It Is What It Isn't! A Defence of Dialectic

by John P. Clark

According to a popular cliché, ‘It is what it is.’ This simple assertion, once named ‘cliché of the year,’ seems merely to state the obvious. However, there’s something seriously wrong with this small bit of conventional wisdom. What’s wrong is that the truth is just the opposite: ‘It is what it isn’t.’ That’s what’s wrong, if dialectic is right.

In fact, we will find that dialectic itself ‘is what it isn’t.’ Everybody, or at least everybody in the world of Anglo-American social thought, knows exactly what dialectic is. It’s ‘Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.’ It’s a contrived teleological view of history and everything else. Everybody knows that this is what it is.

In a recent internet exchange Levi Bryant, a prominent blogger and theoretically accomplished philosopher, informed me that ‘the problem with dialectics is that it's always a just-so story like evolutionary biology. You can always manipulate the subject matter to fit it into a dialectical scheme.’ To this, he added that it’s a Hegelian rehash of Aristotelian teleology, in which a thing ‘contains this drive in it’ that makes its potentiality become actual. I wasn’t terribly shocked by this view, since everybody knows that this is what dialectic is.

Admittedly, Levi Bryant is not everybody. So we might check the source to which das Man inevitably turns to find out what it thinks. A mere 14 words into Wikipedia’s ‘dialectic’ entry we are already introduced to ‘the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic,’ while the Educator of First Resort tells us in the second sentence of its ‘Master-Slave Dialectic’ entry that the secret of this famous Hegelian analysis is nothing other than our old friends Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis.

This conventional unwisdom concerning dialectic has persisted despite heroic efforts of dialectic thinkers to dispel such illusions. Probably no modern social theorist focused more intently than did French social theorist Georges Gurvitch on dialectic as the destruction of all rigid, objectifying, reductionist thought—the kind of thinking that is exemplified quite precisely by stereotyped teleological and thesis-antithesis–synthesis explanations. Gurvitch, in his major work Dialectique et Sociologie (1962), says that dialectic is ‘essentially anti-dogmatic,’ consisting of ‘the demolition of all acquired and crystallized concepts.’ He contends that it must ‘eliminate any pregiven philosophical or scientific point of view,’ and remain open to ‘ever-renewed experiences that do not allow themselves to be trapped in any immobilised operational framework.’ He argues that it ‘refrains from annihilating the unity within the multiplicity or the multiplicity within the unity, the simultaneous movement of wholes and their parts.’ He concludes, finally, that it is ‘an upheaval of all apparent stabilisation in social reality, as well as in knowledge.’

Gurvitch warns in particular against the ‘fetishism of the antinomy,’ by which he means the tendency to reduce dialectic to the interaction between polarised contradictories. In other words, he warns specifically against the error of most critics of dialectic, and of numerous inept amateur dialecticians, both of whom latch on to the stereotyped dialectical template of ‘thesis versus antithesis’ to disguise the fundamentally anti-dialectical content of their thinking.

Dialectic has its philosophical roots about twenty-five hundred years ago in the Axial Age, in the work of thinkers like Heraclitus, Shakyamuni Buddha and the early Daoist philosophers, Laozi and Zhuangzi (not to mention its even deeper roots in indigenous ontology and poetics). These thinkers warned from the outset that because of the way the human mind works (the way it has evolved for very good reasons) we constantly fall into all the traps that Gurvitch warns against.

Our anti-dialectical lapses compel us to overlook what should be most obvious to any alert and awakened mind. In fact, we forget almost immediately the things that are most crucial both spiritually and existentially. This is why dialectical thinkers since the beginning have pointed out that we require repeated exposure to trauma to help reawaken us and remind us of vital truths. They have also warned that a rigorous ongoing practice of dialectical thinking, of flexibility of mind and openness to the phenomena, must follow the traumatic event if we are to avoid lapsing back into a rigid, undead state that on the social level comes to define normality.

