Here is an article I wrote in 2011 on Zizek. Hope you enjoy it!
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Culture, Theory and Critique
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Event and Ideology
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To cite this article: Andrew Stein (2012) Event and Ideology, Culture, Theory and Critique, 53:3, 287-303, DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2012.721627
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Culture, Theory and Critique, 2012, 53(3), 287–303
Event and Ideology
Abstract This paper explores how Zˇ izˇek uses the concepts of ideology and event to explain what the revolutionary desires and how the revolutionary might prepare for a revolutionary cut within Capitalism based on a Lacanian-Hegelian discourse.
In this article, I explore how Zˇizˇek breathes new life into an old dialogue between psychoanalysis and radical politics. Figures in this tradition have included the idiosyncratic Wilhelm Reich, classical Freudians such as Otto Fenichel, Marxist neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm, Frankfurt School figures such as Herbert Marcuse, the French structuralist and Marxist Louis Althusser, and more recently Alain Badiou and others. Zˇizˇek, of course, fits within this lineage; although in the past he was more associated with Badiou and J.-A. Miller. His particular expertise lies in Hegelian philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. His politics, though on the Left, remains idiosyncratic, and he is difficult to place in any traditional political position. He is a radical whose radicalism is not steeped in a particular utopian ideology, but in a Hegelian- Lacanian discourse. An avowed Communist, he is an enemy of postmodern and liberal cultural politics, which he finds complicit with the ideology of global Capitalism, and he also is an enemy of the new East European Commu- nists who have embraced ultra-nationalism. Although having a worldwide following, Zˇizˇek has often been dismissed in academia as a showman lacking substance. I suggest why this is not the case. After an initial section exploring the link between Lacanian psychoanalysis and radical politics, I examine Zˇizˇek’s concepts of ideology and event. I discuss how ideology has a perverse structure for Zˇizˇek and why that structure maintains the consumer within a deadlocked dialectic that is only overcome by the formation of revo- lutionary desire during an event.
Look at them enjoy
In this article I suggest that Zˇizˇek borrowed Lacan’s question – what is the desire of the analyst? – and applied it to radical politics; in this way he arrived at the ques- tion of the desire of the revolutionary. His attempt to answer this question runs throughout his entire oeuvre and boils down to a very Lacanian paradox: What does the revolutionary desire? She desires to give to the world a signifier of universal social justice. But this signifier of universal social justice is only a possible reality that, like all possible past and future realities, has a symbolic fic- tional structure. It, therefore, is not equivalent to objective reality. Neverthe- less, the revolutionary works to bring such a universal fictional structure into the world even though she does not know where, when, and for how long it may next appear. To prepare for its next appearance, however, is the thing she desires more than life; it is her ethics and being.
Although this is a Lacanian position, Lacan actually said very little about the desire of the revolutionary (Lacan 1990: 117 – 28; Turkle 1990: 8; Roudinesco 1990: 341–42). What he did say about the desire of the May 68ers, however, closely foreshadowed things Zˇizˇek would later say to the Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011. In essence, while Lacan sympathised with the student and worker revolts against the institutions of power, work, and bour- geois morality, he also saw another side – one that turned revolt into an unconscious affirmation of the Other’s desire.
While rebelling against authority at the conscious level, Lacan suggested, the protesters unconsciously turned their revolt against authority on its head, so that it became a desire to go on affirming the Other’s desire. In this respect, the insistence by the May 68ers on self-actualisation and enjoyment, in fact, was a narcissistic and voyeuristic display, offered for the enjoyment of a sym- bolic-imaginary Other who perversely directed them – not to work, but to enjoy themselves in the act of transgressing the Law.
Thus, when the May 68ers proclaimed that the beach lay beneath the pave- ment, they often did so at the behest of a new symbolic Other (Capitalism) which turned the object of the Other into an object of perverse jouissance rather than an object of repression. The self-actualising playfulness of the May 68ers, therefore, did more than just break with the old Law; it also was a collective affirmation of the new face of the Law. Therefore, protesters who believed that they were transgressing the Law in any sort of straightforward way were fooling themselves. In fact, Lacan had shown that only psychotics successfully disavow the Other ’s symbolic function by foreclosing the symbolic dimensions of reality, whereas the neurotic and the pervert each make the Faus- tian bargain by accepting the Other’s symbolic role (Lacan 1993: 32). Students were presumably not all psychotics – but they were people whose subject pos- ition in the social symbolic chain of meanings was being (or already had been) radically rewritten, where the dilemma faced by the protesters was that their revolt against inauthenticity was structurally compatible with an unconscious desire to meet the new demands of the Other to produce (here by enjoying) surplus enjoyment (plus-de jouir) for the Other. This was the pound of flesh that the Other still demanded. Thus, Lacan saw the protestors as subjects standing at a crossroads, unaware of the stakes involved in deciding to go in one direction or another. And it was to convey some of the gravitas of the moment that Lacan said of the May 68ers: ‘Look at them enjoy!’ and, on another occasion, Lacan said ‘the aspirations to revolution has but one concei- vable issue, always, the discourse of the master. That is what experience has proved. What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one’ (Lacan 1990: 111, 124, 126).
In a manner of speaking, Lacan gave back to the protesters their own message in an inverted form when he asked whether the protests would descend into narcissistic enjoyment carried on beneath the gaze of the Other or give rise to a new desire for an Other whose cuts and holes would not be veiled by an idealisation. The protester’s call for a holistic society beyond repression, warned Lacan, did not prefigure a new naturalism. Rather, it marked an ideological repositioning of the subject in the field of the Other – a point Zˇizˇek would later highlight by saying that the perverse structure does not rely on repression to guard the subject against abjection. Instead it safeguards against lack (which might carry the subject beyond the pleasure principle) by veiling it behind an idealisation acceptable to the ego – which in the case of the protesters took the form of an ideal fantasy of a desublima- tion capable of suspending alienation and guilt.
