The unambiguous “red” thread (both of Ariadne and Marx) that runs through Zizek’s work is the attempt to rescue universalism from naysayers of all sorts. A major core of this project are his discussions of the importance of the Cartesian subject. At one point, (I can’t remember where) he chastises Adorno and Horkheimer for not being historical enough in their denunciation of Descartes, in their claims that the Cartesian subject is the root of instrumental rationality and the destructive tendencies of modernism. Ellen Wood’s brief treatment of modernity and enlightenment in The Origin of Capitalism is highly enlightening on this point, providing an historical account that separates the universalism of the Enlightenment as it appeared in feudal France from the ideology of improvement that accompanied modern thinking in capitalist England. That is, she attempts to show that some of the core values – notably the progressive values of modernism – are in fact the product of a non-capitalist system, and suggests (she makes a point of making it clear that she does not consider her discussion a fully fledged argument) that the root of instrumental rationality is more likely to be traced to the philosophies produced under a capitalist one.

One of the first divisions that need be pointed out is that ‘bourgeois’ does not (or at least did not) refer to capitalists, but city dwellers. “Bourgeois” in absolutist France, for instance, were professionals, office holders and intellectuals (184). This means that something like the French Revolution, which is held up to be one of the culminating points of the Enlightenment, was not a revolution of a capitalist class over aristocrats but of professionals, etc. who wanted access to the offices of the absolutist state in order to make their fortunes. It is here, of course, that we find the discussion of universal suffrage and the rights of man at the centre of political discourse.

Wood points out that many of the biggest know Enlightenment thinkers in France were aristocrats, not capitalists, while in England they were closely linked to capitalist expansion. In France, she argues, one finds Cartesian rationalism and rational planning, in England one finds empiricism (think Hume) and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – i.e. the anarchy of the Market. In France, the ideology of universal human emancipation; in England the ideology of ‘improvement’ (i.e. making land profitable). She points to the French “Gardens of Versailles” and English “natural” landscape gardening as the cultural expression of these two versions of modernity.

A formal French garnden

A formal French garnden

An English landscape Garden

An English landscape Garden

While she acknowledges that there were overlaps and cross pollinations, Wood wants to show that the above were the dominant trends and that they accompanied very different economic logics. In this way she seeks to show that the emancipatory legacy of universalism as it appeared in France is worth keeping and shouldn’t be conflated with ‘capitalist logic’ or capitalist ideologies.

It’s worthwhile to note that the classic (Leninist) trivium runs English pragmatism, French politics, German Philosophy: it was Kant who synthesized the rationalism of Descartes and the “radical empiricism” of Hume; it was Hegel (according to Zizek) who was more Kantian than Kant, thereby completing the Kantian project; it was Marx who made Hegel walk on his feet and synthesized English political economy, French political thought (think The Eighteenth Brumaire of L.B., etc.) and German philosophy. Given the argument that Wood presents, the question that must be asked is in regards to the economic situation in Germany – i.e. what was it? That I can’t answer, but I suspect its beginnings can be found in a paper by one of Woods students, George Comninel, in his “Marx’s Context” (History of Political Thought, 21:3, 2000)

From Marx’s introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of law:

…the German conception of the modern state, which abstracts from real man, was only possible because and in so far as the modern state itself abstracts from real man or satisfies the whole man in a purely imaginary way. The Germans have thought in politics what other nations have done. Germany has been their theoretical conscience. The abstraction and arrogance of Germany’s thought always kept pace wit the one-sided and stunted character of their reality. So if the status quo of the German political system is an expression of the consummation of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, then the status quo of German political thought is an expression of the imperfection of the modern state, the damaged condition of the flesh itself (Early Writings, 250-1).

The broken body made whole in the imaginary; Germany as superego; and the constitutional monarch as Jesus FTW!


One of the central tenets of Wood’s book is that capitalism is different from feudalism is several respects – most importantly that under capitalism the market acts a compulsive force, while under feudalism it is and opportunity to be taken; that under feudalism property is “politically constituted” and surplus is extracted via extra-economic means (law, force custom), whereas under capitalism the property relations legitimized by the state constitute it such that the economy becomes its own means of surplus extraction. The consequences of this thesis are felt in regards to the state as well as ‘modernity’.

In the case of the former, one must first take into account the contradictions that are part and parcel of capitalism. Wood mentions at least two: first, proletarianization created a market of people that needed to buy the basic means of survival (where the would previously have made these necessities themselves), but were too poor to pay much for these necessities. Capitalists then had to produce their commodities in large numbers to make these goods cheap enough for these people to afford (i.e. rely on economies of scale). This created the need to increase labour productivity. Based on this Wood concludes that “This was, in other words, the first economic system in history in which the limitations of the market impelled instead of inhibiting the forces of production” (140). Or as Marx describes the significance of capital’s internal contradictions in the 3rd volume of Capital, “the limit of capital is capital itself.” This logic is proven to be that of the other contradiction Wood presents.

