Madness and Habit in German Idealism

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

Section I

The shift from Aristotle to Kant, to modernity with its subject as pure autonomy: the status of habit changes from organic inner rule to something mechanic, the opposite of human freedom: freedom cannot ever become habit(ual), if it becomes a habit, it is no longer true freedom (which is why Thomas Jefferson wrote that, if people are to remain free, they have to rebel against the government every couple of decades). This eventuality reaches its apogee in Christ, who is "the figure of a pure event, the exact opposite of the habitual". [1]

Perhaps, this Hegelian notion of habit allows us to account for the cinema-figure of zombies who drag themselves slowly around in a catatonic mood, but persisting forever: are they not figures of pure habit, of habit at its most elementary, prior to the rise of intelligence (of language, consciousness, and thinking). [2] This is why a zombie par excellence is always someone whom we knew before, when he was still normally alive – the shock for a character in a zombie-movie is to recognize the former best neighbor in the creeping figure tracking him persistently. (Zombies, these properly un-canny (un-heimlich) figures are therefore to be opposed to aliens who invade the body of a terrestrial: while aliens look and act like humans, but are really foreign to human race, zombies are humans who no longer look and act like humans; while, in the case of an alien, we suddenly become aware that the one closest to us – wife, son, father – is an alien, was colonized by an alien, in the case of a zombie, the shock is that this foreign creep is someone close to us…) What this means is that what Hegel says about habits has to be applied to zombies: at the most elementary level of our human identity, we are all zombies, and our "higher" and "free" human activities can only take place insofar as they are founded on the reliable functioning of our zombie-habits: being-a-zombie is a zero-level of humanity, the inhuman/mechanical core of humanity. The shock of encountering a zombie is not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own human-ness.

There is, of course, a big difference between the zombie-like sluggish automated movements and the subtle plasticity of habits proper, of their refined know-how; however, these habits proper arise only when the level of habits is supplemented by the level of consciousness proper and speech. What the zombie-like "blind" behavior provides is, as it were, the "material base" of the refined plasticity of habits proper: the stuff out of which these habits proper are made.

As Catherine Malabou notes, Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit begins with the study of the same topic that Philosophy of Nature ends with: the soul and its functions. This redoubling provides a clue to how Hegel conceptualizes the transition from nature to spirit: "not as a sublation, but as a reduplication, a process through which spirit constitutes itself in and as a second nature." The name for this second nature is habit. So it is not that the human animal breaks with nature through the creative explosion of spirit, which then gets "habituated," alienated, turned into a mindless habit: the reduplication of nature in "second nature" is primordial, it is only this reduplication that opens up the space for spiritual creativity.

Habit is conceived by Hegel as unexpectedly close to the logic of what Derrida called pharmakon, the ambiguous supplement which is simultaneously a force of death and a force of life. Habit is, on the one hand, the dulling of life, its mechanization (Hegel characterizes it as a "mechanism of self-feeling"): [3] when something turns into a habit, it means that its vitality is lost, we just mechanically repeat it without being aware of it. Habit thus appears to be the very opposite of freedom: freedom means creative choice, inventing something new, in short, precisely breaking with (old) habits. Think about language, whose "habitual" aspect is best emphasized by standard ritualized greetings: "Hello, how are you? Nice to see you!" – we don’t really mean it when say it, there is no living intention in it, it is just a "habit"...

On the other hand, Hegel emphasizes again and again that there is no freedom without habit: habit provides the background and foundation for every exercise of freedom. Let us, again, take language: in order for us to exercise the freedom in using language, we have to get fully accustomed to it, habituated (in)to it, i.e., we have to learn to practice it, to apply its rules "blindly," mechanically, as a habit: only when a subject externalizes what he learns into mechanized habits, he is "open to be otherwise occupied and engaged." [4] Not only language, a much more complex set of spiritual and bodily activities have to be turned into a habit in order for a human subject to be able to exert his "higher" functions of creative thinking and working – all the operations we are performing all the time mindlessly, walking, eating, holding things, etc.etc., have to be learned and turned into a mindless habit. Through habits, a human being transforms his body into mobile and fluid means, soul’s instrument, which serves as without us having to focus consciously on it – in short, through habits, the subject appropriates his body, as Alain points out in his commentary to Hegel:

When freedom comes it is in the sphere of habit. /…/ Here the body is no longer a foreign being, reacting belligerently against me; rather it is pervaded by soul and has become soul’s instrument and means; yet at the same time, in habit the corporeal self is understood as it truly is; body is rendered something mobile and fluid, able to express directly the inner movements of thought without needing to involve thereby the role of consciousness or reflection. [5]

More radically even, for Hegel, living itself (leading a life) is for us, humans, something we should learn as a habit, starting with birth itself. Recall how, seconds after birth, the baby has to be shaken and thereby reminded to breath – otherwise, it can forget to breath and die… Effectively, as Hegel reminds us, a human being can also die of a habit: "Human beings even die as result of habit – that is, if they have become totally habituated to life, and spiritually and physically blunted." [6] Nothing thus comes "naturally" to human being, including walking and seeing:

The form of habit applies to spirit in all its degrees and varieties. Of all these modifications, the most external is the determination of the individual in relation to space; this, which for man means an upright posture, is something which by his will he has made into a habit. Adopted directly, without thinking, his upright stance continues through the persistent involvement of his will. Man stands upright only because and insofar as he wants to stand, and only as long as he wills to do so without consciousness of it. Similarly, to take another case, the act of seeing, and others like it, are concrete habits which combine in a single act the multiple determinations of sensation, of consciousness, intuition, understanding, and so forth." [7]

Habit is thus "depersonalized" willing, a mechanized emotion: once I get habituated to standing, I will it without consciously willing it, since my will is embodied in the habit. In a habit, presence and absence, appropriation and withdrawal, engagement and disengagement, interest and disinterest, subjectivization and objectivization, consciousness and unconsciousness, are strangely interlinked. Habit is the unconsciousness necessary for the very functioning of consciousness:

"/…/ in habit our consciousness is at the same time present in the subject-matter, interested in it, yet conversely absent from it, indifferent to it; /…/ our Self just as much appropriates the subject-matter as, on the contrary, it draws away from it; /…/ the soul, on the one hand, completely pervades its bodily activities and, on the other hand, deserts them, thus giving them the shape of something mechanical, of a merely natural effect." [8]

And the same goes for my emotions: their display is not purely natural or spontaneous, we learn to cry or laugh at appropriate moments (recall how, for the Japanese, laughter functions in a different way than for us in the West: a smile can also be a sign of embarrassment and shame). The external mechanization of emotions from the ancient Tibetan praying wheel which prays for me to today’s "canned laughter" where the TV set laughs for me, turning my emotional display quite literally into a mechanic display of the machine) is thus based in the fact that emotional displays, including the most "sincere" ones, are already in themselves "mechanized." - However, the highest level (and, already, self-sublation) of a habit is language as the medium of thought – in it, the couple of possession and withdrawal is brought to extreme. The point is not only that, in order to "fluently" speak a language, we have to master its rules mechanically, without thinking about it; much more radically, the co-dependence of insight and blindness determines the very act of understanding: when I hear a word, not only do I immediately abstract from its sound and "see through it" to its meaning (recall the weird experience of becoming aware of the non-transparent vocal stuff of a word – it appears as intrusive and obscene…), but I have to do it if I am to experience meaning.

If, for Hegel, man is fundamentally a being of habits; if habits actualize itself when they are adopted as automatic reactions which occur without subject’s conscious participation; and, finally, if we locate the core of subjectivity in its ability to perform intentional acts, to realize conscious goals; then, paradoxically, the human subject is at its most fundamental a "disappearing subject".

This habit’s "unreflective spontaneity"(70) accounts for the well-known paradox of subjectively choosing an objective necessity, of willing what unavoidably will occur: through its elevation into a habit, a reaction of mine which was first something imposed on me from outside, is internalized, transformed into something that I perform automatically and spontaneously, "from inside":

If an external change is repeated, it turns into a tendency internal to the subject. The change itself is transformed into a disposition, and receptivity, formerly passive, becomes activity. Thus habit is revealed as a process through which man ends by willing or choosing what came to him from outside. Henceforth the will of the individual does not need to oppose the pressure of the external world; the will learns gradually to want what is."(70-71)

What makes habit so central is the temporality it involves: having a habit involves a relationship to future, since habit is a way which prescribes how I will react to some events in the future. Habit is a feature of economizing the organism’s forces, of building a reserve for the future. That is to say, in its habits, subjectivity "embraces in itself its future ways of being, the ways it will become actual."(76) This means that habit also complicates the relationship between possibility and actuality: habit is stricto sensu the actuality of a possibility. What this means is that habit belongs to the level of virtuality (defined by Deleuze precisely as the actuality of the possible): habit is actual, a property (to react in a certain way) that I fully posses here and now, and simultaneously a possibility pointing towards future (the possibility/ability to react in a certain way, which will be actualized in multiple future occasions).

There are interesting conceptual consequences of this notion of habit. Ontologically, with regard to the opposition between particular accidents and universal essence, habit can be designed as the "becoming-essential of the accident"(75): after an externally caused accident repeats itself, it is elevated into the universality of the subject’s inner disposition, i.e., into a feature that belongs to and defines his inner essence. This is why we cannot ever determine the precise beginning of a habit, the point at which external occurrences change into habit – once a habit is here, it obliterates its origin and it is as if it was always-already here. - The conclusion is thus clear, almost Sartrean: man does not have a permanent substance or universal essence; he is in his very core a man of habits, a being whose identity is formed through the elevation of contingent external accidents/encounters into an internal(ized) universal habit. - Does this mean that only humans have habits? Here, Hegel is much more radical – he accomplishes a decisive step further and leaves behind the old topic of nature as fully determined in its closed circular movement versus man as a being of openness and existential freedom: "for Hegel, nature is always second nature"(57). Every natural organism has to regulate the exchange with its environs, the assimilation of the environs into itself, through habitual procedures which "reflect" into the organism, as its inner disposition, its external interactions.

