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Miglena Nikolchina: Between Irony and Revolution, Sexual Difference and the Case of Aufhebung

Miglena Nikolchina

Between Irony and Revolution

Sexual Difference and the Case of Aufhebung


Down with Heaven: Materialism

Among its various meanings, Aufhebung signifies, on the one hand, annulment, destruction, cancellation and, on the other, preservation, conservation. In his reflections on the term, Hegel points out the word’s capacity to embrace precisely these two opposite sets of meanings, turning this capacity into an example of the unique philosophical advantages and the “speculative spirit” of the German language. As Derrida who had a great deal to say about the Aufhebung notes, according to Hegel this is “the speculative concept par excellence […], the concept whose untranslatable privilege is wielded by the German language.”[1] This privilege, furthermore, is attributed by Hegel to the proximity between philosophical and everyday language: Even when foreign words have been adopted into German—and his own—philosophy, they are the kind of words that have earned, through frequent usage, the right to German citizenship.

Given Hegel’s own emphasis on the connection between thinking and language and on the intrinsic Germanness of Aufhebung, it is not surprising that in English and, more dramatically, in French, discussions of the import and meaning of this term have frequently been bound up with debates about its translation. One would be tempted to say “unavoidably bound up.” Yet this turns out not to be the case. In Russia, there seem to have been no such debates. Ever since early in the 19th century up to the present day, the rendering of Aufhebung as snaytie and of aufheben as snyat’ has not only been widely functioning in philosophical contexts but it has also imported a Hegelian slant into the everyday usage of the word turning into a commonplace the idea that the dialectical “unity and struggle of opposites” marking each and every phenomenon has its natural course in their simultaneous destruction and preservation.

It should be noted at this point that the smooth assumption of the term was part of the massive, ardent, quite early, and, sometimes it has been claimed, fateful reception of Hegel’s philosophy in Russia, which turned Hegel into a “living dramatis persona in the history of 19th century [Russian] thinking”[2] and, even more strongly put, into “Russia’s ‘destiny’.”[3] Ivan Kireevskyi, probably the first Russian to attend Hegel’s lectures, writes in the 1840s that everybody in Russia speaks in a Hegelian language because “it is in the air we breathe.”[4] Since the reception of Hegel more or less coincided with the reception of French utopianism, the encounter of these two trends was perceived by 19th century thinkers (Belinskyi, Hertsen, Bakunin, Chernishevskyi) as facilitating the union of science and revolution, thus allowing socialist ideas to acquire during the 1840 their “firm foundation” in the principles of Hegel’s philosophy.[5] This specific configuration of revolutionary and philosophical currents explains why, on the one hand, during the Stalin era it could be asserted that “the proletariat is the only inheritor to whatever is vital and creative in Hegel’s philosophy,”[6] while, on the other, nowadays it can be argued that, although not intrinsically responsible for this, “Hegel’s system is the substantial cause for the demonism of the revolutionary epoch…”[7]

There is a certain logic, therefore, to the fact that the basic meanings of snyat’ and snyatie involve taking or bringing down. They may refer to the more or less decisive or energetic removal of barriers, obstacles, taboos, limitations, differences, bans, responsibilities, charges, classes, chiefs, royal persons, gods, Jesus Christ from the Cross. Items of clothing can also be snyat: for example Lenin, translating Engels, writes of the snyatie of the fig leaf of absolutism.[8] In all this, the snyatie presupposes the downward transfer of something from its lofty or fixed position and an ensuing dramatic change in its state: the crops from the fields, a picture from the wall, a minister from his post, a death mask from a face, things into a concept (now this is Hegelian: Lenin writes about the snyatie of a mask to illustrate the making of a concept[9]) or onto a film (you shoot a film in English but snyat’ is what you do to it in Russian), and so on up to the point where, not without logic and, I assume, not without the aufgehoben memory of the long hegelization of the Russian word, we find snyatie in contemporary Russian slang as indicating the discharge and relief of sexual tension.

