Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (31)

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

p. 163: Today's racism is strictly (post)modern, it is a reaction to the 'disenchantment' inflicted by the new phase of global capitalism. One of the commonplaces of the contemporary 'post-ideological' attitude is that today, we have more or less outgrown divisive political fictions (of class struggle, etc.) and reached political maturity, which enables us to focus on real problems (ecology, economic growth...) relieved of their ideological ballast--however, it is as if today, when the dominant attitude defines the terrain of the struggle as that of the Real ('real problems' versus 'ideological chimeras'), the very foreclosed political, as it were, returns in the Real--in the guise of racism, which grounds political differences in the (biological or social) Real of the race. One could thus claim that what the 'post-ideological' attitude of the sober pragmatic approach to reality excludes as 'old ideological fictions' of class antagonism, as the domain of 'political passions' which no longer have any place in today's rational social administration, is the historical Real itself.

[....] Or, to put it in ontological terms: the moment the function of the dark spot which keeps open the space for something for which there is no place in our reality is suspended, we lose our very 'sense of reality'.

p. 175: [....] the three fundamental dimensions which, according to Lacan, structure the human universe: the Real (the 'hard', traumatic reality which resists symbolization), the Symbolic (the field of language, of symbolic structure and communication), and the Imaginary (the domain of images with which we identify, and which capture our attention).

p. 179: [....] jouissance is torn between the Symbolic and the Real. On the one hand, jouissance is 'private', the kernel which resists public disclosure (look how embarrassing it is to us when our intimate modes of enjoyment, private tics, etc., are publicly disclosed); on the other hand, however, jouissance 'counts' only as registered by the big Other; it tends in itself toward this inscription [....]

p. 213-214: [....] an ethics grounded in reference to the traumatic Real which resists symbolization, the Real which is experienced in the encounter with the abyss of the Other's desire (the famous 'Che vuoi?', What do you want [from me]'?). There is ethics--that is to say, an injunction which cannot be grounded in ontology--in so far as there is a crack in the ontological edifice of the universe: at its most elementary, ethics designates fidelity to this crack.

The crucial point on which the consistency of Lacan's position hinges is thus the difference between reality and the Real.

p. 215: Lacan (dialectical materialism) accepts idealism's basic ontological premiss (the transcendental subjective constitution of 'objective reality'), and supplements it with the premiss that this very act of ontological positing of 'objective reality' is always-already 'stained', 'tainted' by a particular object which confers upon the subject's 'universal' view of reality a particular 'pathological' twist. This particular object, objet petit a is thus the paradox of a 'pathological a priori', of a particular object which, precisely as radically 'subjective' (objet petit a is, in a way, subject itself in its 'impossible' objectality, the objectal correlate of the subject), sustains constitutive transcendental universality itself; in other words, obet petit a is not only the 'objective factor of subjectivization' but also the very opposite, the 'subjective factor of objectivization'. [....]

The traumatic Real is thus that which, precisely, prevents us from assuming a neutral-objective view of reality, a stain which blurs our clear perception of it. And this example also brings home the ethical dimension of fidelity to the Real qua impossible: the point is not simply to 'tell the entire truth about it,' but, above all, to confront the way we ourselves, by means of our subjective position of enunciation, are always-already involved, engaged in it....

p. 216: Or--with respect to truth: the Real qua trauma is not the ultimate 'unspeakable' truth which the subject can approach only asymptotically, but that which makes every articulated symbolic truth forever 'not-all', failed, a bone stuck in the throat of the speaking being which makes it impossible to 'tell everything'. This is also how the Real of antagonism ('class struggle') functions within the social field: antagonism, again, is not the ultimate referent which anchors and limits the unending drift of the signifiers ('the ultimate meaning of all social phenomena is determined by their position in class struggle'), but the very force of their constant displacement--that on account of which socio-ideological phenomena never mean what they seem/purport to mean--for example, 'class struggle' is that on account of which every direct reference to universality (of 'humanity', of 'our nation', etc.) is, always in a specific way, 'biased', dislocated with regard to its literal meaning. 'Class struggle' is the Marxist name for this basic 'operator of dislocation'; as such, 'class struggle' means that there is no neutral metalanguage allowing us to grasp society as a given 'objective' totality, since we always-already 'take sides'. The fact that there is no 'neutral', 'objective' concept of class struggle is thus the crucial constituent of this notion.

[And the Real is] that which 'skews' the discursive universe, preventing us from grounding its formulations in 'hard reality'--that on account of which every symbolization of sexual difference is forever unstable and displaced with regard to itself.

p. 217: In this precise sense, real (antagonism) is inherent to the symbolic (system of differences), not the transcendent Beyond which the signifying process tries to grasp in vain [....]. And the Real cannot be signified not because it is outside, external to the symbolic order, but precisely because it is inherent to it, its inherent limit: the Real is the internal stumbling block on account of which the symbolic system can never 'become itself', achieve its self-identity. Because of its absolute immanence to the symbolic, the Real cannot be positively signified; it can only be shown, in a negative gesture, as the inherent failure of symbolization [....].

p. 218: Later, with the shift of emphasis on to the Real, fantasy is no longer reduced to an imaginary formation (over)determined by the absent symbolic network, but conceived as the formation which fills in the gap of the Real--as Lacan put it, 'one does not interpret fantasy [....].' Phenomenology is now reasserted as the description of the ways in which the Real shows itself in phantasmic formations, without being signified in them: it is the description, not interpretation, of the spectral domain of mirages, of 'negative magnitudes' which positivize the lack in the symbolic order.

