More than everything
Žižek's Badiouian HegelPeter Osborne
There are philosophical books, minor classics even, which are widely known and referred to, although no one has actually read them page by page… a nice example of interpassivity, where some figure of the Other is supposed to do the reading for us. Slavoj Žižek1
Allow me to be that figure (for now anyway), for Žižek has published a book which, while in no way unreadable – assuming one lives long enough – is unlikely to be actually read.*
Everything about this book revolves around questions of size – literal and metaphorical, possible and impossible (sublime), phantasmatic and mundane. Close to half a million words, over a thousand pages, Less Than Nothing is the sarcastically titled tool of Žižek’s bid for an imagined continental-philosophical heavyweight crown: the ‘mega-book about Hegel’ which, setting the ‘shitty politics’ aside, is his self-declared ‘true life’s work’, ‘a true work of love’. (The seamless integration of the publicist function into the author function is a familiar operation.) The jokey title acts as a sign of knowingness at a deeper level too: a knowing disavowal of the book’s all-too-obvious desire to be ‘more than everything’ – a desire with regard to which Žižek has long taken on the burden of symptomatic acting out, on behalf of us all. We might call this his heroic aspect, so long as we bear in mind that there can be no more heroes – which is precisely what gives the hero of the modern his or her distinctive cultural patina. As Foucault’s gloss on Baudelaire puts it: ‘Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it is the will to “heroize” the present.’2 Žižek is nothing if not modern in this regard (postmodernists ruefully reflecting upon the expiry of their ‘use by’ dates, please take note). Yet there is an unresolved tension in the paradoxical stance of a knowing disavowal. It is in the ironic tension between what the book says and what it performs (Žižek would presumably call it a symptom) that the philosophical meaning of Less Than Nothing resides as in many ways a decidedly unHegelian text.3
The reigning champion in Žižek’s imaginary heavyweight contest is, of course, his good friend Alain Badiou, whose door-stopping Being and Event (1988)4 expanded into the cultural space created by its 2005 English-language reception to spawn Logics of Worlds (2006) as Being and Event, 2 - the cinematically abbreviated subtitle of which hints at its author’s bonding with Žižek over the revival of Lenin. Less Than Nothing more or less exactly matches for length the extended version of Being and Event. Of course, size is just the mundane guise of the idea of the ‘big book’ here, the book with the big ideas, the book that will become part of the history of philosophy in its canonical mode, the book by a thinker who is more than a man (although apparently never a woman), ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel’, who ‘walks here among us!’ – as Žižek is repeatedly quoted as writing of Badiou, with barely concealed aggression. Us … mere mortals. ‘Can this really be the Son of Plato?’ we are invited to ask. And what of the son of Hegel?
By the time Badiou’s 1982 Theory of the Subject was translated into English in 2009 Žižek’s formula had become quietly pluralized: ‘you hold in your hands proof that philosophers of the status of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger are still walking around today!’ So if Badiou is to count as one, who is (or who are) the other philosopher(s) of this status walking around today? The inference is obvious. But things are a little more complicated than the analogy suggests. For while Badiou is attributed the status of being ‘a figure like’ the canonical authors of the tradition, in his own name, Žižek’s claim is rather different. For he occupies it not in his own name, but in the name of another from within the tradition: Hegel. Žižek does not so much want to be ‘Žižek, son of Hegel’, on a par with ‘Badiou, Plato’s son’. He wants to channel Hegel himself, to be his afterlife, and thereby retroactively to be Hegel himself.
Like the …