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.1

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.2

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.3

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 .. .’4 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!5 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.

This substance of our being, which is so difficult to change, is civility. In a scene from the film Break Up, a nervous Vince Vaughn angrily reproaches Jennifer Aniston: ‘You wanted me to wash the dishes, and I’ll wash the dishes – what’s the problem?’ She replies: ‘I don’t want you to wash the dishes – I want you to want to wash the dishes!’ This is the minimal reflexivity of desire, its ‘terrorist’ demand: I want you not only to do what I want, but I want you to do it as if you really want to do it – I want to regulate not only what you do, but also your desires. The worst thing you can do, even worse than not doing what I want you to do, is to do what I want you to do without wanting to do it … The mask of civility is precisely a way of feigning that I want to do what the other asks me to do, so that my compliance with the other’s demand does not exert pressure on him or her.

The Shibboleth of Civility

In a wonderful short essay on civility,6 Robert Pippin elaborates the enigmatic in-between status of this notion which designates all those acts that display the basic subjective stance of respect for others as free and autonomous agents, the benevolent attitude of making the step beyond any strictly utilitarian or ‘rational’ calculation of interpersonal costs and benefits, being willing to engage with others from a position of trust, and so on. Although measured by the degree of its obligatory character, it is more than kindness or generosity (one cannot oblige people to be generous), but distinctly less than a moral or legal obligation. And it is precisely this that is wrong with politically correct attempts to moralize or even directly penalize modes of behaviour which pertain to civility (such as hurting others with the vulgar obscenities of one’s language): they potentially undermine the precious ‘middle ground’ of civility, which mediates between uncontrolled private fantasies and the strictly regulated forms of intersubjective behaviour. In more Hegelian terms, what gets lost in the penalization of un-civility is ‘ethical substance [Sittlichkeit]’ as such: in contrast to laws and explicit normative regulations, civility is by definition ‘substantial’, something experienced as always already given and never imposed as such. This is why civility participates in all the paradoxes of those ‘states-that-are-essentially-by-products’: it, by definition, cannot be purposefully enacted – if it is, we have the right to say that it is a false civility, not a true one. Pippin is therefore correct to link the crucial role of civility in modern societies to the rise of the autonomous free individual – not only in the sense that civility is the practice of treating others as equal, free and autonomous subjects, but, in a much more refined way, the fragile web of civility is the ‘social substance’ of free independent individuals, it is their very mode of (inter) dependence. If this substance disintegrates, then the social space of individual freedom is foreclosed.

The theoretical point of civility is thus that free subjectivity has to be sustained by an act of feigning. However, against our expectations, it is feigning to do freely what one is under pressure or obligation to do (the most elementary form, of course, is the ritual of ‘potlatch’, the exchange of gifts in primitive societies). How, then, does civility relate to the set of unwritten rules which de facto constrain my freedom while sustaining its appearance? Let us imagine a scene in which, in order to be polite and not to humiliate another, I phrase my order (since I am in the position of authority) as a kind request: ‘Would you be so kind as to …’ (Along the same lines, when powerful or famous people receive an insignificant individual, one of the common forms of politeness is to pretend that the individual is doing them a favour by visiting – ‘Thank you for being so kind as to pay me this visit…’) This, however, is not true civility: civility is not an obligation-feigned-as-a-free-act, but rather its exact opposite: a free act feigned as an obligation. Back to our example: the true act of civility from someone in power would have been to feign that he is just fulfilling his obligation, when, in reality, his is an act of generosity.

Freedom is thus sustained by a paradox that inverts the Spinozan definition of freedom as conceived necessity: freedom is feigned necessity. To put it in Hegelian terms, freedom is sustained by the ethical substance of our being. In a given society, certain features, attitudes and mores are no longer perceived as ideological but as ‘neutral’, as a non-ideological or common-sense way of life. Ideology is the explicitly posited (or ‘marked’ in the semiotic sense) position that stands out against this neutral background (like extreme religious zeal, or dedication to some political orientation). The Hegelian point here would have been that it is precisely this neutralization of some features into the spontaneously accepted background which today is ideology at its purest (and its most effective) – this is the dialectical ‘coincidence of the opposites’: the actualization of a notion (ideology, in this case) at its purest coincides with (or, more precisely, appears as) its opposite (as non-ideology). And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for violence: social-symbolic violence appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, the air that we breathe.

One can also deduce the status of habits in a more formal way: every legal order (or every order of explicit normativity) must rely on a complex ‘reflexive’ network of informal rules that tell us how we are to apply its explicit norms: the extent to which we are to take them literally, how and when we are allowed, solicited even, to disregard them – this is the function of habit. To know the habits of a society, therefore, is to know the meta-rules of how to practise its explicit norms: when to apply or not to apply them; when to violate them; when not to take up a choice when offered; when we are implicitly obliged to do something but must pretend we are doing it freely. Recall the notorious offer-meant-to-be-refused: it is a ‘habit’ to refuse such an offer, and anyone who naively accepts it commits an unforgivable blunder. The same goes for those political situations in which a free choice is given with the proviso that we make the right choice: we are solemnly reminded that we can refuse, but we are expected to reject the offer and enthusiastically say ‘Yes’. With many sexual prohibitions, the rules are the opposite: the explicit ‘No’ acts like an implicit injunction, ‘Yes, do it – but in a discreet way!’