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I just read the Apollon paper that I suggested for our next meeting.

One of the things that I found interesting in the case history he describes is that a major turning point in the analysis included the analysand taking control of their therapy, becoming more involved in making change happen. This in part took the form of gaining ‘knowledge’ about the deadlocks of their ‘enjoyment’ (i.e. “jouissance“). For me this resonates with Hegel’s comments on the relation of the rational to feeling in the preface to The Philosophy of Right: one should not make assertions based solely on one’s feelings as if they had some special purchase on truth. Hegel holds that it possible, however, for feelings to become rational. Zizek makes a comment about the ‘moral development’ of feelings that I think illustrates this logic: the instantaneous feelings of revolt and rage that come to many of us when hearing of rape are not ‘natural’ but a modern development that need be defended. The resonance that I see here is the dialectical reversal of feeling and rational knowledge: they are not opposed, but one half of the dialectic dominates in the final ‘sublated’ relationship: rational conclusions should not be made from feelings, but feelings can be made rational. The resonance becomes clearer when considering Lacan’s assertion in Seminar XX (On Feminine Sexuality) that knowledge, too, is a form of jouissance. At the end of analysis, then, it is not that enjoyment goes away, but that it takes on a new form – one that is separated from the big Other.

Another point of interest in this paper is that Apollon seems to acknowledge the historical specificity of femininity: “This fact of the father, the phallic fact par excellence, is to a certain extent a problem for us in North America, as a required passage for feminine jouissance” (134). He acknowledges that certain things are particular to North America, but doesn’t do much to explain what these are. The problem is that it is unclear to what extent this is a problem. Is it a problem that need be changed, or merely one that need be taken into account? Further still, does this mean that the analysand need be made to fit this model just because it is in North America that we find ourselves? Apparently it does, as suggested in final words of the paper. Here Apollon rails against ‘conformist’ ego psychology, but ends on a telling note:

In time, after the subject’s encounters with whatever is the anguishing knot of the real in the unconscious, the desire to be cured yields to the ethical requirement of a truth that is incommensurable with the knowledge of science or psychology.The false need of belonging within which the stakes of ego identifications justify themselves, disappears with the return and recognition of a desire bearing its own markers with no other regard for the demands of the Other than the symbolic limits of social or citizen coexistence (140).

Opposed to the sense of belonging (i.e. conformity) that Apollon sees ego-psychology aiming for, he suggests that the end of analysis produces a liberal subject (or at least Apollon makes it sound like it does), which is of course the dominant political framework of North America. Which is to say that the ends of analysis are political and in no way neutral, which will of course have effects on how the analyst directs the analysis and the self-direction of the analysand.

It also, of course, opens up the possibility of alternatives. Where the end of analysis is ‘knowledge’ and the death of the big Other, this need not simply imply Liberalism. It could well include political outcomes that include these two elements but go further than the liberal subject.

Reference: Willy Apollon. (2002) “From Symptom to Fantasy” in After Lacan: Clinical Practice and the Subject of the Unconscious by Apollon, Bergeron and Cantin. Hughs and Malone, eds. New York: State University of New York Press

A few rough comments on Zizek’s “Objet a in Social Links”

Zizek begins this paper by writing that critical theory needs psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalytic clinic needs critical theory (107-8). In this paper Zizek is attempting (i.e. beginning – the paper doesn’t come to a conclusion, but appears to be an early version of a chapter from Parallax View) to show that psychoanalysis is revolutionary (110) and needed to achieve social change. This would lead to the conclusion that the transformation of state power (“capitalist power”) is to be achieved via the Party as analyst (though, again, Zizek doesn’t quite get there in this paper).

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Time for a PANEL!

December 9, 2008

Call for Abstracts
Reason and Desire:
Second Annual Philosophy Graduate Student Conference.
University of Guelph

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Graeme Nicholson, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
Conference Date: March 27th and 28th, 2009
The University of Guelph Philosophy Graduate Student Association invites submissions from graduate students from any discipline to explore the concepts of reason and desire. We welcome all submissions that take up these concepts either individually or in relation to each other.

Reason and desire have had a permanent yet variable relationship throughout the history of Western Philosophy. Whether in the work of Plato, Medieval philosophy, Hegel or contemporary Continental and Analytic philosophy, reason and desire have not only fuelled the theoretical content of philosophy, but also the practice of philosophy. The conference will be structured so as to cultivate the space for a working discussion, where we can think through and critique the concepts reason and desire. Given the interdisciplinary climate of the modern university, theoretical exchange between the disciplines can open up new areas of fruitful discussion, pushing us to the threshold of our understanding and enabling us to return to the fundamental questions that concern us.

