I want to begin with Coca-cola. It’s no surprise that Coca-cola was first introduced as a medicine. Its strange taste seems to provide no particular satisfaction. It is not directly pleasing, however, it is as such, as transcending any use-value, like water, beer or wine, which definitely do quench our thirst, that Coke functions as the direct embodiment of “IT”, the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions. It is the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption. The unexpected result of this is not that, since Coke doesn’t satisfy any concrete need we drink it only as supplement, after some other drink has satisfied our substantial need — it is rather this very superfluous character that makes our thirst for Coke all the more insatiable. Coke has the paradoxical quality that the more you drink it, the more you get thirsty. So, when the slogan for Coke was “Coke is it!”, we should see in it some ambiguity — it’s “it” precisely insofar as it’s never IT, precisely insofar as every consumption opens up the desire for more.
The paradox is thus that Coke is not an ordinary commodity, but a commodity whose very peculiar use-value itself is already a direct embodiment of the auratic [?], ineffable surplus. This process is brought to its conclusion in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke. We drink a drink for two reasons: for its nutritional value and for its taste. In the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, its nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine as the key ingredient of its taste is also taken away. All that remains is pure semblance, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. Is it not that in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke that we almost literally drink nothing in the guise of something?
What I am referring to, of course, is Nietzsche’s opposition between “wanting nothing”, in the sense of “I do not want anything”, and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting the Nothingness itself. Following Nietzsche, Lacan emphasized how, in anorexia, the subject doesn’t simply not eat anything, he rather actively wants to eat the Nothingness itself. The same goes for the famous patient who felt guilty of stealing, although he didn’t effectively steal anything — what he did steal was, again, Nothingness itself. Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property.
Marxist surplus-value, Lacan’s objet petit a, and the paradox of the superego
This example makes palpable the link between three notions: that of Marxist surplus-value, that of Lacan’s objet petit a as surplus enjoyment, a concept which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxist surplus value, and the paradox of the superego, long ago perceived by Freud. The more profit you have, the more you want, the more you drink Coke, the more you are thirsty, the more you obey the superego command, the more you are guilty. In all three cases, the logic of balanced exchange is disturbed in favor of an excessive logic of “the more you give the more you owe”, or the “more you possess what you are longing for, the more you are missing and thus the greater your craving”, or the consumerist version, “the more you buy the more you must spend”. This paradox is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it to Romeo, “the more I give, the more I have.”
This superego-paradox also allows us to throw new light onto the functioning of today’s art scene. Its basic feature is not only the much deplored commodification of the culture, but also the less noted, perhaps even more crucial opposite movement: the growing culturalization of the market economy itself. Culture is less and less a specific sphere exempt from the market and more and more its central component. What this short circuit between market and culture entails is the disappearance of the old modernist avant-garde logic of provocation, of shocking the establishment. Today, more and more, the cultural economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself, has not only to tolerate but to directly incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Let us recall recent trends in visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or unframed paintings — what we get now are expositions of frames themselves without paintings, expositions of dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body, inclusion of smell in the exhibition, and so on. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses of part of the system itself. The system feeds on them in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps this is one of the possible definitions of postmodern art as opposed to modern art.
So what then is superego, what is this superego injunction which is replacing more and more the old symbolic law of prohibition? Superego is the reversal of the permissive “You May!” into the prescriptive “You Must!”, the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. We all know the formula of Kant s unconditional imperative: “Du kannst, denn du sollst”. You can do your duty, because you must do it. Superego turns this around into “You must, because you can.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Viagra, the potency pill that promises to restore the capacity of male erection in a purely biochemical way, bypassing all problems of psychological inhibitions and so on. Now Viagra takes care of the erection, there is no excuse, you can enjoy sex so you should enjoy it, otherwise you are guilty.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the New Age wisdom of recovering the spontaneity of your true self seems to offer a way out of this superego predicament. However, what do we get effectively? Is this attitude not secretly sustained by the superego imperative? You must do your duty of achieving full self-realization and self-fulfillment because you can. This is the reason why we feel, at least I do, a kind of terrorist pressure beneath the compliant tolerance of New Age preachers. They seem to preach peace and letting go and so on but there is an implicit terrorist dimension in it.
So what is superego? The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. It can be overcome in two opposite ways. On one hand, we have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so-called totalitarian post-traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you “Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not.” It tells you not only “You must obey my orders and do your duty” but “You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it.” It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him. This passage from traditional authoritarian power to modern totalitarianism can be precisely rendered through superego in an old joke of mine. Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old-fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? “I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty.” A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: “You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to.” Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say “I have a choice, I will not do it.” I promise your father will say “What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how she loves you? How could you do this to her?” That’s superego.
