The Universal Exception

The Universal Exception
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The big Other between violence and civility

Slavoj Zizek

 

The ‘universal exception’, according to Lacan, is the fundamental feature of the symbolic order (the ‘big Other’) as the order of universality: each universality is grounded in its constitutive exception. This feature is to be supplemented with its no less paradoxical obverse, the so-called ‘not-All [pas tout]’: an order (or rather, a field, a signifying space) with no exception that is eo ipso not-all, and cannot be totalized. These two features – formalized by Lacan in his ‘formulae of sexuation’ – are the two aspects of the inconsistency of the big Other: the symbolic order is by definition antagonistic, thwarted, non-identical-with-itself, marked by a constitutive lack, virtual – or, as Lacan put it, ‘there is no big Other’.

And since the second volume of my selected writings focuses on ethico-political topics, it seemed appropriate to add a new text to the paperback edition that would deploy the different modes in which this inconsistency of the big Other affects the functioning of the symbolic order in the ethico-political sphere: the ironic status of the big Other; the tension in every normative field between its explicit and implicit rules; the key role of civility (rules we are expected to obey without being ordered to do so); the unique figure of an individual who can directly stand in for the big Other; and, last but not least, different strategies for subverting the big Other, of suspending its efficiency.

Orwell’s Lesson

In the introduction to my book on Krysztof Kieslowski, The Fright of Real Tears, I invoked an experience of mine in order to exemplify the sad state of cultural studies today:

Some months before writing this, at an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, and so I engaged in a total bluff, which went something like this: the frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames do not overlap – there is an invisible gap separating the two. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. Are we, today, in our postmodern madness, still able to discern the traces of this gap? Perhaps more than the reading of a painting hinges on it; perhaps the decisive dimension of humanity will be lost when we lose the capacity to discern this gap… To my surprise, this brief intervention was a huge success, and many following participants referred to the dimension in-between-the-two-frames, elevating it into a term. This very success made me sad, really sad. What I encountered here was not only the efficiency of a bluff, but a much more radical apathy at the very heart of today’s cultural studies.19

However, later on in the same book, I reused the example of ‘between-the-two-frames’, but this time without irony, as a straightforward theoretical concept:

One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame there is another, invisible frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, which frames our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap – there is an invisible gap separating them. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dislocation of the two frames, in the gap that separates them.20

What further saddened me is the way that even some of my friends and close readers missed the point: most of those who noticed the repetition read it either as a self-parodying indication of the fact that I don’t take my own theories seriously, or else as a sign of my growing senility (that I simply forgot toward the end of the book that I mocked the same notion in the introduction). It should not have been that difficult to perceive that my gesture here perfectly illustrates the point I repeatedly try to make apropos of today’s predominant attitude of cynicism and of not-taking-oneself-seriously: even if the subject mocks a certain belief, this in no way undermines this belief’s symbolic efficiency – it continues to determine the subject’s activity. When we make fun of an attitude, the truth most often lies in the attitude itself, not in our professed distance toward it: I will mock it in order to conceal from myself the fact that this attitude effectively determines my behaviour. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell identified, with remarkable precision, that our predominant attitude is one of ironic distance toward our true beliefs:

The left-wing opinions of the average ‘intellectual’ are mainly spurious. From pure imitativeness he jeers at things which in fact he believes in. As one example out of many, take the public-school code of honour, with its ‘team spirit’ and ‘Don’t hit a man when he’s down’, and all the rest of that familiar bunkum. Who has not laughed at it? Who, calling himself an ‘intellectual’, would dare not to laugh at it? But it is a bit different when you meet somebody who laughs at it from the outside; just as we spend our lives in abusing England but grow very angry when we hear a foreigner saying exactly the same things … It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your own beliefs really are.21

For Orwell, there is nothing ‘interior’ about this true ideological identity of mine – my innermost beliefs are all ‘out there’, embodied in practices that go right up to the immediate materiality of my body: ‘my notions – notions of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and serious, of ugly and beautiful – are essentially middle-class notions; my taste in books and food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners, my turns of speech, my accent, even the characteristic movements of my body .. .’22 One should definitely add to this list smell: perhaps the key difference between lower class and middle class concerns the way they relate to smell. For the middle class, lower classes smell: their members do not wash regularly – or, to quote the proverbial answer of a middle-class Parisian to the question of why he prefers to ride the first-class cars in the metro: ‘I wouldn’t mind riding with workers in the second class – it is only that they smell!’ This brings us to one of the possible definitions of what ‘neighbour’ means today: a neighbour is the one who, by definition, smells. This is why deodorants and soaps are crucial – they make neighbours at least minimally tolerable: I am ready to love my neighbours … provided they don’t smell too bad. According to a recent report, scientists in a laboratory in Venezuela added a further item to the above series: through genetic manipulation, they have succeeded in growing beans which, when eaten, do not generate bad-smelling and socially embarrassing flatulence! So now, along with decaffeinated coffee, fat-free pastries, diet cola and alcohol-free beer, we get wind-free beans!23 It is at this level that class antagonism is inscribed into our everyday habits. Exemplary here is the ambiguity of the predominant Leftist intellectual attitude toward class distinction – Orwell’s description holds today more than ever:

We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed … Take the question of imperialism, for instance. Every left-wing ‘intellectual’ is, as a matter of course, an anti-imperialist. He claims to be outside the empire-racket as automatically and self-righteously as he claims to be outside the class-racket. Even the right-wing ‘intellectual’, who is definitely not in revolt against British imperialism, pretends to regard it with a sort of amused detachment… The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself. Here am I, a typical member of the middle class. It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions … When I grasp this I grasp that it is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as good a man as I am; if I want real contact with him, I have got to make an effort for which very likely I am unprepared.

