In the work of Slavoj Žižek
Žižek reverses the traditional view of the universal, a view commonly associ- ated with the notion of an empty neutral container that either encompasses or serves as a collection of particulars. For Žižek the universal is not situated to the particular as container is to content. Instead he makes clear that the rela- tionship between universality and particularity is a dynamic one. In the properly dialectical relationship between the universal and the particular, “the difference is not on the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal” (PV: 34). Difference as universal cuts across all particularity. Difference then disrupts any attempt of the universal simply to harbour various particulars within itself, as in the standard charting of genus to species.
The universal is not the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities; the universal “as such” is the site of an unbearable antagonism, self-contradiction, and (the mul- titude of) its particular species are ultimately nothing but so many attempts to obfuscate/reconcile/master this antagonism. In other words, the universal names the site of a problem-deadlock, of a burning question, and the particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem. The concept of state, for instance, names a certain problem: how to contain the class antagonism of a society? All particular forms of state are so many (failed) attempts to find a solution to this problem (LN: 782; PV: 34–5; MC: 49).
The point we need to take away here is that universality is continually at war with itself; it is its own deadlock, and the space of emergence of universality is precisely this space wherein different particularities attempt to resolve this deadlock. As a result, the universal can be seen more as a series of particular exceptions. To put this another way, each particularity has its own version of universality. The commonly made mistake is, for example, to argue for a universal genus called religion with Christianity and Judaism and Islam as its subspecies. This would assume a neutral frame within which each of the subspecies resides. But the fact remains that each of these subspecies carries with it its own notion of universality, so that when, say, a Christian and Muslim debate, they not only disagree, they disagree on how the disagreement should be posed (CHU: 316).1 Here universality is caught up in its very own process of trying to encompass the particular: “Since each particularity involves its own universality, its own notion of the Whole and its own part within it, there is no ‘neutral’ universality that would serve as the medium for these particular positions” (ibid.). Universality arises from this self-relating negativity of the particular-to-itself, from the way every particular identity is split from within (LN: 360–63).
In the more traditional, mainstream discourse, the universal is grounded in an exception that Žižek, using Lacan’s theory of sexuation, refers to as a “masculine logic”. Here the universal rule relies on a constitutive exception that functions: (a) to assert an objective point from which to view, delimit and police its borders (this is the so-called “Archimedean point”, as detailed by postmodern critics of objectivity); and (b) act as the unspoken jouissance or what Žižek terms the law’s obscene underside.
On the other hand, the Hegelian–Lacanian version of the universal that Žižek promotes is not what enables us to see things from a “neutral” position once disengaged from all particulars. On the contrary, for Žižek, universality, like truth, can be accessed only from an engaged partial subjective position (LN: 285, 812). Here Žižek puts forward a “feminine logic”, in which instead of the exception acting outside of the rule, the exception is itself the universal rule. In this manner, the universal is rendered not-all.
That universality emerges from a partial subjective position and is based on the feminine position of not-all is important because it tells us that uni- versality is not a completed field; it is not totalized. Concrete universality is “not true concrete universality without including in itself the subjective position of its reader-interpreter as the particular and contingent point from which the universality is perceived” (LN: 359). In addition to including a particular sub- jective viewpoint, every totality or universality is composed of its own gaps, fissures and breaks, in other words, its own symptoms and deadlocks. The totality as perceived from the standpoint of the symptom, or what Žižek calls, after Jacques Rancière, the part of no part, can then be seen from a vantage point of “truth” (UE: 186). Truth is one-sided; it is seen from the perspective of those who are formally part of the system but have no place in it. This univer- sality from the perspective of the part of no part is the concrete universal. Here universality is reflected in the particular that remains outside; it has no place in the system, no proper place within the social edifice. Not to put too fine a point on it, one should keep in mind that the perspective of the whole, the totality from the point of the part of no part is that of the concrete universal. The subjective position more specifically, however, could be called the “singu- lar universal”: the “Subkulaks” in Stalin’s Russia, the “Untouchables” in India’s caste system and the “Rabble” that Hegel noted in his work on the state speak from the position of the singular universal: “the universality grounded in the subjective singularity extracted from all particular properties, a kind of direct short circuit between the singular and the universal, bypassing the particular” (LC: 16–7).
Žižek”s work on Todestrieb (death-drive) and his interpretation of Robespierre and Terror all point to his attempt to connect the concrete univer- sal with an emancipatory subjectivity, that is, the singular universal. Here Žižek cites the paradoxical notion that one can participate in the universal dimen- sion, the concrete universal, only when one is “extracted from or even opposed to one’s substantive communal identification”. In other words, one is truly uni- versal “only as radically singular, in the interstices of communal identities” (MC: 295; LC: 16–7). An individual attains universality when the flow of particularity “gets stuck” on a singular moment, when they are ready to risk everything for that. Todestrieb is getting stuck onto this particular objet a that is associated with a Bartleby-like withdrawal, a night of the world, negating all ontic particu- larities: “Subjects purified of their symbolic identities, subjects who meet on the ground of objectivity, as objects” (Rothenberg 2010: 177; LN: 812).2 Thus the definition of singular universality, following aspects of Badiou’s argument: an undead insistence on a contingent particularity is what maintains the sub- ject’s fidelity to an event.
Žižek notes that the “figure of the ‘part of no-Part’” confronts us with “the truth of our own position; and the ethico-political challenge is to recognize ourselves in this figure”. This underscores the importance of meeting the singular universal on the ground of objectivity. All ethical humanisms disavow this instance, this moment when the neighbour appears strikingly mad, this night of the world.3 If the concrete universal can be constructed only from a particular position excluded from the social totality, the singular universal relies on a short-circuit that directly embraces the universal above all particularity. It is the relationship between these two types of universality that plays an important role in the construction of a radical emancipatory subject.
- Concrete Universality