By embracing the challenge of exploring the complex relationship between reason and desire, it is our intent to provide a space for working through the central aims of philosophy, and the practice of philosophy itself.

Abstracts (600 words) will be accepted until January 23rd, 2009. Abstracts must be submitted electronically in blind-review format to: For more information please visit our website at: or contact us at

Once an abstract is accepted we will request a final paper that must be suitable for a 20 minute presentation (approximately 2,500-3,000 words).

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).

I did a quick search on “spirit is a bone” and found “The Greek Profile: Hegel’s aesthetics and the implications of a pseudo-science (PDF)” by Steven Decaroli.

Decaroli describes how “observational reason”, as one of the first stops reason makes on its way towards absolute knowledge, is the moment in Hegel’s dialectic which people try to make a link between appearance and essence – after having dividing the one from the other. This link is thought such that the exterior that is present to the senses is taken as a reflection of the essence of the surface under observation. And this is, of course, what phrenologists do, positing that facial features are an expression of a person’s character, their essence.

It is the phrenologists who assert that ““the being of Spirit is a bone” (page 208 of Miller’s translation of the Phenomenology) but they are wrong because spirit is dynamic, and as such cannot be found in a static thing like a bone. However, it is this incorrect assertion that drives the dialectic forward…

Based on this (which Decaroli describes in the first 5 sections of his paper), Decaroli argues that for Hegel…

Art, as no longer being relevant to human progress, ceases to be exemplary and remains only a matter of description, not prescription. One of the manifestations of this historical obsolescence is the degree to which beauty can be submitted to an explanation via quantification and measurement (117).

That is, Hegel thought that while one could not determine an individual’s character by the lumps on their skull, one could look at Greek sculpture and see a quantification, an embodiment of (rather than a reflection of inner-) beauty. As Decaroli tells the story, the difference between Hegel, the aesthetic theory of Hegel’s time, and the phrenologists is that Hegel asserts that one cannot use this embodiment to talk about a dynamic movement (i.e. the intentions of a person) or as a prescription as to how to do things.

I think that’s more or less what Decaroli is arguing, and I think it’s useful for us in a couple of ways. First is at the level of theory and practice: one can describe what’s out there, but can’t use that description as a prescription for action. That sort of knowledge must come from somewhere else – I don’t know Hegel at all, so I can’t say what the next stages of the dialectic look like. If we think about Lacan and Lenin, however, then the answer comes somwhere in the difference between doing and transmitting knowledge of doing (an idea that Lacan builds on top of Kojeve’s version of the master/slave dialectic…).

Second, this may be a germ for one way of thinking the relation between art and Zizek’s and Lacan’s (and Freud’s) use of it in terms of generating theory.My first thought is this: Movies, jokes, operas, literary stories – These arn’t ‘examples of what to do’ but embodiments of the jouissance that is produced in certain arragnements…

Decaroli’s paper is a pretty quick read. It’s shorter than it looks – I avoided all the footnotes, and there are a bunch of pages that are just drawings. Most of the stuff about Hegel’s take on “spirit is a bone” happen in the first four sections, and are taken up again in the last few. I recommend it.

Based on the lumps in this person’s skull, I would guess that they were a union-busting capitalist, prone to exploiting their labour force with a smile…

Or maybe this is an example when ‘spirit is a bone’, while at the same time ‘wealth is the self’

H.S. Harris on the relevance of Hegel today

From page 77 to page 81 of The Other Side… Lacan makes several remarks about women and men, comparing them to animals and plants. Men are associated with monkeys in that they both pull their peters (78 ) and Women are associated with plants – or more specifically, flowers (78). Lacan remarks that “it is true that we can well imagine the lily in the fields as a body given entirely over to jouissance…” (77). The mother, in effect, is the full body of jouissance.

The first thing that came to mind when I read this was a passage from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts. Women may have happy inspirations, taste, elegance, but they have not the ideal. The difference between man and woman is the same as between animal and plant. The animal corresponds more closely to the character of the man, the plant to that of the woman. In woman there is a more peaceful unfolding of nature, a process, whose principle is the less clearly determined unity of feeling. If woman were to control the government, the state would be in danger, for they do not act according to the dictates of universality, but are in influenced by accidental inclinations and opinions. The education of woman goes on one only knows how, in the atmosphere of picture thinking, as it were, more through life than through the acquisition of knowledge. Man attains his position only through stress of thought and much specialized effort.

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