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Why Should a Dialectician Learn to Count to Four?

Why Should a Dialectician
Learn to Count to Four?

Slavoj Zizek
The triad and its excess
How far must a Hegelian dialectician learn to count? Most of the
interpreters of Hegel, not to mention his critics, are trying to
convince us in unison that the right answer reads: to three (the
dialectical triad, etc.). Moreover, they compete with each other as
to who will call our attention more convincingly to the ‘fourth
side’, the non-dialecticizable excess, the place of death (of the
dummy – in French, le mort – in bridge), supposedly eluding the
dialectical grasp, although (or, more precisely, in so far as) it is the
inherent condition of possibility of the dialectical movement: the
negativity of a pure expenditure that cannot be sublated
(aufgehoben), re-collected, in its Result. Unfortunately, as is the
custom with the criticism of Hegel, the trouble with Hegel is here
the same as the trouble with Harry in Alfred Hitchcock’s film: he
doesn’t consent to his burial so easily. On a closer look it soon
becomes obvious that the supposedly unnihilating reproach
drawn by the critics from their hats actually forms the crucial
aspect of the very dialectical movement. That is to say, a careful
reader will immediately recall not only numerous cases like the
four types of judgement from the first part of the ‘subjective
logic’, but also the fact that Hegel thematises a quadruplicity
proper to the dialectical movement as such, i.e., the excess of the
pure nothingness of self-relating negativity which vanishes, becomes invisible, in the final Result. In the last chapter of his Logic,
apropos of the elementary matrix of the dialectical process, Hegel
points out that the moments of this process could be counted as
three or as four, with the subject as the surplus-moment which
‘counts for nothing’:

In this turning point of the method, the course of cognition
at the same time returns into itself. As self-sublating
contradiction this negativity is the restoration of the first
immediacy, of simple universality; for the other of the
other, the negative of the negative, is immediately the
positive, the identical, the universal. If one insists on
counting, this second immediate is, in the course of the
method as a whole, the third term to the first immediate and
the mediated. It is also, however, the third term to the first
or formal negative and to absolute negativity or the second
negative; new as the first negative is already the second
term, the term reckoned as third can also be reckoned as
fourth, and instead of a triplicity, the abstract form may be
taken as a quadruplicity; in this way, the negative or the
difference is counted as a duality.l
The first moment is the immediate positivity of the starting
point. The second moment, its mediation, is not simply its
immediate contrary, its external opposite – it comes forth precisely
Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

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!

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when we endeavour to grasp the first moment, the immediate in
and for itself, as such. In this way, we already mediatise it and,
imperceptibly, it turns into its own opposite. The second moment
is thus not the negative of the first, its otherness. It is the first
moment itself as its own other, as the negative of itself: as soon as
we conceive the abstract-immediate starting point (as soon as we
determine the concrete network of its presuppositions and implications, explicate its content), it changes into its own opposite.

Already, on the most abstract level, ‘nothingness’ is not the
external opposite of ‘being’: we arrive at ‘nothingness’ by simply
trying to specify, to determine the content of the notion of ‘being’ .

Herein consists the fundamental dialectical idea of’ inner negativity’: an entity is negated, passes over into its opposite, as a result
of the development of its own potential. Fascism, to take a wornout example, is not an external opposite to liberal democracy but
has its roots in the liberal democracy’s own inner antagonisms.

This is the reason why negativity must be counted twice: to negate
the starting point effectively, we must negate its own ‘inner
negation’ in which its content comes to its ‘truth’ (fascism,
although opposed to liberal capitalism, is not its effective negation but only its ‘inner’ negation: to negate liberal capitalism
effectively, we must therefore negate its very negation). This
second, self-relating negation, this (as Hegel would put it) otherness
reflected into itself, is the vanishing point of absolute negativity,
of ‘pure difference’ – the paradoxical moment which is third since
it is already the first moment which ‘passes over’ into its own
other. What we have here could also be conceptualised as a case
of retroactive determination: when opposed to its radical Negative, the first moment itself changes retroactively into its opposite.

Capitalism-in-itself is not the same as capitalism-as-opposed-tocommunism. When confronted with the tendencies of its dissolution, capitalism is forced to negate itself ‘from within’ (to pass
into fascism) if it is to survive. This dialectics was articulated by
Adorno apropos of the history of music:

The means and forms of musical composition discovered
later concern and change the traditional means and above
all the forms of interdependence that they constitute.

Every tritone used today by a composer already sounds as
the negation of the dissonances liberated in the meantime.

It doesn’t possess anymore its former immediacy … , but is
something historically mediated. Therein consists its own
opposition. When this opposition, this negation, is passed
over in silence, every tritone of this kind, every traditionalist move, becomes an affirmative, convulsively confirming lie, equal to the talking about happy world customary in the other domains of culture. There is no primordial
sense to be re-established in music … 2
3

Here we have an exemplary case of what structuralism calls
‘determination-by-absence’. After the advent of dissonances, the
meaning of the tritone changes since its further use implies the
negation of dissonances – its new meaning results from the way
the very absence of dissonances is present in the use of the tritone.

