......• Madness and Habit in German Idealism:
Discipline between the Two Freedoms - Part 2 •

.........Slavoj Zizek

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Madness and Habit in German Idealism:
Discipline between the Two Freedoms - Part 1

What "haunts" the subject is his inaccessible noumenal Self, the "Thing that thinks," an object in which the subject would fully "encounter himself." (Hume drew a lot – too much – of mileage out of this observation on how, upon introspection, all I perceive in myself are my particular ideas, sensations, emotions, never my "Self" itself.) Of course, for Kant, the same goes for every object of my experience which is always phenomenal, i.e., inaccessible in its noumenal dimension; however, with the Self, the impasse is accentuated: all other objects of experience are given to me phenomenally, but, in the case of subject, I cannot even get a phenomenal experience of me – since I am dealing with "myself," in this unique case, phenomenal self-experience would equal noumenal access, i.e., if I were to be able to experience "myself" as a phenomenal object, I would thereby eo ipso experience myself in my noumenal identity, as a Thing.

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject to objectivize himself: the subject is singular AND the universal frame of "his world," i.e., every content he perceives is "his own"; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) into the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position, and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an "objective" view of reality with himself in it. The thing that haunts the subject is HIMSELF in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. – So when Hegel writes:

The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement (Verruecktheit). [1]

Hegel has to be read here in a very precise way. His point is not simply that madness signals a short-circuit between totality and one of its particular moments, a "fixation" of totality in this moment on account of which the totality is deprived of its dialectical fluidity – although some of his formulations may appear to point in this direction. (Is paranoiac fixation not such a short-circuit in which the totality of my experience gets non-dialectically "fixated" onto a particular moment, the idea of my persecutor?) The "particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid" and resists being "reduced to its proper place and rank" is THE SUBJECT HIMSELF, more precisely: the feature (signifier) that re-presents him (holds his place) within the structured ("systematized") totality, and since the subject cannot ever objectivize himself, the "contradiction" is here absolute.

(Upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the Hegelian notion of madness oscillates between the two extremes which one is tempted to call, with reference to Benjamin’s notion of violence, constitutive and constituted madness. First, there is the constitutive madness: the radical "contradiction" of the human condition itself, between the subject as "nothing," as the evanescent punctuality and the subject as "all," as the horizon of its world. Then, there is the "constituted" madness: the direct fixation to, identification with, a particular feature as an attempt to resolve (or, rather, cut short) the contradiction. In a way homologous with the ambiguity of the Lacanian notion of objet petit a, madness names at the same time the contradiction/void and the attempt to resolve it.)

With this gap, the possibility of madness emerges – and, as Hegel puts it in proto-Foucauldian terms, madness is not an accidental lapse, distortion, "illness" of human spirit, but something which is inscribed into individual spirit’s basic ontological constitution: to be a human means to be potentially mad:

This interpretation of insanity as a necessarily occurring form or stage in the development of the soul is naturally not to be understood as if we were asserting that every mind, every soul, must go through this stage of extreme derangement. Such an assertion would be as absurd as to assume that because in the Philosophy of Right crime is considered as a necessary manifestation of the human will, therefore to commit crime is an inevitable necessity for every individual. Crime and insanity are extremes which the human mind in general has to overcome in the course of its development. [2]

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as "normal" subjects, which means that "normality" can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel put it a couple of pages later, "insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition" [3] – Hegel evokes here the relationship between the abstract and the concrete: although, in empirical development and state of things, abstract determinations are always-already embedded in a concrete Whole as their presupposition, the notional reproduction/deduction of this Whole has to progress from the abstract to the concrete: crimes presuppose the rule of law, they can only occur as their violation, but must be nonetheless grasped as an abstract act that is "sublated" through the law; abstract legal relations and morality are de facto always embedded in some concrete totality of Customs, but, nonetheless, The Philosophy of Right has to progress from the abstract moments of legality and morality to the concrete Whole of Customs (family, civil society, state). The interesting point here is not only the parallel between madness and crime, but the fact that madness is located in a space opened up by the discord between actual historical development and its conceptual rendering, i.e., in the space which undermines the vulgar-evolutionist notion of dialectical development as the conceptual reproduction of the factual historical development which purifies the latter of its empirical insignificant contingencies. Insofar as madness de facto presupposes normality, while, conceptually, it precedes normality, one can say that a "madman" is precisely the subject who wants to "live" - to reproduce in actuality itself – the conceptual order, i.e., to act as if madness also effectively precedes normality.