p. 223: The true horror of the act resides in this self-referential abyss--or, to put it another way, it is crucial to bear in mind the gap between the act and Will: the act occurs as a 'crazy', unaccountable event which, precisely, is not 'willed'. The subject's will is, by definition, split with regard to an act: since attraction to an repulsion against the act are inextricably mixed in it, the subject can never fully 'assume' the act.

p. 239: Lacan's ne pas céder sur son désir (the ethical injunction not to compromise on one's desire) in no way condones the suicidal persistence in following one's Thing; on the contrary, it enjoins us to remain faithful to our desire as sustained by the Law of maintaining a minimal distance towards the Thing--one is faithful to one's desire by maintaining the gap which sustains desire, the gap on account of which the incestuous Thing forever eludes the subject's grasp.

p. 241: note 30: Along the same lines, the Lacanian desire grounded in symbolic Law is also a defence against the lethal jouissance.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (30)

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

p. 154: The suspension of the function of the (symbolic) Master is the crucial feature of the Real whose contours loom on the horizon of the cyberspace universe: the moment of implosion when humanity will attain the limit that is impossible to transgress; the moment at which the co-ordinates of our societal life-world will be dissolved. At that moment, distances will be suspended (I will be able to communicate instantly through teleconferences with any place on the globe); all information, from texts to music to video, will be instantly available on my interface. However, the obverse of this suspension of the distance which separates me from a faraway foreigner is that, due to a gradual disappearance of contact with 'real' bodily others, a neighbour will no longer be a neighbour, since he or she will be progressively replaced by a screen spectre; general availability will induce unbearable claustrophobia; excess of choice will be experienced as the impossibility to choose; universal direct participatory community will exclude all the more forcefully those who are prevented from participating in it.

[....] The proximity of the Other which makes a neighbour a neighbour is that of jouissance: when the presence of the Other becomes unbearable, suffocating, it means that we experience his or her mode of jouissance as too intrusive. And what is contemporary 'postmodern' racism if not a violent reaction to this virtualization of the Other, a return of the experience of the neighbour in his or her (or their) intolerable, traumatic presence? The feature which disturbs the racist in his Other (the way they laugh, the smell of their food...) is thus precisely the little piece of the Real which bears witness to their presence beyond the symbolic order.

p. 155: We must focus on what gets lost when these voids in the text are filled in--what gets lost is the real presence of the Other. Therein lies the paradox: the oppressive and simultaneously elusive presence of the Other subsists in the very absences (holes) of the symbolic texture.

[....] We are thus a long way from bemoaning the loss of contact with a 'real', flesh-and-blood other in cyberspace, in which all we encounter are digital phantoms: our point, rather, is that cyberspace is not spectral enough. That is to say: the status of what we have called the 'real presence of the Other' is inherently spectral: the little piece of the Real by means of which the racist identifies the Other-jouissance is a kind of minimal guarantee of the spectre of the Other who threatens to swallow us or to destroy 'our way of life'.

[....] the Other loses his spectral quality, he turns into an ordinary worldly being towards whom we can maintain a normal distance. In short, we pass from the spectral Real to reality, from the obscene ethereal presence of the Other to the Other who is simply an object of representation.

p. 156: [....] I, as it were, return to a symbiotic relationship with an Other in which the deluge of semblances seems to abolish the dimension of the Real.

In a recent interview, Bill Gates celebrated cyberspace as opening up the prospect of what he called 'friction-free capitalism'--this expression encapsulates perfectly the social fantasy which underlies the ideology of cyberspace capitalism: the fantasy of a wholly transparent, ethereal medium of exchange in which the last trace of material inertia vanishes. The crucial point not to be missed here is that the 'friction' we get rid of in the fantasy of 'friction-free capitalism' does not refer only to the reality of material obstacles which sustain any exchange process, but, above all, to the Real of the traumatic social antagonisms, power relations, and so on, which brand the space of social exchange with a pathological twist. In his Grundrisse manuscript, Marx pointed out how the very material mechanism of a nineteenth-century industrial production site directly materializes the capitalist relationship of domination (the worker as a mere appendix subordinated to the machinery which is owned by the capitalist); mutatis mutandis, the same goes for cyberspace: in the social conditions of late capitalism, the very materiality of cyberspace automatically generates the illusory abstract space of 'friction-free' exchange in which the particularity of the participants' social position is obliterated.

p. 157: [....] what is obfuscated in such direct 'naturalization' of the World Wide Web or market is the set of power relations--political decisions, institutional conditions--within which [....] internet (or market or capitalism...) can only thrive.

This brings us back to the problem of the Master-Signifier: a Master-Signifier is always virtual in the sense of involving some structural ambiguity.

p. 158: [....] What the emptiness of the Master-Signifier conceals is thus the inconsistency of its content (its signified) [....] And again, this virtual status of the Master-Signifier is what gets lost in cyberspace, with its tendency to 'fill in the gaps'.