One of the more conspicuous strategies of ‘totalitarian’ regimes was to have criminal laws so severe that, if taken literally, everyone would be guilty of something, but then to hold back from their full enforcement. In this way, the regime could appear merciful (‘You see, if we wanted, we could have all of you arrested and condemned, but don’t be afraid, we will be lenient…’) and, at the same time, wield a permanent threat over its subjects (‘Do not play too much with us, remember that at any moment we can …’). In the former Yugoslavia, there was the infamous Article 133 of the penal code which could always be invoked to prosecute writers and journalists – it declared criminal any text that falsely presented the achievements of the socialist revolution or that could arouse tension and discontent among the public for the way it dealt with political, social, or other issues. This last category, obviously, was not only infinitely plastic but also conveniently self-relating: does not the very fact that you are accused by those in power confirm the fact that you ‘aroused tension and discontent among the public’? In those years, I remember asking a Slovene politician how did he justify this article; he just smiled and, with a wink, told me: ‘Well, we have to have some way of disciplining those who irritate us at our disposal/ This overlapping of potential total culpability (whatever you are doing may be a crime) and mercy (the fact that you are allowed to lead your life in peace is not a proof or consequence of your innocence, but of the mercy and benevolence of those in power) is a fundamental trait of totalitarian regimes, rendering them, by definition, as benevolent regimes that mercifully tolerate violations of the law.

The problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years under Yeltsin was precisely at this level: although the official laws were known (and largely the same as under the Soviet Union), what disintegrated was the complex network of implicit unwritten rules that sustained the entire social edifice. For example, if, in the Soviet Union, you wanted to get better hospital treatment, a new apartment, if you had some complaint against the authorities, if you were summoned to court, if you wanted your child to be admitted into a top school, if a factory manager needed raw materials delivered on time by the state contractors, everyone knew what you had to do, whom you had to bribe, what you could and couldn’t do. After the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of the daily existence of ordinary people was that these unwritten rules themselves got blurred: people simply did not now know what to do. (One of the functions of organized crime was to provide a kind of ersatz legality: if you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia-protector who dealt with the problem because the state legal system was so inefficient). The stabilization under Putin amounts to the newly established transparency of these unwritten rules: now, once again, people mostly know what to do within the complex cobweb of social interactions.

This is also why at the most elementary level of symbolic exchange are the so-called ’empty gestures’ – those offers made or meant to be rejected. It was Brecht who gave a poignant expression to this feature in his learning plays, particularly in Jasager, in which a young boy is asked freely to accept what will in any case be his fate (to be thrown into the valley); as his teacher explains it to him, it is customary to ask the victim if he agrees with his fate, but it is also customary for the victim to say ‘Yes’. Belonging to society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered to embrace freely, as the result of our choice, what is imposed on us anyway (we all must love our country, our parents and so on). This paradox of choosing freely what is already necessary, of pretending (or maintaining the appearance) that there is a free choice, while effectively there is not, is a strict correlate of the notion of an empty symbolic gesture, a gesture that is meant to be rejected.

And is not a similar process at the heart of our everyday norms? In Japan, workers have the right to 40 days of leave each year – but they are expected not to take advantage of it. In John living’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, after Owen, as a child, accidentally kills the mother of his best friend (John), he is, of course, terribly upset. To show how sorry he is, he discreetly delivers to John a gift of a complete collection of baseball cards, his most precious possession. However, Dan, John’s delicate stepfather, tells him that the proper thing to do is to return the gift. Let us imagine a more down-to-earth situation: when, after being engaged in fierce competition for a promotion with my closest friend, I am successful, the proper thing to do is to offer to withdraw so that he gets the promotion, and the proper thing for my friend to do is to reject my offer – only in this way, perhaps, can our friendship be saved. What we have here is symbolic exchange at its purest: a gesture that is made to be rejected. The magic of symbolic exchange is that, although we end up back where we started, there is a palpable gain for both parties in their pact of solidarity. A similar logic is at work in the process of apologizing: if I hurt someone with a rude comment, the proper thing for me to do is to offer a sincere apology, and the proper thing for them to do is to say something like, ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, but I wasn’t offended. I knew you didn’t mean it…’ The point, of course, is that the declaration that no apology was needed can only be made after one has already apologized.

In politics proper, suffice it to recall the relationship between the great Western powers and Russia throughout the 1990s: in accordance with the silent pact regulating this relationship, Western states must treat Russia as a world power on condition that Russia doesn’t act like one. In principle, it is possible for Russia effectively to behave as a world power, but if Russia wishes to retain its symbolic status as a world power, this possibility must not be taken advantage of.