We can see, now, in what precise sense habits form the third, concluding, moment of this triad, its "syllogism": in a habit, the subject finds a way to "possess itself," to stabilize its own inner content in "having" as its property a habit, i.e., not a positive actual feature, but a virtual entity, a universal disposition to (re)act in a certain way. Habit and madness are to be thought together: habit is the way to stabilize the imbalance of madness.

Another way to approach this same topic is via the relationship between soul and body as the Inner and the Outer, of their circular relationship in which body expresses the soul and the soul receives impressions from the body – the Soul is always-already embodied and the Body always-already impregnated with its Soul:

What the sentient self finds within it is, on the one hand, the naturally immediate, as ‘ideally’ in it and made its own. On the other hand and conversely, what originally belongs to the central individuality /…/ is determined as natural corporeity, and is so felt. [4]

So, on the one hand, through feelings and perceptions, I internalize objects that affect me from outside: in a feeling, they are present in me not in their raw reality, but "ideally," as part of my mind. On the other hand, through grimaces, etc., my body immediately "gives body" to my inner Soul which thoroughly impregnates it. However, if this were to be the entire truth, then man would have been simply a "prisoner of his state of nature"(67), moving in the close loop of absolute transparency provided by the mutual mirroring of body and soul. (Physiognomy and phrenology remain at this level, as well as today’s New Age ideologies enjoining us to express/realize our true Self.) What happens with the moment of "judgment" is that the loop of this closed circle is broken – not but the intrusion of an external element, but by a self-referentiality which twists this circle into itself. That is to say, the problem is that, "since the individual is at the same time only what he has done, his body is also the expression of himself which he has himself produced." [5] What this means is that there process of corporeal self-expression has no pre-existing Referent as its mooring point: the entire movement is thoroughly self-referential, it is only through the process of "expression" (externalization in bodily signs) that the expressed Inner Self (the content of these signs) is retroactively created – or, as Malabou puts it concisely: "Psychosomatic unity results from an auto-interpretation independent of any referent."(71)

The transparent mirroring of the Soul and the Body in the natural expressivity thus turns into total opacity:

If a work signifies itself, this implies that there is no ‘outside’ of the work, that the work acts as its own referent: it presents what it interprets at the same moment it interprets it, forming one and the same manifestation. /…/ The spiritual bestows form, but only because it is itself formed in return."(72)

What this "lack of any ontological guarantee outside the play of significations"(68) means is that the meaning of our gestures and speech acts is always haunted by the spirit of irony: when I say A, it is always possible that I do it in order to conceal the fact that I am non-A – Hegel refers Lichtenberg’s well-known aphorism: "You certainly act like an honest man, but I see from your face that you are forcing yourself to do so and are a rogue at heart." [6]

The ambiguity is here total and undecidable, because the deception is the one that Lacan designates as specifically human, namely the possibility of lying in the guise of truth. Which is why it goes even further than the quote from Lichtenberg – the reproach should rather be: "You act like an honest man in order to convince us that you mean it ironically, and thus to conceal from us the fact that you really ARE an honest man!" This is what Hegel means in his precise claim that, "for the individuality, it is as much its countenance as its mask which it can lay aside": [7] in the gap between appearance (mask) and my true inner stance, the truth can be either in my inner stance or in my mask. What this means is that the emotions I perform through the mask (false persona) that I adopt can in a strange way be more authentic and truthful than what I really feel in myself. When I construct a false image of myself which stands for me in a virtual community in which I participate (in sexual games, for example, a shy man often assumes the screen persona of an attractive promiscuous woman), the emotions I feel and feign as part of my screen persona are not simply false: although (what I experience as) my true self does not feel them, they are nonetheless in a sense "true." Say, what if, deep in myself, I am a sadist pervert who dreams of beating other men and raping women; in my real-life interaction with other people, I am not allowed to enact this true self, so I adopt a more humble and polite persona – is it not that, in this case, my true self is much closer to what I adopt as a fictional screen-persona, while the self of my real-life interactions is a mask concealing the violence of my true self?

