Subjects and Truth

Subjects and Truth

Subject & Truth-- by Creston Davis

What is the precise relationship between the subject and truth? This question is more complex than it may first appear, but let’s start with the basic concepts and build from the simple to the complex. So we begin with the two terms that together inspire our question: subjects and truth.

Subject is a term that comes to us with a long but pretty straightforward history that begins (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in the Old French language around the 12th century. The term then was suget, soget, which comes into its present form “subject” in the 15-17th centuries. The term’s prefix “sub” comes from the Latin meaning “under” or “subordinate.” To be subject is to be subordinate to the power of a ruler. In Medieval times this meant to be under the rule and protection of a monarch or prince. When the nature of political power shifted away from monarchical rule (grounded in a theology called “Divine Right”) and into the form of a modern-nation state (grounded in a purely secular foundation debarred from transcendence) one would think that the very meaning of term “subject” too would shift.

But it is curious to explore why this term’s core nature remains constant while the structure of power that determines the very meaning of the term “subject” changes. In other words, I want to try to explain why something (in this case the “subject”) remains constant while that which defines the term “subject” changes. Again the political power structure shifts from a monarchical form to a secular state structure. In England this happens much sooner than elsewhere in the European mainland. Think of the two big revolutions in political power that happen nearly synonymously within a single historical epoch: The United States’ Revolution 1776 and The French Revolution in 1789. Although each revolution unfolded in terms of its own determinative logic, it can be said that despite their differences the ideas and philosophies that motivated these two great events were similar. Indeed the single philosophical trend responsible for animating the great revolutions was the Enlightenment at the core of which stood the twin stance of:

1- The Sovereignty of the Subject as Absolute
2- The Unchecked Power of Reason as an Ahistorical Universal Truth

And it was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who united these two Enlightenment Axioms into a singular indistinguishable unit that was at the same time a Universal ethical imperative. For all human action, according to Kant had to fold to the universal logic of reason itself under the banner of “duty.” Finally it is the duty of all reasonable persons “subjects” to perform that action which itself conforms to the ahistorical logic of Reason alone irrespective of one’s tradition or metanarrative truth-claims. To state this in its negative form would be to say that anyone who broke the Universal-Ethical-Law by not obeying the demand of duty must thus be irrational and contradictory and therefore not a “subject” at all.

Much of all this is very complicated, but if we take a step-back and look at the transformation from the Monarch to the Nation-State we see that philosophy via the Enlightenment greatly assisted in this transition—which at the same time—registered one of philosophies greatest contradictions—a contradiction embedded in the very name of Enlightenment “logical coherence.” Here then is my thesis:

The movement from the Monarch to the Nation-State did not free the subject from its subornation to political power it simply shifted the power-source itself. In other words—this is the very heart of the logic of equivocation! (saying one thing, but meaning an entirely different thing).

In this precise respect Monarchical rule and the Secular Nation-State simply function in the same way relative to the subject. But just as Monarchical rule has its mythos that grounded its authority in something external to itself (i.e., a theology) so too the Nation-State has its “story” grounded in falsehood. What is this duplicity of the Secular Nation-State form? It is the idea that the Subject is the ground of absolute authority as such—but really it is not the subject who has authority but rather a disembodied Universal Logic called Reason that places its absolute demand onto the human subject to OBEY! In other words, you are free to do as you please so long as you OBEY the demand of Universal Reason! This is the updated version of a theology that tells you to “Love God and do what you please!” And this precise demand to OBEY is the legal logic employed by the Nation-State in order to maintain peace (i.e., to maintain its own power).

Of course the logic of the modern Nation-State is much more controlling than a simple Kantian articulation of a Universal Law of Reason. But it is interesting to trace the logic of power via historic paradigm shifts—shifts that potentially are able to liberate the subject from oppressive power-relations. But in each case philosophy (or theology) is there to send out an equivocal message: You are free! Or Sapere aude! (Dare to know!), so long as you OBEY the superego! Thus, the subject is given a desire to fulfill the law even at the cost of undoing itself!

In this respect—the subject is sundered from truth—form liberation! The question we are left with then is not: Can the Subject be liberated from Obeying…but rather who or what are you going to obey? I would suggest to Obey the demands of an impersonal Universal Law is to surrender any possibility for any future freedom at all. Freedom in this case may be see not in obedience but in the disobedience to the logic of abstract enslavement.


Cryin’ Wolf on that Social Distortion–Hegel’s Negation of Negation by Megan Flocken

My reading finds double negation to be the mechanism by which spirit is actualized. I hope the following will illustrate how the master/slave mentality demands a simple negation; Hegelian immanent transcendence requires a double negation.

Double negation is “the return-to-oneself from alienation” (Zizek, 72). The individual is alienated from self in her divergence with the law through simple negation. For example, I understand running a redlight to be against the law; I run the redlight and acknowledge my act to be against the law…I feel guilty, afraid…I am a criminal. The logic of simple negation is the same as the master/slave: I know the master, I am the slave, I act in independence of the master as I can understand the master to be dependent on me. My freedom is contingent on, in fact rooted in my slavery. Hence, when I act independently I am alienated from my very constitutive substance (as a slave).

The negation of the negation is a freer space. This is a process of dissolution, by which the law is impotized! This is not a master/slave interdependence (a la Badiou’s “occupation”). The master/slave relation is one of simple negation: I acknowledge the law (I am a slave)…I understand the law to be validated in my servitude (I am the foundation of the lord’s subjection over me). Instead, the negation of the negation is the loss of the loss. My act is not a loss, in lack of conformity to the law, but in certainty/faith, in fullness of my embodiment of right. I may break the law, and I do so always with respect to the law. This is self-consciousness (in simple negation). But the revolutionary dissolution of the law is possible with double negation. I run the redlight, I break the law, without acknowledging the power of the law to confine me, i.e., to stop, to feel guilt in my flight. The law is meaningless to me in my absolute right. The law cannot deliver me from the risk of decision…from the abyss of my determining the right.

We find that in place of us positing the presupposition (i.e. observing Reason, which searches for and finds itself), the Spirit is what presupposes the positing (thanks, Zizek, “Sublime Object of Ideology”). In explanation: I create/inform my world while the world creates/informs me. Why and by what logic? I at first understand my action to break the law (simple negation). For example, I am bourgeoisie, yet I do not act as though I am bourgeoisie. I then understand the law to be breaking me (I am the absolute right! I am me without adhering to a universal law of class). In the negation of the negation, the very loss is lost (Zizek, 72). There is no comparative action to the objective universal…The reified substance of law (the master, the slave) empties to the subjectivized virtual substance (Zizek, 76): the spirit is the activity of individuals in their finitude. My practice determines the right. I am not the independent agent/controller of process; instead, WE witness and participate in its unfolding. The negation of the negation is the space in which we, in finite particularity, actualize; in living, we deny the authority of exterior law to encumber us. Not as rebels (i.e. with respect of law, in motive to break the law), the negation of the negation relegates the law to a figment (my action need not consult “the law” because the law has no authority over me). Thus, Spirit exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists, and as subjects neglect to act as though their circular Reason dictates them to act…as lawbreakers.

Spirit is not a reified, magical phantom, like exchange value and commodity. Spirit is the actualization of culture, ethics, and intention. It is a historical incident that defies quantification. It is insensible but always demonstratable. It is because it IS…and it undergirds all action and is the culmination of all action. The Spirit is the “full acceptance of the abyss” (Zizek, 72), and in this way, it is both giving and receiving form. The abyss is anathema to Reason’s hegemonic dissection of the real…which produces a virtuality of the real. The real is virtualized in Reason through elimination of all actual remainder, unintendedness. Ironically, the real is made tangible, intelligible by its mapping in virtual space–conception. This  desert (of the real) finds that only the mirage…the insensible unity and locus of actualization, is capable of keeping one from death…the ultimate alienation from self. Only our unmappable incidents can defy our illusions. And so in revolt of the unmappable, the Spirit is transfigured to be reich, ideology, and process alike. Rightfully as geist, Spirit is the club and the secret passcode…as practice it conditions our consciousness and self-consciousness, and as thought it opens and transforms our practice. It is the contradiction implicit to being, both universal and particular. It embodies and exhibits the substance as subject. As it signals the future and pays homage to our past, it is our return from alienation to what is and it is our springboard to beyond…which is simply our connection to one another.

The William Desmond Reader

The Irish Catholic Philosopher

For some time now I have maintained that the only hope for theology to breakout of it present day deadlock is through Hegel. This theological deadlock can basically be seen in the dominate forms of theology in the 20th Century– that is, liberal and post-liberal theology . In the 60s the emergence of a “Death of God” theology presented some promise that would finally dislodge theology from both its onto-theological grounding as well as its link to the American Empire seen in the trend of Christian ‘Realism.’ This “Death of God” theology was most basically indebted to Hegel’s ontological structure–a structure premised not on a transcendence fully debarred from materialism, but rather on a process of negativity–of risk itself! Thus transcendence for Hegel had to risk its very being for it-self in order for transcendence to fully realize itself in materialism as such–so that transcendence could fully realize its being in-and-for-itself. In short, it is clear that Hegel’s ontological structure of the negative provides theology some tools by which to realize the truth of its own discourse–a movement of risk, of embracement, and above all, of love.

Yet, Hegel’s very structure is not completely innocent. This is why the very engagement with Hegel is crucial for contemporary theology. Not just from the side of Zizek’s recent work (see his piece on Paul for example forthcoming in our book Paul’s New Moment) but from a more catholic side too. This is why any reading of Hegel for the purposes of articulating a theology– or a political subject premised on the negative (such as Althusser and Breton) that breaks free from the dominate ideological structures operating today–must take seriously the most serious and sustained reading of Hegel in our time. This is why it is absolutely crucial to engage with the work of the Irish Catholic philosopher William Desmond. For it is Desmond’s work that calls us to radically re-think Hegel’s project on many different and interactive levels. This is why Christopher Simpson (author of Religion, Metaphysics, and the Postmodern: William Desmond & John D. Caputo) and I are editing The William Desmond Reader, which will feature an interview by Richard Kearney and a fresh piece by Desmond on his positive metaphysics of the BETWEEN–the metaxological. It is Desmond’s extraordinary contribution to thinking LITERALLY through Hegel and out the other side into a positive unfolding that is irreducible to any foundationalism (the ontology of the I=I or the Fichtean varient I= NOT-I) that gives us philosophical and theological possibilities to continue on beyond the prosaic state of theology today.  It is my belief that Hegel is not the same without really reading Desmond.  More radically, this book posits the question: Could it be that Desmond is that which saves Hegel from himself!  And, if so, does not this very possibility change the coordinates of theology (and Continental Philosophy) today?