Jacques Lacan is responsible for saying, “there is no sexual relation.” This should not make lovers too upset, for in fact, Love is what we have to make up for the Relation that is missing. Eros would be the potential of supreme Good, for harmony uniting men and women, women and women, men and men. But why did Sigmund Freud have to ruin everything by saying, It is always possible to bond together in love, as long as someone is left out to hate? Lacan and Freud are pessimists, right? For Love is all-inclusive–at least it can’t depend on exclusion and hatred for its condition! Or else, with a yawn and a wink, we resign ourselves to taking advantage of whatever trust remains in human nature.
When Slavoj Zizek says, “There is no social relation,” we react as cynics and Kantian fetishists: I know very well there is no social Harmony prepared in heaven, but that is why we must work it here on earth. But Zizek unveils a new attitude. Social identity is constituted, not on the basis of ideal communication or understanding, but on the condition of persecutory and reactive formations that we all claim the others embody. And they do. But which one of us wants to embrace Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms? The feeling is mutual. Besides, You want to strangle them, you have to get up close.
Antagonism is radical in human nature because we are the self-conscious ones, and the self we are conscious of is mortal, is death itself. To wipe out consciousness (and whatever stands for it) is the purpose of repression, redoubling death with its own negation, a “second death”–erasure of the signifier in the place of consciousness. Behind the signifier is the Thing, the absolute core of the Other “between perception and consciousness.” Behind consciousness is its own unconsciousness. (Who else is unconscious if not consciousness?) To go unconscious is to jouir, that’s the Thing, to get off, to get out, to forget. Whoever holds the place of consciousness must be eliminated–that is the social-moral law; whoever plays with jouissance at the limit of awareness had better watch his ass, because the sorry truth is that anyone who seems to be having fun playing with the Thing becomes the target of invidium and must be excluded from the circle of self-identity. Repression is the founding act of becoming human. It is the Thing itself, jouissance. Oblivion, erasure, this is the function of the law–of censorship. The Freudo-Lacanian Law (of which Zizek, constructing a true Hegelian synthetic rhizome for our time, exfoliates the political dimensions) cannot be stated. but if it could, the Thing might say of itself:I do not exist. Or rather, I would not exist. if the Signifier didn’t make me. The truth is that the supreme Good is an illusion, “a fantasy filling out a void.” But the belief in it is real and effective as such. The best definition of love is Wallace Stevens’: “an illusion so desired/ That the green leaves came.” Love is the pure real, the Thing is a sublime illusion, and if you believe in it, it becomes what you make of it: human freedom, the unconditioned absolute for good and evil. And if you don’t believe? We are all circling around a central void, a kind of vacuum core that acts as a strange attractor for consciousness and desire. The Thing is surrounded by a horizon of consciousness, an immanent non-Euclidean rim, which yields its multiform topology to the “late Lacan.” We are implicated as subjects and objects in this intensive space of mutual immersion wherein desire is the only real thing. Zizek explores and maps this milieu of libidinal politics, drawing us a series of diagrams of “ideological fantasy.” At the control chamber of bureaucracy, the official Other ruled by knowledge and perversion, its petty heart and massive “mind” (sublime memory), is occupied by a subject-essence, objet a, petite abyss wrapped in fantasy–the image. This substantial core is that “being of semblance,” the human agent, whose only real consistency is jouissance. At the heart of the subject is the “sublime object” sustained–beyond all need–by desire and belief. Our symptom has no image or content except what foolhardiness and creativity provide. For anything new to come into being, it must break the law, but in all innocence. If it aims to violate, it limits itself to transgressing its limits. But whenever the sublime Thing comes for real into the world, it appears necessarily in error and goes against the rules, for with it, the rules change.
There is no beyond aggression. To embody the antagonist oneself is to initiate the movement of creation. So perhaps this is our con-substantial Zizekian illumination: the only Good Thing is the Law (the S1 canceling itself in favor of the void–freedom); but the truly sublime Thing arrives, as Lacan said, “outside the limits of the Law, where alone it can live.” Not the love that binds in unity by exclusion of the limiting exception, but an inconsistent elementary “love without limit,” an ethical, impure desire.