The ontological consequences of this (self-)reflection of the external difference into inner difference are crucial. In one of the unexpected encounters of contemporary philosophy with Hegel, the "Christian materialist" Peter van Inwagen developed the idea that material objects like automobiles, chairs, computers, etc. simply DO NOT EXIST: say, a chair is not effectively, for itself, a chair – all we have is a collection of "simples" (i.e., more elementary objects "arranged chairwise" – so, although a chair functions as a chair, it is composed of a multitude (wood pieces, nails, cushions…) which are, in themselves, totally indifferent towards this arrangement; there is, stricto sensu, no "whole" a nail is here a part of). It is only with organisms that we have a Whole. Here, the unity is minimally "for itself"; parts effectively interact. [9] As it was developed already by Lynn Margulis, the elementary form of life, a cell, is characterized precisely by such a minimum of self-relating, a minimum exclusively through which the limit between Inside and Outside that characterize an organism can emerge. And, as Hegel put it, thought is only a further development of this For-itself.

In biology, for instance, we have, at the level of reality, only bodily interacting. "Life proper" emerges only at the minimally "ideal" level, as an immaterial event which provides the form of unity of the living body as the "same" in the incessant change of its material components. The basic problem of evolutionary cognitivism - that of the emergence of the ideal life-pattern - is none other than the old metaphysical enigma of the relationship between chaos and order, between the Multiple and the One, between parts and their whole. How can we get "order for free," that is, how can order emerge out of initial disorder? How can we account for a whole that is larger than the mere sum of its parts? How can a One with a distinct self-identity emerge out of the interaction of its multiple constituents? A series of contemporary researchers, from Lynn Margulis to Francisco Varela, assert that the true problem is not how an organism and its environs interact or connect, but, rather, the opposite one: how does a distinct self-identical organism emerge out of its environs? How does a cell form the membrane which separates its inside from its outside? The true problem is thus not how an organism adapts to its environs, but how it is that there is something, a distinct entity, which must adapt itself in the first place. And, it is here, at this crucial point, that today's biological language starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. When Varela, for example, explains his notion of autopoiesis, he repeats, almost verbatim, the Hegelian notion of life as a teleological, self-organizing entity. His central notion, that of a loop or bootstrap, points towards the Hegelian Setzung der Voraussetzungen:

Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It's specific to the cellular level. There's a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organizing network of biochemical reactions produces molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produces the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what's unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn't require an external agent to notice it, or to say, 'I'm here.' It is, by itself, a self-distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics. [10]

The conclusion to be drawn is thus that the only way to account for the emergence of the distinction between the "inside" and "outside" constitutive of a living organism is to posit a kind of self-reflexive reversal by means of which - to put it in Hegelese - the One of an organism as a Whole retroactively "posits" as its result, as that which it dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes (i.e., the very multiple process out of which it emerged). In this way - and only in this way - an organism is no longer limited by external conditions, but is fundamentally self-limited - again, as Hegel would have articulated it, life emerges when the external limitation (of an entity by its environs) turns into self-limitation. This brings us back to the problem of infinity: for Hegel, true infinity does not stand for limitless expansion, but for active self-limitation (self-determination) in contrast to being-determined-by-the-other. In this precise sense, life (even at its most elementary: as a living cell) is the basic form of true infinity, since it already involves the minimal loop by means of which a process is no longer simply determined by the Outside of its environs, but is itself able to (over)determine the mode of this determination and thus "posits its presuppositions." Infinity acquires its first actual existence the moment a cell's membrane starts to functions as a self-boundary.

Back to habits: because of the virtual status of habits, to adopt a (new) habit is not simply to change an actual property of the subject; rather, it involves a kind of reflexive change, a change of the subject’s disposition which determines his reaction to changes, i.e., a change in the very mode of changes to which the subject is submitted: "Habit does not simply introduce mutability into something that would otherwise continue without changing; it suggests change within a disposition, within its potentiality, within the internal character of that in which the change occurs, which does not change." [11] This is what Hegel means by self-differentiation as the "sublation" of externally imposed changes into self-changes, of external into internal difference - only organic bodies self-differentiate themselves: an organic body maintains its unity by internalizing an externally imposed change into habit to deal with future such changes.

If, however, this is the case, if all (organic, at least) nature already is second nature, in what, then, does the difference between animal and human habits consist? Hegel’s most provocative and unexpected contribution concerns this very question of the genesis of human habits: in his Anthropology (which opens Philosophy of Spirit) we find a unique "genealogy of habits" reminding us of Nietzsche. This part of Philosophy of Spirit is one of the hidden, not yet fully exploited, treasures of the Hegelian system, where we find the clearest traces of what one cannot but name the dialectical-materialist aspect of Hegel: the passage from nature to (human) spirit is here developed not as a direct outside intervention of Spirit, as a direct intervention of another dimension disturbing the balance of the natural circuit, but as the result of a long and tortuous "working through" by means of which intelligence (embodied in language) emerges from natural tensions and antagonisms. [12] This passage is not direct, i.e., Spirit (in the guise of speech-mediated human intelligence) does not directly confront and dominate biological processes – Spirit’s "material base" forever remains the pre-symbolic (pre-linguistic) habit.

