Slavoj Žižek: Angel of History vs. Demon of the Future

“It is easy to be wise after the event.”
………― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes

“But all these hints at foreseeing what actually did happen on the French as well as on the Russian side are only conspicuous now because the event has justified them. If the event had not come to pass, these hints would have been forgotten, as thousands and millions of suggestions and supposition are now forgotten that were current at the period, but have been shown by time to be unfounded and so have been consigned to oblivion.”
………― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Slavoj Zizek in his magisterial Less Than Nothing describes an anecdotal history of Schelling’s arrival in Berlin in 1841 ten years after the death of Hegel. Schelling – an old philosopher himself by this time, would come to Berlin and start teaching there, answering the call by the Prussian king himself to fight the “dragonseed of Hegelian pantheism” with its “facile omniscience,” Karl Rosenkranz, a leading pupil of Hegel, wrote that he was “delighted” by this prospect:

I looked forward to the fight that this occasion must cause. I rejoiced in quiet over what by all appearances would be the toughest test of the Hegelian system and its adherents. I revelled in the feeling of progress, which for philosophy must spring from this. I greeted this challenge as a phenomenon never before encountered in philosophy, where a philosopher should have the power to step beyond the circle of his creation and grasp its consequences, which in the history of philosophy until now is without precedent.1

Zizek describing this event as a form of hindsight or retroactive mediation – this notion of Rosenkranz’s “feeling of progress, which for philosophy must spring from this,” says:

It is effectively as if, on such occasions, an impossible encounter takes place: a philosopher is somehow able to step onto his own shoulders and see himself, his thought, “objectively,” as part of a larger movement of ideas, interacting with what comes after. What is the philosophical status of these “retroactive” rejoinders? It is all too easy to claim (in the postmodern vein of the “end of the grand narratives”) that they bear witness to the failure of every general scheme of progress: they do not so much undermine the underlying line of succession (from Kant to late Schelling) as, rather, highlight its most interesting and lively moment, the moment when, as it were, a thought rebels against its reduction to a term in the chain of “development” and asserts its absolute right (or claim).2

This notion that the “philosopher is somehow able to step onto his own shoulders and see himself,” reminds one of Nietzsche’s critique of “free-will”. In his 1886 philosophical treatise Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche uses one of the Baron Münchhausen adventures, the one in which he rescues himself from a swamp, as a metaphor for belief in complete metaphysical free will; Nietzsche calls this belief an attempt “to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness”. Yet, for Zizek it is about hindsight and progress (more of a decision/determination and justification after the fact) in Doyle and Tolstoy, the sense of a retroactivation of insight into an event that retroactively activates the notion that “thought rebels against its reduction to a term in the chain of “development” and asserts its absolute right (or claim)”.  For him this is an illustration of how Hegelian reconciliation works — not as a positive gesture of resolving or overcoming the conflict, but as a retroactive insight…”3 So that this retroactivity accounts for the specific temporality of reconciliation of which hindsight is the outcome.

One might be tempted to name it the Epimetheus syndrome (i.e., in Greek Ἐπιμηθεύς, some see this as meaning “hindsight”, literally “afterthinker”):

According to Plato’s use of the old myth in his Protagoras (320d–322a), the twin Titans were entrusted with distributing the traits among the newly created animals. Epimetheus was responsible for giving a positive trait to every animal, but when it was time to give man a positive trait, lacking foresight he found that there was nothing left.

Prometheus decided that mankind’s attributes would be the civilizing arts and fire, which he stole from Zeus. Prometheus later stood trial for his crime. In the context of Plato’s dialogue, “Epimetheus, the being in whom thought follows production, represents nature in the sense of materialism, according to which thought comes later than thoughtless bodies and their thoughtless motions.” (see Wiki)

Yet, to see this as a positive is to misrecognize Hegelian logic for if there is a “semantic choice” that underlies Hegel’s thought, it is not the desperate wager that, retroactively, one will be able to tell a consistent, all-encompassing and meaningful story in which every detail will be allotted its proper place, but, on the contrary, the weird certainty (comparable to the psychoanalyst’s certainty that the repressed will always return, that a symptom will always spoil every figure of harmony) that, with every figure of consciousness or form of life, things will always somehow “go wrong,” that each position will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction.4

Against Mobilism as Zizkek describes it in  The Speculative Turn (2011):

The main feature of historical thought proper is not ‘mobilism’ (the motif of the fluidification or historical relativization of all forms of life), but the full endorsement of a certain impossibility: after a true historical break, one simply cannot return to the past, one cannot go on as if nothing happened—if one does it, the same practice acquires a radically changed meaning.