Dialectical social theory is concerned with reminding us of things that it would seem to be the height of folly to overlook, but which we nevertheless habitually overlook (or disavow). There is hardly a paucity of examples today. We live in a world of vast material abundance in which over a billion people live and toil in absolute poverty. We are told that the dominant institutions (the technological megamachine, the nation-state system, the global capitalist economy) are needed to give us security and fulfill our needs, yet they increasingly alienate us, threaten us with total control and breed panic and anxiety. The dominant world system is headed on an unswerving path toward global ecological collapse, but the last thing that is ever questioned is that system’s set of basic steering mechanisms.

We can debate the details, but we need to start by recognising the big picture, the elusive obvious. Civilisation, the dominant social reality, certainly causes a high level of discontent, but not enough so far to threaten its crisis tendencies. The social psyche is founded on processes of denial and disavowal. Social subjectivity is under the sway of alienation and servitude. Social institutions are programmed to achieve global ecocide. Radical dialectic initiates a process of radical questioning of such firmly-established realities.

The dialectical spirit demands that in questioning we exercise our capacity to be both ruthless and destructive, and also caring and creative. Marx aptly defined the dialectical project as a ‘ruthless critique of all things existing.’ Nothing should be immune to the destructive force of dialectical inquiry. It partakes of the qualities of Nietzsche’s ‘Second Metamorphosis of the Spirit,’ the lion-like being who knows how to speak the ‘sacred NO’ to all established truths and sovereign authorities. But we must relate it even more to Nietzsche’s ‘Third Metamorphosis,’ the child-like being. For it is also a kind of play in which the ego gets lost in the process of following the game of truth wherever it leads.

This means that it is also about care and caring. This might, on the face of it, seem contradictory to an indomitable critical spirit; however, dialectical critique is ruthless precisely because it is caring. It requires a tender solicitude for the development of beings and of ideas. The ruthless critique of all that is rigid and constraining is the correlate of the affirmation of, and desire for the liberation of, all that contributes to life, growth and creative expression. As one of the great dialecticians stated it in a strikingly dialectical formulation: ‘Curse braces, bless relaxes.’

Dialectic is about overcoming blockages to the flow of thought and the free movement of concepts. These blockages exist on at least four levels. The first is the level of the general constraints of the human knowing process, such as our necessary tendency to impose rigid, static categories on a world of incessant change and self-transformation and, above all, to perceive illusory identity where there is difference, multiplicity and otherness. The second level is that of the social ideology and social imaginary, in which categories, conceptual schemes and imaginary significations designed to legitimate and facilitate the operations of a social order distort experience and limit one’s concepts. The third level is that of more particular social groups, institutions and tendencies within a society, in which one’s attachment to a collective ideology and imaginary (including that of dissident and oppositional groups) creates false consciousness. And finally, there are blockages on the personal level, resulting from an individual’s unique and particular alienating and traumatising experience that generates a specific set of neuroses and defence mechanisms.

But what would it mean for social theory to be fully dialectical? The rudiments of dialectic can be seen even in the term’s etymology, which contains the idea of duality or opposition on the one hand (from ‘dia,’ meaning ‘across’), and connectedness between opposing elements on the other (from ‘legein,’ meaning ‘gathering’). Radical dialectic has always preserved these two crucial and inseparable moments: that of negation and opposition, and that of relation. All dialectical development encompasses both at once.

There’s a famous passage from Hegel that says much about the nature of radical dialectic. In the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel explains that a dialectical ethos (what he calls ‘the life of Spirit’) is not a ‘life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it.’ It reaches truth ‘only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.’ This means that radical dialectic holds that change and transformation take place through negation, contradiction, and unexpected reversals of the course that conventional thinking quite reasonably and incorrectly expects. It claims that reality is always one step ahead of conceptualisation, and advises us, with Heraclitus, ‘always expect the unexpected, or you will never find it’ (‘it’ being the deviously dialectical truth). It holds that a thing always is what it is not and is not what it is. It contends that determination is negation and that opposites interpenetrate. It recognises that both the objects of investigation and the investigators themselves are always in a process of transformation, and that therefore the categories of analysis must undergo change in the process of dialectical inquiry.