So how does habit itself arise? In his genealogy, Hegel conceives habit as the third, concluding, moment of the dialectical process of the Soul, whose structure follows the triad of notion – judgment – syllogism. At the beginning, there is Soul in its immediate unity, in its simple notion, the "feeling soul": "In the sensations which arise from the individual’s encounter with external objects, the soul begins to awaken itself."(32) The Self is here a mere "sentient Self," not yet a subject opposed to objects, but just experiencing a sensation in which the two sides, subject and object, are immediately united: when I experience a sensation of touch, this sensation is simultaneously the trace of the external object I am touching and my inner reaction to it; sensation is a Janus-life two-faced entity in which subjective and objective immediately coincide. Even in later stages of the individual’s development, this "sentient Self" survives in the guise of what Hegel calls "magical relationship," referring to phenomena that, in Hegel’s times, were designated with terms like "magnetic somnambulism" (hypnosis), all the phenomena in which my Soul is directly - in a pre-reflexive, non-thinking way - linked to external processes and affected by them. Instead of bodies influencing each other at a distance (the Newtonian gravity), we have spirits influencing each other at a distance. Here, the Soul remains at the lowest level of its functioning, directly immersed in its environs. (What Freud called the "oceanic feeling," the source of religious experience, is thus for Hegel a feature of the lowest level of the soul.) What the Soul lacks here is a clear self-feeling, a feeling of itself as distinguished from external reality, which is what happens in the next moment, that of judgment (Urteil – Hegel mobilizes here the wordplay of Urteil with Ur-Teil, "primordial divide/division"):

The sensitive totality is, in its capacity as an individual, essentially the tendency to distinguish itself in itself, and to wake up to the judgment in itself, in virtue of which it has particular feelings and stands as a subject in respect of these aspects of itself. The subject as such gives these feelings a place as its own in itself. [13]

All problems arise from this paradoxical short-circuit of the feeling of Self becoming a specific feeling among others, and, simultaneously, the encompassing container of all feelings, the site where all dispersed feelings can be brought together. Malabou provides a wonderfully precise formulation of this paradox of the feeling of Self:

Even if there is a possibility of bringing together feeling’s manifold material, that possibility itself becomes part of the objective content. The form needs to be the content of all that it forms: subjectivity does not reside in its own being, it ‘haunts’ itself. The soul is possessed by the possession of itself. (35)

This is the crucial feature: possibility itself has to actualize itself, to become a fact, or, the form needs to become part of its own content (or, to add a further variation on the same motif, the frame itself has to become part of the enframed content). The subject is the frame/form/horizon of his world AND part of the enframed content (of the reality he observes), and the problem is that he cannot see/locate himself within his own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible – or, as the early Wittgenstein put it: "Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits."(Tractatus 6.4311) Like the field of vision, life is finite, and, for that very reason, we cannot ever see its limit – in this precise sense, "eternal life belongs to those who live in the present" (ibid.): precisely because we are WITHIN our finitude, we cannot step out of it and perceive its limitation. The possibility to locate oneself within one’s reality has to remain a possibility – however, and therein resides the crucial point, this possibility itself has to actualize itself qua possibility, to be active, to exert influence, qua possibility.

There is a link to Kant here, to the old enigma of what, exactly, Kant had in mind with his notion of "transcendental apperception," of self-consciousness accompanying every act of my consciousness (when I am conscious of something, I am thereby always also conscious of the fact that I am conscious of this)? Is it not an obvious fact that this is empirically not true, that I am not always reflexively aware of my awareness itself? The way interpreters try to resolve this deadlock is by way of claiming that every conscious act of mine can be potentially rendered self-conscious: if I want, I always can turn my attention to what I am doing. This, however, is not strong enough: the transcendental apperception cannot be an act that never effectively happens, that just could have happened at any point. The solution of this dilemma is precisely the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces/has actual effects. One should oppose this oppose Deleuze's notion of the Virtual to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. Let us take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only approach it in an endless fashion, never reaching its form - the existence of this form is purely virtual, being nothing more than the shape towards which lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate. Is not this Virtual ultimately the Symbolic as such? Let us take symbolic authority: in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat.

This, then, is the status of Self: its self-awareness is as it were the actuality of its own possibility.

Section II

What "haunts" the subject is his inaccessible noumenal Self, the "Thing that thinks," an object in which the subject would fully "encounter himself." (Hume drew a lot – too much – of mileage out of this observation on how, upon introspection, all I perceive in myself are my particular ideas, sensations, emotions, never my "Self" itself.) Of course, for Kant, the same goes for every object of my experience which is always phenomenal, i.e., inaccessible in its noumenal dimension; however, with the Self, the impasse is accentuated: all other objects of experience are given to me phenomenally, but, in the case of subject, I cannot even get a phenomenal experience of me – since I am dealing with "myself," in this unique case, phenomenal self-experience would equal noumenal access, i.e., if I were to be able to experience "myself" as a phenomenal object, I would thereby eo ipso experience myself in my noumenal identity, as a Thing.

