火曜日, 4月 13, 2010

Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror

Rebecca Comay

Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror

Endlessly debated and redrafted in the fateful
summer of 1789, the first version of the Declaration
of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was
abruptly finalized by the Assemble´e Nationale
on August 27. The draft was published in its
truncated form with an explicit decision to suspend
further discussion until the more urgent
task had been achieved of ‘‘fixing’’ the French
Constitution to which the Declaration itself was
nonetheless to supply both the prefatory context
and the integral first chapter.1 In a perfect
illustration of the logic of the supplement, the
Declaration was declared provisional pending
the completion of a constitution that would
itself in turn be incomplete without it insofar
as the presence or absence of such a manifesto
would mark the ‘‘only difference’’ between a
radically new constitution and the prolongation
of preexistent tradition.2 Released separately, in
their unfinished forms, both the Declaration and
the eventual first version of the Constitution to
which by 1791 it had attached itself were nonetheless
invested from the outset with a biblical
authority conveyed by numerous iconographic
allusions to the tablets of the law handed down at
Sinai—by 1792 the Legislative Assembly decreed

The South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3, Spring/Summer 2004.Copyright©2004 by Duke University Press.


that its members would wear a tricolor ribbon bearing a medallion in the
shape of two round-headed tablets inscribed with the words ‘‘Droits de
l’Homme’’ and ‘‘Constitution’’ 3—an association that would in turn predictably
provoke a Mosaic violence directed against the threat of the law’s own
inaugural self-betrayal during the repeated revision of both documents
throughout the revolutionary period. In May 1793 a copper tablet of the
by-then obsolete first version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was
exhumed from its burial place in the foundation of a projected—never to
be completed—monument on the site of the demolished Bastille. By order
of the Convention the embalmed document was ritually mutilated and its
broken fragments deposited for perpetuity in the National Archives as a
‘‘historicalmonument.’’4 The archive had come to congeal destruction itself
as a lasting memorial to its own powers of reinvention, and as a reminder,
too, of unfinished business.
The incident is compelling for a number of reasons. Aside from illustrating
the general paradox of revolutionary negation—the insistent reinstatement
of tradition in and through the very erasure thereof—and quite apart
from the overdetermined pathos generated by this unburied corpse and
relic, it raises a very specific question regarding the status of the revolutionary
discourse of rights: the defaced tablet here carries the entire burden of
the tabula rasa. Does the damaged body of the text hint of an irrreparable
fracture within the law itself, and does themuseification of such a breach in
turn acknowledge an interminable mourning for an unfinished past? How
does the modern liberal idiom of human rights intersect with the politicaltheological
legacy of Bourbon absolutism at the moment of the latter’s disinvestment?
What is the connection between the revolutionary caesura created
by the radical humanization of the law and the fundamentalist logic it
would interrupt?
Hegel’s analysis of the dialectic of secularization places terror itself at the
very heart of the modern political experiment.

Between Revolution and Reform

Hegel both reiterates and almost overturns the standard German ideology
according to which a revolution in thought would, in varying proportions,
precede, succeed, preempt, accommodate, comprehend, and generally
upstage a political revolution whose defining feature was increasingly
thought to be its founding violence: the slide from 1789 to 1793. According


to this ideology, from Schiller to Thomas Mann, Germany could simultaneously
domesticate and dispense with political revolution by virtue of a
spirituality that would have already achieved the rationality to which the
French only clumsily, violently, impatiently, through their precipitous acting
out, could only aspire. Having already been there in theory, Germany
could put off until doomsday the grab for practical fulfillment—the infinite
Having undergone its own Reformation, that is, Germany could escape
the tumult at its own gates and thereby serve as the revolution’s most lucid
and most passionate, because dispassionate, observer. Heine will remark,
only half in jest, that Kant had in any case far surpassed Robespierre in intellectual
terrorism: whereas the guillotine managed to kill off only a pathetic,
fat king who had lost his head anyway, the axe of reason had slain deism
itself throughout Germany. Schlegel will determine the French Revolution
as the allegory5 of an ‘‘other’’6—more comprehensive—revolution in the
mind that would simultaneously exceed and moderate the French slide to
despotic violence.7 For Fichte, the deliverance fromthe tyranny of the thingin-
itself would prefigure, inspire, and eventually neutralize the revolutionary
deliverance from material bondage. For Schiller, an infinite adjustment
of sensibility or Gesinnung would forestall and vicariously alleviate the horrors
of political revolution. For Kant, a moral revolution would suspend,
preempt, and ultimately absorb revolution thus rendering it consistentwith
the requirements of continuous reform.
Revolution here is at once, paradoxically, both singularized and relativized.
The traumatic strangeness of the French Revolution—its radical originality,
its contingency—is simultaneously asserted and denied as German
philosophy seeks to internalize this ‘‘peculiar crisis’’ within a larger movement
of thought.8 The German revolution of the mind both precedes and
displaces the political revolution in exposing it to a spiritual afterlife as yet

Dialectic of Disenchantment

Hegel’s version of this well-rehearsed story is at once orthodox and unpredictable.
His orthodox commitments are most explicit in the later Berlin
lectures on the Philosophy of History, which implicitly draw on his earlier
attempt, in the Phenomenology, to derive the rise of revolutionary violence
from the virulence of a rationality enthralled by the fanaticism it would beat


