Lack and Excess / Zero and One: On Concrete Universality in Dialectical Materialism

By Finkelde, Dominik | Philosophy Today, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Lack and Excess / Zero and One: On Concrete Universality in Dialectical Materialism


Finkelde, Dominik, Philosophy Today


1.Introduction

In his famous and often quoted fifth philosophical-historical thesis, Walter Benjamin prominently criticizes the historiographical school of nineteenth-century German historicism, and especially one of its most famous proponents: Leopold von Ranke. Though there are many different strands of historicism at the fin de siede, one can detect especially in Ranke's work the widely shared idea of a teleological meaning of History's progress that is similar to certain insights often attributed to Georg W F. Hegel's understanding of a progress of "spirit" within a somehow deterministic and process-designed understanding of being. Benjamin writes critically on historicism, citing the Swiss author Gottfried Keller that "the truth will not run away from us" Benjamin continues: "this statement by Gottfried Keller indicates exactly that point in historicism's image of History where the image is pierced by historical materialism."1

Historicism's understanding of History defends an onto-theological truth-concept as inherent to historical developments, i.e., that a deterministic chain of events (holistically) grounds within a hidden supernatural "purpose" the fundamental structures of reality. Precisely this is what Benjamin critically denounces, claiming that as such historicism ignores what is most important to Benjamin in his own philosophy of history: the unilateral and, ultimately, subjective position of the interpretation of truth (to interrupt History) via an idealized figure inspired by Marxism that Benjamin calls the "historical materialist." This figure yields, similar to Benjamin's comments on the "destructive character,"2 the interruption of a historically secured development of History via radical and apparently counter-historical actions.

Hegemonic narratives of essential developments of History's destiny cannot be contemplated by the historical materialist "without horror,"3 giving him the authority to intervene in History. But Benjamin cannot give a satisfactory answer to the question: where from exactly? Where can the historical materialist's own option for action be narratively (and as such teleologically) located? The thesis defended in this paper is: from the non-place of subjectivity as it is developed in different works of Georg W F. Hegel and Alain Badiou. As we will see, it is especially Badiou's theory of the subject that presents, similar to Benjamin's ideal figure of the historical materialist, the conceptual assertion of political agency via an understanding of "concrete universality" as it incorporates the urge or the urgent need-present both in the work of Benjamin and Badiou-to break through an apparent Hegelian-metaphysical truth as it is supposed to be "in itself." This understanding of "concrete universality" can be distinguished from the Hegel School mentioned critically by Benjamin. But it would be wrong to credit Hegel himself with the mentioned belief that "the Truth will not run away," because this is what for Hegel "Truth" can precisely do: it can get lost, it can be missed, for the concept of Truth falls within an ontological genealogy of missed encounters with knowledge within the subject-object dichotomy, as described especially by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel's philosophy can therefore very well find itself mirrored in Benjamin's political beliefs but also-as I will try to show in this article-in Alain Badiou's philosophy as well, even if the French philosopher himself refers to Hegel repeatedly as an opponent of his thought.4

2.Concrete Universality: A First Approach

Hegel's famous understanding of "concrete universality" (konkrete Allgemeinheit), which he distinguishes especially with reference to his concept of "universal- ity" (das Allgemeine/Allgemeinheit) as it is in itself, is central in the following arguments. It is "that what is identical with itself explicitly in the sense that at the same time the particular and the individual are contained in it"5 "Concrete universality" does not contain the particular like a matchbox contains matches, rather it is an entity in which "the universal is recognized as particularizing its own self, and gathering itself together out of particularization into individuality. …

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