Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (18)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 90-91: Is not Lacan's futur anterieur his version of Marx's Thesis 11? The repressed past is never known 'as such', it can become known only in the very process of its transformation, since the interpretation itself intervenes in its object and changes it: for Marx, the truth about the past (class struggle, the antagonism which permeates the entire past history) can become visible only to a subject caught up in the process of its revolutionary transformation. What is at play here is the distinction between the subject of the enunciated and the subject of the enunciation: when, during psychoanalytic treatment, the analysand subjectively fully accepts the fact that his identification is that of a worthless scum or excrement,this very recognition is the unmistakable sign that he has effectively already overcome this identification. (Schelling made the same point apropos of the fundamental existential decision which concerns what I am in the kernel of my being: the moment this decision is explicitly taken, brought to consciousness, it is in reality already undone.)

pp. 91-92: Adorno's famous thesis that nothing is more true in Freud's theory than its exaggerations is to be taken literally, not reduced to the common-sense 'wisdom' according to which exaggeration in one direction corrects the existing opposite exaggeration, and thus re-establishes the proper balance. One has to abandon the textbook notion of the Hegelian dialectical process in which the first exaggeration is supplanted by the opposite one until, finally, the proper balance between the two is established, and each is reduced to its proper limited place, as in politics: one needs neither organic links that are too strong (which give us an inflexible corporate state unable to accommodate individual freedom, that is, the infinite right of subjectivity) nor a too-strong unilateral emphasis on abstract individual freedom (which leads to liberal anarchy and the disintegration of concrete social links, and as such gives rise to a mechanical state which is again experienced as an external power limiting the subjects' freedom), but the proper 'synthesis' of the two....

Hegel's point is not a new version of the yin/yang balance, but its exact opposite: 'truth' resides in the excess of exaggeration as such. That is to say: here one has to apply the fundamental Hegelian logical principle according to which the two species of the genus are the genus itself and its one species, so that we do not have the two exaggerations (finally reunited in a synthesis), but the balance as such and the disruptive 'exaggeration' which disturbs its poise. And of course, Hegel's point is the exact opposite of the standard wisdom: the harmonious balanced totality is not the 'truth' within which particular exaggerations, deprived of their excess, must find their proper place; on the contrary, the excess of 'exaggeration' is the truth which undermines the falsity of the balanced totality. In other words, in the choice between the Whole and its Part, one has to choose the Part and elevate it to the Principle of the Whole--this 'crazy' reversal introduces the dynamics of the process. One can also put it in terms of the opposition between 'being' and 'event', of the subject qua event, articulated by Alain Badiou: the subject emerges in the event of 'exaggeration', when a part exceeds its limited place and explodes the constraints of balanced totality.

pp. 93-95: [....] what is of interest in pragmatism is not a rather common-sense notion that the meaning of a term is always embedded in the use of this term within a concrete life-world context, but the much more radical thesis that the meaning of a term 'as such' is nothing but the multitude of its uses; what makes Oswald Ducrot's notion of argumentative topoi so interesting is not merely the premiss that each statement or predicate also has an argumentative dimension, that we use it in order to argue for some attitude towards the designated content--Ducrot claims that not only is the descriptive content of a predicate always accompanied by some argumentative attitude, but that this very 'descriptive content' is in itself nothing but a reified bundle of argumentative topoi; and so forth. Again, the key Hegelian point not to be missed here is that the enlightening 'truth-effect' of each of these theories resides not in the reduced kernel of truth beneath the false exaggeration ('not all meaning can be reduced to argumentative attitude, but a limited argumentative stance supplements its referential content in every statement we make...') but in the very 'unilateral' reductionist exaggeration.

Is not the whole point of Hegel, however, that one should pass from one position to the next through the self-resolution of its constrained character? Yes, but Hegel's point is that this passage occurs only and precisely when we fully assume the 'unilateral' reductionist gesture: Hegelian totality is not an organic Whole within which each element sticks to its limited place, but a 'crazy' totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very movement of its excessive exaggeration--the dialectical 'link' of partial elements emerges only through their 'exaggeration'. Back to Ducrot: the Hegelian point to be made is not that each predicate has a descriptive aspect as well as an argumentative aspect, but that the descriptive aspect itself emerges when an argumentative attitude is brought to its extreme, 'reified', and thus self-negates.

In the standard notion of the opposition between subject and object, the subject is conceived as the dynamic pole, as the active agent able to transcend every fixed situation, to 'create' its universe, to adapt itself to every new condition, and so on, in contrast to the fixed, inert domain of objects. Lacan supplements this standard notion with its obverse: the very dimension which defines subjectivity is a certain 'exaggerated', excessive, unbalanced fixation or 'freeze' which disturbs the ever-changing balanced flow of life, and can assume three forms, in accordance with the triad of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real:

*At the level of the Imaginary, Lacan--as is well-known--locates the emergence of the ego in the gesture of the precipitous identification with the external, alienated mirror-image which provides the idealized unity of the Self as opposed to the child's actual helplessness and lack of coordination. The feature to be emphasized here is that we are dealing with a kind of 'freeze of time': the flow of life is suspended, the Real of the dynamic living process is replaced by a 'dead', immobilized image--Lacan himself uses the metaphor of cinema projection, and compares the ego to the fixed image which the spectator perceives when the reel gets jammed. So, already at this most elementary level, one has to invert the commonplace according to which an animal is caught in its environs, in the self-enclosed organic whole of Innenwelt and Aussenwelt, while man can transcend this closure, dialectically subvert the confines of his environs, build new, artificial environs, and so on--yes, but what makes this transcendence possible is precisely an excessive fixation on the mirror image.