In its immediate presence, tritone remains the same: its historical
mediation is revealed by the fact that it changes precisely in so far
as it remains the same 3 Herein consists also the falsity of today’s
calls for a return to traditional values. In so far as we re-establish
them, they are not the same any more, since they legitimise the
social order which is their very opposite. 4 We can now see how the
supplementary element emerges: as soon as we add to the immediate its negation, this negation retroactively changes the meaning
of immediacy, so we must count to three, although what we
effectively have are just two elements. Or, if we envisage the
complete cycle of the dialectical process, there are just three
‘positive’ moments to count over (the immediacy, its mediation
and the final return to the mediated immediacy). What we lose is
the unfathomable surplus of the pure difference which ‘counts for
nothing’ although it makes the entire process go, this ‘void of the
substance’ which is at the same time the’ receptacle (R ezeptakulum)
for all and everything’ , as Hegel put it.

accumulate wealth instead of spending it thoughtlessly, to live in
temperance and modesty: in short, to accomplish his or her
instrumental-economic activity ‘with God in mind’; asceticism as
the affair of a stratum apart thereby becomes superfluous. This
universalisation of the Christian stance, the affirmation of its
relevance for secular economic activity, generates the attributes
of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ (compulsive work and accumulation of wealth, i.e. renunciation to compulsion, as an end-initself). Simultaneously, yet unknowingly and unintentionally,
following the ‘cunning of Reason’, it opens the way to the
devaluation of religion, to its confinement to the intimacy of a
private spehre separated from state and public affairs. The Protestant universalisation of the Christian stance is thus merely a
transitory stage in the passage to the ‘normal’ state of the bourgeois society where religion is reduced to ‘means’, i.e. to a

Protestantism, Jacobinism …

Such ruminations are however of a purely formal nature, in the
best tradition of the exasperating abstract reflections on ‘dialectical method’ . What they lack is the inner relatedness to a concrete
historical content. As soon as we move to this level, the idea of a
fourth, surplus moment qua ‘vanishing mediator’ between the
second moment (the split, the abstract opposition) and the final
Result (reconciliation) immediately acquires concrete contours.

One has to think only of the way Fredric J ameson, in his essay on
Max Weber,S articulates the notion of ‘vanishing mediator’ apropos of Weber’s theory ofthe role of Protestantism in the rise of
capitalism. This theory is usually read as (and was also meant by
Weber himself to be) a criticism of the Marxist thesis of the
primacy of economic infrastructure. Ultimately, Weber’s point is
that Protestantism was a condition of capitalism. Jameson, on the
contrary, interprets Weber’s theory as fully compatible with
Marxism as the elaboration of the dialectical necessity by means
of which, in the passage of feudalism into capitalism, the ‘normal’

relationship of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ is inversed.

Wherein, precisely ,consists this dialectical necessity? In other
words: how, specifically, does Protestantism create conditions for
the emergence of capitalism? Not, as one would expect, by
limiting the reach of religious ideology, by undermining its allpervasive presence characteristic of medieval society, but on the
contrary by universalising its relevance. Luther was opposed to
cloisters and Church as institutions apart, separated by a gap from
the rest of society, because he wanted the Christian attitude to
penetrate and determine our entire secular everyday life. Contrary
to the traditional (pre-Protestant) stance which basically limits the
relevance of religion to the aims towards which we must tend,
while leaving the means – the domain of secular economic
activity – to the non-religious common judgement, the Protestant
‘work ethic’ conceives the very secular activity (economic acquisitiveness) as the domain of the disclosure of God’s grace. This
shift can be exemplified by the changed place of asceticism. In the
traditional Catholic universe, asceticism concerns a stratum of
people separated from everyday secular life, devoted to representing in this world its Beyond, i.e. the Heaven on Earth (saints,
monks with their abstinence), whereas Protestantism requires
every Christian to act ascetic ally in his or her secular life, to

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medium enabling the subject to find new strength and perseverance in the economic fight for survival, like those techniques of
‘self-experience’ which put the encounter of our ‘true Self’ in the
service of our ‘fitness’.

It is, of course, easy to assume an ironic distance towards the
Protestant illusion and to point out how the final result of Protestant
endeavour to abolish the gap between religion and everyday life
was the abasement of religion to a ‘therapeutic’ means. What is far
more difficult is to conceive the necessity of Protestantism as the
‘vanishing mediator’ between medieval corporatism and capitalist individualism. In other words, the point not to be missed is that

