Essays Off-season

Plus de Sublation: Substantial Difference and Formal Repetition

The Role of the Negative

Negativity is the overarching principle of our world of Becoming, it is the manner in which anything “becomes”. This is an elementary axiom of dialectical logic. Negativity will be used here to refer to failure, and “negation”  as the failure of some ordered totality. We must be careful here, as it is easy to fall into the pseudo-Hegelian notion of the dialectic as Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, in which the already stable Thesis faces some external opposition. The entire point of the dialectic is that the “In-Itself” of the Thesis already contains its own negation, any “ordered totality” is always the lack of any genuine totalization/stability, and the negative is what reveals the inner truth (what Lacan and Zizek would call the “Real”) of its lack/instability. This is why Hegel’s dialectic of Being-Nothing-Becoming is purely logical (Hegel ironically commented that his Science of Logic was describing the mind of God before He created the world), it does not describe any event within space and time. There evidently was never any actual moment in which pure Being became Nothing which then became Becoming. Rather, the vanishing of Being into Nothing (and vice-versa) are the logical conditions of Becoming, and all that is and ever was in rerum natura is Becoming. It is only from within Becoming that thought can abstract and divide it into logical components. Being was always Becoming Nothing, and Nothing was always Becoming Being; there is only Becoming. As Antonio Wolff puts it in one of his blog posts:

They have already been each other, and thus paralyze each other in their restlessness; this paralysis is the paralysis of Becoming as a whole being both of its moments at once. The moment they become the other they immediately are themselves again. This is to say: Being, in becoming Nothing, is merely itself again. In Becoming [Ceasing to be] and [Coming to be] do not happen such that we have one first, then the second and back again, but instead we have both together at the same moment as distinct moments which are also indistinct as both moments are Becoming itself in themselves. This is to say: Each moment of Becoming is already the totality of Becoming itself.

I brought Hegel’s first dialectic to attention in order to elucidate the main topic of this essay, which is the role of the negative, which is understood as failure. The negativity inscribed within Being (its Nothingness) is simply its failure to be itself on purely logical grounds. But dialectics does not limit itself to speaking solely of concepts, but can also describe all forms of change within God’s created order.

Becoming, or simply “change”, only occurs through the failure of any given thing/moment. Becoming refers to this perpetual state of failure which constitutes the spatio-temporal world. Consider the movement from potential to actual. This is nothing more than the very failure of the actual, its inability to maintain itself as itself. There is no substantial reality of “potentiality”, it is a pure virtuality, meaning there is no external “pressure” on the actual which acts as the impetus of its change (this would evidently remain within the pseudo-Hegelian logic described above). The movement of potential to actual is nothing more than the self-negation of the actual, its inability to remain itself, in the same way the abstract notion of Being cannot remain itself but always falls into Nothingness. Another example is the movement of time. The future becoming the present is simply the present’s failure to remain itself, its self-negation into the new present. Both actuality and presence are forms (or universals), rather than some substantial content, but the same principle of failure applies to any type of change. Consider the movement of culture in the modern world. In order for a new trend to become the dominant trend within some particular domain of culture, the dominant trend must fail to retain its hegemony. One could also see this as the previously sub-cultural trend failing to remain sub-cultural through inserting itself within mainstream culture (becoming the dominant trend). These are just a few examples of the role of negativity in the world of Becoming, which is precisely to allow for Becoming in the first place. It is only through failure that any sort of change or motion can occur, which is why negativity is inscribed within the very heart of the created order.

Difference and Repetition

In Less than Nothing, Slavoj Zizek identifies Hegel’s inability to think the “pure repetition” of the Freudian death drive as (possibly) one of his limits. For Hegel, any repetition contains a sublation which overcomes and redoubles that which is being repeated (negating any possibility of “pure” repetition). I will not be grappling with this specific issue (Zizek dedicates hundreds of pages to the matter himself), but will attempt to identify a way in which Hegel does in fact think repetition, but not in the manner conceived by Zizek. This will necessitate a distinction that I briefly mentioned above, which is that of “content” and “form”. Content is understood most simply as “contingency”. Contingency is understood as materiality (the identification of contingency with materiality has been made by Zizek and others). Anything which could be otherwise exists within the material world, as some particular contingent configuration of matter. Form is understood to be that which transcends the contingent world. It is otherwise referred to as “universality” as it is understood by Hegel. “Here” and “now” are both examples of universals. To take the example of a stone, its content is the specific arrangement of matter which distinguishes it from other material objects in the world, while its form is constituted by its actuality (“here”) and its presence (“now”). It is important to note that “here” and “now” are both universals which Hegel grapples with in the first dialectic of The Phenomenology of Spirit, as he

shows the self-negation of sense-certainty as it tries to impose universal statements upon particular objects within the world of Becoming. Hegel focuses upon the subject which makes the statement, but I would like to focus upon the negation itself, what exactly happens when the “hereness” and “nowness” of the object is no longer. It is by analyzing this moment that we can come to understand the manner in which difference and repetition relate to the dialectic. 