*The answer to this deadlock may seem to reside in the opposition between imaginary fixity and the dialectic fluidity and mediating power of the symbolic process: an animal remains stuck at the imaginary level, it is caught in the mirror-relationship to its environs, while man is able to transcend this closure by being engaged in the process of symbolization. It is the realm of 'symbolic fictions' which enables us to adapt ourselves to ever new situations, radically to change our self-perception, and so on. Is not the ultimate feature of the symbolic order found in its utter contingency? We can never derive the 'story we tell about ourselves' from our 'real situation', there is always a minimal gap between the real and the mode(s) of its symbolization....Here however, again, the very plasticity of the process of symbolization is strictly correlative to--even grounded in--the excessive fixation on an empty signifier: to put it in a somewhat simplified way, I can change my symbolic identity precisely and only in so far as my symbolic universe includes 'empty signifiers' which can be filled in by a new particular content. For example, the democratic process consists of the elaboration of ever new freedoms and equalities (of women, of workers, of minorities...); but throughout this process, the reference to the signifier 'democracy' is a constant, and the ideological struggle is precisely the struggle to impose an ever new meaning on this term (say, to claim that democracy which is not inclusive of democracy for women, which does not also preclude workers' enslavement, which does not also include respect for religious, ethnic, sexual, etc., minorities, is not true democracy...). The very plasticity of the signified content (the struggle for what democracy 'really means') relies on the fixity of the empty signifier 'democracy'. What characterizes human existence is thus the 'irrational' fixation on some symbolic Cause, materialized in a Master-Signifier to whom we stick regardless of the consequences, disregarding our most elementary interest, survival itself: it is the very 'stubborn attachment' to some Master-Signifier (ultimately a 'signifier without signified') which enables man to maintain free flexibility towards every signified content (the fact that I fear God absolutely enables me to overcome my fear of any worldly threat, etc.).

*According to this second commonplace, the self-transcending plasticity and freedom of man is grounded in the distance between 'things' and 'words', in the fact that the way we relate to reality is always mediated by a contingent symbolic process. Here again, however, a certain excessive fixity intervenes: according to psychoanalytic theory, a human subject can acquire and maintain a distance towards (symbolically mediated) reality only through the process of 'primordial repression': what we experience as 'reality' constitutes itself through the foreclosure of some traumatic X which remains the impossible-real kernel around which symbolization turns. What distinguishes man from animals is thus again the excessive fixation on the trauma (of the lost object, of the scene of some shattering jouissance, etc.); what sets the dynamism that pertains to the human condition in motion is the very fact that some traumatic X eludes every symbolization. 'Trauma' is that kernel of the Same which returns again and again, disrupting any symbolic identity.

So, at each of the three levels, the very dynamic, adaptive, self-transcending capacity which defines subjectivity is grounded in an excessive fixation.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (17)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 75-77:

Ideological Anamorphosis

The procedure which enables us to discern the structural inconsistency of an ideological edifice is that of the anamorphic reading. For example, is not the relationship between le Nom-du-Pere and le Non-du-Pere in Lacan a kind of theoretical anamorphosis? The shift from Nom to Non--that is, the insight which makes us discern, in the positive figure of Father as bearer of symbolic authority, merely the materialized/embodied negation--effectively involves a change in the subject's perspective: viewed from the right perspective, the Father's majestic presence becomes visible as a mere positivization of a negative gesture. One can also put it in Kantian terms: the anamorphic shift enables us to discern an apparently positive object as a 'negative magnitude', as a mere 'positivization of a void'. That is the elementary procedure of the critique of ideology; the 'sublime object of ideology' is the spectral object which has no positive ontological consistency, but merely fills in the gap of a certain constitutive impossibility.

The anti-Semitic figure of the Jew (to take the example of this sublime object) bears witness to the fact that the ideological desire which sustains ant-Semitism is inconsistent, 'self-contradictory' (capitalist competition and pre-modern organic solidarity, etc.). In order to maintain this desire, a specific object must be invented which gives body to, externalizes, the cause of the non-satisfaction of this desire (the Jew who is responsible for social disintegration). The lack of positive ontological consistency in this figure of the Jew is proved by the fact that the true relationship of causality is inverted with regard to the way things appear within the anti-Semitic ideological space: it is not the Jew who prevents Society from existing (from realizing itself as a full organic solidarity, etc.); rather, it is social antagonism which is primordial, and the figure of the Jew comes second as a fetish which materializes this hindrance. In this sense, one can also say that the Jew (not actual Jews, but the 'conceptual Jew' in anti-Semitism) is a Kantian 'negative magnitude': the positivization of the opposing force of 'evil' whose activity explains why the order of Good can never fully win. One of the most elementary definitions of ideology, therefore, is: a symbolic field which contains such a filler holding the place of some structural impossibility. In natural sciences, an example of such 'negative magnitude' is the infamous phlogiston (the ethereal stuff which allegedly serves as the medium for the transmission of light): this object merely positivizes the lack and inconsistency of our scientific explanation of the true nature of light. In all these cases, the basic operation is that of giving negativity precedence over positivity: prohibition is not a secondary obstacle which hinders my desire; desire itself is an attempt to fill the gap sustained by the prohibition. The (anti-Semitic figure of the) 'Jew' is not the positive cause of social imbalance and antagonisms: social antagonism comes first, and the 'Jew' merely gives body to this obstacle.