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

one cannot pass from medieval ‘closed’ society to bourgeois
society immediately, i.e. without the intercession of Protestantism qua ‘vanishing mediator’. It is Protestantism which, by means
of its universalisation of Christianity, prepares the ground for its
withdrawal into the sphere of privacy. In the political domain, a
similar role was played by lacobinism which can even be determined as ‘political Protestantism’. 1acobinism universalises in
the same way the democratic political-ideological project, i.e. it
doesn’t grasp it as a merely formal political principle without
immediate bearing on economic, family, etc. relations, but endeavours to make the democratic-egalitarian project into a principle structuring the totality of social life. The trap into which
lacobinism fell is also the same. Unknowingly, its political
radicalism prepared the way for its opposite, for the bourgeois
universe of egotistic and acquisitive individuals who don’t care a
pin for egalitarian moralism. Here, too, it is easy to assume an
ironic distance and point out how the lacobins, by means of their
violent reduction of the social totality to the abstract principle of
equality, necessarily finished in terrorism, since this reduction is
resisted by the ramified network of concrete relations that characterise civil society (cf. Hegel’ s classical criticism of the 1acobins
in the Phenomenology of Spirit). What is far more difficult to
accomplish is to demonstrate why no immediate passage was
possible from the ancien regime to the egotistic bourgeois everyday life, i.e. why, precisely because of their illusory reduction of
social totality to the democratic political project, the 1acobins
were a necessary ‘vanishing mediator’ (therein, not in the
commonplaces about the utopian-terrorist character of the
lacobinical project, consists the effective point of Hegel’s criticism). In other words, it is easy to detect in lacobinism the roots
and the first form of the modem ‘totalitarianism’. It is far more
difficult and disquieting to acknowledge and accept fully the fact
that, without the lacobinical ‘excess’, there would be no ‘normal’

pluralist democracy.6
That is to say, the illusion in which Protestantism and
I acobinism are caught is more complicated than it may seem in a
first approach. It doesn’t consist simply in their naive-moralistic
universalisation of the Christian or egalitarian-democratic project,
i.e. in their overlooking the concrete wealth of social relations that
resist such an immediate universalisation. Their illusion is far
more radical: it is of the same nature as the illusion of all
historically relevant political utopias, the illusion to which Marx
drew attention a propos of Plato’s State when he remarked that
Plato didn’t see how what he really described was not a yet
unrealised ideal but the fundamental structure of the existing
Greek state. In other words, utopias are ‘utopian’ not because they
depict an ‘impossible ideal’, a dream not for this world, but
because they misrecognise the way their ideal state is already
realised in its basic content (‘in its notion’, as Hegel would say).

Protestantism becomes superfluous and it can vanish as a mediator
the moment the social reality is structured as a ‘Protestant universe’ .

The notional structure of capitalist civil society is that of the world
of atomised individuals defined by the paradox of ‘acquisitive
asceticism’ (‘the more you possess, the more you must renounce
consumption ‘), i.e. the structure of the Protestant content without
its positive religious form. And it is the same with lacobinism.

What Protestantism and I acobinism overlooked is the fact that the
Ideal after which they strove was, in its notional structure, already
realised in their ‘dirty’ acquisitive activity which appeared to
them as the betrayal of their high ideals. The vulgar, egotistical
bourgeois everyday life is the actuality of freedom, equality and
brotherhood; freedom of free trade, formal equality in the eyes of
law, etc. The illusion proper to the ‘vanishing mediators’ Protestants, I acobins – is precisely that of the Hegelian ‘beautiful
soul’. They refuse to acknowledge in the corrupted reality over

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

–,j

which they lament the ultimate consequence of their own act, i.e.,
as Lacan would put it, their own message in its true, inverted form.

And no lesser is the illusion of us, ‘sobered’ inheritors ofProtestantism and I acobinism. We perceive those’ vanishing mediators’

as aberrations or excesses, failing to notice how we are nothing
but’lacobins without the lacobinical form’, nothing but ‘Protestants without the Protestant form’.

… and other ‘vanishing mediators’

This gap between the form and its notional content offers us also
the key to the necessity of the ‘vanishing mediator’. The passage
from feudalism to Protestantism is not of the same nature as the
passage from Protestantism to the bourgeois everyday life with its
privatised religion. The first passage concerns ‘content’ (under
the guise of preserving the religious form or even its strengthening,
the crucial shift – the assertion of the ascetic-acquisitive stance in
economic activity as the domain of the manifestation of Grace takes place), whereas the second passage is a purely formal act, a
change of form (as soon as Protestantism is realised as the asceticacquisitive stance, it can fall off as form). The ‘vanishing mediator’

emerges therefore because of the way, in a dialectical process,
form stays behind content. First, the crucial shift occurs within the
limits of the old form, even taking the appearance of its renewed
assertion (the universalisation of Christianity, return to its ‘true
content’, etc.). Then, once the ‘silent weaving of the spirit’

(Hegel) finishes its work, the old form can fall off. The double
scansion of this process enables us to grasp in a concrete way the
worn-out formula of the ‘negation of negation’. The first ‘negation’ consists in a slow, underground, invisible change of substantial
content which, paradoxically, takes place in the name of its own
form. Then, once the form has lost its substantial right, it falls to
pieces by itself, i.e. the very form of negation is negated or, to use
the classical Hegelian couple, the change which took place ‘in
itself’ becomes ‘for itself’.

