... a remainder that cannot ever be re-integrated into the subordinate moment of a higher level of life.

I know the meanings of the words individually but I can not understand the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Could you please explain it to me?

The fuller text:

Viruses are “any of various infectious agents, usually ultramicroscopic, that consist of nucleic acid, either RNA or DNA, within a case of protein: they infect animals, plants, and bacteria and reproduce only within living cells: viruses are considered as being non-living chemical units or sometimes as living organisms.”

This oscillation between life and death is crucial: viruses are neither alive nor dead in the usual sense of these terms, they are a kind of living dead. A virus is alive in its drive to replicate, but it is a kind of zero-level life, a biological caricature not so much of death-drive as of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication.

However, viruses are not the elementary form of life out of which more complex developed; they are purely parasitic, they replicate themselves through infecting more developed organisms (when a virus infects us, humans, we simply serve as its copying machine).

It is in this coincidence of the opposites—elementary and parasitic—that resides the mystery of viruses: they are a case of what Schelling called “der nie aufhebbare Rest”: a remainder of the lowest form of life that emerges as a product of malfunctioning of higher mechanisms of multiplication and continues to haunt (infect) them, a remainder that cannot ever be re-integrated into the subordinate moment of a higher level of life.

From COVID-19 shakes the world by Slavoj Žižek

  • 1
    I think that's just a more tasteful way of saying viruses are remainder of a sort of life which merely destroy the cell of organisms of the higher levels of life like human body's cell and that's it. It cannot develop to become something else.
    – Cardinal
    May 8, 2020 at 6:33
  • 3
    I don't think that sentence really can be explained. I suspect the author is merely trying to wax poetical on a subject s/he seems not to understand very well.
    – jamesqf
    May 8, 2020 at 16:20
  • 2
    I think you can jump to English@SE (english.stackexchange.com) now. This doesn't look like a learners issue.
    – Mou某
    May 8, 2020 at 16:44
  • 1
    @Robbie Goodwin: Maybe both, of course :-(
    – jamesqf
    May 8, 2020 at 22:29
  • 3
    As a native speaker I don't understand it either. I find the author's poetic style to be annoying and unnecessary.
    – Boann
    May 9, 2020 at 15:18

4 Answers 4


The author suggests that viruses began as a process in living cells (integrated, but subordinate to the cell) This process became faulty, and the virus somehow separated from the cell (a "remainder"). This cannot now be re-integrated and become a functioning part (or "subordinate moment") of a healthy cell

These words are not being used normally, and I think the author is using deliberately complex language to obfuscate.

It seems to be being used to illustrate a philosophical point. When you separate the good aspects from the bad, you can't eliminate the bad; bad ideas have a life of their own. But for more of this you need to go and talk about Schelling and the German idealists.

  • 2
    Good answer but I still don't get how "functioning part = subordinate moment". The use of the word moment there basically. I agree with you that he's deliberately obfuscated.
    – RubioRic
    May 8, 2020 at 9:04
  • 5
    Well it doesn't really mean that. He isn't using words in the normal sense. To understand this I looked at some Hegelian philosophy like books.google.co.uk/…
    – James K
    May 8, 2020 at 9:10
  • Ah! Now I get it. Pure philosophical stuff! Thanks!
    – RubioRic
    May 8, 2020 at 9:12
  • 6
    @JamesK This answer makes sense. I found a definition of "moment" in AHD that might fit: 6. Philosophy a. An essential or constituent element, as of a complex idea. b. A phase or aspect of a logically developing process. May 8, 2020 at 9:23
  • 2
    @RubioRic Bringing in the exact phrase "subordinate moment" in a citation was a big step. In any case, I've got a better idea of it from reading both your answer and James K's. May 8, 2020 at 10:20

Poking around on the net, I found a version of this text with a one-word difference:


"... a remainder which cannot ever be re-integrated as the subordinate moment of a higher level of life."
It seems more understandable to me with that word "as".

I think the sense of the sentence is that viruses will never become something that was once a problem, but is now just a footnote.

The fact that these not-quite living forms use the very machinery of higher life to undermine it means that in principle they can't be eliminated, any more than computer viruses can.