The notes and references to Hegel in the writings of Lenin, the enfant terrible of the Russian blend of science and revolution, never put into question the notion of Aufhebung and its translation as snyatie, although they do involve plans as to how to correct and extract the “rational kernel” of Hegel’s dialectic from its idealistic captivity. The rational kernel included the unity and coincidence of opposites and contradictions in concepts but also in material reality, the uninhibited passage of one opposite into the other (for example, the possibility for the singular to be universal and vice versa), the simultaneity of cancellation and preservation, including the cancellation and preservation of a thing in its concept, the movement, ultimately, of a destruction that conserves whatever it destroys by a sort of stenography. Lenin was especially fascinated by the curve as opposed to the straight line: The curve was part of a vortex, whose endless upward movement expressed the true nature of progression as preservation through destruction. What still needed to be done to set things right with dialectical progression was to follow Marx’s prescription and reverse Hegel’s idealism by putting it properly on its feet. For Lenin, this reversal, like the snyatie itself, implied a downward movement. “Down with heaven: materialism” was Lenin’s concise description of what Hegel’s system needed.[10] The upward movement of the vortex, the movement that preserved what it destroyed and destroyed what it preserved, was hence seen as accomplished through taking what was up (heaven, God, absolute spirit, ideas, but also the tsar, the bourgeoisie…) down: No wonder the translation of Aufhebung as snyatie weathered the ordeals of revolution and the decades that followed as the very epitome of indestructibility in destruction. It is as if the issue of translation became inscribed and thus vanished into the radicalism of the revolutionary act. In truth it was snyat.


Aufhebung with a Différance

In sharp contrast to the early and widespread Russian acceptance of Hegel’s term in a single definitive translation, for many decades now, in the context of French theoretical thinking, the translation of aufheben has been a problem engendering heated discussions and controversies. Indeed, in a late text he presented at a translators’ conference, Derrida even turned these discussions and his own “relevant” translation of the term—in French, this relevant translation is, indeed, relever—into a parable of translation per se.[11] Can and should this term, this so very German term, be translated at all? The temptation of leaving it stand, so to say, in its Ur-form is always there, whatever Hegel might have thought about it. Or should one look for a proper “citizen of the French language” in compliance with Hegel’s belief that science should employ the resources of the respective natural language? And, since there seems to be no natural equivalent of Hegel’s term in French, should one invent a neologism as a sort of compromise between keeping the German word and adapting an existing word? In the course of answering such questions, suggestions proliferated: supprimer, abroger, enlever, assumer, sublimer, surprimer, relever, sursumer[12]

This series of suggestions is bound up with a strong conviction that the very understanding of Hegel is at stake here. According to Nancy, who dedicated a whole book to the term, commenting on the Aufhebung is very much “the program for a general (and perhaps absolute) commentary of Hegel,” and, he adds in a footnote, “every great study of Hegel is, in effect, a study of the Aufhebung, and for a good reason.”[13] Several decades earlier, Alexandre Kojève, a Russian philosopher who played quite a role in the spread of Hegelian studies in France, observed that “one could say that Hegelian dialectic is summarized by one single fundamental category, the category of dialectical suppression (Aufheben).”[14] And, in a text dedicated to the role for the spread of Hegelian studies in France of yet another Russian philosopher, Alexandre Koyré, Jean Wahl asked: “How should one translate Aufheben? This is the key to Hegelianism.”[15]

Jean Wahl thought Aufheben as the key to Hegelianism was especially difficult for the French, “if it were possible to speak of differences based on nationality.” By way of answering all of Jean Wahl’s concerns at once—concerns about the key to Hegel’s philosophy but also concerns about translation and the French difference—Derrida’s major (non)concept différance is offered as a “translation” of the difference between two types of difference in Hegel. This difference struck Derrida while reading a text where Koyré proposes the translation, in French, of long citations from Hegel’s Jena Logic. Différance, hence, is the translation of a difference between Hegelian differences, a micrological difference, as Derrida would later describe it, about which Hegel remains silent but which Derrida detects via Koyré and for which Hegel and Koyré do not but Derrida does offer a term.[16] Thus, as Derrida himself tells the story in Positions, différance appears as the outcome of his effort to differentiate his own conception of difference from what he sees as Hegel’s reduction of difference to a contradiction that can be resolved, internalized, canceled, and—could we say it at this point?—snyat’. Différance, Derrida goes on to specify, marks the point of greatest, indeed “almost absolute” proximity to Hegel, in order to, at this very point, break away from the system of speculative dialectics by writing the double sense of the Aufhebung in another way.[17] As a result of this procedure différance presents its own francophone (sic!) challenge to philosophical translatability. By becoming the simultaneous inscription of the phonic and the silent, the differentiated in space and the deferred in time, différance emerges as the quite untranslatable French naming of the very difference from and deferral of the untranslatable Aufhebung. Returning Nancy’s observation about Hegel, at this point we might say that commenting différance’s differing from and deferring of the Aufhebung may provide the program for a general commentary of deconstruction

In the framework of the tireless differing and deferring, which involves différance but also other of Derrida’s (non)concepts, Derrida proposes his own French translation of aufheben. This translation is relever. Like the German aufheben and the Russian snyat’, relever, we will hardly be surprised, is a polysemous word. There is, furthermore, a shift of meaning between the verb relever and the noun relève, which means relief (there is a crossing point here with the Russian snyatie as the snyatie of tension) as well as—Derrida and Nancy are especially emphatic about this—a changing of the guard. The basic meanings of the verb relever, however, are to stand up, pick up, pull up, raise, roll up, lift up… The mystery that concerns me now becomes apparent. Among its various meanings, aufheben does include the meanings of raise and lift up. There is no doubt, furthermore, that the Hegelian system outlines a relentless upward movement. Nevertheless, so far as aufheben is concerned, Hegel insists that its remarkable quality, displaying the speculative genius of the German language, consists in encompassing the two meanings of cancel and conserve and not move up or down. And yet, down it goes to the East of Germany and up to the West of it.