This picture should be complicated even a step further. A
closer look reveals the presence of two ‘vanishing mediators’ in
the passage from feudal to bourgeois political structure, absolute
monarchy and lacobinism. The first is the sign, the embodiment
of a paradoxical compromise; the political form enabling the
rising bourgeoisie to strengthen its economic hegemony by
breaking the economic power of feudalism, of its guilds and
corporations. What is paradoxical about it is of course the fact that
feudalism ‘digs its grave’ precisely by absolutising its own
crowning point, i.e. by giving absolute power to the monarch. The
result of absolute monarchy is thus a political order’ disconnected’

from its economic foundation. And the same ‘disconnection’

characterises lacobinism: it is already a commonplace to determine lacobinism as a radical ideology which ‘takes literally’ the
bourgeois political programme (equality, freedom, brotherhood)
and endeavours to realise it irrespective of the concrete articulation
of civil society. Both paid dearly for their illusion. The absolute
monarch noticed too late that society praised him as almighty only
to allow one class to oust another. The lacobins also became
superfluous once their job of destroying the apparatus of the
ancien regime was done. Both were carried away by the illusion
of the autonomy of the political sphere. Both believed in their
political mission; one in the unquestionable character of royal
authority, the other in the pertinence of its political project. And,
on another level, could not the same be said for fascism and
Communism, viz. ‘really existing socialism’? Is not fascism a
kind of inherent self-negation of capitalism, an attempt to ‘change
something so that nothing would really change’ by means of an
ideology which subordinates the economy to the ideological-

5

political domain? Is not the Leninist ‘actually existing socialism’

a kind of ‘socialist J acobinism’, an attempt to subordinate the
entire socioeconomic life immediately to the political regulation
of the socialist state? Both are ‘vanishing mediators’, but into
what? The usual cynical answer ‘from capitalism back to capitalism’ seems a little bit too easy.

The inversion of the ‘normal’ relationship of ‘content’

(‘economic base’) and its ideological ‘form’ which renders possible the anti-Marxist reading of Weber consists therefore in the
above-described ’emancipation of form from its content that
characterises the ‘vanishing mediator’. The break of Protestantism with the medieval Church does not ‘reflect’ new social
content, but is rather the criticism of the oldfeudal content in the
name of the radicalised version of its own ideological form. It is
this ’emancipation’ of the Christian form from its own social
content that opens up the space for the gradual transformation of
the old into the new (capitalist) content. In this way, it is easy for
Jameson to demonstrate how Weber’s theory of the crucial role of
Protestantism in the emergence of capitailsm affects only vulgar
economism and is quite compatible with the dialectic of ‘base’

and ideological ‘superstructure’ according to which one passes
from one to another social formation through a ‘vanishing mediator’

which inverts the relationship of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’: by
emancipating itself from its own ‘base’. The old ‘superstructure’

prepares the terrain for the transformation of the ‘base’. The
classical Marxist theoretical edifice is thus saved. The ’emancipation’ of the ideological form is explained from the inner
antagonism of the’ base’ itself: it emerges w hen these antagonisms
become so violent that they can no longer be legitimised by their
own ideological form.

There is an inherently tragical ethical dimension proper to this
’emancipation’ of the ideological superstructure: it presents a
unique point at which an ideology ‘takes itself literally’ and
ceases to function as ‘objectively-cynical’ (Marx) legitimisation

of the existing power relations. Let us mention another, more
contemporary case; the ‘new social movements’ that emerged
during the last years of ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern
Europe, movements whose exemplary representative is Neues
Forum in the GDR, groups of passionate intellectuals who ‘took
socialism seriously’ and were prepared to stake all in order to
destroy the compromised system and replace it with the utopian
‘third way’ beyond capitalism and ‘actually existing’ socialism.

6

Their sincere belief and insistence that they are not working for
the restoration of Western capitalism proved itself of course to be
nothing but an illusion without substance. However, we could say
that precisely as such (as a thorough illusion without substance)
it was strictu sensu non-ideological: it didn’t ‘reflect’ in invertedideological form any actual relations of power. At this point, we
should correct the Marxist Vulgate: contrary to the commonplace
according to which an ideology becomes ‘cynical’ (accepts the
gap betweel1 ‘words’ and ‘acts’, doesn’t ‘believe in itself’ any
more, isn’t experienced any more as truth but treats itself as pure
instrumental means of legitimising power) in the period of the
‘decadence’ of a social formation, it should be said that precisely
the period of ‘decadence’ opens up to the ruling ideology the
possibility of ‘taking itself seriously’ and effectively opposing
itself to its own social basis (with Protestantism, Christian religion
opposes feudalism as its social basis, the same as withNeues Forum
which opposes the existing socialism in the name of ‘true socialism’). This way, unknowingly, it unchains the forces of its own
final destruction: once their job is done, they are ‘overrun by
history’ (Neues Forum scored 3% at the elections) and a new
‘scoundrel time’ sets in, with people in power who were mostly
silent during the Communist repression and who nonetheless now
abuse N eues Forum as ‘crypto-Communists’.