On the other hand, we have the opposite paradox of the pleasure itself whose pursuit turns into duty. In a permissive society, subjects experience the need to have a good time, to really enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and consequently feel guilty for failing to be happy. The concept of the superego designates precisely this mysterious overlapping in which the command to enjoy overlaps with the duty to enjoy yourself. Maybe we can in this way distinguish the totalitarian from the liberal-permissive superego. In both cases, the message is “You may enjoy, but because you may, you must”. In both cases you pay a price for this permission. In permissive liberalism, the “you may” of freely inventing yourself is paid for when you get caught in the cobweb of prohibitions concerning the well-being of yourself and your neighbors. We can do whatever we want today, hedonism and so on, but the result is that we have at the daily level so many prohibitions so as not to prevent others from enjoying. You are constantly told what to eat and drink, no fat, no smoking, safe sex, prohibition to enjoy the other, prohibition of sexual harassment, and so on, life is totally regulated. In an exactly symmetrical way, in totalitarianism the official message is “You should obey.” Neo-fundamentalists like to present themselves as “In today’s world there are no firm values, and we offer you safe haven, roots in firm values.”
This explains the so-called neo-fundamentalist appeal: As sociologists say, in postmodernity, in a reflexive society, there are no firm values, no nature or tradition, people who are used to a firm set of values get lost, long for safe haven… The other aspect of it is the exact opposite. It’s the postmodern subject of total permissiveness who gets caught up in so many prohibitions that precisely in order to be happy, the secret message between the lines of the totalitarian appeal to follow the master is, “If you follow me, you may.” You may with impunity rape, sexually harass, kill, etc. I know this from personally talking to some years ago members of the old regime in Belgrade. Their message was, “Before we were living this regulated life. Now at the point of us becoming Serb ethnic fundamentalists is that we may.” Even before Adorno and Horkheimer, Brecht was attentive to this falsely liberating aspect of fundamentalism.
Totalitarianism is not only “safe haven, firm values, we give you a sense of stability”, it’s also a kind of false liberation. Which is why in an article from a year ago I offered as a metaphor for totalitarianism, the German fat free salami, whose slogan is Du Darfst. If you obey me, Du Darfst, you can have your salami without fat.
What happens in this superego universe of weak paternal authority?
Let’s go on. What happens in this superego universe of weak paternal authority? I think the references to two films are of some interest here. On one hand, Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”, in which the father in the concentration camp constructs a web of fantasies to protect his son from the trauma of the camp. On the other hand, Thomas Vinterberg’s “Celebration”, in which the father is not only not the protector against the trauma but the source of the trauma, the rapist father. In one case we have a father assuming an almost maternal protective role and who relies on pure symbolic appearance, creating a protective web for his son, a father who is a kind of ersatz placebo. On the other hand, a father whose core we arrive at through the dismantling of all protective fictions — at the end the father is unmasked and confesses to be the brutal rapist, having sexually exploited his children, a kind of true revival of the Freudian Ur-Father from “Totem and Taboo”. It’s my old thesis that Freud was right, he just got it in the wrong temporal succession. I claim that in this obsession with false memory syndrome, imagining some brutal raping father, it is not that, as Freud thought, the we have first in some mystical past the rapist father who possessed all the women of the tribe and then through the murder of the father, the father returns as symbolic authority. It’s rather the opposite. The symbolic authority disintegrates and what fills in its void is this brutal Ur-Father. It’s the modern totalitarian masters who are much closer to this Ur-Father figure.
So what about these two father figures? It is crucial to avoid the trap of conceiving these two fathers along the axis of appearance vs. reality. It’s not that Benigni’s good father is a pure appearance of the protective maternal father and then that when we scratch the surface we get the violent real father. “Celebration” tells us a lot about how today, in the false memory syndrome of remembering being molested by one’s parents, Freud’s Ur-Father is resuscitated. “Celebration” tells us this precisely through its artificial character. The ultimate paradox of the film is that it’s the ultimate nostalgia. This horror of the rapist father, instead of shocking us, it articulates a kind of nostalgic longing for the good old times when we had fathers who really had force, and when it was really possible to experience such traumas. This is the paradox I want to address. One would expect that fantasies are defenses against traumas. We have a traumatic experience, we cannot endure it so we build up a protective fantasy web of fictions. I claim that we invent, as a protective web, trauma itself. Now, we would normally expect that concentration camp life would be the trauma and we build a fantasy to shield ourselves from it. But perhaps the trauma is the fantasy we construct to protect ourselves from something else.