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject to objectivize himself: the subject is singular AND the universal frame of "his world," i.e., every content he perceives is "his own"; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) into the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position, and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an "objective" view of reality with himself in it. The thing that haunts the subject is HIMSELF in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. – So when Hegel writes:

The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement (Verruecktheit). [14]

Hegel has to be read here in a very precise way. His point is not simply that madness signals a short-circuit between totality and one of its particular moments, a "fixation" of totality in this moment on account of which the totality is deprived of its dialectical fluidity – although some of his formulations may appear to point in this direction. (Is paranoiac fixation not such a short-circuit in which the totality of my experience gets non-dialectically "fixated" onto a particular moment, the idea of my persecutor?) The "particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid" and resists being "reduced to its proper place and rank" is THE SUBJECT HIMSELF, more precisely: the feature (signifier) that re-presents him (holds his place) within the structured ("systematized") totality, and since the subject cannot ever objectivize himself, the "contradiction" is here absolute.

(Upon a closer look, it becomes clear that the Hegelian notion of madness oscillates between the two extremes which one is tempted to call, with reference to Benjamin’s notion of violence, constitutive and constituted madness. First, there is the constitutive madness: the radical "contradiction" of the human condition itself, between the subject as "nothing," as the evanescent punctuality and the subject as "all," as the horizon of its world. Then, there is the "constituted" madness: the direct fixation to, identification with, a particular feature as an attempt to resolve (or, rather, cut short) the contradiction. In a way homologous with the ambiguity of the Lacanian notion of objet petit a, madness names at the same time the contradiction/void and the attempt to resolve it.)

With this gap, the possibility of madness emerges – and, as Hegel puts it in proto-Foucauldian terms, madness is not an accidental lapse, distortion, "illness" of human spirit, but something which is inscribed into individual spirit’s basic ontological constitution: to be a human means to be potentially mad:

This interpretation of insanity as a necessarily occurring form or stage in the development of the soul is naturally not to be understood as if we were asserting that every mind, every soul, must go through this stage of extreme derangement. Such an assertion would be as absurd as to assume that because in the Philosophy of Right crime is considered as a necessary manifestation of the human will, therefore to commit crime is an inevitable necessity for every individual. Crime and insanity are extremes which the human mind in general has to overcome in the course of its development. [15]

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as "normal" subjects, which means that "normality" can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel put it a couple of pages later, "insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition" [16] – Hegel evokes here the relationship between the abstract and the concrete: although, in empirical development and state of things, abstract determinations are always-already embedded in a concrete Whole as their presupposition, the notional reproduction/deduction of this Whole has to progress from the abstract to the concrete: crimes presuppose the rule of law, they can only occur as their violation, but must be nonetheless grasped as an abstract act that is "sublated" through the law; abstract legal relations and morality are de facto always embedded in some concrete totality of Customs, but, nonetheless, The Philosophy of Right has to progress from the abstract moments of legality and morality to the concrete Whole of Customs (family, civil society, state). The interesting point here is not only the parallel between madness and crime, but the fact that madness is located in a space opened up by the discord between actual historical development and its conceptual rendering, i.e., in the space which undermines the vulgar-evolutionist notion of dialectical development as the conceptual reproduction of the factual historical development which purifies the latter of its empirical insignificant contingencies. Insofar as madness de facto presupposes normality, while, conceptually, it precedes normality, one can say that a "madman" is precisely the subject who wants to "live" - to reproduce in actuality itself – the conceptual order, i.e., to act as if madness also effectively precedes normality.

We can see, now, in what precise sense habits form the third, concluding, moment of this triad, its "syllogism": in a habit, the subject finds a way to "possess itself," to stabilize its own inner content in "having" as its property a habit, i.e., not a positive actual feature, but a virtual entity, a universal disposition to (re)act in a certain way. Habit and madness are to be thought together: habit is the way to stabilize the imbalance of madness.

Another way to approach this same topic is via the relationship between soul and body as the Inner and the Outer, of their circular relationship in which body expresses the soul and the soul receives impressions from the body – the Soul is always-already embodied and the Body always-already impregnated with its Soul:

What the sentient self finds within it is, on the one hand, the naturally immediate, as ‘ideally’ in it and made its own. On the other hand and conversely, what originally belongs to the central individuality /…/ is determined as natural corporeity, and is so felt. [17]

So, on the one hand, through feelings and perceptions, I internalize objects that affect me from outside: in a feeling, they are present in me not in their raw reality, but "ideally," as part of my mind. On the other hand, through grimaces, etc., my body immediately "gives body" to my inner Soul which thoroughly impregnates it. However, if this were to be the entire truth, then man would have been simply a "prisoner of his state of nature"(67), moving in the close loop of absolute transparency provided by the mutual mirroring of body and soul. (Physiognomy and phrenology remain at this level, as well as today’s New Age ideologies enjoining us to express/realize our true Self.) What happens with the moment of "judgment" is that the loop of this closed circle is broken – not but the intrusion of an external element, but by a self-referentiality which twists this circle into itself. That is to say, the problem is that, "since the individual is at the same time only what he has done, his body is also the expression of himself which he has himself produced." [18] What this means is that there process of corporeal self-expression has no pre-existing Referent as its mooring point: the entire movement is thoroughly self-referential, it is only through the process of "expression" (externalization in bodily signs) that the expressed Inner Self (the content of these signs) is retroactively created – or, as Malabou puts it concisely: "Psychosomatic unity results from an auto-interpretation independent of any referent."(71)