Given all this contradiction and negativity, one can never expect dialectical development in the real world of historical complexity and contingency to result in a neat ‘synthesis,’ a ‘reconciliation’ of opposing forces that produces a result ‘without remainder.’ Such an outcome could only occur within a contrived and imposed idealist dialectic, such as the dialectic of forms that was developed in some of Plato’s works and which became the basis for the Platonist tradition. This is an inherently non-dialectical dialectic based on an untranscended and untranscendable dualism. It inevitably signals disaster for critical social theory and victory for the logic of domination. Any authentic dialectic (any dialectical dialectic) is grounded in the ungrounding social and natural real, which always generates an excess beyond all reconciliation.

What is ‘preserved’ in dialectical development is not merely a ‘good side’ of an opposition that is left over when a ‘bad side’ is negated and the result is presumably purged of all its ‘badness.’ The remainder always contains unassimilated elements, and often contains further explosive contradictions. Authentic dialectic is always a traumatic process. It is always about the intrusion of the psychical, social and natural real. It’s about apparently bad news that sometimes turns out to be good news. This is why Marx, following Hegel, can say, in a dialectical spirit, that history progresses by its bad side. To which radically anarchistic dialectic adds the caveat that sometimes you have to ask ‘What’s so great about progress?’

If you want to learn about real dialectic from Hegel don’t look at his (sometimes) contrived teleological metaphysics, but rather to his authentically dialectical analyses, such as his master-slave dialectic. If you want to learn about real dialectic from Marx don’t look at his (sometimes) contrived teleological account of history, but rather to his authentically dialectical analyses, such his account of the dialectic of production. If you want to learn about real dialectic from Buddhist philosophy you won’t find any contrived teleology to ignore, so you just have to examine the radically negative dialectic that it applies to everything.

Hegel’s ‘master-slave dialectic’ or perhaps more accurately, the ‘dialectic of lordship and bondage,’ is inspired most specifically by feudal relations, in which domination is increasingly threatened by growing conditions that represent a fatally disruptive, but nevertheless liberating, universality. However, it is really about all relations of dominance and subordination, and any quest for domination over an object or sphere of reality. It demolishes all simplistic ideas of ‘power-over’ and subjection to power, and is full of surprising dialectical reversals.

Conquest, for example, seems initially to be merely the founding act in the establishment of a system of domination. Hegel shows, contrary to naïve ‘intuitions,’ that the reality that grounds that act, the threat of annihilation, rather than being a mere negation of the being of the conquered, requires the vanquished to face the reality of his or her own contingency. This leads in turn to a crisis of selfhood that opens up the possibility of a moral and spiritual breakthrough.

Next, one finds that the dialectic of domination results not only in the obvious outcome of the master’s freedom to enjoy the products of another’s labour, but also in the unexpected transformation of the master into a passive and dependent being. Hegel offers us the insight, which is perhaps even more significant today than it was in his own time, that a being defined by consumption loses direct contact with the transformative and self-transformative dimensions of materially transformative activity, which are left to the subordinate but productive being.

On the other hand, the subordinate develops certain creative capacities by coming to grips with the world and transforming possibilities into realities through the process of production, so that in a dialectical reversal, not only does the independent being become dependent, but the dependent being begins to develop a dimension of independence. This opens up the possibility of the revolt of the dominated against the system of domination. But this possibility will not necessarily be fulfilled, since its realisation is blocked to the degree to which the dominated are prevented from attaining consciousness of the subversive dimensions of their predicament. The extent to which there is a master-slave non-dialectic is also a dialectical question.

There are other radical reversals of this dialectical story. According to Hegelian psychology, which profoundly influenced Lacanian psychoanalysis, a quest for recognition by other human beings is basic to human existence. But to the degree that the dominated being is reduced to the status of an object, recognition becomes impossible. This means that domination is ultimately unfulfilling and reaches an impasse. Or does it? For it would seem that mutual recognition could still exist within the community of the dominant, and this basic need could then be fulfilled within the limits of domination. But is this true? We must still consider the degree to which the contradictions of domination necessarily contaminate that realm also. The dialectic thus continues, in Hegel and beyond Hegel.

In fact, we are led in Hegel’s own account toward the conclusion that true recognition requires respect for the personhood of all other persons, and can thus only be freely exchanged between equals. But if we read Hegel carefully and dialectically, we grasp the degree to which the realisation of this ideal must depend both on the contingencies of history and on the development of conscious social practice (which may turn contingencies into seeming necessities, but only after the fact). Hegel himself does not present the master-slave dialectic as ending in some kind of grand ‘Hegelian’ synthesis in which full respect and freedom are somehow miraculously attained by the Cunning of Reason. It is rather only one ‘moment’ in the process of comprehending the precondition for freedom and the barriers to its realisation.