The problem, of course, is this: what if the person to whom the offer is made actually accepts it? What if, upon being beaten in the competition for a promotion, I accept my friend’s offer to take the promotion in his place? What if Russia really had behaved like a world power? This sort of situation is catastrophic: it causes the disintegration of the semblance (of freedom) that pertains to social order, which constitutes the dissolution of social substance itself. In this precise sense, those revolutionary-egalitarian figures, from Robespierre to John Brown, were (potentially, at least) figures without habits: they refused to take into account the habits that qualify the functioning of a universal rule. If all humans are equal, then all humans are to be treated as such; if blacks are also human, they should be immediately treated as such.

In another instance, during the early 1980s, a dissident student weekly newspaper in the former Yugoslavia wanted to protest against the so-called ‘free’ state elections. Fully aware of the limitations of the slogan, ‘speak truth to power’ (as Moustapha Safouan wrote, ‘the trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and that the people already know the truth as they make clear in their jokes’), rather than directly denouncing the elections as fixed, they decided to report them as if they really were free, as if their results really were uncertain. So, on the eve of the elections, they printed an extra edition of the newspaper with a large headline: ‘Latest election results: it looks like the Communists will remain in power!’ This simple intervention contravened the unwritten ‘habit’ (we all knew the elections weren’t free, we just couldn’t talk publicly about it): by treating the elections as free, it reminded the people of their non-freedom.

In the second season of Nip-Tuck, Sean learns that the real father of his adolescent son, Matt, is Christian, his partner. His first reaction is an angry outburst; then, in the aftermath of a failed operation to separate Siamese twins, he accepts Chris as a partner once again, with a moving speech around the operating table: ‘I will never forgive you for what you did. But Matt is too precious, the best result of our partnership, so we should not lose this …’ This resolution was obvious, too obvious – a much more elegant solution would have been for Sean simply to say: ‘I will never forgive you for what you did’. The subjective position of this statement is already one of acceptance. The problem is that Sean says too much – so why does he go on? This is the interesting question. Is the American public that stupid? No. Why, then, this excess? What if a bald sign of true acceptance would already have been too much, too intense? Perhaps, since Nip-Tuck is an American series, this excess can be accounted for in terms of another difference between Europe and the USA. In Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as ‘0’, and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’. In the USA, the ‘first floor’ is on the street level. In short, Americans start to count at ‘1’, while Europeans know that ‘1’ is already a stand-in for ‘0’. Or, to put it in more historical terms, Europeans are aware that, before one begins counting, there must be a ‘ground’ of tradition, which is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While in the USA – a land with no pre-modern historical tradition proper, and thus lacking such a ‘ground’ – things begin directly with self-legislated freedom, and the past is erased (or transposed on to Europe).7 This lack of ground thus has to be supplemented by excessive speech: Sean cannot rely on the symbolic ground that would guarantee that Christian will get the message without explicitly stating it.

This also indicates how one should respond to the popular and seemingly convincing reply to all those worrying about the torture of prisoners suspected of terrorist acts: ‘What’s all the fuss about? The Americans are now openly admitting what they and other states were doing all along!’ One should respond with a simple counter-question: ‘If the representatives of the US government are only meaning this, then why are they telling us this now? Why didn’t they just silently continue what they were doing before?’ The proper dimension of human speech is the irreducible gap between the enunciated content and its act of enunciation: ‘You tell me this, but why are you saying it openly now?’ Let us imagine a wife and husband who coexist with a tacit agreement that they can carry on discreet extra-marital affairs. If, however, all of a sudden the husband openly tells his wife about an ongoing affair, she will have good reasons to panic: ‘If it is just an affair, why are you telling me this? It must be something more!’ The act of publicly reporting something is never neutral – it affects the reported content itself. The same goes for the recent open admission of torture: when we hear people like Dick Cheney making their obscene statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask them: ‘If you just wanted secretly to torture some suspected terrorists, then why are you saying it publicly?’ That is to say, what additional content is there in this statement that made the speaker enunciate it? The status of such sub- or meta-rules telling us how to deal with the explicit laws that regulate society is that of a shibboleth: the unannounced sign of some distinction known only to those who are already ‘in’, a sign whose very existence is invisible to those who are outside. This is why the first rule of egalitarian-emancipatory politics is, ‘No shibboleths, please!’

