Extract from Slavoj Zizek’s Absolute Recoil

Slavoj Žižek: Against The “Hölderlin Paradigm”

As pub­lished in Abso­lute Recoil: Towards a New Found­a­tion of Dia­lect­ical Mater­i­al­ism, pp. 344–349.

These per­sist­ing dead­locks and oscil­la­tions bear wit­ness to the fact that Hegel does not fit the key meta­phys­ical nar­rat­ive shared by thinkers as dif­fer­ent as Niet­z­sche, Heide­g­ger, and Der­rida, who all con­ceive their own age as that of the crit­ical turn­ing point of meta­phys­ics: in their (our) time, meta­phys­ics has exhausted its poten­tial, and the thinker’s duty is to pre­pare the ground for a new, post-meta­phys­ical think­ing. More gen­er­ally, the entire Judeo-Chris­tian his­tory, up to post­mod­ern­ity, is determ­ined by what one is temp­ted to call the “Hölder­lin paradigm”: “Where the danger is, grows also what can save us” (“Wo aber Gefahr ist weachst das Rettende auch”). The present moment appears as the lowest point in a long pro­cess of his­tor­ical dec­ad­ence (the flight of Gods, ali­en­a­tion…), but the danger of the cata­strophic loss of the essen­tial dimen­sion of being-human also opens up the pos­sib­il­ity of a reversal (Kehre)—pro­let­arian revolu­tion, the arrival of new gods (which, accord­ing to the late Heide­g­ger, alone can save us), etc. Are we able to ima­gine a “pagan” non-his­tor­ical uni­verse, a uni­verse thor­oughly out­side this paradigm, a uni­verse in which (his­tor­ical) time just flows, with no tele­olo­gical curvature, in which the idea of a dan­ger­ous moment of decision (Benjamin’s Jetzt-Zeit) out of which a “bright future” will emerge, a future that will redeem the past itself, or is this simply mean­ing­less?

Although this paradigm is usu­ally iden­ti­fied with Chris­tian­ity, the lat­ter, at its most rad­ical, non­ethe­less seems to give it a unique twist: everything that has to hap­pen has already happened, there is noth­ing to wait for, we do not have to wait for the Event, the arrival of Mes­siah, the Mes­siah has already arrived, the Event has already taken place, and we live in its after­math. And Hegel? This basic atti­tude of his­tor­ical clos­ure is also the mes­sage of Hegel, of his dictum that the owl of Min­erva takes off in the twilight—but the cru­cial point, how­ever dif­fi­cult to grasp, is that this stance, far from con­demning us to pass­ive reflec­tion, opens up the space for act­ive inter­ven­tion.

What this means is that Hegel is not part of the “Hölder­lin-paradigm,” even if he is usu­ally con­sidered its main rep­res­ent­at­ive. A cer­tain his­tor­ical tele­ology is wrongly asso­ci­ated with Hegel: there is a naive begin­ning, an imme­di­acy that lacks inner wealth and artic­u­la­tion; devel­op­ment then means dis­per­sion, a fall, right up to the total ali­en­a­tion that opens up the pos­sib­il­ity of reversal. Marx deployed this type of tele­olo­gical scheme of his­tory in his fam­ous manus­cript on “Pre-cap­it­al­ist modes of eco­nomic pro­duc­tion” accord­ing to which the unique­ness of the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion lies in the fact that, in it, “labor is torn out from its prim­or­dial immer­sion in its object­ive con­di­tions, and, because of this, it appears on the one side itself as labor, and, on the other side, as the labor’s own pro­duct, as objec­ti­fied labor, obtains against labor a com­pletely autonom­ous exist­ence as value.”[27] The worker thus appears as the “object­less, purely sub­ject­ive capa­city of labor, con­fron­ted with the object­ive con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion as its non-prop­erty, as a for­eign prop­erty, as value which exists for itself, as cap­ital.” How­ever, this extreme form of ali­en­a­tion, in which, in the guise of the rela­tion­ship of the cap­ital towards wage labor, labor, pro­duct­ive activ­ity, appears as opposed to its own con­di­tions and to its own pro­duct, is a neces­sary point of transition—and, for that reason, in itself, in an inver­ted form, pos­ited on its head, it already con­tains the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of all lim­ited pre­sup­pos­i­tions of pro­duc­tion, and even cre­ates and pro­duces the uncon­di­tional pre­sup­pos­i­tions of pro­duc­tion, and thereby all mater­ial con­di­tions for the total, uni­ver­sal devel­op­ment of the pro­duct­ive forces of the individuals.[28]

His­tory is thus the gradual pro­cess of the sep­ar­a­tion of sub­ject­ive activ­ity from its object­ive con­di­tions, that is, from its immer­sion in the sub­stan­tial total­ity. This pro­cess reaches its cul­min­a­tion in mod­ern cap­it­al­ism with the emer­gence of the pro­let­ariat, the sub­stance-less sub­jectiv­ity of work­ers totally sep­ar­ated from their object­ive con­di­tions. This sep­ar­a­tion, how­ever, is in itself already their lib­er­a­tion, since it cre­ates pure sub­jectiv­ity, exemp­ted from all sub­stan­tial ties, which has only to appro­pri­ate its object­ive con­di­tions. In this sense, Marx remains within the “Hölder­lin-paradigm”: where there is danger (utter ali­en­a­tion), the redempt­ive force also grows. Marx’s notion of his­tor­ical pro­cess there­fore remains fun­da­ment­ally a tele­olo­gical one: all his­tory hitherto points towards the present moment, we live in kairos, the time of shift, and are able to dis­cern in the miser­able present the pos­sib­il­ity of an act to come.

But, again, is this pro­cess (that unfolds from sub­stan­tial unity through sub­ject­ive ali­en­a­tion to the reuni­fic­a­tion of sub­ject with sub­stance, in which sub­stance is thor­oughly sub­ject­iv­ized, reappro­pri­ated by the sub­ject) really a Hegel­ian one? The first thing to note is that the kairos pos­i­tion of find­ing one­self on the brink of the reversal of Danger into Redemp­tion, of attend­ing (or act­ing as an agent of) the telos of his­tory, is not a pos­i­tion ever adop­ted by Hegel. The con­clus­ive moment of the dia­lect­ical pro­cess is not a syn­thetic unity, a dis-ali­en­a­tion con­ceived as a return to the (sub­ject­ive or sub­stan­tial) One. For Hegel, ali­en­a­tion is con­stitutive of the sub­ject, in the rad­ical sense that the sub­ject does not pre-exist its ali­en­a­tion, but emerges through it: the sub­ject emerges through its own loss. Con­sequently, the Hegel­ian “recon­cili­ation” is not an over­com­ing of ali­en­a­tion, but a recon­cili­ation with ali­en­a­tion itself. So when Hegel says that, in dis-ali­en­a­tion, the sub­ject “recog­nizes itself in its Other,” the rad­ical ambi­gu­ity of this state­ment should be kept in mind: it is not only that the sub­ject recog­nizes in its Other the ali­en­ated res­ult of its own activ­ity, it is also (and primar­ily) that the sub­ject recog­nizes the decentered Other as its own site, i.e., that it recog­nizes its own decentered char­ac­ter.

More pre­cisely, ali­en­a­tion can be “overcome”—if, by ali­en­a­tion, we mean the subject’s self-exper­i­ence as a sub­or­din­ated moment of some sub­stan­tial big Other that runs the show (His­tory, Des­tiny, God, Nature …). Ali­en­a­tion is “over­come” when the sub­ject exper­i­ences that “there is no big Other” (Lacan), that its status is that of a semb­lance, its char­ac­ter incon­sist­ent and ant­ag­on­istic. This, how­ever, does not mean that the sub­ject reappro­pri­ates the big Other: rather, the subject’s lack with regard to the Other is trans­posed into the big Other itself. Such a redoub­ling of the lack, this over­lap­ping of my lack with the lack in the Other itself, does not can­cel the lack—on the con­trary, what the sub­ject exper­i­ences is that the lack/gap in the (sub­stan­tial) Other is the con­di­tion of pos­sib­il­ity, the site, of the sub­ject itself.

What this implies is that there is a gap prior to ali­en­a­tion: ali­en­a­tion does not intro­duce a gap or loss into a pre-exist­ing organic unity, on the con­trary, it cov­ers up the gap in the Other. In ali­en­a­tion, the sub­ject exper­i­ences the Other as the full agent run­ning the show, as the one who “has it” (what the sub­ject is lack­ing), i.e., the illu­sion of ali­en­a­tion is the same as the illu­sion of transference—that the Other knows. (Dis-ali­en­a­tion is thus basic­ally the same move as the fall of the sub­ject-sup­posed-to-know at the end of the ana­lytic pro­cess.) What we then have is a dia­lect­ical pro­cess with a struc­ture wholly dif­fer­ent from the triad of sub­stan­tial immediacy/alienation/reconciliation in a new higher unity: there is no ori­ginal unity pre­ced­ing loss, what is lost is ret­ro­act­ively con­sti­tuted through its loss, and the prop­erly dia­lect­ical recon­cili­ation resides in fully assum­ing the con­sequences of this ret­ro­activ­ity. Let us go back to the pre­vi­ously cited example of India, and the com­plaint of the cul­tural the­or­ists that being com­pelled to use the Eng­lish lan­guage is a form of cul­tural colo­ni­al­ism, cen­sor­ing their true iden­tity. In this case, “recon­cili­ation” means a recon­cili­ation with the Eng­lish lan­guage, which is to be accep­ted not as an obstacle to a new India which should be dis­carded in favor of some local lan­guage, but as an enabling medium, indeed, as a pos­it­ive con­di­tion of lib­er­a­tion. The true vic­tory over col­on­iz­a­tion lies not in the return to some authen­tic pre-colo­nial sub­stance, even less in a “syn­thesis” of mod­ern civil­iz­a­tion and pre-mod­ern ori­gins, but, para­dox­ic­ally, in the fully accom­plished loss of these pre-mod­ern ori­gins. In other words, colo­ni­al­ism is not over­come when the intru­sion of Eng­lish as a medium is abol­ished, but when the col­on­izers are as it were beaten at their own game—when the new Indian iden­tity is effort­lessly for­mu­lated in Eng­lish, when the Eng­lish lan­guage is “denat­ur­al­ized,” los­ing its priv­ileged link to its “nat­ive” Anglo-Saxon speak­ers.

