SEX AND THE FAILED ABSOLUTE (7): particular, universal, concept – a tangled heuristics

We have seen in the previous post that sometimes Zizek slips into a vocabulary of access, and that this is unfortunate. This usage can be contrasted with an analysis making use of the terms of « embodiment » and « inherence », which I think are far less likely to induce us into error than the vocabulary of « access », a terminology popularised by OOO and its archaic analysis of the knowledge relation as one of access.

« Access » indicates a short cut in the passage from the particular to the universal, without noting that this passage is itself by no means universal. It can only be a heuristic, useful in some cases but non-obligatory, requirement. Even so the impression of this passage is often the product of a retrospective re-ordering of a far more messy dis-ordered or « un-orientable » process.

In many cases one can begin with the universal and approach the particular almost as an afterthought. This is true both on the intellectual plane (identity politics as particularism is a derivative, tardive phenomenon) and the subjective plane (politics is in place before ego). There is no rule.

These neat orderly progressions (such as first particular then universal) correspond to a detached pedagogical schema imposed on a more disorderly subjectivity. The pedagogy of life and of lived political experience may, but need not, follow this schema.

The primacy of the signifier as material, and thus particular, element is of no avail here. The signifier is one face of the concept, it risks enclosing us in a pseudo-universal phase of the dialectical process because of its own associated parallax. The necessary parallax of the signifier is just as much a transcendental trap as the parallax of the concept.

The discovery of the signifier may induce a subjective revolution but its moment cannot be absolutised without falling into the trap of abstraction. This may lead in some cases to the « disappearance of the signifier », where an author appeals to some other word or set of words in order to avoid the word « signifier » becoming itself a master-signifier.

A similar phenomenon would be at work in the « disappearance of the concept ». Once one has recognised the omnipresence of the concept one can begin to think that its parallax is dangerously reinforced by the word itself, which may tend to enclose our thought in a pan-conceptualism, or pan-intellectualism. The passage by a synonym can be a useful heuristic in this case.

For example in his new book UNIVERSALITY AND IDENTITY POLITICS makes far less use of the word « concept » than in his previous book on EMANCIPATION AFTER HEGEL, Todd McGowan clarifies, quoting Hegel, that the word universality « belongs to the concept as its own », p 220.

Whereas the signifier bestraddles the type/token distinction, which is what allows it to function as an implicit concrete universal, the concept is traditionally more on the type side of the distinction and so more readily associated with the universal. The passage from signifier to concept can be seen as one path of philosophical bootstrapping oneself into access to the absolute.

Note: I have discussed above the sense of « heuristic » as one non-obligatory path amongst many, and the defects of the terminology of « access ».

This « bootstrapping » via the concept comes close to granting too much autonomy to the concept as such. While I have no absolute objection to such depictions, in a discussion whose focus is on an epistemological heuristics it may be useful to emphasise that the impetus behind such « bootstrapping » is negativity.

Note: I am grateful to a thread on twitter by Matthew Flisfeder, where he discusses the relations between particular, universal and concept. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.

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