down. Such reactivity—abstract negativity at its most truculent—essentially
defines for Hegel the culture of the French enlightenment at the end
of the ancien re´gime: the endless symbiosis of myth and self-mystifying
disenchantment. Germany would have already cut through this circle. The
‘‘northern principle’’—Lutheran freedom of thought—would have inoculated
the nation against political upheaval in that it had from the outset
achieved a secularization surpassing that attainable by mere enlightenment.
Having undergone, with the Reformation, its own immanent rationalization
of faith,Germany could bypass the turmoil of revolution by evading
the dialectic of enlightenment sketched with dizzying efficiency in the
Phenomenology, according to which a benighted superstition could only be
insulted, assaulted, persecuted (and thereby prolonged, exaggerated, perverted)
by a rationality blind to its own reasons and thus above all to its
fascinated complicity with the faith it would wipe out.
Absolute-freedom-and-terror (Hegel’s conjunction is really an apposition
or identity) is merely the political expression of reason’s own fall into abstraction
in its panic flight from the vertiginous disorientation of a collapsing
social order: courtiers clustering like ornaments, says Hegel, around the
throne of a shadow king whose very name had come to mean everything
and therefore nothing. Having expropriated the entire subjectivity of the
nation, the absolute monarch had revealed the truth that he was, in fact,
the dazzling emptiness of an image projected by a populace whose lastditch
bid for uplift through reintegration had only catapulted them into the
chronic ressentiment of those in bondage to a nonmaster: the paradox, the
real economic problem, of every masochism. Flattery—the theatre of Versailles—
was at once the hyperbole of language, the very promise of universality,
and had as such immediately deconstructed itself as pure performative
self-contradiction: in naming you king I deprive myself, and therefore
you, and therefore cease to deprive myself, and so on, of the very subjectivity
I would impart. (Hegel has just in fact named the essential paradox of
the gift: the sacrifice must be a vain one—something for nothing—or it is
not a sacrifice, and yet . . .) Thiswas the rancorously funny inverted world of
Rameau’s nephew, who from the slightly tiresome perspective of the freefloating
intellectual almost managed to see through it all, but in the end . . .
not quite. Enter insight, together with its shadow brother faith, to which
insight attaches itself with increasingly ambivalent desperation as they seek
respectively to see through and beyond the shattered appearances of the
existing social world. . . . But—and this will eventually become the linchpin


of Hegel’s analysis—in this very flight from objectivity reason both masks
and catastrophically perpetuates its own collusion with the faith it would
Such a complicity betrays itself fromthe outset in the proselytizing fanaticismof
insight’s uncomprehending attacks on the faithwhich it would extirpate—
Hegel’s analysis in the Phenomenology is wicked, unflinching, and
not without its own inquisitorial aggressivity—and are illustrated perfectly
by the orgiastic festivals of de-Christianization staged in the early 1790s:
from the smashing of the statues of the kings of Judaea to the consecration
of the Temple of Reason opened with great fanfare in the fall of 1794 in
the former church of Notre Dame. The sacral darkness of the cathedral had
been banished by brilliantly arranged stage lighting which, at the climax of
the celebration turned the spotlight on a young actress impersonating Reason
herself dressed in Roman gown and garlands. Hegel’s analysis of the
vicious circle of iconoclasm captures perfectly the spiral of revolutionary
destruction and the increasingly desperate attempts to control the fetishistic
circle of self-reifying negation throughout the revolutionary period and
indeed beyond.
These strategies are perhaps familiar but worth rehearsing. From the
decapitation of kings and nobles to the destruction and defacement of
monuments; from the renaming of streets and citizens to the recalibration
of clock and calendar; from the plunder and dislocation of artworks
to their recontextualization within the newly founded national museums
that would simultaneously preserve and destroy them through neutralizing
disenchantment. (The ambivalence about themuseum’s own latentmonumentality—
the implicit cult of art it would inaugurate, the reinstatement of
aura in the very production of surplus exhibition value—would in turn be
registered by recurrent fantasies of the museum in ruins, victim from the
outset of time’s own depredations: the essential paradox of a revolutionary
museum—the creation of a heritage of modernity—did not go unmarked.
Hubert Robert’s paintings of the rubble heaps of desecrated churches and
statues were immediately supplemented by his futuristic visions of the
newly founded revolutionary Louvre in ruins—paintings that now of course
hang securely in the Louvre.) In a further recursive doubling, a revolutionary
iconoclasm would come to direct itself against the very iconoclasm that
had inevitably threatened to congeal into yet another dogmatism: erasures
would be erased, the new naming system would be reversed, in 1794 Robespierre
would institute the cult of the supreme being and therewith con


demn atheism as a new ‘‘fanaticism’’: in his plans for the Festival of the
Supreme Being, David himself was to orchestrate a ritualistic burning of
the statue of Atheism itself, now consecrated and desecrated as the newest
idol. According to one eyewitness report, the festival included a burning of
an effigy of Nothing itself—now reified as yet another positivity painstaking
constructed so as to be demolished.9
Hegel insists that it makes no difference here whether reason’s assault on
its adversary is by way ofmissiles launched from a safe distance or by way of
an insidious viral contamination against which ‘‘every remedy adopted only
aggravates the disease’’ (to argue back is to identify with the aggressor, to
give reasons against reason, and thus for faith already to concede defeat).10
In either case, reason’s mortification of its supposed antithesis leaves as
legacy for future generations the toxic waste of the unburied dead—Creon’s
unending legacy to posterity. Hegel at one point describes the infinite
regress of idolatrous iconoclasm as a kind of germ warfare whose unnumbered
casualties are all themore burdensome for going unmarked: enlightenment
spreads its disease like a ‘‘perfume in an unresisting atmosphere’’
and its vanquished enemies silently collect like ghosts.
‘‘One fine morning it gives its comrade a shove with the elbow and
bang! Crash! the idol lies on the floor’’—‘‘one fine morning’’ whose
noon is bloodless if the infection has penetrated to every organ of spiritual
life. Memory alone then preserves the dead form of the Spirit’s
shape as a vanished history [vergangene Geschichte], vanished one knows
not how. And the new serpent of wisdom raised on high for admiration
has in this way painlessly cast merely a withered skin. (545)
I will return to this ‘‘dead form’’ of a superstition cast off or abjected ‘‘one
knows not how’’ and just what is at stake in this unknowing. Hegel has just
explicitly identified enlightenment as melancholia.
German philosophy, according to Hegel’s reading, could cut through
this loop—having both enlightened and been enlightened by religion, it
could be spared the indignity of regressing back into an ever-more-mystified
(because demystified) form of it—and thus seems to bypass the vicious
circle of myth and enlightenment. Having already overcome the abstract
antinomy of faith and insight, Protestant Germany promises the reciprocal
accommodation of religion and reason through its culture of spiritual
freedom, and ultimately (or so the Philosophy of Right will eventually argue)
through the Prussian state apparatus that would come—with a stretch, and


