Concrete universality

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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Any attempt to present a “Žižekian” position is fraught with difficulty, not the least of which is Žižek’s own rather unsystematic approach to doing philosophy. One must fish around in Žižek’s writings and try to piece together a unified and coherent doctrine, and the result will be at best tentative. My own approach is to take suggestions from his writings and then attempt to fill them out a bit, drawing out what I take to be their implications and trying to add flesh to the skeletal character of these hints and gestures that invite further enquiry. Although not a Heideggerian phenomenologist, Žižek’s manner of writing philosophy might be characterized in a way similar to Heidegger’s own characterization of his writing as formale Anzeigeformal indications or hints that require the reader’s involvement and participation in opening up and disclosing the matter of enquiry in order to bring them to completion (Dahlstrom 1994).

The problem with the abstract universal is that it fails to include its particular content, thereby becoming itself something particular over and against the particulars it cannot include. In order for universality to become concrete, it cannot remain indifferent with respect to its particular content but must somehow include itself among its particulars (TS: 92). Th is stipulation provides us with a benchmark against which to measure whether or not concrete universality has been adequately conceived.

Žižek initially lists “three main versions of the relationship between the Universal and its particular content” (TS: 100). The first is “neutral” universality, exemplified by the Cartesian cogito, which is alike in all individual subjects, indifferent to ethnicity, gender, and so on. Even though neutral universality makes a general equivalence possible and so grounds political equality, when measured against Žižek’s benchmark we see that it does not include itself among its particulars but rather remains indifferent to its own non-neutral content and so falls short of concrete universality.

The second version is what Žižek calls “symptomatic” universality, which regards neutral universality as a veneer behind which lies a very particular and arbitrarily privileged content, the exposure of which reveals neutral universality to be a pretence. For example, the supposed gender-neutral and colour-blind universality of the modern rights-bearing individual is unmasked and revealed to be the particularity of white male property owners. In its strongest statement this version indicts the very concept of universality per se as a form of domination that has an interest in downplaying or erasing particular differences behind a façade of neutrality that is actually loaded in favour of a particular party. But since this symptomatic version conceives universality as an ideological falsehood that is undermined by the particular content it conceals, universality once again is not included in its particulars but merely falls away as illusory and so fails to meet Žižek’s benchmark for concrete universality. This version more or less loses universality in particularity.

The third version is “hegemonic” universality, for which Žižek looks to the work of Laclau. In this version the universal itself is purely formal and empty, standing in need of some particular content to fill it. Since it has no determinacy in itself that would specify its content, however, it can only be “hegemonized by some particular content that acts as its stand-in”. Universality in this sense is a kind of “battleground on which the multitude of particular contents fight for hegemony” (TS: 100–101). This battle can never be ultimately resolved, and with each temporary resolution a particular content in effect says “I am the true universal.” Once this is normalized (which we might regard as the sine qua non of winning the battle), a particular content comes to be seen as the default universal.

Žižek seems to favour this version in what he will also call a “struggling universality” (PD: 109), claiming that “each apparently universal ideological notion is always hegemonized by some particular content which colours its very universality” (TS: 175), and asserting that “a situation becomes ‘politicized’ when a particular demand starts to function as a stand-in for the impossible universal” (TS: 233). But does the hegemonic universal fulfil Žižek’s benchmark? In this version, universality does appear to come closer to including itself among its particulars in so far as it is “hegemonized by some particular content which colours its very universality”. Th e question, however, is whether this “colouring” belongs to universality per se or is merely the contamination by a particular content that cannot claim to be universal in its own right. If the latter, the status of the particular hegemon – whether dominant or oppressed – will not alter the fact that universality is once again a façade whose reality lies in a particular content, leaving us again with an abstract universal.

Žižek states of the hegemonic universal that it “always asserts itself in the guise of some particular content which claims to embody it directly, excluding all other content as merely particular” (TS: 101). If we evaluate this version of universality by Žižek’s own benchmark, it can immediately be seen that the universal, in so far as it is an empty formality, not only cannot include itself among its particulars but cannot include any particulars at all. Far from being “concrete”, the universal is actually “impossible”, and hence some particular content must be substituted for it. Th e only thing that “asserts itself” is some particular stand-innot the universal itself, which as such remains an empty impossibility. In the end we wind up with particularity, not universality at all, and so the “guise” here would seem to be not universality in the guise of particularity but rather the other way around – a particular content in the guise of universality. Far from being included in its particular content, in this view universality as such is precisely excluded and replaced by a substitute.