Lacan had been discussing a transformation in the fantasy of the Other since the 1950s. He had shown in numerous ways that modernity is marked by the fantasy that the place of master in the master discourses is occupied by dupes whose authority rests on the connivance and opposition of a series of hysteric, perverse, and obsessive characters (Lacan 2007). Moreover, Lacan had discussed how a socially disruptive desire – in this case the desire of the fictional house of Labdacus – can alter the subject’s relation to the Other when an ethical subject appears on the scene willingly to sacrifice her happiness and her life to her desire (in a sense, to take the fantasy of the master’s desire seriously again). But Lacan also showed how Antigone’s act lures the perverse gaze of the audience (I am referring to the gaze being drawn to the purity and dazzling beauty of her act while veiling the obscenity of a girl hanging from a rope with a broken neck). Similarly, Lacan warned the protesters against falling in love with the beautiful image of happiness beyond guilt, so near to the ‘American disease’ Freud condemned; and Zˇ izˇ ek will later warn against a subjective attitude at work whenever Capitalism draws people’s gaze away from its obscenities to an ideal imaginary happiness: One should simply not be dazzled by the beauty of the machinery of Capital- ism. Consequently, when Zˇizˇek states that the revolutionary’s desire lies ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ of perversion, he is adding his voice to a tradition reaching back to Freud and Lacan.
The Lacanian field and revolutionary desire
Just as Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that one comes upon a myth at the point where there is the effect of an irresolvable social conflict from the past that still divides and binds a society, Lacan believed that one comes upon a linguis- tic displacement (metonym) or condensation (metaphor), a place of repression, a gap, etc. at a point of a trauma or irresolvable psychic conflict. The psycho- analyst pays special attention to these linguistic and imaginary slips, mistakes, gafs and gaps that regularly befuddle and stymie the ego. It is only by being a dupe, said Lacan, that a subject can know something of its own unconscious desire. In other words, it is only by following the ways that the unconscious subject dupes the ego (the ego which asks itself ‘is this it?’ ‘is this how it is?’ ‘is this what the Other desires?’) that the subject reaches its own desire, starts accepting a lack exists in the Other, and the law of castration that it implies. Consequently, it is through the gaps that the subject eventually is ‘con- fronted with the primary signifier’, and the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it’ (Lacan 1977: loc. 4792–94).
But how a Lacanian passes from the field of desire to the field of politics may seem baffling. For the political consequences of psychoanalysis are ones that are not normally considered to be part of the classical realm of politics (yet many analysts combine revolutionary desire with their analytic desire). A Lacanian politics begins with helping analysands read the signifiers emerging in their speech and dreams; doing so already places analysis beyond the con- ventional structures of modern science and Capitalism, which convert human relations into commodity relations and forms of university discourse. Beyond this, Lacan said that psychoanalysis safeguards the subject against its own desire to sacrifice itself to the ‘dark god’ of fascism (Lacan 1977) and other paranoid desires that destroy the subject’s ability to distinguish between sig- nifiers (that is, to read desire).
Being a Lacanian and a revolutionary therefore only poses a problem for those who see clinical work as the alpha and omega of psychoanalysis. Lacan himself said as much in Television to Jacques Alain-Miller (Lacan 1990), so there is no reason one can’t derive both an analytic practice and a theory of revolu- tionary desire from his teachings, provided they do not confuse the one and the other. Lacanian politics even extends into the most remote areas of Laca- nian knots theory. Consider, for example, the uses of the Lacanian sinthome. Sinthome is a neologism condensing the symptom with the name of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The sinthome hooks or rings a broken Borromean knot, holding the three rings together and keeping the subject (symptom) from coming apart. By analogy, sinthomes hold the rings of the Borromean knot together like Saint Thomas held Christian and Pagan thought together. But there is a vital difference. Thomas could link Aristotle and Christianity because both exist sub species aeternitas in God’s Absolute gaze: because God knows how it all fits together. The sinthome, on the other hand, holds the indi- vidual subject (symptom) together in full knowledge that the gaze of the Other no longer is Absolute; that it is full of holes. A sinthome then operates within a structure where the Other lacks, where the Other’s gaze does not see and know all, and where the Absolute exists only as a fantasy in the imaginary register.
How ideology supports the desire of the Other and thwarts the desire of the revolutionary
Fast forward to Zˇizˇek’s speech on October 9, 2011 during an Occupy Wall Street rally where he sounded a very Lacanian note by saying to the protesters that he supported them but they should not love themselves too much – that is, that they should not get carried away by their imaginary, narcissistic fanta- sies of speaking truth to power and transgressing the Law, because to do so would be to betray the revolutionary moment by turning their rebellion against the egoism and greed of Wall Street and the financial institutions back onto themselves. Do not, he implied, simply give the message of the Other back to it in an inverted form. Instead, find your own desires and build new communal institutions that sustain them against the desire of the Other of global consumer Capitalism.
What lies behind this warning is Zˇ izˇ ek’s concern that a perverse ideology shapes these fantasies. This perverse ideology relies on a series of obscene con- tradictions, gaps, lapses, holes, and distortions of jouissance veiled by an idealisation so that the subject ‘is asked to assume with enjoyment the very injustice of which they are horrified’ (Zˇ izˇ ek 2005: 206). In fact, for Zˇ izˇ ek ideol- ogy resembles Kafka’s lower and higher courts in The Trial, which are also riddled by real and metaphorical holes, self-contradictions, and abject objects. In both cases, desires circulate around abject objects that are ‘papered over’ by pompous, irrational, and often comically distorted, obscene representatives of the superego Law, which can destroy anyone unlucky enough to get caught in its web. The whole apparatus is deadly despite its rather shoddy slapped-together appearance. Consequently, the per- verse structure of ideology incites anxiety in people: for both the pervert and ideology, anxiety is a necessary effect of the production of obscene superego fantasies, barely veiled behind idealised objects, of the perverse structure. Nothing works without it.
