Cogito in the History of Madness’ by Slavoj Žižek

Levinas’s early critique of Hegel and Heidegger in his Totality and Infinity is a model of the anti-philosophical procedure: for Levinas, the infinity of relating to the divine Other is the excess which breaks out of the circle of philosophical totality. It is crucial to note here that Derrida is not an antiphilosopher―on the contrary, Derrida at his best (say, in his detailed “deconstructive” readings of Levinas, Foucault, Bataille, etc.) convincingly demonstrates how, in their effort to break out of the closed circle of philosophy, to assert a point of reference outside the horizon of philosophy (infinity versus totality in Levinas, madness versus cogito in the early Foucault, sovereignty versus Hegelian domination in Bataille), they remain within the field they try to leave behind. No wonder, then, that Foucault reacted so violently to Derrida’s critical analysis of his History of Madness, accusing Derrida of remaining within the confines of philosophy: yes, Derrida does, but therein lies his strength with regard to those who pretend all too easily to have reached a domain beyond philosophy. What Derrida does is not only “deconstruct” philosophy, demonstrating its dependence on an external Other; even more so, he “deconstructs” the attempt to locate a sphere outside philosophy, demonstrating how all anti-philosophical efforts to determine this Other remain indebted to a frame of philosophical categories.

Cogito, madness, and religion are interlinked in Descartes (see his thought experiment with the malin génie) as well as in Kant (his notion of the transcendental subject emerged from the critique of Swedenborg, whose religious dreams stand for madness). Simultaneously, the cogito emerges through a differentiation from (or a reference to) madness, and the cogito itself (the idea of the cogito as the point of absolute certainty, “subjective idealism”) is perceived (not only) by common sense as the very epitome of the madness of philosophy, of its crazy paranoid system-building (cf. the “philosopher as madman” motif in the late Wittgenstein). Simultaneously, religion (direct faith) is evoked as a form of madness (Swedenborg for Kant, or religion generally for Enlightenment rationalists, up to Dawkins today), and religion (God) enters as the solution to (solipsistic) madness (Descartes).

This triangle of cogito, religion, and madness is the focus of the polemic between Foucault and Derrida, in which they both share the key underlying premise: that the cogito is inherently related to madness. The difference is that, for Foucault, the cogito is grounded in the exclusion of madness, while, for Derrida, the cogito itself can only emerge through a “mad” hyperbole (universalized doubt), and remains marked by this excess: before it stabilizes itself as res cogitans, the self-transparent thinking substance, the cogito explodes as a crazy punctual excess.

Foucault’s starting point is a fundamental change in the status of madness which took place in the passage from the Renaissance to the classical Age of Reason (the beginning of the seventeenth century). During the Renaissance (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Erasmus, etc.), madness was a specific phenomenon of the human spirit which belonged to the series of prophets, possessed visionaries, saints, clowns, those obsessed by demons, and so on. It was a meaningful phenomenon with a truth of its own: even if madmen were vilified, they were treated with awe, as if messengers of a sacred horror. With Descartes, however, madness is excluded; in all its varieties, it comes to occupy a position that was formerly the preserve of leprosy. It is no longer a phenomenon to be interpreted, its meaning searched for, but a simple illness to be treated under the well-regulated laws of a medicine or a science that is already sure of itself, sure that it cannot be mad. This change concerns not only theory, but social practice itself: from the Classical Age on, madmen were interned, imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals, deprived of the full dignity of a human being, studied and controlled like a natural phenomenon.

In his Histoire de la folie, Foucault dedicated three or four pages to the passage in the Meditations in which Descartes arrives at cogito ergo sum. Searching for the absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, Descartes analyses the main forms of delusion: delusions of the senses and sense perception, the illusions of madness, dreams. He ends with the most radical delusion imaginable, the hypothesis that everything that we experience is not true, but a universal dream, an illusion staged by an evil genius (malin génie). From here, he arrives at the certainty of the cogito (I think): even if I can doubt everything, even if all I see is an illusion, I cannot doubt that I think all this, so the cogito is the absolutely certain starting point for philosophy. Foucault’s objection here is that Descartes does not really confront madness, but rather avoids thinking it: he excludes madness from the domain of reason. In the Classical Age, Reason is thus based on the exclusion of madness: the very existence of the category “madness” is historically determined, along with its opposite “reason”; that is, it is determined through power relations. Madness in the modern sense is not directly a phenomenon we can observe, but a discursive construct which emerges at a certain historical moment, together with its double, Reason in the modern sense.

In his reading of Histoire de la folie, Derrida focused on these four pages on Descartes which, for him, provided the key to the entire book. Through a detailed analysis, he tries to demonstrate that, far from excluding madness, Descartes pushes it to an extreme: universal doubt, where I suspect that the entire world is an illusion, is the greatest madness imaginable. Out of this universal doubt the cogito emerges: even if everything is an illusion, I can still be sure that I think. Madness is thus not excluded by the cogito: it is not that the cogito is not mad, but the cogito is true even if I am totally mad. Extreme doubt, the hypothesis of universal madness, is not external to philosophy, but strictly internal to it, a hyperbolic moment, the moment of madness, which grounds philosophy. Of course, Descartes later “domesticates” this radical excess with his image of man as a thinking substance, dominated by reason; he constructs a philosophy which is clearly historically conditioned. But the excess, the hyperbole of universal madness, is not itself historical; it is the excessive moment which grounds philosophy in all its historical forms. Madness is thus not excluded by philosophy: it is internal to it. Of course, every philosophy tries to control this excess, to repress it―but in repressing it, it represses its own innermost foundation: “Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness.”

In his reply, Foucault first tries to prove, through a detailed reading of Descartes, that the madness he evokes does not have the same status as sensory illusions and dreams. When I suffer sensory illusions of perception or when I dream, I remain normal and rational, I only deceive myself with regard to what I see. In madness, on the contrary, I myself am no longer normal, I lose my reason. So madness has to be excluded if I am to be a rational subject. Derrida’s refusal to exclude madness from philosophy bears witness to the fact that he remains a philosopher who is unable to think the Outside of philosophy, who is unable to think how philosophy itself is determined by something that escapes it. Apropos the hypothesis of universal doubt and the Evil Genius, we are not dealing with true madness, but with the rational subject who feigns to be mad, who makes a rational experiment, never losing his control over it.

Finally, on the very last page of his reply, Foucault tries to identify the true difference between himself and Derrida. He attacks (without naming it) the practice of deconstruction and textual analysis, for which “there is nothing outside the text,” so that we are caught in an endless process of interpretation. Foucault, on the contrary, does not practice textual analysis, but analyses discourses, “dispositifs,” formations in which texts and statements are interlinked with extra-textual mechanisms of power and control. What we need is not deeper textual analyses, but analyses of the way discursive practices are combined with practices of power and domination. But does this rejection of Derrida hold? Let us go through the debate once again, this time taking Derrida as the starting point. As Derrida made clear in his essay on Foucault’s Histoire de la folie, madness is inscribed in the history of cogito at two levels. First, throughout the entire philosophy of subjectivity from Descartes through Kant, Schelling, and Hegel, up to Nietzsche and Husserl, the cogito is related to its shadowy double, the pharmakon, which is madness. Second, madness is inscribed into the very (pre)history of the cogito itself, as part of its transcendental genesis:

the Cogito escapes madness only because at its own moment, under its own authority, it is valid even if I am mad, even if my thoughts are completely mad … Descartes never interns madness, neither at the stage of natural doubt nor at the stage of metaphysical doubt … Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum … even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think.
Derrida leaves us in no doubt that, “as soon as Descartes has reached this extremity, he seeks to reassure himself, to certify the Cogito through God, to identify the act of the Cogito with a reasonable reason.” This withdrawal sets in “from the moment when he pulls himself out of madness by determining natural light through a series of principles and axioms.” The term “light” is here crucial in measuring Descartes’s distance from German Idealism, in which, precisely, the core of the subject is no longer light, but the abyss of darkness, the “Night of the World.” This, then, is Derrida’s fundamental interpretive gesture: one of