I think Hegel knows this—to express this. Absolute knowing registers this

Terror as Melancholia

Hegel’s depiction of the difference between German philosophy and French
enlightenment—the difference between the Aufkla¨rung (self-understood
as reason’s own self-clarification or explication) and the lumie`res (selfmisunderstood
as reason’s illumination of a blind, superstitious other)—
might be understood as the difference betweenmourning and melancholia.
In the first case, reason is able to internalize, relinquish, and surpass a religion
that has already precipitated into conceptual thought. Philosophy commemorates
and discharges its debt to a religion so compatible that its essential
figures can be harmlessly recycledwithin the ether of absolute knowing.
The Phenomenology thus concludes by toasting Schiller’s own poetic reworking
of the Eucharistic formula. ‘‘From the chalice of this realm of spirits
foams forth for Him his own infinitude’’: the sacramental ritual is remembered,
mourned, and philosophically neutralized in being circulated without
residue in the transparent medium of thought.
In the second case, reason disavows its own identity with the faith that
it castigates and that it thereby prolongs as a stony relic or foreign body
blocking thought. Insight’s secret identification with what it reifies as an
alien or ‘‘changeling’’ (550) means disowning the rationality both of its
object and ultimately of itself as persecuting subject—‘‘enlightenment is
not very enlightened about itself ’’ (656×→565○)—which thus condemns it to a compulsively
repetitive, ritualistic reenactment of destructive disenchantment.
Hegel repeatedly uses Freud’s terminology throughout this section of the
Phenomenology: disavowal or Verleugnung—even perversion (Verkehrung)—
characterizes insight’s relationship to what it assaults.11 Splitting, isolation,
12 the stubborn forgetting13 of the lost object: Hegel has here just
sketched the defensive apparatus of a subject bent on sustaining itself on
what it gives up.
The constitutive melancholia afflicting insight condemns it to disown the
violence it perpetrates on a faith whose grief is matched only by insight’s
own manic jubilation: enlightenment fails to register faith’s losses as, in
truth, its very own. Insight matches Creon in the stubbornness of its refusal
to bury its dead: from the tyrant’s disrespect for the divine law we
have passed over to the philosophes’ desecration of divinity as such. Hegel


describes insight’s stupid euphoria before the open grave of the world.
Whereas an expropriated faith slumpsmorosely before the rubble heap of a
world razed to emptiness, insight exultantly sets up house.Hegel’s description
of faith’s anxious wandering from nothing to nothing is compelling:
Faith has lost the content which filled its element, and collapses into
a state in which it moves listlessly to and fro within itself. It has been
expelled from its kingdom; or, this kingdom has been ransacked, since
the waking consciousness hasmonopolized every distinction . . . [and]
has vindicated earth’s ownership of every portion of it . . . what speaks
to Spirit is only a reality without substance and a finitude forsaken by
Spirit. Since faith is without any content and it cannot remain in this
void, or since, in going beyond the finite which is the sole content, it
finds only the void, it is a sheer yearning, its truth an empty beyond,
for which a fitting content can no longer be found, for everything is
bestowed elsewhere. (573)
Hegel slyly suggests that faith’s afflictions will soon come to haunt enlightenment
itself whose own sun will surely enough be blackened by faith’s
losses. ‘‘We shall see whether Enlightenment can remain satisfied: that
yearning of the troubled spirit which mourns over the loss of its spiritual
world lurks in the background. Enlightenment itself bears within it this
blemish [Makel] of an unsatisfied yearning’’ (573). This blemish—the stain
or blind spot generated by insight’s own drive to purity14—will expose itself
alternatively as the mystification of the lost object in the formof reified negativity
(the hypostasis of the supreme being devoid of predicates: enlightenment’s
recourse to negative theology) or—the logical flipside—as the
empty materialism that makes do with lukewarm ‘‘leftover’’ matter (all that
remains once thought has ‘‘abstracted’’ all sensuous properties) (577).Hegel
describes this turgid materiality as exhibiting a ‘‘listless aimlessmovement’’
(dumpfesWeben) (577) that matches perfectly the ‘‘listlessmovement’’ of the
bereft subject whose grief is a secret even to itself: the melancholic identification
with the lost object is here complete.
Everything that follows can be attributed to Enlightenment’s own disavowed
grief for the lost object which culminates in the revolution, here
effectively characterized as a violent passage a` l’acte.Utilitarianismis the first
stop along the way, described by Hegel as the vandalism which appropriates,
manipulates, and consumes the last shred of objectivity, including that
of the intersubjective social world, which is reduced to a collective survival

mechanism regulated by a tepid pleasure principle committed to the rule of
maximum reciprocal serviceability: the gang or ‘‘troop’’ (Trupp) rampaging
like animals in the garden of Eden—Hegel’s startling, prescient anticipation
of Nietzsche’s critique of utilitarianism as a herdmorality (560).Hegel
darkly suggests that this collective self-regulation is but a thinly veiled defense
against what lies beyond the pleasure principle—Hegel’s language
again almost literally anticipates Freud’s—that is, a death drive in which
enjoyment and transgressive self-destruction are indissolubly linked.
And here Hegel’s narrative takes on an intensity unmatched elsewhere
in the Phenomenology. The entire precipitation into terror is contained in
reason’s campaign against a world it can neither accommodate nor, in the
end, let go.


