Hegelian ‘Concrete Universality’ and the Universal Particular

October 14, 2008

Here is a quote from The Fright of Real Tears (2001) which, I think, suggests that the Hegelian ‘concrete universality’ is, according to Zizek, the Universal Particular.  That is, the particular content which fills out the empty place of universality:

“This, then, is the Helegian ‘concrete universality’:  at every stage of the dialectical process, the concrete figure ‘colours’ the totality of the process, i.e. the universal frame of the process becomes part of (or, rather, drawn into) the particular content.  To put it in Ernesto Laclau’s terms, at every stage its particular content is not only a subspecies of the universality of the total process:  it ‘hegemonises’ this very universality, the ‘dialectical process’ is nothing but the name for this permanent shift of the particular content which ‘hegemonises’ the universality” (FRT, pp. 23-24).


16 Responses to “Hegelian ‘Concrete Universality’ and the Universal Particular”

  1. battleofthegiants said

    I don’t know my Marxism very well, but I’m made suspicious by the “this, then, is the HEGELIAN ‘concrete universal'”…. If I remember correctly, this is the same logic of pointing to unwed-mothers as the universal that hegemonizes a political field. Part of the problem being, of course, that unwed mothers arn’t the real problem, but the reified thing that is used to hegemonize the political field.

    That is, there is NOTHING teribly concrete about their universality, other than the fact that there happens to be unwed mothers on the planet. Rather, there is nothing terribly UNIVERSAL about their existence.

    Does anyone remember where Z talks about the unwed mothers? Maybe it’s in the paper on “Multi-culturalism as the logic of late capital”…

  2. The Universal Singular said

    Yes, it is in “Multiculturalism, or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism”.

    I don’t think he is saying that the ‘typical’ single (black) mother is the ‘universal that hegemonizes a political field’. Rather, I think that this is an example of the ‘twist’ of the Particular on the Universal – that is, as Zizek says in this paper and in Ticklish Subject, “each hegemonic universality [the particular that stands in for the universal] must incorporate at least two particular contents: the authentic popular content, as well as its distortion by the relations of domination and exploitation” (In Universal Exception, p. 152).

    As he states on the same page (above), “the universal acquires concrete existence when some particular content begins to function as its stand-in”.

    With the case of the ‘single black mother’, Zizek is arguing that the New Right in the USA refers to this example as ‘typical’ of the welfare system, to argue that it is inefficient. In other words, by taking this ‘pseudo-concrete’, particular case, the dominant class puts a spin on a particular content and transforms it into a universal.

    I’m not sure if you are arguing on this side, or if you are refuting this claim.

    Where does Marxism come into this (‘I don’t know my Marxism very well…’).

    I would say that the Marxist gesture involves identifying with the symptom, the Universal Singular: “The leftist political gesture par excellence… is thus to question the concrete existing universal order [the Universal Particular] on behalf of its symptom [the Universal Singular], of the part which, although inherent to the existing universal order, has no ‘proper place’ within it… This procedure of identifying with the symptom is the exact and necessary obverse of the standard critico-ideological move of recognizing a particular content behind some abstract universal notion, that is, of denouncing neutral universality as false…: one pathetically asserts (and identifies with) the point of inherent exception/exclusion, the ‘abject’, of the concrete positive order, as the only point of true universality… [further down] leftist universalism proper does not involve any kind of return to some neutral universal content (a common notion of humanity, etc.); rather, it refers to a universal which comes to exist… only in a particular element [the Universal Singular] which is structurally displaced, ‘out of joint’: within a given social Whole, it is precisely the element which is prevented from actualizing its full particular identity that stands for its universal dimension” (Ticklish, p. 224).

  3. The Universal Singular said

    As to the above reference, see pages 225 n.25, 245 and 250.

    “… the position of ‘universal singular’: a particular group whose fate stands for the injustice of today’s world” (p. 225 n. 25).

  4. battleofthegiants said

    You’ve just shifted (or Zizek has) from the universal Particular to the universal Singular…

  5. The Universal Singular said

    You’re right… but my wager is that, when he is talking about hegemonic universality, or ‘concrete universality’, he means the Particular as Universal; and, when he is referring to the symptom, he means the Singular as Universal, which shows the truth of the Universal (hegemonic) Particular.

    In other places, he doesn’t say Singular, he says ‘Individual’.

    Another way to think about it is, perhaps, the difference between THE Particular (raised to the level of Universal) and A Particular (Singular), which sticks out.

    But your comment seems to me to be something of a red haring!

