[Appeared in Filozofski vestnik, 2008, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 9-29. pdf]

If the radical moment of the inauguration of modern philosophy is the rise of the Cartesian cogito, where are we today with regard to cogito? Are we really entering a post-Cartesian era, or is it that only now our unique historical constellation enables us to discern all the consequences of the cogito? Walter Benjamin claimed that works of art often function like shots taken on a film for which the developer has not yet been discovered, so that one has to wait for a future to understand them properly. Is not something similar happening with cogito: today, we have at our disposal the developer to understand it properly.

In what, then, does this developer consist? What makes our historical moment unique? Let us begin with an unexpected case: George Soros is an undoubtedly honest humanitarian whose open society foundation, among other things, more or less single-handedly saved critical social thinking in post-Communist countries. Yet a decade or so ago, the same Soros engaged in speculations with the different rates between currencies and earned hundreds of millions, thereby causing the untold suffering, especially in the south-east Asia: hundreds of thousands losing jobs, with all the consequences. this is today’s “abstract” violence at its purest: on the one extreme, the financial speculation going on in its own sphere, with no transparent links to the reality of human lives; on the other extreme, a pseudo-natural catastrophy (suddenly and unexpectedly losing jobs) which hits thousands like a tsunami, with no apparent reason at all. Today’s violence is like a Hegelian speculative “infinite judgment” which posits the identity of these two extremes.

The philosophical background for this gap is provided by Malebranche who radicalized Descartes’ dualism: if our soul and our body belong to two totally different substances with no direct contact, how are we to explain their coordination? The only solution is that a third, true substance (God) continuously coordinates and mediates between the two, sustaining the semblance of continuity. When I think about raising my hand and my hand effectively raises, my thought causes the raising of my hand not directly but only “occasionally” – upon noticing my thought directed at raising my hand, God sets in motion the other, material, causal chain which leads to my hand effectively being raised. one can see, again, how the prospect of radical virtualization bestows on the computer the position which is strictly homologous to that of God in the Malebrancheian occasionalism: since the computer coordinates the relationship between my mind and (what I experience as) the movement of my limbs (in the virtual reality), one can easily imagine a computer which runs amok and starts to act like Descartes’ malin génie, disturbing the coordination between my mind and my bodily self-experience – when the signal of my mind to raise my hand is suspended or even counteracted in (the virtual) reality, the most fundamental experience of the body as “mine” is undermined… And is it not similar with Soros sitting in his New York office, pressing the buttons on his computer and unaware of the social consequences of his speculations? – The psychological consequences of this rise of the new forms of “abstract” violence are the topic of Catherine Malabou’s Les nouveaux blessés (The New Wounded).6

If the Freudian name for the “unknown knowns” is the Unconscious7, the Freudian name for the “unknown unknowns” is trauma, the violent intrusion of something radically unexpected, something the subject was absolutely not ready for, something the subject cannot integrate in any way. Malabou proposed a critical reformulation of psychoanalysis along these lines; her starting point is the delicate echoing between internal and external Real in psychoanalysis: for Freud and Lacan, external shocks, brutal unexpected encounters or intrusions, due their properly traumatic impact to the way they touch a pre-existing traumatic “psychic reality”. Malabou rereads along these lines Lacan’s reading of the Freudian dream of “Father, can’t you see I’m burning?” the contingent external encounter of the real (the candle collapses and inflames the cloth covering the dead child, and the smell of the smoke disturbs the father on a night-watch) triggers the true Real, the unbearable fantasy-apparition of the dead child reproaching his father. In this way, for Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is “sublated,” internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the “psychic reality” is aroused through it. even the most violent intrusions of the external real – say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions in war – owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, in death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc. today, however, our socio-political reality itself imposes multiple versions of external intrusions, traumas, which are just that, meaningless brutal interruptions that destroy the symbolic texture of subject’s identity. First, there is the brutal external physical violence: terror attacks like 98/11, the Us “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, street violence, rapes, etc., but also natural catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.; then, there is the “irrational” (meaningless) destruction of the material base of our inner reality (brain-tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, organic cerebral lesions, etc., which can utterly change, destroy even, the victim’s personality; finally, there are the destructive effects of socio-symbolic violence (social exclusion, etc.). (Note how this triad echoes the triad of commons: the commons of external nature, of inner nature, of symbolic substance.) Most of these forms of violence are, of course, known for centuries, some even from the very prehistory of humanity. What is new today is that, since we live in a “disenchanted” post-religious era, they are much more directly experienced as meaningless intrusions of the real, and, for this very reason, although utterly different in nature, they appear as belonging to the same series and produce the same effect. (Recall the historical fact that rape was categorized as trauma only in XXth century…)

Footnotes

  1. Catherine Malabou, Les nouveaux blesses, Paris: Bayard 2007. Numbers in brackets refer to pages of this book.
  2. “Analysis came to announce to us that there is knowledge that is not known, knowledge that is based on the signifier as such”. (Jacques Lacan, Encore, new York: Norton 1998, p. 96)
  3. Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, new York: Alfred A. Knopf 2007, p. 56-57.
  4. Michael Pauen, Grundprobleme der Philosophie des Geistes, Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag 2001, p. 203.
  5. Quoted from Michio Kaku, Visions, New York: Anchor Books 1997, p. 64.
  6. Catherine Malabou, Les nouveaux blesses, Paris: Bayard 2007. Numbers in brackets refer to pages of this book.
  7. “Analysis came to announce to us that there is knowledge that is not known, knowledge that is based on the signifier as such”. (Jacques Lacan, Encore, new York: Norton 1998, p. 96)

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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