separating, within the Cogito, on the one hand, hyperbole (which I maintain cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality), and, on the other hand, that in Descartes’s philosophy (or in the philosophy supporting the Augustinian Cogito or the Husserlian Cogito as well) which belongs to a factual historical structure.
Here, when Derrida asserts that “the historicity proper to philosophy is located and constituted in the transition, the dialogue between hyperbole and the finite structure, … in the difference between history and historicity,” he perhaps falls too short. This tension may appear very “Lacanian”: is it not a version of the tension between the Real―the hyperbolic excess―and its (ultimately always failed) symbolization? The matrix we thus arrive at is that of an eternal oscillation between the two extremes, the radical expenditure, hyperbole, excess, and its later domestication (as in Kristeva, the oscillation between Semiotic and Symbolic). Both extremes are illusionary: pure excess as well as pure finite order would disintegrate, cancel themselves out. Such an approach misses the true point of “madness,” which is not the pure excess of the “night of the world,” but the madness of the passage to the symbolic itself, of imposing a symbolic order onto the chaos of the Real. If madness is constitutive, then every system of meaning is minimally paranoid, “mad.” Recall again Brecht’s slogan “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?”―therein resides the lesson of David Lynch’s Straight Story: what is the ridiculously pathetic perversity of figures like Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart or Frank in Blue Velvet compared to deciding to cross the US central plane on a lawnmower to visit a dying relative? Measured against this act, Frank’s and Bobby’s outbreaks of rage are but the impotent theatrics of old and sedate conservatives. In the same way, we should say: what is the mere madness caused by the loss of reason compared to the madness of reason itself?

This step is the properly “Hegelian” one―which is why Hegel, the philosopher who made the most radical attempt to think the abyss of madness at the core of subjectivity, is also the philosopher who brought to its “mad” climax the philosophical System as the totality of meaning. This is why, for very good reasons, from the common-sense perspective “Hegel” stands for the moment at which philosophy goes “mad,” explodes in a “crazy” pretense to “Absolute Knowledge.”

It is thus not enough simply to oppose “madness” and symbolization: there is, in the history of philosophy itself (of philosophical “systems”), a privileged point at which the hyperbole, philosophy’s ex-timate core, directly inscribes itself into it, and this is the moment of the cogito, of transcendental philosophy. “Madness” is here “tamed” in a different way, through a “transcendental” horizon which does not cancel it in an all-encompassing world-view, but maintains it.

“In the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: … the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorizing a relation only through the abstract universality of disease.” However, what about psychoanalysis? Is not psychoanalysis precisely the point at which the “man of reason” re-establishes his dialogue with madness, rediscovering the dimension of truth in it―not the same truth as before, in the premodern universe, but a different, properly scientific, one? Foucault himself dealt with this in his later History of Sexuality, where psychoanalysis is conceived as the culmination of “sex-as-the-ultimate-truth” logic of confession.

In spite of the finesse of Foucault’s reply, he ultimately falls into the trap of an historicism which cannot account for its own position of enunciation; this impossibility is redoubled in Foucault’s characterization of his “object,” madness, which oscillates between two extremes. On the one hand, his strategic aim is to make madness itself talk, as it is in itself, outside of the (scientific, etc.) discourse on it: “it is definitely not a question of a history of ideas, but of the rudimentary movements of an experience. A history not of psychiatry, but of madness itself, in its vivacity, before knowledge has even begun to close in on it.” On the other hand, the (later) model deployed in his Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality compels him to posit the absolute immanence of the (excessive, transgressive, resisting …) object to its manipulation by the dispositif of power-knowledge: in the same way that “the carceral network does not cast the inassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside”; in the same way that the “liberated” man is himself generated by the dispositif that controls and regulates him; in the same way that “sex” as the inassimilable excess is itself generated by the discourses and practices that try to control and regulate it; madness is also generated by the very discourse that excludes, objectivizes, and studies it, there is no “pure” madness outside it. As Boyne puts it, Foucault here “effectively acknowledg[es] the correctness of Derrida’s formulation,” that is, of il n’y a pas de hors-texte, providing his own version of it. When Foucault writes that “Perhaps one day [transgression] will seem as decisive for our culture, as much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier time for dialectical thought,” does he not thereby miss the point, which is that this day has already arrived, that permanent transgression already is a key feature of late capitalism? And this is why his concluding objection to Derrida’s il n’y a pas de hors-texte seems to miss the mark, when he characterizes it in terms of a

reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; elision of the events which are produced in these practices, so that all that remains of them are marks for a reading; inventions of voices behind the texts, so that we do not have to analyze the modes of the implication of the subject in the discourses; the assignation of the originary as [what is] said and not-said in the text, so that we do not have to locate discursive practices in the field of transformations in which they effectuate themselves.
No wonder that some Marxists took Foucault’s side here, conceiving his polemic with Derrida as the latest chapter in the eternal struggle between materialism and idealism: Foucault’s materialist analysis of discursive practices versus Derrida’s endless self-reflexive textual games. A further point in favor of Foucault seems to be that he remains a radical historicist, reproaching Derrida for his inability to think the exteriority of philosophy. This is how he sums up the stakes of their debate:

could there be something prior or external to the philosophical discourse? Can the condition of this discourse be an exclusion, a refusal, an avoided risk, and, why not, a fear? A suspicion rejected passionately by Derrida. Pudenda origo, said Nietzsche with regard to religious people and their religion.
However, Derrida is much closer to thinking this externality than Foucault, for whom exteriority involves a simple historicist reduction which cannot account for itself (when Foucault was asked from what position he was speaking, he employed the cheap rhetorical trick of claiming that this was a “police” question, “who are you to say that”―but he combined this reply with the opposite claim that genealogical history is an “ontology of the present”). It is easy to submit philosophy to such a historicist reduction (philosophers can easily dismiss such external reduction as relying on a confusion between genesis and value); it is much more difficult to think its inherent excess, its ex-timate core. These, then, are the true stakes of the debate: ex-timacy or direct externality?

This dark core of madness at the heart of the cogito can also be determined in a more genetic way. Daniel Dennett draws a convincing and insightful parallel between an animal’s physical environment and the human environment, including not only human artifacts (clothes, houses, tools) but also the “virtual” environment of the discursive web: “Stripped of [the ‘web of discourses’], an individual human being is as incomplete as a bird without feathers, a turtle without its shell.” A naked man is the same nonsense as a shaved ape: without language (and tools and …), man is a crippled animal―it is this lack which is supplemented by symbolic institutions and tools, so that the point made obvious today in popular culture figures like Robocop (man as simultaneously super-animal and crippled) holds from the very beginning. How do we pass from the “natural” to the “symbolic” environment? This passage is not direct, one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither Nature nor Culture―this in-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on homo sapiens, enabling him to form his supplementary virtual symbolic environment, but precisely something which, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos―the Freudian name for this in-between is, of course, the death drive.

Perhaps, even more than Descartes, the philosopher who stands for one extreme of “madness” is Nicolas Malebranche, with his “occasionalism.” Malebranche, a disciple of Descartes, drops the latter’s ridiculous reference to the pineal gland as the point of contact between material and spiritual substance, body and soul; but how, then, are we to explain their coordination, if there is no contact between the two, no point at which a soul can act causally on a body or vice versa? Since the two causal networks (that of ideas in my mind and that of bodily interconnections) are totally independent, the only solution is that a third, true Substance (God) continuously coordinates and mediates between the two, thereby maintaining the semblance of continuity: when I think about raising my hand and my hand then rises, my thought causes the raising of my hand not directly but only “occasionally”―upon noticing my thought directed at raising my hand, God sets in motion the other, material, causal chain which leads to my hand actually being raised.