Now although it may initially seem that Žižek favours the hegemonic universal, there is a further form of universality that Žižek indicates and that requires development. Taking the Lacanian phrase he employs here, I will call this version the “constitutive exception”. Although Žižek does approach this version by way of Laclau and it is not always clear from his account whether or not he conflates it with the hegemonized universal, I think that it is more promising to treat it as a distinct conception if we are looking for a concrete universality that is not an abstract neutrality, a façade concealing particular interests, or an empty formality hegemonized by some particular substitute that cannot claim normative validity. Indeed, Žižek suggests that:

it is not enough to claim that concrete universality is articulated into a texture of particular constellations, of situations in which a specific content hegemonises the universal notion; one should also bear in mind that all these particular exemplifications of the universality in question are branded by the sign of their ultimate failure. (TS: 103)

If the particular exemplifications that hegemonize universality are marked by their ultimate failure, this leaves open the possibility of a universality that might not be such a failure. Žižek initially appeals to a musical analogy according to which a violin concerto functions as the universal and the actual violin concertos that are written and performed throughout its varied history count as the particulars. Here the particulars are not mere instances of a pre-given universal, but rather serve to actualize what the universal itself is, that is, they successively determine what counts as a successful violin concerto and thereby determine what the universal is. As Žižek puts it, this sense of the universal is:

a process or a sequence of particular attempts that do not simply exemplify the neutral universal notion but struggle with it, give a specific twist to it – the universal is thus fully engaged in the process of its particular exemplification; that is to say, these particular cases, in a way, decide the fate of the universal notion itself. (TS: 102)

The upshot here is that Žižek wants to see the particular cases as actually determining what the universal is, above and beyond being merely an instance of or a substitute for some predetermined idea of universality. If this process of determining is externally imposed – as, say, in the conception of a contingent particular content hegemonizing an empty universality – then the only “universality” present would be merely the power of asserting hegemony over others in the field that, as a mere particular power over and against those others, remains a false universal. On the other hand, if this process of determining necessarily follows in some way from the universal itself, or if the universal is determined by the particular cases in such a way that it remains a universal rather than a substitute, then the universal would indeed assert itself as its particular content and we would have a concrete universality by our benchmark, a universal that includes itself in its own particularity.

Further clarification of the constitutive exception is gained by Žižek’s argument that the Marxist notion of exploitation is not simply opposed to the idea of just and equitable exchange. That is, one cannot eliminate exploitation by merely ensuring that workers are paid the full value of their labour. Rather, exploitation lies in the commodification of workers themselves. When labour itself becomes a commodity that is exchanged on the market along with other commodities, exploitation comes into being – regardless of how well the workers are paid. In the midst of all the commodities exchanged on the market, one commodity stands out as an exception that does not belong with the rest – the human being who works. The exploitive relationship comes to light when the exception is made to function within an exchange system as if it were nothing more than another commodity alongside others.

This emergence of exploitation through the exception in turn coincides with “the universalization of the exchange function: the moment the exchange function is universalized – that is, the moment it becomes the structuring principle of the whole of economic life – the exception emerges, since at this point the workforce itself becomes a commodity exchanged on the market” (TS, 180). Žižek’s point is that the process of universalization here (i.e. that of the exchange function) actually hinges on the exception, making it a constitutive exception. The exception thus constitutes the rule rather than merely falling outside of it. If the exception were an exception in the everyday sense – that is, if it merely fell outside the rule of universal exchange – then the rule would not be universal. Its universality here consists in the inclusion under it of the exception, and hence it is only through the exception that it becomes the rule, that is, a universalized function. Invoking the symptomatic version of universality, however, Žižek asserts that the excessive element actually undermines universality: “The symptom is an example which subverts the Universal whose example it is” (TS: 180). But before we simply give up on universality, we have to consider whether it is universality per se that is undermined or merely the abstract form of universality whose neutrality conceals the particularity underlying it. If the latter, then there may still be room for a better conception of universality that is not so undermined.

At this point, Žižek indicates a shift that has occurred in the analysis. Whereas previously a gap emerged between the universal itself (as an ideological illusion in the symptomatic universal or as empty formality in the hegemonic universal), on the one hand, and the particular content, on the other, now that gap has emerged within the particular content itself, that is, between the particular as assertion of universality and the exception within that particular content that subverts the universality it claims to be. Žižek keeps to his example here – the universality of justice is an empty formality whose content is hegemonized by the bourgeois notion of a just and equivalent exchange – but this particular stand-in for the empty universal necessarily includes the exploitive commodifi cation of human labour that undermines its pretension to universal justice. To put it another way, the gap between universal and particular now emerges within the particular itself – between the universal the particular claims to be and the constitutive exception within it that undermines that claim. To be sure, this universal is still seen to be undermined or “subverted”. Nevertheless, even as such a subverted universal, it now appears within the particular rather than being set off against it, and this brings us one step closer to the idea of a universality that includes itself among its particular contents. Th is is something neither the symptomatic nor the hegemonic universal could do, in so far as in these conceptions universality was always set off against the particular and so could not appear within it as universal.

It is in and through this development that Žižek arrives at the “individual” or singularity, the third stage in the Hegelian triad of universality–particularity– singularity. The constitutive exception is singular in its exceptional character – it stands alone among the other particulars, not as a particular kind over and against them (which would make it only particular) but as an exception to the very idea that it is a “kind” at all. In other words, its exceptional character is the same thing as its subversion of the abstract universality of which it is supposed to be an instance, and it thereby stands out as singular.