But what can be worse than concentration camp life itself? Let me return again to the opposition of the two fathers, imaginary and symbolic. I claim that what these horrifying figures fill in is the gap of symbolic authority. These two fathers, protective and rapist, have nonetheless something in common although they are opposed. They both suspend the agency of symbolic law, or symbolic prohibition, the proper paternal agency of authority whose function is to introduce the childhood into the universe of social reality with its harsh demands. The reality to which the child is exposed without any maternal protective shield, Benigni’s father offers the imaginary shield against the traumatic encounter with reality, instead of introducing us into reality. Vinterberg’s rapist father is also a father outside the constraints of the symbolic law, with access to full enjoyment. These two fathers fit the opposition elaborated by Lacan between the imaginary and the real. Benigni’s father offers the imaginary safety against the brutality of lawless violence, while Vinterberg’s father is this very violence outside symbolic law, and again what is missing is simply the father as symbolic authority.
So what happens with the functioning of subjects when symbolic authority loses its efficiency? I claim we get subjects who are strangely de-realized, deprived of their psychology as if we are dealing with robotic puppets that are obeying some strange blind mechanism. As a metaphor I would like to introduce the method I learned of how they shoot soap operas in Mexico. Their timetable is so fully packed because each day they have to introduce a half-hour of the soap opera that actors do not have time to learn their lines in advance. How they solve the problem is that on the set actors have earphones on, and behind the set there is a man trained reading the lines. So without any practice, the actors are trained to immediately enact the orders. “Kiss her, slap her, withdraw, apologize…” Of course, this minimal gap makes something ridiculously theatrical about it. I think that one of the reasons why David Lynch is one of the filmmakers of today is that in his films we find the same effect, scenes where actors produce stupid clichéd statements in quite an earnest way.
Another example from contemporary cinema can help us to clarify this point. I’d like to briefly refer to Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan”, which has an apparently unmilitaristic message in its brutal depiction of the bloodbath of war. I claim that it is secretly and in a refined way a militaristic film. The way it depicts the horror of film supports the recent tendency of the American army, first fully realized apropos of the bombing of ex-Yugoslavia, to promote the fantasy of war without casualties. Of course this goes only for our side, but I believe that the really ultimate fantasy is we will have war which is somehow virtual and takes place nowhere. In the last bombardments of Iraq a few months ago, in daily reports Baghdad was depicted as just a normal city, as if the bombing is just a nightmare which happens during the night and somehow life goes on. It’s as if war becomes simply virtualized.
What’s my point here? I will try to answer the question of why we fantasize about violence. This tendency to erase death itself from war should not seduce us into endorsing the standard notion that war is made less traumatic when no longer experienced by soldiers as an actual encounter with another human being to be killed but as an abstract activity in front of a screen. That’s the idea, that today war is virtualized, nobody even sees the bodies, it’s a kind of videogame. What I learned from talking with war psychologists in the States is that the result is not less guilt but more anxiety. Even in the Gulf War of 1991, I read that in a report, that of American soldiers who had psychological traumas after the war, the majority of them were not as you would expect the ones who actually killed the Iraqi soldiers. It’s even the obverse correlation, those who experienced the war as strictly virtual, they didn’t feel guilt but an unbearable anxiety.
This can retroactively explain another paradox. Already in World War I a mysterious phenomenon occurred which is I think a kind of military counterpoint to false memory syndrome. Sixty to seventy percent of soldiers remember this mythical, “authentic” experience of warfare such as that hailed by Ernst Junger. I see you, my enemy and briefly our gazes meet, there’s an authentic real encounter with another flesh and blood being, then it’s always the same, I stick you with a bayonet and throw you over my shoulder. However, according to all data it’s maximum one half percent that actually had this experience of killing in face-to-face combat. Far from being the ultimate traumatic point that you try to erase, the need to have this face-to-face encounter rather has a pacifying aspect of getting rid of anxiety for us. What really causes anxiety is virtualized warfare.
My point I hope is now clear. This opposition between modern, virtualized warfare and the need to have the brutal encounter with another soldier this opposition is ultimately the same as the opposition of Benigni’s father and Vinterberg’s father. In the same way that it’s not that unfortunately we have to kill real persons and then we imagine how nice it would be to play just keyboard wars, but that it’s the soldier playing war behind the screen who is full of anxiety and fantasizes about a face-to-face real encounter, which although it would make him guilty would give him a real guilt, but the true horror would be to have a father like Benigni. That’s unbearable, that’s suffocating. It’s Benigni’s son who then fantasizes about a secret, concealed but nonetheless violent rapist aspect. You say “My god, my father cannot just be this maternal, ersatz placebo, that would suffocate me. I need to imagine some horrifying secret behind him in order to survive family life.”
The superego deadlock – Lacanian act
This then is the deadlock of the superego. How do we get out of this deadlock? By means of what Lacan calls the act. The act means precisely breaking out of this deadlock. What is an act? Psychoanalysis knows a whole series of false acts. Psychotic paranoia, violent passage l’acte, hysterical acting-out, obsessional self-hindering, self-sabotage, perverse self-instrumentalization, all these acts are not simply wrong compared to some external standards. They are inherently wrong since they can only be properly grasped as reaction to some disavowed trauma that they displace, disavow or repress. For example, Nazi anti-Semitic violence was false in the same way. This entire large-scale frenetic activity was fundamentally misdirected in a massive passage l’acte betraying the inability the real kernel of the trauma, the social antagonism.
