The paradox of a finite totality

Slavoj Zizek

From For they know not what they do: Enjoyment as a political factor (p. 214 - 219)

Contemporary systems theory has come up with just such a notion of a symbolic structure organized around a "missing link" as point of its ex-timacy (central externality, inherent limit): its main effort consists in formalizing the so-called "auto-poetic" systems - systems which afterwards, by means of a retroactive "trans-coding", transform their starting, initial conditions. In its "prehistory", a system begins within conditions which determine it in an external way — that is, the signification of which is not determined by the system itself; this "prehistory" is over, the system finds its equilibrium and starts to run its own course, when it trans-codes its initial conditions by transforming them into inherent moments of its self-development.

Therein, in such a retroactive "positing of presuppositions", consists the fundamental matrix of the Hegelian "self-relating of the Notion": in the course of the dialectical "progress", the initial category "develops" into a "higher" category in such a manner that it is "trans-coded", posited as its subordinate-mediated moment; in the passage of "being" into "essence", the entire domain of "being" is retroactively determined as that of the "appearance", as the medium in which "essence" becomes manifest, appears to itself. At every "knot" of the logic, the emergence of a new category "trans-codes" (restructures, reorders) the entire precedent network, renders it visible in a new way; or, to put it more pointedly, the new emerging category is nothing but the principle of trans-coding the preceding categories ("essence" is, as Hegel puts it, "appearance qua appearance" - nothing but the principle of the trans-coding of immediate being into a "mere appearance": the illusion of Understanding is precisely that "essence" is a positive entity beyond the negative movement of the appearance's self-sublation).

As we have already recalled, this involute process of retroactive "positing of presuppositions" has the structure of a Moebius band, of the "loopy", "inner" eight: towards the end of his Logic, Hegel himself determines the dialectical process as a "circle returned upon itself". And as we have just seen, is not the presentation of the genesis of the capitalist system in Marx's Capital a description of such a retroactive "trans-coding"? Is not this the reason why Marx makes a distinction between the historical genesis of capitalism and the logic of its self-reproduction: capitalism reaches the level of self-reproduction once its external starting conditions are posited as moments of its immanent self-development. Money, for example, is at first the external presupposition not created by capitalism itself (it was accumulated through "non-capitalist" means - robbery, international trade, and so on); however, once the circle of capitalist reproduction is set in motion, money is posited as one of the "incarnations" of capital itself, as a moment of its movement Money-Commodity-Money.

These external presuppositions - the real of a violence founding the system and none the less disavowed once the system reaches the level of its self-reproduction -play the role of a "vanishing mediator": they must disappear, become invisible, if the system is to maintain its consistency and coherence. In other words, the gap separating the genesis of a structure from its self-reproduction is unbridgeable, the structure cannot "reflect into itself" the external conditions of its genesis since it is constituted by means of their repression of, of a trans-coding which effaces their, external, contingent character. It is clear, thereby, what is the use of^bhis logic of "auto-poetic" trans-coding for the conceptualization of psychoanalytic praxis: trans-coding concerns the integration of some external, contingent traumatic kernel into the subject's symbolic universe, it is the way to "gentrify" a traumatic experience, to efface its traumatic impact by transforming it into a moment of meaningful totality.

Let us just recall the uneasiness of traditional democratic ideology when confronted with the "excess" of jacobinism, with the fact that the so-called Jacobinical "horrors" were a necessary mediator in establishing a "normal" democratic order: the problem is solved by retroactively introducing into the process of the French Revolution a distinction between its liberal mainstream (human rights and freedoms, and so on) and its proto-totalitarian aberration — that is, by proclaiming Jacobinism a purely accidental exception.

Why is this "repression" of the "vanishing mediator" necessary? Because a symbolic system has by definition the character of totality: there is meaning only if everything has meaning. In the analysis of a dream, for example, one cannot simply distinguish among its elements those that can be interpreted as signifiers from those which result from purely physiological processes: if dreams are"structured like a language", then all their ingredients are to be treated as elements of a signifying network; even when the physiological causal link seems obvious (as in the caricatural case of a subject who dreams of a tap leaking when he feels a need to urinate) one must "put it in parentheses" and confine oneself to the signifying range of the dream's ingredients. What Freud called "primordial repression" [ Urverdrangung] is precisely this radical rupture by means of which a symbolic system fractures its inclusion in the chain of material causality: if some signifier were not missing, we would not have a signifying structure but a positive network of causes and effects. In his Seminar XI, Lacan baptized this "primordially repressed" signifier — the "mising link" of the signifier's chain — the "binary signifier": because of its constitutive lack, the chain runs in a vicious circle, it produces again and again new "unary" signifiers (Master-Signifiers) vhich endeavour to close the circle by retroactively providing it with foundation.