Habits are thus the very stuff our identities are made of: in them, we enact and thus define what we effectively are as social beings, often in contrast with our perception of what we are – in their very transparency, they are the medium of social violence. We reach thereby the ‘heart of darkness’ of habits. Recall numerous cases of paedophilia that shatter the Catholic Church: when its representatives insist that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal problem, and display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation, they are, in a way, right – the paedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that concerns merely those persons who, because of accidental reasons of private history with no relation to the Church as an institution, happened to choose the profession of a priest; it is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as such, that is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution. It does not concern the ‘private’ unconscious of individuals, but the ‘unconscious’ of the institution itself: it is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a ‘straight’ (not paedophiliac) priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional Unconscious designates the obscene disavowed underside that, precisely as disavowed, sustains the public institution. (In the army, this underside consists of the obscene sexualized rituals of fragging, etc., that sustain group solidarity.) In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up these embarrassing paedophilic scandals; in defending itself, the Church defends its innermost obscene secret. What this means is that identifying oneself with this secret side is a key constituent of the very identity of a Christian priest: if a priest seriously (not just rhetorically) denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community, he is no longer ‘one of us’ (in exactly the same way that a citizen of a town in the American South in the 1920s, if they denounced the Ku Klux Klan to the police, excluded themselves from their community, i.e., betrayed its fundamental solidarity). Consequently, the answer to the Church’s reluctance should be not only that we are dealing with criminal cases and that, if the Church does not participate fully in their investigation, it is an accomplice after the fact; the Church as such, as an institution, should be investigated with regard to the way it systematically creates conditions for such crimes.

Save the appearances!

It may sound strange to characterize Stalinism as a regime of extreme civility, but, in a sense, this is precisely what it was. In what sense? The standard condemnation of Stalin is comprised of two propositions: (1) he was a cynic who knew very well how things were (for instance, that the accused at the show trials were really innocent); and (2) he knew exactly what he was doing (he had complete control over events). But documents from the recently accessible Kremlin archives point to a rather opposite view: Stalin essentially did believe (in the official ideology, in his role as an honest leader, in the guilt of the accused and so on), and he did not in actuality control events (the results of his own actions frequently shocked him).8 Lars T. Lih has proposed a distressing conclusion: ‘The people of the Soviet Union would probably have been better off if Stalin had been more cynical than he was.’9 There is, however, a different way of reading Stalin’s ‘belief: it was not that he ‘personally’ believed, but he wanted the big Other to believe. Lih himself points in this direction when he condones Robert Tucker’s amazement at

how much pain and suffering went into the mass production of confessions during 1937. These confessions served no earthly purpose; they were promptly filed away and forgotten. Tucker speculates that Stalin insisted on these confessions as proof to posterity that his vision of a world filled with enemies was basically correct.10

What if, however, we take the statement that the extorted confessions ‘served no earthly purpose’ more literally: they were ‘filed away and forgotten’ because their actual addressee was not the people who were to come but the virtual ‘big Other’ – the same big Other that can only account for the well-known incident concerning the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which occurred in 1954, immediately after the fall of Beria. When Soviet subscribers received the volume of the Encyclopaedia that contained entries under the letter ‘B’, there was, of course, a double-page article on Beria, praising him as the great hero of the Soviet Union. But after his fall and denunciation as a traitor, all subscribers received a letter from the publishing house requesting that they cut out and return the page on Beria, in exchange for which they were sent a double-page entry (with photos) on the Bering pass, so that, when they inserted it into the volume, its wholeness was re-established and there was no blank to bear witness to this sudden rewriting of history. The mystery here is: for whom was this (semblance of) wholeness maintained, if every subscriber knew about the manipulation (since he had to perform it themselves)! The only answer is, of course: it was for the innocent gaze of the big Other. This is why the structure of Stalinism is inherently theological, and why Stalinism so desperately sought to maintain appearances. This solution to the enigma also allows us to reject the dilemma over whether ‘Stalin was a believer or a cynic’. He was both at the same time. Personally, of course, he was often aware of the falsity of the official discourse, but he was simultaneously quite sincere in his effort to safeguard the innocence and sincerity of the ‘big Other’.

This brings us to the paradoxical figure of an individual who stands for the big Other. One should not think primarily of those leader-figures who directly embody their community (the king, president or master), but rather of the more mysterious figures of the protectors of appearances – such as a child whose otherwise corrupt parents and relatives try desperately to keep him ignorant of their depraved lives, or the leader for whom Potemkin’s villages are raised.

Today, it seems that appearances no longer need to be protected. We all know of the innocent child from Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, who publicly proclaims the fact that the emperor is naked. Today, in our cynical era, such a strategy no longer works, it has lost its disruptive power, since everyone constantly states that the emperor is naked (that Western democracies are torturing terrorist suspects, that wars are fought for profit and so on) but nothing happens, and the system just goes on functioning.