A beat of your finger…

Is, however, this reading where the ‘vanishing mediator’ effectively appears as just a mediator, an intermediate figure between
the two ‘normal’ states of things, the only one possible? The
conceptual apparatus elaborated by ‘post-Marxist’ political theory
(Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau) allows for another reading which
radically shifts the perspective. Within this field, the moment of
‘vanishing mediator’ is the moment defined by Alain Badiou7 as
that of the ‘event’ in relation to the established structure; the
moment when its ‘truth’ emerges, the moment of ‘openness’

which, once the eruption of the ‘event’ is institutionalised into a
new positivity, is lost or, more precisely, becomes literally invisible.

According to the well-known commonplace (which, unusually, is not a stupidity clothed in wisdom), ‘after the fact’,
backwards, History can always be read as a process governed by
laws, i.e. as a meaningful succession of stages. However, in so far
as we are its agents, embedded, caught in the process, the situation
appears – at least during the turning points when ‘something is
happening’ – open, undecidable, far from the exposition of an
underlying necessity. We find ourselves confronted with responsibility, the burden of decision pressing upon our shoulders.

Let us just recall the October Revolution. Retroactively, it is easy
to locate it within the wider historical process, to show how it
emerged out of the specific situation of Russia with its failed
modernisation and simultaneous presence of ‘islands of modernity’ (highly developed working class in isolated places) – in
short, it is not too difficult to compose a sociological treatise on
this theme. However, it is sufficient to reread the passionate
polemics between Lenin, Trotsky, Mensheviks and otherparticipants to find oneself face to face with what is lost in such an
‘objective’ historical account, the burden of decision in a situation
which so to speak forced the agents to invent new solutions and
make unheard-of moves without any guarantee in ‘general laws
of historical development’ .

This ‘impossible’ moment of openness constitutes the moment of subjectivity. ‘Subject’ is a name for that unfathomable X
called upon, suddenly made accountable, thrown into a position
of responsibility, into the urgency of decision in such a moment
of undecidability. This is the way one has to read Hegel’s
proposition that the True is to be grasped ‘not only as Substance,

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

but equally as Subject’ ,8 not only as an objective process governed
by some hidden rational Necessity (even if this Necessity assumes
the Hegelian shape of the ‘cunning of Reason’), but also as a
process punctuated, scansioned by the moments of openness/
undecidability when the subject’s irreducibly contingent act
establishes new Necessity. According to a well-known doxa, the
dialectical approach enables us to penetrate the surface play of
contingencies and reach the underlying rational necessity which
‘runs the show’ behind the subject’s back. A proper Hegelian
dialectical move is almost the exact inversion of this procedure.

It disperses the fetish of ‘objective historical process’ and enables
us to see its genesis, the way the historical Necessity sprang up as
a positivisation, as a ‘coagulation’ of a radically contingent
decision of the subjects in an open, undecidable situation. ‘Dialectical Necessity’ is always, by definition, a necessity apres coup.

A proper dialectical account calls in question the self-evidence of
‘what actually took place’ and confronts it with what did not take
place, i.e. it considers what did not happen (a series of missed
opportunities, of ‘alternative histories’) a constituent part of what
‘effectively happened’ . If ‘dialectics’ doesn’t mean also this, then
all the talk about ‘substance as subject’ is ultimately null and we
are back at Reason qua substantial Necessity pulling the strings
behind the stage.

It is against this background that we must conceive Hegel’ s
thesis on ‘positing of presuppositions’. This retroactive positing
is precisely the way Necessity arises out of contingency. The
moment when the subject ‘posits its presuppositions’ is the very
moment of its effacement as subject, the moment it vanishes as a
mediator, the moment of closure when the subject’s act of
decision changes into its opposite, i.e. establishes a new symbolic
network by means of which History again acquires the selfevidence of a linear evolution. Let us return to the October
Revolution. Its ‘presuppositions’ were ‘posited’ when, after its
victory and consolidation of the new power, the openness of the
situation was again lost, i.e. when it was again possible to assume
the position of an ‘objective observer’ and narrate the linear
progression of events, ascertaining how the Soviet power broke
the imperialist chain in its weakest link and thus started a new
epoch of world history, etc. In this strict sense, the subject is a
‘vanishing mediator’. Its act succeeds by becoming invisible, i.e.

by ‘positivising’ itself in a new symbolic network wherein it
locates and explains itself as a result of historical process, thus
reducing itself to a mere moment of the totality engendered by its
own act. Witness the Stalinist position of pure metalanguage
where (contrary to the commonplaces about ‘proletarian science’ ,
etc.) the very engagement of Marxist theory on the side of the
proletariat, its ‘partisanship’, its ‘taking sides’, is not conceived as
something inherent to the theory as such – Marxists did not speak
from the subjective position of the proletariat, they ‘based their
orientation on’ the proletariat from an external, neutral, ‘objective’ position:

In the eighties of the past century, in the period of the
struggle between the Marxists and the Narodniks, the
proletariat in Russia constituted an insignificant minority
of the population, whereas the individual peasants constituted the vast majority of the population. But the proletariat was developing as a class, whereas the peasantry as
a class was disintegrating. And just because the proletariat
was developing as a class the Marxists based their orientation on the proletariat. And they were not mistaken, for,
as we know, the proletariat subsequently grew from an
insignificant force into a first-rate historical and political
force. 9
The crucial question to be asked here is, of course: at the time

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

of their struggle against the Narodniks, where did the Marxists
speak from so as to be subject to mistakes in their choice of the
proletariat as the basis of their orientation? Obviously from an
external point encompassing the historical process as a field of
objective forces, where one must ‘be careful of not being mistaken’ ,
and ‘be guided by just forces’ , i.e. those that will win – in short,
where one must ‘bet on the right horse’. Read this way, i.e.

retroactively, the decision on how to act follows the ‘objective’

evaluation: first, we view the situation from a neutral, ‘objective’

position; then, after ascertaining which are the forces likely to
win, we decide to ‘base our orientation on them’. This retroactive
narration, however, falls prey to a kind of illusion of perspective:

it misrecognises the crucial fact that ‘the true reason for deciding
only becomes apparent once the decision has been taken’ . 10 In other
words, reasons for ‘basing our orientation on’ the proletariat only
becomes apparent to those who already speak from the proletariansubjective position-or, as perspicacious theologians would
put it, of course there are good reasons to believe in Jesus Christ,
but these reasons are fully comprehensible only to those who
already believe in Him. And the same goes also for the famous
Leninist theory of the’ weakest link’ in the chain of imperialism:

one doesn’t first ascertain via an objective approach which is this
weakest link and then take the decision to strike at this point – the
very act of decision defines the ‘weakest link’. This is what is
called by Lacan act: a move that, so to speak, defines its own
conditions, i.e. retroactively produces grounds which justify it:

What is impossible for those who count on an objective
appraisal of conditions is that a gesture could create
conditions which, retroactively, justify it and make it
appropriate. It is, however, attested that this is what
happens and that the aim is not to see things correctly, but
to blind oneself sufficiently to be able to strike the right
way, i.e. the way that disperses. 11
The act is thus ‘performative’ in a way which exceeds the
‘speech act’: its performativity is ‘retroactive’ ,i.e. it redefines the
network of its own presuppositions. This ‘excess’ of the act’s
retroactive performativity can also be formulated in the terms of
the Hegelian dialectics of law and its transgression, Crime. From
the perspective of the existing, positive laws of a symbolic
community, an act appears per definition as Crime, since it

7

violates its symbolic limits and introduces an unheard-of element
which turns everything topsy-turvy. There is neither rhyme nor
reason in an act. An act is by its very nature scandalous, as was the
appearing of Christ in the eyes of the keepers of the existing law,
i.e. before Christ was ‘christianised’, made part of the new law of
Christian tradition. And the dialectical genesis renders visible
again the ‘scandalous’ origins of the existing law – let us just
recall Chesterton’ s perspecacious remark about how the detective
story
keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilisation itself is the most sensational of departures and the
most romantic of rebellions …. When the detective in a
police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously
fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves’ kitchen, it
does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the
agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure,
while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old
cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the police force
is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact
that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. 12
The dialectical approach brings to the light of day this forgotten reverse of law, the way law itself coincides with supreme
criminal transgression. And an act ‘succeeds’ the moment it
‘sutures’ anew its own past, its own conditions, effacing its
‘scandalous’ character. The act is the emergence of a new mastersignifier, that supplementary ‘beat of your finger’ which, miraculously, changes the previous chaos into ‘new hannony’:

A beat of your finger on the drum discharges the sounds
and begins the new hannony.

A step by you, and new men arise and set on their march.

Your head turns away: the new love! Your head turns
back: the new love!

(Rimbaud, A une raison)
What is lost after the onset of the ‘new hannony’ is the
radically contingent, ‘scandalous’, abyssal character of the new
master-signifier. Witness, for example, the transfonnation of
Lenin into a wise figure who ‘saw it all and foresaw it all’,
Stalinism included, within the Leninist hagiography. Which is
why it is only today, after the breakdown of Leninism, that it
becomes possible to approach Lenin as an actor in the historical
drama, capable of making unforeseen moves that were, as Leszek
Kolakowski put it succinctly, the right mistakes at the right time.

Why is truth always political?

