Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism London: Verso Books, 2012

Slavoj Žižek

I've had problems with depression for my whole adult life: I am much better at managing it than when I was younger, but one of the bad habits which I find it hard to shake off is the tendency to burrow my way through long, difficult and bleak works of fiction or non-fiction when my mood is already low. The worst of these was Roberto Bolaño's 2666, which I really do not recommend to anyone of a melancholic temperament.

There's something about the asceticism of hauling through a long slab of philosophy or fiction which I don't really grasp, and which, inasmuch as I do understand it, is basically lacking in any concessions to compassion or comfort, which appeals to me at such times. It's not that I agree with it, or that I find it sympathetic. Partly it's just distraction (reading works of this order feels like doing a large and interminable crossword puzzle) and partly, I suspect, it's a way of seeing what my own negative mood looks like when raised to the level of a philosophical system.

The older I get, the more such works seem to me to be symptoms, the outgrowth of the rare combination in a single individual of deep pessimism and the productivity required to write books of such scope in the first place. This might be a sign that I'm leaving them behind, which I think would be a healthy development.

I'm not able to review Less Than Nothing in a deep sense, because another side-effect of this sort of sadreading is that the texts concerned don't leave a deep trace on my memory even when I can understand them, but I will say that ebooks make this kind of reading material treacherous: if I had know when Verso had it on sale that it was about as long as War and Peace I would have tried reading that, instead. At least with 2666, which I bought in a handsome three-volume set, I knew I was in for the long haul.

Some pointillist impressions of Less Than Nothing: it's extremely amusing to me that Žižek has a go at Douglas Hofstadter's theories of mind: this is like a comic apposition of the geek and critical-theory poles of my own brain. It's also endearing that he loves Chesterton so much. Does Lacanian analysis exist as a clinical practice, in addition to being one of the tools in the culture theory aresenal? Like, are there French people (they'd have to be French) who go around saying that their marriage was saved because they realised that il n'y a pas de rapport sexuelle? Has anyone every written an analysis of "the psychotic" and "the neurotic" as fictional characters in post-Freudian theory, seeing as how in Žižek at least they are not at all clinical terms but shorthands for particular metaphysical or philosophical standpoints?

Anyway, the book did convince me to try and revisit Hegel for the first time since I was an undergraduate, if only so that I don't have to rely on Slavoj's account of him. The only thing I really remembered from that time (apart from his forming the dialectical background to Marxism) is that Hegel was the philosopher who proved from purely idealist grounds that there could be only seven planets in the Solar System; as this observation was generally made by Anglo-Saxon philosophers of science, it was usually accompanied by derisive laughter at the fate of idealism, since the eight planet, Neptune, was soon to be discovered.

This is all good fun, except that it isn't true. Hegel is usually caricatured as saying that if the facts disagree with his theory, then "so much the worse for the facts"; what he actually says is a commentary on Bode's Law, the early modern theory that the distances between the planets fall into a basic arithmetical sequence. In 1801, when Hegel published his dissertation De orbitis planetarum, eight planets were known to scientists, and their orbits were in accordance with Bode's law, with a gap between Mars and Jupiter. At the time, astronomers were searching for the 'missing' planet: Hegel was making the point that if astronomers were happy with mere empiricism, they would not allow their faith in an abstract order to drive their search for the planet in the gap, a search which eventually led to the discovery of Ceres and the other planetesimals in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (A more detailed explanation of this, with a translation of the relevant passage, can be found in Craig and Hoskin's note on Hegel and the seven planets)

All of which makes this aside by Žižek in Less Than Nothing even more unintentionally funny:

...the anecdote that he deduced the necessity of eight planets around the sun, not knowing that astronomers had already discovered the ninth (Neptune). (The irony here is that, a decade or so ago, astronomers re-categorized Neptune as a satellite, no longer as a planet—so, in fact, Hegel was right)

Is he deadpanning, or is this the natural conclusion of a "materialism" which is so far detached from empiricism that it doesn't care about the difference between Neptune and Pluto?