The transparent mirroring of the Soul and the Body in the natural expressivity thus turns into total opacity:

If a work signifies itself, this implies that there is no ‘outside’ of the work, that the work acts as its own referent: it presents what it interprets at the same moment it interprets it, forming one and the same manifestation. /…/ The spiritual bestows form, but only because it is itself formed in return."(72)

What this "lack of any ontological guarantee outside the play of significations"(68) means is that the meaning of our gestures and speech acts is always haunted by the spirit of irony: when I say A, it is always possible that I do it in order to conceal the fact that I am non-A – Hegel refers Lichtenberg’s well-known aphorism: "You certainly act like an honest man, but I see from your face that you are forcing yourself to do so and are a rogue at heart." [19]

The ambiguity is here total and undecidable, because the deception is the one that Lacan designates as specifically human, namely the possibility of lying in the guise of truth. Which is why it goes even further than the quote from Lichtenberg – the reproach should rather be: "You act like an honest man in order to convince us that you mean it ironically, and thus to conceal from us the fact that you really ARE an honest man!" This is what Hegel means in his precise claim that, "for the individuality, it is as much its countenance as its mask which it can lay aside": [20] in the gap between appearance (mask) and my true inner stance, the truth can be either in my inner stance or in my mask. What this means is that the emotions I perform through the mask (false persona) that I adopt can in a strange way be more authentic and truthful than what I really feel in myself. When I construct a false image of myself which stands for me in a virtual community in which I participate (in sexual games, for example, a shy man often assumes the screen persona of an attractive promiscuous woman), the emotions I feel and feign as part of my screen persona are not simply false: although (what I experience as) my true self does not feel them, they are nonetheless in a sense "true." Say, what if, deep in myself, I am a sadist pervert who dreams of beating other men and raping women; in my real-life interaction with other people, I am not allowed to enact this true self, so I adopt a more humble and polite persona – is it not that, in this case, my true self is much closer to what I adopt as a fictional screen-persona, while the self of my real-life interactions is a mask concealing the violence of my true self?

Habit provides the way out of this predicament – how? Not "true expression," but by putting the truth in "mindless" expression: Hegel’s constant motif, truth is in what you SAY, not in what you MEAN to say. Exemplary is here the enigmatic status of what we call "politeness": when, upon meeting an acquaintance, I say "Glad to see you! How are you today?", it is clear to both of us that, in a way, I "do not mean it seriously" (if my partner suspects that I am really interested, he may even be unpleasantly surprised, as though I were aiming at something too intimate and of no concern to me - or, to paraphrase the old Freudian joke, "Why are you saying you're glad to see me, when you're really glad to see me!?"). However, it would nonetheless be wrong to designate my act as simply "hypocritical," since, in another way, I do mean it: the polite exchange does establish a kind of pact between the two of us; in the same sense as I do "sincerely" laugh through the canned laughter (the proof of it being the fact that I effectively do "feel relieved" afterwards). This brings us to one of the possible definitions of a madman: the subject who is unable to enter this logic of "sincere lies," so that, when, say, a friend greets him "Nice to see you! How are you?", he explodes: "Are you really glad to see me or are you just pretending it? And who gave you the right to probe into my state?"

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Orlando is passionately in love with Rosalind who, in order to test his love, disguises herself as Ganymede and, as a male companion, interrogates Orlando about his love. She even takes on the personality of Rosalind (in a redoubled masking, she pretends to be herself, i.e., to be Ganymede who plays to be Rosalind) and persuades her friend Celia (also disguised as Aliena) to marry them in a mock ceremony. In this ceremony, Rosalind literally feigns to feign to be what she is: truth itself, in order to win, has to be staged in a redoubled deception – in a homologous way to All’s Well in which marriage, in order to be asserted, has to be consummated in the guise of an extramarital affair.

The same overlapping of appearance with truth is often at work in one’s ideological self-perception. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the "anonymous kingdom of the Republic." [21] The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they all the time generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. What they were effectively doing was to establish the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very "inner" royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism – it was what provided the passion to their activity. Is it not, then, that the deputees of the Party of Order were also feigning to feign to be republicans, be what they really were?