But against this motif of “mobilism” Zizek will ask: How, then, does the truly historical thought break with such universalized “mobilism”? In what precise sense is it historical and not simply the rejection of “mobilism” on behalf of some eternal Principle exempted from the flow of generation and corruption? As he remarks “the key resides in the concept of retroactivity which concerns the very core of the relationship between Hegel and Marx: it is the main reason why, today, one should return from Marx to Hegel and enact a “materialist reversal” of Marx himself”.5

Zizek in Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism will relate two forms of retroactivity:

First, following Pippin the meaning of our acts is not an expression of our inner intention, it emerges later, from their social impact, which means that there is a moment of contingency in every emergence of meaning. But secondly there is another more subtle retroactivity involved here: an act is abyssal not in the sense that it is not grounded in reasons, but in the circular sense that it retroactively posits its reasons. A truly autonomous symbolic act or intervention never occurs as the result of strategic calculation, as I go through all possible reasons and then choose the most appropriate course of action. An act is autonomous not when it applies a preexisting norm but when it creates a norm in the very act of applying it.6

This is his nod to free-will as “free acts”: free acts are distinguished by the reason to which a subject might appeal in justifying them, and justification is a fundamentally social practice, the practice of “giving of and asking for reasons” by participants in a set of shared institutions. Even at the individual level, expressing an intention amounts to “avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge.”  It is not until my intention is recognized by others and myself as being fulfilled or realized in my deed that I can identify my act as my own.  Justification thus turns out to be more retrospective than prospective, a process in which the agent’s own stance on her action is by no means authoritative. Being an agent, being able to provide reasons to others to justify one’s deeds, is thus itself an “achieved social status such as, let us say, being a citizen or being a professor, a product or result of mutually recognitive attitudes.”7

So it’s this social compact or collective recognition after the fact or “to be more retrospective than prospective,” that makes it non-intentional rather than intentional or directed etc., which coincides with Tolstoy’s notion of eventual acts as “only conspicuous now because the event has justified them” (see above). This is Zizek’s Ethics of Event and Act – his critical materialism: the retroactive justification of hindsight or Epimethean logic of dialectical materialism; or, as Sherlock Holmes says: “It is easy to be wise after the event.”

The Angel of History

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

…………….— Walter Benjamin, Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Is this not the image of the philosopher of the Act? A secular angel turned toward the catastrophic event and ruptures of the past, yet who is caught up in a future retrospection in which it is impossible to repose in the present? Han Jonas, a friend of Benjamin’s and a scholar of Gnosticism once remarked of those ancient Valentinians who make no provision for a present on whose content knowledge may dwell, in beholding, stay the forward thrust:

There is past and future, where we come from and where we speed to, and the present is only the moment of gnosis (knowledge) itself, the peripety from the one to the other in the supreme crisis of the catastrophic now.8

Bloom in commenting on this passage will puzzle “I take it that this is why a Gnostic never learns anything, because learning is a process in time”. (ibid. p. 58) In this sense the philosopher does not learn anything about this past, instead the philosopher like the Angel of History is force to see the vast ruins of time past piling up like a massive explosion through time into the flowing future of the Angel’s sad movement into the future. Yet, what is known through seeing is a mapping and a writing, a scoping and telescoping of this urgency of a time always open to redemption. (Benjamin)