The Snyatie Relevé

It should be noted at this point that the tendency to introduce an upward verticality in the rendering of aufheben is not confined to the French and to Derrida’s translation. In English, it was introduced as early as 1865 through the now widely accepted rendering of Hegel’s term as sublate and sublation. Sublation is derivative of the Latin tollere which has the double meaning of raise up and destroy, thus functioning as a sort of photographic negative to the Russian snyat’. It should be noted that Hegel had explicit reservations about the applicability of tollere in this case. Nevertheless and in spite of alternative translations, sublation has prevailed in English philosophical literature and has probably enhanced in its turn the idea that Hegel’s term embraces an upward movement. This idea tends to surface in a variety of contexts, sometimes accompanied by an acknowledgment of the fact that Hegel is not interested in this meaning, sometimes not. Thus, in A Hegel Dictionary Michael Inwood claims that “despite Hegel’s silence on the matter, it is reasonable to see sense (1) [of Aufhebung], “elevation,” as an ingredient in its Hegelian meaning.”[18] Alan Bass’s note in his translation of Derrida’s “Différance” betrays no awareness of Hegel’s silence on the matter when he explains that

Aufhebung literary means ‘lifting up’; but it also contains the double meaning of conservation and negation. For Hegel, dialectics is a process of Aufhebung: every concept is to be negated and lifted up to a higher sphere in which it is thereby conserved.”[19]

Thus in Bass’s gloss lifting up is the stipulation that can explain how a thing can be simultaneously negated and conserved.

Going back to the French story, we can see that, with Nancy, the awareness of and the simultaneous disregard for Hegel’s silence on the matter of elevation takes the form of a division in his own text. On the one hand, in a long footnote, Nancy offers an account of the instances in which Hegel comments on the term—an account that cannot but demonstrate the absence of any up or down considerations. On the other hand, in the corpus of his text, Nancy justifies Derrida’s translation of aufheben as relever, that is, as elevate. The justification, notably, involves a critique of the prevalent French translation as supprimer. Supprimer means cancel, remove, abolish but it also means to suppress or knock down. It comes from the Latin supprimo which also has the additional meanings of sinking or sending to the bottom. Although the credit for the spreading of this translation in French literature has been attributed to Jean Hyppolite,[20] it was used before that.[21] Alexandre Koyré resorts sometimes to surmonter [22] (to rise above, surmount, overcome) or to suppression[23], but in the majority of cases he uses supprimer and, in a 1931 text dealing with the intrinsic untranslatability of Hegel, he glosses Hegel’s term as “le fameux Aufheben voulant dire en même temps supprimer et conserver” (the famous Aufheben meaning simultaneously to suppress/destroy and to conserve).[24] Supprimer is the translation used throughout the 1933-1939 lectures on Hegel by Alexandre Kojève who would also occasionally render the term as “dialectical suppression.” Like the Russian snyat’, therefore, supprimer involves notions of downward movement and, in Koyré’s and Kojève’s usage which tends to displace “destroy and conserve” with “suppress and conserve,” it appears to be the translation of snyat’ qua translation of aufheben. “I speak Russian in fifteen languages”—said another influential Russian of this period, the polyglot structuralist Roman Jakobson. So far as aufheben is concerned, Koyré and Kojève seem to be speaking Russian in German and French.

Kojève is, indeed, careful to note that supprimer dialectiquement, to abolish or suppress in a dialectical way, means to abolish/suppress (supprimer) while conserving the abolished/suppressed (supprimé), which is “sublimated (sublimé) in and by this suppression […] The abolished/suppressed (supprimé) entity […] is sublimated (sublimée) or elevated (élevée) in a more comprehensive mode of being…”[25] Or, as Derrida would put it decades later in his account of how he came to his own translation of the term, “Hegel’s major word” means “to abolish/suppress and elevate at the same time” (à la fois supprimer et élever).[26]