Hegel’s radical conclusion is that the sign with which we are dealing here, in corporeal expressions, "in truth signifies nothing (in Wahrheit nicht bezeichnet)." [22] Habit is thus a strange sign which "signifies the fact that it signifies nothing"(67) – what Hoelderlin put forward as the formula of our destitute predicament, of an era in which, because gods have abandoned us, we are "signs without meaning," acquires here an unexpected positive interpretation. And we should take Hegel’s formula literally: the "nothing" in it has a positive weight, i.e., the sign which "in truth signifies nothing" is what Lacan calls signifier, that which represents the subject for another signifier. The "nothing" is the void of the subject itself, so that the absence of an ultimate reference means that absence itself is the ultimate reference, and this absence is the subject itself. - This s why Malabou writes:

Spirit is not that which is expressed by its expressions; it is that which originally terrifies spirit. (68)

The dimension of haunting, the link between spirit qua the light of Reason and spirit qua obscene ghosts, is crucial here: spirit/Reason is forever, by a structural necessity, haunted by the obscene apparitions of its own spirit.

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity - an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him - or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here - pure self - in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head - there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye - into a night that becomes awful. [23]

Again, one should not be blinded by the poetic power of this description, but read it precisely. The first thing to note is how the objects which freely float around in this "night of the world" are membra disjecta, partial objects, objects detached from their organic Whole – is there not a strange echo between this description and Hegel’s description of the negative power of Understanding which is able to abstract an entity (a process, a property) from its substantial context and treat it as if it has an existence of its own? - "that the accidental as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power of the negative." [24] It is thus as if, in the ghastly scenery of the "night of the world," we encounter something like the power of Understanding in its natural state, spirit in the guise of a proto-spirit – this, perhaps, is the most precise definition of horror: when a higher state of development violently inscribes itself in the lower state, in its ground/presupposition, where it cannot but appear as a monstrous mess, a disintegration of order, a terrifying unnatural combination of natural elements. With regards to today’s science, where do we encounter its horror at its purest? When genetic manipulations go awry and generate objects never seen in nature, freaks like goats with a gigantic ear instead of a head or a head with one eye, meaningless accidents which nonetheless touch our deeply repressed fantasies and thus trigger wild interpretations. The pure Self as the "inner of nature" (a strange expression, since, for Hegel, nature, precisely, has no interior: its ontological status is that of externality, not only externality with regard to some presupposed Interior, but externality with regard to itself) stands for this paradoxical short-circuit of the super-natural (spiritual) in its natural state – why does it occur? The only consistent answer is a materialist one: because spirit is part of nature, and can occur/arise only through a monstrous self/affliction (distortion, derangement) of nature. Therein resides the paradox of the materialist edge of cheap spiritualism: it is precisely because spirit is part of nature, because spirit does not intervene into nature already constituted, ready-made somewhere else, but has to emerge out of nature through its derangement, that there is no spirit (Reason) without spirits (obscene ghosts), that spirit is forever haunted by spirits.

And this brings us back to our starting question: the change from animal to properly human habit. Only humans, spiritual beings, are haunted by spirits – why? Not simply because, in contrast to animals, they have access to universality, but because this universality is for them simultaneously necessary and impossible, i.e., a problem. In other words, while, for human subjects, the place of universality is prescribed, it has to remain empty, it cannot ever be filled in by its "proper" content. The specificity of man thus concerns the relationship between universal essence and its accidents: for animals, accidents remain mere accidents; only human being posits universality as such, relates to it, and can therefore reflectively elevate accidents into universal essence. THIS IS WHY man is a "generic being" (Marx): to paraphrase Heidegger’s definition of Dasein, man is a being for which its genus is for itself a problem: "Man can ‘present the genus’ to the degree that habit is the unforeseen element of the genus."(74)

This formulation opens up an unexpected link to the notion of hegemony as it was developed by Ernesto Laclau: there is forever a gap between the universality of man’s genus and the particular habits which fill in its void; habits are always "unexpected," contingent, an accident elevated to universal necessity. The predominance of one or another habit is the result of a struggle for hegemony, for which accident will occupy the empty place of the universality. That is to say, with regard to the relationship between universality and particularity, the "contradiction" in the human condition – a human subject perceives reality from the singular viewpoint of subjectivity and, simultaneously, perceives himself as included into this same reality as its part, as an object in it – means that the subject has to presuppose universality (there is a universal order, some kind of "Great Chain of Being," of which he is a part), while, simultaneously, it is forever impossible for him to entirely fill in this universality with its particular content, to harmonize the Universal and the Particular (since his approach to reality is forever marked – colored, twisted, distorted – by his singular perspective). Universality is always simultaneously necessary and impossible.

As to Ernesto Laclau's concept of hegemony which provides an exemplary matrix of the relationship between universality, historical contingency and the limit of an impossible Real - one should always keep in mind that we are dealing here with a distinct concept whose specificity is often missed (or reduced to some proto-Gramscian vague generality) by those who refer to it. The key feature of the concept of hegemony resides in the contingent connection between intrasocial differences (elements WITHIN the social space) and the limit that separates Society itself from non-Society (chaos, utter decadence, dissolution of all social links) - the limit between the Social and its exteriority, the non-Social, can only articulate itself in the guise of a difference (by mapping itself onto a difference) between elements of social space. In other words, radical antagonism can only be represented in a distorted way, through the particular differences internal to the system; external differences are always-already also internal, and, furthermore, that the link between the two is ultimately contingent, the result of political struggle for hegemony.