Habit provides the way out of this predicament – how? Not "true expression," but by putting the truth in "mindless" expression: Hegel’s constant motif, truth is in what you SAY, not in what you MEAN to say. Exemplary is here the enigmatic status of what we call "politeness": when, upon meeting an acquaintance, I say "Glad to see you! How are you today?", it is clear to both of us that, in a way, I "do not mean it seriously" (if my partner suspects that I am really interested, he may even be unpleasantly surprised, as though I were aiming at something too intimate and of no concern to me - or, to paraphrase the old Freudian joke, "Why are you saying you're glad to see me, when you're really glad to see me!?"). However, it would nonetheless be wrong to designate my act as simply "hypocritical," since, in another way, I do mean it: the polite exchange does establish a kind of pact between the two of us; in the same sense as I do "sincerely" laugh through the canned laughter (the proof of it being the fact that I effectively do "feel relieved" afterwards). This brings us to one of the possible definitions of a madman: the subject who is unable to enter this logic of "sincere lies," so that, when, say, a friend greets him "Nice to see you! How are you?", he explodes: "Are you really glad to see me or are you just pretending it? And who gave you the right to probe into my state?"

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Orlando is passionately in love with Rosalind who, in order to test his love, disguises herself as Ganymede and, as a male companion, interrogates Orlando about his love. She even takes on the personality of Rosalind (in a redoubled masking, she pretends to be herself, i.e., to be Ganymede who plays to be Rosalind) and persuades her friend Celia (also disguised as Aliena) to marry them in a mock ceremony. In this ceremony, Rosalind literally feigns to feign to be what she is: truth itself, in order to win, has to be staged in a redoubled deception – in a homologous way to All’s Well in which marriage, in order to be asserted, has to be consummated in the guise of an extramarital affair.

The same overlapping of appearance with truth is often at work in one’s ideological self-perception. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the "anonymous kingdom of the Republic." [8] The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they all the time generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. What they were effectively doing was to establish the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very "inner" royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism – it was what provided the passion to their activity. Is it not, then, that the deputees of the Party of Order were also feigning to feign to be republicans, be what they really were?

Hegel’s radical conclusion is that the sign with which we are dealing here, in corporeal expressions, "in truth signifies nothing (in Wahrheit nicht bezeichnet)." [9] Habit is thus a strange sign which "signifies the fact that it signifies nothing"(67) – what Hoelderlin put forward as the formula of our destitute predicament, of an era in which, because gods have abandoned us, we are "signs without meaning," acquires here an unexpected positive interpretation. And we should take Hegel’s formula literally: the "nothing" in it has a positive weight, i.e., the sign which "in truth signifies nothing" is what Lacan calls signifier, that which represents the subject for another signifier. The "nothing" is the void of the subject itself, so that the absence of an ultimate reference means that absence itself is the ultimate reference, and this absence is the subject itself. - This s why Malabou writes:

Spirit is not that which is expressed by its expressions; it is that which originally terrifies spirit. (68)

The dimension of haunting, the link between spirit qua the light of Reason and spirit qua obscene ghosts, is crucial here: spirit/Reason is forever, by a structural necessity, haunted by the obscene apparitions of its own spirit.