The suspension of the Master, which reveals impotence, in no way gives rise to liberating effects: the knowledge that 'the Other doesn't exist' (that the Master is impotent, that Power is an imposture) imposes on the subject an even more radical servitude than the traditional subordination to the full authority of the Master.

pp. 159-160: [....] for Lacan, modern science is not just another local narrative grounded in its specific conditions, since it does relate to the (mathematical) Real beneath the symbolic universe.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (29)

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

pp. 150-151: The supreme example of symbolic virtuality, of course, is that of (the psychoanalytic notion of) castration: the feature which distinguishes symbolic castration from the 'real' kind is precisely its virtual character. That is to say: Freud's notion of castration anxiety has any meaning at all only if we suppose that the threat of castration (the prospect of castration, the 'virtual' castration) already produces real 'castrating' effects. This actuality of the virtual, which defines symbolic castration as opposed to the 'real' kind, has to be connected to the basic paradox of power, which is that symbolic power is by definition virtual, power-in-reserve, the threat of its full use which never actually occurs (when a father loses his temper and explodes, this is by definition a sign of his impotence, painful as it may be). The consequence of this conflation of actual with virtual is a kind of transubstantiation: every actual activity appears as a 'form of appearance' of another 'invisible' power whose status is purely virtual--the 'real' penis turns into the form of appearance of (the virtual) phallus, and so on. That is the paradox of castration: whatever I do in reality, with my 'real' penis, is just redoubling, following as a shadow, another virtual penis whose existence is purely symbolic--that is, phallus as a signifier. Let us recall the example of a judge who, in 'real life', is a weak and corrupt person, but the moment he puts on the insignia of his symbolic mandate, it is the big Other of the symbolic institution which is speaking through him: without the prosthesis of his symbolic title, his 'real power' would instantly disintegrate. And Lacan's point apropos of the phallus as signifier is that the same 'institutional' logic is at work already in the more intimate domain of male sexuality: just as a judge needs his symbolic crutches, his insignia, in order to exert his authority, a man needs a reference to the absent-virtual Phallus if his penis is to exert its potency.

p. 153: The decline of this function of the Master in contemporary Western societies exposes the subject to radical ambiguity in the face of his desire. The media constantly bombard him with requests to choose, addressing him as the subject supposed to know what he really wants (which book, clothes, TV programme, holiday destination...) [....] At a more fundamental level, however, the new media deprive the subject radically of the knowledge of what he wants: they address a thoroughly malleable subject who has constantly to be told what he wants--that is, the very evocation of a choice to be made performatively creates the need for the object of choice. One should bear in mind here that the main function of the Master is to tell the subject what he wants--the need for the Master arises in answer to the subject's confusion, in so far as he does not know what he wants. What happens, then, in the situation of the decline of the Master, when the subject himself is constantly bombarded with the request to give a sign of what he wants? The exact opposite of what one would expect: it is when there is no one to tell you what you really want, when all the burden of the choice is on you, that the big Other dominates you completely, and the choice effectively disappears--is replaced by its mere semblance. One is again tempted to paraphrase here Lacan's well-known reversal of Dostoevsky ('If there is no God, nothing at all is Permitted'): if no forced choice confines the field of free choice, the very freedom of choice disappears.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (28)

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

p. 138: This is one way to read Lacan's dictum 'Truth has the structure of a fiction': I can articulate the hidden truth about my drives precisely in so far as I am aware that I am simply playing a game on the screen. In cyberspace sex, there is no 'face-to-face', just the external impersonal space in which everything, including my most intimate internal fantasies, can be articulated with no inhibitions....What one encounters here, in this pure 'flux of desire', is, of course, the unpleasant surprise of what the Frankfurt School called 'repressive desublimation': the universe, freed of everyday inhibitions, turns out to be a universe of unbridled sadomasochistic violence and will to domination....The usual complaint against cybersex is that instead of the truly arousing and intensive encounter with another body, we get a distanced, technologically mediated procedure. However, is not precisely this gap, this distance towards immediate Erlebnis, which can also add sexual arousal to a sexual encounter? People use pornography (or other technical sex devices) not only when they lack 'flesh-and-blood' partners but also in order to 'spice up' their 'real' sex life. The status of sexual supplement is thus again radically ambiguous and 'undecidable': it can spoil the game, yet it can also intensify enjoyment.

p. 139: However, this ambiguity, although irreducible, is not symmetrical. What one should introduce here is the elementary Lacanian distinction between imaginary projection-identification and symbolic identification. The most concise definition of symbolic identification is that it consists in assuming a mask which is more real and binding than the true face beneath it [....]

p. 140: [....] what is this middle-mediating level, this third domain interposing itself between 'real life' and 'mere imagination', this domain in which we are not directly dealing with reality, but not with 'mere words' either (since our words do have real effects), if not the symbolic order itself?

p. 141: The subject who suffers from [multiple personality disorder] is rather too firmly anchored in 'true reality': what he lacks is, in a sense, lack itself: the void which accounts for the constitutive dimension of subjectivity. That is to say: the 'multiple Selves' [....] are 'what I want to be', the way I would like to see myself, the representations of my ideal ego; as such, they are like the layers of an onion: there is nothing in the middle, and the subject is this 'nothing' itself. It is therefore crucial to introduce here the distinction between 'Self' ('person') and subject: the Lacanian 'decentred subject' is not simply a multiplicity of good old 'Selves', partial centres; the 'divided' subject does not mean there are simply more Egos/Selves in the same individual [....]. The 'decentrment' is the decentrement of the $ (the void of the subject) with regard to its content ('Self', the bundle of imaginary and/or symbolic identifications); the 'splitting' is the splitting between $ and the phantasmic 'persona' as the 'stuff of the I'. The subject is split even if it possesses only one 'unified' Self, since this split is the very split between $ and Self....In more topological terms: the subject's division is not the division between one Self and another, between two contents, but the division between something and nothing, between the feature of identification and the void.

