Contra the Slovenians: Returning to Lacan and Away from Hegel
Horwitz, Noah, Philosophy Today
Often an entire article can be summed up in a quote. Lacan said in his eleventh seminar:
The death of structuralism, you are the son of Hegel. I don't agree. I think that in saying Lacan against Hegel, you are much closer to the truth, though of course it is not at all a philosophical debate.1
Although the work of what ostensibly could be called the "Slovenian School of Lacanian Studies"2 (one names here the work of Slavoj Zizek, Mladen Dolar, Alenka Zupancic, et. al.) has explained the work of Jacques Lacan in an unprecedentedly clear manner, demonstrated the relevance of Lacan for current theoretical debates, and shown how Lacanian theory can be applied to various social and political phenomena, their reading of Lacan via German Idealism and German Idealism via Lacan risks transforming Lacanian psychoanalysis into a discourse of self-consciousness rather than a discourse on the psychoanalytic, Freudian unconscious. In this manner, the very scandalous rupture that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis affected in thought and in culture (that it thinks without and for me) is in jeopardy of being foreclosed through a return to German Idealism's discourse of self-consciousness. Here, Lacan functions as a screen in order to rehabilitate the theses of German Idealism that psychoanalysis itself put into question.
In particular, the risk is that Lacan will be transformed into that ultimate German Idealist, Hegel. Slavoj Zizek announces the program of a "'return to Hegel'" (as opposed to Lacan's "return to Freud"?)3 in his book (although it informs the entirety of his work) The Sublime Object of Ideology:
to accomplish a kind of 'return to Hegel'-to reactualize Hegelian dialectics by giving it a new reading on the basis of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The current image of Hegel as an 'idealist-monist' is totally misleading: what we find in Hegel is the strongest affirmation yet of difference and contingency-'absolute knowledge' itself is nothing but a name for the acknowledgment of a certain radical loss."
Such a 'return to Hegel' not only risks mis-reading Hegel as Lacan avant la lettre, but (and more importantly for us) risks reading Lacan as Hegel (and repeatedly throughout the work of Zizek Lacan is shown to make a "perfectly Hegelian" gesture or move). For Zizek, such a return to Hegel via Lacan is authorized insofar as Lacan misunderstood the nature of self-consciousness:
why Hegel? Unfortunately Lacan too quickly identifies self-consciousness with self-transparency, and the very condition of the notion of self-consciousness in German Idealism is that you are inaccessible to yourself. It's a positive ontological condition. To be self-conscious, you must be void, you must not be accessible to yourself as what you arc. So we have a certain radical gap defining self-consciousness. The subject of self-consciousness is literally S barré.5
Although the entire work of Lacan has shown how the unconscious remains opaque to consciousness insofar as it thinks independently of and for me, self-consciousness, according to Zizek, is actually about non-transparency to self rather than transparency. For Lacan, according to his 'mirror stage,' one reaches a sense of self (self-consciousness) via the projective, specular image of the other (in other words, via an opaque, externalization/alienation). One's ego (self-awareness) is thus constituted in relation to an alienated image that is in turn sublated into a reciprocal, symmetrical, and transparent other. In fact, the other here is so transparent that one assumes the other knows one's mind ('you know what I mean'). Although Lacan further moves to an understanding of the subject as subject of the symbolic order, such a subject is a subject of meaning rather than consciousness insofar as one is aware of oneself only through the discourse of the Other. In addition, while in Hegel there may be an initial moment of the dialectic wherein one is unaware of what takes place within one, such a moment is quickly transcended in order to see how what was alien is really the self (so that self-transparency is established). …