Ideology has the quality of being like the air we breathe. We both know about it and take it for granted (don’t think about it much). As such, it is like a social phantasm that contains the logic of our relation to the Other and the ‘object a’ (the source of anxiety). The semblant par excellence of this dialectic structure in the Western imagination is the Jew who, in the mind of the anti-Semite, possesses this double structure of being an idealised and abject other. For the Jew seems to have escaped castration and to have access to ‘some unfathomable je ne sais quoi’, to forbidden enjoyments ‘that makes them “not quite human” (“aliens” in the precise sense this term acquired in the science-fiction films of the 1950s)’ for the anti-Semite (Zˇizˇek 2005: 236). Because the Jew occupies the logical place of the object cause of desire, the Jew appears to the anti-Semite’s gaze as a stain disturbing their fantasm of an imaginary whole, harmonious world. The anti-Semite, therefore, resents the Jew for having access to secret jouissance that the anti-Semite wants for himself. As a result, the anti-Semite creates fantasies in which the Jew is eliminated and the world is no longer uncanny, which the anti-Semite blames on the proximity of the Jew. By erasing the stain caused by the Jew (qua place holder of an enjoyment that is denied to the anti-Semite), the anti- Semite also tries to satisfy its own Other and thereby gain access to a bit of the secret treasure, the surplus jouissance, that the Jew is believed to possess.
Logically, however, the hatred of the Jew – or any other group which occupies this place in the matheme of the fantasm ($ , .a) – ‘is not limited to the “actual properties” of the Jew “but targets its real kernel, objet a, what is in the object more than itself”’ (Zˇizˇek 2005: 236). What the anti-Semite ulti- mately longs for and hates is not the empirical Jew, but an empty place of inac- cessible surplus jouissance (death) that the Jew represents in the anti-Semite’s fantasy. That is, the anti-Semite does not react to the real Jew. He reacts to his own fantasms. Central to these fantasms is the subject’s fascination with abjec- tion (represented by the Jew). None of this makes much sense, however, unless people see that ideology – and here Zˇizˇek stretches the idea to include anti- Semitism – structurally depends on this dialectic combination of an ideal and abject object and that it works best when it puts people as close to the ‘object a’ as possible. The reverse side of the Other’s demand to enjoy, there- fore, is anxiety about jouissance, both a performance anxiety – am I enjoying enough? – and an anxiety that the other is enjoying more. Such anxiety breeds addiction and depression, as the subject increasingly wants more and increas- ingly resents other people as well. But it also generates a fear of getting too near the real.
This same fantasm, based on combining an ideal and abject (anxiety- provoking) object, also exists in the relation between the Law and crime. For the Law, Zˇizˇek argues, does not squelch crime so much as it allows people to satisfy partial drives (crimes and transgressions) in ways that have the sanc- tion of the symbolic order. The Law, in other words, succeeds best when it looks away and permits subjects – not homo sacers – to enjoy what is officially unlawful. For Zˇizˇek, the beauty of Kafka lies in the way that his stories reveal this obscene, superegoic side of the Law lurking behind the ‘made in Germany’ stamp of approval. Kafka lets the screen drop, Zˇizˇek writes, so that his readers see the fantasm working. That is, they are shown the Law operating as an obscene object of desire (much as Freud did when he con- structed the myth of the primal father). Literally, in Zˇizˇek’s words, where ‘God is too present, under the shape – of course, which is not at all comforting – of obscene, disgusting phenomena’ (2005: 138). This materialisation of God – this image that brings God down to the level of the obscene object cause of desire (A– .a), may be the necessary step in the transformation from a Chris- tian world, such as we had for two thousand years, into a more thoroughly Capitalist one compatible with the fetish and with the perversion of finance, as is seen, for example, in Capitalism’s idealisation of individual greed and acquisitiveness.
Similarly,Zˇizˇekdepictsthehistoric-figureBligh,the captain of the Bounty, as a character who does not know how the Law functions: Bligh, who occupies the place of Law, metes out the Law as if it is a Kantian universal that must be applied, without exception, to everyone in the same way (2005: 231–34, 269– 70). Bligh is so fair and upright that he runs afoul of all the unofficial rules that allow more senior sailors to abuse their juniors, etc., and as such he earns the universal hatred of everyone on board and is twice mutinied – once aboard the Bounty and again in the colonies. He thus repeats Joseph K.’s mistake in The Trial: standing before the court he cannot see that people can’t disentangle the Law from its obscene, erotic, farcical, and mean other side. In Zˇizˇek’s words (discussing Orson Well’s film “The Trial”): ‘The error of Joseph K. consists in overlooking the solidarity between this obscene perturbation and the court. He thinks that everybody would be anxious to have order restored and the offending couple at least ejected from the meeting, but when he tries to rush across the room the crowd obstructs him, someone seizes him from behind by the collar’ (Zˇizˇek 2005: 258). Thus, neither Joseph K. nor Bligh understands that what matters is not that the Law is followed to the letter, but that it fails ‘in a regulated way’ because it is only through failing that the Law affirms the exception (the ideal-abject ‘object a’) that defines the limits of legality (Zˇizˇek 2010: loc. 653, loc. 1897). In other words, they cannot understand that, in the perverse fantasm, eroticism and anxiety function as the glue that binds people to each other and that the Law demands a pound of flesh from the subject for society to function.
Structural deadlock and the ideological function
Ideology (without people noticing it) binds people to what Lacan called a forced choice – your money or your life. The point of such a choice, in part, is its speciousness: the terms present no choice at all since the subject must either acquiesce to the mugger’s demand or lose his life. But, if he accepts the mugger’s demand he also loses the money he needs to live. This sort of choice does not follow classical logic, which proposes that ‘if A is true than not-A is false’. Instead, it follows a logic where A and not-A are both true at the same time, as also can be true for an identification. Thus, a subject is free to choose. But that choice is not free.
Capitalism, writes Zˇizˇek, offers people a similar unfree choice. Subjects are presented with an excess of choice. A person can make a purchase after comparing cars; he can even buy the same car in a variety of different colors and so on; he can select from shelves of sodas, each one of which comes in its own flavors – just so long as he does not opt out of the system and so long as his desire does not become too revolutionary; freedom to choose, then, is freedom managed by an Other. According to Zˇ izˇ ek, this is how Capit- alism imposes its own forced choice on people and keeps them stuck in a dead- lock where Capitalism remains the impassable limit to everything.
