Zizek on Kant and Hegel: the Grotesque, Macabre, and The Ugly

We have pointed out the characteristic trait, the fundamental difference that separates, in our view, modern art from ancient art, today’s form from dead form, or – to use vaguer but better accredited words – Romantic literature from classical literature… Not that it would be correct to say that comedy and the grotesque were absolutely unknown to the ancients: which would be impossible … But in modern thinking the grotesque plays an immense part. It is everywhere on the one hand it creates the deformed and the horrible, on the other the comic an the clownish … Beauty has only one type, ugliness has thousands… What we call ugly is a detail from a great whole that eludes us, and that harmonizes not so much with man alone but with all of creation. This is why ugliness constantly reveals new, but incomplete aspects of it.

– Victor Hugo, ‘Preface to Cromwell’ (1827)

“Kant, like a good compulsive neurotic … sets up the network of the conditions of possible experience in order to make sure that the actual experience of the real, the encounter with the Thing, will never take place, so that everything the subject will effectively encounter will be the already gentrified-domesticated reality of representations” (75).1 For Zizek Kant was an obsessional whose whole philosophical project was a great apotropaion: his discursive system is a labyrinth in which he hoped to entangle the vague horrors of the noumenon, ritual dependence and the ironic distancing from that dark heart of a traumatic encounter that he could ill afford to master. It is after Kant’s impossible withdrawal from the noumenal into a more refined realm of appearance and representation: his safety net against the dark horrors of the grotesque, macabre, and the ugly that Zizek speaks of “the monstrous noumenal Thing,” an abyss or vacuum threating to swallow up the subject that fails to maintain an appropriate degree of distance from it  ( Plague of Fantasies, 237).2

In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant speaks of an “art hidden in the depths of the human soul, whose true operations we are hardly likely to ever divine from nature and lay down unveiled before our eyes” (p. 183, A141, B180-81). Kant also spoke of certain “dark conceptions” which incorporates aspects of the grotesque, macabre, and ugly and their affective relations:

Dark conceptions … Our soul does most of its work in the dark, and has its greatest treasure in the dark as well. A great charter, illuminated in few places …. We are partly a play of dark conceptions (sympathy, disgust, fear, hate, none of which we can offer a reason for), and we partly play with dark conceptions, in order to stimulate someone through something without him knowing how it happens. (Anthropologie, 665).

Unlike beautiful objects those that bore the traits of ugliness could not be presented directly but were as Kant relates “permitted them to be presented indirectly and by means of interpretation of reason, rather than for the merely aesthetic faculty of judgment (Critique of Judgment, 180). One can see in Kant’s use of disgust and horror a negative form of the sublime and beautiful, its negative pole: an organon for the anxious avoidance of vices, and those darker aspects of existence and the physical petrification of embodied life and finitude. Disgust is thus the pure aesthetic taste, the capacity to judge and recognize the tawdry, the cheap, the fulsome. It rejects the easy pleasure of the senses, the taste of the tongue, preferring instead the more demanding. As Kant famously asserts, it is the only emotion that cannot be converted into aesthetic liking by means of artistic representation. Disgust which includes the grotesque, macabre, and ugly are a zero point in Kant’s aesthetic:

As the aesthetic’s entirely other, it remains basically unrepresentable, invisible, unidentifiable for the field that it limits: an empty cipher for that which the world of beautiful forms cannot appropriate or integrate. 5

Adrian Johnston tells us that Zizek repeatedly uses such terms as “monster” to describe the new form of subjectivity, the cogito, from Descartes to Hegel in which the macabre image of the subject is described as a dark and ominous night in which the body appears in a state of gruesome, butchered fragmentation (23).3 Johnston goes on to ask a simple but direct question:

Could this Hegelian connotation of negativity hold the key to illuminating Zizek’s otherwise strange and perplexing characterizations of the Cartesian-Kantian subject (and the Lacanian $) as a horribly monstrous, spectral “creature from the “abyss,” as a traumatic lack or terrifying emptiness, the “thing from inner space”?(22)

As we study the aesthetics of this era we know that many of the Romantics developed styles of excess, decadence, and even self-parody. Plays like Kleist’s Penthesilea presented mutilations and amputations which fed into an aesthetic of subtraction, a pathological metaphysic in which the imagination reorients itself to the world by a surgical reduction of self. It was a form of pagan ritual of riddance, a way of stilling anxiety and fear. It was out of both the philosophical and aesthetic world of German Idealism that a new conceptuality of the self, of subjectivity was formed. A monstrous creature that the philosophers from Kant to Hegel seemed to be both in awe of and also to fear. As Johnston remarks on Zizek’s delving into the dark contours of this tradition states it:

Is this the hidden link between epistemological and ontological finitude testified to by what Zizek psychoanalytically identified as Kant’s “obsessional neurotic” desperation to, as it were, avoid the void? Is this awful nothingness somehow related to the absence of annihilation? Speaking of the Hegelian “night of the world,” Zizek claims that death itself stands for this “self-withdrawal, the absolute contraction of subjectivity, the severing of its links with ‘reality'” (22).