Having defined itself as negative, reason embarks on an annihilating mission
that will culminate in a ‘‘fury of destruction.’’ The retreat from objectivity
escalates as Spirit progressively moves from the demystification, manipulation,
and instrumentalization of externality to the latter’s eventual
suspension, elimination, and extermination: thus the unstoppable movement
from insight through utility to the self-transparency of the general
will. The transition from utility to absolute freedom is the almost indiscernible
but critical transition from a subject which still needs to project
at least an ‘‘empty show of objectivity’’ (583)—it has to treat the object ‘‘as
if it were something alien’’ (586, italics mine) if only in order to possess
it and exploit it—to a subject whose withdrawal from objectivity is seemingly
complete. Absolute freedom suspends the vestigial trace of difference
still implicit in instrumental reason and both consummates and overturns
this, as utility yields to a delirious potlatch of useless, meaningless destruction.
With an exquisitely Nietzschean sensitivity Hegel here smells a rat:
the putrid stench of the unburied corpse of the abandoned object still wafts
unpleasantly from the open grave of the world.
The individual consciousness itself is directly in its own eyes that
which had [previously] had only a semblance of an antithesis; it is universal
consciousness and will. The beyond of this its actual existence
hovers over the corpse of the vanished independence of real being, or
the being of faith, merely as the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous
E^tre supre`me. (586)

Absolute freedom is terror as the infinite melancholia of a self that knows
no other. Its essence is to recognize no obstacle, no mediating agency, no
local nuance or detour thatmight delay or dilute the passage from individuality
to totality or from part to whole and back again: the individualwill fuses
with the universal immediately, totally, without residue.
Direct democracy is only one of its many features.Hegel identifies as the
latter’s essential outcome the unending oscillation between the rock and
the hard place of dictatorship (‘‘a simple, inflexible cold universality’’), on
the one hand, and on the other hand—but the terms of Hegel’s description
are almost identical—anarchy (‘‘the discrete, absolute hard rigidity and
self-willed atomism of actual self-consciousness’’) (590). Abstract individualism
is the principle—the scary link, for Hegel, between the seemingly
disparate ideologies of revolutionary decisionism, of social contractualism,
of absolutist nationalism, and of free-market liberalism—and can account
for the oft-noted and otherwise inexplicable tension within the Declaration
of Rights itself between the apparently irreconcilable poles of individual
rights and national sovereignty, between the right of each (against all) and
the right of all (against each), between the rights of man and the rights of
citizen, between private and public liberty (a tension only partially explicable
in terms of the revolution’s own split pedigree between Gallic absolutismand
an importedmodern liberalism).15 It is in each case, for Hegel, the
lost ligature of the social bond which is registered without being acknowledged:
the loss of the binding power of religion as religare, the splintering of
the community into an aggregate of ‘‘volitional atoms,’’ and the foreclosure
of the political—the incarnate divinity of the state itself—within the transparent
homogeneity of a civil society sutured together by the anonymous
rule of law.16 With the assumption of mass sovereignty as a sovereignty of
immediacy we have the outline of the Sartean ‘‘group-in-fusion’’: the endless
reversibility of democracy and dictatorship within what Alain Badiou
has called a ‘‘fellowship of terror.’’ 17
Paranoia is another feature. In the universe of the will, difference can
be visible only as opposition, and opposition itself becomes indistinguishable
from treason: according to Hegel’s own ever-so-speedy synopsis all
distinction as such eventually assumes the insidious appearance of a complot
aristocratique. Antirevolution becomes legible as only counterrevolution
just as foreign war and civil war come conceptually to coalesce. The
enemy is always already inside the gate, and Polyneices is the prototype of
the disowned other: the outside on the inside is the foreign body engen


dered through the repression that violently and summarily expels it. The
law of suspects is thus for Hegel not a distortion of or contingent deviation
from the revolution but its essential outcome, and finds its perfect corollary
in the mass-production of the corpse—the theoretical sniffing out of
alterity here implying its practical snuffing out in the will’s own escalating
cycle of tautological self-affirmation.
The guillotine serves to cancel out the phantom objectivity created by
the law of suspects according to which imaginary counterfactual intentions
assume the status of objective guilt. Suspicion is the epistemology of a world
devoid of enduring objects—alterity has to be constructed and denounced
as if discovered if only in order to be refuted, purged, and eliminated—and
decapitation is at once the traumatic literalization, the allegorization, and
the repetitive self-deconstruction of this aporetic, circular epistemology.
Hegel’s philosophical exegesis of the guillotine goes beyond Foucault’s
own unforgettable description, in Discipline and Punish, of the transition
fromthe lurid Baroque ‘‘festivals of cruelty’’ (the extravaganzas of public torture)
to themodern production of the criminal’s body as an undifferentiated
instrument on which punishment can be administered within the homogenous
transparency of a penal regime. Hegel emphasizes not only the modern
banalization of death—its reduction to the anonymous numericity of
the production line, its submission to new rituals of hygiene and efficiency,
its recuperation by the state as secular or civil function—and the establishment
of a new disciplinary regime.His target is the paradox of amurder that
strips away not only the life but the antecedent subjectivity of the victim:
the guillotine’s essential action is to render itself essentially redundant or
inessential.The guillotine provides the practical confirmation of the object’s
essential nonexistence in that it strips even death itself of its singularity
and intensity: the machine retroactively retracts theminimal recognition it
simultaneously concedes its victim (as worthy of suspicion) in that it directs
itself in the first instance against the already nullified nonentity of the lost
The quicklime that is to swallow up the corpse within the anonymity of
the mass grave only confirms that we are here in the region of what Adorno
will eventually call the ‘‘philosopheme of pure identity’’—that is, death in
its most unsublimated, insignificant uniformity: modern death. Creon’s
Pyrrhic victory is near complete. Hegel here names a death ‘‘which has no
inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the
absolutely free self ’’ (590).Themachine only perfects and ritualistically for