If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the proximity of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemic against Aristotle in “Television,” the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two. Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrariness of the signifier,” for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks, so that, when my body bites into an apple, my soul experiences a pleasurable sensation. This same gap was targeted by the ancient Aztec priests who organized human sacrifices to ensure that the sun would rise again: the human sacrifice was an appeal to God to sustain the coordination between the two series, bodily necessity and the concatenation of symbolic events. “Irrational” as the Aztec priest’s sacrifice may appear, its underlying premise is far more insightful than our commonplace intuition according to which the coordination between body and soul is direct, i.e., that it is “natural” for me to have a pleasurable sensation when I bite into an apple since this sensation is caused directly by the apple: what gets lost is the intermediary role of the big Other in guaranteeing the coordination between reality and our mental experience of it. And is it not the same with our immersion in Virtual Reality? When I raise my hand in order to push an object in virtual space, this object effectively moves―my illusion, of course, is that it was the movement of my hand which directly caused the relocation of the object, for in my immersion, I overlook the intricate mechanisms of computerized coordination, homologous to the role of God guaranteeing the coordination between the two series in occasionalism.

It is a well-known fact that the “close the door” button in most elevators is a totally non-functioning placebo, placed there just to give us the impression that we can somehow speed things up―when we push the close button, the door closes in exactly the same amount of time as it would had we only pressed the floor button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor for the participation of individuals in our “postmodern” political process. And it represents occasionalism at its purest: from Malebranche’s perspective, we are effectively pressing such buttons all the time, and it is God’s incessant activity that coordinates between our action and the event that follows, while we think the event results from our action.

For this reason, it is crucial to keep open the radical ambiguity involved in how cyberspace will affect our lives: it does not depend on technology as such but on the mode of its social inscription. Immersion in cyberspace can intensify our bodily experience (a new sensuality, a new body with more organs, new sexes …), but it also opens up the possibility for someone manipulating the cyberspace machinery to literally steal our own (virtual) body, depriving us of control over it, so that one no longer relates to one’s body as to “one’s own.” What we encounter here is the constitutive ambiguity of the notion of mediatization. Originally this referred to the gesture by means of which a subject was stripped of its direct, immediate right to make decisions; the great master of political mediatization was Napoleon, who left to the monarchs he conquered the appearance of power, while they were effectively no longer in a position to exercise it. At a more general level, one could say that just such a “mediatization” of the monarch defines constitutional monarchy: in it, the monarch is reduced to the point of a purely formal symbolic gesture of “dotting the i’s,” of signing and thereby conferring performative force on the edicts whose content has been determined by the elected governing body. And, mutatis mutandis, does not the same hold also for the progressive digitalization of our everyday lives, in the course of which the subject is also more and more “mediatized,” imperceptibly stripped of his power, all the while under the false impression that it is being increased? When our body is mediatized (caught in the network of electronic media), it is simultaneously exposed to the threat of a radical “proletarianization”: the subject is potentially reduced to the pure $, since even my own personal experience can be stolen, manipulated, regulated by the mechanical Other.

One can see, again, how the prospect of radical virtualization bestows on the computer a position strictly homologous to that of God in Malebranchean occasionalism: since the computer coordinates the relationship between my mind and (what I experience as) the movement of my limbs (in virtual reality), one can easily imagine a computer which runs amok and starts to act like an Evil God, disturbing that coordination―when the mental signal to raise my hand is suspended or even counteracted in (the virtual) reality, the most fundamental experience of the body as “mine” is undermined. It thus seems that cyberspace effectively realizes the paranoid fantasy elaborated by Schreber, the German judge whose memoirs were analyzed by Freud: the “wired universe” is psychotic insofar as it seems to materialize Schreber’s hallucination of the divine rays through which God directly controls the human mind. In other words, does not the externalization of the big Other in the computer account for the inherent paranoiac dimension of the wired universe? Or, to put it another way: the commonplace is that the ability to upload consciousness into a computer finally frees people from their bodies―but it also frees the machines from “their” people … Which brings us to the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy: much more than Berkeley’s God who sustains the world in his mind, the ultimate Matrix is Malebranche’s occasionalist God.

What, then, is the Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject does not speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for the agency thanks to which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, thanks to which the final outcome of his activity is always something other than what he aimed at or anticipated. However, it is crucial to note that, in the key chapters of his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan struggles to delineate the operation that follows alienation and is in a sense its counterpoint, that of separation: alienation in the big Other is followed by the separation from the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, “barred,” deprived of the Thing―and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject, that is, to (re)constitute the consistency of the big Other.

Following the same paranoid twist, the thesis of The Matrix is that this big Other is externalized in the really existing Mega-Computer. There is―there has to be―a Matrix because “things are not right, opportunities have been missed, something goes wrong all the time,” in other words, the film’s idea is that it is so because the Matrix obfuscates the “true” reality behind it all. The problem with the film is that it is not “crazy” enough, because it supposes another “real” reality behind our everyday reality sustained by the Matrix. One is tempted to claim, in Kantian fashion, that the mistake of conspiracy theory is homologous to the “paralogism of pure reason,” to the confusion between the two levels: suspicion (of received scientific, social, etc., opinion) as the formal methodological stance, and the positivization of this suspicion in another global all-explanatory para-theory.

The excess of madness at the heart of the cogito is thus closely linked to the topic of freedom. The “antagonism” of the Kantian notion of freedom (as the most concise expression of the antagonism of freedom in bourgeois life itself) does not lie where Adorno locates it (the self-imposed law means that freedom coincides with self-enslavement and self-domination, that Kantian “spontaneity” is in actuality its opposite, utter self-control, the thwarting of all spontaneous impetuses), but is, as Robert Pippin put it, “much more on the surface.” For Kant as for Rousseau, the greatest moral good is to lead a fully autonomous life as a free rational agent, and the worst evil is subjection to the will of another; however, Kant has to concede that man does not emerge as a free mature rational agent spontaneously, through his natural development, but only through an arduous process of maturation sustained by harsh discipline and education which cannot but be experienced by the subject as an external coercion:

Social institutions both to nourish and to develop such independence are necessary and are consistent with, do not thwart, its realization, but with freedom understood as an individual’s causal agency this will always look like an external necessity that we have good reasons to try to avoid. This creates the problem of a form of dependence that can be considered constitutive of independence and that cannot be understood as a mere compromise with the particular will of another or as a separate, marginal topic of Kant’s dotage. This is, in effect, the antinomy contained within the bourgeois notions of individuality, individual responsibility …

Here one can indeed imagine Kant as an unexpected precursor of Foucault’s thesis, in his Discipline and Punish, on the formation of the free individual through a complex set of disciplinary micro-practices―and, as Pippin does not hesitate to point out, this antinomy explodes even more intensely in Kant’s socio-historical reflections, focused on the notion of “unsocial sociability”: what is Kant’s notion of the historical relation between democracy and monarchy if not this same thesis (of the link between freedom and submission to a higher authority) applied to the historical process itself? In the long term (or in its notion), democracy is the only appropriate form of government; however, because of the immaturity of the people, the conditions for a functioning democracy can only be established through a non-democratic monarchy which, in the exertion of its benevolent power, brings the people to political maturity. And, as to be expected, Kant does not fail to mention the Mandevillean rationality of the market in which each individual’s pursuit of his or her egotistic interests is what works best (much better than direct altruism) for the common good. At its most extreme, this leads Kant to the notion that human history itself is governed by an inscrutable divine plan, within which we mortals are destined to play a role unbeknownst to us―here, the paradox grows even stronger: our freedom is linked to its opposite not only “from below” but also “from above”; that is, not only can it arise only through our submission and dependence, but our freedom as such is a moment in a larger divine plan―our freedom is not truly an aim-in-itself, but serves a higher purpose.