There are other forced choices too. Zˇ izˇ ek also believes that a forced choice logic lies behind Liberalism’s appeal to free choice, be it freedom of the press, freedom to choose your own beliefs, etc. According to this definition, freedom to choose remains purely formal in Liberal society. Multiculturalism and other forms of postmodernism also rely on logics of forced choices: people can be as different as they like, provided that they are not free to opt out. Therein rests the forced choice for Zˇizˇek.
All these forced choices are effects of the alienating structure of language which, Lacan said, occurs each time the subject appears in the field of the Other as a signifier (in what Freud had called subject’s discontent within civi- lisation). The most basic structures of language necessitates that the subject pulses between states of meaning (when it appears through a signifier that represents it to other signifiers) and aphanisis (or fading). ‘Alienation’, said Lacan, ‘consists in this vel, which . . . condemns the subject to appearing in that division – which, it seems to me, if it appears on one side meaning, pro- duced by signifiers, it appears on the other as aphanisis (the fading of the subject)’ (Lacan 1977: loc. 3666 – 4944). This is the most basic structure support- ing the barred or divided subject. But Capitalism is alienating in another sense: on the level of ideology. Ideology, like any symptom, represents a second order type alienation that presupposes the alienation of the subject in language, but goes beyond it.
This means that while the subject must pass through the vel of alienation, it need not accept the terms offered by Capitalism. Capitalism, as ideology, shares the characteristics of a Freudian screen memory. It is a simplification we accept so that we do not have to face the real trauma of the barred and divided nature of the subject and the Other. In this sense, Capitalism is a bluff that the subject can refuse.
Another way to imagine this problem is to say that Capitalism diverts the subject’s gaze onto a fantasy of a perverse broken master (the Other); this Other requires the Capitalist to make it whole again by ‘fulfilling their natures as greedy acquisitive individuals’. But this ‘other version’ of the Tikun olam (repairing the world) is nothing but a perverse imaginary fantasy the subject posits to justify its own desires and whose main purpose is to screen lack so we can act as if the place of the master (the One) in our fantasy is occupied now by a totality of the greedy and acquisitive individuals competing to satisfy their desires.
According to Jean-Michel Vappereau, in one of his final (still unpub- lished) seminars Lacan discussed how modern children learn to separate the One and the many by observing their parents. Lacan thought, according to Vappereau, that this posed a real paradox for children who wonder: who is this being ‘the parental couple’, are they one or two? At times the parental couple appears as one to the child, as what Lacan referred to (alluding to Aris- tophanes) as a ‘double-backed being’. At other times, the being separated into two, especially during moments of passion (love making) and violence (arguing). Eventually, Lacan taught according to Vappereau that the child learns to decern a relation between One and the many – which often is symp- tomatic leading the subject to react to truama by repositing a fictional (lost) totality.
In these teachings by Lacan, the mystery of the One and the many begins in violence and passion – just like the image of a mugging in the example of the forced choice. Both examples suggest the importance fantasms of violence, terror, and being in a state of emergency (as well as enjoyment) play in the history of the subject. This intimate connection between security, a state of emergency, forced choices, lost jouissance, and global Consumer Capitalism was recently explained to us by George W. Bush, when he told Americans after 9/11 that it is their patriotic duty to go on consuming: to do otherwise, he said, would be to concede defeat to the terrorists. The overt message (go on enjoying like before while your government engages Terror for you), however, hid a more truthful one. Namely, the terrorists are our benefactors because consumerism works best when it is combined to an obscene state of emergency. The real message was: make Terror work for Capitalism.
A related perverse fantasm, Zˇizˇek writes, appears when communities par- tition people into groups of whole and not-whole people. This notion that the world can be partitioned into whole and partial beings broadens the class concept found in classical Marxism into a vision of society riven by multiple, competing apartheid communities in which each community maintains a safe distance between whole and partial damaged others. ‘The underlying injunc- tion of liberal tolerance is (not) monocultural – “Be like us! Become British!” On the contrary, . . . the injunction is one of cultural apartheid: others should not come too close to us, we should protect “our way of life”’ (Zˇizˇek 2010: loc. 1223–25). The State of Israel is one example Zˇizˇek often cites about a society that has adopted this apartheid logic in its policies towards the Pales- tinians on the West Bank and Gaza, not only by erecting the Wall but also by placing an untold number of rules and regulations between themselves and their Palestinian neighbors.
The fantasm operating here is not that the ideal object can veil obscenity but it is a related fantasm that dirty, obscene, abjection can be isolated and quarantined in the other. Sometimes this logic of separation becomes explicit (as in the Palestinian case). At other times, the logic of separation operates without its reasons being made explicit anymore. Zˇizˇek alludes to this later situation whenever he referred to Levi-Strauss’ discussion in Tristes Tropiques of a village where a gap separated the villagers into two groups. Each group had a different mental map of how the village was laid out because both com- munities processed in different ways a common historic trauma that occurred long ago (Zˇizˇek 2010: 242–43). This is not the same thing as the division of people into whole and partial or damaged people, but Zˇizˇek’s point is that these two communities were defined by a parallax logic, because all parallaxes (the gaps in a symbolic whole) are rooted in the way the libidinal economies of different communities respond to a shared trauma – ‘the site of an unbearable antagonism, self-contradiction’ (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 49) – and this includes the villagers discussed by Levi-Strauss, the Capitalist and the factory worker living under conditions of 19th century industrial Capitalism, and the Israeli and Palestinian communities in the 21st century.