malizes the evacuation of alterity that Hegel finds implicit at the very origins
of modern democratic sovereignty. Thus Hegel’s chilling description,
so contemporary in its resonance, of the ‘‘cold, matter of fact annihilation of
this existent self, from which nothing else can be taken away but its mere
being’’ (591).
Among the many paradoxes of the guillotine is that it simultaneously
enforces and erodes the distinction between dying and living: the moment
of death becomes at once precise, punctual, identifiable, and indeterminate—
both measurable and endlessly uncertain. Decapitation at once is
the answer to the (at the time) prevalent fear of live burial, and feeds this
anxiety. The fall of the blade marks the transitionless transition from an
already mortified existence to the posthumous mortality of a subject for
whom the very difference between life and death—as between subjectivity
and objectivity, between humanity and machinality—has been eroded. The
obsessive fantasies of survival entertained by the popular imaginary of the
guillotine, and that preoccupied both literature and medical science from
the 1790s, are but the inversion and confirmation of the living death to
which life had seemingly been reduced—thus the proliferation of blushing
heads, talking heads, suffering heads, heads that dreamed, screamed,
returned the gaze, the disembodied body parts, detached writing hands, the
ghosts and ghouls and zombies that would fill the pages of gothic novels
throughout Europe.                             ( zizek82)

Thus the famous cabbage-heads—Hegel’s startling anticipation of Heidegger’s
notorious comparison of the death camps with modern agribusiness.
We are probably as close as it is possible to get, circa 1800, to what
Adorno will later theorize, in Negative Dialectics as the impossible, Auschwitzean
condition of ‘‘dying today.’’ Tempting as it is, the comparison is,
however, insidious and must be resisted.18

Horror vacui

Terror is thus neither explained away byHegel on circumstantial grounds—
the exceptional security measures improvised by a young republic struggling
to sustain itself in the face of an extraordinary array of contingent
pressures, from foreign wars to internal counterrevolutionary upheavals,
from bread shortages to whatever—nor mystified as some kind of inexplicable
diabolical cataclysmic eruption. For Hegel, unlike for Kant, the revolution
is a block: the terror cannot be surgically excised as a local anomaly,


deformation, or betrayal of its founding principles, the revolution does not
splinter into essential and inessential, structural and incidental. Indeed any
attempt to define the chronological boundaries of the terror—to confine it
to a sixteen-month interval as a temporary deviation from the revolution—
arguably only prolongs the persecutory logic that is contained (a paradox
exemplified by the Thermidorian counterterrorist reaction and the virulent
culture of denunciation it perpetuated: Thermidor is itself the prototype of
every war on terrorism).19 ForHegel, therefore, the terror proper begins not
with the law of 22 Prairial, not with the law of suspects, not with the regicide
in January 1793, not with the king’s arrest and trial, not with the September
massacres of 1792, not with the riots at the Tuileries on August 10,
1792, not with the suspensive veto of the 1791 Constitution, and not with
the storming of the Bastille. Hegel backdates the terror to the very onset
of the revolution, if not before—June 17, 1789, the day the E´tats Ge´ne´raux
spontaneously and virtually unanimously recreated itself as the Assemble´e
Nationale as sole agent and embodiment of the nation’s will.
With the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers e´tat from
‘‘nothing’’ to ‘‘everything’’ is announced and performatively accomplished:
the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity
to the ‘‘complete nation’’ that it will retroactively determine itself always
already to have been. As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate
what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction:
the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge. This literalization
of Abbe´ Sieye`s’ formula thus determines political modernity as a
fellowship of terror. And with this gesture, writes Hegel, ‘‘the undivided
substance of absolute freedom ascends to the throne of the world without
any power being able to resist it’’ (585).
In identifying terror with the very onset of the revolutionHegel has been
predictably compared to Burke (whose Reflections on the Revolution in France
had been translated into German almost immediately and indeed in the
pages of Hegel’s own favorite journal), to Bonald and Taine (for whom the
slide from the revolution of liberty to the despotism of equality was implicit
from the outset) or even to de Maistre (for whom the terror was both the
inevitable outcome of and God’s providential punishment for the hubris of
human self-assertion). These comparisons have a tiny degree of justice—
and Hegel’s own unwarranted savagery toward Rousseau (in the Philosophy
of Right and the History of Philosophy), it must be said, does nothing to discourage
them, although his rhetoric stops well short of Burke’s own hys


terical denunciation of Rousseau as an ‘‘insane Socrates.’’ Hegel has much
to account for, not least his general sourness about the July Revolution and
perceived sycophancy toward the censors at Berlin—what was ultimately
even within his lifetime to earn him his reputation (undeserved, as it happens)
as ideologue of the Restoration. At Berlin, as well, there is this embarrassing
(one might say, abstract) tendency to conflate everything—terrorism,
mysticism, Hinduism, Islamic fundamentalism, Rousseau, Thomas
Munzer, Anabaptism, Judaism, whatever—within the same soup of abstract
negativity.20 Terror is not only what you get when you put abstract ideas
into practice—what both Burke and Hegel (as well as Tocqueville, Schiller,
and so many others) will identify as the occupational hazard of ‘‘French
theory.’’ Terror is not just the result of philosophical abstraction: it is itself
the abstraction that in leaping from ‘‘all to all’’ (Rousseau’s perfect phrase)
can in the end only elaborate itself as the repetitive production of nothing—
the endless negativity of an unworked death.
But it is precisely here that comparison with Burke at once invites itself
and proves irrelevant. Hegel’s unflinching identification of terror as the
inauguration of political modernity does not prevent him from attempting
to absorb it as inevitable, comprehensible, and infinitely productive. I’m
not referring to Hegel’s personal sensibilities—the dance around the freedom
tree, the annual toast on Bastille Day, and so on—gestures which in
themselves are the standard reflex of the liberal intelligentsia that would
take 1789 without the rest: Hegel is virtually unique among his contemporaries
for having tried to deconstruct this squeamish liberalism. Nor can
one demarcate the line between endorsement and repudiation by means of
periodization (the young student rhapsodic at Tübingen, the old man disillusioned
at Berlin) or even according to standard psychological categories
such as ambivalence.Hegel’s visible hesitation between an unqualified and
lyrical ‘‘enthusiasm’’ (his—Kantian—word) for the ‘‘glorious mental dawn’’
risen in France and his unequivocal condemnation of this same event as
the ‘‘most fearful tyranny’’ is expressed in the same text and in the same
breath,21 and moreover we find this hesitation expressed consistently from
1794 to 1830. Indeed it may not be possible to disentangle them.