The standard anti-Hegelian counter-argument here is, of course: but is this irreducible gap between the Universal (frame) and its particular content not what characterizes the Kantian finite subjectivity? Is not the Hegelian "concrete universality" the most radical expression of the fantasy of full reconciliation between the Universal and the Particular? Is its basic feature not the self-generation of the entire particular content out of the self-movement of universality itself? Against this common reproach, one should insist on how Laclau's notion of hegemony is effectively close to the Hegelian notion of "concrete universality" in which the specific difference overlaps with the difference constitutive of the genus itself, as in Laclau's hegemony in which the antagonistic gap between society and its external limit, non-society (the dissolution of social link), is mapped onto an intra-social structural difference. Laclau himself rejects the Hegelian "reconciliation" between Universal and Particular on behalf of the gap that forever separates the empty/impossible Universal from the contingent particular content that hegemonizes it. If, however, we take a closer look at Hegel, we see that - insofar as every particular species of a genus doesn't "fit" its universal genus - when we finally arrive at a particular species that fully fits its notion, the very universal notion is transformed into another notion. No existing historical shape of State fully fits the notion of State - the necessity of dialectical passage from State ("objective spirit," history) into Religion ("absolute spirit") involves the fact that the only existing State that effectively fits its notion is a religious community - which, precisely, is no longer a State. Here we encounter the properly dialectical paradox of "concrete universality" qua historicity: in the relationship between a genus and its subspecies, one of these subspecies will always be the element that negates the very universal feature of the genus. Different nations have different versions of soccer; Americans do not have soccer, because "baseball IS their soccer." Se also Hegel's famous claim that modern people do not pray in the morning, because reading the newspaper IS their morning prayer. In the same way, in the disintegrating socialism, writers' and other cultural clubs did act as political parties. Perhaps, in the history of cinema, the best example is the relationship between western and sci-fi space operas: today, we no longer have "substantial" westerns, because space operas OCCUPIED THEIR PLACE, i.e. space operas ARE today's westerns. So, in the classification of westerns, we would have to supplement the standard subspecies with space opera as today's non-western stand-in for western. Crucial is here this intersection of different genuses, this partial overlapping of two universals: western and space opera are not simply two different genres, they INTERSECT, i.e. in a certain epoch, space opera becomes a subspecies of western (or, western is "sublated" in space opera)... In the same way, "woman" becomes one of the subspecies of man, Heideggerian Daseinsanalyse one of the subspecies of phenomenology, "sublating" the preceding universality.

The impossible point of "self-objectivization" would have been precisely the point at which universality and its particular content would have been fully harmonized – in short, where there would have been no struggle for hegemony. And this brings us back to madness: its most succinct definition is that of a DIRECT harmony between universality and its accidents, of the cancellation of the gap that separates the two – for a madman, the object which is my impossible stand-in within objectal reality loses its virtual character and becomes its full integral part. - In contrast to madness, habit avoids this trap of direct identification by way of its virtual character: the subject’s identification with a habit is not a direct identification with some positive feature, but the identification with a disposition, with a virtuality. Habit is the outcome of a struggle for hegemony: it is an accident elevated to "essence," to universal necessity, i.e., made to fill in its empty place.


  1. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, temporality and Dialectic. NYC: Routledge, 2004.
  2. I owe this observation to Caroline Schuster (Chicago).
  3. Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 410, Remark.
  4. Encyclopaedia, Par. 410.
  5. Alain, Idées, Paris: Flammarion 1983, p. 200 (quoted from Malabou, p. 36).
  6. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Par. 151, Addition.
  7. Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 410, Addition.
  8. Encyclopaedia, Par. 410, Addition.
  9. Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1990.
  10. Francisco Varela, "The Emergent Self," in John Brockman, ed. The Third Culture, New York: Simon and Schuster 1996, p. 212.
  11. Felix Ravaisson, De l’habitude, Paris: Fayard 1984, p. 10; quoted from Malabou 58.
  12. Hegel makes this point clear in his Logic: "The activity of thought which is at work in all our ideas, purposes, interests and actions is, as we have said, unconsciously busy /…/ [E]ach individual animal is such individual primarily because it is an animal: if this is true, then it would be impossible to say what such an individual could still be if this foundation were removed."(Science of Logic, p. 36-37).
  13. Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 407.
  14. Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 40.
  15. Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 408, Zusatz.
  16. ibid
  17. Encyclopaedia, Par. 401.
  18. Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 185.
  19. Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 193.
  20. Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 191.
  21. See Karl Marx, "Class Struggles in France," Collected Works, Vol. 10, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978, p. 95.
  22. Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 191.
  23. G.W.F. Hegel, "Jenaer Realphilosophie," in Fruehe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel's Recollection, Albany: Suny Press 1985, pp. 7-8. – In Encyclopaedia also, Hegel mentions the "night-like abyss within which a world of infinitely numerous images and presentations is preserved without being in consciousness" (Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, Par. 453). Hegel’s historical source is here Jacob Bohme.
  24. Phenomenology, p. 18-19.