We can clarify―if not to resolve―this dilemma by introducing some further distinctions into the notion of “noumenal” freedom itself. Upon a closer look, it becomes evident that, for Kant, discipline and education do not directly work on our animal nature, forging it into human individuality: as Kant points out, animals cannot be properly educated, since their behavior is already predestined by their instincts. What this means is that, paradoxically, in order to be educated into freedom (qua moral autonomy and self-responsibility), I already have to be free in a sense much more radical, “noumenal,” monstrous even. The Freudian name for this monstrous freedom is, again, the death drive. It is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose a moment in human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal but also not yet a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized,” “derailed” nature which is not yet culture. In his anthropological writings, Kant emphasized that the human animal needs disciplinary pressure in order to tame that uncanny “unruliness” which seems to be inherent to human nature―a wild, unconstrained propensity to insist stubbornly on one’s own will, whatever the cost. It is on account of this that the human animal needs a Master to discipline him: discipline targets this “unruliness,” not the animal nature in man. In Hegel’s Lectures on Philosophy of History, a similar role is played by the reference to “negroes”: significantly, Hegel deals with “negroes” before history proper (which starts with ancient China), in the section entitled “The Natural Context or the Geographical Basis of World History”: “negroes” here stand for the human spirit in its “state of nature,” they are described as a kind of perverted, monstrous children, simultaneously naïve and corrupted, living in a pre-lapsarian state of innocence, and, precisely as such, the cruelest of barbarians; part of nature and yet thoroughly denaturalized; ruthlessly manipulating nature through primitive sorcery, yet simultaneously terrified by raging natural forces; mindlessly brave cowards.

This in-between is the “repressed” of the narrative form (in this case, of Hegel’s “grand narrative” of the world-historical succession of spiritual forms): not nature as such, but the very break with nature which is (later) supplemented by the virtual universe of narratives. According to Schelling, prior to its assertion as the medium of the rational Word, the subject is the “infinite lack of being” (unendliche Mangel an Sein), the violent gesture of contraction that negates every being outside itself. This insight also forms the core of Hegel’s notion of madness: when Hegel determines madness to be a withdrawal from the actual world, the closing of the soul onto itself, its “contraction,” he all too quickly conceives of this withdrawal as a “regression” to the level of the “animal soul” still embedded in its natural environment and determined by the rhythm of nature (night and day, etc.). But does not this withdrawal, on the contrary, amount to a severing of links with the Umwelt, the end of the subject’s immersion in its immediate natural environment, and is it not, as such, the founding gesture of “humanization”? Was not this withdrawal-into-the-self accomplished by Descartes with his universal doubt and reduction to the cogito, which, as Derrida pointed out, also involves a passage through the moment of radical madness?

This brings us to the necessity of the Fall: given the Kantian link between dependence and autonomy the Fall is unavoidable, a necessary step in the moral progress of man. That is to say, in precise Kantian terms: the “Fall” is the very renunciation of my radical ethical autonomy; it occurs when I take refuge in a heteronomous Law, in a Law experienced as imposed on me from the outside. The finitude in which I search for support to avoid the dizziness of freedom is the finitude of the external-heteronomous Law itself. Therein resides the difficulty of being a Kantian. Every parent knows that the child’s provocations, wild and “transgressive” as they may appear, ultimately conceal and express a demand for the figure of authority to set firm limits, to draw a line which means “This far and no further!” thus enabling the child to clearly map what is possible and what is not possible. (And does the same not go also for hysteric’s provocations?) This, precisely, is what the analyst refuses to do, and this is what makes him so traumatic for the analysand―paradoxically, it is the setting of a firm limit which is liberating, and it is the very absence of a firm limit which is experienced as suffocating.

This is why the Kantian autonomy of the subject is so difficult―its implication is precisely that there is no one else, no external agent of “natural authority,” who can do the job for me, that I myself have to set the limit to my natural “unruliness.” Although Kant famously wrote that man is an animal which needs a master, this should not deceive us: what Kant was aiming at was not the philosophical commonplace according to which, in contrast to animals whose behavioral patterns are grounded in their inherited instincts, man lacks such firm coordinates which, therefore, have to be imposed on him from outside, through a cultural authority; rather, Kant’s true aim is to point out how the very need for an external master is a deceptive lure: man needs a master in order to conceal from himself the deadlock of his own difficult freedom and self-responsibility. In this precise sense, a truly enlightened “mature” human being is a subject who no longer needs a master, who can fully assume the heavy burden of defining his own limitations. This basic Kantian (and also Hegelian) lesson was put very clearly by Chesterton: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.”

The lesson here is thus in a precise sense an Hegelian one: the external opposition between freedom (transcendental spontaneity, moral autonomy, and self-responsibility) and slavery (submission, either to my own nature, its “pathological” instincts, or to an external power) has to be transposed into freedom itself, as the “highest” antagonism between monstrous freedom qua “unruliness” and the true moral freedom. However, a possible counter-argument here would be that this noumenal excess of freedom (Kantian “unruliness,” the Hegelian “night of the world”) is a retroactive result of the disciplinary mechanisms themselves (along the lines of the Paulinian motif of “Law creates transgression,” or the Foucauldian topic of how the very disciplinary measures that try to regulate sexuality generate “sex” as the elusive excess)―the obstacle creates that which it endeavors to control.

Are we then dealing with the closed circle of a process positing its own presuppositions? Our wager is that the Hegelian dialectical circle of positing presuppositions, far from being closed, generates its own opening and thus the space for freedom. In order to see this, one has to begin with what appears to be the very opposite of freedom: blind mechanical habit. In the shift from Aristotle to Kant, to modernity with its subject as pure autonomy, the status of habit changes from organic inner rule to something mechanical, the opposite of human freedom: freedom can never become habit(ual); if it becomes a habit, it is no longer true freedom (which is why Thomas Jefferson wrote that if people are to remain free, they have to rebel against the government every couple of decades). This eventuality reaches its apogee in Christ, who is “the figure of a pure event, the exact opposite of the habitual.”

Hegel here provides the immanent corrective to Kantian modernity. As Catherine Malabou notes, Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit begins with a study of the same topic with which Philosophy of Nature ends: the soul and its functions. This redoubling offers a clue as to how Hegel conceptualizes the transition from nature to spirit: “not as a sublation, but as a reduplication, a process through which spirit constitutes itself in and as a second nature.” The name for this second nature is habit. So it is not that the human animal breaks with nature through the creative explosion of spirit, which then gets “habituated,” alienated, turned into a mindless routine; the reduplication of nature in “second nature” is primordial, it is only this reduplication that opens up the space for spiritual creativity.

Perhaps this Hegelian notion of habit allows us to account for the figure of the zombie, slowly dragging itself around in a catatonic mode but persisting forever: are zombies not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (language, consciousness, and thinking)? This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone we knew before, when he was still normally alive―the shock for a character in a zombie movie comes when they recognize the formerly friendly neighbor in the creeping figure relentlessly stalking them. What Hegel says about habits thus has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of human identity, we are all zombies; our “higher” and “free” human activities are dependent on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits―in this sense, being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, humanity’s inhuman or mechanical core. The shock of meeting a zombie is thus not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own humanity.

Hegel’s conception of habit is unexpectedly close to the logic of what Derrida called pharmakon, the ambiguous supplement which is simultaneously a force of death and a force of life. Habit is, on the one hand, the dulling of life, its mechanization (Hegel characterizes it as a “mechanism of self-feeling”): when something turns into a habit, it means that its vitality is lost, we just mechanically repeat it without being aware of it. Habit thus appears to be the very opposite of freedom: freedom means making creative choices, inventing something new, in short, precisely breaking with (old) habits. Think about language, whose “habitual” aspect is best exemplified by standard ritualized greetings: “Hello, how are you? Nice to see you!”―we do not really mean it, there is no living intention in it, it is just a “habit.”

On the other hand, Hegel emphasizes again and again that there is no freedom without habit: habit provides the background and foundation for every exercise of freedom. Take language again: in order for us to exercise freedom in using language, we have to get fully accustomed to it, habituated (in)to it, we have to learn to practice it, to apply its rules “blindly,” mechanically, as a habit: only when a subject externalizes what he learns in mechanized habits is he “open to be otherwise occupied and engaged.” Not only language, but a much more complex set of spiritual and bodily activities have to be turned into a habit in order for a human subject to be able to exert his “higher” functions of creative thinking and working―all the operations we perform all the time mindlessly, such as walking, eating, holding things, and so on and so forth, have to be learned and turned into mindless habits. Through habits, a human being transforms his body into a mobile and fluid means, the soul’s instrument, which serves us without our having to focus consciously on it. In short, through habits, the subject appropriates his body. As Alain points out in his commentary on Hegel:

When freedom comes it is in the sphere of habit … Here the body is no longer a foreign being, reacting belligerently against me; rather it is pervaded by soul and has become soul’s instrument and means; yet at the same time, in habit the corporeal self is understood as it truly is; body is rendered something mobile and fluid, able to express directly the inner movements of thought without needing to involve thereby the role of consciousness or reflection.

More radically even, for Hegel, living itself (leading a life) is for us something we must learn as a habit, starting with birth itself. Recall how, seconds after birth, the baby has to be shaken and thereby reminded to breathe―otherwise, forgetting to breathe, it will die. Indeed, as Hegel reminds us, a human being can also die of habit: “Human beings even die as result of habit―that is, if they have become totally habituated to life, and spiritually and physically blunted.” Nothing thus comes “naturally” to human being, including walking and seeing:

The form of habit applies to spirit in all its degrees and varieties. Of all these modifications, the most external is the determination of the individual in relation to space; this, which for man means an upright posture, is something which by his will he has made into a habit. Adopted directly, without thinking, his upright stance continues through the persistent involvement of his will. Man stands upright only because and insofar as he wants to stand, and only as long as he wills to do so without consciousness of it. Similarly, to take another case, the act of seeing, and others like it, are concrete habits which combine in a single act the multiple determinations of sensation, of consciousness, intuition, understanding, and so forth.

Habit is thus “depersonalized” willing, a mechanized emotion: once I become habituated to standing, I will it without consciously willing it, since my will is embodied in the habit. In a habit, presence and absence, appropriation and withdrawal, engagement and disengagement, interest and disinterest, subjectivization and objectivization, consciousness and unconsciousness, are strangely interlinked. Habit is the unconsciousness necessary for the very functioning of consciousness:

in habit our consciousness is at the same time present in the subject-matter, interested in it, yet conversely absent from it, indifferent to it; … our Self just as much appropriates the subject-matter as, on the contrary, it draws away from it; … the soul, on the one hand, completely pervades its bodily activities and, on the other hand, deserts them, thus giving them the shape of something mechanical, of a merely natural effect.
And the same goes for my emotions: their display is not purely natural or spontaneous; we learn to cry or laugh at appropriate moments (recall how, for the Japanese, laughter functions in a different way than for us in the West: a smile can also be a sign of embarrassment and shame). The external mechanization of emotions―from the ancient Tibetan prayer wheel which prays for me to “canned laughter” where the TV set laughs for me, turning my emotional display quite literally into a mechanical display―is thus based in the fact that emotional displays, including the most “sincere,” are already in themselves “mechanized.”

However, the highest level (and, already, the self-sublation) of habit is language as the medium of thought―in it, the couple of possession and withdrawal is taken to the limit. The point is not only that, in order to speak a language “fluently,” we have to master its rules mechanically, without thinking about it; much more radically, the co-dependence of insight and blindness determines the very act of understanding: when I hear a word, I not only immediately abstract from its sound and “see through it” to its meaning (recall the weird experience of becoming aware of the non-transparent vocal materiality of a word―it appears as intrusive and obscene …), but I have to do so if I am to experience meaning at all.

If, for Hegel, man is fundamentally a being of habit, if habits actualize themselves when adopted as automatic reactions which occur without the subject’s conscious participation, and, finally, if we locate the core of subjectivity in its ability to perform intentional acts, to realize conscious goals, then, paradoxically, the human subject is at its most fundamental a “disappearing subject.” The habit’s “unreflective spontaneity” accounts for the well-known paradox of subjectively choosing an objective necessity, of willing what unavoidably will occur: through its elevation into a habit, a reaction which was first something imposed on me from outside is internalized, transformed into something that I perform automatically and spontaneously, “from inside”:

If an external change is repeated, it turns into a tendency internal to the subject. The change itself is transformed into a disposition, and receptivity, formerly passive, becomes activity. Thus habit is revealed as a process through which man ends by willing or choosing what came to him from outside. Henceforth the will of the individual does not need to oppose the pressure of the external world; the will learns gradually to want what is.

What makes habit so central is the temporality it involves: having a habit involves a relationship to the future, prescribing how I will react to some future event. Habit is a feature of the organism’s economizing of its forces, of building up a reserve for the future. That is to say, in its habits, subjectivity “embraces in itself its future ways of being, the ways it will become actual.” This means that habit also complicates the relationship between possibility and actuality: it is stricto sensu the actuality of a possibility. This means is that habit belongs to the level of virtuality (defined by Deleuze precisely as the actuality of the possible): habit is actual, a capacity to react in a certain way that I fully possess here and now, and simultaneously a possibility pointing towards my reacting a certain way in the future.

Interesting conceptual consequences follow from this notion of habit. Ontologically, with regard to the opposition between particular accidents and universal essence, habit can be described as the “becoming-essential of the accident”: once an externally caused accident has been repeated enough times, it is elevated into the universality of the subject’s inner disposition, into a feature that belongs to and defines its inner essence. This is why we can never determine the precise beginning of a habit, the point at which external occurrences change into habit―once a habit has been formed, its origins are obliterated and it appears as if it was always already there. The conclusion is thus clear, almost Sartrean: man has no permanent substance or universal essence; he is to his very core a creature of habit, a being whose identity is formed through the elevation of contingent external accidents or encounters into an internal(ized) universal habit. Does this mean that only humans have habits? Here, Hegel is much more radical―he takes a decisive further step and leaves behind the old opposition of nature as fully determined in its closed circular movement versus man as a being of openness and existential freedom: “for Hegel, nature is always second nature.” Every natural organism has to regulate its exchange with its environment, the assimilation of the environment into itself, through habitual procedures which “reflect” into the organism, as its inner dispositions, its external interactions.

Because of the virtual status of habits, adopting a (new) habit is not simply a matter of changing an actual property of the subject; rather, it involves a kind of reflexivity, a change in the subject’s disposition which determines his reaction to changes, a change in the kind of changes to which the subject is submitted: “Habit does not simply introduce mutability into something that would otherwise continue without changing; it suggests change within a disposition, within its potentiality, within the internal character of that in which the change occurs, which does not change.” This is what Hegel means by self-differentiation as the “sublation” of externally imposed changes into self-changes, of external into internal difference―only organic bodies differentiate themselves: an organic body maintains its unity by internalizing an externally imposed change into a habit to deal with future such changes.

If this is the case, however, if the whole of (organic, at least) nature is already second nature, in what does the difference between animal and human habits consist? Hegel’s most provocative and unexpected contribution concerns this very question of the genesis of human habits: in his Anthropology (which opens the Philosophy of Spirit) we find a unique “genealogy of habits” reminiscent of Nietzsche. This part of the Philosophy of Spirit is one of the hidden, not yet fully exploited, treasures of the Hegelian system, where we find the clearest traces of what one can only call the dialectical-materialist aspect of Hegel: the passage from nature to (human) spirit is developed here not as a direct external intervention of Spirit, as the intervention of another dimension disturbing the balance of the natural circuit, but as the result of a long and tortuous “working through” by means of which intelligence (embodied in language) emerges from natural tensions and antagonisms. This passage is not direct, for Spirit (in the guise of speech-mediated human intelligence) does not directly confront and dominate biological processes―Spirit’s “material base” forever remains pre-symbolic (pre-linguistic) habit.

So how does habit itself arise? In his genealogy, Hegel conceives habit as the third, concluding, moment of the dialectical process of the Soul, whose structure follows the triad of notion–judgment–syllogism. At the beginning, there is Soul in its immediate unity, in its simple notion, the “feeling soul”: “In the sensations which arise from the individual’s encounter with external objects, the soul begins to awaken itself.” The Self is here a mere “sentient Self,” not yet a subject opposed to objects, but just experiencing a sensation in which the two sides, subject and object, are immediately united: when I experience a sensation of touch, it is simultaneously the trace of the external object I am touching and my inner reaction to it; sensation is a Janus-faced entity in which subjective and objective immediately coincide. Even in later stages of the individual’s development, this “sentient Self” survives in the guise of what Hegel calls a “magical relationship,” referring to phenomena that, in Hegel’s times, were designated with terms like “magnetic somnambulism” (hypnosis), all the phenomena in which my Soul is directly―in a pre-reflexive, non-thinking way―linked to external processes and affected by them. Instead of bodies influencing each other at a distance (Newtonian gravity), we have spirits influencing each other at a distance. Here, the Soul remains at the lowest level of its functioning, directly immersed in its environment. (What Freud called “oceanic feeling,” the source of religious experience, is thus for Hegel a feature of the lowest level of the Soul.) What the Soul lacks here is a clear self-feeling, a feeling of itself as distinguished from external reality, which is what happens in the next moment, that of judgment (Urteil―Hegel here mobilizes the word-play of Urteil with Ur-Teil, “primordial divide/division”):

The sensitive totality is, in its capacity as an individual, essentially the tendency to distinguish itself in itself, and to wake up to the judgment in itself, in virtue of which it has particular feelings and stands as a subject in respect of these aspects of itself. The subject as such gives these feelings a place as its own in itself.

All problems arise from this paradoxical short-circuit of the feeling of Self becoming a specific feeling among others, and, simultaneously, the encompassing container of all feelings, the site where all dispersed feelings can be brought together. Malabou provides a wonderfully precise formulation of this paradox of the feeling of Self:

Even if there is a possibility of bringing together feeling’s manifold material, that possibility itself becomes part of the objective content. The form needs to be the content of all that it forms: subjectivity does not reside in its own being, it “haunts” itself. The soul is possessed by the possession of itself.
This is the crucial feature: possibility itself has to actualize itself, to become a fact; or, the form needs to become part of its own content (or, to add a further variation on the same motif, the frame itself has to become part of the framed content). The subject is the frame/form/horizon of his world and part of the framed content (of the reality it observes), and the problem is that it cannot see or locate itself within its own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible. The possibility of locating oneself within one’s reality has to remain a possibility―however, and herein lies the crucial point, this possibility itself has to actualize itself qua possibility, to be active, to exert influence, qua possibility.

There is a link to Kant here, to the old enigma of what exactly Kant had in mind with his notion of “transcendental apperception,” of self-consciousness accompanying every act of my consciousness (when I am conscious of something, I am thereby always also conscious of the fact that I am conscious of it). Is it not an obvious fact that this is empirically not true, that I am not always reflexively aware of my awareness itself? Interpreters of Kant try to resolve this problem by claiming that every conscious act of mine can potentially be rendered self-conscious: if I want to, I always can turn my attention to what I am doing. But this is not strong enough: transcendental apperception cannot be an act that never need actually happen, that just could have happened at any point. The solution to this dilemma lies precisely in the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces or has actual effects. Is not this Virtual ultimately the symbolic as such? Take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat.

This, then, is the status of the Self: its self-awareness is, as it were, the actuality of its own possibility. Consequently, what “haunts” the subject is his inaccessible noumenal Self, the “Thing that thinks,” an object in which the subject would fully “encounter himself.” Of course, for Kant, the same goes for every object of my experience which is always phenomenal, that is inaccessible in its noumenal dimension; however, with the Self, the impasse is accentuated: all other objects of experience are given to me phenomenally, but, in the case of the subject, I cannot even get a phenomenal experience of me―since I am dealing with “myself,” in this unique case, phenomenal self-experience would equal noumenal access; that is, if I were to be able to experience “myself” as a phenomenal object, I would thereby eo ipso experience myself in my noumenal identity, as a Thing.

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject’s objectivizing himself: the subject is singular and the universal frame of “his world,” for every content he perceives is “his own”; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) in the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].” This has to be read in a very precise way. Hegel’s point is not simply that madness signals a short-circuit between totality and one of its particular moments, a “fixation” of totality in this moment on account of which the totality is deprived of its dialectical fluidity―although some of his formulations may appear to point in this direction. The “particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid” and resists being “reduced to its proper place and rank” is the subject himself, or, more precisely, the feature (signifier) that re-presents him (holds his place) within the structured (“systematized”) totality; and since the subject cannot ever objectivize himself, the “contradiction” here is absolute. With this gap, the possibility of madness emerges―and, as Hegel puts it in proto-Foucauldian terms, madness is not an accidental lapse, a distortion, or an “illness” of human spirit, but is inscribed into an individual spirit’s basic ontological constitution, for to be human means to be potentially mad:

This interpretation of insanity as a necessarily occurring form or stage in the development of the soul is naturally not to be understood as if we were asserting that every mind, every soul, must go through this stage of extreme derangement. Such an assertion would be as absurd as to assume that because in the Philosophy of Right crime is considered as a necessary manifestation of the human will, therefore to commit crime is an inevitable necessity for every individual. Crime and insanity are extremes which the human mind in general has to overcome in the course of its development.

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as “normal” subjects, which means that “normality” can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel puts it a couple of pages later, “insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition.” Hegel here evokes the relationship between the abstract and the concrete: although, in the empirical state of things, abstract determinations are always already embedded in a concrete Whole as their presupposition, the notional reproduction or deduction of this Whole has to progress from the abstract to the concrete: crimes presuppose the rule of law, they can only occur as their violation, but must be nonetheless grasped as an abstract act that is “sublated” through the law; abstract legal relations and morality are de facto always embedded in some concrete totality of Customs, but, nonetheless, the Philosophy of Right has to progress from the abstract moments of legality and morality to the concrete Whole of Customs (family, civil society, state). The interesting point here is not only the parallel between madness and crime, but the fact that madness is located in a space opened up by the discord between actual historical development and its conceptual rendering, that is, in a space which undermines the vulgar-evolutionist notion of dialectical development as a conceptual reproduction of factual historical development which purifies the latter of its insignificant empirical contingencies. Insofar as madness de facto presupposes normality while conceptually preceding it, one can say that the “madman” is precisely a subject who wants to “live”―to reproduce in actuality itself―the conceptual order, to act as if madness also effectively precedes normality.