In taking absolute-freedom-and-terror as a package Hegel perhaps comes
closest to those—from Tocqueville to Lefort, from Furet to Gauchet—who
would insert the French Revolution as one more episode within the longue


dure´e of European absolutism: revolutionary democracy both interrupts
and prolongs—prolongs through interrupting—the theological-political
heritage, and herein lies at once its promise and its danger. Tocqueville
recalls Mirabeau’s reassuring letter to the king, less than a year into the
revolution, that ‘‘the modern idea of a single class of citizens on an equal
footing’’ should ultimately provide a smooth surface on which royal power
could all the more easily apply itself.22 Centralization provides the essential
hinge between ancien re´gime and revolutionarymodernity: the decisive
shift—the ‘‘first revolution’’—is not the transition frommonarchy to republic
but rather the self-subverting passage withinmonarchism itself from an
older feudal apparatus (with its intricate corporate hierarchies and particularisms)
to the absolute monarchy that, by accumulating for itself all local
privilege, reconstitutes the body politic as a homogeneous mass capable for
the first time of functioning as a unified, collective subject. In the hypertrophy
of the monarchy lies the germ of the modern egalitarian nation.
For these writers, therefore, the regicide is the symbolic inauguration of
political modernity: the instantaneous and total transfer of absolute sovereignty
from king to people. The fall of the blade marks the sublime instant
separating and thereby fusing before and after, ancien re´gime and revolutionary
republic: Le roi estmort—vive la patrie. This sacrificial logic was ceremonially
enacted on January 21, 1793 in an event marked, at least according
to all the narratives, by sacred pomp and ceremony. It was formalized at the
king’s trial when Robespierre invokes the ‘‘baptismal’’ quality of the execution.
‘‘The king must die because the nation must live’’: an infinite investment
in the sacral body of the king must be generated by the staging of
the latter’s infinite divestment. The regeneration of the people is nothing
other than the restoration of a nation’s body to itself through the expropriation
of the expropriator. The regicide thus marks what Daniel Arasse has
called the perfect ‘‘syncope de la sacralite´ ’’: the banal death of Louis Capet
is the consecration of the nation.23 And from such a baptism flow all the
contradictions of modernity: the inaugural self-betrayal of democracy in
ever-more-inventive forms of terror.
Although Hegel barely pauses at the regicide, he is perhaps the first to
note the link between the terrors of modern democracy and the disavowed
fundamentalism on which it rests; he is the first also to make the connection
between this disavowal and the compulsive construction of fanaticism
as the terrifying fundamentalism of the Other: war on terror is democracy’s
own way of abjecting what remains its own darkest secret to itself through


ritualistically repetitive projection. Insight needs faith, and modern democracy
is just the story of their violent symbiosis within the endless melancholia
of an ungrieved loss.
WhatClaude Lefort calls the persistence of the theological-politicalmight
be understood as a kind of fetishism: the filling of the empty place left by
the evacuation of the divinely sanctionedmonarchy—the self-production of
the body politic of the people as power incarnate.24 The sacramental substitution
of people for king immediately closes the space it opens up—lack
is, perversely, simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed—and can be
understood as the prototype for every politics of fusion, in the face of which
genuine democracy, in Lefort’s terms, must mobilize itself as a perpetual
negotiation to maintain the empty place as an active vacancy rather than as
the usual power vacuum into which anything and everything might flow.
One might understand this as a kind of mourning.
Hegel goes further in that he establishes that the place was always, in
truth, empty. The risk is not simply that of reinstating absolutism through
revolutionary dictatorship: absolutemonarchy was already itself an ‘‘empty
name,’’ ornaments clustering around an empty throne, and it is this originary
loss that enlightenment both covers up and transmits, which it commemorates
through disavowal—the emptiness at the very heart of the symbolic
order. Nor does this loss begin with the self-evacuation of absolute
monarchy: the emptiness of the king’s name is itself only the delayed registration
of the ‘‘ruination’’ (476) into which beautiful Sittlichkeit had from
the start been thrown, and therewith the shattering of any fantasy of fulfillment
along organic lines—the ‘‘infinite grief ’’ of a world splintered into a
mechanical aggregate of abstract spiritual atoms (as Hegel was to describe
the political situation inaugurated by imperial Rome) and the institution of
‘‘right’’ as such as the asocial principle of political association. The experience
of Bildung can be understood therefore not as a progressive accumulation
of meaning but rather as the unconscious, blanked-out transmission
of a void that has almost the quality of an Abraham/Torok-style crypt; we
are close to what Benjamin describes, in his Kafka essay, as the ‘‘sickness of
tradition’’: tradition in and of the very absence of a determinate content to
be transmitted, transmission of the impossibility of transmission—that is,
the transmission of trauma.
The abyss of untrammeled negativity—the revolutionary ‘‘fury of destruction’’—
is just the condensation, the literalization, and the hyperbolic
demonstration of the emptiness that has been plaguing Spirit from the
start. It does not function as the eruption of some kind of singular excess


or irrecuperable exception to the system, as a certain Bataillean reading
might suggest. Rather the seeming exception is here in truth the rule:
unworked negativity is less a distortion than the prototype of Spirit’s dialectic.
Absolute-freedom-and-terror does not somuch deviate from the trajectory
of the Phenomenology as illuminate its essential logic.The meaningless
death on the scaffold is both the culmination and the retrospectivecommentary
on the entire history of spirit to this point. It crystallizes by exaggerating
to a point of absurdity what could have escaped no reader: there never
has been so far, in fact, a death that actually worked. Either the burial was
blocked, like Polyneices’—society was not up to it—or the sacrifice proved
vain, like the feudal knight’s. In the dismembered body of the suspect the
accumulated debt of Spirit comes to a head: nonrecognition, nonproductivity,
noncommemoration, nonredemption.

