The Movement of Sublation
Negation and Preservation
As I have repeatedly emphasized, a common misreading of the dialectic suppresses the preserving
aspect of sublation beneath its negating aspect. It forgets that at the moment the self is negated and becomes identical with the other, it still remains differentiated and separate as the self. As property becomes nonproperty, it still always retains the notion of property. Nonproperty can only be understood in terms of property—that which it is not.
This is a crucial point to Hegel. He denies that only the positive has determinate characteristics, with the negative being a generic nonbeing.
[T]here still lingers on the thought of this difference of [nothing] from being, namely that the determinate being of nothing does not at all pertain to nothing itself, that nothing does not possess an independent being of its own, is not being as such. Nothing, it is said, is only the absence of being, darkness thus only the absence of light, cold only absence of heat, and so on. And darkness only has meaning in relation to the eye, in external comparison with the positive factor, light, and similarly cold is only something in our sensation; on the other hand, light and heat, like being, are objective, active realities on their own account and are of quite another quality and dignity than this negative than nothing. One can often find it put forward as a weighty reflection and an important piece of information that darkness is only absence of light, cold only absence of heat. About this acute reflection in this field of empirical objects, it can be empirically observed that darkness does in fact show itself active in light, determining it to colour and thereby imparting visibility to it, since, as was said above, just as little is seen in pure light as in pure darkness. Visibility, however, is effected in the eye, and the supposed negative has just as much a share in this as the light which is credited with being the real, positive factor; similarly cold makes its presence known in water, in our sensations etc., and if we deny it so-called objective reality it is not a whit the worse for our doing so. But a further objection would be that here, too, as before, it is a negative with a determinate content that is spoken of, the argument isn't confined to pure nothing, to which being, regarded as an empty abstraction, is neither inferior nor superior. But cold, darkness, and similar determinate negations are to be taken directly as they are by themselves and we shall then see what we have thereby effected in respect of their universal determination which has led them to be introduced here. They are supposed to be not just nothing but the nothing of light, heat, etc., of something determinate, of a content; thus they are a determinate, a contentful, nothing if one may so speak. But as will subsequently appear, a determinateness is itself a negation, and so they are negative nothings; but a negative nothing is an affirmative something.
The loss of property is not a mere lack of rights, it is nonproperty—a positive taking.
Contradiction, Potentiality, and Actuality
In our society "contradiction" (like negativity) is considered to be a bad thing that can and must be eliminated. Consequently, it is easy to conclude that when Hegel identifies a contradiction in the abstract right of property, he is making a judgment that property is somehow incoherent or bad and in need of replacement. Nothing could be more wrong. In the Hegelian dialectic, contradiction cannot be bad and it can never be destroyed. Contradiction must be resolved, but each resolution necessarily creates a new contradiction. As a result, contradiction is not only a logically necessary aspect of the world, it is precisely that aspect of the world that creates change and dynamism.
For something to be possible it must be actualized—the failure of something eventually to become actualized means that it was not, in fact, possible. As I have explained, this means that something only retroactively becomes potential once it has been fulfilled. This is why the abstract person as free will is driven to actualize its potential freedom as concrete freedom in order to reaffirm its own understanding of itself. But the dialectic works the opposite way as well. The logically later concept cannot exist except for the logical necessity of the continuance of the earlier, and the earlier cannot exist except for the logical necessity of the possibility of the
later. The later concept is actuality, but the earlier concept is the possibility that allows it to come into being.
To resort to metaphor, the earlier moment in the dialectic is like the foundation for the subsequent edifice. A foundation is dug before the building, but in anticipation of the building. The building requires the foundation because one cannot remove the foundation after the building is built without causing the entire edifice to come crashing down. But the foundation also requires the building in the sense that unless the building is subsequently built, it is not a foundation, merely a hole in the ground. It only becomes a foundation retroactively. Similarly, the legal subject and abstract right are the foundations on which the individual citizen and the state will be built. If the dialectic is circular as claimed, the fact that when one starts with an analysis of the free person one ends up with the state means that if one instead started with an analysis of the state one would inevitably be led back to the free person. If autonomy and abstract rights are suppressed and subordinated to the state, the state will also cease to be. We would be left only with their ruins—tyranny and oppression.
