Less Than Nothing; Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism; Verso, London, 2012, pages 263-4
If we embrace Hegel’s notion of the Owl of Minerva which takes flight only at dusk –that is, if we accept Hegel’s claim that the position of the historical agent able to identify its own role in the historical process and to act accordingly is inherently impossible, since such self-referentiality makes it impossible for the agent to factor in the impact of its own intervention, of how this act itself will affect the constellation – what are the consequences of this position for the act, for emancipatory political interventions? Does it mean that we are condemned to acting blindly, to taking risky steps into the unknown whose final outcome totally eludes us, to interventions whose meaning we can establish only retroactively, so that, at the moment of the act, all we can do is hope that history will show mercy (grace) and reward our intervention with at least a modicum of success? But what if, instead of conceiving this impossibility of factoring in the consequences of our acts as a limitation on our freedom, we conceive it as the zero-level (negative) condition of our freedom?
The notion of freedom as known necessity found its highest expression in Spinoza’s thought, and no wonder that Spinoza also provided the most successful definition of the personalized notion of God: the only true God is nature itself –that is, substance as causa sui (the cause of itself), as the eternal texture of causes-effects. The personalized notion of God as a wise old man who, sitting somewhere up there in the heavens, rules the world according to his caprice, is nothing but the mystified positive expression of our ignorance –when our knowledge of actual causal networks is limited, we as it were fill in the blanks by projecting a supreme Cause onto an unknown highest entity.
From the Hegelian view Spinoza just needs to be taken more literally than he is ready to take himself: what if this lack or completeness of the causal network is not only epistemological (a function of how we know) but also ontological (a characteristic of being itself)? In this case, is not the personalized notion of God also an indication (a mystified indication, but nonetheless an indication) of the ontological incompleteness of reality itself ? Or, to put it in terms of the classical Hegelian distinction between what I want or mean to say and what I actually say, when I say “God,” I want to name the transcendent absolute Person who governs reality, but what I really say is that reality is ontologically incomplete, that it is marked by a fundamental impossibility or inconsistency.
In this sense Dostoyevsky was right: it is only the personalized God – insofar as he is the name for a desiring/lacking Other, for a gap in the Other –who gives freedom: I am not free by being the creator and master of all reality, when nothing resists my power to appropriate all heterogeneous content; I am free if the substance of my being is not a full casual network, but an ontologically incomplete field. This incompleteness is (or, rather, can also be) signaled by an opaque desiring God, a God who is himself marked by imperfections and finitude, so that when we encounter him, we confront the enigma of “What does he want?” and enigma which holds also for God himself (who does not know what he wants).
But, again, what does this mean for our ability to act, to intervene in history? There are in French two words for the “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: future and avenir. Future stands for the future which as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of the tendencies which are already present, while avenir points toward a more radical break, a discontinuity with the present –avenir is what is to come, not just what will be. For example, in the contemporary apocalyptic situation, the ultimate horizon of the “future” is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of ecological breakdown, global and economic and social chaos, etc. – even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the future catastrophe is through acts which interrupt this drifting towards the dystopian “fixed point,” acts which take upon themselves the risk of giving birth to some radical Otherness “to come.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it designates not the impossibility of change, but precisely what we should be striving for – to break the hold of the catastrophic “future” has over us, thereby to open up the space for something New “to come.”