PETER CANNING: The basic question is, what drew you to Lacan? I know that it was Althusser to some degree, but how did Hegel and Lacan come together for you in your personal history?
SLAVOJ ZIZEK: Perhaps the ultimate reason was the specific mapping of intellectual life in Slovenia. In this republic, there were two predominant philosophical approaches: Frankfurt School Marxism and Heideggerianism. Both were unacceptable to us Lacanians, not only generally, but because in Slovenia the Communist Party was intelligent enough to adopt Frankfurt School Marxism as its official ideology. Heideggerianism was from the beginning linked to a right-wing populism, and in other parts of Yugoslavia–of what was once Yugoslavia–to the darkest Stalinist forces. For us Althusser was crucial, is still crucial. But if there is a lesson to be learned from the recent political upheavals in Eastern Europe it’s–I’m more and more pro state. Let’s praise the state highly, to put it simply. I radically disagree with the leftist position that identifies the state apparatus as the source of all evil. If there is something that we are almost physically experiencing in Eastern Europe, it is how all freedoms and I don’t mean freedoms on this abstract ideological level, but very practical, everyday freedoms–imply a functioning state apparatus. This is not a paradoxical new thesis. Etienne Balibar even wrote a nice article, Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa (There is no state in Europe), in which he sees this search for a new nationalism and a kind of inner collapse of state power as strictly correlative phenomena. So this is why Althusser was absolutely crucial for us from the very beginning, this and his whole theory of theoretical state apparatuses, even though in terms of his official ideology he might be on the other side.
In Czechoslovakia the big opposition, for example, was Milan Kundera versus Vaclav Havel. Kundera was perceived as having this cynical anti-state disposition–for him, the privacy that was left you by the communist regime was the basis for opposition. Havel, of course, was the opposite. In one of his most famous stories, he takes a very Althusserian example, that of a small-time boss who owns a little grocery. Privately this character always speaks against the regime, but on the 1st of May he decorates his shop with the communist slogans. To put it in Althusserian terms, he obeys the ritual, the practices. Havel’s whole point was that private disobedience coupled with public obedience is precisely the way the system functioned–that there is not only nothing subversive in this Kundera-like private space, but that the ideal subject of real socialism was precisely the one who did not believe in the system, who had this distance built in. So the truly heroic thing to do was not to tell dirty stories, but to publicly do some small thing that perturbed the ritual.
CANNING: But aren’t you confusing public space with the state? Why do you insist on the state?
ZIZEK: Maybe I am confusing them, but this confusion was written into the way the East European communist state worked; it was literally obsessed with maintaining the public image, with controlling what could be said publicly and what not. This obsession had nothing to do with real state secrets; the supposed “secret” could actually be known to everybody. In my own country, in the northwestern part of Slovenia, there are some very nice mountains. To do proper mountain climbing you need detailed maps. Now under the Yugoslav regime, the maps were a state secret. It was only possible to buy maps that not only were not very detailed, but–this was a very mysterious thing–some roads were changed, some villages were displaced, some sources of water were simply not shown. You would say: Of course, this was simply the communist obsession with secrecy. But this explanation does not work. Why not? Because the borders were absolutely open in Slovenia. What every Slovene mountain climber did was to go 10 miles into Austria, where it was possible to buy accurate maps. Now you will say: Of course, those maps were done with spy satellite& But no. Under international contracts, Yugoslavia had to provide detailed maps to foreign agencies. So this is the mystery: this secrecy was totally nonfunctional. At this ridiculous level, you can see how public space functioned.
I think that it was precisely because of this that the communist regime was so vulnerable. I’m even changing my mind retroactively and beginning, in a way, to appreciate this obsession with public image. The communist idea of public space, distorted as it may seem, is a kind of paradoxical reminder of the Enlightenment project, where privately you can think freely and question all authority, but publicly you have to obey social rituals. The Stalinist show trials are an example of this obsession. What was the point of public confessions? Nobody believed them–everybody knew, let’s not kid ourselves (I mean apart from some naive Western intellectuals). Nobody believed it–so why were they necessary? Again, it was this absolute obsession.