  • 1
    Ok. But the article you've mentioned had been published before, and later the author(Žižek) made it into a book "Covid-19 Shakes the World". He edited the sentence( you've mentioned) and changed it to the sentence I quoted.
    – Peace
    May 8, 2020 at 7:10
  • I've no idea. I am confused why he wrote "** re**-integrated into " (just think about RE in re-integrated).
    – Peace
    May 8, 2020 at 7:19
  • Ok. Maybe the meaning is more mechanical, at the level of the virus itself. It will never become a part of a cell that can continue a useful life, the way mitochondria may have done. What do you think the passage means? May 8, 2020 at 7:19
  • 1
    I think @RubioRic ' s answer is useful and clear.
    – Peace
    May 8, 2020 at 7:24
  • It's an interesting answer, and it would account for "reintegrate", but to me it doesn't explain the "moment" in "subordinate moment". May 8, 2020 at 7:31

I think that the key is in this part of the text

However, viruses are not the elementary form of life out of which more complex developed

In your sentence he is practically repeating that statement but instead of describing the past (developed), the author is talking about the probable future (cannot ever be).

A remainder that cannot ever be re-integrated into the subordinate moment of a higher level of life

A virus (remainder) is not expected (cannot ever) to evolve (be) into an element that can be used as a piece (subordinate moment) to build (integrate) more complex organisms (higher level of life).

According to the AHD (definition found by @Jack O'Flaherty)

6. Philosophy
a. An essential or constituent element

Why I have used as when the original author has employed into?

According to the Oxford Dictionary

Expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something becomes enclosed or surrounded by something else

I've reflected that sense of movement with the verb evolve and described the non-possible situation saying that the virus can not become a piece of a higher life form. A virus can not be a brick, or a piece of furniture, inside (enclosed) the house representing the higher life form (something else). It can not be seen as such brick in the future.

  • you used the word AS (used "as" a piece (subordinate)..." but there is no "as" in original sentence. Could you please explain it to me why?
    – Peace
    May 8, 2020 at 7:57
  • @Peace I've edited my post
    – RubioRic
    May 8, 2020 at 8:15
  • The author (Žižek) had written before differently. he wrote the sentence "a remainder which cannot ever be re-integrated AS the subordinate moment of a higher level of life" but later, when he edited his book, he omitted the word "as". Could you tell me please what you think about this changing? Why did he omit "as"?
    – Peace
    May 8, 2020 at 8:25
  • 1
    @Peace He did not omit it, he changed it by into because it's the preposition used with the verb integrate. Probably it was a typo or a light mistake. It's not relevant for the whole meaning of the sentence. See examples here: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/integrate
    – RubioRic
    May 8, 2020 at 8:45

Given that the author's name is Slavoj Žižek, I think there is a reasonable possibility that the writer is also an English language learner. The intent of this unusual phrasing is definitely not clear to an experienced English speaker.

For example, I don't know what a "subordinate moment" could reasonably mean--the best guess I could give would be "a period of time that is less important than the longer or more significant span that includes it". But that interpretation would only make sense if it were talking about a period of time. "the subordinate moment of a higher level of life" is referring to life as in the biological concept--as in "higher level life form".

It could mean "subordinate [earlier, less sophisticated, less developed] period of evolution that led to a higher level of life form, but which doesn't, in the end, fit in in a healthy way to the functioning of that higher level life form". That's my best guess, but if that was the author's intent, it was not a very good use of English to express it.

In short: you were correct to find this confusing, the meaning is unclear even to experienced readers of English.

  • 3
    No. Rest assured that he speaks English quite well. He's a philosopher, that's the reason for the idiosyncratic style, not his lack of command of the language. But actually, "moment" has a meaning you don't seem to take into account: it probably isn't about time at all. Check out the other answers, they are more to the point in this regard.
    – Gábor
    May 8, 2020 at 22:34
  • 1
    Wikipedia: Slavoj Žižek. The sentence is confusing because it's using philosophical terms.
    – wjandrea
    May 8, 2020 at 23:35

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