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity - an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him - or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here - pure self - in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head - there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye - into a night that becomes awful. [10]

Again, one should not be blinded by the poetic power of this description, but read it precisely. The first thing to note is how the objects which freely float around in this "night of the world" are membra disjecta, partial objects, objects detached from their organic Whole – is there not a strange echo between this description and Hegel’s description of the negative power of Understanding which is able to abstract an entity (a process, a property) from its substantial context and treat it as if it has an existence of its own? - "that the accidental as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power of the negative." [11] It is thus as if, in the ghastly scenery of the "night of the world," we encounter something like the power of Understanding in its natural state, spirit in the guise of a proto-spirit – this, perhaps, is the most precise definition of horror: when a higher state of development violently inscribes itself in the lower state, in its ground/presupposition, where it cannot but appear as a monstrous mess, a disintegration of order, a terrifying unnatural combination of natural elements. With regards to today’s science, where do we encounter its horror at its purest? When genetic manipulations go awry and generate objects never seen in nature, freaks like goats with a gigantic ear instead of a head or a head with one eye, meaningless accidents which nonetheless touch our deeply repressed fantasies and thus trigger wild interpretations. The pure Self as the "inner of nature" (a strange expression, since, for Hegel, nature, precisely, has no interior: its ontological status is that of externality, not only externality with regard to some presupposed Interior, but externality with regard to itself) stands for this paradoxical short-circuit of the super-natural (spiritual) in its natural state – why does it occur? The only consistent answer is a materialist one: because spirit is part of nature, and can occur/arise only through a monstrous self/affliction (distortion, derangement) of nature. Therein resides the paradox of the materialist edge of cheap spiritualism: it is precisely because spirit is part of nature, because spirit does not intervene into nature already constituted, ready-made somewhere else, but has to emerge out of nature through its derangement, that there is no spirit (Reason) without spirits (obscene ghosts), that spirit is forever haunted by spirits.

And this brings us back to our starting question: the change from animal to properly human habit. Only humans, spiritual beings, are haunted by spirits – why? Not simply because, in contrast to animals, they have access to universality, but because this universality is for them simultaneously necessary and impossible, i.e., a problem. In other words, while, for human subjects, the place of universality is prescribed, it has to remain empty, it cannot ever be filled in by its "proper" content. The specificity of man thus concerns the relationship between universal essence and its accidents: for animals, accidents remain mere accidents; only human being posits universality as such, relates to it, and can therefore reflectively elevate accidents into universal essence. THIS IS WHY man is a "generic being" (Marx): to paraphrase Heidegger’s definition of Dasein, man is a being for which its genus is for itself a problem: "Man can ‘present the genus’ to the degree that habit is the unforeseen element of the genus."(74)

This formulation opens up an unexpected link to the notion of hegemony as it was developed by Ernesto Laclau: there is forever a gap between the universality of man’s genus and the particular habits which fill in its void; habits are always "unexpected," contingent, an accident elevated to universal necessity. The predominance of one or another habit is the result of a struggle for hegemony, for which accident will occupy the empty place of the universality. That is to say, with regard to the relationship between universality and particularity, the "contradiction" in the human condition – a human subject perceives reality from the singular viewpoint of subjectivity and, simultaneously, perceives himself as included into this same reality as its part, as an object in it – means that the subject has to presuppose universality (there is a universal order, some kind of "Great Chain of Being," of which he is a part), while, simultaneously, it is forever impossible for him to entirely fill in this universality with its particular content, to harmonize the Universal and the Particular (since his approach to reality is forever marked – colored, twisted, distorted – by his singular perspective). Universality is always simultaneously necessary and impossible.

As to Ernesto Laclau's concept of hegemony which provides an exemplary matrix of the relationship between universality, historical contingency and the limit of an impossible Real - one should always keep in mind that we are dealing here with a distinct concept whose specificity is often missed (or reduced to some proto-Gramscian vague generality) by those who refer to it. The key feature of the concept of hegemony resides in the contingent connection between intrasocial differences (elements WITHIN the social space) and the limit that separates Society itself from non-Society (chaos, utter decadence, dissolution of all social links) - the limit between the Social and its exteriority, the non-Social, can only articulate itself in the guise of a difference (by mapping itself onto a difference) between elements of social space. In other words, radical antagonism can only be represented in a distorted way, through the particular differences internal to the system; external differences are always-already also internal, and, furthermore, that the link between the two is ultimately contingent, the result of political struggle for hegemony.