If as Novalis once surmised that philosophy is the “desire to be at home everywhere,” then the Zizekian/Lacanian mode of desire is the desire to be elsewhere, the desire to be different. Zizek’s philosophy has a catastrophic character. For him the form of progress is crisis: the absolute recoil from the traumatic Real of the event may be
evident in Descartes’s reification of the subject as a thinking thing, Kant’s attempt to ontologize “this I or he or it (the thing) that thinks” or more strongly his inability to delve into obscure foundations of unruliness and diabolic evil, or in Hegel’s mature system as a covering up of the madness of the night of the world, it is only by recourse to Schelling that he can retroactively posit such a self-deploying disavowed knowledge that deepens itself through the trajectory of tradition and knowing.9

The “gap” between the movement of the Angel into the future and the knowing/seeing of the event or rupture of the ruinous and catastrophic past is the very present within which the philosopher cannot repose: this “gap” can never be filled in, it is ultimately repressed due to its traumatic, personality-shattering quality, so that we find traces of its disavowed knowledge in the slips and slides of speech, symbolic inconsistencies and non-coincidences in writing, the images of fantasies and dreams, and other phenomena. (Carew, p. 30)

If for Hegel true knowledge begins when philosophy destroys the experience of daily life, such destruction a phase on the way to the Universal – as the orthodox Hegelians would have it, a truth that finally negates both the per se existence of the object and the individual perceiving consciousness or Subject. Then for Zizek the reverse is true in the Lacanian reading of Hegel in the sense that the truth remains with the knowing Subject: the patient labor of the Negative. The Angel of History in his redemptive act of retroactive intervention.

Against any sense of Bergsonian duree (duration), cosmic fate, and time as measure and the quantified chain of destiny, etc., the Angel of history is withdrawing or contracting from the past, opening a “gap” in the present not that it should be filled in with our fantasies, but rather the void of the present becomes what the poet Stéphane Mallarme in describing the supreme irony of the supreme blue void of the sky called a “sterile desert of sorrows”: our world of appearances as a cosmos of mirrors that mirror nothing but the void within which we are trapped in the symbolic and psychotic order of madness.

Benjamin in his thesis will remark the “past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.   That claim cannot be settled cheaply…. even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he triumphs. And this enemy has not ceased triumphing.” In this sense Benjamin like those ancient Gnostics developed the most daemonic negative theology in post-Marxian times.

Zizek unlike Benjamin follows these truths up to a point, the point at which there can be no transcendence, no Savior or A-Cosmic God beyond the veil of time and space, outside all Being who is himself a prisoner awaiting the moment all the sparks are gathered, etc. for the redemption. No. Zizek sees us stuck in the time of times, circling in the void of the death-drives, in the entropic “night of the world”; and, yet, “it moves” Eppur Si Muove.

Freud once said that “negation, the derivative of expulsion, belongs to the instinct of destruction.” Negation in this form is seen as the process by which the Subject selects terms to express its ambivalence.10 In a reading of David Lynch’s Blue Highway Zizek will disparage what he perceives as spiritual or New Age Gnosticism, saying,

This approach culminates in the reading of Lynch as a New Age dualistic gnostic whose universe is the battlefield between two opposed hidden spiritual forces, the force of destructive darkness (embodied in evil figures like Bob in “Twin Peaks”) and the opposing force of spiritual calm and beatitude. Such a reading is justified insofar as it implicitly rejects the interpretation of Lost Highway as a new version of the arch-conservative warning against delving too far behind appearances: do not go too far, do not try to penetrate the horror that lurks behind the fragile order in which we live, since you will burn your fingers and the price you will pay will be much higher than you think… (p. 26)11

What Zizek is against in the New Age Gnosticism he sees around him is the notion of an “optimistic twist”, that the vortex of the abyss is nonetheless not the ultimate reality: that beneath it, there is the “domain of pure, peaceful, spiritual Rapture and Beatitude” (ibid., p. 26). Instead for Zizek the horror is right in front of us, there is nothing behind the stage or screen, no magic world of love and peace, nothing but this world of “rotary drives” (Schelling).