If aufheben means to suppress and elevate—although, let me say it one last time, Hegel was explicitly concerned with the simultaneity of destruction and preservation rather than with the simultaneity of up and down movements—the question is why in certain cases (Hyppolite, Kojève, the habitual Russian translation) the simultaneity of destruction and preservation would appear as taking down while in other cases (Derrida, the habitual English translation) the upward movement would be seen as better fitting the selfsame simultaneity? In fact, a decade before Derrida suggested relever, supprimer is conspicuously absent in a crucial context where Lacan refers to the Aufhebung. Lacan, as is well known, was amongst the most ardent listeners to Kojève whom he recognized as his only “master for having introduced [him] to Hegel.”[27] Notwithstanding the controversies surrounding the nature and the degree of Kojève’s influence, the connection between some of Lacan’s key terms such as desire and jouissance and Kojève’s reading of Hegel cannot be doubted. To add a further twist to the translation romance, the text I am referring to—La signification du phallus, Die Bedeutung des Phallus—was initially presented in German at the Max Planck Institute in Munich in 1958. In the French version of the text—curiously, it is claimed that it offers “without modification, sans modification” the original German presentation as if the translation into French is not a modification—Hegel’s term is introduced twice in German in order to describe the phallus as

“the sign of the latency with which everything signifiable is struck as soon as it is raised (aufgehoben) to the function of signifier.

The phallus is the signifier of this Aufhebung itself which it inaugurates (initiates) by its own disappearance. ”[28]

Notably, in this passage, which echoes Kojève’s description of “dialectical suppression,” aufgehoben is used to render only the raising part of the process. It would appear, consequently, that with the simultaneity of destruction and preservation of the Aufhebung there is a changing of the guard—if we are allowed to anticipate Derrida at this precise point—from its mode supprimé into an elevating mode when the Phallus becomes its signifier. Since it is the function of the Phallus to ensure sexual difference and preclude the “dream of the philosophers” of turning two into one—as Lacan would much later, yet still led by concerns with sexual difference, refer to the Aufhebung[29]—the unacceptability of the downward direction of supprimer, so seamlessly translating the Russian revolutionary snyatie, would seem to be ensuing from this phallic exigency. Up it must go! Thus, while with Lenin’s “down with heaven,” there seems to surface the connection between the Aufhebung qua snyatie and the Bolshevik revolution, the raising of the Aufhebung into the Phallus, to which Derrida’s différance will then try to counter the encore encore! of differing and deferring, becomes the symptom of the gender troubles of the twentieth century.


The Antinomies of Sexual Difference

The two directions that the translation of the Aufhebung take thus seem to embrace the two sides of dialectics as discussed by Badiou in his Theory of the Subject: the “strong” and the “weak” side, side of forces and side of places, historical side and structural side, topological and algebraic, one under the sign of destruction and the other one under the sign of lack. Structural dialectics privileges “weak differences” at the expense of strong differences. It reduces difference to the gap between positions. It prefers the correlations of pure exclusion, of positional scission, and of interchangeability to what, under the name of “struggle of opposites,” is trying to apprehend destruction as a quality of force. It fixes opposites in a symmetry or in an invariable dissymmetry instead of grasping the principal becoming of the secondary. It encounters the real as an obstacle… The strong side of dialectics, in contrast, the side of force, involves destruction as the lack of lack, as an excess of the real. Between Lacan and mathematics, Badiou re-envisions the dialectical vortex by terming this moment of dialectics torsion. Torsion is destruction that—and this, Badiou notes, is its dialectical status—puts an end to repetition while positioning the innovative rupture into a circular flexion. Revolution and what Badiou would later elaborate in his theory of the event as the eruption of the new would thus belong to this side of dialectics.

Badiou’s understanding of dialectics according to which torsion is “this moment of interruption that makes lack stray into destruction”[30] allows us, consequently, to discern in sexual difference the contraption that veers destruction into lack, a veering exemplified by the translation of the Aufhebung now down now up from revolution to sexual difference. Not only does sexual difference appear to be, as has justly been observed, a structural fatality but, distributed by the phallus as the signifier of lack, it emerges as the very machine that ushers the dialectics of forces into structural dialectics, keeping lack in place, warding off the lack of lack, blocking torsion. Not only is sexual difference constitutively immune to revolution, it is the antirevolutionary immunity system per se.

And yet, there is another side to it, another side that is the very same side, insofar as the Moebius strip is Lacan’s reference at this point. It is notoriously known that Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation (which the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, in fact, confirmed) took a somewhat obscene turn when he described it as the situation where “those below do not want to and those above are not able to.”[31] For Lenin, it was important to emphasize that it was not enough for those below not to want, it was necessary that those above couldn’t [rule] in the old way. With the revolutionary situation taking the form of a two-sided sexual malfunction, Lacan’s dictum “there is no sexual relation” turns sexual difference into a permanent revolution.