CANNING: Is it the public space, then, or is it the state–isn’t it the so-called big Other?
ZIZEK: Yes, exactly.
CANNING: But then aren’t you making it exist? When you say that it is a field or space or even an agency that must be maintained, which must be there in order to maintain the possibility of freedom….
ZIZEK: Wait a minute. Now there are two issues: one is how the connection between the big Other and public space, the state, functions in communism. But this is another point. I am not saving that precisely this kind of connection must be maintained.
CANNING: But even here in the United States–
ZIZEK: To a far lesser degree here, I think. There is a whole logic of secrets that are known by everybody but still must not be publicly discussed. In Eastern Europe, the moment that they were publicly pronounced, the whole system experienced this as a total catastrophe. Western countries are more cynical in this respect: the pronouncing of something does not have this catastrophic effect. Nobody cares, the whole system goes on. But regarding what I said before, my solution is not a return to the state. Nobody consciously believes in power, but what is necessary for the social system to function is this unconscious belief in the big Other, which sustains power. We only need a couple of ecological catastrophes to understand the utter, absolute impotence of power.
CANNING: But what would be the result of such a catastrophe?
ZIZEK: Ah, this is what I fear; this is the true dilemma. When the big Other in the form of the state collapses, what we will have is a regression (this is not a good term; it’s a naive, pre-Althusserian term) to some kind of far more totalitarian (but, again, this is not the proper word, because totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon), pre-state, communitarian form of the big Other. Or even to what is usually referred to as New Age consciousness. There they try to make the big Other exist, perhaps in the form of natural balance–but it’s always the big Other, precisely in the Lacanian sense of the eternal order that always returns to itself and that we must rejoin. That is to say, the popular perception of the ecological crisis is that the balance of the big Other, defined as a kind of harmony between nature and society, is upset. I think that there you potentially have a far more totalitarian figure of the big Other.
CANNING: What is the role of racism? Or do you think that’s only a contingent factor in the ecological crisis?
ZIZEK: My argument is that this new over-identification with the nation is already a regressive answer to the collapse of the big Other; in other words, that the community toward which this new nationalism spontaneously tends is no longer the modern state as we know it.
CANNING: It’s a kind of organized racism.
ZIZEK: Definitely. And what worries me is that, more and more, and imperceptibly, it’s simply accepted as the field of discussion. For example, it’s recently become clear how, even with the Social Democrats in Germany, the discourse is already ambiguous. On the one hand they say, We of course deplore the violence, but on the other hand they give ground to it by acknowledging the “problem” posed by liberal immigration law. I count at least partially on ecology, because I think that a consequence of ecological problems will be to make these notions of national, ethnic identity ridiculous
CANNING: But you know that Lacan, in his pessimism, predicted that the future is racism.
ZIZEK: Wait a minute. He said that almost 20 years ago.
CANNING: Maybe he was right. Is that why you say that the state has a definite role–that it protects, at least to some degree, against racism? Is this the universalist Hegelian state?
ZIZEK: Definitely. There are a lot of things to be said about it, but, yes. Again I think that we are not spontaneously aware of the degree to which the freedoms of the individual against state power in so-called liberal democracies are, in a way, guaranteed and can exist only against the background of the state. But what I want to point out is the following. When people speak about the Soviet Union, they employ certain abstract notions about a system in collapse, etc. But I’ve talked with a lot of people from the former Soviet Union and, recently, from Serbia, and I think that the political processes at work in these two countries are parallel. To put it very simply, there now exists something that was unthinkable a couple of years ago: a coalition of fascists and communists. This, I think, is what we have to fear in the future. But what struck me was that what these Russians and Serbs feared most was the collapse of the state, of the basic things. I’ll put it very cynically. It’s very easy to be a leftist and to say “Let’s beat the cops,” but what’s going on today in Serbia is the opposite: you walk down the street, somebody beats you and robs you. A policeman stands there watching. You go to him and complain, and he beats you a little bit more.