'Decentrement' thus first designates the ambiguity, the oscillation between symbolic and imaginary identification--the undecidability as to where my true point is, in my 'real' self or in my external mask, with the possible implication that my symbolic mask can be 'more true' than what it conceals, the 'true face' behind it. At a more radical level, it points towards the fact that the very sliding from one identification to another, or among 'multiple selves', presupposes the gap between identification as such and the void of $ (the 'barred subject') which identifies itself--serves as the empty medium of identification. In other words, the very process of shifting among multiple identifications presupposes a kind of empty band which makes the leap from one identity to another possible, and this empty band is the subject itself.

p. 142: [....] Lacan's point is that ego itself is always-already 'alter' with regard to the subject whose ego it is. For that reason, the subject entertains towards it the relationship of acceptance-through-disavowal [....]

p. 143: One can thus say that the phallus is the [....] point at which the very gap that separates the series of mental causes from the series of bodily causes is inscribed into our body....

p. 144: [....] there is no reality without its phantasmic support: social reality [....] can occur only if it is supported by (at least) two fantasies, two phantasmic scenarios.

p. 148: [....] you can have it all only if you pass through the 'zero point,' and agree to lose it all [....] a suicidal moment has to occur in which the hero casts off the fake position and assumes an authentic position. [....] the subject occupies, fills in, the empty place in some pre-existing symbolic network [....] gradually identifies with this symbolic place and fully assumes it, up to the point where he is prepared to stake his life on it.

This line of development is properly materialist: it accounts for the process in the course of which what was at the outset a manipulated movement with a faked Leader can outgrow its initial conditions and turn into an authentic movement. That is to say: much more interesting than the idealist narrative of gradually corrupted innocence is the opposite story: since we all live within ideology, the true enigma is how we can outgrow our 'corrupted' initial condition--how something which was planned as ideological manipulation can all of a sudden miraculously start to lead an authentic life of its own.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (27)

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

pp. 135-7: At a more fundamental level, however, this 'derailment'--this lack of support, of a fixed instinctual standard, in the co-ordination between the natural rhythm of our body and its surrounding--characterizes man as such: man as such is 'derailed'; he eats more than is 'natural'; he is obsessed with sexuality more than is 'natural': he follows his drives with an excess far beyond 'natural' (instinctual) satisfaction, and this excess of drive has to be 'gentrified' through 'second nature' (man-made institutions and patterns). The old Marxist formula about 'second nature' is thus to be taken more literally than usual: the point is not only that we are never dealing with pure natural needs, that our needs are always-already mediated by the cultural process; moreover, the labour of culture has to reinstate the lost support in natural needs, to re-create a 'second nature' as the recompense for the loss of support in the 'first nature'--the human animal has to reaccustom itself to the most elementary bodily rhythm of sleep, feeding, movement.

What we encounter here is the loop of (symbolic) castration, in which one endeavors to reinstate the lost 'natural' co-ordination on the ladder of desire: on the one hand, one reduces bodily gestures to the necessary minimum (of clicks on the computer mouse...); on the other, one attempts to recover lost bodily fitness by means of jogging, body-building, and so on; on the one hand, one reduces the bodily odours to a minimum (by taking regular showers, etc.); on the other, one attempts to recover these same odours through toilet water and perfumes; and so on. This paradox is condensed in the phallus as the signifier of desire--as the point of inversion at which the very moment of 'spontaneous' natural power turns into an artificial prosthetic element. That is to say: against the standard notion of the phallus as the siege of male 'natural' penetrative-aggressive potency-power (to which one then opposes the 'artificial' playful prosthetic phallus), the point of Lacan's concept of the phallus as a signifier is that the phallus 'as such' is a kind of 'prosthetic', 'artificial' supplement: it designates the point at which the big Other, a decentred agency, supplements the subject's failure. When Judith Butler, in her criticism of Lacan, emphasizes the parallel between mirror-image (ideal ego) and phallic signifier, one should shift the focus to the feature they effectively share: both mirror-image and phallus qua signifier are 'prosthetic' supplements for the subject's foregoing dispersal/failure, for the lack of co-ordination and unity; in both cases, the status of this prosthesis is 'illusory', with the difference that in the first case we are dealing with imaginary illusion (identification with a decentred immobile image), while in the second, the illusion is symbolic; it stands for phallus as pure semblance. The opposition between the 'true', 'natural' phallus and the 'artificial' prosthetic supplement ('dildo') is thus false and misleading: phallus qua signifier is already 'in itself' a prosthetic supplement. (This state of phallus also accounts for Lacan's identification of woman with phallus: what phallus and woman share is the fact that their being is reduced to a pure semblance. In so far as femininity is a masquerade, it stands for phallus as the ultimate semblance.