This notion of the act immediately bears on the relationship
between Social and Political, i.e. on the difference between ‘the
Political’ and ‘politics’, as it was elaborated by Lefort 13 and
Laclau,14 the difference between ‘politics’ qua separate social
complex, positively detennined subsystem of social relations in
interaction with other subsystems (economy, fonns of culture … ),
and ‘the Political (le Politique)’ qua the moment of openness, of
undecidability, when the very structuring principle of society, the
fundamental fonn of social pact, is called in question – in short,
the moment of global crisis overcome by the act of founding a
‘new hannony’. The ‘political’ dimension is thus doubly inscribed: it is a moment of the social whole, one among its
subsystems, and the very terrain in which the fate of the whole is
decided, i.e. in which the new pact is designed and concluded. 15
In social theory one usually conceives the political dimension as

8

secondary in relation to the Social as such; in positivist sociology,
as a subsystem by means of which society organises its selfregulation; in Marxism, as the separate sphere of alienated Universality which results from society’S class division (with the
underlying implication that a classless society would entail the
end of the Political as a separate sphere). Even in the ideology of
some of the ‘new social movements’, the Political is delimited as
the domain of state power against which civil society must
organise its self-defensive regulatory mechanisms. Against these
notions, one should risk the hypothesis that the very genesis of
society is always ‘political’. A positively existing social system
is nothing but a fonn in which the negativity of a radically
contingent decision assumes positive, detenninate existence. It
was no accident that the Jacobins, those ‘vanishing mediators’

par excellence, ‘absolutised the political’ . The reproach that they
failed because they wanted to make of politics, one of the social
subsystems, the structuring principle of the entire social edifice,
overlooks the crucial fact that with the J acobins, the political
dimension was not one among the subsystems but designated the
emergence of a radical negativity rendering possible the new
foundation ofthe social fabric. They vanished not because oftheir
weakness but because of their very success, i.e. when their work
was accomplished. In more ‘semiotic’ tenns, we could say that
politics qua subsystem is a metaphor of the political subject, of the
Political qua subject; the element which, within the constituted
social space, holds the place of the Political qua negativity which
suspends it and founds it anew. In other words, ‘politics’ as
‘subsystem’, as a separate sphere of society, represents within
society its own forgotten foundation, its genesis in a violent,
abyssal Act. It represents, within the social space, what mustfall
out if this space is to constitute itself. Here, we can easily
recognise the Lacanian definition of the signifier (that which
‘represents the subject for another signifier’): politics qua subsystem represents the Political (subject) for all other social
subsystems. It is for that reason that positivist sociologists attempt
desperately to convince us that politics is just a subsystem. It is as
if the very desperate and urgent tone of this persuading echoes an
imminent danger of ‘explosion’ whereby politics would again ‘be
all’ ,i.e. change into ‘political’. There is an unmistakable normative
undertone to this persuading, bestowing on it an air of conjuration:

it must remain a mere subsystem …

What is at stake in the two possible readings of the paradox of
‘vanishing mediator’ is therefore the very status of social antagonism viz. negativity. Is the emergence of negativity in the
social space a mere intennediary in the passage from one to
another fonn of positivity, the’ exception’ that characterises the
transition from one to another ‘nonna1cy’ ,or is this very ‘nonna1cy’

nothing but the aftennath, the ‘gentrification’ of a forgotten
excess of negativity? The second solution reverses the entire
perspective: the stable network of ‘subsystems’ is the very fonn
of hegemony of one pole in the social antagonism, the ‘class
peace’ the very index of the hegemony of one class in the class
struggle. What is lost once the network of’ subsystems’ is stabilised,
i.e. once the ‘new hannony’ is established, once the new Order
‘posits its presuppositions’, ‘sutures’ its field, is the metaphoricity
of the element which represents its genesis. This element is
reduced to being ‘one among the others’, it loses its character of
One which holds the place ofNothing (of radical negativity). Now,
we can return to the notorious Hegelian triad; the subject is this
‘vanishing mediator’ , the fourth moment which so to speak enacts
its own disappearance, i.e. whose disappearance is the very
measure of its ‘success’ , the void of self-relating ne gativity which
becomes invisible once we look at the process ‘backwards’, from
its Result. The consideration of this excessive fourth moment at
work in the Hegelian triad enables us to read it against the

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

background of the Greimasian ‘semiotic square’:

4

Necessary 4!

..

Impossible

!:><!

Possible

Contingent

The opposition of necessity and impossibility dissolves itself into
the domain of possibility (possibility is, so to speak, the ‘negation
of negation’ of necessity) – what disappears therewith is the
fourth term, the Contingent which is in no way equal to the
Possible. There is always something of an ‘encounter with the
Real’ in contingency, something of the violent emergence of an
unheard-of entity that defies the limits of the established field of
what one holds for ‘possible’ , whereas ‘possible’ is, so to speak,
a ‘gentrified’, pacified contingency, a contingency with its sting
plucked out. In psychoanalysis, for example, truth belongs to the
order of contingency. 16 We vegetate in our everyday life, deep
into the universal Lie that structures it, when, all of a sudden, some
totally contingent encounter – a casual remark by a friend, an
incident we witness – evokes the memory of an old repressed
trauma and shatters our self-delusion. Psychoanalysis is here
radically anti-Platonic: the Universal is the domain of Falsity par
excellence, whereas truth emerges as a particular contingent
encounter which renders visible its ‘repressed’. 17 The dimension
lost in ‘possibility’ is precisely this traumatic, unwarranted
character of the emergence of truth. When a truth becomes
‘possible’, it loses the character of an ‘event’, it changes into a
mere factual accuracy and thereby becomes part of the ruling
universal Lie. What we aim at here comes to light more clearly if
we replace the ‘ontological’ square by the ‘deontological’ one:

Prescribed c

5

6

.. Prohibited

!><:!

