“Philosophical thinking is thinking of the universal” – Hegel
“All true universality is devoid of a center” – Badiou
In the multicultural world in which we live there is arguably no less relevant a concept than that of Universality! Universality has been subjected to a number of critiques which have supposedly shown it to be a screen which conceals particular interests and forms of exclusion that have led and continue to lead directly to imperialism, death camps and exploitation. Moreover, the direct assertion of universality, and identification with it in principle, is the root cause of suppression of differences not only in relation to other cultures, i.e., imperialism, but also the suppression and exclusion of differences within the culture which proclaims the universal as its principle of action and ordering of the societal relation. Thus the exclusion of the groups that do not fit the notion of the universal, is a priori deducible from the very notion itself. Universality, by its own self-relating movement, and the regime of inclusion and exclusion, is inherently the obstacle which falsely projects itself as the solution to whatever, under a given situation, is presented as a particular problem to be resolved or subsumed under its logic. Moreover, universality is the terrain which generates its own problems and then presents itself as the appropriate solution.
No doubt, these “symptomal” critiques have unmasked and continue to do so in ways that are politically important. There is no question that under the concept of universality one often finds nothing but the basest instincts of domination, condescending racist and sexist attitudes and interests of a particular group or culture aiming to subjugate and exploit the other. The other both as a universal concept and as a particular difference has been effaced from the domain of the intelligible and made into a primitive savage who must be suppressed at any cost.
Does this however mean that every attempt at delimiting the contours of a certain universal should immediately be suspect of being just another attempt at articulating the interests of a certain, usually but not always, white, male dominant group? Is it not, rather, that the very gesture of passing beyond the universal presupposes the very universality that it wants to leave behind? That every attempt to articulate a pure particular position without any reference to some presupposed universal is not only self-defeating as a project but also, in principle, impossible? Universality, in other words, is not a transcultural code that exists beyond, above or beneath these particularities, i.e., the universalization of a particular code or lifeworld, but the very principle which inheres in and animates from within these particularities and pushes them towards a change and development into something other than what they are. Universality, the principle which while not fully concretely present in any societal configuration is, nonetheless, present in the form of antagonism which forever prevents and thwarts a certain totality from achieving self-closure. It is the impossible fullness of society, the self-defeat of the notion of (fully constituted) identity. The very “absence” of the universal signifies and opens the space for the articulation of the very differences that it is supposed to have abolished.
This is (one form of) universality that Žižek speaks of. It is not a universality in the form of the big Other (God or whatever happened to stand in for God – Culture, History, etc) though that is an abstract form of universality (capitalism is universal precisely as abstract), but the universal emerges as the principle of awareness that the present state of affairs, the present concrete universal, is generating conflicts and impasses which it cannot resolve by itself; the universal is that which “unsettles from within the identity of the particular” which, due to its imaginary perception of itself as a self-contained whole, lacks the sufficient potency of providing from within itself the necessary impetus which will push it out of its deadlock and, which, we may add here, has generated itself.
In Roland Emmerich’s film Independence day there is a scene where the US president (played by Bill Pullman) just before the final battle against the aliens addresses the world, mankind, with a message which bizarrely sounds as an imitation of lines taken directly from a book by Žižek or Badiou. Faced with a threat of cosmic proportions, the president declares, “We can’t be consumed by our petty differences any more”. In light of a common threat to humanity as a whole, the differences which divided them along ethnic, religious, gender or cultural lines and, moreover, deepened their civilizational clashes, seemed at least for a brief moment to become utterly insignificant. For a moment the fragile absolute, the universal, shined through the inconsistencies of the ontological constitution of reality rendering irrelevant all the palpable differences and particularities. The message of the film presumably being that construction of differences has value only in relation to the same fundamental deadlock that presents itself in different historical contexts, that returns as the same or, as in the case of the film, in the form of an external alien invasion.
Universality that appears to emerge from the film is one in the form of response to an imminent threat, and the implicit, if not explicit, idea behind it is that the universal as such can only emerge in times of disasters and catastrophes. I believe that a similar line of argumentation is developed in Žižek’s conceptualization of the Universal proper. In Žižek’s language the universal emerges at the point of exception, it is embodied in those who are part of the situation but do not belong to it (the Greek demos, for instance, or the figure of the refugee in the modern world), they are out of joint, as Žižek designates them . The Universal emerges as a response not necessarily to alien invasions but as an individual or social response to antagonisms, traumas, gaps, deadlocks and “impossibilities” which keep the totalities from being total. Žižek maintains, for instance, that we do not think spontaneously, but we are forced to think; that “what provokes us to think is always a traumatic encounter with some external Real which brutally imposes itself on us, shattering our established ways of thinking”.