Back to the threatened limit/surface which separates inside from outside: the very threat to this limit determines today's form of the hysterical question--that is to say: today, hysteria stands predominantly under the sign of vulnerability, of a threat to our bodily and/or psychic identity. We have only to recall the all-pervasiveness of the logic of victimization, from sexual harassment to the dangers of food and tobacco, so that the subject itself is increasingly reduced to 'that which can be hurt'. Today's form of the obsessional question 'Am I alive or dead?' is 'Am I a machine (does my brain really function as a computer) or a living human being (with a spark of spirit or something else that is not reducible to the computer circuit)?; it is not difficult to discern in this alternative the split between A (Autre) and J (jouissance), between the 'big Other', the dead symbolic order, and the Thing, the living substance of enjoyment. According to Sherry Turkle, our reaction to this question goes through three phases: (1) the emphatic assertion of an irreducible difference: man is not a machine, there is something unique about him...; (2) fear and panic when we become aware of all the potential of a machine: it can think, reason, answer our questions...; (3) disavowal, that is, recognition through denial: the guarantee that there is some feature of man inaccessible to the computer (sublime enthusiasm, anxiety...) allows us to treat the computer as a 'living and thinking partner' since 'we know this is only a game, the computer is not really like that'.

The Plague of Fantasies (26)

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

pp. 127-8: When one is dealing with a universal structuring principle,one always automatically assumes that--in principle, precisely--it is possible to apply this principle to all its possible elements, so that the principle's empirical non-realization is merely a matter of contingent circumstances. A symptom, however, is an element which--although the non-realization of the universal principle in it appears to hinge on contingent circumstances--has to remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system would itself disintegrate.

In the paragraphs on civil society in his Philosophy of Right, Hegel demonstrates how the growing class of 'rabble [Pöbel]' in modern civil society is not an accidental result of social mismanagement, inadequate government measures, or simple economic bad luck: the inherent structural dynamic of civil society necessarily gives rise to a class which is excluded from its benefits (work, personal dignity, etc.)--a class deprived of elementary human rights, and therefore also exempt from duties towards society, an element within civil society which negates its universal principle, a kind of 'non-Reason inherent in Reason itself'--in short, its symptom. Do we not witness the same phenomenon in today's growth of an underclass which is excluded, sometimes even for generations, from the benefits of liberal-democratic affluent society? Today's 'exceptions' (the homeless, the ghettoized, the permanent unemployed) are the symptom of the late-capitalist universal system, the permanent reminder of how the immanent logic of late capitalism works: the proper capitalist utopia is that through appropriate measures (affirmative action and other forms of state intervention for progressive liberals; the return to self-care and family values for conservatives), this 'exception' could be--in the long term and in principle, at least--abolished. And is not an analogous utopianism at work in the notion of a 'rainbow coalition': in the idea that, at some utopian moment to come, all progressive struggles (for gay and lesbian rights; for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities; the ecological struggle; the feminist struggle; and so on) will be united in a common 'chain of equivalences'?

The necessary failure here is structural: it is not simply that, because of the empirical complexity of the situation, all particular progressive fights will never be united, that 'wrong' chains of equivalences will always occur (say, the enchainment of the fight for African-American ethnic identity with patriarchal and homophobic attitudes), but, rather, that occurrences of 'wrong' enchainments are grounded in the very structuring principle of today's progressive politics of establishing 'chains of equivalences': the very domain of the multitude of particular struggles, with their continuously shifting displacements and condensations, is sustained by the 'repression' of the key role of economic struggle. The Leftist politics of the 'chains of equivalences' among the plurality of struggles is strictly correlative to the abandonment of the analysis of capitalism as a global economic system--that is, to the tacit acceptance of capitalist economic relations and liberal-democratic politics as the unquestioned framework of our social life.

In this precise sense, symptom turns a dispersed collection into a system (in the precise sense this term acquired in German Idealism): we are within a system the moment we breach the gap which separates the a priori form from its contingent content--the moment we envisage the necessity of what appears to be a contingent intrusion which 'spoils the game'. A system indicates the fact that 'there is One' (Lacan's y a de l'un), an inherent element which subverts the universal frame from within; to return to our example: the 'systemic' nature of late-capitalist political struggle means that the chain of equivalences of today's identity struggles is necessarily never completed, that the 'populist temptation' always leads to the 'wrong' chain of equivalences.

p. 129: This necessity of the utter, imbecilic contingency, this enigmatic notion of an unexpected intrusion which none the less pops up with absolute inevitability (and has to pop up, since its non-arrival would entail the dissolution of the whole domain of the search for the Goal), is the highest speculative mystery, the true 'dialectical synthesis of contingency and necessity' to be opposed to platitudes about the deeper necessity which realizes itself through surface contingencies. One is tempted to contend that when Hegel makes his 'panlogistic' claim according to which 'Reason rules the world' (or 'what is actual is reasonable'), its actual content is this kind of necessary intrusion of a contingency: when one is sure that 'Reason rules the world', this means that one can be sure that a contingency will always emerge which will prevent the direct realization of our Goal.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (25)

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

pp. 120-121: This is also one way of specifying the meaning of Lacan's assertion of the subject's constitutive 'decentrement': its point is not that my subjective experience is regulated by objective unconscious mechanisms which are 'decentred' with regard to my self-experience and, as such, beyond my control (a point asserted by every materialist) but, rather, something much more unsettling: I am deprived of even my most intimate 'subjective' experience, the way things 'really seem to me', that of the fundamental fantasy which constitutes and guarantees the kernel of my being, since I can never consciously experience and assume it....According to the standard view, the dimension which is constitutive of subjectivity is that of the phenomenal (self-)experience--I am a subject the moment I can say to myself: 'No matter what unknown mechanism governs my acts, perceptions and thoughts, nobody can take from me what I see and feel now.' Lacan turns this standard view around: the 'subject of the signifier' emerges only when a key aspect of the subject's phenomenal (self-)experience (his fundamental fantasy) becomes inaccessible to him; that is to say: is 'primordially repressed'. At its most radical, the Unconscious is the inaccessible phenomenon, not the objective mechanism which regulates my phenomenal experience.