It would appear consequently that:

Sexual difference belongs to the weak differences of structural dialectics.
Sexual difference belongs to the strong differences of the dialectics of force.
Sexual difference is the jamming of torsion and hence a device of the status quo.
Sexual difference is perpetual torsion and hence the matrix of revolution.

It is no wonder, therefore, that feminism, by necessity grappling with the antinomies of sexual difference, has—with reference once again to Joan Scott’s analysis of the discursive impasses in the history of women’s movements—“nothing but paradoxes to offer.” No wonder, too, that the age of feminism is contemporaneous with the age of revolutions. As the simultaneous reservoir and paralysis of destruction qua torsion and hence of the new, sexual difference is inescapably implicated in projects to promote or arrest change. And while efforts to forestall the new unavoidably involve attempts to freeze sexual identities, its promotion has a variety of options—a variety of ways to get trapped in the antinomies, one might say. The wavering, which I discussed in the first chapter, of convoluted institutionalized tampering with sex and sexual identities in the former communist countries offers a sometimes dramatic, sometimes comic illustration of this state of affairs: between the radical projects for doing away with sex during the revolutionary stages, the more or less conscious relapse to traditional ideas of difference during the consolidation of the regimes, and the laissez-faire of the late years of the regime’s erosion when all this coexisted in a seething nonreflective mixture . . . These developments mirrored—with all the complications of mirroring that the story of the Aufhebung already suggests—developments in Western feminism, which remained caught up in the same antinomies, now relying on difference for its revolutionary potential, now trying to unmask it as the agent of normalization.

The problem acquires its most acute articulation with the appearance of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which transforms the field of the debate by introducing performativity as a concept that exposes the propensity of sexual difference to serve as a mechanism blocking change.[32] Performativity—Butler restates in her next book in the face of the frequent misunderstanding that accompanied the wide acclaim for this term—

“cannot be understood ‘outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms’ […] ‘Performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I still insist, determining it fully in advance.”[33]

And so, gender is the not always efficient reiteration of constraining, painful, and sometimes even deadly norms. The question, accordingly, is—and Butler continues to work out the implications of this question in her subsequent work—how to conceive of constraint and repetition themselves as self-defeating and hence subversive. No matter what the solution is, however, sexual difference per se is a normative device arresting transformation and change. As such, it deserves little sympathy. Butler’s concern with “doing” and “undoing” gender, with performing and non-performing sexual identities is ultimately a concern with sabotaging sexual difference tout court.

Joan Copjec’s response to Gender Trouble in her essay “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason” shifts precisely this premise. Copjec challenges some of Butler’s “fundamental assumptions on the ground that they may not support the political goals the book wants to defend,” [34] thus claiming that Butler’s political goals would be better supported through Copjec’s own position, that is, through the theoretical investment in a sexual difference that “does not budge.” Via a Kantian reading of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, Copjec aligns Lacan’s formula of femininity with Kant’s mathematical antinomy and Lacan’s formula of masculinity with Kant’s dynamical antinomy. This argument takes her ultimately to a discussion of the superego where it is stated that

“the prohibition proper to the superego renders something unsayable and undoable, to be sure, but it does not say what we should not say or do; it merely imposes a limit that makes everything we do and say seem as nought compared to what we cannot.”[35] The whole drama of the limit and the abjected beings created through this limit, which animates Butler’s concern, the drama, that is, of the reiterative doing and undoing of the limit, is hence reduced to a trivial aspect of the prohibition proper to the superego.

This also amounts to saying that this drama and hence Butler’s theoretical optics belong to the masculine side of the equation. Instead, Copjec’s wager is with “an ethics of inclusion and of the unlimited, that is, an ethics proper to the woman.”[36] In Copjec’s view, therefore, Butler’s political goals, her concern with the abjected and the excluded, can have their hope precisely in a sexual difference that does not budge. Sexual difference is the proper machine for transformation.


Eiron and Alazon

Although sexual difference does not budge, sexual identity is nonetheless fraudulent—at this point Copjec is in agreement with Butler. Sex is the real where language fails; masculinity and femininity simply qualify the failure. There is the masculine and the feminine side to this failure, the way there is, with Kant, a dynamical and a mathematical side to the failure of pure reason. Hence, although sexual difference is real, every claim to positive sexual identity is a sham. In fact, if there are two distinctive types of failure, there are also two distinctive types of fraudulence. “All pretensions of masculinity are, then, sheer imposture, just as every display of femininity is sheer masquerade.”[37]