We can now see in what precise sense habits form the third, concluding, moment of the triad, its “syllogism”: in a habit, the subject finds a way to “possess itself,” to stabilize its own inner content in “having” as its property a habit, not a positive actual feature, but a virtual entity, a universal disposition to (re)act in a certain way. Habit and madness are thus to be thought together: habit is a way of stabilizing the imbalance of madness. Another way to approach the topic is via the relationship between soul and body as the Inner and the Outer, as a circular relationship in which body expresses the soul and the soul receives impressions from the body―the soul is always already embodied and the body always already impregnated with its soul:

What the sentient self finds within it is, on the one hand, the naturally immediate, as “ideally” in it and made its own. On the other hand and conversely, what originally belongs to the central individuality … is determined as natural corporeity, and is so felt.

So, on the one hand, through feelings and perceptions, I internalize objects that affect me from outside: in a feeling, they are present in me not in their raw reality, but “ideally,” as part of my mind. On the other hand, through grimaces, etc., my body immediately “gives body” to my inner soul which thoroughly impregnates it. However, if this were the entire truth, then man would have been simply a “prisoner of this state of nature,” moving in the closed loop of absolute transparency provided by the mutual mirroring of body and soul. What happens with the moment of “judgment” is that the loop of this closed circle is broken―not by the intrusion of an external element, but by a self-referentiality which twists this circle into itself. In other words, the problem is that, “since the individual is at the same time only what he has done, his body is also the expression of himself which he has himself produced.” This means that the process of corporeal self-expression has no pre-existing referent as its mooring point: the entire movement is thoroughly self-referential, it is only through the process of “expression” (externalization in bodily signs) that the expressed Inner Self (the content of these signs) is retroactively created―or, as Malabou puts it concisely: “Psychosomatic unity results from an auto-interpretation independent of any referent.” The transparent mirroring of the soul and the body in the natural expressivity thus turns into total opacity:

If a work signifies itself, this implies that there is no “outside” of the work, that the work acts as its own referent: it presents what it interprets at the same moment it interprets it, forming one and the same manifestation … The spiritual bestows form, but only because it is itself formed in return.

What this “lack of any ontological guarantee outside the play of signification” means is that the meaning of our gestures and speech acts is always haunted by the spirit of irony: when I say A, it is always possible that I do it in order to conceal the fact that I am non-A―Hegel refers to Lichtenberg’s well-known aphorism: “You certainly act like an honest man, but I see from your face that you are forcing yourself to do so and are a rogue at heart.” The ambiguity is here total and undecidable, because the deception is the one that Lacan designates as specifically human, namely the possibility of lying in the guise of truth. Which is why it goes even further than the quote from Lichtenberg―the reproach should rather be: “You act like an honest man in order to convince us that you mean it ironically, and thus to conceal from us the fact that you really are an honest man!” This is what Hegel means in his precise claim that, “for the individuality, it is as much its countenance as its mask which it can lay aside”: in the gap between appearance (mask) and my true inner stance, the truth can be either in my inner stance or in my mask. This means that the emotions I perform through the mask (the false persona) I adopt can in a strange way be more authentic and truthful than what I really feel in myself. When I construct a false image of myself which stands in for me in a virtual community in which I participate (in virtual sexual interaction, for example, a shy man often assumes the screen persona of an attractive, promiscuous woman), the emotions I feel and feign as part of my screen persona are not simply false: although (what I think of as) my true self does not feel them, they are nonetheless in a sense “true.” For example, what if, deep inside, I am a sadistic pervert who dreams of beating up other men and raping women; in my real-life interaction with other people, I am not allowed to enact this true self, so I adopt a more humble and polite persona―in this case, is not my true self much closer to what I adopt as a fictional screen persona, while the self of my real-life interactions is a mask concealing the violence of my true self?

Habit provides the way out of this predicament. How? Not as the subject’s “true expression,” but by locating the truth in “mindless” expression―recall Hegel’s constant motif that truth is in what you say, not in what you mean to say. Consider again the enigmatic status of what we call “politeness”: when, upon meeting an acquaintance, I say, “Glad to see you! How are you today?” it is clear to both of us that, in a way, I “do not mean it seriously.” However, it would nonetheless be wrong to label my act as simply “hypocritical,” since, in another way, I do mean it: the polite exchange does establish a kind of pact between the two of us; in the same sense as I do “sincerely” laugh through the canned laughter (the proof being that I effectively do “feel relieved” afterwards). This brings us to one possible definition of a madman, as a subject unable to participate in this logic of “sincere lies,” so that when a friend greets him with “Nice to see you! How are you?” he explodes: “Are you really glad to see me or are you just pretending? And who gave you the right to probe into my state?”

The same overlapping of appearance with truth is often at work in ideological self-perception. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as a coalition of the two branches of royalism (Orleanists and Legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” The parliamentary deputies of the Party of Order saw their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they frequently made royalist slips of the tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the monarchy. What they were not aware of was that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. What they were effectively doing was establishing the conditions of the bourgeois republican order they despised so much (by, for instance, guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were just royalists wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very “inner” royalist conviction that was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism―it was what added the passion to their activity. Is it not the case, then, that the deputies of the Party of Order were also feigning to feign to be republicans, to be what they really were?

Hegel’s radical conclusion is that the sign with which we are dealing here, in corporeal expressions, “in truth signifies nothing” (in Wahrheit nicht bezeichnet). Habit is thus a strange sign which “signifies the fact that it signifies nothing.” What Hölderlin proposed as the formula for our destitute predicament―for an era in which, because the gods have abandoned us, we are “signs without meaning”―acquires here an unexpected positive interpretation. And we should take Hegel’s formula literally: the “nothing” in it has a positive weight; that is, the sign which “in truth signifies nothing” is what Lacan calls the signifier, that which represents the subject for another signifier. The “nothing” is the void of the subject itself, so that the absence of an ultimate reference means that absence itself is the ultimate reference, and this absence is the subject itself. This is why Malabou writes: “Spirit is not that which is expressed by its expressions; it is that which originally terrifies spirit.” The dimension of haunting, the link between spirit qua the light of Reason and spirit qua obscene ghost, is crucial here: spirit or Reason is, by a structural necessity, forever haunted by the obscene apparitions of its own spirit.

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity―an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him―or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here―pure self―in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head―there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye―into a night that becomes awful.

Again, one should not be blinded by the poetic power of this description, but read it precisely. The first thing to note is how the objects which freely float around in this “night of the world” are membra disjecta, partial objects, objects detached from their organic Whole―is there not a strange echo between this passage and Hegel’s description of the negative power of Understanding which is able to abstract an entity (a process, a property) from its substantial context and treat it as if it has an existence of its own? “That an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom―this is the tremendous power of the negative.” It is thus as if, in the ghastly scenery of the “night of the world,” we encounter something like the power of Understanding in its natural state, spirit in the guise of a proto-spirit―this, perhaps, is the most precise definition of horror: when a higher state of development violently inscribes itself in the lower state, in its ground/presupposition, where it cannot but appear as a monstrous mess, a disintegration of order, a terrifying unnatural combination of natural elements.

In the context of contemporary science, we encounter this horror at its purest when genetic manipulations go awry and generate objects never seen in nature, freaks like goats with a gigantic ear instead of a head or a head with one eye, meaningless accidents which nonetheless touch our deeply repressed fantasies and thus trigger wild interpretations. The pure Self as the “inner of nature” stands for this paradoxical short-circuit of the supernatural (spiritual) in its natural state. Why does it occur? The only consistent answer is a materialist one: because spirit is part of nature, and can occur or arise only through a monstrous self-ffliction (distortion, derangement) of nature. Therein lies the paradoxical materialist edge of cheap spiritualism: it is precisely because spirit is part of nature, because spirit does not intervene into nature―which is already constituted, ready-made somewhere else―but has to emerge out of nature through its derangement, that there is no spirit (Reason) without spirits (obscene ghosts), that spirit is forever haunted by spirits.

It is from this standpoint that we should (re)read Sartre’s deservedly famous description in Being and Nothingness of the café waiter who, with an exaggerated theatricality, performs the clichéd gestures of a waiter and thus “plays at being a waiter in a café”:

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton …

Does not Sartre’s underlying ontological thesis―that “the waiter in the café can not be immediately a café waiter in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell”―point forward towards Lacan’s classic thesis that a madman is not only a beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king? We should be very precise in this reading: as Robert Bernasconi notes in his commentary, there is much more to Sartre’s thesis than a simple point about mauvaise foi and self-objectivization (in order to cover up―or escape from―the void of his freedom, a subject clings to a firm symbolic identity); what Sartre does is show how, through the very exaggeration of his gestures, through his very over-identification with the role, the waiter in question signals his distance from it and thus asserts his subjectivity. True, this French waiter

plays at being a waiter by acting like an automaton, just as the role of a waiter in the United States, by a strange inversion, is to play at acting like one’s friend. However, Sartre’s point is that, whatever game the waiter is called upon to play, the ultimate rule that the waiter follows is that he must break the rules, and to do so by following them in an exaggerated manner. That is to say, the waiter does not simply follow the unwritten rules, which would be obedience to a certain kind of tyranny, but, instead, goes overboard in following those rules. The waiter succeeds in rejecting the attempt to reduce him to nothing more than being a waiter, not by refusing the role, but by highlighting the fact that he is playing it to the point that he escapes it. The waiter does this by overdoing things, by doing too much. The French waiter, instead of disappearing into the role, exaggerates the movements that make him something of an automaton in a way that draws attention to him, just as, we can add, the quintessential North American waiter is not so much friendly as overfriendly. Sartre uses the same word, trop, that we saw him using in Nausea to express this human superfluity.

And it is crucial to supplement this description with its symmetrical opposite: one is truly identified with one’s role precisely when one does not “over-identify” with it, but accompanies one’s role-playing, following the rules, with small violations or idiosyncrasies designed to signal that, beneath the role, there is a real person who cannot be directly identified with it or reduced to it. In other words, it is totally wrong to read the waiter’s behavior as a case of mauvaise foi: his exaggerated act opens up, in a negative way, the space for his authentic self, since its message is “I am not what I am playing at being.” True mauvaise foi consists precisely in embellishing my playing a role with idiosyncratic details―it is this “personal touch” which provides the space for false freedom, allowing me to accommodate myself to my self-objectivization in the role I am playing. (So what about those rare and weird moments in an American cafeteria when we suddenly suspect that the waiter’s friendliness is genuine?)

This brings us back to our original question: in what does the difference between animal and human habits consist? Only humans, spiritual beings, are haunted by spirits―why? Not simply because, in contrast to animals, they have access to universality, but because this universality is for them simultaneously necessary and impossible; that is, it is a problem. In other words, while for human subjects the place of universality is prescribed, it has to remain empty, it can never be filled in with its “proper” content. The specificity of man thus concerns the relationship between universal essence and its accidents: for animals, accidents remain mere accidents; only the human being posits universality as such, relates to it, and can therefore reflectively elevate accidents into universal essence. This is why man is a “generic being” (Marx): to paraphrase Heidegger’s definition of Dasein, man is a being for which its genus is for itself a problem: “Man can ‘present the genus’ to the degree that habit is the unforeseen element of the genus.”

This formulation opens up an unexpected link to the notion of hegemony as developed by Ernesto Laclau: there is forever a gap between the universality of man’s genus and the particular habits which fill in its void; habits are always “unexpected,” contingent, accidents elevated to universal necessity. The predominance of one or another habit is the result of a struggle for hegemony, a struggle over which accident will occupy the empty place of the universality. That is to say, with regard to the relationship between universality and particularity, the “contradiction” in the human condition―a human subject perceives reality from a singular subjective viewpoint and, simultaneously, perceives himself as included in this same reality as a part, as an object in it―means that the subject has to presuppose universality (there is a universal order, some kind of “Great Chain of Being,” of which he is a part), while, simultaneously, it is forever impossible for him to entirely fill in this universality with its particular content, to harmonize the Universal and the Particular (since his approach to reality is forever marked―colored, twisted, distorted―by his singular perspective). Universality is always simultaneously necessary and impossible.

Laclau’s concept of hegemony offers an exemplary matrix of the relationship between universality, historical contingency, and the limit of an impossible Real―and one should always keep in mind that we are dealing here with a distinct concept whose specificity is often missed (or reduced to some vague quasi-Gramscian generality) by those who refer to it. The key feature of the concept of hegemony resides in the contingent connection between intra-social differences (elements within the social space) and the limit that separates society itself from non-society (chaos, utter decadence, the dissolution of all social links)―the limit between the social and its exteriority, the non-social, can only articulate itself in the guise of a difference (by mapping itself onto a difference) between elements within social space. In other words, radical antagonism can only be represented in a distorted way, through particular differences internal to the system. External differences are thus always already also internal, and, furthermore, the link between the internal and external difference is ultimately contingent, the result of political struggle for hegemony.

The standard anti-Hegelian counter-argument here is, of course, that this irreducible gap between the universal (frame) and its particular content is what characterizes Kantian finite subjectivity. Is not Hegelian “concrete universality” the most radical expression of the fantasy of full reconciliation between the universal and the particular? Is not its basic feature the self-generation of the entire particular content out of the self-movement of universality itself? Against this common reproach, we should insist on the closeness of Laclau’s notion of hegemony to the Hegelian notion of “concrete universality.” In the latter, the specific difference overlaps with the difference constitutive of the genus itself, just as, in Laclau’s notion of hegemony, the antagonistic gap between society and its external limit, non-society, is mapped onto an intra-social structural difference. Laclau himself rejects the Hegelian “reconciliation” between universal and particular on behalf of the gap that forever separates the empty or impossible universal from the contingent particular content that hegemonizes it. If, however, we take a closer look at Hegel, we see that―insofar as every particular species does not “fit” its universal genus―when we finally arrive at a particular species that fully fits its notion, that universal notion itself is transformed into another notion. No existing historical State fully fits the notion of the State―the necessity of a dialectical passage from the State (“objective spirit,” history) into Religion (“absolute spirit”) involves the fact that the only existing State that effectively fits its notion is a religious community―which, precisely, is no longer a State. Here we encounter the properly dialectical paradox of “concrete universality” qua historicity: in the relationship between a genus and its subspecies, one of these subspecies will always be the element that negates the very universal feature of the genus. Different nations have different versions of soccer; Americans do not (or did not) have soccer, because “baseball is their soccer.” Hence also Hegel’s famous claim that modern people do not pray in the morning, because reading the newspaper is their morning prayer. In the same way, in disintegrating “socialist” states, writers’ and other cultural clubs did act as political parties. In the same way, “woman” becomes one of the subspecies of man, Heideggerian Daseinsanalyse one of the subspecies of phenomenology, “sublating” the preceding universality.

The impossible point of “self-objectivization” would be precisely the point at which universality and its particular content are fully harmonized―in short, where there would be no struggle for hegemony. And this brings us back to madness: its most succinct definition is that of a direct harmony between universality and its accidents, of a cancellation of the gap that separates the two―for the madman, the object which is his impossible stand-in within objectal reality loses its virtual character and becomes a fully integral part of that reality. In contrast to madness, habit avoids this trap of direct identification thanks to its virtual character: the subject’s identification with a habit is not a direct identification with some positive feature, but an identification with a disposition, with a virtuality. Habit is the outcome of a struggle for hegemony: it is an accident elevated to an “essence,” to universal necessity, made to fill in its empty place.