In a similar vein, Zˇizˇek refers to Confucius as the first ‘proto-ideologist’ who articulated ‘what one is tempted to call the elementary scene (one is reminded of the primal scene in “The Wolf Man”) of ideology, its zero-level, which consists in asserting the (nameless) authority of some substantial Tradition’ (2010: loc. 500) against abject hidden signifiers. Confucius, in other words, produced a set of rules and concepts that allowed subjects – be they peasants, mandarins, or Emperors – to feel that they were fulfilling the desire of the Other when they followed the Confucian obligations codified in a mythological past (Tradition). In this way, Confucius codified a belief that an imaginary Order, discernible as the order of the universe, could be the model for terrestrial relations, as well. For Zˇizˇek it is a small step from this proto-ideological world to the ‘Wild West’ of postmodern consumer Capital- ism where the goal is not to replace disharmony with harmony but to make disharmony pay. The ethic of responsibility and shame discernible in Confu- cianism is replaced in the structures of global Capitalism by an oral fantasy that guiltless consumption is possible: ‘even though the world may be full of corruption and alienation, and even if people are often disingenuous’, ideol- ogy whispers, ‘an idealized object, when purchased and consumed, can raise an abject object out of the muck of social reality’(Zˇizˇek 2010:loc.111). One sees this developed most fully, according to Zˇ izˇ ek, in the appeals of companies like Starbucks who sell ‘indulgences’ with a double espresso latte to people who feel guilty about their social privileges. What companies like Starbucks really sell is an identification with an ideal fantasy object which the subject consumes. But, no matter what one consumes, one never gets ‘it’; and, conse- quently, one never gets free of guilt or ‘dangerous’ jouissance no matter how hard one tries. The oral fantasy continues to function as a lure that keeps the subject hooked to a changing flux of faux satisfactions.
This displacement of guilt resembles the displacement of responsibility by Hegel’s beautiful soul (in whom the superego seems to be absent). The beautiful soul is the subject who raises himself up out of the corruption of the world, which he always attributes to others. Lacan famously called the beau- tiful soul the only truly mad person today because such a subject can’t read his own divided subject. In opposition to the beautiful soul, Lacan affirmed that we all are monsters – we are abject beings who, having been born prematurely, begin life defective. That makes everyone ‘damaged goods’. But like all defec- tive organisms, we still want to live. We are monsters, said Lacan, according to Vappereau in a recent seminar, not machines. Machines break down and do not work while humans seek to live, despite being defective. In this respect, we resemble the Monster in Frankenstein. We are monsters who speak – language being the iron lungs that surround us and keep us going. But these iron lungs are also a poultice of shit surrounding us, wrote Lacan: abjec- tion being what ultimately keeps us going.
To explain more about this deadlock requires an excursion into the logic of structures because Zˇ izˇ ek says that the ideologically-driven subject is caught in the logic of disavowal or verleugnung, or one of the logical forms of negation discussed by Freud and Lacan – the others being repression or unterdruckung and foreclosure or verwerfung (Lacan 2006: 318–33; Freud 1964, 1991). For Lacan, each of these three forms of negation also corresponds to a structure of the unconscious signifying chain: namely, repression appears with the neu- roses, foreclosure with the psychoses, and disavowal with the perversions. What Zˇizˇek adds is that, no matter which structure and logic of negation this or that subject may have, ideology today is structured like a perversion, and consequently the typical form of negation within it is disavowal: I myself do not believe but nevertheless I should act as if I do, so as not to offend someone who may believe; or, although it’s true that I do not believe, I will act as if I do on behalf of someone else.
Thus, in a Pascalian style, the subject disavows belief while continuing to act as if he believes. For example, while modern subjects claim to no longer believe in God, they still behave as if there is one (as if a master existed behind the master discourse). Zˇizˇek relates this to the old joke about a man who enters a hospital because he believes there is a big chicken who thinks he is bird seed and wants to consume him; after being cured of this delusion, the man returns in terror to the hospital because, although he knows he is not bird seed, he still is afraid the big chicken does not. Zˇizˇek’s point here is that today ideology takes up this position towards disavowal of the Other. Even though a person knows there is no Other, he still behaves as if there is an Other – or he still believes unconsciously because he is under the sway of his identification. The difference with Pascal is that he subverts disbelief: ‘if I do not believe, I still act as if I do (and soon I will start believing)’ while the deluded man in Zˇ izˇ ek’s joke uses a different logic: namely, ‘if I consciously profess to disbelieve that there is an Other, it is because I unconsciously go on believing sub rosa: thus, if I pretend not to believe, I can go believing just the same. Once again, “A” and “not-A” are the same – “disbelieve so that I can believe”’.
It is Kafka who exposes the nature of the deadlock in works like The Trial and Metamorphosis. For even as Kafka’s texts illuminate the fusion of abjection and ideal (and belief and disbelief) in the fantasm, he offers no way through its logic (at least not in these texts). At the end of The Trial, for instance, Joseph K. lets himself be killed by the Other – an act of paradoxical grace since he is already an existential non-person erased from the world, transformed into a homo sacer by the priest, the lawyers, the housekeeper, the painter, the judges of the higher and lower Courts – the comical dupes and frauds running a bureaucratic nightmare where the official story ‘does not work at all’. In Metamorphosis, too, Joseph K. finds no escape from the alienation he feels towards his family, the renters, and his employer. He is consigned to be a bug until his death, or as long as he goes on sacrificing himself and his health for the semblants of the Other (his family, employer, society); that is, so long as he behaves like a homo sacer or as a Hegelian slave who has forgotten his cunning or who has had it stolen from him (Weiss 2005). And yet Zˇizˇek’s point is not that Kafka’s stories reveal the malfunctioning of the Law, but that his stories show how the perverse structure of the Law sustains a state of dead- lock where ‘the Other is never more present then when it is absent and the Law (and Reason) is never more totalitarian and oppressive then when its rule is most arbitrary (unlawful)’ (Zˇizˇek 2006: 158–59).