p. 121: [....] fantasy is objectively subjective (it designates an innermost subjective content, a product of fantasizing, which, paradoxically, is 'desubjectivized', rendered inaccessible to the subject's immediate experience).

pp. 121-122: It would, however, be a serious misunderstanding to read this radical decentrement involved in the notion of fetishism (I am deprived of my innermost beliefs, fantasies, etc.) as 'the end of Cartesian subjectivity'. What this deprivation (i.e. the fact that a phenomenological reconstitution which would generate 'reified' belief out of the presupposed 'first-person' belief necessarily fails, the fact that substitution is original, the fact that even in the case of the most intimate beliefs, fantasies, etc., the big Other can 'do it for me') effectively undermines is the standard notion of the so-called 'Cartesian Theatre,' the notion of a central Screen of Consciousness which forms the focus of subjectivity, where (at a phenomenal level) 'things really happen'. In clear contrast, the Lacanian subject qua $, the void of self-referential negativity, is strictly correlative to the primordial decentrement: the very fact that I can be deprived of even my innermost psychic ('mental') content, that the big Other (or fetish) can laugh for me, believe for me, and so on, is what makes me $, the 'barred' subject, the pure void with no positive substantial content. The Lacanian subject is thus empty in the radical sense of being deprived of even the most minimal phenomenological support: there is no wealth of experiences to fill in its void. And Lacan's premiss is that the Cartesian reduction of the subject to pure cogito already implies such a reduction of every substantial content, including my innermost 'mental' attitudes--the notion of 'Cartesian Theatre' as the original locus of subjectivity is already a 'reification' of the subject qua $, the pure void of negativity.

Two interconnected conclusions are thus to be drawn from this chapter. In contrast to the commonplace according to which the new media turn us into passive consumers who just stare blindly at the screen, one should claim that the so-called threat of the new media lies in the fact that they deprive us of our passivity, of our authentic passive experience, and thus prepare us for the mindless frenetic activity. In contrast to the notion that we are dealing with a subject the moment an entity displays signs of a phantasmic 'inner life' which cannot be reduced to external behaviour, one should claim that what characterizes subjectivity is rather the gap which separates the two: fantasy, at its most elementary, is inaccessible to the subject, and it is this inaccessibility which makes the subject 'empty'. We thus obtain a relationship which totally subverts the standard notion of the subject who directly experiences himself, his 'inner states': an 'impossible' relationship between the empty, non-phenomenal subject and the phenomena which forever remain 'desubjectivized', inaccessible to the subject--the very relationship registered by Lacan's formula of fantasy, $ a.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (24)

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

p. 117: [....] the attitude which constitutes subjectivity is not 'I am the active autonomous agent who is doing it', but 'when another is doing it for me, I myself am doing it through him' [....]

p. 118: How then, does 'desire is the desire of the Other' differ in the case of men and women? The masculine version is, to put it simply, that of competition/envy: 'I want it because you want it, in so far as you want it'--that is to say, what confers the value of desirability on an object is that it is already desired by another. The aim here is the ultimate destruction of the Other, which of course, then renders the object worthless--therein lies the paradox of the male dialectic of desire. The feminine version, on the contrary, is that of 'I desire through the Other', in both senses of 'let the Other do it (possess and enjoy the object, etc.) for me' (let my husband, my son...succeed for me), as well as 'I desire only what he desires, I want only to fulfil his desire' (Antigone, who wants only to fulfil the desire of the Other in accomplishing the proper burial of her brother).

p. 119: The ontological paradox--scandal, even--of these phenomena (whose psychoanalytic name, of course, is fantasy) lies in the fact that they subvert the standard opposition of 'subjective' and 'objective': of course, fantasy is by definition not 'objective' (in the naive sense of 'existing independently of the subject's perceptions'); however, it is not 'subjective' either (in the sense of being reducible to the subject's consciously experienced intuitions). Fantasy, rather, belongs to the 'bizarre category of the objectively subjective--the way things actually, objectively seem to you even if they don't seem that way to you'. When, for example, the subject actually experiences a series of phantasmic formations which interrelate as so many permutations of each other, this series is never complete: it is always as if the actually experienced series presents so many variations on some underlying 'fundamental' fantasy which is never actually experienced by the subject.

p. 120: This brings us back to the mystery of 'fetishism': when, by means of a fetish, the subject 'believes through the other' (i.e. when the fetish-thing believes for him, in the place of him), we also encounter this 'bizarre category of the objectively subjective': what the fetish objectivizes is 'my true belief', the way things 'truly seem to me', although I never actually experience them in this way; apropos of commodity fetishism, Marx himself uses the term 'objectively-necessary appearance'. So when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist's comment to him is not "Commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people'; the actual Marxist's comment is, rather, 'You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you--in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers'.

At a more general level, is this not a characteristic of the symbolic order as such? When I encounter a bearer of symbolic authority (a father, a judge...), my subjective experience of him can be that he is a corrupted weakling, yet I none the less treat him with due respect because this is how he 'objectively appears to me'. [....] Or, to put it in Hegelian terms: the notion of the 'objectively subjective', of the semblance conceived in the 'objective' sense, designates the moment when the difference between objective reality and subjective semblance is reflected within the domain of the subjective semblance itself. What we obtain in this reflection-into-semblance of the opposition between reality and semblance is precisely the paradoxical notion of objective semblance, of 'how things really seem to me'. Therein lies the dialectical synthesis between the realm of the Objective and the realm of the Subjective: not simply in the notion of subjective appearance as the mediated expression of objective reality, but in the notion of a semblance which objectivizes itself and starts to function as a 'real semblance' (the semblance sustained by the big Other, the symbolic institution) against the mere subjective semblance of actual individuals.

The Plague of Fantasies (23)

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

The object which gives body to this surplus-enjoyment fascinates the subject, it reduces him to a passive gaze impotently gaping at the object; this relationship, of course, is experienced by the subject as something shameful, unworthy. Being directly transfixed by the object, passively submitting to its power of fascination, is ultimately unbearable: the open display of the passive attitude of 'enjoying it' somehow deprives the subject of his dignity. Interpassivity is therefore to be conceived as the primordial form of the subject's defence against jouissance: I defer jouissance to the Other who passively endures it (laughs, suffers, enjoys...) on my behalf. In this precise sense, the effect of the subject supposed to enjoy--the gesture of transposing one's jouissance to the Other--is perhaps even more primordial than that of the 'subject supposed to know', or the 'subject supposed to believe'. Therein lies the libidinal strategy of a pervert who assumes the position of the pure instrument of the Other's jouissance: for the (male) pervert, the sexual act (coitus) involves a clear division of labour in which he reduces himself to a pure tool of woman's enjoyment; he is doing the hard work, accomplishing the active gestures, while she, in transports of ecstasy, endures it passively and stares into space....In the course of the psychoanalytic treatment, the subject has to learn to accept directly his relationship to the object which gives body to his jouissance, bypassing the proxy who enjoys in his place, instead of him. The disavowed fundamental passivity of my being is structured in the fundamental fantasy which, although it is a priori inaccessible to me, regulates the way I relate to jouissance. For that precise reason, it is impossible for the subject to assume his fundamental fantasy without undergoing the radical experience of 'subjective destitution': in assuming my fundamental fantasy, I take upon myself the passive kernel of my being--the kernel the distance towards which sustains my subjective activity.

The substitution of the object for the subject is thus in a way even more primordial than the substitution of the signifier for the subject: if the signifier is the form of 'being active through another', the object is the form of 'being passive through another'--that is to say, the object is primordially that which suffers, endures it, for me, in my place: in short, that which enjoys for me. So what is unbearable in my encounter with the object is that in it, I see myself in the guise of a suffering object: what reduces me to a fascinated passive observer is the scene of myself passively enduring it. Far from being an excessive phenomenon which occurs only in extreme 'pathological' situations, interpassivity, in its opposition to interactivity (not in the standard sense of interacting with the medium, but in the sense of another doing it for me, in my place), is thus the feature which defines the most elementary level, the necessary minimum, of subjectivity: in order to be an active subject, I have to get rid of--and transpose on to the other--the inert passivity which contains the density of my substantial being. In this precise sense, the opposition signifier/object overlaps with the opposition interactivity/interpassivity: the signifier is interactive, it is active on my behalf, in my place, while the object is interpassive, it suffers for me. Transposing my very passive experience on to another is a much more uncanny phenomenon than that of being active through another: in interpassivity I am decentred in a much more radical way than I am in interactivity, since interpassivity deprives me of the very kernel of my substantial identity.

Consequently, the basic matrix of interpassivity follows from the very notion of subject as the pure activity of (self)positing, as the fluidity of pure Becoming, devoid of any positive, firm Being: if I am to function as pure activity, I have to externalize my (passive) Being--in short: I have to be passive through another. This inert object which 'is' my Being, in which my inert Being is externalized, is the Lacanian objet petit a. In so far as the elementary, constitutive structure of subjectivity is hysterical--in so far, that is, as hysteria is defined by the question 'What for an object am I (in the eyes of the Other, for the Other's desire)?', it confronts us with interpassivity at its purest: what the hysterical subject is unable to accept, what gives rise to an unbearable anxiety in him, is the presentiment that the Other(s) perceive him in the passivity of his Being, as an object to be exchanged, enjoyed or otherwise 'manipulated'. Therein lies the 'ontological axiom' of Lacanian subjectivity: the more I am active, the more I must be passive in another's place--that is to say, the more there must be another object which is passive in my place, on my behalf. (This axiom is realized in its utmost simplicity in the proverbial senior manager who, from time to time, feels compelled to visit prostitutes to be exposed to masochistic rituals and 'treated as a mere object'.) What psychoanalysis is looking for in an active subject is precisely the fundamental fantasy which sustains his disavowed passivity.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Plague of Fantasies (22)

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

p. 109: And is not the primordial version of this substitution by means of which 'somebody else does it for me' the very substitution of a signifier for the subject? In such a substitution lies the basic, constitutive feature of the symbolic order: a signifier is precisely an object-thing which substitutes for me, acts in my place.