When the lovers meet for the last time at the abandoned train station in David Lean’s Brief Encounter, their solitude is immediately disturbed by Celia Johnson’s noisy and inquisitive friend who, unaware of the underlying tension between the couple, goes on prattling about ridiculously insignificant everyday incidents. Unable directly to communicate, the couple can only desperately stare straight ahead. This common prattler is the ‘big Other’ at its purest: while it appears to be an accidental unfortunate intruder, its role is structurally necessary.11 When, toward the film’s end, we see this scene for the second time, accompanied now by Celia Johnson’s voice-over, she tells us that she did not listen to what her friend was saying, not understanding even a word of it – however, precisely as such, this prattling provided the necessary background, a kind of safety-cushion, to the lovers’ last meeting, preventing its self-destructive explosion or, even worse, its turn into banality: the insignificant prattling had to go on in order to prevent catastrophe, so the intruding friend arrived at exactly the right moment. That is to say, on the one hand, it is this very presence of the naive prattler who ‘understands nothing’ of the true tension of the situation that enables the lovers to maintain a minimum of control over their predicament, since they feel compelled to ‘maintain the proper appearances’ in front of this gaze. On the other hand, one should recall that, in the few words the lovers manage to exchange privately prior to their interruption, they are confronted by an unpleasant question: if they really love each other so passionately that they cannot live without each other, why don’t they simply divorce their spouses? The prattler arrives just in time, enabling the lovers to maintain the tragic grandeur of their predicament – without this third intruder, they would have to confront the banality and compromised nature of their predicament. The shift to be made in a properly dialectical analysis is thus from the condition of impossibility to the condition of possibility: what appears initially as the ‘condition of impossibility’, as an obstacle, becomes the enabling condition of what then transpires.12

When a person is experiencing some traumatic shock, possessed by the wish to disappear, to fall into the void, a superficial external intrusion – such as the incessant prattle of a bystander – is the only thing that stands between them and the abyss of self-destruction: what appears as a ridiculous intrusion is, in fact, the means of saving their life. So when, alone with her companion in a carriage compartment, Celia Johnson complains about the inane prattle and even expresses the desire to kill the intruder (‘I wish you would stop talking … I wish you were dead now … no, that was silly and unkind … but I wish you would stop talking’), we can well imagine what would have happened if the intruder were actually to stop talking: either Celia Johnson would immediately have collapsed, or she would be compelled to utter a humiliating plea: ‘Please, just go on talking, no matter what you are saying/ Is this unfortunate intruder not a kind of envoy of (a stand-in for) the absent husband, his representative (in the sense of Lacan’s paradoxical statement that woman is one of the Names-of-the-Father)? She intervenes at just the right moment to prevent the drift into self-annihilation (as in the famous scene in Vertigo when the phone rings, thus arresting the dangerous drift of Scottie and Madeleine into too erotic an encounter). The husband and the prattler are effectively two aspects of one and the same entity, the ‘big Other’, the addressee of Celia Johnson’s confession. The husband is the ideal confessor, dependable, open, understanding, but the one who should not know about what is to be confessed and thus cannot be told the truth – he should be protected from the truth, he is the subject supposed not to know: ‘Dear Fred. There’s so much that I want to say to you. You’re the only one in the world with the wisdom and gentleness to understand it … As it is, you are the only one in the world that I can never tell. Never, never … I don’t want you to be hurt.’ The prattler as the unreliable gossiping acquaintance is the wrong person at the right time and place: Celia Johnson wants to confess to her, but cannot: ‘I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise, kind friend instead of a gossiping acquaintance I’ve known casually for years and never particularly cared for.’

The ‘big Other’ between the Two Frames

This brings us to our final question: how are we to disturb the ‘big Other’ qua the order of appearances? A direct step outside, a brutal violation of the order of appearances, is not enough: it ruins the appearance without undermining it from within. There is, however, another way to be found – among others – in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of appearances.

In pre-digital times, when I was in my teens, I remember seeing a bad copy of Vertigo – its last seconds were simply missing, so that the movie appeared to have a happy ending: Scottie reconciled with Judy, forgiving her and accepting her as a partner, the two of them passionately embracing. My point is that such an ending is not as artificial as it may seem: it is rather in the actual ending that the sudden appearance of the Mother Superior from the staircase below functions as a kind of negative deus ex machina, a sudden intrusion in no way properly grounded in the narrative logic, which prevents the happy ending. From where does the nun appear? From the same pre-ontological realm of shadows from which Scottie himself secretly observes Madeleine in the florist. And it is here that we should locate the hidden continuity between Vertigo and Psycho: the Mother Superior appears out of the same void from which, ‘out of nowhere’, Norman appears in the shower murder sequence of Psycho, brutally attacking Marion, interrupting the reconciliatory ritual of cleansing.