‘‘. . . another land’’

Hegel’s wager is of course to discharge by consolidating that debt: to make
this worklessness work in such a way that the slaughter bench of history
might present itself as the Golgotha of Spirit and melancholia therefore
supersede itself in mourning. In this light he seeks to redeem by radicalizing
the Christian wager by sharpening the antithesis between finite and
infinite to the point of seemingly unbridgeable, undialectical disjunction:
the flat death on the scaffold puts symbolization to its most radical test,
and in the extremity of its resistance supplies the measure of Spirit’s most
prodigious power of recuperation.
This is essentially the story that follows absolute-freedom-and-terror, as
Spirit takes possession of its very self-dispossession as it comes to recognize
its losses as, in truth, its own. With the will’s own self-encounter as
pure ‘‘unfilled negativity’’ Spirit takes on its nothingness as its very own—
symbolically assumes the castration it had both inflicted and suffered—and
in this traumatic recognition thereby translates or determines immediacy
(abstract or indeterminate negativity) as, precisely, mediation. Radical loss
thus congeals into the ultimate acquisition of a subjectwhose ultimate heroism
is to find self-possession in the act of self-dispossession: the void itself
here becomes, formoral consciousness, a kind of preemptive filling. Terror
is in this way retroactively integrated as the condition of possibility of the
self-willing will and marks the rebirth of the subject from the ashes of its
most profound desubjectification.
At this point the burden ‘‘passes over to another land’’ (595): the ‘‘unreal


world’’ in which Germanmoral philosophy in working out its own problems
simultaneously discharges the legacy of the revolution and therebymourns,
commemorates, and eventually redeems enlightenment’s own compulsive
attachment to a faith it must let go. The elaboration and eventual selfovercoming
of Kantian-stylemoral rigorism is therefore forHegel identical
with the attainment of (what he calls) true religion, which in its complex
rationality is to resolve the antinomy of insight and superstition on which
the revolution itself had, byHegel’s own reading, short-circuited.One could
thus argue that the task of German Idealism is just the interrogation and
redemption of the thwarted promise of the revolution—absolute-freedomand-
terror on trial. ‘‘Morality’’ is philosophical Thermidor.
In this turn from Terror to Kant, Hegel is at once his most conventional
and his most inventive. If he comes very close to reproducing the standard
German idealist self-interpretation of the relation between philosophy and
terror—Protestant-style freedom of the will as at once the exegesis, the phenomenological
successor, and the determinate negation or overcoming of
French revolutionary action—he also slightly displaces this solution, at least
to the extent that he immediately establishes that Kantian-stylemorality in
itself does nothing manifestly to redeem the blocked promise of the revolution.
Hegel makes it bitterly clear that the purity of the moral will can
be no antidote to the terrifying purity of revolutionary virtue. All the logical
problems of absolute freedom are essentially carried over into Hegel’s
analysis of Kantianmorality: the obsessionality, the paranoia, the suspicion,  ( zizek63)

the evaporation of objectivity within the violent hyperbole of a subjectivity
bent on reproducing itself within a world it must disavow. In the Phenomenology
Hegel does not go quite as far as he had, in the Spirit of Christianity,
of explicitly indicting Kant of terrorism. That earlier text of 1798 had specifically
fulminated against what Hegel identified as a Jewish form of terrorism:
the vengeful, genocidal purism, with which Hegel’s Kant was also
here more or less assimilated, but he does not essentially soften his earlier
And these problemswill only be aggravated asmorality passes over inexorably
and almost indiscernibly into its tangled Fichtean, Schillerean, and
Romantic phase (the various strands are at times difficult to unravel), where
it will prove to be the very same drive for purity which finally convicts a conscience
that in its desperate bid for a restored immediacy ultimately fails to
convince either others or, in the end, itself. Hegel acidly observes how the
anarchicmoral autarchy pioneered by Fichte’s revision of Kant slides, under


Romanticism, into a narcissistic aestheticism, aestheticism into paralyzing
purism, and eventually into a self-serving harangue that catastrophically
fails to recognize itself in what it most reviles. Hegel spares no irony in
describing the fastidiousness of the aesthete turned moral onlooker whose
self-admiration is matched only by his horror of engagement.The final turn,
under Romanticism, tomoral genius as an answer to the aporias ofmorality
will complete the conversion of politics into aesthetics, of revolution into
spectacle, and will establish German ideology around 1800 as above all an
aesthetics of the beautiful. Hegel’s analysis will in turn show beauty itself
to be an infinitely destructive ideal.
Hegel does not, then, or does not only, reproduce the standard German
response to the French Revolution: the well-traveled route from political
revolution to moral regeneration and thence, inexorably, to the aesthetic
upheaval which is, effectively, the modernist autonomous work of art—the
‘‘revolution in poetic language’’ that marks the seemingly one-way street
from modernity to aesthetic modernism. He in effect stages it in order
to denaturalize it or make it strange, almost as a thought experiment that
pushed to its extreme will be forced to refute itself, and with it every fantasy
of innocent spectatorship. The moral view of the world is just one
more phantasm Spirit will have had to work through, suffer, and eventually
expose in all its vengeful, compensatory violence. If it presents itself as
the narrative successor to the revolution, this is not because it logically fulfils
or supersedes it: Kant’s critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the
revolution that it chronologically, of course, anticipates only insofar as his
text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing
the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project
of modernity to its most extreme trial.25 It is the experience of the Terror
that forces Kant to the ordeal to which he is subjected—not itself without a
great degree of cruelty—in the Phenomenology: the revolution itself inflicts
on Kant’s own text a kind of retroactive trauma.               ( zizek62)

It would be an exaggeration to say that Hegel’s overcoming of Kant and
company makes good on the failed promise of the revolution or that he
finally escapes the asceticism he so severely challenges. But with this gesture
he both prolongs and reigns back, if only for a moment, the inevitable
temptation to slide from a phenomenology of embodied freedom to a noumenology
of the will. As such he returns thought to the order of experience—
even if, perhaps, it is ultimately a question of amissed experience, a
lapsed experience, or even, in the end, another’s experience: an experience


that came knocking only to find (as Benjamin was eventually to formulate
it in a rather different context) that ‘‘we, the masters [wir, die Herrschaft],’’
were not home.