This absence of change, or this dialectic deadlock, also can be connected with the pulsations of the unconscious and repetition. S1, S2, S3, S4 . . .: Each signifier is different but essentially repeats the same underlying structure. But, in another sense, structural deadlock doesn’t fully capture what is occur- ring, as desire follows a moebius-like structure linking subject and Other, anxiety and enjoyment, drive and signifier, screen and obscene object of desire, etc. In this way, we are taken back to the matheme of the pervert where the perverse subject exists on the side of the ‘object a’ ($ , .a), and so receives the surplus enjoyment from the other. To frame this as a Hegelian master and slave discourse, the pervert appropriates the enjoyment produced by the slave. And yet the pervert envies the slave who is the source of enjoy- ment (jouissance) that the perverse subject wants to have (or be) just as the anti-Semite wants the unspeakable enjoyment that he either thinks the Jew possesses or that he locates in the Jew’s being. This moebius passage between signifiers of death, anxiety, enjoyment, and the Law, as we have seen, allows ideology to keep the subject bound to the Other’s desire.
Change, the Paul/Jesus event, and the desire of the revolutionary Zˇizˇek proposes a possible way out of this deadlock if we supplant the struc- ture supporting the deadlock (that is integral to perversion and ideology) with a different structure that he finds in the works of Hegel, Lacan, and a few others. At the center of this Hegelian-Lacanian dialectic is an operation that Hegel called the ‘negation of the negation’ whereby the deadlock is over- come by the creation of a third term. This shift from deadlock (this or that but nothing else) to the Hegelian-Lacanian dialectic (that introduces a third term) also marks a shift from an ideologically-driven subject to a revolutionary subject who acts as the agent of the third term. Where ideology imposes a forced choice on people, according to Zˇ izˇ ek’s reading of Lenin, a revolutionary subject wishes ‘to BREAK this seductive power of the symbolic efficiency’ and, act ‘AS IF THE CHOICE IS NOT FORCED’. Zˇizˇek’s Leninist message then is to opt out: but not in the fashion of either 1960s style hippies or the withdrawing from the world practiced by someaesthetics.Zˇizˇek’s revolutionary opts out so as to be able to act like a Lacanian Leninist (Zˇizˇek 2011b: 7–8) and break with the seductiveness of the symbolic efficiency by no longer being satisfied by producing surplus jouissance for the Other. Rather, the revolutionary takes up a collective desire for social justice.
The desire of the revolutionary is also connected to a desire for an event. The event, Zˇizˇek says, occurs when a signifying chain no longer repeats the same signifiers in the same order as before. The event therefore is linked to the structures of human language and human history since ‘it is only into such a distorted animal that an Event can inscribe itself’ (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 93). It names the coming into the world of a new signifier (S1).
A subject in the midst of an event lives in a state of emergency, living in a kind of permanent ‘end times’ – such as occurred in 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, May 68, and perhaps in the Occupy Wall Street movement when the old reality is suspended for some who are in the grip of a concrete universal desire for justice. Moments like these, Zˇizˇek insists, cannot be scientifically planned and prepared for. This is why Zˇizˇek insists that revolutionary change is never finished; nor is it inevitable; attempts to create a revolutionary society by fiat or rational planning like Stalinism are especially ill-conceived. As Goya understood already during the Napoleonic wars, imposing revolu- tionary justice through force and reason breeds monsters; it is, strictly speak- ing, a perversion of the ideal. Real eruptions of revolutionary desire aren’t rationally planned; they happen in unexpected places and times, when the deadlock is suspended and overturned without warning, or at least in a form no one quite anticipated (Zˇ izˇ ek 2005: 259). But while every event is sur- prising and unlike what existed before it, each event is also a new answer to the fundamental social antagonisms and self-contradictions upon which all societies rest. In this respect, it is similar to the moment of affirmation in an analysis when there is an upsurge of unconscious desire (more like a vast sociological slip or passage to the act) than a perfectly planned action. A subject captured by an event, then, is possessed by a ‘violent passion to intro- duce difference, a gap in the order of being, in order to elevate some “object a” at the expense of an other’ (Zˇizˇek 2010: loc. 2486).
But the really startling news is that Zˇizˇek thinks that today people in Western civilisation (whatever that is) are living out the consequences of an event associated with the teaching of Paul/Jesus.1 For Zˇ izˇ ek, Paul/Jesus marks a ‘world historical’ event in Western civilisation, such that after its inception the ‘owl of Minerva has flown’. People are now living in the after- math, in the end times, drawing out the (Hegelian and Lacanian) consequence of that event – it is just that ideology makes ‘difficult work of actualizing it’ (Zˇizˇek 2003: 137).
1 I refer to Paul/Jesus, rather than to Paul and Jesus, because we know little about the historic Jesus that is not filtered through the writings of the Gospels and the various interpretations and collations of the Gospels by the Church Fathers and by others. Zˇ izˇ ek, in any case, is interested in proclaiming, against the canonical readings of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, that Paul/Jesus announced a cut in the divine and, as a consequence, in messianic time.
This idea that the crucifixion of Jesus signals a revolutionary ontological cut in the life of the Spirit mirrors other pre-Christian, Christian, and post- Christian readings of the event. In each, a millennial-emancipatory event occurs in history that legitimates and unites people in emancipatory social justice movements. In the post-event era, these revolutionary movements, who do the hard work of actually changing reality and realising the event’s potential, usually posit their own justifications by building narratives of the emancipatory history of the Spirit, which (in its Christian and post-Christian forms) often start with the Hebrew prophets Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the books of Acts and Revelations, reappear in the Jesus teachings, and then enter a post-event phase, marked by explosive revolutionary movements (such as peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages and Reformation, and the Digger revolt during Cromwell’s ill-fated Puritan-bourgeois Republic). We also have to consider the numerous materialist, atheist, theosophist, and deistic emancipatory movements of the modern era whose connections to Christian messianism were largely wiped out by the participants. For Zˇizˇek, the Paul/Jesus event fulfills the Judaic messianic tradition by revealing how a community of believers (revolutionary activists), bound to each other by a Holy Spirit (a libidinal drive), can turn the sort of justice that the world nor- mally only realises in an abstract or negative way into a concrete universal. Further, Zˇizˇek says that the desire of the revolutionary finds ontological support in the Paul/Jesus claim that ultimate reality sustains an irresolvable self-contradiction. He writes that Paul/Jesus have proclaimed an ontological cut in the Other; the message of Paul/Jesus being that the era of the undivided One is now over. Paul/Jesus, says Zˇ izˇ ek, brings the feminine principle into the world. This is not the feminine principle popularised by Otto Weininger, but the one that Lacan referred to as the feminine not-All principle on the graph of sexuation. For Zˇ izˇ ek, the crucifixion is the event that introduces the internal feminine ‘not-All’ cut in the One (Lacan 2002).