The standard anti-Hegelian counter-argument here is, of course: but is this irreducible gap between the Universal (frame) and its particular content not what characterizes the Kantian finite subjectivity? Is not the Hegelian "concrete universality" the most radical expression of the fantasy of full reconciliation between the Universal and the Particular? Is its basic feature not the self-generation of the entire particular content out of the self-movement of universality itself? Against this common reproach, one should insist on how Laclau's notion of hegemony is effectively close to the Hegelian notion of "concrete universality" in which the specific difference overlaps with the difference constitutive of the genus itself, as in Laclau's hegemony in which the antagonistic gap between society and its external limit, non-society (the dissolution of social link), is mapped onto an intra-social structural difference. Laclau himself rejects the Hegelian "reconciliation" between Universal and Particular on behalf of the gap that forever separates the empty/impossible Universal from the contingent particular content that hegemonizes it. If, however, we take a closer look at Hegel, we see that - insofar as every particular species of a genus doesn't "fit" its universal genus - when we finally arrive at a particular species that fully fits its notion, the very universal notion is transformed into another notion. No existing historical shape of State fully fits the notion of State - the necessity of dialectical passage from State ("objective spirit," history) into Religion ("absolute spirit") involves the fact that the only existing State that effectively fits its notion is a religious community - which, precisely, is no longer a State. Here we encounter the properly dialectical paradox of "concrete universality" qua historicity: in the relationship between a genus and its subspecies, one of these subspecies will always be the element that negates the very universal feature of the genus. Different nations have different versions of soccer; Americans do not have soccer, because "baseball IS their soccer." Se also Hegel's famous claim that modern people do not pray in the morning, because reading the newspaper IS their morning prayer. In the same way, in the disintegrating socialism, writers' and other cultural clubs did act as political parties. Perhaps, in the history of cinema, the best example is the relationship between western and sci-fi space operas: today, we no longer have "substantial" westerns, because space operas OCCUPIED THEIR PLACE, i.e. space operas ARE today's westerns. So, in the classification of westerns, we would have to supplement the standard subspecies with space opera as today's non-western stand-in for western. Crucial is here this intersection of different genuses, this partial overlapping of two universals: western and space opera are not simply two different genres, they INTERSECT, i.e. in a certain epoch, space opera becomes a subspecies of western (or, western is "sublated" in space opera)... In the same way, "woman" becomes one of the subspecies of man, Heideggerian Daseinsanalyse one of the subspecies of phenomenology, "sublating" the preceding universality.

The impossible point of "self-objectivization" would have been precisely the point at which universality and its particular content would have been fully harmonized – in short, where there would have been no struggle for hegemony. And this brings us back to madness: its most succinct definition is that of a DIRECT harmony between universality and its accidents, of the cancellation of the gap that separates the two – for a madman, the object which is my impossible stand-in within objectal reality loses its virtual character and becomes its full integral part. - In contrast to madness, habit avoids this trap of direct identification by way of its virtual character: the subject’s identification with a habit is not a direct identification with some positive feature, but the identification with a disposition, with a virtuality. Habit is the outcome of a struggle for hegemony: it is an accident elevated to "essence," to universal necessity, i.e., made to fill in its empty place.


[1] Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 40.

[2] Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 408, Zusatz.

[3] ibid

[4] Encyclopaedia, Par. 401.

[5] Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 185.

[6] Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 193.

[7] Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 191.

[8] See Karl Marx, "Class Struggles in France," Collected Works, Vol. 10, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978, p. 95.

[9] Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 191.

[10] G.W.F. Hegel, "Jenaer Realphilosophie," in Fruehe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel's Recollection, Albany: Suny Press 1985, pp. 7-8. – In Encyclopaedia also, Hegel mentions the "night-like abyss within which a world of infinitely numerous images and presentations is preserved without being in consciousness" (Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 453). Hegel’s historical source is here Jacob Bohme.

[11] Phenomenology, p. 18-19.

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