    The point is that there is a contradiction between the *something* (what I have been referring to as the Universal Particular; what I believe Zizek is referring to with the Hegelian concept of ‘concrete Universality’) that tries to represent a completely self-encompassing totality, and the *something* that sticks out – that which shows that the first something is not (really) All (the symptom; what Zizek refers to as Universal Singular; the point of Truth in a signifying system). There is, in other words, a contradiction between the masculine logic of ‘All’ and the feminine logic of ‘not-All’. That is why ‘woman is a symptom of man’.

    To use a naive example: in the phrase, “All men are created equal’, what gets left out is woman. In this case, woman represents the logic of ‘not-All’. She is not part of the ‘All’ because she is not a man. She presents a point of contradiction in this logic of equality. She is the something which (ironically) ‘sticks out’.

    It is this something which sticks out, this Universal Singular, the symptom, which represents, for Zizek, the proletarian position. Woman, working-class, etc… these are all categories of social being in identity politics. The proletarian position, in contrast, is the position of Truth.

  6. battleofthegiants said

    My red herring was that the logics were different, that what you’ve quoted as “Universal Particular” is part of a hegemonic program, and as such isn’t a ‘concrete’ in the sense a Marxist would use it – i.e. corresponding to economic material reality. The second, however, is closer to what I would think corresponds to a concrete universal in a Marxist sense – i.e. There is a ‘singluar’ element that one can point to as the ‘truth’ of the situation, instead of an ideological category that uses a particular example of something to further its aims.

    Which is, of course, what you’ve said…. after some pushing ;)

  7. The Universal Singular said

    I see your point… but where do Marxists refer to Hegelian ‘concrete Universality’ in this way? I’m simply talking about it the way that Zizek uses it… as a Hegelian (and therefore Idealist) category.
    I don’t think that ‘concrete’ is the same as materialism.

  8. The Universal Singular said

    Perhaps, a better way to explain how I understand ‘concrete Universality’ is by discussing it in relation to class… and to do that, I’ll refer to a quote from ‘Lenin’s Choice’: “In Alain Badiou’s terms, the proletariat is not another particular class, but a singularity of the social structure and, as such, the universal class, the non-class among the classes” (p. 298). The Universal Particular is concrete in the same way that a particular class is a concrete formation. As a ‘non-class’, the proletariat is simply the ‘abstract’, universal form of Truth: a class that has not fully formed itself as a (concrete) class.
    As Terry Eagleton puts it, “The paradox of identity politics… is that one needs an identity in order to feel free to get rid of it” (Eagleton, ‘The Idea of Culture’, p. 66). This is exactly what the proletariat is lacking: a concrete identity.
    Another way to think about it is in relation to substance and subject. Substance of history is concrete, whereas the subject of history is the lack, the void. The subject is the lack in the symbolic order. The is why Zizek says that class struggle is the Real of society. It represents the lack of society: society as impossible Real. Class struggle is the subject of history.

    However, maybe this all depends on the place of enunciation. To explain what I mean, I will refer to the logic of sexuation… but I will do that tomorrow because I’m too high and tired to keep going… But rest assured, the point I’m going to make will help to support your claims about the Marxist concrete Universality (but not in terms of materialism).

  9. The Universal Singular said

    Good morning…

    Okay… logic of sexuation:

    Masculine side of the universal function (All X are submitted to the function @) implies the existence of an exception (there is at least one X which is exempted from @).

    From this perspective, the universal function is a concrete formation – All X – and the exception is abstract – the exception.

    On the feminine side, a particular negation (not-All X are submitted to the function @) implies that there is no exception (there is no X which could be exempted from the function @).

    From the position of not-All, there is no exception. This, perhaps, is one way to explain why the symptom (woman is symptom of man) represents the universal Truth: from this perspective, the fact that there is at least one exclusion indicates that we are all potentially excluded (‘we are all migrant workers’).

    This is the only way that I could see the symptom, the proletariat, the Universal Singular, representing ‘concrete’ universality.

  10. battleofthegiants said

    I don’t quite see how you can refer to a “concrete universal” as also “abstract”. If you do that, you’re saying that this is idealism (which maybe you just did). If it’s idealism, then where’s the material? Is the ‘universal class’ come to by an inspection of material reality (i.e. Marx’s first volume of Capital and the materialist approach to capitalism) that is to be re-done for our situation (i.e. based on our economic set-up, is the revolutionary class in Canada the newly disaffected auto-workers of southern Ontario, the Newfoundlanders and other east coasters who are perpetually unemployed, workers in the oil sands, migrant workers from Trinidad, Mexico, etc, new or old immigrants, students (ha!), computer engineers, etc etc?), or are we back to the poverty of philosophy – empty talk that doesn’t refer to the world in which we live; are we left with thought separate from the world?