And we should follow this trajectory to its end: in an unexpected structural homology with the between-two-frames dimension of a painting, many of Hitchcock’s films seem to rely on a between-two-stories dimension. What if Vertigo were to end after Madeleine’s suicide, with the devastated Scottie listening to Mozart in the sanatorium? What if Psycho were to end moments before the murder in the shower, with Marion staring into the falling water, purifying herself? In each case, we would get a consistent short film. In the case of Vertigo, it would be a drama of the destruction caused by violent-obsessive male desire: it is the very excessive nature of male desire that makes it destroy or mortify its object – (male) love is murder, as Otto Weininger knew long ago. In the case of Psycho, it would be a morality tale about a catastrophe prevented at the last minute: Marion commits a minor crime, escaping with the stolen money to rejoin her lover; on the way, she meets Norman who is like a figure of moral warning, rendering visible to Marion what awaits her at the end of the line if she follows the path taken; this terrifying vision sobers her, and she withdraws to her room, plans her return and then takes a shower, as if to cleanse herself of moral dirt. In both cases, it is thus as if what we are at first lured into taking as the full story is all of a sudden displaced, re-framed, transposed into another story – something along the lines of the idea envisaged by Borges in the opening story of his Ficciones, which culminates in the claim: ‘Un libro que no encierra su contra-libro es considerado incomplete [A book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete]’. In his 2005-2006 seminar, Jacques-Alain Miller elaborated this idea, with reference to the Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia. As an example of Borges’ claim, Miller refers to Piglia’s reading of a tale by Chekhov, whose nucleus is distilled as: ‘A man goes to the casino at Monte Carlo, wins a million, returns to his place and commits suicide’:

If this is the nucleus of a story, one must, in order to tell it, divide the twisted story in two: on the one hand, the story of the game; on the other, that of the suicide. Thus Piglia’s first thesis: that a story always has a double characteristic and always tells two stories at die same time, which provides the opportunity to distinguish the story which is on the first plane from the number 2 story which is encoded in the interstices of story number 1. We should note that story number 2 only appears when the story is concluded, and it has the effect of surprise. What joins these two stories is that the elements, the events, are inscribed in two narrative registers which are at the same time distinct, simultaneous and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories. The inversions which seem superfluous in the development of story number 1 become, on the contrary, essential in the plot of story number 2 …

There is a modern form of the story which transforms this structure by omitting the surprise finale without closing the structure of the story, which leaves a trace of a narrative, and the tension of the two stories is never resolved. This is what one considers as being properly modern: the subtraction of the final anchoring point which allows the two stories to continue in an unresolved tension.

This is the case, says Piglia, with Hemingway, who pushed the ellipse to its highest point in such a way that the secret story remains hermetic. One perceives simply that there is another story which needs to be told, but which remains absent. There is a hole. If one modified Chekhov’s note in Hemingway’s style, it would not narrate the suicide, but rather the text would be assembled in such a way that one might think that the reader already knew it.

Kafka constitutes another of these variants. He narrates very simply, in his novels, the most secret story, a secret story which appears on the first plane, told as if coming from itself, and he encodes the story which should be visible but which becomes, on the contrary, enigmatic and hidden.13

Back to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, is this not precisely the structure of the narrative twist/cut in both films? In each case, story number 2 (the shift to Judy and to Norman) only appears when the story appears to conclude and comes as something of a surprise; in each case, the two narrative registers are at once ‘distinct, simultaneous and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories’. The inversions which seem accidental to the plot of story number 1 (like the totally contingent intrusion of the murderous monster in Psycho) become essential to the plot of story number 2.

One can thus well imagine, along these lines, Psycho remade by Hemingway or Kafka. In Hemingway’s version, Norman’s story would remain hermetic: the spectator would simply perceive that there is another (Norman’s) story which needs to be told, but which remains absent – there is a hole. In Kafka’s version, Norman’s story would appear in the first plane, told as if coming from itself: Norman’s weird universe would have been narrated directly, in the first person, as something normal, while Marion’s story would have been encoded/enframed within Norman’s horizon, told as enigmatic and hidden.

This is how, from a proper Hegelian-Lacanian perspective, one should subvert the standard self-enclosed linear narrative: not by means of a postmodern dispersal into a multitude of local narratives, but by means of its redoubling in a hidden counter-narrative. (This is why the classic detective ‘whodunit’ is so similar to the psychoanalytic process: in it, also, the two narrative registers – the visible story of the discovery of crime and its investigation by the detective, and the hidden story of what really happened – are ‘at the same time distinct, simultaneous and antagonistic, and the construction itself of the story is supported by the junction between the two stories’.)

Christ’s Supplement

The same logic of a hidden counter-narrative is at work in Christianity: insofar as this Book-to-be-supplemented is ultimately the Old Testament, is the counter-Book not simply the New Testament itself? This would be the way to account for the strange coexistence of both sacred books in Christianity: the Old Testament, the Book shared by all three ‘religions of the book’, and the New Testament, the counter-Book that defines Christianity and (from within its perspective, of course) completes the Book, so that we can effectively say that ‘the construction itself of the Bible is supported by the junction between the two Testaments …’ This ambiguous supplement-completion is best encapsulated in Jesus’ famous radicalization of the commandments (Matthew 5.17-48) – for example (quoting from the NRSV):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished … You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment’. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The official Catholic interpretation of this series of supplements is the so-called ‘double standard view’, which divides these teachings of Jesus into general precepts and specific counsels: obedience to the general precepts is essential for salvation, but obedience to the counsels is necessary only for perfection; or, as Aquinas put it: Tor if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able.’14 Martin Luther notoriously rejected this Catholic stance and proposed a different two-level system, the so-called ‘two realms view’, which divides the world into the religious and secular realms, claiming that these teachings apply only to the spiritual: in the temporal world, obligations to family, employers, and country force believers to compromise; thus a judge should follow his secular obligations in sentencing a criminal, but, inwardly, should mourn for the fate of the criminal.