Orwell’s point is that radicals invoke the need for revolutionary change as a kind of superstitious token that is intended to achieve the opposite, to prevent that very change from actually occurring – and so today’s academic Leftist who criticizes capitalist cultural imperialism is, in reality, terrified by the prospect that their field of study would break down. There is, however, a limit to this strategy: Orwell’s insight holds only for a certain kind of ‘bourgeois’ Leftist: there are Leftists who do have the courage of their convictions, who do not only want ‘revolution without revolution’, as Robespierre put it – Jacobins and Bolsheviks, among others. The starting point of these true revolutionaries may in fact be the position of the ‘bourgeois’ Leftists. What happens is that, in the middle of their pseudo-radical posturing, they get caught up in their own game and are prepared to call into question their subjective position. It is difficult to imagine a more trenchant political example of the weight of Lacan’s distinction between the ‘subject of the enunciated’ and the ‘subject of the enunciation’: first, in a direct negation, you start by wanting to ‘change the world’ without endangering the subjective position from which you are ready to enforce the change; then, in the ‘negation of negation’, the subject enacting the change is ready to pay the subjective price for it, to change himself, or, to quote Gandhi’s nice formula, to be himself the change he wants to see in the world.

Footnotes

  1. Slavoj Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory, London, British Film Institute, 2001, pp. 5-6. [eds]
  2. Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears, p. 130. [eds]
  3. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1962, pp. 144-5. [eds]
  4. Ibid, p. 141. [eds]
  5. Although, even here, the benevolent welfare state attempts to balance the annoyance of a bad-smelling neighbour with health concerns: a couple of XXX PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION years ago, the Dutch health ministry advised its citizens to break wind at least fifteen times per day, in order to avoid unhealthy tensions and pressures in the body.
  6. Robert B. Pippin, The Ethical Status of Civility' in The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 223-38.
  7. Perhaps this feature accounts for another strange phenomenon: in (almost) all American buildings comprised of more than twelve floors, there is no 'thirteenth' floor (avoiding bad luck, of course); one jumps directly from the 'twelfth' to the 'fourteenth' floor. For a European, such a procedure is meaningless: who are we trying to fool? As if God doesn't know that what we designated as the 'fourteenth' floor is really the 'thirteenth' floor? Americans can play this game precisely because their God is merely a prolongation of our individual egos, not perceived as a true ground of being.
  8. See Lars T. Lih's outstanding 'Introduction' to Stalin's Letters to Molotov: 1925- 1936, ed. Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov and Oleg Khlevniuk, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 60-64.
  9. Lih, 'Introduction', p. 48.
  10. Lih, 'Introduction', p. 48.
  11. A similar case of a person who stands in for the 'big Other' is found in Casino Royale, in the guise of the confused, excessively friendly and comically punctual Swiss banker who organizes the bank transfers for the poker players: toward the end of the film, when, in the lush garden of a Montenegro villa, the recuperating Bond and Vesper Lynd decide to stay together and start to embrace, the Swiss banker enters, embarrassed but intrusive, and, with a stupid smile, asks Bond to type in the password in order to get the money he won - the proverbial Liebesstö.
  12. There are two further 'what ifs' in Brief Encounter. First (in a kind of Roald Dahl style): what if Celia Johnson were all of a sudden to discover that Trevor Howard is a bachelor who concocted the story of his marriage and two children in order to add a melodramatic-tragic flavour to the affair, and to avoid the prospect of long-term commitment? Then (in a Bridges-of-Madison-County style): what if, at the end, Celia Johnson were to discover that her husband knew all along about the ongoing affair and just pretended not to know anything in order to safeguard appearances and not hurt his wife?
  13. Jacques-Alain Miller, 'Profane Illuminations', lacanian ink 28 (2006), pp. 11-12.
  14. Aquinas is citing here the early Christian treatise The Didache. For an English translation, see The Didache in Context, ed. Clayton N. Jefford, Leiden/New York, F.J. Brill, 1995. [eds]
  15. Richard Wagner, Jesus of Nazareth and Other Writings, trans. William Ashton Ellis, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p. 303.
  16. Wagner, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 303-4.
  17. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'Manifesto of the Communist Party', in The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings, Volume 1, ed. David Fernbach, London, Penguin/New Left Review, 1973, pp. 81-3. [eds]
  18. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 283-94. [eds]
  19. Slavoj Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory, London, British Film Institute, 2001, pp. 5-6. [eds]
  20. Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears, p. 130. [eds]
  21. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1962, pp. 144-5. [eds]
  22. Ibid, p. 141. [eds]
  23. Although, even here, the benevolent welfare state attempts to balance the annoyance of a bad-smelling neighbour with health concerns: a couple of XXX PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION years ago, the Dutch health ministry advised its citizens to break wind at least fifteen times per day, in order to avoid unhealthy tensions and pressures in the body.

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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