    This is my ongoing question with the Zs work: Do his examples adorn his theory, or does the theory come from the examples? It seems to me the former is the case. That is, I’m not convinced that Z could write a book about, say, Haiti, and come up with theories from that work.

    This is why I’m always worried about method. Is this all bullshit, or does it derive from the world? He makes a comment about Deleuze in DoLC to the effect that in Deleuze’s early work the defenestrated Frenchman formulates the world such that ideas (perhaps ‘the plane of consistency’ is the correct term) come from the real world, where in the later work with Guattari it’s the reverse. I.e. The later Deleuze is, for Zizek, an idealist. The Question for me is… was Z ever a materialist? His work stems from theory itself, and never a work fully given over to a concrete subject. He relies on Marx and Lacan’s engagement with the world to build his theory. That is, Marx looked closely at Political Economy and started the First International; Lacan had his clinical practice and talked about how it was fundamentally different from the communication of his theories (The Other Side…). I’m not sure that Z starting on top of them is good enough…In “Lenin’s Choice” he says we also need to ‘repeat Marx’ and talk about intellectual property and how the labour theory of value relates to it. But he hasn’t done it! Why not? Why does he spend all his time in theory land?


  11. The Universal Singular said

    Ohhh… dissin’ the ‘master’!

    My response is one that Zizek, himself, repeats… again in the recent LRB article: to look at the political at the heart of the economic! (‘It’s the POLITICAl economy, stupid!). I feel that his work engages with the political and not the economic. In other words, his criticism of ideology examines the political abstraction of the material, on the ground, world. Isn’t this what the critique of ideology SHOULD do?

    With regards to your first question, my point is that the ‘concreteness’ of universality might depend on the position of enunciation. From the position of the ruling class, the proletariat might be abstract; however, from the position of the proletariat, it is the ruling Particular that forms the Universal which is abstract. Nevertheless, I was only making this argument as a way of trying to understand how you might perceive the proletariat as ‘concrete universal’. I’m not sure I buy this argument at all.

    Maybe Zizek’s examples do ‘adorn’ theory. However, I see Zizek as an interpreter. He is using psychoanalysis as a method of interpretation (in the psychoanalytic, as opposed to hermeneutic, sense) and criticism. He is interpreting the material world. He is not using examples to ‘prove’ theory. Rather, he is interpreting examples by USING, or by REFERRING to (Lacanian) theory.
    When he engages with German Idealism and with Marxism, he is basically performing a Lacanian interpretation of political philosophy.
    Maybe Zizek is not writing theory… maybe he is really just using theory to interpret!

    Is Zizek a materialist? Perhaps not in the sense of turning Hegel on his head so that he may think with his feet…
    But perhaps he is a materialist in the sense that he is interpreting the material world.
    Perhaps this really isn’t Marxism, per se. Maybe it is, in fact, a post-Marxism.

  12. battleofthegiants said

    I would buy the ‘political at the heart of the argument’ (though I havn’t read this piece yet, but that is of course one of the major theses of Parallax View) but I question that he just ‘interprets examples’ with theory. The reverse is how he writes. In the chapter we’re reading, for example, we begin with Hegel and why we need to ‘count to four’, and THEN we get “we can see this logic at work in Weber; we see this logic at work again in the Jocobins” etc. The ‘examples’ aren’t random things that he then interprets; he’s talking about theory and then brings things in to make them clearer. The ‘examples’ generally aren’t a sustained look at something in the world.

    That is, at the level of his presentation and argumentation (at least in his books) it doesn’t work like “I want to write a book about the Jacobins; look at how everything the Jacobins did can be thought in terms of Hegel’s logic”. We instead get “here’s Hegel’s/Lacan’s/Marx’s/Wittgenstein’s theory, and here’s how this aspect of the Jacobin’s history exemplifies it.”

    The ‘journalism’ stuff he does looks like the opposite, where he picks a topic and then writes about it, bu that’s most definitely not how his books work. But I’ll have to think about that more.

    As for the ‘position of the enunciation’, it’s not enough to say that it’s right because its from the perspective of the excluded element. It’s perhaps the condition of truth, but not its guarantee. That is just because a Marxist (or a Zizek) says something, don’t make it correct. This doesn’t answer the question of materialism.

    And the fact that he’s writing about ideology doesn’t liberate his method from the demands of a materialist critique. I.e. how is he selecting what he’s talking about? Again, the basis of his theory is the theories of Marx and Lacan, not some specific historic/geographical locale. Why is his critique not more specific than ‘the west’? How does ideology work in Canada? In the States? In Slovenia? His theory isn’t taken from a particular context and then universalized; it starts as if it was universal already and then we might be able to apply it.

    These are my questions. Maybe they’re not valid, but they are my worries.