ZIZEK: Why? Because they are usually corrupt, and they don’t even perceive their own corruption–but that’s my point. The whole idea of an absolute minimum of public order on which you can rely is falling apart in Serbia, and, at a different level, in the ex-Soviet Union. One of the things that struck me in Moscow today is that the locals don’t refer to the different quarters by their old historic names, they identify them by the name of the mafia that occupies them. This is the real power vacuum one should be concerned about, instead of worrying about a power vacuum in the case of Saddam Hussein.
The second point is that this is what is ahead for all of us, even for the so-called developed Western countries. The ridiculous mistake of the Western intellectuals was, first, to mock this Eastern European nationalism as something primitive, something out of the 19th century. Exactly the opposite is true: we in ex-Yugoslavia can proudly say that we are the 21st century, we are literally–with all the cynical irony the statement implies–the most progressive country in the world. We are your future. People laugh at us, but look at what’s happening in Germany, France, etc. Slowly, the nationalist conflicts are spreading.
CANNING: But shouldn’t we all be terrified by such a prospect?
CANNING: Then a conservative or a self-reflectively critical conservative statement would say that capitalism mast maintain the state as a front for dismantling traditional structures, while protecting against reactionary ones.
ZIZEK: Wait a minute: you automatically imply an elementary, Marxist definition of the state as a tool of capitalism. No, I think the role of the state is far more ambiguous today. I’m not saying anything original, I’m only saying, Let’s not repeat the usual mistake of the left. The state should not be simply abandoned to the enemy; rather, it should be made into the terrain where we fight the battle. For example, in Germany, I think it was a stupid mistake of the entire left to leave the issue of reunification to the conservatives, instead of trying to inscribe it in the left’s own political discourse. The case of a unified Europe presents a similar catastrophe. Tragically, the left is against the unification of Europe. I think that, precisely as leftists, we should support it. Why? Here I will repeat a good old fashioned Marxist argument: because European capital is already unified. And it is precisely a unified Europe that would be able, through some kind of social-democratic majority, to ensure, in these times of economic crisis, at least a minimum level of social security. With the unification of Europe you would have a kind of central power able to counteract capitalism.
As I said before, for me, the direct fascist-communist coalition is the mystery of the last years. If you read retroactively, you can see it was in preparation for a long time. People ask, for example, with the Communist Party losing two thirds of its vote in France–in a little over ten years it slipped from 20 percent to around 7 percent–where did the votes go? The answer is: to Le Pen. Don’t misunderstand me; my point is not to repeat that old center-right liberalist shit about totalitarianisms of the left and right mirroring each other. No, it’s more tragic than that: the whole structure of a certain type of European left is extremely traditional, male chauvinist, etc. It’s clear, for example, that the miner’s strike that crippled England eight or nine years ago wasn’t just a question of a thousand jobs, what they were defending was a “way of life,” and an old communitarian feeling. I think it’s the same in France, which is why the French Communist Party is very anti-European. And this is the paradox of the Maastricht referendum in France–the only serious forces opposing it were the Front National of Le Pen, that is to say, the neofascist right, and the communists, the left.
CANNING: So what’s your answer? What is the affinity between communism and fascism? Or are you already explaining that?
ZIZEK: No, no. We are all looking for the answer. I don’t have a good theory. The only proper theory would be–but, again it’s difficult to formulate it without falling into the trap of these old totalitarian theories–to employ the Deleuzian term of reterritorialization. What the communists and the fascists share is a horror of a kind of “democratic” vacuum of power.
