Interogating the Real, London: Continuum, 2005, Rex Butler and Scott Stephens editors.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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