Sublation as Quantum Leap
Because sublation simultaneously maintains the distinction between two concepts while creating an immediate unity, the movement of sublation cannot be a gradual move. It is a change of quality, not quantity. The change from quantity to quality is, to use the language of modern physics, a quantum leap. Hegel explains how gradual quantitative change produces the quantum leap of qualitative change as follows:
Since the quantitative determinateness of anything is thus twofold—namely, it is that to which the quality is tied and also that which can be varied without affecting the quality—it follows that the destruction of anything which has a measure takes place through the alteration of its quantum. On the one hand this destruction appears as unexpected , in so far as the quantum can be changed without altering the measure and the quality of the thing; but on the other hand, it is made into something quite easy to understand through the idea of gradualness . The reason why such ready use is made of this category to render conceivable or to explain the disappearance of a quality or of something, is that it seems to make it possible almost to watch the disappearing with one's eyes, because quantum is posited as the external limit which is by its nature alterable, and so alteration (of quantum only) requires no explanation. But in fact nothing is explained thereby; the alteration is at the same time essentially the transition of one quality into another, or the more abstract transition of an ex-
istence into a negation of the existence; this implies another determination than that of gradualness which is only a decrease or an increase and is a one-sided holding fast to quantity.
Nevertheless, it is a common logical error to conclude from the fact that the qualitative change takes place through quantitative changes that the qualitative change is itself gradual. But we do this not because the former follows from the latter as a logical matter, but because it is intuitively simple.
Since the progress from one quality [to another] is an uninterrupted continuity of the quantity, the ratios which approach a specifying point are, quantitatively considered, only distinguished by a more and a less. From this side, the alteration is gradual . But the gradualness concerns merely the external side of the alteration, not its qualitative aspect; the preceding quantitative relation which is infinitely near the following one is still a different qualitative existence. On the qualitative side, therefore, the gradual, merely quantitative side which is not in itself a limit, is absolutely interrupted; the new quality in its merely quantitative relationship is, relatively to the vanishing quality, an indifferent, indeterminate other, and the transition is therefore a leap; both as posited as completely external to each other. People fondly try to make an alteration comprehensible by means of the gradualness of the transition; but the truth is that gradualness is an alteration which is merely indifferent, the opposite of qualitative change.
One might be tempted to argue that if, as Hegel says, changes in quality are sudden, not gradual, then one should be able to identify the exact point when the change occurs. Doesn't this suggest that the takings paradox should be easily solvable? This is, once again, a serious misunderstanding of sublation.
Zizek[*] gives a characteristically brilliant account of why we can never identify the moment of sublation. The specific examples he uses are Hegel's descriptions of the movements from consciousness into self-consciousness, and from "in-itself" to "for-itself," but it can be generalized to all sublations.
Hegelian "reflection," however, does not mean that consciousness is followed by self-consciousness—that at a certain point consciousness magically turns its gaze inward, toward itself, making itself its own object, and thus introduces a reflective distance, a splitting, into the former immediate unity. Hegel's point is, again, that consciousness always-already is self -
consciousness: there is no consciousness without a minimal reflective self-relating of the subject. . . .
The passage of consciousness to self-consciousness thus involves a kind of failed encounter: at the very moment when consciousness endeavors to establish itself as "full" consciousness of its object, when it endeavors to pass from the confused foreboding of its content to its clear representation, it suddenly finds itself within self-consciousness—that is to say, it finds itself compelled to perform an act of reflection, and to take note of its own activity as opposed to the object. Therein resides the paradox of the couple of "in-itself" and "for-itself": we are dealing here with the passage from "not yet" to "always-already." In "in-itself," the consciousness (of an object) is not yet fully realized, it remains a confused anticipation of itself; whereas in "for-itself" consciousness is in a way already passed over, the full comprehension of the object is again blurred by the awareness of the subject's own activity that simultaneously renders possible and prevents access to the object. In short, consciousness is like the tortoise in Lacan's reading of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise—Achilles can easily outrun the tortoise, yet cannot catch up with her.