This means that, while comparing the Jewish messianic tradition with Paul/Jesus (something he often does), Zˇizˇek proposes in The Puppet and the Dwarf that the Jewish paradox – that the messiah is always on his way but is not yet here – has been replaced by a ‘far more uncanny’ Paul/Jesus messia- nic paradox, namely that ‘The Messiah is here, he has arrived, the final Event has already taken place, yet the gap remains’ (2003: 140–41). In effect, Zˇizˇek’s position is that Paul/Jesus told the Jews the event has already occurred. The Jews, however, should not be disappointed, because they were right – but not in the way they thought. The problem is a paradoxical gap in messianic (universal) time, but not the gap the Jews imagined. The real paradox is not that the Messiah tarries, but that a part of the universal is not-All and therefore that one part of the divine remains incomprehensible to itself.2 In this way, Paul/Jesus gives the messianic tradition back to the Jews in an inverted form, saying that if the Jews and a few others hope that a just world is possible,
2 This dialectical response of Paul/Jesus also reversed the proposition that the messiah by himself will heal the wound in the world and make it whole (One) again with the proposition that the coming of the messiah revealed that existence is not-All.
then they have to create it themselves, and only to uncertain and incomplete ends.
Elsewhere, Zˇ izˇ ek asserts that the failure of the divine to only be One did appear in Jewish texts. For example, this failure appeared ‘in the strangest book of the Hebrew Bible’, the Book of Job, wherein Job realised that God (qua universal justice) did not know why he was suffering (Zˇizˇek 2008: 179– 80). In other words, Job stumbled against the paradox that God is a mystery to himself, and therefore that God, too, suffers from his own lack of self-com- pletion and self-understanding. Zˇizˇek locates other Hebrew stories that he claims allude to the same doctrine of God’s impotence, arguing for instance that the murder of Moses presented by Freud in Moses and Monotheism really repeats and distorts a traumatic recollection of the humiliation of the Pharaoh by Moses, thereby pushing back the rock to reveal that that the crypt is empty (Freud 1964). For Zˇizˇek, although Judaism prefigures the notion of a paradoxical impossible mystery, only ‘Christianity moves the enigma in God himself… That is to say: it is precisely because God is an enigma also in and for himself, because he has an unfathomable Otherness in himself, that Christ had to emerge’ (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 80–82). There- fore only ‘Christianity reveals the Other’s impotence’. It is in this spirit that Zˇizˇek claims that Christianity is ‘the first (and only) religion radically to leave behind the split between’ subject and the Other (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 80 – 82). And this, Zˇ izˇ ek concludes, has transformed the subject’s relation to knowledge (including self-knowledge and knowledge of the Other) and truth in ways that, at least potentially, liberates the subject from its depen- dency on the Other. After the Paul/Jesus event the subject has to accept ‘that there is no Other to believe for me, in my place’ (Zˇizˇek 2010: loc. 3190).
Hence, to still believe in an Other that is only One after the Paul/Jesus event is to remain the agent of the ego and ‘some Other, as it were, that speaks through you’ (Zˇizˇek 2005: 79). In essence, Zˇizˇek turns the Pauline message of the crucified Jesus codified by the early Church Fathers on its head to reveal that the ‘supreme triumph of the Cross’ in fact exposes a cut in the divine that forever makes God All and not-All. The good news pro- claimed by Paul/Jesus is a Lacanian message: that the (Name of the) Father, or the place where the master signifier God had appeared, is now empty. According to Zˇizˇek, ‘The symbolic is above all a place, a place that was orig- inally empty and subsequently filled with the bric-a-brac of the symbolic order. The crucial dimension of the Lacanian concept of the symbolic is this logical priority, the precedence of the (empty) place with respect to the elements that fill it’ (2005: 45). However, things are not so simple. Lacan also emphasized that the other side of the signifier is the drive and therefore that lack is only a phenomenological lack. On the other side of a signifier is a partial drive (jouissance), so that the signifier (be it S1 or S2) dialectically func- tions as the other side of enjoyment (jouissance and death). Not surprisingly, Zˇ izˇ ek’s description of Christian love or agape resembles the Lacanian formula that love is giving what you do not have, because there is no sexual relation. That is to say: there will be no harmonious rectification in the end of time, no possibility that universal justice will usher in a world of absolute harmony and fairness. All that exists is the little justice gained by the fruits of political struggle. There is no ideal Other that will be fulfilled in the course of time, merely a desire to respond to the unbearable self-contradictions in society (and in the divine) by bringing more social justice into existence. And with this message the whole messianic tradition is aufhebon – sustained, negated, and overturned.
Thus the Paul/Jesus event signals a historic blueprint for a new sort of subject position: one that moves from the ideological subject to a community of revolutionary subjects whose collective desire is for social justice based on the notion of there being a cut in the divine. But Zˇ izˇ ek’s dialectical gymnastics become problematic when he places both Judaism and Christianity on the masculine side of the graph of sexuation. But this must be a mistake because Zˇizˇek consistently says that Paul/Jesus modify the Concept so that it is thereafter both All (masculine) and not-All (feminine). His reasoning is that both Judaism and Christianity presuppose an exception, an ontological gap in being and time. But Judaism sustains the exception as a wound to be healed in messianic time, whereas Christianity argues that the messiah (the universal value) is already here in the dimension of time, in the message that the exception or gap exists in God. In Paul/Jesus, ‘God has to be impene- trable also to himself, he has to have a dark side, an otherness in himself, some- thing that is to himself more than himself’(Zˇizˇek2010).Thus,‘the secret of the substantial Other is also a secret for the Other – it is thus reduced precisely to the experience of a separation between the Other and its secret, objet petit a’ (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 38).