All change implies difference. If anything changes, it has become different. This is self-evident. Thus, it seems that if we understand the dialectic to be that which describes change (through failure/negativity), then it is impossible for there to be any sort of repetition. However, perhaps we must analyze this situation with the division between form and content in mind. In the moment when there is change, the content does indeed change, but what of the form? Is there any moment when “actuality” as such is negated? This evidently is not the case. Actuality itself is what remains consistent throughout the movement from potential to actual, as this simply describes the movement from one actuality to another.  The negation, in other words, came as a  repetition of actuality. The very form of actuality itself is what repeats itself through change. It is certainly true that the content changes insofar as a potential becomes actualized, but at the formal level this is simply the repetition of the actual in a new contingent arrangement. The same goes for the movement of time. What is present changes, but “presence” itself repeats itself. In French, the world “plus” confusingly means both “more” and “no more”. This double meaning fittingly describes the sublation which occurs through the process of change. At the level of content there is a sublation which occurs through the failure of some particular contingent state, while at the level of form there is no sublation, but a pure repetition. Hence, any moment of change involves a difference at the level of content and a repetition at the level of form.

The Mind of God

In Christian theology, abstract universals are said to exist within the mind of God. This is commonly referred to as divine conceptualism. An example of divine conceptualism would be associating the infinitude of numbers with the infinitude of God’s knowledge. I would like to briefly attempt to connect what has been established above with this theory of divine conceptualism. 

The mind of God is said to be infinite and to have complete self-knowledge. There is nothing before and behind Him, no otherness which could catch Him by surprise. It is said that everything in existence is “summed up” in the Logos (the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead), and all of creation derives its existence from Him. But creation itself is not identifiable with God. Any individual being is neither the essence (inner being/nature) of God, nor one of His energies (His actions, such as His love, mercy, wrath, etc.). But it is necessary for creation to “participate” within the life of God in order for it to have existence, as God is the very source of existence, and alienation from Him is simply non-being (this is why the sin of Adam and Eve introduced death into the world). I believe this participation occurs through the aforementioned “universals”.

This is not to say that the content is alienated from God (the content always has form, there is never something created that exists without actuality/presence), but that the universals are the divine energies which all of creation partakes within. Actuality, for example, while being strictly identifiable with the essence of God for Thomas Aquinas, is a divine energy according to the theologians of the East (such as St. Gregory Palamas). Presence also characterizes a divine energy. But in what manner does the continual repetition of presence relate to God? Is God not beyond temporal categories? It certainly is the case that God is beyond temporality, He is, afterall, the one who created it. But “pure presence” is the very definition of eternity, as it transcends time itself. As Wittgenstein put it: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” This notion is not foreign to Christian philosophy itself, with Boethius asserting that God’s “knowledge surveys past and future in the timelessness of an eternal present.” Thus, the repetition of presence, a pure presence which transcends the categories of time, reflects the timelessness of God which sustains creation.

To conclude, what has been briefly and modestly proposed here is that the universals which constitute the “form” of creation (actuality and presence were the ones discussed here) exist within the mind of God as divine energies. This allows for God not to be reduced to the contingent created order (pantheism), while also not completely alienating Himself from it (deism). The pure repetition of actuality which transcends the contingent change of matter (creation) reflects the infinite actuality of God. The pure repetition of presence which transcends the movement of time reflects the eternality of God. The forms themselves are directly associated with the energies of God, and it is only through participating within the energies of actuality and presence that the created order can continue to exist.

Sources Cited

  1. This does not contradict the traditional definition of negativity as referring to a “not”. Failure is understood to be a specific manner of expressing this “not”, as the “not being” of something which previously was. 
  3.  “That is to say, it is not only that we can never get to know the entire network of causal determinations, but this chain is in itself ‘inconclusive,’ opening up the space for the immanent contingency of becoming—such a chaos of becoming, subjected to no pre‐existing order, is what defines radical materialism.” Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing.
  4.  The essence-energy distinction is far too complex to sufficiently explain here. It is most systematically developed by Gregory Palamas in his “The Triads”. 
  5.  Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy.