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The Fragile Absolute

The Fragile Absolute
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According to the media, when – at a recent meeting of the leaders of the great Western powers, dedicated to the politico­ideological notion of the ‘Third Way’ – the Italian Prime Minister Massimo d’Alema said that one should not be afraid of the word ‘socialism’, Clinton – and, following him, Blair and Schröder – could not restrain themselves, and openly burst out laughing. This anecdote tells us a lot about the problematic character of today’s talk about the Third Way. Crucial here is the curious enigma of the second way: where is the second way today? That is to say: did not the notion of the Third Way emerge at the very moment when –at least in the developed West – all other alternatives, from true conservativism to radical Social Democracy, lost out in the face of the triumphant onslaught of global capitalism and its notion of liberal democracy? Is not the true message of the notion of the Third Way therefore simply that there is no second way, no actual alternative to global capitalism, so that, in a kind of mocking pseudo-Hegelian negation of negation, this much-praised ‘Third Way’ brings us back to the first and only way – the Third Way is simply global capitalism with a human face, that is, an attempt to minimize the human costs of the global capitalist machinery, whose functioning is left undisturbed.[pp. 62-3]


That is to say: the difference between Imaginary proper and Symbolic qua Imaginary ‘as such’ is that of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios from the Ancient Greek anecdote often cited by Lacan: one was duped by the image itself, taking the painted birds for the ‘real’ ones; while the other, confronted with the painted veil, told the painter: ‘OK, take the veil away, uncover the painting behind it!’ In this second case, the image deceives us not by seducing us into taking the painted object for the ‘real thing’, but by making us believe that there is a ‘real thing’ concealed beneath it – and, in this second case, the deception of the image is properly symbolic. The symbolic dimension proper is thus that of appearance – appearance as, precisely, opposed to imaginary simulacrum. In a sublime appearance, the positive imaginary content is a stand-in for the ‘impossible’ Beyond (the Thing, God, Freedom . . .) – just as, for Laclau, ‘hegemony means the representation, by a particular [content], of an impossible totality with which it is incommensurable’. In short, the moment we enter the dimension of symbolic appearance, the imaginary content is caught/inscribed in a dialectic of void and negativity.[p. 105][note]Zizek ends this paragraph with a long footnote worth citing in its entirety:

Lacan’s concept of sublimation is the result of a very simple yet radical operation: he brings together the Freudian problematic of ‘sublimation’ (which, to put it in somewhat simplified terms, involves shifting the libido from an object that satisfies some immediate material need to an object that has no apparent connection to this need: destructive literary criticism becomes sublimated aggressivity; scientific research on the human body becomes sublimated voyeurism . . .) and the Kantian notion of the ‘Sublime’ (an empirical object/event which, through its very failure adequately to represent the noumenal Idea, evokes this trans-phenomenal Idea, as in the famous notion of extreme natural phenomena like storms and earthquakes which, in their very majesty, fail to represent the noumenal freedom adequately, and thus give birth to the reasoning: ‘even Nature at its mightiest is infinitely less than my freedom’).

Lacan replaces the Kantian noumenal Thing with the impossible/real Thing, the ultimate object of desire – the primordial movement of’ sublimation’ is thus not from concrete material sexual, etc., needs to ‘spiritual’ concerns, but the shifting of the libido from the void of the ‘unserviceable’ Thing to some concrete, material object of need which assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing. This is why Lacan defines sublimation as the elevation of an object into the dignity of the Thing: ‘sublimation’ occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself in the place of the impossible Thing. This Thing is inherently anamorphic: it can be perceived only when it is viewed from the side, in a partial, distorted form, as its own shadow – if we look straight at it we see nothing, a mere void. (In a homologous way, we could speak of temporal anamorphosis: the Thing is attainable only by an incessant postponement, as its absent point-of-reference.) The Thing is therefore literally something that is created – whose place is encircled – through a network of detours, approximations and near-misses.[pp. 170-1][/note]

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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