What I claim is that anti-Semitic violence was not only factually wrong, in the sense that Jews were not really like that, they were not exploiting Germans, or organizing a universal plot against humanity. It wasn’t only morally wrong when judged against some elementary standards of decency. Of course it’s morally wrong but that doesn’t really hit the mark. If you claim it was factually wrong, in the sense that “Jews are not really like that”, because the moment you accept the discussion in these terms, you are lost. Let’s say that in the 1930’s you try to answer a Nazi by claiming “Wait a minute, you are exaggerating.” If you check it out the truth will of course be somewhere in the middle. Of course there were some Jews who were seducing German girls, why not? Of course there were some Jews whose influence in media was very strong. That’s not the point. We get a cue here from one of my favorite dictums of Lacan. Let’s say that you have a wife who sleeps with other men and you are pathologically jealous. Even if your jealousy is grounded in fact it’s still a pathology. Why? Because, even if what the Nazis claimed about Jews was up to a point true, anti-Semitism was formally wrong, in the same sense that in psychoanalysis a symptomatic action is wrong. It is wrong because it served to replace or repress another true trauma, as something that inherently functioning as a displacement, an act of displacement, as something to be interpreted.
It’s not enough to say anti-Semitism is factually wrong, it’s morally wrong; the true enigma is: why did the Nazis need the figure of the Jew for their ideology to function? Why is it that if you take away their figure of the Jew their whole edifice disintegrates? For example, let’s say I have a paranoiac idea that you are trying to kill me. You miss the point if you try to explain to me that it’s morally wrong for me to kill you in pre-emptive self-defense. The point is, why in order to retain my balance do I need the fantasy of you trying to kill me? As Freud points out paranoia is not simply the illness, it’s a false attempt of recovery. The true zero point is where your whole universe disintegrates. Paranoia is the misdirected attempt to reconstitute your universe so that you can function again. If you take from the paranoiac his paranoiac symptom, it’s the end of the world for him.
Along the same lines, we have false acts. What an authentic act is precisely what allows you to break out of this deadlock of the symptom, superego and so on. In an authentic act I do not simply express, or actualize my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity. In this since I claim that an act is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to conceptualize as the Christian rebirth. Kierkegaard was very precise in opposing the Christian rebirth to the pagan pre-modern Socratic logic of remembrance. This is the crucial choice that psychoanalysis is confronted with. Is psychoanalysis the ultimate in the logic of Socratic remembrance, where I say “I must return to my roots, it’s already deep in me the truth of my unconscious desire, I just must realize my inner self”, or is psychoanalysis dependent on an act in the way that Christianity is an act, where you are born again, not in a religious sense, but redefine what you truly are. You go through a symbolic suicide and become another person.
Let me give you some examples of this logic from Hollywood films, of course, two commercial films which contain a surprising radical gesture. Towards the beginning of the film “Speed”, Keanu Reeves confronts the terrorist blackmailer played as usual by Dennis Hopper. This blackmailer holds a gun to Keanu Reeves’ partner. What does Reeves do? He doesn’t shoot the terrorist in order to liberate his partner as you would expect. He shoots his partner in the leg. This unexpected gesture of, shooting at your own side totally perplexes the terrorist and Reeves saves the day. Along the same lines, an even more cruel example from “The Usual Suspects”. In the flashback scene in the middle of the film, the mysterious mega-criminal Keyser Söze comes home and finds again his wife and small daughter held under a gun by the members of a rival mob. He doesn’t try to kill the opposite gang. He shoots to death his wife and his daughter and says “Now you have no hold over me. Now I will kill you, your parents, your sons, your relatives, all of you!” Something like this is always at work in an authentic act. You always have this dimension of sacrificing the most precious part of yourself. This is the generative moment of subjectivity.
Wait a minute, am I totally crazy? The only way to commit an act is to kill your children? You could also accuse me that this is a typically male logic. Women would be more attached to their substantial small universe, while men do this gesture of “Let’s cut off the limb, cut off the roots, let’s embark.” Let’s go into more serious waters so you can see I’m not just dreaming about crazy ideas. Doesn’t Freud do something similar in “Moses and Monotheism”? We should read this book as precisely Freud’s answer to anti-Semitism. He doesn’t defend Jews, he strikes against Jews themselves. He deprives Jews of one of the most important parts of their legacy — his point was that Moses was not one of us. Which is why some of his friends were utterly shocked, “Oh my god, in these difficult times, you are taking from us one of our last pillars of hope.” I think Freud did the right thing. The Nazis believed that Jews were something special, albeit in a negative way. The true way to combat anti-Semitism is to do as Freud did, to say that “We are not what you secretly think that we are.”
Let me answer the second reproach, that these gestures are all masculine. No, not only such a radical act is not neutral but at the most radical level, it is a feminine gesture. Lacan proposed as one of the definitions of what he calls a “true woman” a certain act of taking from her partner, obliterating or destroying, that which means everything to him. The precious treasure around which their life turns. The exemplary figure of such an act in literature, of course, is Medea. Upon learning that Jason plans to abandon her, she kills her two young children, her husband’s most precious possession. Perhaps it is time against the overblown celebration of Antigone to reassert Medea, her uncanny counterpart.
To make this point clear, let me quote you perhaps the most tragic example of such a Medea-like act which constitutes modern subjectivity. Do you know Toni Morrison, her novel “Beloved”? We have exactly such an act there. This is the novel about the painful birth of African-American subjectivity. “Beloved” focuses on the traumatic desperate act of the heroine “Sita”. After escaping slavery in the middle of the last century with her four children, and then enjoying a month of the colored life in the North with her mother-in-law in Cincinnati, the cruel overseer of the plantation from which she escaped attempts to capture her by right of the fugitive slave law. Finding herself in a hopeless situation, she resorts to a radical measure in order to spare her children the return to bondage. She slices the throat of her eldest daughter, tries to kill two boys and bash out the brains of her infant daughter. Crucial to understand this desperate measure, let’s examine Sita’s apparently paradoxical ruminations. “If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died and that would have been something I could not have bared.” Killing her daughter was the only way to preserve the minimum dignity of her life. In an interview Morrison says “By what may seem the ultimate cruelty of killing her offspring, she is claiming her role as a parent, claiming the autonomy, the freedom she needs to protect her children and give them some dignity”. In a radical situation of a forced choice, in which because of slavery relations Sita’s children weren’t hers at all, the only way to protect them, to save their dignity, was to kill them.
The character of Sita’s act becomes clear if we compare it with what is perhaps one of its literary models, William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”, in which the heroine, confronted with the choice of saving one of her two children from the gas chamber, concedes to this blackmail by the Nazi officer and sacrifices her older daughter in order to save her young son, with the predictable result that this choice will haunt her for the rest of her life, driving her to suicide years later. Although Sita’s act haunts her as well, we’re dealing with the exact opposite action. While Sophie’s guilt results from her compromising attitude of accepting the terms of the choice, with Sita what she was not able to come to terms with was the properly ethical monstrosity of her act. At the end of the novel, the ghost of her daughter disappears and she can finally subjectize and assume her act. What makes her act so monstrous is, to use the Kierkegaardian term, the “suspension of the ethical” involved in it.
In reading of Antigone, Lacan emphasizes that after her excommunication from the community, she enters the domain of what in Greek is called ate, the domain of unspeakable horror of being between two deaths, still alive but excluded from the community. The same goes for Sita. Morrison has said that “She has stepped across the line. It’s understandable but it’s excessive. This is what the townspeople in Cincinnati respond to by excommunicating her. Not her grief, but her arrogance. They abandon her because of what they felt was her pride. Her statement about what is valuable to her damns what they think is valuable to them. They have had losses too. In her unwillingness to apologize or to bend, they know she would kill her child again. That is what separates her from them.” What makes her monstrous is not her act as such, but the way she refuses to relativize her act, accept responsibility and concede that she acted in an unforgivable way out of despair or madness. She doesn’t compromise, she says “No, it was a free act, not a desperate psychopathological confusion”. I claim that maybe, in Kosovo, the Serbs should do something the same, sacrifice Kosovo. That would be the only authentic political act in ex-Yugoslavia today.
Human rights and NATO intervention in Kosovo
Let me conclude with some remarks which explain, after my definition of the act, why I claim what is propagated as so-called human rights are ultimately the defense against this dimension of the act. Of course the problematic of human rights itself is much more complicated and not as self-evident as it may appear. The only way to grasp how human rights function today is as a systematic negation of the Decalogue. The right to privacy. This means you can cheat your wife as long as you are not caught in public. The right to freedom of press, what does it mean? Freedom to lie, in a way. The right to private property, what does it mean? Freedom to steal. The right to bear arms, freedom to kill. The right to religious freedom, the freedom to celebrate false gods. That’s another story. Although I basically support it, let me point out what I find problematic in the logic of human rights, and where would the true act be with regard to Kosovo.