The myth that should be dispelled is that East European nationalism constitutes a naive regression to the 19th-century nation-state, that the ones who are taking over are some kind of primitive, lower-class, non-educated people. To the extent that all of these nationalist programs are now realized–in the case of Serbia, for example–they are far from amounting to a spontaneous mass movement. Planned years ago; they are the product of nationalist intellectuals. What we have really witnessed is a true debacle, a total failure of the intellectuals in all these cases. This is a very interesting lesson. Intellectuals always try to play on this split: We don’t really believe in national identity, we must pretend for the sake of the ordinary people, etc. But in this case the ordinary people are purely imaginary points of reference. To use Lacanian jargon: they are subjects supposed to believe. The only ones who really believe in national identity, who constructed and formed this myth, were the intellectuals.
CANNING: Returning to what drew you to Lacan. You know, it wasn’t obvious to Americans or to English-speaking readers that there was a political dimension or value in Lacan. It seems to me that you invented the notion of the ideological fantasy–that in a way, this is your concept.
ZIZEK: Up to a certain point. But you do find it already, at least implicitly, in Alain Grosrichard’s Structure du serail (Structure of the Seraglio).
CANNING: Could you speak about the concept of ideological fantasy and of political desire, of the desire of a political subject, and address how it brings Lacan and Hegel together–how it overcomes or takes a new step beyond Althusserian interpellation and in the direction of some kind of thinking of the Real, of jouissance?
ZIZEK: The question is of such a fundamental nature that I am writing a book to answer it. I can only give you a very general, abstract answer, addressing this move from Althusser to Lacan. Althusser was our origin historically, and we still think that his notion of the ideological state apparatus was extremely useful. Those who really brought down the communists were practical Althusserians. The basic move from Althusser to Lacan can be reduced to two simple observations, I think. First, interpellation ultimately always fails. There is something that resists it. And interpellation fails necessarily, not empirically–that is, it does not sometimes succeed and sometimes fail; rather, failure is inscribed into the very concept. Second, this failure is not something that blocks the normal functioning of ideology, but rather, to use the reversal of Kantian terms already practiced by Derrida, this condition of impossibility is at the same time the condition of its possibility. That is to say, the failure of interpellation is precisely what makes it possible. It is in the place of this failed interpellation that ideological fantasies emerge, to fill out this gap. And for ideology to work, they are a necessary support.
CANNING: How does it fail? Could you just remind us?
ZIZEK: I’m thinking of interpellation in very concrete terms; I can only give you a clinical example, which is nevertheless very useful. This is my formula. What is the place of origin, the original experience, of psychoanalysis? The complaint of the hysteric. And hysteria is precisely resistance to interpellation; that is its whole point. Lacan puts it very nicely when he says,Why am I what you are saying that I am? This is the hysterical question to the master. You are interpellating me into this, but why am I what you are saying that I am? So the hysterical question means the failure of interpellation.
CANNING: It’s: Why am I what you’re telling me? But isn’t it also something else: Make me desire, make me jouir. I mean, aren’t those demands equally fundamental for the hysteric? You can determine my identity, but how do you make me desire? And doesn’t that also lead to the question of the fantasy?
ZIZEK: As Lacan says, this is the paradox of the hysterical position: the hysteric articulates a certain demand, but his true desire is for this demand to be refused. Yes, I would definitely agree that it is precisely in the gaps of the hysterical question that fantasy emerges.
CANNING: To organize desire and jouissance?
ZIZEK: Yes, because, of course, the first point to be noted is that the question “Why am I what you are saying that I am?” implies that I am only what you are saying that I am, that my symbolic identity depends upon the big Other.
CANNING: This is a difficult request, but could you relate desire and jouissance within the theory of the ideological fantasy? You did a beautiful reading of this in the third chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology. Does jouissance have anything to do with this condition of failure? Does desire?
ZIZEK: We have in Lacan two seemingly opposed ethics. One would be the Brechtian ethics of desire versus enjoyment, the idea being, to put it naively, that the ethical ideal of psychoanalysis is pure desire. And for Lacan, pure desire means something very precise–desire purified of all enjoyment. He saw enjoyment as the inert part, identifying with that which is inert; and for Lacan, the enemy is always this kind of overidentification. In early Lacan, for example, you have imaginary identification, and you have to penetrate to the symbolic structure behind it. Even in the Lacan of the late ’50s and early ’60s, where you have fundamental identification with your fantasy, what you have to do is to penetrate, to experience the void behind fantasy. Although there are big shifts, the fundamental move is that of assuming distance, this kind of Brechtian Entfremdung (alienation).