This fearful imperviousness to the finitude of flesh and blood embodiment of a subjectivity tied to its mortal host left these philosophers with a split subject, a subjectivity at once known and unknown and untouchable, noumenal. This family of affects: disgust, horror, and revulsion so frequently used by Zizek in his descriptions of these early Idealists is, Johnston remarks, an “index of the effective existence of subjectivity proper (24). Catherine Malabou speaks of this distancing from death or finitude as a “result of serious trauma, or sometimes for no reason at all, the path splits and a new, unprecedented persona comes to live with the former person, and eventually takes up all the room” (1).4 Speaking of this split or gap in the creation of subjectivity Malabou goes on to say,

An unrecognizable persona whose present comes from no past, whose future harbors nothing to come, an absolute existential improvisation. A form born of the accident, born by accident, a kind of accident. A funny breed. A monster whose apparition cannot be explained as any genetic anomaly. A new being comes into the world for a second time, out of a deep cut that opens in a new biography. (Ontology of the Accident, 2)

As Johnston concludes, the subject in Kant is both noumenal and phenomenal, withdrawn and appearing; yet, barred from any form of phenomenal self-acquaintance in which it would know itself as finite in the ontological-material sense (31). Kant terrified of the void he’d opened up both within and without fled into the labyrinth of his own critical world using it as an apotropaic sigil against the abyss of subjectivity. As Johnston remarks,

The nothingness fled from, the void that Kant allegedly labors so hard to avoid, is nothing other than the very absence of the subject itself, the negation of the insurmountable “transcendental illusion” of its apparent immortality. (31)

Ever since Kant artists, poets, philosophers, and, yes, even scientists have tried to fill this void, overcome the insurmountable power of the “transcendental illusion” only to fail, to realize in the end that nothing can fill this void, the void is All. As Hugo said in the essay quoted at the beginning of my post remarked: “What we call ugly is a detail from a great whole that eludes us, and that harmonizes not so much with man alone but with all of creation. This is why ugliness constantly reveals new, but incomplete aspects of it.” We must remain true to the ugliness and monstrosity of our embodied lives in this material realm where as Zizek in Tarrying with the Negative remarked:

…here we encounter cogito at its purest when (what will become) the subject constitutes itself by rejecting the slimy substance of jouissance. It is therefore not sufficient to say that It (the alien Thing) is a “projection of our own repressed”: the I itself constitutes itself by way of rejection of the Thing, by way of assuming a distance toward the substance of enjoyment.

Lacan’s version of “the spirit is a bone”: the pure “I think” that takes place only when the subject endures the confrontation with the senseless stain of jouissance. At this singular moment “at the very moment of my reduction to a pure cogito qua impossible gaze, a formless slime of the substance of jouissance had to emerge somewhere else.6 Ultimately this is why Zizek affirms the “spectral fantasy” that haunts us all:

The ultimate gap that gives rise to suture is ontological, a crack that cuts through reality itself: the “whole” of reality cannot be perceived/accepted as reality, so the price we have to pay for “normally” situating ourselves within reality is that something should be foreclosed from it – this void of primordial repression has to be filled in – “sutured” – by the spectral fantasy. (Zizek: The Fright of Real Tears, 71)

But what would happen if the subject instead of repressing this dark truth accepted the crack, accepted the emptiness of self? Zizek tells us that this is the goal of Lacanian analysis, of the final process of “subjective destitution”:

What is at stake in this ‘destitution’ is precisely the fact that the subject no longer presupposes himself as subject; by accomplishing this he annuls, so to speak, the effects of the act of formal conversion. In other words, he assumes not the existence but the non-existence of the big Other, he accepts the Real in its utter, meaningless idiocy; he keeps open the gap between the Real and its symbolization. The price to be paid for this is that by the same act he also annuls himself as subject, because – and this should be Hegel’s last lesson – the subject is subject only in so far as he presupposes himself as absolute through the movement of double reflection. (Sublime Object of Ideology, 263)

Such a double reflection would be the nihilism of self and world: an acceptance of the emptiness of things and the void of one’s subjectivity. In another way such freedom is the slow process of education into the monstrous truth of our subjectivity, and as Zizek reminds us the “Freudian name for this monstrous freedom, of course, is the death drive”. 7 Maybe Keats was slyer than most poets when he said that the “camelion Poet is every thing and nothing”, but only if we substitute “Subject” for “Poet”:

He has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body … When I am in a room of People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of everyone in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated –

– Letters of John Keats

1. Slavoj Zizek. The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. (London: Verso)
2. Slavoj Zizek. The Plague of Fantasies. (London:Verso)
3. Adrian Johnston. Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. (Northwestern University Press, 2008)
4. Catherine Malabou. Ontology of the Accident. (Polity, 2012)
5. Menninghaus, Disgust, 48. See also Jacques Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics II, no. 2 (1981): 3-25; Sianne Ngai, “Afterword: On Disgust,” in Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
6.  Zizek, Slavoj; Fish, Stanley; Jameson, Fredric (1993-10-20). Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Post-Contemporary Interventions) (Kindle Locations 1194-1195). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.
7. Markus Gabriel;Slavoj Zizek. Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism (Kindle Locations 1310-1312). Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Zizek on Kant and Hegel: the Grotesque, Macabre, and The Ugly

    • Yes, his idea of ugliness on the side of materiality and truth as against ideality and beauty were excellent. So many good art critics: Clement Greenberg, T. J. Clark, and Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried, Leo Steinberg, etc… So much to read and reread, study, learn, learn learn…


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