In his First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Žižek approvingly quotes Susan Buck-Morss’ definition of the universal as that which
emerges at the point of rupture. It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits. And it is in our emphatic identification with this raw, free, and vulnerable state, that we have a chance of understanding what they say. Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences. A Person’s non-identity with the collective allows for subterranean solidarities that have a chance of appealing to universal, moral sentiment, the source of today’s enthusiasm and hope. It is not through culture, but through the threat of culture’s betrayal that consciousness of a common humanity comes to be.
We are effectively within a universal space whenever the universal itself is or provides the standard by which to measure its own performance. It is also in this precise sense that the universal is always singular: the universal provides the space for subtracting oneself from the immediate organic community and identification with cultural or ethnic particularities. One participates in the universal as an individual, bypassing particular determinations (neither Greeks nor Jews).
The Universal which is not one
Žižek gives to the dialectic of the Universal and Particular a number of different, even conflicting, interpretations. It is not always clear what is Universal and Particular and how they relate to each other. My aim in this article is neither to resolve the conceptual ambiguities that burden Žižek’s elaboration of this dialectic nor to offer a critique of the presumed failure of Žižek to provide a coherent and systematic theoretization of this dialectic. I intend to merely represent the various aspects of this dialectic in all their ambiguity and presume that the tension is constitutive of the dialectic itself. After all, as Étienne Balibar argues,
A task for a philosopher (or a philosopher today, at the present moment) with respect to universality is precisely to understand the logic of these contradictions and, in a dialectical way, to investigate their dominant and subordinated aspects, to reveal how they work and how they can be shifted or twisted through the interaction of theory and practice or, if you prefer, discourse and politics.
Here, however, things get more complicated than what we were so far led to believe. For we clearly see that there is not just one universal but, at least, two universals: The first is the standard notion of “neutral universality”, best exemplified by Descartes’ cogito shared by all human beings and, as such, it is indifferent to differences. It is also “the philosophical foundation of the political equality of the sexes” . Its distortions (readings which present it as male, white, bourgeois, etc) are merely contingent historical prejudices of the social reality. They do not affect the substance of the universal cogito principle. In the second form universality is perceived as being empty, as the “battleground on which the multitude of particular contents fight for hegemony” . This second notion of the Universal is borrowed from Ernesto Laclau’s book Emancipation(s). The “hegemonized universal” as the former “neutral universality” is purely formal, constitutively empty, “yet as such always already filled in, that is, hegemonized by some contingent particular content that acts as its stand-in”.
Žižek’s interpretation of universality is in itself not only paradoxical but something of a methodological deadlock. He presents us with too many ways to approach it and in the process the universal itself seems to retreat into conceptual ambiguities only to emerge as such in emancipatory leftist political struggles as a surnumerary element of a certain situation, as that which is addresses itself to all, summons the individual as singular. For Žižek constantly oscillates between the two versions of the (abstract and concrete) universal . As Wendell Kisner has persuasively argued, these versions fail to satisfy Žižek’s own criterion of concrete universality, the only universality that really matter to Žižek, both politically and philosophically.
The Real: Universal or Particular?
It is the notion of a “deadlock”, which I referred to in the preceding paragraphs, that opens the possibility of comprehending in a clearer way what Žižek may be aiming at. The obvious question here is: does the notion of a deadlock stand in for universality itself or is it a particular?
In The Parallax View Žižek explicitly identifies the Universal not with “the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities” but with “the site of an unbearable antagonism, self-contradiction, and (the multitude of) its particular species are ultimately nothing but so many attempt to obfuscate / reconcile / master this antagonism”. In even clearer terms, Žižek identifies the Universal as what “names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem”
Reading this text carefully makes immediately obvious Žižek’s ambiguity. He is actually identifying the Universal not with antagonism, self-contradiction or a deadlock but with the site on which these happen. He slides back into the definition of the universal as “the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities” which he wants to avoid. However, when he exemplifies concretely the notion of the Universal he produces the notion of State as a Universal which names, not a site, but a problem / deadlock, namely, the problem of “how to contain the class antagonism of society. All particular forms of state are so many (failed) attempts to propose a solution to this problem” (p. 35). In every particular formation there is a gap which divides the universal from the particular, that the particular never coincides with its universal notion.
What becomes evident in this passage is not only the ambiguity of whether the Universal names a deadlock or a site, for whatever the relation between the two, they certainly are ontologically different as they belong to two different ontological registers and thus cannot be reduced to one another, but also that the dialectic of the universal and the particular is inherent to the Universal itself, as the split / crack in the Universal: “the difference is not in the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal” (p. 34). The Universal is that which splits into Universal and its Particulars, as (Universal) Form and its (Particular) Content. The dialectical relation between the Universal and the Particular is such that the Particular is always in excess or lack in relation to the Universal, for it always fails to adequately represent the Universal. The failure, moreover, is constitutive. Every full reconciliation between the Universal and the Particular is fantasy which closes the circle and declares the struggle for hegemony, for filling in the empty universal, over. Effectively, we are on the terrain of madness – “a direct harmony between universality and its accidents” – unmediated by habit which ensures that the gap between universal and particular remains open. Here Žižek is fully in agreement with Laclau that the Universal is empty. This warrants Žižek’s Hegelian claim that “true universality and particularity do not exclude each other, but universal truth is accessible only from a partial engaged subjective position”.
In his book The Indivisible Remainder, however, Žižek gives a different interpretation of the dialectical relation between the Universal and the Particular. Here Žižek discusses Lacan’s “formulas of sexuation”: “What the Lacanian “formulas of sexuation” endeavour to formulate, however, is not yet another positive formulation of the sexual difference but the underlying impasse that generates the multitude of positive formulations as so many (failed) attempts to symbolize the traumatic real of the sexual difference. What all epochs have in common is not some universal positive feature, some transhistorical constant; what they all share, rather, is the same deadlock, the same antinomy – in Schelling’s terms, one is tempted to say that this impasse persists and repeats itself in different powers/potentials in different cultures. The notion of the Real qua traumatic antagonism which returns as the same in all successive failed attempts as its symbolization thus leads us to invert the standard formula of the relationship between Universal and Particular (the Universal as the genus which divides itself into particular species): here, it is as if Universal and Particular change places – we have a series of Universals, of universal interpretive matrices, which are all answers to the “absolute particularity” of the traumatic Real, of the imbalance of an antagonism which throws out of joint, and thereby “particularizes”, the neutral-universal frame.
I want to argue that the contradiction in these two accounts is not a real contradiction, in the sense that the assertion of the one negates the other, but only an apparent one. It is a parallactic contradiction which can be seen as such only from different subjective positions. Žižek’s ambiguity is only an ambiguity if we cannot shift our perspective, and see in a singular instance both the universality it embodies and the particularity which sticks out as a remainder. For as it is already clear on the level of textual evidence, the “absolute particular” must be understood here as the third constitutive terms of the triad “Universal”, “Particular” and “Singular” or “Individual”. The Universal although distinct from both the particular and the individual it, nevertheless, encounters itself in, overlaps with, passes over to, the form of its opposite, i.e., the particular: it arises out of particular in the form of “singular universal” or “concrete universal”. Žižek uses the Hegelian category of “antithetical determination” to illustrate how the universal encounters itself as one among the particulars. Marx has provided Žižek with a fitting example of this logic: production. Although part of a series in the structure of economic system (production-distribution-exchange-consumption), it overdetermines the whole of the system, it “encompasses its own genus”. In this case, production embodies the universal structuring principle. More recently, Žižek has used the same conceptual matrix to explain how the ecology is not the answer to the ecological catastrophes. The solution must be located in the productive mode of the capitalist production.
The Criterion of the Universal
One way to approach Žižek’s notion of the Universal is to view it as a response to external provocations exerted on us by our encounter with some trauma or Real which cannot be symbolized except as the limit of symbolization as such. This prompts me to answer Wendell Kisner’s critique that “Žižek’s biggest mistake is to take negativity as foundational rather than as a beginning that will be transformed in the process of its dialectical development”.
It is easy to see where Kisner goes wrong. His mistake is not that he misrepresents Žižek’s thoughts on concrete universality. Rather, his mistake lies in the fact that he misunderstands the criterion itself as implying an absolute coincidence of the universal and particular. This criterion states: “in order for universality to become concrete, it cannot remain aloof or indifferent to its particular content but must include itself among its particulars” (p. 5). This is of course a correct representation of Žižek’s position and can be supported with textual evidence . The mistake rather lies in that it demands from Žižek’s Universality the cancellation of the gap as the minimal difference between the two, relapsing thereby into madness. Once we succumb to this mistake we immediately see the cogency of imputing onto Žižek a notion which is not to be found as constitutive of Žižek’s philosophy, namely that negativity is foundational for Žižek, generating thus all the problems associated with the so-called “conundrum of normativity”. Quite on the contrary, for Žižek, negativity has, to put it tautologically, a negative, not foundational, role, a vanishing mediator whose function is merely to wipe the slate clean so that the concrete universal can emerge in all its alterity.
Kisner’s mistake resides in his unquestionable assumption that there is a universal that can fit its particular and vice-versa without remainder, a universal that is not branded by the sign of its ultimate failure. This criterion thereby instead of shedding light into Žižek’s theoretization of concrete universality, systematically distorts Žižek’s own dialectical understanding of concrete universality. Or, more to the point, Kisner’s mistake is inscribed in the form of illusion of the full coincidence of the two, that it is possible to move in the opposite determination of concrete universality beyond false universality. A king is a king not because of the contingencies of history but because he is a king in himself, a determinate form of universality itself. As Žižek has emphasized in relation to the notion of the State: it is not that it is not possible for a historically existing state to fully fit its notion, to find its absolute exemplification. The problem is that once such a particular State is found, the very universal itself transforms into another particular, namely a religious community. As Žižek elegantly put it, “Universality is always simultaneously necessary and impossible”. It is necessary insofar as it is, like the subject of signifier, always presupposed as the empty place which as such gives body to an individual particular, and impossible in so far as the gap can never be closed. The necessity of the universal and its impossibility are the two conditions which are always found together whenever the universal asserts itself as such in the guise of a singular determination.
As I have already indicated, such a criterion can only be found if we conceptualize it as a response to external or ex-timate (in the sense of objet petit a) factors which provoke from us a response. Thus we can formulate such a criterion of universality in this way: in order for universality to become concrete it must find an individual, a singularity which although part of the chain of the particulars stands out as exception in that it sits uneasily within the configuration of any ordered situation, as an anomalous individual who in its very surnumerary position retains the right to embody the universal which is nothing but the very articulation not of a demand as in Laclau but of a response to what is wrong within an ordered situation.
This has the advantage of proving two very important points: first, universality is never fully universal in an absolute sense. A defining feature of (political) universality is that although its proposition is addressed to all, it does not necessarily imply that all will be interpelated by its call, or recognize themselves as subject of the call. In this sense, universality is also divisive. It always fails with respect to its concretization (Žižek discusses the notion of State, violin concerto, noir film, etc), because no response, no individual can be universal absolutely. Universality is constitutively split from within and this split is what makes it non-all. It is not only that particularity must be split; the universal must reflect the split in the particular. Second, the three versions of universality that Žižek discusses in his Ticklish Subject must be understood as three different responses that are appropriate to different contexts. Neutral universality of Cartesian cogito is not an appropriate response to situations which demand addressing a social or political injustice which results not from Cogito’s abstract universality, but from a previous concrete universality having become obsolete. In that case the proper response is “negation of negation”
The relation of universality to particularity can be conceived in two different ways. In the first approach universality is that which encompasses all differences as its constitutive parts, i.e., it is totality as an ensemble of preordained differences. The second approach, the Platonic approach, conceives the universal as Ideas, permanent and independent substances which exist for themselves beyond our sensible reality. The third approach conceives the universal as that which in itself has no consistent reality, it is in Badiou’s words “anobjective” but comes to be in the struggle of the particular to assert itself as universal. Žižek’s ontological thesis is that the whole does not exist, or more precisely, that it is inconsistent, it never coincides with itself, and it is this inconsistency that provides the space for the emergence of freedom and, consequentially, the different particularities, or differences as such. Differences in the guise of particularities are possible only because the whole is inconsistent or non-all; that it is constitutively barred, in the form of minimal difference or parallax gap that can never be completely sutured.
“All too often, after all the fun of reading him, we are left with the eternal recurrence, not of the same, but of the Real” , is the way Alex Callinicos describes Žižek’s writings. It is a hyperbole, no doubt. Nevertheless, it contains a grain of truth. The truth of it however is not where Callinicos locates it, i.e., the Real, but the same, as another name for universal and eternal ideas. Žižek develops the notion of the universal in various places and each time from a different perspective. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Žižek employs his conceptual repertoire only instrumentally, that is to make a certain point which will serve the objective of any subject under discussion.
I have argued that the notion of universality is foundational to Žižek’s philosophy and his leftist politics. Unless we presuppose such a role Žižek’s philosophy in many instances becomes incoherent and possibly unintelligible. One can therefore see in Žižek’s philosophy and politics (for they go together) a singular universal attempt to come to terms with the traumatic events that have happened during the past century and continue in different forms to this day. When Žižek refers again and again to the notion of universal both in its abstract and concrete modalities, he is trying to outline the very framework of his philosophy. I would thereby go as far as declare that Žižek prior to being a philosopher of the Real is a philosopher of the Universal. In the dialectic of the Real and the Universal it is the Universal that has a foundational priority, while the Real is a mechanism deployed in the service of describing and keeping the Universal from falling back into particular.
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Žižek , Slavoj. “Da Capo senza Fine”, in: Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, (Verso, London, New York, 2000).
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Žižek, Slavoj. “Dialectic Clarity versus the Misty Paradox of Conceit”, in: Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Edited by Creston Davis (The MIT Press, 2009).
Žižek, Slavoj. “Discipline between Two Freedoms – Madness and Habit in German Idealism”, in: Markus Gabriel and Slavoj Žižek, Mythology, Madness, and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism, (Continuum, 2009).
Published in Filosofisk Supplement, 1/2010, Oslo.