Kant is usually criticized for his formalism: for maintaining the rigid distinction between the network of formal conditions and the contingent positive content which provides the content for this formal network. There is, however, a critico-ideological use of this distinction: in the case of anti-Semitism, the main point is that the historical reality of Jews is exploited to fill in a pre-constructed ideological space which is in no way inherently connected with the historical reality of Jews. One falls into the ideological trap precisely by succumbing to the illusion that anti-Semitism really is about Jews.

Does not Lacan perform the same anamorphic shift of perspective in his famous reversal of Dostoevsky ('If there is no God, nothing at all is permitted')--that is to say, in his reversal of (the common perception of) Law as the agency which represses desire into (the concept of) Law as that which effectively sustains desire? In this precise sense, the Hegelian dialectical reversal also always involves a kind of anamorphic shift of perspective: what we (mis)perceived as the obstacle (the Prohibition), the condition of impossibility, is actually a positive condition of possibility (of our desiring)--the wicked world about which the Beautiful Soul complains is the inherent condition of its own subjective position. (The same also goes for the relationship between Law and its transgression: far from undermining the rule of the Law, its 'transgression' in fact serves as its ultimate support. So it is not only that transgression relies on, presupposes, the Law it transgresses; rather, the reverse case is much more pertinent. Law itself relies on its inherent transgression, so that when we suspend this transgression, the Law itself disintegrates.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (16)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 49-50: Jouissance is thus the 'place' of the subject--one is tempted to say: his 'impossible' Being-there, Da-Sein, and. for that very reason, the subject is always-already displaced, out-of-joint, with regard to it. Therein lies the primordial 'decentrement' of the Lacanian subject: much more radical and elementary than the decentrement of the subject with regard to the 'big Other', the symbolic order which is the external place of the subject's truth, is the decentrement with regard to the traumatic Thing-jouissance which the subject can never 'subjectivize', assume, integrate. Jouissance is that notorious heimliche which is simultaneously the most unheimliche, always-already here and, precisely as such, always-already lost. What characterizes the fundamental subjective position of a hysteric (and one should bear in mind that for Lacan, the status of the subject as such is hysterical) is precisely the ceaseless questioning of his or her existence qua enjoyment--that is, the refusal fully to identify with the object that he or she 'is', the eternal wondering at this object: 'Am I really that?'

Another way to express the point is to say that jouissance designates the non-historical kernel of the process of historicization. As Jacques-Alain Miller defines the analyst as the subject who, in contrast to us, 'common' individuals caught in the everyday symbolic circuit, no longer confounds what he hears [j'ouis] with what he enjoys [jouir]; Miller, of course, is alluding here to Lacan's famous wordplay from 'The Subversion of the Subject...' regarding the superego injunction Jouis! ('Enjoy!'), 'to which the subject can only reply J'ouis ('I hear'), the jouissance being no more than a half-heard innuendo'. The subject can avoid this confusion only by 'traversing the fantasy', since it is precisely his fundamental fantasy which provides the frame anchoring his jouissance in that which he is able to hear/understand: when I achieve a distance towards the phantasmic frame, I no longer reduce jouissance to what I hear/understand, to the frame of meaning.

The most difficult and painful aspect of what Lacan calls 'separation' is thus to maintain the distance between the hard kernel of jouissance and the ways in which this kernel is caught in different ideological fields--jouissance is 'undecidable', 'free-floating'. The enthusiasm of fans for their favourite rock star and the religious trance of a devout Catholic in the presence of the Pope are libidinally the same phenomenon; they differ only in the different symbolic network which supports them. [....] So, when someone, while describing his profound religious experience, emphatically answers his critics: 'You don't really understand it at all! There's more to it, something words cannot express!', he is the victim of a kind of perspective illusion: the precious agalma perceived by him as the unique ineffable kernel which cannot be shared by others (non-believers) is precisely jouissance as that which always remains the same. Every ideology attaches itself to some kernel of jouissance which, however, retains the status of an ambiguous excess.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (15)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 48-49: What psychoanalysis can do to help the critique of ideology is precisely to clarify the status of this paradoxical jouissance as the payment that the exploited, the servant, receives for serving the Master. This jouissance, of course, always emerges within a certain phantasmic field; the crucial precondition for breaking the chains of servitude is thus to 'traverse the fantasy' which structures our jouissance in a way which keeps us attached to the Master--makes us accept the framework of the social relationship of domination. [....]

Jouissance concerns the very fundamentals of what one is tempted to call psychoanalytic ontology. Psychoanalysis chances upon the fundamental ontological question: 'Why is there something instead of nothing?' apropos of the experience of the 'loss of reality [Realitatsverlust]', when some traumatic, excessively intense encounter affects the subject's ability to assume the full ontological weight of his world-experience. From the very outset of his teaching, Lacan emphasized the inherent and irreducible traumatic status of existence: 'By definition, there is something so improbable about all existence that one is in effect perpetually questioning oneself about its reality.' Later, after the crucial turning point of his teaching, he links existence ('as such', one is tempted to add) to jouissance as that which is properly traumatic--that is, whose existence can never be fully assumed, and which is thus forever perceived as spectral, pre-ontological. In a key passage from 'Subversion of the Subject and Dialectic of Desire', for example, he answers the question 'What am I?':

[quotation from Lacan] 'I' am in the place from which a voice is heard clamouring 'the universe is a defect in the purity of Non-Being'. And not without reason, for by protecting itself this place makes Being itself languish. This place is called Jouissance, and it is the absence of this that makes the universe vain.

Jouissance is thus the ontological aberration, the disturbed balance (clinamen, to use the old philosophical term) which accounts for the passage from Nothing to Something; it designates the minimal contraction (in Schelling's sense of the term) which provides the density of the subject's reality. Someone can be happily married, with a good job and many friends, fully satisfied with his life, and yet absolutely hooked on some specific formation ('sinthom') of jouissance, ready to put everything at risk rather than renounce that (drugs, tobacco, drink, a particular sexual perversion...). Although his symbolic universe may be nicely set up, this absolutely meaningless intrusion, this clinamen, upsets everything, and there is nothing to be done, since it is only in this 'sinthom' that the subject encounters the density of being--when he is deprived of it, his universe is empty. At a less extreme level, the same holds for every authentic intersubjective encounter: when do I actually encounter the Other 'beyond the wall of language', in the real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (14)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

p. 37: [....] Lacan increasingly focuses his theoretical attention on drive as a kind of 'acephalous' knowledge which brings about satisfaction. This knowledge involves neither an inherent relation to truth nor a subjective position of enunciation--not because it dissimulates the subjective position of enunciation, but because it is in itself non-subjectivized, ontologically prior to the very dimension of truth (although, of course, the very predicate 'ontological' thereby becomes problematic, since ontology is by definition a discourse on truth...). Truth and knowledge are thus related as desire and drive: interpretation aims at the truth of the subject's desire (the truth of desire is the desire for truth, as one is tempted to put it in a pseudo-Heideggerian way), while construction expresses the knowledge about drive. [....]

pp. 38-9: Within psychoanalysis, this knowledge of drive, which can never be subjectivized, assumes the form of knowledge about the subject's 'fundamental fantasy', the specific formula which regulates his or her access to jouissance. That is to say: desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, even exclusive: desire's raison d'etre (or 'utility function', to use Richard Dawkins's term) is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire. So how is it possible to couple desire and jouissance, to guarantee a minimum of jouissance within the space of desire? It is the famous Lacanian objet petit a that mediates between the incompatible domains of desire and jouissance. In what precise sense is objet petit a the object-cause of desire? The objet petit a is not what we desire, what we are after, but, rather, that which sets our desire in motion, in the sense of the formal frame which confers consistency on our desire: desire is, of course, metonymical; it shifts from one object to another; through all these displacements, however, desire none the less retains a minimum of formal consistency, a set of phantasmic features which, when they are encountered in a positive object, make us desire this object--objet petit a as the cause of desire is nothing other than this formal frame of consistency. In a slightly different way, the same mechanism regulates the subject's falling in love: the automatism of love is set in motion when some contingent, ultimately indifferent (libidinal) object finds itself occupying a pre-given fantasy-place.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (13)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 35-6:

The truth of desire, the knowledge of fantasy

The opposition desire/drive coincides with the opposition truth/knowledge. As Jacques-Alain Miller emphasized, the psychoanalytic concept of 'construction' does not involve the (dubious) claim that the analyst is always right (if the patient accepts the analyst's proposed construction, that's OK; if the patient rejects it, this rejection is a sign of resistance which, consequently, again confirms that the construction has touched some traumatic kernel within the patient...). Rather, psychoanalytic treatment relies on the other side of the same coin, which is crucial in psychoanalysis--it is the analysand who is always, by definition, in the wrong (like the priest from Jutland who, at the end of Kierkegaard's Either/Or, repeatedly claims: 'You do not say "God is always in the right"; you say "Against God I am always in the wrong"'). In order to grasp this point, one should focus on the crucial distinction between construction and its counterpart, interpretation--this couple, construction/interpretation, is correlative to the couple knowledge/truth. That is to say: an interpretation is a gesture which is always embedded in the intersubjective dialectic of recognition between the analysand and the interpreter-analyst; it aims to bring about the effect of truth apropos of a particular formation of the unconscious (a dream, a symptom, a slip of the tongue...): the subject is expected to 'recognize' himself in the signification proposed by the interpreter, precisely in order to subjectivize this signification, to assume it as 'his own' ('Yes, my God, that's me, I really wanted this...'). The very success of interpretation is measured by this 'effect of truth', by the extent to which it affects the subjective position of the analysand (stirs up memories of hitherto deeply repressed traumatic encounters, provokes violent resistance...). In clear contrast to interpretation, a construction (typically: that of a fundamental fantasy) has the status of a knowledge which can never be subjectivized--that is, it can never be assumed by the subject as the truth about himself, the truth in which he recognizes the innermost kernel of his being. A construction is a purely explanatory logical presupposition, like the second stage ('I am being beaten by my father') of the child's fantasy 'A child is being beaten' which, as Freud emphasizes, is so radically unconscious that it can never be remembered [....] The fact that this phase 'never had a real existence', of course, indicates its status as the Lacanian real; the knowledge about it, a 'knowledge in the real', is a kind of 'acephalous', non-subjectivized knowledge: although it is a kind of 'Thou art that!' which articulates the very kernel of the subject's being (or, rather, for that very reason), its assumption desubjectivizes me--that is, I can assume my fundamental fantasy only in so far as I undergo what Lacan calls 'subjective destitution'. Or--to put it in yet another way--interpretation and construction stand to each other as do symptom and fantasy: symptoms are to be interpreted, fundamental fantasy is to be (re)constructed....

The Plague of Fantasies (12)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 32-35: Desire emerges when drive gets caught in the cobweb of Law/prohibition, in the vicious cycle in which 'jouissance must be refused, so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder of the Law of desire' (Lacan's definition of castration)--and fantasy is the narrative of this primordial loss, since it stages the process of this renunciation, the emergence of the Law. In this precise sense, fantasy is the very screen that separates desire from drive: it tells the story which allows the subject to (mis)perceive the void around which drive circulates as the primordial loss constitutive of desire. In other words, fantasy provides a rationale for the inherent deadlock of desire: it constructs the scene in which the jouissance we are deprived of is concentrated in the Other who stole it from us. [....] In 'traversing the fantasy', we find jouissance in the vicious cycle of circulating around the void of the (missing) object, renouncing the myth that jouissance has to be amassed somewhere else.

Hysteria provides the exemplary case of desire as a defence against jouissance: in contrast to the pervert who works incessantly to provide enjoyment to the Other, the neurotic-hysteric wants to be the object of the Other's desire, not the object of his enjoyment--she is well aware that the only way to remain desired is to postpone the satisfaction, the gratification of desire which would bring enjoyment. The hysteric's fear is that, in so far as she is the object of the Other's enjoyment, she is reduced to an instrument of the Other, exploited, manipulated by him; on the other hand, there is nothing a true pervert enjoys more than being an instrument of the Other, of his jouissance. [....] What the neurotic cannot stand is the idea that the Other is profiting from his sacrifice; he (typically the obsessional) is prepared to sacrifice everything on condition that the Other does not profit from it, that he does not amass the sacrificed jouissance, does not enjoy in his place. Through psychoanalytic treatment, the neurotic must be helped to stop blaming the Other (society, parents, church, spouse...) for his 'castration', and, consequently, to stop seeking retribution from the Other. (There, in the strategy of culpabilizing the Other, also resides the limitation of 'postmodern' identity politics, in which the deprived minority indulges in ressentiment by blaming, and seeking retribution from, the Other.) In the dialectic of Master and servant, the servant (mis)perceives the Master as amassing jouissance, and gets back (steals from the Master) little crumbs of jouissance; these small pleasures (the awareness that he can also manipullate the Master), silently tolerated by the Master, not only fail to present any threat to the Master but, in fact, constitute the 'libidinal bribery' which maintains the servant's servitude. In short, the satisfaction that he is able to dupe the Master is precisely what guarantees the servant's servitude to him.

Although both the neurotic and the pervert sacrifice enjoyment--although neither of the two is a psychotic directly immersed in jouissance--the economy of sacrifice is fundamentally different: a neurotic is traumatized by the other's jouissance (an obsessional neurotic, for example, works like mad all the time to prevent the Other from enjoying [....]) while a pervert posits himself as the object-instrument of the Other's jouissance; he sacrifices his jouissance to generate jouissance in the Other. [....]

The key point is thus to clearly delineate the specific intermediate status of perversion, between psychosis and neurosis, between the psychotic's foreclosure of the Law and the neurotic's integration into the Law. [....] in contrast to the neurotic, who acknowledges the Law in order occasionally to take enjoyment in its transgressions (masturbation, theft...), and thus obtains satisfaction by snatching back from the Other part of the stolen jouissance, the pervert directly elevates the enjoying big Other into the agency of Law. As we have already seen, the pervert's aim is to establish, not to undermine, the Law: the proverbial male masochist elevates his partner, the Dominatrix, into the Lawgiver whose orders are to be obeyed. A pervert fully acknowledges the obscene-jouissant underside of the Law, since he gains satisfaction from the very obscenity of the gesture of installing the rule of Law--that is, of 'castration'. In the 'normal' state of things, the symbolic Law prevents access to the (incestuous) object, and thus creates the desire for it; in perversion, it is the object itself (say, the Dominatrix in masochism) which makes the law. Here the theoretical concept of masochism as perversion touches the common notion of a masochist who 'enjoys being tortured by the Law': a masochist locates enjoyment in the very agency of Law which prohibits the access to enjoyment.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (11)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 30-31: Once we move beyond desire, that is to say, beyond the fantasy which sustains desire--we enter the strange domain of drive: the domain of the closed circular palpitation which finds satisfaction in endlessly repeating the same failed gesture.

Drive's 'eternal return of the same'

The Freudian drive is thus another name for the radical ontological closure. Does not Nietzsche's famous 'Drunken Song' from the Fourth Part of Zarathustra ('The world is deep, / And deeper than the day could read. / Deep is its woe-- / Joy--deeper still than grief can be: / Woe says: Hence! Go! / But joys all want eternity-- / Want deep, profound eternity!') express perfectly the excessive pleasure-in-pain at which late Lacan aims in his rehabilitation of drive? This Nietzschean 'eternity' is to be opposed to being-towards-death: it is the eternity of drive against the finitude of desire. The 'Yes!' of the 'eternal return of the same' thus aims at the same thing as Lacan's 'Encore!' ('More!'--Nietzsche himself says in the preceding paragraph that 'the name of / this song / is "Once more"'), which is to be read (also) as an evocation of the proverbial woman's 'More!' during the sexual act--it stands for more of the same, for the full acceptance of the pain itself as inherent to the excess of pleasure which is jouissance. The 'eternal return of the same' thus no longer involves the Will to Power (at least, not in the standard sense of the term): rather, it indexes the attitude of actively endorsing the passive confrontation with objet petit a, bypassing the intermediate role of the screen of fantasy. In this precise sense, the 'eternal return of the same' stands for the moment when the subject 'traverses the fantasy'.

According to the doxa, fantasy stands for the moment of closure: fantasy is the screen by means of which the subject avoids the radical opening of the enigma of the Other's desire--is 'traversing the fantasy' not therefore synonymous with confronting the opening, the abyss of the Other's impenetrable desire? What, however, if things are exactly inverted? What if it is fantasy itself which, in so far as it fills in the void of the Other's desire, sustains the (false) opening--the notion that there is some radical Otherness which makes our universe incomplete? And, consequently, what if 'traversing the fantasy' involves the acceptance of a radical ontological closure? The unbearable aspect of the 'eternal return of the same'--the Nietschean name for the crucial dimension of drive--is the radical closure this notion implies: to endorse and fully assume the 'eternal return of the same' means that we renounce every opening, every belief in the messianic Otherness--here late Lacan parts with the 'deconstructionist' notion of spectrality [....] The point is thus to oppose the radical closure of the 'eternal' drive to the opening involved in the finitude/temporality of the desiring subject.

This closure of drive, of course, is not to be confused with the domain of pre-symbolic animal bodily instincts; crucial here is the basic and constitutive discord between drive and body: drive as eternal-'undead' disrupts the instinctual rhythm of the body. For that reason, drive as such is death drive: it stands for an unconditional impetus which disregards the proper needs of the living body and simply battens on it. It is as if some part of the body, an organ, is sublimated, torn out of its bodily context, elevated to the dignity of the Thing and thus caught in an infinitely repetitive cycle, endlessly circulating around the void of its structuring impossibility. It is thus as if we are not fit to fit our bodies: drive demands another, 'undead' body.

p. 32: The problem with Nietsche, perhaps, is that in his praise of the body, he downplays--disregards, even--this absolute gap between the organic body and the mad eternal rhythm of drive to which its organs, 'partial objects', can be submitted. In this precise sense, drive can be said to be 'meta-physical': not in the sense of being beyond the domain of the physical, but in the sense of involving another materiality beyond (or, rather, beneath) the materiality located in (what we experience as) spatio-temporal reality. In other words, the primordial Other of our spatio-temporal bodily reality is not Spirit, but another 'sublime' materiality. [....] Let us recall the 'massiveness' of the protracted stains which 'are' yellow sky in late Van Gogh, or the water or grass in Munch: this uncanny 'massiveness' pertains neither to the direct materiality of the color stains nor to the materiality of the depicted objects [....] From the Lacanian perspective, it is easy to identify this 'spiritual corporeality' as materialized jouissance, 'jouissance turned into flesh'.

The Plague of Fantasies (10)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

[about how the need for the phantasmic support of the public symbolic order is materialized in 'unwritten rules']

p. 27: How do these two levels, the public text and its phantasmic support, interact? Where do they intersect? [....] Every belonging to a society involves a paradoxical point at which the subject is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of his choice, what is anyway imposed on him [....] This paradox of willing (choosing freely) what is in any case necessary, of pretending (maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice although in fact there isn't, is strictly co-dependent with the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture--an offer--which is meant to be rejected: what the empty gesture offers is the opportunity to choose the impossible, that which inevitably will not happen [....]

p. 28: What we have here is symbolic exchange at its purest: a gesture made to be rejected; the point, the 'magic' of symbolic exchange, is that although in the end we are back to where we were at the beginning, the overall result of the operation is not zero but a distinct gain for both parties, the pact of solidarity. [....] what if the other to whom the offer to be rejected is made actually accepts it? [....] A situation like this is properly catastrophic: it causes the disintegration of the semblance (of freedom) that pertains to the social order--however, since, at this level, things in a way are what they seem to be, this disintegration of the semblance equals the disintegration of the social substance itself, the dissolution of the social link.

The need for the phantasmic support of the public symbolic order (materialized in the so-called unwritten rules) thus bears witness to the system's vulnerability: the system is compelled to allow for possibilities of choices which must never actually take place, since their occurrence would cause the system to disintegrate, and the function of the unwritten rules is precisely to prevent the actualization of these choices formally allowed by the system. [....]

pp. 28-29: Or--to put it another way--the paradoxical role of unwritten rules is that, with regard to the explicit, public Law, they are simultaneously transgressive (they violate explicit social rules) and more coercive (they are additional rules which restrain the field of choice by prohibiting the possibilities allowed for--guaranteed, even--by the public Law).

p. 29: Fantasy designates precisely this unwritten framework which tells us how we are to understand the letter of the Law. And it is easy to observe how today, in our enlightened era of universal rights, racism and sexism reproduce themselves mainly at the level of the phantasmic unwritten rules which sustain and qualify universal ideological proclamations. The lesson of this is that--sometimes, at least--the truly subversive thing is not to disregard the explicit letter of the Law on behalf of the underlying fantasies, but to stick to this letter against the fantasy which sustains it. In other words, the act of taking the empty gesture (the offer to be rejected) literally--to treat the forced choice as a true choice--is, perhaps, one of the ways to put into practice what Lacan calls 'traversing the fantasy': in accomplishing this act, the subject suspends the phantasmic frame of unwritten rules which tell him how to choose freely--no wonder the consequences of this act are so catastrophic.

[about how contingency as such is necessary]

It is therefore crucial to bear in mind the radical ambiguity of fantasy within an ideological space: fantasy works both ways, it simultaneously closes the actual span of choices (fantasy renders and sustains the structure of the forced choice, it tells us how we are to choose if we are to maintain the freedom of choice--that is, it bridges the gap between the formal symbolic frame of choices and social reality by preventing the choice which, although formally allowed, would, if in fact made, ruin the system) and maintains the false opening, the idea that the excluded choice might have happened, and does not actually take place only on account of contingent circumstances [....]

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (9)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 25-27: Conservative populist political discourse is therefore an excellent example of a power discourse whose efficiency depends on the mechanism of self-censorship: it relies on a mechanism which is operative only in so far as it remains censored. Against the image, ever-present in cultural criticism, of a radical subversive discourse or practice 'censored' by Power, one is even tempted to claim that today, more than ever, the mechanism of censorship intervenes predominantly to enhance the efficiency of the power discourse itself.

The temptation to be avoided here is the old Leftist notion of 'better for us to deal with the enemy who openly admits his (racist, homophobic...) bias than with the hypocritical attitude of publicly denouncing what one secretly and actually endorses'. This notion fatally underestimates the ideologico-political significance of keeping up appearances: an appearance is never 'merely an appearance', it profoundly affects the actual sociosymbolic position of those concerned. If racist attitudes were to be rendered acceptable for the mainstream ideologico-political discourse, this would radically shift the balance of the entire ideological hegemony. This is probably what Alain Badiou had in mind when he mockingly designated his work a search for the 'good terror'. Today, in the face of the emergence of new racism and sexism, the strategy should be to make such enunciations unutterable, so that anyone relying on them automatically disqualifies himself (like, in our universe, those who refer approvingly to Fascism). One should emphatically not discuss 'how many people really died in Auschwitz', what are 'the good aspects of slavery', 'the necessity of cutting down on workers' collective rights', and so on; the position here should be quite unashamedly 'dogmatic' and 'terrorist': this is not a matter for 'open, rational, democratic discussion'.

We are now in a position to specify the distinction between the Foucauldian interconnection between Power and resistance, and our notion of 'inherent transgression'. Let us begin via the matrix of the possible relations between Law and its transgression. The most elementary is the simple relation of externality, of external opposition, in which transgression is directly opposed to legal Power, and poses a threat to it. The next step is to claim that transgression hinges on the obstacle it violates: without Law there is no transgression; transgression needs an obstacle in order to assert itself. Foucault, of course, in Volume I of The History of Sexuality, rejects both these versions, and asserts the absolute immanence of resistance to Power. However, the point of 'inherent transgression' is not only that resistance is immanent to Power, that power and counter-power generate each other; it is not only that Power itself generates the excess of resistance which it can no longer dominate; it is also not only that--in the case of sexuality--the disciplinary 'repression' of a libidinal investment eroticizes this gesture of repression itself, as in the case of the obsessional neurotic who derives libidinal satisfaction from the very compulsive rituals destined to keep the traumatic jouissance at bay.

This last point must be further radicalized: the power edifice itself is split from within: in order to reproduce itself and contain its Other, it has to rely on an inherent excess which grounds it--to put it in the Hegelian terms of speculative identity, Power is always-already its own transgression, if it is to function, it has to rely on a kind of obscene supplement. It is therefore not enough to assert, in a Foucauldian way, that power is inextricably linked to counter-power, generating it and being itself conditioned by it: in a self-reflective way, the split is always-already mirrored back into the power edifice itself, splitting it from within, so that the gesture of self-censorship is cosubstantiaal with the exercise of power. Furthermore, it is not enough to say that the 'repression' of some libidinal content retroactively eroticizes the very gesture of 'repression'--this 'eroticization' of power is not a secondary effect of its exertion on its object but its very disavowed foundation, its 'constitutive crime', its founding gesture which has to remain invisible if power is to function normally.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (8)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

p. 16: The fifth feature: on account of its temporal loop, the phantasmic narrative always involves an impossible gaze, the gaze by means of which the subject is already present at the act of his/her own conception.


Apropos of a phantasmic scene, the question to be asked is thus always for which gaze is it staged? Which narrative is it destined to support?


p. 18: The same operation is easily discernible in the abundant media reports on the 'saintly' activities of Mother Theresa in Calcutta, which clearly rely on the phantasmic screen of the Third World. Calcutta is regularly presented as a Hell on Earth, the exemplary case of the decaying Third World megalopolis, full of social decay, poverty, violence and corruption, with its residents caught in terminal apathy (the facts are, of course, rather different: Calcutta is a city bursting with activity, culturally much more thriving than Bombay, with a successful local Communist government maintaining a whole network of social services). Into this picture of utter gloom, Mother Theresa brings a ray of hope to the dejected with the message that poverty is to be accepted as a way to redemption, since the poor, in enduring their sad fate with silent dignity and faith, repeat Christ's Way of the Cross....The ideological benefit of this operation is double: in so far as she suggests to the poor and terminally ill that they should seek salvation in their very suffering, Mother Theresa deters them from probing into the causes of their predicament--from politicizing their situation; at the same time, she offers the rich from the West the chance of a kind of substitute-redemption by making financial contributions to her charitable activity. Again, all this works against the background of the phantasmic image of the Third World as Hell on Earth, as a place so utterly desolate that no political activity, only charity and compassion, can alleviate the suffering.