To touch on Marx, the second favorite culprit of the anti-dialecticians, we might look briefly at the way in which he answers the question ‘What do we (collectively) produce through our labor?’ The conventional, non-dialectical answer is, of course, that we produce ‘products.’ We produce things that are produced! This answer certainly gets the prize for analytical rationality, but it is somehow unfulfilling. Marx shows that the dialectical answer is much more subtle and much more complex. He points out many things that we produce through our labour: wealth, along with poverty; power, along with powerlessness; pride, along with humiliation; intelligence, along with stupidity; sensory acuity, along with dulling of the senses; strength, along with weakness and debilitation. We produce consumption. We produce distribution. We produce production itself. We produce a class system. We produce a state system.

Significantly, even the ‘products’ that we produce are not mere products but commodities that with our helpful collaboration spawn a whole metaphysical world of their own. Perhaps the most important dialectical response to this question, one that incorporates much of what was just mentioned, is that through our labour we produce ourselves. And we produce quite diverse and distinctive selves according to the specific system or mode of production through which we do the producing.

The radical dialectic of Marx, like that of Hegel, can help us (and especially the theorists among us) recognise that all thought takes place from and is deeply conditioned by a perspective that is the result of processes of social determination. Dialectical theory focuses critique not only on the seemingly external objects of theoretical inquiry but on the theoretical project itself. We must ask: ‘What are the presuppositions of my theory and why did I adopt them?’ ‘Why have I chosen this theoretical project rather than another one?’ ‘On behalf of which interests am I theorising?’ Dialectical inquiry involves a process of critical reflection on its own (that is, someone’s, some culture’s, some class’s, some gender’s, some species’) perspective, and a willingness to allow that perspective to shift and be transformed.

This insight is expressed in the concept of the ‘Parallax View’ that Slavoj Žižek adapted from Kojin Karatani. In such a view, a shifting of perspective (the abandonment of any privileged theoretical place) not only reveals a new perspective that one could not have had without the shift, but also presents a new one that encompasses both perspectives and surpasses each. This is often seen in the case of cultural perspectives, as when an outsider is able to absorb the ethos while retaining an alien, critical standpoint, as Andrei Codrescu shows in his brilliant work The Disappearance of the Outside (1990). It is just as true of philosophical perspectives, as when one adopts the perspective of two or more theories and juxtaposes them, as Karatani discusses in Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003). This reveals that some theoretical, practical or experiential objects can only be perceived or understood from one perspective or another, and some can only be perceived or understood in certain ways when approached from more than one perspective. Parallactic truth signals the death and demolition not only of egocentrism and anthropocentrism, but of all centrisms. This is what radical dialectical ontology—object disoriented ontology, the ontology of anti-centricity—is all about.

This raises the question of Eurocentricity. I would contend, very much contrary to Žižek and other proponents of self-consciously Western dialectic, that Buddhist dialectic has in important ways been the most radical form in the history of philosophy. The concept of pratītyasamutpāda or dependent origination has been basic to Buddhist dialectic for several thousand years. According to this principle (or anti-principle) all things are sunya, or ‘empty’, which means that they have no self-contained essence or substantiality. The concept of sunyata, or ‘emptiness’, is very mystifying to non-dialectical interpreters, whether they are naïve sympathisers hoping desperately to be mystified, or narrowly analytical critics eager to dismiss it as nonsense. These misinterpreters tend to prefer the misleading translation of sunyata as ‘the void,’ which makes emptiness sound either intriguingly or stupidly vacuous.