  13. The Universal Singular said

    I really do see your point! and I think your questions are actually more than valid. This is a common criticism against Zizek… (especially in film studies). David Bordwell, for example says that Zizek is ‘an associationist par excellence’. He says that his references to films are purely hermeneutic (I’m paraphrasing here). His examples are used as tools of exegesis. I agree that that’s what he is doing in his books. However, I feel that his major books are really just attempts at explaining the theory he is using (not at analyzing concrete situations). His point is to explain the concepts and then in his smaller books/journalistic writings, he applies theory to interpretations of concrete situations. This is what he does in books like Welcome to the Desert of the Real (9/11), The Puppet and the Dwarf (Christianity), Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Violence. Books like Sublime, FTKNWTD, Ticklish, Parallax… these are books where he explains his mode of interpretation.

    In terms of the reach of his critique… I think he’s thinking about things in a global context. The focus on the West, I feel, has to do with the fact the West is the current global hegemon (although, China might be taking over soon). I think that if you want to answer questions about how ideology works in Canada, it is necessary to think about Canada in a global context, not just the local, paticular ideologies of Canadians (here I’m making a distinction, as Althusser does, between particular ideologies and ideology in general. As Zizek puts it, particular ideologies have to do with the authentic popular beliefs and values of people. Ideology in general has to do with the twist that is put on particular beliefs in order to use them as ways of supporting the rule of the dominating class).
    In other words, I don’t think you can think about ideology in Canada without thinking about the global ruling ideology (which is not necessarily the same as the ideas that seem to rule).

    I think that the problem here is that it appears as though Zizek is working from a Grand Theory (as the post-Structuralists/postmodernists/cognitivists/historicists say) and then showing how all these other little things fit it. From my perspective, Zizek is actually using psychoanalytic concepts (which he explains using examples) to interpret the world. His big books are kind of like user’s guides.

    I think we should all (re-)read the introduction to In Defense of Lost Causes (because I think that here, Zizek gives an indication of his ‘project’) and perhaps discuss what are Zizek’s ‘ethics’? What is his method? Are these valid politically?

    What does ‘ethics of drive’ mean? What IS the Truth of Marxism and Psychoanalysis? In short, what IS to be done?

    I think you are raising some important critiques that we should definitely address!

  14. sonnyburnett said

    I’d like to make 2 interrelated comments.

    (1) If Lacan’s thesis of ‘there is no Other of the Other’ means anything, it must mean that the Other (and any statement the subject makes) have no guarantee of their existence besides the contingency of their enunciation. You cannot eliminate this dependence from the function of the Other and that is what precisely attests to the lack of the Other.

    And since it is impossible for the subject of enunciation to have a fixed place in the Other’s locus, it can ONLY find its place through the act of enunciation.

    In a simpler formulation, the Other of the Other is the subject ($). Or more precisely, objet a (recall Lacan’s stress that the act is an object).

    Another way to say the same thing is the law is constituted as the Law only in the act of the subject; a part of the subject (objet a) supplements the law; and this part of himself that is more than himself is not recognized by the subject as being a part of himself.

    Thus the illusion of the Other-Thing ‘out there’ – (eg. society, pre-historic creatures called dinosaurs, the suffering masses in the third world…) in ‘surplus’ over our individual psychology, out of our reach, to be analyzed or examined by psychoanalytic categories or other theories that are supposedly ‘external’ to those objects of examination – arises.

    (2) A common complaint against Z is that his exemplification of his topography seems lacking. But to defend his use of examples can be made with an understanding of how he reads Hegel’s notion of the Notion.

    From “Conversations w/ Zizek”:
    ‘…in a Hegelian context, the way to overcome an idea is to exemplify it, but an example
    never simply exemplifies a notion; it usually tells you what is wrong with this notion. This is
    what Hegel does again and again in Phenomenology of Spirit. He takes a certain existential stance like aestheticism or stoicism. Then how does he criticize it? By simply stating it as a certain life practice, by showing how the very staging actualization of this attitude produces something more which undermines it. In this way, the example always minimally undermines what it is an example of.’ (44)

    The very ‘failure’ of application of an example is in a way a ‘success’ in demonstrating the self-relating negativity of the notion.

    (I got this second point from a paper on the IJZS site, Vol 2.2, written by a student right here in Canada. It deals in part with precisely this ‘exemplification problem’ of Zizek’s. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend it. It’s really quite a wonderful little essay).

  15. Pelle Salomonsson said

    Where in fact does he (Hegel) speak about the concrete universal? I would like to suggest a sociocultural interpratation, in that this sort of universality is an “aristocratic” universality, a universality that is not “common,” but refined and in a sense subversive. The concrete universal is a hero.

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