Permitted

X

7
8

We lack the appropriate term for this X, for the strange status of
what is ‘not prescribed’, ‘facultative’, and yet not simply ‘permitted’, for this ‘you may … ‘ which is not yet ‘you can … ‘, as, for
example, the emergence of some hitherto forbidden knowledge in
the psychoanalytic cure which holds up to ridicule the Prohibition, lays bare its hidden mechanism, without thereby changing
into a neutral ‘permissiveness’. The difference between the two
pertains to the different relationship towards the universal Order.

‘Permissiveness’ is warranted by it, whereas this guarantee lacks
in the case of ‘you may … ‘ which Lacan designates as scilicet: you
may know (the truth about your desire) – if you take the risk upon
yourself. This scilicet is perhaps the ultimate recourse of the
critical thought.

9

2

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Ueber einige Schwierigkeiten des
Komponierens heute’ , in Aspekte der M ondernitiit, edited by H.

Steffen, Goettingen, 1986, p. 133.

3

The complementary reverse of this paradox is of course that
things must change if they are to remain the same: capitalism is
forced to revolutionise its material conditions precisely in order

Radical Philosophy 58, Summer 1991

Cf. Fredric Jameson, ‘The Vanishing Mediator; or, Max Weber
as Storyteller’, in The Ideologies ofTheory, vol. 2, Minneapolis,
University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

What is unusual about Jameson’s text is that it doesn’t mention
the role of Weber himself as the ‘vanishing mediator’ between
the traditional (pre-positivist) approach to society and twentieth-century sociology qua ‘objective science’ . As J ameson points
out, Weber’s notion of Wertfreiheit, of a value-free stance, is not
yet the later positivist ‘neutrality’: it expresses a pre-positivist
Nietzscheian attitude of distance towards values which enables
us to accomplish a ‘transvaluation of values’ and thus a more
efficient intervention into social reality. In other words,
Wertfreiheit implies a very ‘interested’ attitude towards reality.

Incidentally, doesn’t Wittgenstein play the same role in contemporary analytical philosophy: isn’t he even a double ‘vanishing
mediator’, in relation to classical logical positivism as well as in
relation to speech-acts theory? A simple sensitivity for theoreticalfinesse tells us that the most precious aspect ofWittgenstein’ s
Tractatus gets lost with its systematisation in logical positivism,
that ‘surplus’ with which Russell, Camap and others didn’t
know what to do and dismissed as confusion or mysticism (the
problem of form qua unspeakable and of silence which inscribes
the subject of enunciation into the series of propositions, etc.).

And it is similar to the codification of speech acts in Searle et al.:

we lose a series of paradoxes and borderline questions, from the
paradoxical status of ‘objective certainty’ (which cannot be put
in doubt, although it is not necessarily true) to the splitting of the
subject of speech acts (the radical discontinuity between ‘I’ and
the proper name).

Cf. Alain Badoiu,L’ etre et l’ evenement, Paris, Editions du Seuil,
1988.

G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 1977, p. 10.

Joseph Stalin, Selected Writings, Westport, Greenwood Press,
1942, p. 411.

10

John Forrester, The Seductions of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 189.

11

Jean-Claude Milner, Les noms indistincts, Paris, Editions du Seuil,
1983, p. 16.

G. K. Chesterton, ‘A Defence of Detective Stories’ , in The Art
of the Mystery Story, edited by H. Haycraft, New York, The
Universal Library, 1946, p. 6.

Cf. Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society,
Cambridge, Polity Press, 1986.

12

13

14

Cf. Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our
Time, London, Verso Books, 1990.

15

In Heideggerian terms, we should say that, among the different
spheres of social life, only politics is the place where Truth can
arrive, where a new way a community discloses itself to itself
can be founded.

Cf. Jean-Claude Milner, op. cit.

Notes
Hegel’s Science of Logic, London, George AlIen & Unwin,
1969,p.836.

to maintain the same fundamental relations of production.

Hence follows the ultimate incompatibility of the Hegelian
procedure with the recent ‘post-modernist’ attempts to oppose to
the ‘totalitarian’, ‘monological’, ‘repressive’, ‘universalizing’

Reason the contours of another plural, polycentric, dialogical,
feminine, baroque, etc. Reason (the ‘weak thought’, for example). From the Hegelian perspective, such a move is simply
superfluous: it is already the first (‘monological ‘) Reason which
reveals itself as its own opposite, as soon as we endeavour to
grasp it ‘in itself’, ‘as such’.

16
17

The same as with Hegel where words as such belong to the
domain of abstract Understanding and are therefore incapable of
giving expression to the speculative truth. This truth can emerge
only via particular contingencies of the wordplay (the three
meanings of Aufhebung; zugrundegehen / to fall to ruin / as zu
Grunde gehen / to arrive at one’s ground /; etc.).

9

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