p. 111: If we radicalize the relationship of substitution (i.e. the first aspect of the notion of fetishism) in this way, then the connections between the two aspects, the opposition 'persons versus things', their relation of substitution ('things instead of people', or one person instead of another, or a signifier instead of the signified), and the opposition 'structure versus one of its elements', becomes clear: the differential/formal structure occluded by the element-fetish, can emerge only if the gesture of substitution has already occurred. In other words, the structure is always, by definition, a signifying structure, a structure of signifiers which are substituted for the signified content, not a structure of the signified. For the differential/formal structure to emerge, the real has to redouble itself in the symbolic register; a reduplicatio has to occur, on account of which things no longer count as what they directly 'are,' but only with regard to their symbolic place. This primordial substitution of the big Other, the Symbolic Order, for the Real of the immediate Life-Substance [....] gives rise to $, to the 'barred subject' who is then 'represented' by the signifiers--that is, on whose behalf signifiers 'act', who acts through signifiers....

p. 113: This paradox of interpassivity, of believing or enjoying through the other, also opens up a new approach to aggressivity: aggressivity is provoked in a subject when the other subject, through which the first subject believed or enjoyed, does something which disturbs the functioning of this transference. Look, for example, at the attitude of some Western Leftist academics towards the disintegration of Yugoslavia: since the fact that the people of ex-Yugoslavia rejected ('betrayed') Socialism disturbed the belief of these academics--that is, prevented them from persisting in their belief in 'authentic' self-management Socialism through the Other which realizes it--everyone who did not share their Yugo-nostalgic attitude was dismissed as a proto-Fascist nationalist.

pp. 114-115: *In the case of commodity fetishism, our belief is laid upon the Other: I think I do not believe, but I believe through the Other. The gesture of criticism here consists in the assertion of identity: no, it is you who believe through the Other (in the theological whimsies of commodities, in Santa Claus...).

*In the case of a video recorder viewing and enjoying a film for me (or of the canned laughter, or of the weepers who cry and mourn for you, or of the Tibetan prayer wheel) it is the other way round: you think you enjoyed the show, but the Other did it for you. The gesture of criticism here is that, no, it was not you who laughed, it was the Other (the TV set) who did it.

Is not the key to this distinction that we are dealing here with the opposition between belief and jouissance, between the Symbolic and the Real? In the case of (symbolic) belief, you disavow the identity (you do not recognize yourself in the belief which is yours); in the case of (real) jouissance, you misrecognize the decentrement in what you (mis)perceive as 'your own' jouissance. Perhaps the fundamental attitude which defines the subject is neither that of passivity nor that of autonomous activity, but precisely that of interpassivity. This interpassivity is to be opposed to the Hegelian List der Vernunft ('cunning of Reason'): in the case of the 'cunning of Reason', I am active through the other--that is, I accede to the other the passive aspect (of enjoying), while I can remain actively engaged (I can continue to work in the evening, while the VCR passively enjoys for me; I can make financial arrangements for the deceased's fortune while the weepers mourn for me). This allows us to propose the notion of false activity: you think you are active, while your true position, as embodied in the fetish, is passive....

The Plague of Fantasies (21)

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

p. 105: Beneath the apparently humanist-ideological opposition between 'human beings' and 'things' lurks another, much more productive notion, that of the mystery of substitution and/or displacement: how is it ontologically possible that the innermost 'relations between people' can be displaced on to (or substituted by) 'relations between things'? That is to say: is it not a basic feature of the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism that 'things believe instead of us, in place of us'? The point worth repeating again and again is that in Marx's notion of fetishism the place of the fetishist inversion is not in what people think that they are doing, but in their actual social activity itself: a typical bourgeois subject is, in terms of his conscious attitude, a utilitarian nominalist--it is in his social activity, in exchange on the market, that he acts as if commodities were not simple objects but objects endowed with special powers, full of 'theological whimsies'. In other words, people are well aware of how things really stand; they know very well that the commodity-money is nothing but a reified form of the appearance of social relations, that beneath the 'relations between things' there are 'relations between people'--the paradox is that in their social activity they act as if they do not know this, and follow the fetishist illusion. The fetishist belief, the fetishist inversion, is displaced on to things; it is embodied in what Marx calls 'social relations between things'. And the crucial mistake to be avoided here is the properly 'humanist' notion that this belief, embodied in things, displaced on to things, is nothing but a reified form of direct human belief: the task of the phenomenological reconstitution of the genesis of 'reification' is then to demonstrate how original human belief was transposed on to things....

p. 106: The paradox to be maintained is that displacement is original and constitutive: there is no immediate, self-present living subjectivity to whom the belief embodied in 'social things' can be attributed, and who is then dispossessed of it. There are some beliefs, the most fundamental ones, which are from the very outset 'decentred' beliefs of the Other; the phenomenon of the 'subject supposed to believe' is thus universal and structurally necessary.

p. 107: [....] belief is symbolic and knowledge is real (the big Other involves, and relies on, a fundamental 'trust'). Belief is always minimally 'reflective', a 'belief in the belief of the other' [....], while knowledge is precisely not knowledge about the fact that there is another who knows. For this reason, I can believe through the other, but I cannot know through the other.

p. 108: The crucial mistake to be avoided here is, again, the properly 'humanist' notion that this belief embodied in things, displaced on to things, is nothing but a reified form of direct human belief, in which case the task of the phenomenological reconstitution of the genesis of 'reification' would be to demonstrate how the original human belief was transposed on to things....The paradox to be maintained, in contrast to such attempts at phenomenological genesis, is that displacement is original and constitutive: there is no immediate, self-present living subjectivity to whom the belief embodied in 'social things' can be attributed, and who is then dispossessed of it.