Copjec’s two types of gender fraudulence evoke the dramatis personae of ancient comedy with masculinity as the alazon and femininity as the eiron. The alazon is, precisely, an impostor. A boasting soldier, a braggart, a miser, an irritable and despotic military and paternal figure who wants to control everybody else through his money and social power; The alazon imagines that he is bigger than he is and that he knows what, in fact, he does not know. His role is to hinder and block the other characters. In the comedy of sexual difference, we might say the alazon is the side that pretends to know what sexual difference is. The eiron, in contrast, is the master of self-depreciatory understatement. He undermines the impostures of the alazon by masquerading as being lesser than he is. He appears to be smaller than he is and he appears to know less than he knows—it is precisely this state of affairs that Joan Rivière describes in the article claiming that femininity is masquerade, which Lacan valued so highly.[38] It is this superior knowledge masquerading as ignorance that helps him overthrow the alazon and liberate—sometimes quite literally—the other characters. Once again, we might say that the eiron is that side of sexual difference that pretends not to know that it cannot be known.

Out of the figure of the eiron, Aristotle develops the idea of irony. Hegel, however, is the one who associates womankind with the “everlasting irony of the community.” Badiou, in his turn, connects Hegel’s statement to Lacan’s formula of femininity, read by him as “woman inexists in the whole.”[39] Now, if we would try to imagine gender theory from the point of view of this inexistence in the whole, the point of view of the eiron, of the one who unsettles—if I am allowed this turn of phrase at this precise moment—the transitional alazony of the community, what would such a theory look like? Wouldn’t the eiron try to thwart the alazon’s posturing as the one who knows what sexual difference is? Wouldn’t Butler’s program for the doing and undoing of gender come as close as can be to the eironic stance? Wouldn’t we have to admit that this is the theory, always concerned with the excluded as it is, that could answer Copjec’s call for an ethics proper to the woman—an ethics of inclusion and of the unlimited, an ethics, consequently, of misericordia toward the abjected and the constitutively left out?

This means that the sexual difference that does not budge encompasses the difference between its alazonic imposture and its eironic undoing; it also amounts to saying that the theory criticized by Copjec is also the theory that her own conceptualization of sexual difference calls for.


Irony and Revolution

Initially I meant this Aufhebung story to be comic. In the summer of 2001, I was in Vienna, at the Institute for the Human Sciences. There I was asked to give a talk about gender in the former Soviet bloc countries. At the time, I was expected to be an expert on this topic but it was a painful topic for me, the topic of a personal but also, I thought, a historical failure, a muteness, an amnesia, an unnamable loss. Hannah Arendt thought that this affliction, this impossibility to name the loss, which she discerned in the postwar melancholia of the French Resistance, was an aspect of any postrevolutionary situation. As Wendy Brown has put it, “What kind of lost object is this?”[40] Talking about this mysterious lost object seemed to me like talking about Hannah Arendt’s unicorns and fairy queens—not in terms of something that had existed but in terms of something that might have been. It is this “might have been” that no longer could be recalled. Perhaps, there never ever had been anything worth recalling. I knew that I was unable to give such a talk. Nevertheless, I had to keep trying. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of autism and convertibility I had to find a way to name the thing that could not be named.

And yet, there was something comic about my dumbness. There was something intrinsically funny about the uncontrollable inversions in the terms and the situations, which I described as heterotopian homonymy. The split, the reduplication, which heterotopian homonymy introduced into the language that had to be used in all seriousness, resembled too much the mechanism of comedy: Whether one was aware or not, an eiron or an alazon, statements unavoidably meant something more and something else than intended. It is no wonder that a unique blend of precision and humor became the brand name for the Ljubljana Lacanian School, which has proved that laughter and thinking are twins as no one else has done so far: Not so much the geographical but rather the (former) political position of Slovenia between two “topoi” (and also, perhaps, as Alenka Zupancic tells us in The Shortest Shadow, the existence of single, plural, and dual number in Slovenian grammar) seems to have allowed a sustained philosophical mastery of reduplicating discourses and visions. As Zizek’s theoretical recapitulation in the Parallax View demonstrates, the very “parallax gap, the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible,”[41] reveals the subversive core of dialectics.

That summer in Vienna, stirring up forgotten languages and memories and stumbling on the way in which Russian thought had the Aufhebung taken down in the Revolution and how Lacan had it aufgehoben into the Phallus, I was struck by the pertinence of the Aufhebung as an example of the inversion and contestation characterizing heterotopian homonymy. Here it was, the unfathomable German term, standing in its Ur-form in the middle of Europe. Up the phallic signifier goes to the West of it and down to the East of it. This inversion seemed to fit into the empirical reversals of the vicissitudes of women’s issues in the Cold War heterotopia: from below, through grassroots feminist movements in the West and from above, through the postrevolutionary bureaucracy in the Eastern bloc countries, and then the other way round. What better way to speak about the dramas of gender than the up and down fortunes of the Aufhebung? In view of my early and relentless indoctrination that the best way to negate and yet preserve something is through its being taken down, the inverted destinies of the Aufhebung struck me as so funny that I spent a couple of weeks laughing, looking on the Internet for pictures of the highest skyscrapers in New York and the deepest metro stations in Moscow. I was still doing this when somebody called me and asked me whether I was watching TV. No, I said. Well, you should, they said. And this is how I saw the New York towers go down.