Benjamin would criticize such pessimism that regards fundamental change as impossible and that tells us that historically, utopian dreams have been losing propositions (i.e., Zizek’s “lost causes”). As an antidote to resignation, Benjamin proposes “the gift of fanning the spark of hope [that was] in the past,” as if memory could ignite a kind of prairie fire across the generations. Such memory is identified by Benjamin as “the quintessence of Judaism’s theological concept of history.” Embedded within Jewish tradition is extraordinary hope – Biblical accounts of Exodus and of the Maccabees, for instance, remind us that liberation movements can succeed against seemingly invincible power structures.12

Zizek on the other hand will not embed himself in any religious mythology of redemption, but rather as he says of Lacan:

Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master. (LTN, KL 616)

So against Benjamin or even the ascetic-Maoist-Lacanian figure of “angel” as the agent of radical emancipation Zizek remarks that in politics, against those who think “we should be modest and simply accept that some Masters are better than others, and that the only revolt possible is an inner spiritual one;  [we should instead] reject this spiritualization of revolt and remains faithful to Badiou’s original project of a radical emancipatory project which passes through Lacan.” (LTN, KL 626-628)

Conclusion: Enlightened Catastrophism

Zizek says we should practice what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls “enlightened catastrophism”: one accepts the final catastrophe— the obscenity of people killing their neighbors in the name of justice— as inevitable, written into our destiny, and one engages in postponing it for as long as possible, hopefully indefinitely. Here is how, along these lines, Dupuy sums up Günther Anders’s reflections apropos Hiroshima: On that day history became “obsolete.” Humanity became able to destroy itself, and nothing can make it lose this “negative omnipotence,” even a global disarmament or a total denuclearization of the world. The apocalypse is inscribed as a destiny in our future, and the best we can do is delay its occurrence indefinitely. We are in excess. On August 1945 we entered the era of the “freeze” and of the “second death” of all that existed: since the meaning of the past depends on future acts, the becoming-obsolete of the future, its programmed ending, does not mean that the past no longer has any meaning, it means that it never had any meaning.

It is against this background that we should read the basic Paulinian notion of living in an “apocalyptic time,” a “time at the end of time”: the apocalyptic time is precisely the time of such an indefinite postponement, the time of freeze in-between two deaths: in some sense, we are already dead, since the catastrophe is already here, casting its shadow from the future— after Hiroshima, we can no longer play the simple humanist game of insisting that we have a choice (“ It depends on us whether we follow the path of self-destruction or the path of gradual healing”); once such a catastrophe has happened, we lose the innocence of such a position, we can only (indefinitely, maybe) postpone its reoccurrence. (LTN, KL 21878-21893).

So that instead of the Angel of History we have the Demon of the Future, an alien power or dispotif  of catastrophe at the core of the Capitalist project itself that is cannibalizing the present in a self-lacerating bid to stave off the doom awaiting it. In rancorous denial of the facts of the sixth extinction, climate-change, and any of a number of other aspects of the future we’re moving toward it attacks all who would defend the truth. Capitalism locks us in an eternal present or “crack” in time, hoping to forget the past and future alike. It seeks a transhumanist agenda that would obliterate the natural in us, create immortals, and produce an infospheric virtuality of idealist pretense – an ontologized psychosis of information, abstraction, and infinity for its supporters, while pushing an agenda of exclusion and cultural suicide and amnesia for all those outside its Human Security Systems. Like Peter Sloterdijk’s cynics of the enlightened “false consciousness” these minions of the reactionary world all act against their better knowledge – the gnosis (freedom), knowing that today the situation within the global-capitalist superstructure is entering its end-game of catastrophe, ruin, and apocalyptic annihilation (i.e., take your pick of catastrophes – climatic, asteroid, pandemic, desertification, plutocratic exit, nuclear war, global civil-war…); it knows itself to be without illusions and yet knowing this still seeks out its doom eager demise like a pirate who bluffs his way into the infernal paradise.


 

  1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 3271-3275). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid. (Kindle Locations 3276-3282).
  3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4784-4785).
  4. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4835-4840).
  5. ibid. (Kindle Locations 4843-4847).
  6. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 21). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  7. AR: ibid. (p. 18)
  8. Bloom, Harold. Agon. (Oxford, 1982)
  9. Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)
  10. Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Princeton University Press (August 5, 2012)
  11. Zizek, Slavoj. The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; First Edition edition (April 1, 2000)
  12. see Raymond Barglow: The Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of Hope and Despair. Published in “Tikkun Magazine,” November 1998

 

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