If we dis­card the obscene notion that it is bet­ter to be “authen­tic­ally” tor­tured by one’s “own” lan­guage than by an imposed for­eign one, then we should first emphas­ize the lib­er­at­ing aspect of being com­pelled to use a for­eign “uni­ver­sal” lan­guage. There was a cer­tain his­tor­ical wis­dom con­tained in the fact that, from medi­eval times until fairly recently, the lin­gua franca of the West was Latin, a “sec­ond­ary” inau­thentic lan­guage, a “fall” from Greek with all its authen­tic burden. It was this very empti­ness and “inau­thenti­city” of Latin that allowed Europeans to fill it in with their own par­tic­u­lar con­tents, in con­trast to the stuffy over­bear­ing nature of Greek. Beck­ett learned this same les­son when he star­ted to write in French, a for­eign lan­guage, leav­ing behind the “authen­ti­city” of his roots. In short, the func­tion of treat­ing a for­eign lan­guage as an oppress­ive impos­i­tion is to obfus­cate the oppress­ive dimen­sions of our own lan­guage, to ret­ro­act­ively elev­ate our own mater­nal tongue into a lost para­dise of full authen­tic expres­sion. The move to be accom­plished when we exper­i­ence an imposed for­eign lan­guage as oppress­ive, as out of sync with our inner­most life, is thus to trans­pose this dis­cord into our own mater­nal tongue.[29]

Exactly the same holds for the Fall in Chris­tian­ity: the way out of the Fall into sin lies not in a return to God, but in the full con­sum­ma­tion of the Fall, the death of God. This is how we should read Christ’s last words: “It is accomplished”—with the death of God (of Bey­ond), the recon­cili­ation is accom­plished … This is why Lacan rejects the stand­ard Chris­tian idea that Jesus saved us by tak­ing our sins upon him­self and pay­ing the price for them with his sac­ri­fice: “It is true that the his­tor­ical tale of Christ does not present itself as the pro­ject to save man­kind, but to save God. One has to acknow­ledge that he who took on this pro­ject, Christ, that he has paid the price for it, that is the least one can say.”[30] To save God in what sense? By way of assum­ing guilt for the Fall, the lack in the Other is obfus­cated: God is pure; had we not Fallen, we would be able to dwell in the Para­dise of full, non-cas­trated jouis­sance.[31] This, how­ever, is pre­cisely not what hap­pens in Christ’s death: his sac­ri­fice does not obfus­cate the Other’s (God-the-Father’s) lack—on the con­trary, it dis­plays this lack, the inex­ist­ence of the big Other. It was already Hegel who noted that what dies on the cross is the God of Bey­ond him­self: instead of us sac­ri­fi­cing ourselves to (or for) Him, God sac­ri­fices Him­self and dies—the mes­sage of this para­dox can only be that there is no one to sac­ri­fice to (or for). In other words, as René Gir­ard once said, the sac­ri­fice of Christ is the act destined to end the very logic of sac­ri­fice. Christ takes the sins of the world upon himself—literally: they are not ours, the lack is in God Him­self.


27. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Ges­amtaus­gabe, Abteilung II, Band 1, Ber­lin: Dietz Ver­lag 1976, p. 431.

28. Ibid., p. 432.

29. But there is also the oppos­ite exper­i­ence of our own lan­guage as pro­vin­cial, prim­it­ive, marked by private pas­sions and obscen­it­ies which only obscure clear reas­on­ing and expres­sion, an exper­i­ence which pushes us towards using a uni­ver­sal second lan­guage in order to think clearly and freely. Is this not how a national lan­guage emerges and comes to replace the mul­ti­pli­city of dia­lects?

30. Jac­ques Lacan, Le sémin­aire, livre XX: Encore, Paris: Seuil 1975, p. 98.

31. This same logic was at work in Sta­lin­ist show tri­als: by con­fess­ing their guilt, by assum­ing respons­ib­il­ity for the prob­lems and fail­ures of the Soviet sys­tem, the accused did a great ser­vice to the Party, main­tain­ing its purity—the troubles of daily life were not the Party’s respons­ib­il­ity … Like­wise, the same effort to res­cue the Other sus­tains the neurotic’s feel­ings of guilt: the neur­otic blames him­self, he takes the fail­ure upon him­self in order to main­tain the fantasy of an ideal father.


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