1 For some of the details of this decision, see Dale van Kley, ‘‘Origins of an Anti-Historical
Declaration,’’ in Dale van Kley, ed., The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the
Declaration of Rights of 1789 (Stanford: StanfordUniversity Press, 1994), 72–113, andKeith
Baker, ‘‘Fixing the French Constitution,’’ in Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French
Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 261–71. For the key debates
leading up to the adoption of the first Declaration of the Rights of Man, see Antoine
de Baecque,Wolfgang Schmale, and Michel Vovelle, L’an 1 des droits de l’homme (Paris:
Presses du CNRS, 1988).
2 Comte Stanislas de Clermont-Tonerre’s report on July 27 to the constitutional committee
of the Assemble´e Nationale is here emblematic when he identifies the inclusion of a
declaration of rights as ‘‘the only difference between the cahiers that call for a new constitution
and those that call for only the reestablishment of what they regard as an existing
constitution’’ (Archives parlementaires [27 juillet 1789]) vol. 8: 283, cited in van Kley, The
French Idea of Freedom, 108. Article 16 of the 1789 Declaration makes the connection
explicit: ‘‘A society in which the guarantee of rights is not secured . . . has no constitution.’’
3 For some of the visual representations (both revolutionary and royalist) of both the Declaration
and the Constitution as tablets of the ten commandments, see Jonathan P. Ribner,
Broken Tablets: The Cult of the Law in French Art from David to Delacroix (Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), especially chapter 1, 6–28.
4 SeeJ.-P.Babelon,Archives nationales, Muse´e de l’histoire de France, vol. 4 (Paris: Publisher,
1965), 84. The decree, presented by Gilbert Romme in the name of the Committee on
Public Safety, is quoted by Ribner, Broken Tablets, 15 (together with some photographs of
both the mutilated Declaration and the similarly vandalized Constitution of 1791, which
was exhumed by the same order in 1793).
5 Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Ausgabe, vol. 2, ed. Ernst Behler andHans Eichner (Munich/
Paderborn: Schoningh, 1958–1987), 366.
6 Friedrich Schlegel, ‘‘Ernst und Falk,’’ in Kritische Ausgabe 3:96.
7 Compare Friedrich Schlegel, Ideen, in Kritische Ausgabe 2:259. See the near-identical
formulation in Novalis, Christendom oder Europa, in Friedrich von Hardenberg, Werke,
Tagebucher, und Briefe, vol. 2, ed. Hans-Joachim Mahl and Richard Samuel (Munich:
Hanser, 1978), 724. For a discussion of some of the German romantic efforts to integrate
the French Revolution, see Richard Brinkmann, ‘‘Fruhromantik und Franzosische
Revolution,’’ in Deutsche Literatur und Franzosische Revolution: Sieben Studien (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck, 1974), 172–91.
8 Johann GottfriedHerder, Briefe zu Befo¨rderung der Humanita¨t (1792), in Sa¨mtlicheWerke,
ed. Bernhard Suphan (Berlin: Weidman, 1877–1917), 18:366.
9 See Marie-He´le`ne Huet, Mourning Glory: TheWill of the French Revolution (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 37.
10 GeorgWilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Ox


fordUniversity Press, 1977), paragraph 545. All subsequent citations are given in the text,
by paragraph number.
11 On Verkehrung, see Hegel, Phenomenology, paragraphs 551, 563; on Verleugnung see paragraphs
551, 555, 556, 565, 580. Verleugnung is also howHegel describes faith’s own relation
to an object.
12 On Isolierung see Ibid., 567, 571; on Trennung, 565; and on Entzweiung, 579.
13 On insight’s forgetfulness, see Ibid., 564, 568.
14 ‘‘It is the . . . the defilement of Enlightenment through the adoption by its self-identical
purity of a negative attitude, that is an object for faith, which therefore comes to know
it as falsehood, unreason, and as ill-intentioned, just as Enlightenment regards faith as
error and prejudice’’ (548).
15 On some of these tensions, see the essays by J. K.Wright, ‘‘National Sovereignty and the
General Will,’’ and Keith Michael Baker, ‘‘The Idea of a Declaration of Rights,’’ both in
Dale van Kley, ed., The French Idea of Freedom (Stanford: StanfordUniversity Press, 1994),
as well as Marcel Gauchet, La Revolution des Droits de l’homme (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).
16 On ‘‘volitional atoms’’ see Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover,
1956), 445.
17 This whole formulation owes much to Alain Badiou, Abre´ge´ de la metapolitique´ (Paris:
Seuil, 1998).
18 Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1989)
makes the connection in a particularly flamboyant fashion, but the linkage is implicit in
both Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Secker andWarburg,
1952) and Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981).
19 For an excellent account of some of the paradoxes of Thermidor and the structural prolongation
of terror in the name of counterterror, see Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror:
The French Revolution after Robespierre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
20 Hegel, Philosophy of History, 447.
21 Alexis de Tocqueville,TheOldRegime and theFrenchRevolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New
York: Anchor, 1955), 8.
22 Daniel Arasse, Le guillotine et l’imaginaire de la terreur (Paris: Flammarion, 1987), 70.
23 Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1988).
24 This is the one time that the narrative of Spirit takes an explicitly nonchronological form;
this might baffle readers who have come to expect a fit, at least at this stage of development,
between phenomenology and chronology.This wrinkle of latency at the very heart
of the present is precisely where the traumatic structure of history as a whole becomes
for the first time fully visible.
25 Walter Benjamin, ‘‘The Image of Proust,’’ in SelectedWritings, vol. 2, ed.Michael Jennings,
Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).