Sketching Universality

17May07

/1/ – Blood for the Enlightened

Cormac McCarthy’s excellent, ultra-violent novel Blood Merdian or the Evening Redness in the West is rife with stunning moments, beautiful description, questionable characters. The novel focuses on a scalping party who carelessly murder all that stands in their way for pleasure or profit. Easily the most startling character is that of the Judge who was based on an actual historical figure. In one scene the Judge is taking detailed sketches of various artifacts that he has come across in the American West of the 1800s and elsewhere when:


A Great American novel

“A Tennessean named Webster had been watching him and he asked the judge what he aimed to do with those notes and sketches and the judge smiled and said that it was his intention to expunge them from the memory of man” (Blood Meridian, p. 140).

There’s a kind of Enlightenment obscenity here. What is most disturbing about the Judge is not so much that he is an intelligent, graceful man who also happens to be violent, but that his more ‘enlightened’ behaviors seem to stem from that very violence.

[Taking this to an extreme example we could see the Borg of Star Trek (who attempt to take all that is useful from the entire universe by corrupting/absorbing it and then destroying everything else) as a kind of surplus of this thinking. There is also the comical example of the Brainspawn's Infosphere from the soon-to-be resurrected show Futurama in which they try to gain information on everything in the universe and then try to blow it up so no new information will appear.]


Enlightenment Excess!

/2/ – (wet)Concrete Universal

Žižek argues that Hegel’s concept of the “concrete universal” is in a sense an always becoming-universal. In the opening pages of The Parallax View Žižek talks about the importance of ‘minimal difference’ – the difference of the thing from itself.

“The fundamental lesson of Hegel is that the key ontological problem is not that of reality but that of appearance: not “Are we condemned to the interminable play of appearances, or can we penetrate through their veil to the underlying true reality?”, but: “How could – in the middle of the flat, stupid, reality which just is there – something like appearance emerge?” (The Parallax View, p. 29).

The Lacanian/Hegelian junction, as Žižek sees it, has to do with the fact that appearance is more ‘real’ then reality. How? For Lacan both objects and subjects are inherently lacking and there is no such thing as identity but only identifications. These identifications are always failed not necessarily because the process cannot grasp the thing, become the ‘actual thing’ entirely, but because the thing is incomplete. In other words identity is always-already failed. (This is discussed aptly in Yannis Stavrakakis’ text Lacan & the Political).

The Judge’s violent anthropology (is there a non-violent kind?) could be viewed as the stupid vulgar Enlightenment violence, categorical imperative kind of thinking where his force of will destroys everything in its path. This would line up fairly well with the concept of Manifest Destiny in the book:

“The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

I dont see what that has to do with catchin birds.

The freedom of birds is an insult to me.” (Blood Merdian, p. 199).


Make her manifest boys!

But this asserts the more common view of of the categorical imperative, that the ethical is simply what decides – ‘ethical narcissism’ as Levinas said but things are not that simple. It is important to note the small difference that operates between an act of ‘radical evil’ and an ‘ostensibly’ angelic act – or what Žižek and Baidou have (supposedly in private conversation) referred to as the ‘good terror.’

/3/ – Oh, wont you be my Scapegoat?

In “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” Zizek discusses how a work by Bertolt Brecht exemplifies this kind of radical attitude:

“Herr K. was asked: ‘What do you do when you love another man? ‘I make myself a sketch of him,’ said Herr K., ‘and I take care about the likeness.’ ‘Of the sketch?’ ‘No,’ said Herr K., ‘of the man.'” (The Neighbor, p. 134).

Here we come dangerously close to the Judge’s genocidal acts, at least in the formal sense. This is not, however, quite as brutal as it seems in that the alternative is that of a feigned tolerance that only masks ressentiment and scapegoating. This is the kind of demented error that both Freud and Lacan saw in the Christian concept of the neighbor. The key being that the phrase ‘as thyself’ is not being so much a decree calling for equal treatment but one that implicitly reveals the truth of the concept of the neighbor.


The non-place of place

The phrase includes a kind of sameness as a prerequisite in that tolerance becomes not about working around antagonism or tarrying with it but by either ignoring it or by obliterating it completely. The tension between obliterating/ignoring seems to be the fantasmatic construction of most racial stereotypes, which are inherently non-nonsensical: think of the common stereotypes about Mexicans – ‘they are lazy’ but at the same time ‘they’re stealing all our jobs!’

/4/ – Exception/Existence

This is why Žižek argues that Hegel’s ‘concrete universality’ comes so close to the Lacanian Not-all. The universal is defined by that which fits exactly with it or that which is excluded, that which is the exception to the rule of the universal. How does this work? As I’ve already mentioned because of constitutive lack of subjects/objects so nothing is completely itself – we could say the very concept of being is mythical. This is why Žižek states his affinity with quantum physics in that the universe is seen to be a void but a positively charged one, where things emerge out of nothing.

At the same time that which acts as a kind of exception proves the very system which it is an exception to. For instance, one knows that democracy has failed when it cannot account for those who fall outside its boundaries (illegal workers for instance). The non-existent existing, those who exist but in the case of the State for instance do not, should not be the limit of the particular universal (in this example democracy) but should broaden its materialized effect.

As Alenka Zupancic writes: “what is at stake is not simply the universal value of a statement (of its content), but the universalizability of the place of enunciation itself. In this case, the place of enunciation does not undermine the universality of the statement, but becomes its very internal gap, that which alone generates the only (possible) universality of the statement” (Lacan: The Silent Partners, p. 196-197).

Put another way, the particular of the concrete (or particular) universal here does not matter because the universal is only concrete as it is, at the same time, particular – in a word – the concrete universal is only concrete by ‘speaking through’ a specific thing. Now, this specificity does not cancel out the universality of the universal but opens up a space such that the universal is limited by its own expression. This limit is also is in fact the very possiblity of the universal in the first place, much like the subject itself which is sundered by the symbolic by at the same time made functional by it.

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2 Responses to “Sketching Universality”


  1. 1 Skeletal Ontologies « Naught Thought
  2. 2 Bosquejando la Universalidad: Hegel y Cormac McCarthy « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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