Up to that point my “comic” plan had been to use the Aufhebung as an entrance to Seyla Benhabib’s claim that “what women can do today is restore irony to the dialectic, by defeating the pompous march of historical necessity.”[42] When the snyatie of the relève took such a literal shape, however, it revealed me to be the object rather than the cunning East European subject of the irony. Instead of transforming my theoretical autism into the knowing stance of the eiron, I, it turned out, like the alazon, had been wearing—with a reference to Alenka Zupancic’s discussion of comedy[43]—the real outside myself. Although I was unaware of it, the Aufhebung had opened its apocalyptic potential, pointing toward, to put it in Badiou’s terms, the other side of the dialectic, the one of “destruction, of the more-than-real, of force.”[44]

Recently, Giorgio Agamben has added another angle to this story by calling attention to the possibility that the double sense of aufheben, so much admired by Hegel, may have been the inheritance of Martin Luther’s translation as aufheben of Saint Paul’s antinomic usage of the Greek word katargein (“to cancel, destroy, render inoperative,” i.e., as in Saint Paul, to destroy the law by faith is to preserve it).[45] This sweeping perspective—which is already alluded to at the end of Derrida’s text on translation where Martin Luther appears as the arch-translator—turns the transmigration of the Aufhebung from one translation onto another into the trajectory of an excess of the real that makes it impossible to avoid the problem of destruction.

In short, something more and something better than the heterotopian foreclosure of utopia might be at stake in cases like that of Aufhebung. The terminological parallax—comic or uncanny, as the case may be—might be the carrier of the lightning of the real. It is noteworthy that at the beginning of the momentous 1980s Merab Mamardashvili questions—talking not of Hegel but of Kant—the Russian translation as snyatie. To translate aufheben as snyat’, he comments, implies taking knowledge down in order to open space for faith. Translating it as “raising up,” however, would amount to “taking it up in front of my eyes in order to see it, to examine it” and thus “open a place in the world for myself with my actions and my thinking.”[46] Mamardashvili’s suggestion for a reversal in the translation is thus inscribed in the anthropology that subtends the political agenda of the last decade of communism […].

And yet, will it be just chance that a rendering of the Aufhebung as falling has made its reappearance in French? Catherine Malabou, whose “transformation” of the Aufhebung into “plasticity” as “sculpture” and “explosion” opens a new chapter in its vicissitudes, notes that “if the sublation (relève) can sublate itself, it is precisely because it ends by seeing itself and can consequently let (itself) fall [(se) laisser tomber].”[47]

Whatever else the uncanny plasticity of the Aufhebung proclaims, it certainly means the irrecoverable obsoleteness of the lost fairy queens and unicorns of the “velvet” East European revolutions. As revolutions, they have failed. Their “autistic” message, if there ever was one, evaporated before it materialized. Was this message, the perhaps impossible message a message about revolution without destruction? And has this not been the impossible message of feminism? And is not the impossibility a manner of retaining, after all? The bifurcating history of the translations of the Aufhebung, it seems to me, is one of those vanishing traces where the mystery still lingers.


[1] Derrida, Jacques (1978): Writing and Difference, transl. A. Bass, Chicago, 257.

[2] Volodin, A. I. (1973): Gegel‘ i russkaja socialisticheskaja mysl‘ XIX veka [Hegel and Russian Nineteenth-Century Socialist Thinking], Moskow, 6.

[3] Sumin, Oleg (1997): Gegel’ kak sud’ba Rossii, Sofia.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Volodin 1973: 8, 235.

[6] Gegel’, G.V.F. (1934): Sochinenija, Т. VII, Moskow-Leningrad, 1934, xv.

[7] Sumin 1997: 90.

[8] Lenin, V.I. (1974a): Gosudarstvo i revoljucija: Uchenie marksizma o gosudarstve i zadachi proletariata v revoljucii. In: Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, 5-e izd. T. 33, Moskow, 70.

[9] Lenin, V.I. (1974b): Filosofskie tetrady. In: Polnoe sobranie, 5-e izd. Т. 29, Moskow, 330.

[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Derrida, Jacques (2004): Qu’est-ce qu’une traduction ‘relevante’? In: Mallet, Marie-Louise, & Michaud, Gnette, Jacques Derrida, Paris, 561–76.