Such superficial interpretations fail to pose the crucial question: ‘Empty—but empty of what?’ The answer, a commonplace in Buddhist philosophy, is that things are ‘empty of inherent existence’. This means that so-called ‘things’ must be seen as abstractions from a network of relations. We might say, using Western philosophical terminology, that these relations are ‘internal’ ones that define the nature of the thing itself, as long as we remember that ‘things’ can have ‘natures’ only on the ‘conventional’ epistemological level, but never on the ‘ultimate’ ontological level. There is ultimately no thing itself. We can abstract an ‘object’ from the network of relations and attribute a ‘nature’ to it ‘from our side’. Nevertheless, we can never discover any essential or substantial nature that exists ‘from its own side’. It never merely ‘is what it is’. Much as we may say that a signifier has meaning only through its relation to all other signifiers, we must conclude that a being ultimately has being only through its relation to all other beings: that it has, as Hakuin Zenji famously stated it, ‘a true nature that is no nature’.

The goal of such radically negative dialectic is not to destroy truth, or, in any case, not to destroy all kinds of truth. Rather, it aims at destroying reification and hypostatisation, and at showing ultimate truth to be the non-objectifiable truth of relations. Madhyamaka Buddhism, the most radically dialectical school of Buddhist philosophy, calls itself the ‘Middle Way School’ for the very specific reason that it is the middle way between what it calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’. ‘Eternalism’ refers to essentialism, substantialism, and all forms of dogmatism. ‘Nihilism’ means the abandonment of truth for the kind of skeptical conventionalism or disguised emotivism that prevails in contemporary Anglo-American social thought.

There is a little-known precept in Zen that says, ‘If someone poses a question with being in mind, answer with non-being in mind. If someone poses a question with non-being in mind, answer with being in mind.’ In other words, practice dialectic: ‘subvert, subvert, subvert!’ One of the most famous sayings in Zen is Linji’s famous exhortation. ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ He added that only this way, through the path of non-attachment, can one find freedom. Killing the Buddha as an objectified image means honoring the Buddha as the awakened, radically dialectical mind.

According to Buddhist philosophy, the goal of such radical dialectic is not merely to theorise radically, but rather to combine wisdom and compassion in thought and action. Applying this to contemporary social theory means working to overcome, both theoretically and in engaged practice, the repressive dualisms that have plagued humanity throughout the history of civilisation. The dialectical critique of essentialism and substantialism aims at demolishing such hierarchical dualisms as humanity-nature, masculine-feminine, civilised-primitive, reason-emotion, mind-body, spirit-flesh, ruler-ruled, rich-poor, coloniser-colonised, etc., as an integral part of the project of overcoming the systems of domination that they legitimate.

If social theory is to carry out this project of becoming more radically dialectical, it will have to reverse certain strong historic tendencies. Three decades ago, thanks in part to the efforts of dialectical theoretical tendencies such as Frankfurt School critical theory and Situationism, issues of the shaping of consciousness, the culture industry and the social imagination were becoming increasingly central to radical social thought. But today (with some notable but rather marginalised exceptions) we seem very far from the insight of Marcuse in ‘A Note on Dialectic’ that ‘there is an inner link between dialectical thought’ and ‘the effort to break the power of facts over the word, and to speak a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce and benefit from the facts’.

A critical and dialectic social theory will restore the organic relation between the liberated word and the liberated world, in defiance of the deadening weight of the brute and brutish facts of domination. It will resume the project of creating material forces that are capable of transforming consciousness and motivating liberatory action. This will entail critical analysis of the spheres of social institutions, the social ideology, the social imaginary, the social ethos and the dialectical interaction between them. A critical and dialectical analysis of these spheres of social determination will point to the crucial importance of primary communities—affinity groups, base communities and, eventually, ecocommunities—not as the single focus of efforts, but as the greatest hope for deep personal, social and ecological transformation. In short, it is the realm in which social agents and political actors might short-circuit the system of domination and recreate themselves so that liberatory social transformation might finally emerge.

The work of a dialectical social theory must be governed by the imperatives of its theoretical passion for understanding the nature of things, and its practical concern with solving the great social and ecological problems at hand. In the age of both mass society and mass extinction these are, above all, the problem of the polis, the achievement of the common good for all members of the human community and the problem of the oikos, the achievement of the common good within the larger community of life on earth. The challenge is to open up a space and time of renewed possibility in which critical and dialectical social theory can interact with political and personal practice so as to become a historically transformative force.

A good first step in this direction would be to concentrate one’s thought and action, with maximum intensity, on the following fundamental anti-principle: ‘It is what it isn’t.’