CANNING: Purify your desires.
ZIZEK: Yes, purify your desires, to put it simply. For Lacan, the symptom is understood precisely as the way in which you organize your enjoyment. The symptom means that you betray your desire. So, for Lacan, dissolving symptoms–inert jouissance–is, in this sense, a kind of ethical gesture.
The film Zentropa (1991) is a case in point. If we accept this Lacanian ethics of desire, then the myth of this film can be understood as one of Europe as a kind of inert jouissance, where even the innocent American is swallowed up. The whole narrative is structured by the hypnotic voice of Max von Sydow, by the idea that the moment you touch Europe, you touch some mortal vicious circle of enjoyment. Ultimately, however, I think that the film is far more ambiguous than this may suggest, because what it basically does is to fulfill the program of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, which is to reappropriate the Nazi past as an esthetic experience. I am referring to what Syberberg is doing in his last books, which have caused a great scandal. He first accepts the standard psychoanalytic, even Frankfurt School, accusation that the Germans did not durcharbeiten, did not work through their Nazi past, because they don’t want to renounce it. Because they didn’t do their proper work of mourning, they are still traumatically attached to the past. Now, Syberberg reasons like this: yes, this is true, but the only way to symbolize it at the collective level is through esthetic appropriation. Now comes the dirty part. Who is responsible for it? The Jews. Adorno said that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz; so the Jews, by prohibiting an esthetic relationship with the Nazi past, by painting Nazism as something too horrible, too horrifying, to be appropriated through esthetic experience–the Jews are really to blame. Syberberg literally produces the formula that the real catastrophe is not 1933 but 1945. This gap, this rupture, after which esthetic reappropriation was forbidden–we are all, he literally says this, under this horrible Jewish interdiction; we cannot relate esthetically to our past. For him the only solution is to–
CANNING: Identify with the symptom.
ZIZEK: Yes, precisely; but how? By getting rid of Jewish influence. By throwing out the Jew.
CANNING: You see a parallel between this and Lacan’s theory, to identify with the symptom?
ZIZEK: No, it’s more complicated; I just wanted to use this to elaborate a certain type of ethics for Zentropa. The Europe Zentropa depicts is the immediately post-catastrophic Europe. It is clear that the film also alludes to today’s Europe, the mess of unification. It changes the Nazi experience into a mere part in the larger story of a self-indulgent European decadence. The only thing to do, then, is simply accept the vicious circle of this jouissance. The Lacan of the “ethics of desire” would reject this radically. He would say that this would mean precisely to compromise your desire.
CANNING: It’s a kind of perversion, right? In the sense of the freedom of deciding one’s presuppositions and their retroactive positing; it’s a perverse decision or identification. You’re actually eliminating your desire, identifying with the will. Desire must remain impure, unconscious. That’s the paradox.
ZIZEK: Yes; between the seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959 to 1960 and “Kant avec Sade,” [free online after subscription] of 1962, Lacan shifts to this other logic, which is no longer one of pure desire, where every identification with jouissance means betraying desire. Now it is the opposite: the only authentic thing to do is to identify with your symptom. Desire as such means betraying your symptom, betraying your drive. In other words, the only true desire is the death drive, the death drive precisely as accepting your symptom, circulating around your symptom.
CANNING: Versus the death drive of The Ethics, the “second death,” erasing all memory. But we come to an impasse. Doesn’t this justify Syberberg’s move, saying: We Germans have to identify with our symptom, this is the only way for us. We have to locate failure somewhere, within the symptom, because otherwise–
ZIZEK: At the abstract level it would be very easy to squeeze out of this. The thing to do is simply introduce the distinction between symptom and fantasy. I think that what is at work in Zentropa is not so much symptom as fantasy. When Lacan says to identify with your symptom, he means precisely–
CANNING: The traumatic symptom, but “elaborated,” analyzed.