In the passage referred to by Zizek,[*] Lacan compares the notion of fantasy—which reflects a Hegelian sublative leap—to Zeno's famous paradoxes. In a Lacanian reading, Zeno was not merely inventing novel hypotheticals to demonstrate the teachings of Parmenides. Rather, as classicists have long since pointed out, Zeno was a brilliant satirist. He eruditely combined allusions to the tragic race to the death between Achilles and Hector in the Iliad with the comic race between the hare and the tortoise in Aesop's fable in order to make a profound philosophical point. Specifically, Zeno was referring to Homer's description.
As in a dream, the pursuer never succeeds in catching up with the fugitive whom he is after, and the fugitive likewise cannot ever clearly escape his pursuer; so Achilles that day did not succeed in attaining Hector, and Hector was not able to escape him definitely.
As explicated by Zizek, the
point is not that Achilles could not overtake Hector (or the tortoise)—since he is faster than Hector, he can easily leave him behind—but rather that he cannot attain him: Hector is always too fast or too slow. . . . The li-
bidinal economy of the case of Achilles and the tortoise is here made clear: the paradox stages the relation of the subject to the object-cause of its desire, which can never be attained. The object-cause is always missed; all we can do is encircle it. In short, the topology of this paradox of Zeno is the paradoxical topology of the object of desire that eludes our grasp no matter what we do to attain it.
It is not merely empirically difficult, it is logically impossible to identify the exact moment when quantitative change becomes qualitative change—that is, when it is no longer adequate to say there is more or less of something and we must instead conclude that there has been a change of something into something else. We are always positioned either at the point where the change (i.e., in quality) has not occurred (when, in Lacanian terminology, it is the "not yet") or after it has occurred (when it is "always already"), but never at the point of the transition itself because there is no such point.
In the words of the White Queen, in sublation, it is always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.
Why do we insist on locating the moment of sublation, the node of takings, when it is logically impossible? Because this is the masculine moment of subjectivity and the symbolic as law. The Feminine is the dream of immediate relationship both in the sense of that which is always already lost in castration and in the sense of the not yet of the ought. She is the impossible moment of sublation which cannot be captured because it does not and cannot exist. She is, therefore, simultaneously the two poles of the sublation of the change of quality—jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, yet never jam today. The Masculine is the position which claims not to be castrated, it is the element of possession—of possessing "it," of having jam today. An understanding of sublation shows that this claim is fallacious. This moment of transition within the sublation cannot be lo-
cated as a logical matter. Subjectivity is split, there is a hole at its center. Subjectivity exists not because there is a there, there. Rather it is the fiction which claims existence where it doesn't exist. It is the alchemy which replaces zero with one. This process of creating subjectivity as the Masculine is the symbolic—law. Consequently, the identification of the moment of a taking, when a change in quantity becomes a change in quality, is not a matter of objective feminine logic but the act of subjective masculine judgment. This is not to imply that the Masculine as the present complements the Feminine as the past and the future. The point is that they are logically incompatible. Zeno took the masculine position that time stands still, that motion is an illusion. But if one takes the Feminine position that we are always in flux, always already gone but not yet here, then the present of jam today can never be captured.
One can see this distinction in the Old Testament concept of God. As is well known, in his Five Books Moses uses two different names for God:Elohim , which means Rulers, and Yahweh, which means "That Which Is What Has Been And Will Be" but, by implication, is not here now. As my colleague Arthur Jacobson explains, Moses uses Elohim when God acts as the lawgiver, Yahweh when God is man's friend. "Creation is complete, when Elohim rules. When Yahweh collaborates with [man], creation is ongoing." Elohim is the God who commands us now; Yahweh is the God with whom we have interacted in the past and shall interact again in the future. From a Lacanian perspective, Elohim is the masculine image of God as the source of a static symbolic order. Yahweh is the feminine image of God who is not bound by that order but can, in the future, create something new. To be a judge, one must at one instant identify with Yahweh and collaborate with God in writing the law; but in order to do so, one must simultaneously forget Yahweh and worship God
as Elohim so that one can declare that one is acting justly within the dictates of a preestablished law.