In order to be operative, fantasy has to remain 'implicit', it has to maintain a distance towards the explicit symbolic texture sustained by it, and to function as its inherent transgression.

p. 21: The lesson is therefore clear: an ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it: 'not all is ideology, beneath the ideological mask, I am also a human person' is the very form of ideology, of its 'practical efficiency'. Close analysis of even the most 'totalitarian' ideological edifice inevitably reveals that, not everything in it is 'ideology' (in the popular sense of the 'politically instrumentalized legitimization of power relations'): in every ideological edifice, there is a kind of 'trans-ideological' kernel, since, if an ideology is to become operative and effectively 'seize' individuals, it has to batten on and manipulate some kind of 'trans-ideological' vision which cannot be reduced to a simple instrument of legitimizing pretensions to power (notions and sentiments of solidarity, justice, belonging to a community, etc.). Is not a kind of 'authentic' vision discernible even in Nazism (the notion of the deep solidarity which keeps the 'community of people' together), not to mention Stalinism? The point is thus not that there is no ideology without a trans-ideological 'authentic' kernel but rather, that it is only the reference to such a trans-ideological kernel which makes an ideology 'workable'.

The Plague of Fantasies (7)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

pp. 13-14: This brings us to the next feature, the problematic of the Fall. Contrary to the common-sense notion of fantasizing as an indulgence in the hallucinatory realization of desires prohibited by the Law, the phantasmic narrative does not stage the suspension-transgression of the Law, but the very act of its installation, of the intervention of the cut of symbolic castration--what the fantasy endeavors to stage is ultimately the 'impossible' scene of castration. For this reason, fantasy as such is, in its very notion, close to perversion: the perverse ritual stages the act of castration, of the primordial loss which allows the subject to enter the symbolic order. Or--to put it more precisely--in contrast to the 'normal' subject, for whom the Law functions as the agency of prohibition which regulates (access to the object of) his desire, for the pervert, the object of his desire is the law itself--the Law is the Ideal he is longing for, he wants to be fully acknowledged by the Law, integrated into its functioning....The irony of this should not escape us: the pervert, this 'transgressor' par excellence who purports to violate all the rules of 'normal' and decent behaviour, effectively longs for the very rule of Law.

p. 15: [....] the Fall has never occurred in the present--Adam 'does not, strictly speaking, decide; he finds that he has decided. Adam discovers his choice rather than makes it.' Why is it like this? If the decision (the choice of the Fall) were to happen in the present, it would already presuppose what it gives birth to--the very freedom to choose: the paradox of the Fall is that it is an act which opens up the very space of decision. How is this possible? The second feature of the Fall is that it results from the choice to disobey in order to retain the erotic rapture of Eve, yet the paradox lies in the fact that 'because [Adam] disobeys he loses what he disobeyed in order to keep'. Here we have, once again, the structure of castration: when Adam chooses to fall in order to retain jouissance, what he loses thereby is precisely jouissance--do we not encounter here the reversal of the structure of the 'states which are essentially by-products? Adam loses X by directly choosing it, aiming to retain it....That is to say: what, precisely, is symbolic castration? It is the prohibition of incest in the precise sense of the loss of something which the subject never possessed in the first place. Let us imagine a situation in which the subject aims at X (say, a series of pleasurable experiences); the operation of castration does not consist in depriving him of any of these experiences, but adds to the series a purely potential, nonexistent X, with respect to which the actually accessible experiences appear all of a sudden as lacking, not wholly satisfying. One can see here how the phallus functions as the very signifier of castration: the very signifier of the lack, the signifier which forbids the subject access to X, gives rise to its phantom....

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (6)

From Slavoj Žižek's The Plague of Fantasies, (London: Verso, 1997)

p. 10: The third point: fantasy is the primordial form of narrative, which serves to occult some original deadlock.

pp. 10-11: Lacan is thus radically anti-narrativist: the ultimate aim of psychoanalytic treatment is not for the analysand to organize his confused life-experience into (another) coherent narrative, with all the traumas properly integrated, and so on. It is not only that some narratives are 'false', based upon the exclusion of traumatic events and patching up the gaps left by these exclusions--Lacan's thesis is much stronger: the answer to the question 'Why do we tell stories?' is that narrative as such emerges in order to resolve some fundamental antagonism by rearranging its terms into a temporal succession. It is thus the very form of narrative which bears witness to some repressed antagonism. The price one pays for the narrative resolution is the petitio principii of the temporal loop--the narrative silently presupposes as already given what it purports to reproduce [....]

pp. 12-13: Consequently, the paradox to be fully accepted is that when a certain historical moment is (mis)perceived as the moment of loss of some quality, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the lost quality emerged only at this very moment of its alleged loss....This coincidence of emergence and loss, of course, designates the fundamental paradox of the Lacanian objet petit a which emerges as being-lost--narrativization occludes this paradox by describing the process in which the object is first given and then gets lost. (Although it may appear that the Hegelian dialectic, with its matrix of the mediatization of immediacy, is the most elaborate philosophical version of such a narrativization, Hegel was, rather, the first to provide the explicit formulation of this absolute synchronicity--as he put it, the immediate object lost in reflection 'only comes to be through being left behind. The conclusion to be drawn from this absolute synchronicity, of course, is not that 'there is no history, since everything was already here from the very outset', but that the historical process does not follow the logic of narration: actual historical breaks are, if anything, more radical than mere narrative deployments, since what changes in them is the entire constellation of emergence and loss. In other words, a true historical break does not simply designate the 'regressive' loss (or 'progressive' gain) of something, but the shift in the very grid which enables us to measure losses and gains.

p. 13: The solution, again, is that emergence and loss coincide.