This may at first glance sound like the same tired line that Christianity has accomplished the Jewish messianic tradition: the New Testament superseded the Hebrew Bible, etc., so why are there still Jews around? And it is certainly valid to wonder why Zˇizˇek goes to so much trouble to locate the desire of the revolutionaryinChristianlove.What,forexample,doesZˇizˇekgainbylinking the spirit that binds activists together in a Party to a concept like the Holy Spirit? But, to be fair, what Zˇizˇek is proposing – in an apre`s coup manner – is a Hegelian negation of the negation which will turn the teaching of Paul/ Jesus of the theologians on its head until it reappears in the (secular) desire of the revolutionary, sustained by an anti-utopian dialectical materialist reading in which evil is an effect of the structure and the history of the signif- iers and the drive – of the cut in the divine that introduces the idea a Not-All dimension to the Other. ‘Only atheists can truly believe’, wrote Zˇ izˇ ek, ‘the only true belief is belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of the “Other”’ (Zˇizˇek and Milibank 2009: 101).
BeforehecanmakesuchaclaimaboutChristianity,however,Zˇizˇekhasto perform a number of negations of negations to the entirety of world religions and philosophies. For Zˇ izˇ ek, the universal (justice) can assume different mean- ings and values at different points in time. This line of reasoning, of course, had also supported Freud’s assertion that meaning (of the signifier) differs at different periods in the life of a subject (Freud 2002). And by the same reasoning, Zˇizˇek proposes that the messianic-emancipatory teachings of Paul/Jesus look different in the wake of Hegel’s and Lacan’s teachings from the way they did, for instance, during the Trinitarian debates and the Arian heresy of the early Church. Therefore, even if Paul/Jesus were not Lacanian, Marxist, or Hegelian avant la lettre, the teachings of Paul/Jesus could become Lacanian, Marxist, and Hegelian apres coup. What this means is not that Paul/Jesus were waiting for someone to come along and unearth the hidden pre-Lacanian treasure buried in their teachings. ‘If in alienation, the subject is confronted with a full and substantial Other, supposedly hiding in its depths some “secret”, its inaccessible treasure,’ Zˇizˇek writes, ‘“de- alien- ation” has nothing to do with an attainment of this secret: far from managing to penetrate right into the Other’s hidden kernel, the subject simply experi- ences this “hidden treasure” (algama, the object- cause of desire) as already missing from the Other itself’ (2005: 40). Indeed, Zˇizˇek argues that there is no there to be unearthed, because strictly speaking ‘there is no hidden untold story in it’ (2003: 127). A signifier is only a subject for another signifier. Thus, you have universals that only acquire meaning for those who believe in the universal and who strive to live their life by it. But today, the Paul/ Jesus event heralds a revolutionary state of emergency: the other side of the state of emergency created by global consumer Capitalism and the new secur- ity-military complex. Today, a libidinal Holy Spirit calls for people with revo- lutionary subjectivities to come together, to unplug ‘from the community’ in the same way that the early Christians left their families in order to enter into a new community held together by a new desire (in the form of Christian love) and the impossible Cause of realising universal justice in a concrete uni- versal form, ‘that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism’ (Zˇizˇek 2006: loc. 2615–17). Thus Zˇizˇek claims that Party activists today should do ‘what Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, that global multiculturalist polity’. Namely, they should create ‘a new collective held together not by a Master-Signifier, but by fidelity to a Cause’ no longer restrained by the logic of deadlock (Zˇizˇek 2011: 130; Zˇizˇek 2003: 3).
In sum, the revolutionary desires to serve the Cause totally: ‘The only thingthatreallyexistsaretheseindividualsandtheiractivity’(ZˇizˇekandMili- bank 2009: 60). Absolutely committed, the revolutionary is a subject living in a state of emergency, in the time of an event that opens her to new possibilities. She becomes the agent of the event, working and waiting for the return of the universal (the desire for justice) as a concrete, partial, historical moment of rupture and change. This longing to actualise a concrete universal desire for justice, in all its impossible, messianic, time-bound, and secular dimensions, calls Walter Benjamin to mind (someone surprisingly absent in Zˇizˇek’s rather subject-heavy writings). Both Zˇ izˇ ek and Benjamin are sensitive readers of the seductions of modernity (or postmodernity), be they the seduc- tions of 20th century films or the 19th century arcade and palaces of commerce. Both Zˇizˇek and Benjamin see how the aestheticisation of life in modernity (or postmodernity) binds the subject to a fascinating gaze of the Other. And both in their own way long for an event that will allow revolutionary subjects to pass beyond the deadlock structures of modernity (or postmodernity). Of the two, Zˇizˇek is more optimistic about the possibility of escape.
What of the Occupy Wall Street protesters? What hope do they have of realising something extimate to the current structures of global Capitalism? Zˇ izˇ ek’s bet is that they can be part of an event if they do not betray the revolu- tionary moment or their revolutionary desire. The possibility recalls other such revolutionaries, such as Leon Blum, who published his memoirs in the 1930s during another state of emergency in France. New social programs were being introduced by the Popular Front, during a time of great social unrest when the Third Republic was deeply unsettled by economic crisis, a resurgent Nazi Germany, and home grown French fascisms. Fascist and proto-fascist organis- ations, like the veterans group Croix de Feu and the PPF, were clashing in the streets of Paris with defenders of the Popular Front when Blum published his memories. The memoirs included these recollections of the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906): ‘Life for me’, wrote Blum, ‘and for my friends, no longer counted. All that mattered was Justice’ (Rose 2011: 92).This simple sentiment, I believe, sums up Zˇ izˇ ek’s entire conception of the event and the desire of the revolutionary, a sentiment he finds expressed in the teachings of Paul/Jesus, Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Lacan, and a few others: a spirit he tried to summon when he spoke to the Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011.
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Along with PhDs in Clinical Psychology and Modern European History, Andrew Stein trained in Modern Psychoanalysis before beginning formation as a Lacanian Psychoanalyst. He has written on elder care and the theme of the second death, on Freud and Lacan, on Bataille and Surrealism, on Foucault and History, and on Zˇizˇek.
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