ZIZEK: The traumatic symptom that is not concealed through the structure of fantasy.
This shift can be detected, for example, in the reading of Antigone in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. For the Lacan of the identification with the symptom, desire as such is a compromise. The logic of desire is that you desire in order to avoid your symptom. In “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious,” 1960, Lacan says as much. It’s the crucial formula of the text, and it’s a radical reversal of what he was saying a few months before. He says desire is a defense against jouissance. He says it literally. It’s not that jouissance is a regression or a kind of coagulation that hinders or blocks the dialectic of desire, it’s that desire as such is a defense against jouissance. I’ll put it this way. What does Antigone do? In The Ethics Antigone is still basically pure desire. By accomplishing the terrible step beyond, into the void, into Ate (divine blindness), she becomes pure desire. But for the later Lacan, she is not desire–she accepts the death drive, understood precisely as the identification with your symptom, opposed to desire.
It’s the ambiguity of the relation to the big Other that is in play here. Why? One way to read Antigone is to see her as suspending the big Other as embodied in social power. On the other hand, she can also be read, and this is how Lacan still reads her in The Ethics, as identifying her desire with the desire of the big Other. What Antigone basically does is to insist upon the ritual. Why does she sacrifice her life? Because she basically says: my desire, my only desire, is that the ritual must be performed. That is to say, the desire of symbolic integration, of the big Other.
Again, I think Lacan himself is deeply ambiguous here. There are four or five features like this, which I have tried to explain in forthcoming articles, For example, who is the objet a in The Ethics? Lacan still claims that, in the perverse scenario, the victim is the objet a. When he speaks of the “between the two deaths,” he uses the miracle of Sadean victims as his example. You can torture them but they always remain beautiful. Then, suddenly, in “Kant avec Sade,” [free online after subscription] it’s the executioner who takes the place of the object. The victim is the S barre, the subject. He totally shifts the formula.
CANNING: Can we say, then, that what he discovered is the impossibility of purification? At some point in this transition, he discovered the impossibility of pure desire, and the only thing, as he says (in Encore,) is to pass through your division into jouissance and become an object. But at that point you merge with the drive.
ZIZEK: I totally agree with your formulation. This is what people usually overlook when they concentrate only on generalities. Lacan discusses this in the mysterious final pages of Amazon, 1964; he says that when you go through fantasy, la traversee du fantasme, you lose desire, you become pure drive. Again, when people talk about the truth of desire, they simply overlook that. In The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan defines the final, concluding moment of analysis as the one when you step out, when you don’t have desire any more, in this sense. You become the being of the drive; you pass from the side of the divided subject to the side of the object. Which is why the analyst is an object in this sense. I also agree with you if your point is that this is in a way extremely close, almost imperceptibly close, to the perverse position. Although the gap is there–absolute but almost imperceptible.
CANNING: It’s interesting that we’ve reached this point, but what is the role of self-consciousness at this divide? Could you say that the analyst sustains something unconscious, whether you call it listening with the third ear, the ear as the receptacle of the unconscious–that the pervert serf-consciously identifies, as you correctly say, not with the symptom but with the fantasy us a program, and thereby fills out the objet a, whereas the Lacanian analyst holds it empty and receptive in some way to the future?
ZIZEK: The parallel is clear. The basic structure of perversion is that you perceive yourself as the instrument of others’ jouissance. This is why, for example, Don Giovanni is a pervert. What is his big trick? His gift is not that he is beautiful, but that he can guess or discern the fantasy of each woman, and he tries to stage that fantasy. Which is why Lacan says une par une–une pour une; for each her own specific fantasy. For the pervert is totally void, he is there only to serve the other, to be the slave of the other’s fantasy. This is very nicely expressed by Lacan: the formula of perversion is the simple reversal of the formula of fantasy. This is precisely what happens in psychoanalysis.