Clearly, both of these versions resolve the tension between Jesus’ teachings and the Law by introducing a split between the two domains and restricting the more severe injunctions to the second. Predictably, in the case of Catholicism, this split is externalized into two kinds of people, the ordinary and the perfect (saints, monks, nuns); while in Protestantism, it is internalized as the split between the way I interact with others in the secular sphere and the way I inwardly regard others. Are these, however, the only options? A (perhaps surprising) reference to Richard Wagner might be of some help here: specifically, to his draft of the play Jesus of Nazareth, written somewhere between late 1848 and early 1849. Together with the libretto, The Saracen Woman (written in 1843, between The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser), these two drafts are key elements in Wagner’s development: each of them indicates a path that might have been taken, but was abandoned; in other words, it points toward the ‘what-if’ scenario of an alternate Wagner, and thus reminds us of the open character of history. The Saracen Woman is, after Wagner found his voice in the Dutchman, the last counter-offensive of the Grand Opera, a repetition of Rienzi – if Wagner had been able to set the play to music, and if the opera had become a triumph like Rienzi, it is possible that Wagner would have succumbed to this last Meyerbeerian temptation and would have developed into an entirely different composer. Similarly, a couple of years later, after Wagner exhausted his potential for romantic operas with Lohengrin and was searching for a new way, Jesus of Nazareth again represented a path which was completely different from that of the music-dramas and their ‘pagan’ universe – Jesus of Nazareth is something like Parsifal written directly, without the long detour through the Ring. There, Wagner attributes to Jesus a series of alternate supplements to the commandments:

The commandment saith: Thou shalt not commit adultery! But I say unto you: Ye shall not marry without love. A marriage without love is broken as soon as entered into, and who so hath wooed without love, already hath broken the wedding. If ye follow my commandment, how can ye ever break it, since it bids you to do what your own heart and soul desire? – But where ye marry without love, ye bind yourselves at variance with God’s love, and in your wedding ye sin against God; and this sin avengeth itself by your striving next against the law of man, in that ye break the marriage-vow.15

The shift away from Jesus’ actual words is crucial here: Jesus ‘internalizes’ the prohibition, rendering it much more severe (the Law says no actual adultery, while Jesus says that if you only covet the other’s wife in your mind, it is the same as if you already had committed adultery); Wagner also internalizes it, but in a different way – the inner dimension he evokes is not that of one’s intention, but that of the love that should accompany the Law (marriage). The true adultery is not to copulate outside of marriage, but to copulate within marriage but without love: simple adultery merely violates the Law from outside, while marriage without love destroys it from within, turning the letter of the Law against its spirit. So, to paraphrase Brecht yet again: what is simple adultery compared to (the adultery that is a loveless) marriage! It is not by chance that Wagner’s underlying formula, ‘marriage is adultery’, recalls Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ – amid the stormy events of 1848, Wagner was not only a Feuerbachian celebrating sexual love, but also a Proudhonian revolutionary demanding the abolition of private property; so no wonder that, later on the same page, Wagner attributes to Jesus a Proudhonian supplement to ‘Thou shalt not steal!’:

This also is a good law: Thou shalt not steal, nor covet another man’s goods. Who goeth against it, sinneth: but I preserve you from that sin, inasmuch as I teach you: Love thy neighbour as thyself; which also meaneth: Lay not up for thyself treasures, whereby thou stealest from thy neighbour and makest him to starve: for when thou hast thy goods safeguarded by the law of man, thou provokest thy neighbour to sin against the law.16

This is how the Christian ‘supplement’ of the Book should be conceptualized: as a properly Hegelian ‘negation of negation’, which resides in the decisive shift from the distortion of a notion to a distortion constitutive of this notion – to this notion as a distortion-in-itself. Recall once again Proudhon’s old dialectical motto, ‘property is theft’: the ‘negation of negation’ is here the shift from theft as a distortion (or violation) of property to the dimension of theft inscribed into the very notion of property (nobody has the right fully to own the means of production; human nature is inherently collective, so every claim that ‘this is mine’ is illegitimate). The same goes for crime and Law: the passage from crime as a distortion (negation) of the Law to crime as sustaining Law itself – that is, to the idea of the Law itself as universalized crime. One should note that, in this notion of the ‘negation of negation’, the encompassing unity of the two opposed terms is the lowest, ‘transgressive’ one: it is not crime which is a moment of Law’s self-mediation (or theft which is a moment of property’s self-mediation); the opposition of crime and Law is inherent to crime, and Law is thus a subspecies of crime, crime’s self-relating negation (in the same way that property is theft’s self-relating negation). And, ultimately, does the same not apply to nature itself? Here, the ‘negation of negation’ is the shift from the idea that we are violating some natural balanced order to the idea that imposing on the Real such a notion of order is itself the greatest violation – which is why the premise, the first axiom even, of every radical ecology must be ‘there is no Nature’.