Let me begin with Vaclav Havel. In a recent essay titled “Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State”, Havel tries to bring home the message that the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia “places human rights above the rights of the state. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was attacked by the Alliance without a direct mandate from the United Nations. This did not happen irresponsibly, as an act of aggression or out of disrespect for international laws. It happened, on the contrary, out of respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states. The Alliance has acted out of respect for human rights, as both conscience and international legal documents dictate. Human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. While the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God. The conclusion which imposes itself is none other than that the NATO forces are allowed to violate the existing international law since they acted as a direct instrument of the higher law of God himself. If this is not a clear-cut case of religious fundamentalism, then this term is devoid of any even minimally consistent meaning. To avoid any misunderstanding, I support the NATO intervention, what I’m opposed to is this simple appeal to human rights.
Havel’s statement is the strongest assertion of what Ulrich Beck called “militaristic humanism” or even “militaristic pacifism”: military intervention on the behalf of humanism or pacifism. What I find problematic is not the militarism side but the pacifism side. What was presented as a purely depoliticized intervention, legitimized only by a concern for human rights, concealed that the targets of bombardment were chosen selectively depending on unadmitted geopolitical interests. The humanitarian legitimization depoliticizes the military intervention, turning it into an intervention against humanitarian catastrophe.
My point is that the true victims of this strategy where Kosovars themselves. Havel’s statements have to be read in connection with how war victims were presented in the media. Let me give an example. In an article published in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago on the suffering of Kosovar Albanians, the journalist focuses on what I find false here, let’s call it the logic of victimization. The title is important, In One Kosovo Woman, an Emblem of Suffering. The subject to be protected by the NATO intervention is from the outset identified as a powerless victim of circumstances, deprived of all political identity, reduced to bare suffering. The basic stance of this woman is one of excessive suffering, of traumatic experience that blurs all differences: She’s see too much, she said. She wants a rest. She wants it to be over. As such, this Albanian woman is beyond any political recrimination. An independent Kosovo is not on her agenda, she just wants the horror to be over. She wants a settlement that brings foreigners here “with some force behind them”. She’s indifferent about who the foreigners are. “There is tragedy enough for everyone”, she says. “I feel sorry for the Serbs who’ve been bombed and who died, and I feel sorry for my own people, but maybe now there will be a conclusion, a settlement for good. That would be great.” So here we have the ideological construction of the idea of subject-victim to whose aid NATO intervenes — not a political subject with a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering, sympathizing with all suffering in the conflict, caught in the madness of a local clash that can only be pacified by the intervention of a benevolent foreign power. A subject whose innermost desire is reduced to an almost animal craving to “feel good again”. That’s the people NATO wants to help, traumatized, impotent people who just want to feel good again.
The ultimate paradox, was not the one which Western pacifists complained about, this usual argument that by bombing Yugoslavia in order to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo NATO effectively triggered a large-scale cleansing and thus created the very humanitarian catastrophe it wanted to prevent. It was a deeper paradox involved in the ideology of victimization. The key aspect to take note of was NATO’s privileging of the now-discredited moderate Kosovo faction over the radical Kosovo Liberation Army. NATO was actively blocking the only obvious alternative to ground intervention, the full-scale armed resistance of Albanians themselves. The moment Kosovars started to fight back, they were immediately dismissed as a bunch of untrained fighters, not really an army, we shouldn’t trust them, they’re involved in drug-trafficking, if they occupy power it will be a new Khmer Rouge, and so on. That’s the ideology that I’m opposed to, that the other is good as long as it is traumatized, immobilized.
My god, in Kosovo we didn’t have this other! Albanians were organized and fighting! What horrified me is that after the agreement was signed for Serb withdrawal, the big news was the fear that the power vacuum would be filled by the KLA. In other words “we should liberate Kosovo from the Serbs, but we should not let Albanians themselves take over.” It’s this logic that I really find reprehensible, that while NATO is intervening in order to protect the victims, it is at the same time taking care that they will remain victims, not an active political military force able to defend itself. My god, even if you don’t agree with their cause, these people are heroes. The strategy of NATO was perverse in the precise Freudian sense of the term. They acted like the mad governess from my favorite Patricia Highsmith story, in which the governess sets the family house on fire in order to be able to prove her devotion to the family by bravely saving the children from the raging fire. Those who ferociously opposed NATO bombardment shared this basic depoliticized view of innocent people suffering, old ethnic struggles, everyone is guilty.
To conclude, I claim that the deadlock of the contemporary left can really be nicely discerned in LaFontaine’s stepping down, where all of these utopian energies were invested. People thought that if he were not to step down, maybe magical things would happen, maybe there would be no Kosovo bombardment, no compromise, but the sad thing is that nothing would have happened. There is no alternative. This is I think the sad lesson of the now-fashionable “Third Way” of social democracy. What does the “Third Way” mean ultimately? There is no second way. In the good old days of socialism, we craved socialism with a human face, the “Third Way” is capitalism with a human face, we accept capitalism we just make some small changes. An act would be to reconstitute a true second way.
Question: I am very interested in this notion of the authentic act. Is this something that is always possible or do we have to take into account historical limitations? We have here in Saas-Fee a companion program in expressive arts therapy — so I’m interested specifically in what the consequences would be for therapy and for the arts.
Zizek: The consequences for therapy are pretty obvious and hopefully you don’t reach the point where you teach your patients to really kill their children, but that without making a substantial risk in a leap which isn’t not covered in advance by any rules but reconstitutes your subjectivity there is no true therapy. For me this is Kierkegaard against Socrates, at least a particular version of Socrates, being simply “deep within you there is an inner core which waits to be liberated and you just have to open yourself to it.” You must have this moment, I am almost tempted to say, of transubstantiation. In the sense that I am “newly born”. Not “newly born” in any directly religious sense, but in the sense that I am substantially no longer the same person. Without this leap you don’t have true therapy. In this sense, I claim an act, of course, is not something that can be accommodated into an image of deterministic materialism, because it’s something that comes ex nihilo.
I’ll put it in this way. Hegel used often the term “positing the very presuppositions”. Let me take my favorite example from religion which every true Christian, which I unfortunately am not, would tell you. As Kierkegaard posits, if you say: “I looked around and Christianity convinced me with its reasons. So since I was convinced by Christian arguments, I believe in Christianity”, this is an obscenity. It works the other way around. You must believe in order to understand the reasons. This is why for me falling in love is also an act, because you cannot say: “I fell in love with you because of these features.” It is also always in this other direction: “Yes, I did fall in love with you in account of some features, but in order for me to properly recognize these features, I must already be in love with you.” This retroactivity is always at work in an act.
Or to go into an ethical problematic, this is what Kant aims for in his radical ethical stance. So what is the meaning of “du kannst, denn du sollst”? My point is that you cannot simply evoke external circumstances such as “Ok, I would like to do my duty, but unfortunately I can’t do it.” My point is that the very recognition of circumstances is never simply neutral, especially if there are so-called inner circumstances. This is when you say: “Oh, I would like to do my duty, but I can’t help it.” For example I would like to abstain from sex, but I cannot help it, my sexual longing is too strong, so I cannot resist the temptation. Kant’s point is that the very act of acknowledging something as a temptation which you cannot resist is already your free choice. In this sense you posit the very presupposition. However, I claim that in an even deeper sense, Kant’s ethics involves a more radical feature which is extremely interesting ethically and extremely actual today. I claim that at its most radical, Kant’s ethics of autonomy does not mean that the categorical imperative is a kind of neutral black box machine. For example, somebody tells me: “That is your duty.” Is it or not, I don’t know, so I put it in the test of the categorical imperative: If it survives the test, than that is what I should do. I claim that it is rather the following: That the message of Kantian autonomy is that not only you cannot use your pathological longings as an excuse why you can’t do your duty, for example you cannot say “This is my duty but I will not do it because it may hurt my friend”, you also cannot use duty itself as an excuse to do your duty. You cannot say to your friend: “Listen, I must drop you now because it is my ethical duty. I know it hurts you but this is my duty.” Because in this way you already objectify yourself, it is not you. Kant means that duty itself is not an excuse to do your duty. You are fully responsible to formulate what your duty is. This is how I read the categorical imperative — it has the structure of what Kant calls aesthetic judgment. Lyotard developed this very nicely: An aesthetic judgment is not simply an application of pre-existing norms to the situation, in the aesthetic judgment you posit the norms yourself and it is your responsibility. Apropos of a particular situation, you have to reinvent the universality which covers the situation, and as such you are fully responsible for it. When you say: “That is my duty”, you cannot say: “What can I do, it’s my duty.” You fully have to stand behind what your duty is.
Now, going back to the materiality of the act. Of course, this definition of the authentic act has an aspect of being almost non-historical, I agree with that. But believe me I am an old-fashioned Marxist, so what I claim is that this notion of act is of special actuality today in our so-called post-modern era, where the predominant ethic, across the entire spectrum of ethical positions, from narcissistic hedonism to neo-fundamentalism or whatever, is an ethic precisely against the ethical act. All these problems of ethical committees, of ethical rules, are always about how to prevent an excess which is precisely the excess of the act. In this sense I claim that it is only today, in today’s so-called permissive society, that society is regulated as no society in history ever was, that such notion of an act was ever elaborated.
Question: Depression seems to be current pathological form of this historical epoch, everybody’s on Prozac, right? I think that connects to why we are anaesthetized against the act and depoliticized. I have never lived in such an apolitical epoch, being a child of the sixties. Could you comment on that idea of what depression might be — does the act really mean killing, I mean symbolically killing your children, or why are we not taking radical authentic steps in this culture…
Zizek: The way I would put it is the following. First let me answer the last question to disperse any ambiguity that I am preaching child-killing or whatever. Although incidentally if there is an entity which fits perfectly the Kantian notion of radical evil these are children between the ages of 4 and 5. But that is another story. The point I’m trying to make about “child-killing” is for when you are caught in a certain debilitating situation where power doesn’t work as a simple external repression which you just throw off and liberate yourself from. If you simplify it somewhat, power manipulates your psychic needs of perverse satisfaction. What I was aiming at is that in order to properly be able to oppose the power you must sacrifice that innermost part of yourself, your mode of enjoyment by means of which you were attached to power. Marcuse, in the old terms of the sixties, said that in order to achieve social liberation we must first liberate ourselves from the inner hold of consumer society. Liberation is not simply here that I feel my substantial identity threatened by external power and so I oppose it. No, you must sacrifice part of yourself. This can be very hard. Only in this way can you construct the terrain for opposing, embodied in an extreme example by Toni Morrison’s heroine in “Beloved”. Without this gesture you do not have the space to act freely, or to even oppose effectively.
Question: Maybe depression comes from that deadlock.
Zizek: I’m tempted to enter the problematic of depression, but I’m not a pure clinician because I like to travel. And the idea for me to stay in one place… I’ve also noticed that the patients talk — I like to talk as you’ve noticed and there is something in my nature which resists the idea of listening to other people talk for hours. But nonetheless from what I know from my clinician friends about depression is that the description of depression often partially overlaps with the description of melancholia. It’s often said that we live in a post-political society of melancholia and so on — I think we should never forget that in psychoanalysis the definition of melancholia is a very precise one. It is not simply that the melancholic has lost the object. If you read Freud really closely it is almost the opposite, it is that you get the object but you lose the desire for the object. Freud hit it when he claimed precisely that the melancholic complains of losing an object but he is not aware of what feature it is that he lost, he is confused between the object of desire and that which makes me desire the object. The way I read it, the whole point of psychoanalysis is that desire is mediated. It is never: “I like strawberry cake.” Ok, maybe you do but that’s another story. The point is that I like the cake because for example I know that another person that I love likes it and I want to impress them. Desire is in a sense always intersubjective, it is never simply me and the object. The suffocating aspect of the melancholia which then leads to depression is that today the more we are bombarded with objects, the less, in this over-presence of objects, is the cause of our desire — what makes us desire the object is lost. It is a different dynamic which is probably part of the paradox of permissivity.
So I definitely agree with you that what is going on today is a quite serious phenomenon in that perhaps the very fundamental matrix of socialization, of entering the social symbolic order, is somehow changing. My problem with theories such as the so-called “reflexive society” as described by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, these two court philosophers, is that they paint a little bit too bright of a picture. On a sociological level, for them all these problems like depression are simply that we are not fully ready to take the openness, to assume the risk, the lack of support of postmodern society. It’s not that simple but nonetheless there is basically a fundamental optimism. The problem I have with people like Beck is that both qualitatively and quantitatively they underestimate how this so-much praised “reflexive society”, or “second modernity” produces its own immediacy, its own non-reflexivity. Referring to psychiatric practice I’ll give my favorite example, which is for me the horror of reflexivity — this is how symptoms themselves in psychoanalysis are becoming more and more reflexive. You no longer get, as in the good old days, naive patients who come to you and say: “Last night I dreamt about going through a thick wood, killing a dragon, and entering a castle.” And you say: “Yes, yes, the dragon is your father. You kill him to enter the maternal castle.” No, today you have patients who already know about theory and who theorize, and even sometimes their symptoms themselves have the structure of a theory… you have Lacanian symptoms, Anna Freudian symptoms. The paradox of this is that the interpretation is losing its efficiency. The patient himself comes to you and tells you : “I am an obsessional-neurotic.” Like I am obviously. “That is why I have this trauma.” He gives you a perfect explanation and then he nicely continues to be an obsessional neurotic. It’s the same as my favorite example from politics, with neo-Nazi skinheads. I listen to some of them on the TV and they tell you, “Yes, I know I am like that. I am beating Turks and foreigners because in my youth I lacked proper maternal care. I lacked paternal authority.” And they give you a nice explanation and then they do it. So the other aspect of this global reflexivity is an emergence of a new stupid immediacy which no reflection can help. It’s within this constellation that phenomena like depression should be positioned.
Schmiracher: Lacan always rejected a patient who came with an explanation to him — he would say “You know already what you have so please leave.”
Zizek: You know what Lacan also did when the patient tried to explain. He did one of three things: One thing was that he would start doing crossword puzzles and interrupt them with questions, “OK, but tell me a word with five letters that designates an animal.” The other thing Lacan did was put out his wallet and started to count money like this. The third thing was, he had these thick, sour cakes… He would put a cake into his tea and then into his mouth and start to suck it disgustingly.
[Lecture delivered at European Graduate School in August 1999.]