ZIZEK: The psychoanalyst is a passive blank, an empty screen onto which the analysand projects his or her own fantasies. Of course, as we all know, here is where the difference begins: rather than serving the fantasy, the analyst undermines it. But it’s absolutely true that there is a basic homology, which, again, is not sufficiently noted. Now, as to this problem of self-consciousness, I think that here problems begin for Lacan, and we can now approach the second part of your opening question: why Hegel? Unfortunately, Lacan too quickly identifies self-consciousness with self-transparency, and the very condition of the notion of self-consciousness in German Idealism is that you are inaccessible to yourself. It’s a positive ontological condition. To be self-conscious, you must be void, you must not be accessible to yourself as what you are. So we have a certain radical gap defining self-consciousness. The subject of self-consciousness is literally S barre. Lacan’s idea is that self-consciousness is an object. The point is not that you cannot arrive at self-consciousness; you can arrive at self-consciousness, but it is outside of you, external to you as an object. As a symptom, for example. You are always split between what you are as subject–empty and decentered–and the external place where the truth about you is inscribed. The crucial misunderstanding to be dispelled is this quick identification of self-consciousness with self-transparency. The whole point of Lacan, and of Hegel, is that self-consciousness means precisely splitting, means precisely what Lacan means when he says that your desire is always the desire of desire. That is, that you have to choose your desire. This is the reflexivity of self-consciousness; it has nothing to do with consciousness in the sense that you are aware of it. Quite the contrary, self-consciousness means, already in German Idealism, that you are not aware of what is going on within you.
CANNING: So in this sense perversion short-circuits the process, the Bewegung movement and becoming of consciousness.
ZIZEK: That’s the very definition of it.
CANNING: One thing to wrap up the political fantasy question quickly. The political abject implies a collective subject; but how do you move from a psychoanalysis of an individual subject to a collective subject?
ZIZEK: Lacan said that the individual is never individuum, indivisible. The individual is split, and it is this very split that connects him with society. I’ll put it this way: the individual is always already social precisely because he or she is always split. Usually the social connection is considered at the level of identity, not as split. You are social in so far as you identify with certain social values, etc. For Lacan it is the exact opposite. Society is inscribed into you through a cut, not through some kind of identification. How can we be sure that we can speak with the other, how is communication possible? This can be put in interpersonal terms or, more fashionably, in terms of an ethnic community. How can we be sure what a Chinese speaker means? Are we not, each of us, prisoners of our own ethnic, ideological universes? How can we even say that we participate in the same field of meaning?
Lacan’s answer here is paradoxical and deeply Hegelian. The mistake of this solipsistic view, that we can never be sure that we communicate with the other, is that we presuppose that we can communicate with ourselves. Lacan’s answer is that we communicate with the others precisely because we cannot communicate with ourselves, precisely because we are always split. The way we are split connects us with others; we look for the missing part in the other. The other fills our own gap. This also answers the question of how communication is possible. This is the Lacanian wager: is not our culture, the way we structure the symbolic edifice of our culture, only an attempt to come to terms with some kind of traumatic impossibility? If we recognize our culture as an ultimately failed attempt to symbolize some antagonism, some real deadlock, this allows us to read the other’s culture as an attempt to symbolize the same deadlock. What unites cultures is not the neutral, universal set of meanings that Chomskyan linguists are trying to establish; you don’t find it at that level. You find it at the level of an impasse. All cultures are different answers to the same question, arising from the same deadlock; it is precisely the deadlock, the antagonism, that unites us. The problem is to recognize in a foreign culture a different attempt to avoid the same deadlock that we tried to avoid. That we can identify with the other at this point of failure is an almost hysterical paradox. This is the basic Lacanian answer to the question of how can we be sure that we communicate with the other: we don’t communicate with ourselves. The other is already in our own split; because we are split, our discourse is already, as Lacan would say, the discourse of the other.
[Appeared in Artforum, March 1993. Reproduced here in full as currently unavailable.]