In a lecture given at New York University’s Deutsches Haus on the 28th of October last year, some months before the publication of a very fat new book named Less Than Nothing, philosopher Slavoj Zizek interrupted one of his characteristic digressions to make an aside that was particularly revealing. He said of G. W. F. Hegel, “Sometimes he is very evil.” And then—involuntarily beaming—“I love him.”
It was a startling statement, even for those hardened to Zizek’s fondness for vivid obscenities and scatological humor. Hegel, the last philosopher who appeared to know everything—the inventor of dialectical reasoning, theorist of history and conflict, treasured icon of academic philosophy—had been held responsible for many things, from Marxism to the Second World War, but it was novel to hear him loved for being evil. What kind of evil was Zizek talking about here?
Described by the New Yorker as “a master of the counter-intuitive observation,” Zizek is renowned for his psychoanalysis of capitalism, controversial for endorsing communism, and notorious for praising intolerance and (in a coded way) totalitarianism. For the radical left, he is both an icon and an iconoclast. He could be mistaken for a mere contrarian, a deviant provocator, if he was not so outrageously productive in both the quantity and quality of his work. Aside from being a constant fixture on the lecture circuit, Zizek’s bibliography on Wikipedia lists twenty-five books since 2006 alone (I got bored of counting), not including essays, articles, opinion pieces, and the odd film—and that doesn’t even touch on the secondary literature, the publication of which is already a nascent academic industry.
The extraordinary ambition of Zizek’s latest work, Less Than Nothing, is visible in its physical scale. The book is a brick consisting of more than a thousand pages, divided into four “acts”: a new genealogy of Hegel through Plato and Fichte (“The Drink Before”), a direct discussion of Hegel (“The Thing Itself”), a study of Lacan (more of “The Thing Itself"), and, finally, a consideration of quantum mechanics and Badiou (“The Cigarette After”). These acts are separated by interludes, themselves substantial essays, on topics from the commodity in Marx to the Cogito in Descartes and Foucault. Less Than Nothing is the culmination of a decade’s work, one that, on more than one occasion, Zizek has referred to as his magnum opus. As such, it held out the promise of revealing the mechanism behind Zizek’s extraordinary output (which Simon Critchley has called “overproduction”) over the last three decades, and reconciling his interest in Hegelian dialectics with his Stalinist outbursts.
Hegel, it must be noted, is not evil in the same sense that Stalin is. He’s not a mass murderer, or even an apologist for totalitarianism (at least not when Zizek reads him). Contrary to the Marx aphorism carved into the marble at Berlin’s Humboldt University—“philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”—Zizek knows that only interpretation changes the history of the world, and that Hegel is the first thinker to play this to the full. Zizek announces his stake eight pages in:
There is a unique philosophical moment in which philosophy appears “as such” and which serves as a key—as the only key—to reading the entire preceding and following tradition as philosophy. . . . This moment is the moment of German Idealism delimited by two dates: 1787, the year in which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared, and 1831, the year of Hegel’s death.
This overtly orthodox declaration is a sneaky move. Among the conservative right, Hegel is perhaps best known for his characterization of modernity as the end of history, and for him, modernity was to be found fully manifested in the Prussian state. Those who accept this reading accept that, as Zizek puts it, Hegel depicts the intersection of philosophy and history so effectively that he renders it off-limits for future generations. By opening his book with this resounding affirmation, Zizek gleefully announces his intention to steal Hegel’s philosophical bust from the mantelpiece of the right. To misuse a line from the Borges short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit “was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence, and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.”
The Hegel that Zizek loves is not the not the good patriot, not the philosopher brought to Berlin by Frederick William III to reconcile democrats to absolute rule, not the consoling thinker who showed how the apparent contingency of events concealed the inner logic of history. The Good Hegel is, to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, a kind of hedgehog—a stubborn dialectician for whom every event, no matter how momentous or accidental, can be reduced to the cosmic three-step dance of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: “The Hegelian dialectic is like a processing machine which indifferently swallows up and processes all possible contents, from nature to history, from politics to art, delivering them packaged in the same triadic form.” The Hegel that Zizek loves is much like Zizek himself: a relentless iconoclast, a restless wordsmith, an inventive thinker with a hatred of received wisdom, an underminer of conventionally acknowledged truths. Zizek’s Hegel is a kind of cosmic prankster.
