The Hegelian Subject: Negativity and the Desire for Desire

This article is part of the following series:

As I mentioned in the last note, the two notions of negativity and linguistic structure provide the basic context for discussing political subjectivity. Sara’s reflection on the notion of negativity was certainly welcome, given that I think that is really what sets Lacan’s work apart from so much of what is on the market as psychoanalytic theory. I would very much like to keep this notion in mind as we examine the question of subjectivity through theorists such as Lacan or Bion, who also seem to share the general feature of being traceable to the Object Relations school.

Before speaking of Lacan, however, I am going to take a look at Hegel, through Kojeve’s version of his formulation of some of the basic notions that we encounter regularly in Lacan’s work, including the formative centrality of negativity in the development of such aspects of the subject as desire and the ego. Here of course is what I referred to earlier as the negative ontology of the subject.

So let us start with reading some excerpts that I have pulled out of Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel. These ware a series of highly influential lectures given through a course on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which Kojeve taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales of Paris, between 1933 and1939. Jacques Lacan was one of the people attending these seminars, along with such other stars as George Bataille, Raymond Queneau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and André Breton, to name only a few.
About a decade later (in 1947) the famous poet, Raymond Queneau, assembled and published the lectures as an important volume titled Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: leçons sur la Phénoménologie de l’Esprit professées de 1933 à 1939 à l’École des Hautes Études, which was a couple of decades later (in 1969) translated into English by James Nichols, and published as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Please note that since I would like to quote a rather wholesome excerpt from Kojeve, and to avoid making this post too long, I will leave the discussion of these ideas and how they work themselves out in Lacan for a next posting. So Kojeve says (btw, the original text is ridden with italicized words, which I have not reproduced here):

For Self-Consciousness, and hence philosophy, to exist, there must be in Man not only positive, passive contemplation which merely reveals being, but also negating Desire, and hence Action that transforms the given being. The human I must be an I of Desire –that is, an active I, a negating I, an I that transforms Being and creates a new being by destroying the given being. Now, what is the I of Desire –the I of a hungry man, for example—but an emptiness greedy for content; an emptiness that wants to be filled by what is full, to be filled by emptying this fullness, to put itself –once it is filled—in the place of this fullness to occupy with its fullness the emptiness caused by overcoming the fullness that was not its own? . . . Man [is], in the very foundation of his being not only passive and positive contemplation, but also active and negating Desire. Now, if he is to be so, he cannot be a Being that is, that is eternally identical to itself, that is self-sufficient. Man must be an emptiness, a nothingness, which is not a pure nothingness (reines Nichts), but something that is to the extent that it annihilates Being, in order to realize itself at the expense of Being and to nihilate in being. Man is negating Action, which transforms given Being and, by transforming it, transforms itself. . . . The Animal attains only Selbst-gefühl, Sentiment of self, but not Selbst-bewusstsein, Self-Consciousness –that is, it cannot speak of itself, it cannot say “I…” And this is so because the Animal does not really transcend itself as given i.e. as body. It does not rise above itself in order to come back toward itself; it has no distance with respect to itself in order to contemplate itself. For Self-Consciousness to exist, for philosophy to exist, there must be transcendence of self with respect to self as given. And this is possible, according to Hegel, only if Desire is directed not toward a given being, but toward a nonbeing. To desire Being is to fill oneself with this given Being, to enslave oneself to it.. To desire non-Being is to liberate oneself from Being, to realized one’s autonomy, one’s Freedom. To be anthropogenetic, then, Desire must be directed toward a nonbeing –that is, toward another Desire, another greedy emptiness, another I . . . In other words, action that is destined to satisfy an animal Desire, which is directd toward a given, existing thing, never succeeds in realizing a human self-conscious I. Desire is human, or more exactly, “huamanizing,” “anthropogenetic,” only provided that it is directed toward another Desire and an other Desire.

This short excerpt already establishes a number of important and basic elements of the Lacanian/Hegelian subject which I will come back to again and again, specifically insofar as the elements of negativity and the significance of the ‘desire of the other’ are concerned. But I would like to add just another bit from Kojeve before I stop, which I find also quite elemental in establishing additional features of the ‘political’ and the significance of power in the establishment of the social as such. He says:

To be human, man must act not for the sake of subjugating a thing, but for the sake of subjugating another Desire (for the thing). The man who desires a thing humanly acts not so much to possess the thing, as to make another recognize his right to that thing, to make another recognize him as the owner of the thing. And he does this –in the final analysis—in order to make the other recognize his superiority over the other. It is only Desire of such a Recognition, it is only Action that flows from such a Desire, that creates, realizes, and reveals a human, nonbiological I. Therefore, the phenomenology must accept a third irreducible premise: the existence of several Desires that can desire one another mutually, each of which wants to negate, to assimilate, to make its own, to subjugate, the other Desire as Desire. This multiplicity of Desires is just as “undeducible” as the fact of Desire itself. By accepting it, one can already foresee, or understand what human existence will be.

Let me stop here and give you a chance to read this before coming back to discussing it and considering its relevance, to Lacan on the one hand and to political subjectivity as such on the other. Meanwhile I would be very happy to learn your thoughts and reactions on any aspects of these excerpts (I can see how some parts at least could be controversial or discomforting to some) or the themes in question.

Till next time.

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9 replies on “The Hegelian Subject: Negativity and the Desire for Desire”

Even though both thinkers describe this system of Desire as central to being human, I can't help but envision planetary dynamics: mass & mutual gravity, mutually repelling magnetic polarity, moons & orbits, vacuum & space… impersonal.

But that's probably just me. I look forward to the next installment.

Thanks for the comment, Sarah. Would you mind elaborating more about the point you’ve made?

Hm, I’ll try. The focus is on that defined as only-human: the self-conscious types of desire, desire in relation to the Other(ex. subsuming, transforming, abstaining, negating, examining the relation between the Desire and the I). But I have trouble seeing any people in these descriptions – more like formulas of movement and hierarchy between generic entities.

Or, perhaps it is the suggestion of mind vs. body dichotomy that bothers me. The thought-entities described do not strike me as truly human, and so the breakdown of relationships between them seem to be lacking full substance. So far, that is – of course it’s based only on a reading of selections, and I can’t claim to know all of the other relevant writings.

Thanks for the clarification, Sara. I am not sure the dichotomy that you are referring to actually exists here, in fact I think it does not exist either in Hegel, Kojeve or Lacan. But as you also said, both the excerpts we are dealing with here and what I have written so far are perhaps too brief to provide sufficient grounds for defending or rejecting that idea. Let’s keep that issue in mind as we go further with the discussion, and I would be grateful if you point it out whenever it surfaces, directly or implicitly, in our content. Thanks much.

Hey, I just stumbled across Somatosphere while doing a bit of research on Lacan and I wanted to say I found both posts on "Lack" very interesting. I would love to see questions/ideas hashed out even further in the not so distant future.

Dear Sadeq,

I’ve been reading your posts on political subjectivity with great interest.

The line of thinking in this particular post with its emphasis on emptiness has parallels in Buddhism as many authors have noted throughout the years–with differences, of course.

In the previous post, you posted a photo of Laclau but didn’t address any of his ideas.

Also, where is Foucault in all of this? Any discussion of political subjectivity should address the work of Foucault on power/knowledge, no?

Not mentioning works from feminism, postcolonial studies, etc.

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