These lines cannot but evoke the famous passages from The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels respond to the bourgeois reproach that Communists wanted to abolish freedom, private property and the family: it is capitalist freedom itself which effectively is the freedom to buy and sell on the market and thus the very form of un-freedom for those who have nothing but their own labour to sell; it is capitalist property itself which represents the ‘abolition’ of property for those that own no means of production; it is bourgeois marriage itself which is universalized prostitution.17 In each of these cases, the external opposition is internalized, so that one opposite becomes the form of appearance of the other (for example, bourgeois freedom is the form of appearance of the un-freedom of the majority). However, for Marx, at least in the case of freedom, this means that Communism will not abolish freedom but, by way of abolishing capitalist servitude, bring about actual freedom, which will no longer be the form of appearance of its opposite. It is thus not freedom as such that appears in the form of its opposite, but only false freedom, freedom distorted by the relations of domination. But is there not the danger that, underlying this ‘negation of negation’, a Habermasian ‘normative’ approach might immediately impose itself: how can we speak of crime if there is no prior notion of legal order violated by the criminal transgression? In other words, is the notion of Law as universalized crime not self-destructive? This, precisely, is what a properly dialectical approach rejects: before transgression, before good and evil, there is just the neutral, undifferentiated state of things; but when the balance of this state of things is disrupted, the positive norm (whether Law or property) arises as a secondary condition, an attempt to counteract and contain the transgression. With regard to the dialectic of freedom, this means that it is the very ‘false’, alienated, bourgeois freedom which creates the condition and opens up the space for ‘actual’ freedom.

This logic is also at work in Wagner, exemplarily in Parsifal, whose final message is a profoundly Hegelian one: ‘The wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it [Die Wunde schliesst der Speer nür der Sie schlug].’ Hegel makes the same point, but with the accent on the opposite direction: the Spirit is itself the wound it tries to heal. That is to say, ‘Spirit’, at its most elementary, is the ‘wound’ of nature: the subject is the immense – absolute – power of negativity, the introduction of a gap or cut into immediate substantial unity, the power of differentiation, of ‘abstraction’, of tearing apart and treating as self-standing that which, in reality, is part of an organic whole. This is why the notion of the ‘self-alienation’ of Spirit (of Spirit losing itself in its otherness, in its objectivization) is more paradoxical than it may appear: it should be read together with Hegel’s assertion of the thoroughly non-substantial character of Spirit: there is no res cogitans, no Thing which also (as its property) thinks; Spirit is nothing but the process of overcoming natural immediacy, of the cultivation of this immediacy, of withdrawing-into-itself or ‘taking off from it, of – why not – alienating itself from it.18 The paradox is thus that there is no Self that precedes the Spirit’s ‘self-alienation’: the very process of alienation generates the ‘Self from which Spirit is alienated and to which it then returns. (Hegel here inverts the standard notion that a failed version of X presupposes this X as its norm or measure: rather, for Hegel, X is created, its space is outlined, only through those repeated failures to achieve it.) Spirit’s self-alienation is the same as its alienation from its Other (nature), because it constitutes itself through its ‘return-to-itself from its immersion in the objectivity of the Other. In other words, Spirit’s return-to-itself creates the very dimension to which it returns. This means that the ‘negation of negation’, the ‘return-to-oneself from alienation, does not occur where it seems to: in the ‘negation of negation’, Spirit’s negativity is not relativized, subsumed under an encompassing positivity; it is, on the contrary, the ‘simple negation’ which remains attached to the presupposed positivity it negated, the presupposed Otherness from which it alienates itself. The ‘negation of negation’ is thus nothing but the negation of the substantial character of this Otherness itself, the full acceptance of the abyss of Spirit’s self-relating which retroactively posits its presuppositions. In other words, once we are within negativity, we never depart and regain the lost innocence of Origins; it is, on the contrary, only in the ‘negation of negation’ that these Origins are truly lost. The Spirit heals its wound, not by directly healing it, but by getting rid of the very Body into which the wound was cut.

In Christian theology, Christ’s supplement (this repeated ‘But I say to you …’) is often designated as the ‘antithesis’ to the Law – the irony here is that, within the properly Hegelian perspective, this antithesis is synthesis itself at its purest. In other words, is what Christ does in his ‘fulfilment’ of the Law not the Law’s Aufhebung in the strictest Hegelian sense of the term? In its very supplement, the Law is both negated and maintained by way of being transposed on to another (higher) level.

[Extract from The Universal Exception, 2006, pp. vii-xxxii. Get it from Amazon.]


  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]

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. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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