It is the philosophical notion of the "transcendental" dimension which gives perhaps the clearest expression to this paradox of an order, the positive condition of which is that something - its very foundation- must be missing, must remain "repressed of an order which turns around its central void, an order defined by this void: if this void were to be filled out, the order itself would lose its consistency and dissolve itself. That is to say, the symbolic order is defined by the paradox of a finite totality: every language constitutes a "totality", a universe complete and closed in itself; it allows of no outside, everything can be said in it; yet this very totality is simultaneously marked by an irreducible finitude. The inner tension of a finite totality is attested by a loop that pertains to our basic attitude towards language: spontaneously, we somehow presuppose that language depends on "external" reality, that it "renders" an independent state of things, yet this "external" reality is always-already disclosed through language, mediated by it.

This enigmatic intermediary status of the symbolic order corresponds precisely to the Kantian notion of the "transcendental constitution": transcendental constitution is more than a mere subjective perspective upon reality, more than another name for the fact that we are condemned to perceive reality within the limits of our subjective horizon - the transcendental horizon is ontologically constitutive of what we call "reality"; yet transcendental constitution is in no way the same as ontic causation ("creation") of reality -- It in decidedly less: namely its ontological horizon. In this precise sense, the noiton of transcendental order coincides with that of the Symbolic: in both cases we have to do with a totality which, on the level of the ontic enchainment, implies a "missing link". Transcendental constitution takes place only within the confines of the ontic finitude - only in so far as the gap separating the phenomenal world of our experience from the supra- sensible noumenon persists; only in so far as the Ding an sich remains inaccessible - as soon as this gap is leapt over, as soon as we gain acces to the Ding an sich, this means the end of the transcendental as a specific intermediary domain. Therein consists the kernel of Kant's philosophical revolution: in conceiving fmitude as ontologically constitutive.

And the crucial point not to be overlooked here is that precisely on account of the notion of "absolute knowledge", Hegel remains entirety within this Kantian horizon of finitude as onlologically constitutive. That is to say, the Hegelian "absolute knowledge" is usually adduced as a proof of his return to pre-critical metaphysics: as if the Kantian lesson was forgotten and the thought pretended again to grasp the Absolute itself. . . .Sometimes one even opposes this "absolute knowledge" to Hegel's alleged "historicism": how can we conceive ourselves as part of the historical process, as our (historical) time conceived in thought, and simultaneously pretend to pass the final judgement on history from a standpoint somehow exempted from it. as if history had come to an end?

Hegel's answer is, of course, that what is false and too pretentious is precisely the apparently modest relativistic standpoint á la Karl Popper which purports to be aware of its limitations ("the truth can only be approached in an asymptote, what is accessible to us are fragments of knowledge which could be proved false at any moment"): the very position of enunciation of such statements belies their modest enunciated, since it assumes a neutral, exempted standpoint from which it can pass a judgement on the limitation of its content. For Hegel, on the contrary, there is no contradiction between our absorption into the historical process and the fact that we not only can but are obliged to speak from the standpoint of the "end of history": precisely because we are absorbed into history without remainder, we perceive our present standpoint as "absolute" - that is, we cannot maintain an external distance towards it.

In other words, absolute historicism sublates itself: historicity consists in the very fact that, at every given historical moment, we speak from within a finite horizon that we percieve as absolute - every epoch experiences itself as the "end of history". And "absolute knowledge" is nothing other than the explication of this historically specified field that absolutely limits our horizon: as such, it is "finite", it can be contained in a finite book - in the works of the indivdual named Hegel, for example. This is the reason why, at thevery end of his system, on the last page of his Lessons on the History of Philosophy, Hegel says: "This is now the standpoint of our time, and the series of spiritual formations is thereby for the time being [fur jetzt] completed." - a proposition which is totally meaningless if we read it against the background of the standard notion of "absolute knowledge".

Here, we can risk a topological specification of the Kant-Hegel relationship. The structure of the Kantian transcendental field is that of a circle with a gap, since man as a finite being does not have access to the totality of beings:

Figure 1: (outline of circle with secton removed to indicate that it is not closed)

However, contrary to the common view, the passage from Kant to Hegel does not consist in closing the circle:

Figure 2: (outline of circle)

If this were the case, Hegel would simply return to pre_Kantian, pre-critical metaphysics. Hegel does indeed "close the circle", but this very closure introduces a supplementary loop transforming it into the "inner eight" of the moebius band:

Figure 3: (outline of circle, with another smaller circle inside and touching it)

In other words, Hegel definitely maintains the gap around which the transcendental field is structured; The very retroactivity of the dialectic process (the "positing of presuppositions" ) attests to it. The point is just that he displaces it; the external limit preventing the closure of the circle changes into a curvature which makes the very closed circle vicious.

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