Far from being a thinker of consolation, Zizek’s Hegel reveals how history is retroactively fabricated from a mass of meaningless accidents. In praising, for instance, hereditary monarchy, Hegel does not naively endorse the divine right of kings. Rather, he recognizes that birth is a wholly contingent event, one that confers no special abilities upon a ruler. And he claims that this is a good thing. While a king chosen by merit might be endlessly challenged over his position, the brute fact of an incontestable birth creates a king who is both absolute and an empty vessel—a head that only matters because it wears a crown. In the act of endorsing the status quo, Hegel reveals the mechanical arbitrariness underlying it, and thus subverts it. He is radical even when overtly championing conservatism. Such inventive dissimulation and creative destruction is part of what Zizek means when he calls Hegel a little bit evil.
Zizek’s evil, on the other hand, is radical. It comes down to a slight shift of emphasis. The move can best be explained through Borges’s Pierre Menard, who composed, perfectly, several chapters of Don Quixote some four-hundred years after Cervantes: “History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard . . . does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened.” Zizek’s move, both subtle and brazenly pragmatic, depends on shifting his emphasis from the last term of the triad—thesis-antithesis-synthesis—to the endless confrontation of the first two terms. Instead of reading synthesis as establishing a stable harmony, Zizek emphasizes that it always acts as a precursor to a further iteration of the dialectic. What presents itself as a reconciliation is always the first term in a new conflict, or as Germans say of football, “nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel” (after the game is before the game).
According to the standard formula of the Hegelian dialectic, things become what they always-already were. That is, the French revolution held the seeds to the Jacobin terror within itself, the germs of Napoleonic autocracy were hidden within the terror, and the emergent liberal state was already nascent in the Code Napoléon. Through a sequence of apparently contingent events, the essential movement of history inexorably shows itself. Unlike the good Hegel, however, Zizek’s evil Hegel does not argue that what might have initially appeared as a sequence of accidents proves ultimately to have been necessary all along. Rather, he insists that in the wake of crisis, we retroactively turn the evil of contingency into the good of necessity, and it is in precisely this sense that history is the mother of truth. The device that enables the re-writing of history, the thing that is the goal of all revolutionary politics, is what Zizek designates "the act." The act is that which seems prima facie impossible, but once it has occurred, it retroactively constitutes the grounds for its own necessity. At least as I read Zizek, the divine comedy of history follows the same logic as a romantic comedy.
Take the structure of a conventional romantic comedy: Two lovers are separated by circumstances that give rise to a cascading sequence of misunderstandings that threaten to separate them forever. A missed train, a sister mistaken for a lover, a message scrambled by a bumbling go-between, all conspire to destroy the happy couple. But at the last moment, the inevitable hand of fate places them together, and what had appeared to be unsurpassable obstacles to their union reveal themselves to have been simply steps along the path.
Ideally, all such comedies (whether Hollywood or Shakespeare) end in wedding scenes. It is only from the vantage point of the altar that those events that could have prevented the marriage from taking place become reconstituted as trivialities. The wedding is the act that retrospectively constitutes all the problems that preceded it as a form of courtship, and the comedy as a romance. Likewise, the revolutionary event, whenever and wherever it happens, will appear as a deus ex machina upon its arrival. In this schema, the farce always comes before the tragedy.
Whether or not Zizek will succesfully return Hegel to the center of what was once called leftist politics remains to be seen. What is certain is that he’ll continue to generate heat. John Gray, writing in the New York Review of Books, finds Zizek’s "repugnant and grotesque” observations on the Soviet persecution of the kulaks as “an exercise in hermeneutics" and worse, Zizek’s characterization of Hitler’s anti-semitism as partialy a manifestation of self-loathing as “obscene.” The examples, however, seem tendentious; a more productive response would be not to ask whether or not it is worth reading Zizek (and I believe that it is), but what (aside from Hegel himself) we should read next. On this, Zizek is generous with his praise, recommending works by three contemporary authors; theorists who engage with Hegel in the present tense, rather than treating him as archival material. Zizek’s recommended reading list includes Beatrice Longuenesse’s Hegel's Critique of Metaphysic, Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel, and Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness. These are books that he describes as “epochal in the strictest meaning of the word . . . Literally nothing remains the same after one immerses oneself in one of these books”; he might just as well have praised them for being so impressively evil.
Adam Jasper is a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and a contributing editor at Cabinet Magazine.