[12] Jarczyk, Gwendoline/Labarrière, Perre-Jean (1986): Sursumer / Sursomption. In: Hegeliana, Paris, 102-120.

[13] Nancy, Jean-Luc (1973): La remarque spéculative (un bon mot de Hegel, Paris, 18, n. 4.

[14] Kojève, Alexandre (1947): Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, Paris, 482.

[15] Wahl, Jean (1966): Le role de A. Koyré dans le developpement des études hegelienne en France, In: Hegel-Studien, Supplement 3, Bonn, 22.

[16] Derrida, Jacques (1982): Différance. In: Margins of Philosophy, transl. A. Bass, Chicago, 13.

[17] Derrida, Jacques (1981): Positions, transl. A. Bass, Chicago, 44.

[18] Inwood, Michael (2003): A Hegel Dictionary, Oxford, 284.

[19] Derrida 1982: 20, tr.n. 23.

[20] Jarczyk/Labarrière 1986: 110.

[21] For example in Delbos, Victor (1925): Les Facteurs kantiens dans la philosophie allemande. In: Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale. See Koyré, Alexandre (1971a): Rapport sur l’état des études hégeliennes en France. In: Études d’histoire de la pensée philosophique, Paris, 235, n.1.

[22] Koyré 1971a: 213, 215.

[23] Koyré, Alexandre (1971b): Hegel à Iéna. In: Études d’histoire de la pensée philosophique, Paris, 161.

[24] Koyré, Alexandre (1971c): Note sur la langue et la terminologie hégeliennes. In: Études d’histoire de la pensée philosophique, Paris, 209.

[25] Kojève 1947: 21.

[26] Derrida 2004: 573.

[27] Lacan, Jacques (2001): L’Etourdit. In: Autres écrits, Paris, 453.

[28] Lacan, Jacques (1985): The Signification of the Phallus, transl. J. Rose. In: Mitchell, Juliet/ Rose, Jacqueline Eds. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, New York, 82. Here goes the French version: “…signe lui-même de la latence dont est frappé tout signifiable, dès lors qu’il est élevé (aufgehoben) à la fonction de signifiant. Le phallus est le signifiant de cette Aufhebung elle-même inaugure (initie) par sa disparition.” Lacan, Jacques (1999): Écrits II , Paris, 70.

[29] Lacan, Jacques (1975): Le Seminaire livre XX, Encore, Paris, 79.

[30] Badiou, Alain (2009): Theory of the Subject, transl. Bruno Bosteels, London, 1870.

[31] Lenin, V.I. (1974c): Detskaja bolezn „levizny“ v kommunizme. In: Polnoe sobranie, T. 41, Moskow, 69-70.

[32] Butler, Judith (1990): Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York; (1993): Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ , New York; (2004): Undoing Gender, New York.

[33] Butler 1993: 95.

[34] Copjec, Joan (1995): Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason. In: Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 201, 210.

[35] Ibid., 236.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 234.

[38] Rivière, Joan (1986): Womanliness as a Masquerade. In: Burgin, Victor/ Donald, James/ Kaplan, Cora, Eds., Formations of Fantasy, New York, 35-44.

[39] Badiou 1982: 278.

[40] Brown, Wendy (2005): Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton, 99.

[41] Zizek, Slavoj (2006):The Parallax View, Cambridge, Mass., 4.

[42] Benhabib, Seyla (1992): Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, New York, 256.

[43] Zupancic, Alenka (2008): The Odd One In: On Comedy, Cambridge, Mass., 178.

[44] Badiou, Theory of the Subject, 144.

[45] Agamben, Giorgio (2005): The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey, Stanford, 95–101.

[46] Mamardashvili, Merab (2005): Kantianskiye variatsii [Kantian Variations], Moscow, 25.

[47] Malabou, Catharine (2005): La plasticité au soir de l’écriture: Dialectique, destruction, deconstruction, Paris, 68.


Thanks to Miglena Nikolchina and Fordham University Press for the permission to republish this 3rd chapter of:
Miglena Nikolchina (2012), Lost Unicorns of the Velvet Revolutions, Heterotopias of the Seminar, New York, 69-87.

The first version had been published as: Sexual difference and the case of Aufhebung, in:
Claudia Reiche, Andrea Sick (eds.), do not exist: europe, woman, digital medium, Bremen,  2008, 93-110.

Miglena Nikolchina is a writer, literary historian and theoretician whose research engages the interactions of literature, philosophy, political studies, and feminist theory. She is professor at the Department of Theory of Literature at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Some of her poems have appeared in German. In English, her publications include the books Matricide in Language: Writing Theory in Kristeva and Woolf (2004) and Lost Unicorns of the Velvet Revolutions: Heterotopias of the Seminar (2013).

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