Zizek’s Jokes in The Fragile Absolute

The Fragile Absolute

The Fragile Absolute
The Fragile Absolute
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How, then, are we to grasp the difference between the two gaps that characterize the symbolic process: the gap between the Master-Signifier and the series of ‘ordinary’ signifiers (S1 and S2), and the more radical gap between the very domain of the signifier (S) and its objectal remainder/leftover, objet petit a? There is an old racist joke, popular in ex-Yugoslavia, about a gipsy being examined by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist first explains to the gipsy what free associations are: you immediately say what is on your mind in response to the psychiatrist’s cue. Then the psychiatrist proceeds to the test itself: he says ‘Table’; the gipsy answers: ‘Fucking Fatima’; he says ‘Sky’; the gipsy again answers: ‘Fucking Fatima’, and so on, until the psychiatrist explodes: ‘But you didn’t understand me! You must tell me what crops up in your mind, what you are thinking of, when I say my word!’ The gipsy calmly answers: ‘Yes, I got your point, I’m not that stupid, but I think all the time about fucking Fatima!’

This racist joke, which clearly displays the structure of Hegelian ‘abstract universality’, has none the less to be supplemented by the crucial final twist at work in another well-known joke about a pupil being examined by his biology teacher about different animals, and always reducing the answer to the definition of a horse: ‘What is an elephant?’ ‘An animal which lives in the jungle, where there are no horses. A horse is a domestic mammal with four legs, used for riding, working in the fields or pulling vehicles.’ ‘What is a fish?’ ‘An animal which has no legs, unlike a horse. A horse is a domestic mammal . . .’. ‘What is a dog?’ ‘An animal which, unlike horses, barks. A horse is a domestic [p. 50] mammal . . .’ and so forth, until finally, the desperate teacher asks the pupil: ‘OK, what is a horse?’ Perplexed and totally thrown off balance, the poor surprised pupil starts to mumble and cry, unable to provide an answer. . . .

Along the same lines, the psychiatrist should have given the sex-starved gipsy the cue ‘Fucking Fatima’, at which, undoubtedly, the poor gipsy would have broken down in panic – even anxiety – unable to generate any association: why? Because, precisely (and in contrast to Bentham’s theory of self-iconicity, according to which an object is the best icon of itself, that is, it resembles itself) a horse is a horse; it does not look like or resemble a horse; just as ‘fucking Fatima’ is ‘fucking Fatima’, not some association generated by the idea of ‘fucking Fatima’ – the Marx Brothers’ well-known paradox ‘No wonder you look like Emmanuel Ravelli, since you are Emmanuel Ravelli’ involves an illegitimate short circuit. (Another homologous structure is that of a well-known tribe mentioned by Lévi-Strauss for whose members all dreams have a hidden sexual meaning – all, that is, except those with an explicit sexual content.) To put it in philosophical terms, what we encounter here is the obverse of Leibniz’s well-known principle according to which, if two things perfectly resemble each other, if all their properties are indistinguishable, they are also numerically identical – that is to say, one and the same thing: the anti-Leibnizean lesson of the Lacanian logic of the signifier is that since a thing does not ‘look like itself’, resemblance is, on the contrary, the guarantor of non-­identity. (This paradox accounts for the uncanny effect of encountering a double: the more he looks like me, the more the abyss of his otherness is apparent.) Or, in Hegelese: the ‘oneness’ of a thing is grounded not in its properties, but in the negative [p. 51] synthesis of a pure ‘One’ which excludes (relates negatively to) all positive properties: this ‘one’ which guarantees the identity of a thing does not reside in its properties, since it is ultimately its signifier.

So here we have the difference between the series of ordinary signifiers and the central element (‘horse’, ‘fucking Fatima’) which has to remain empty in order to serve as the underlying organizing principle of the series. [p. 52]


what psychoanalysis calls the ‘object’ is precisely a phantasmic ‘filler’ that covers up this void of subjectivity, providing for it a semblance of being. This structure is perfectly expressed by a third joke, this time from today’s Croatia, about President Franjo Tudjman. Jokes about the Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in general display a structure of some interest for Lacanian theory – for example: Why is it impossible to play ‘hide-and-seek’ with Tudjman? Because if he were to hide, nobody would bother to seek him . . . a nice libidinal point about how hiding works only if people actually want to find you. But the supreme example is that of Tudjman and his large family in a plane above Croatia. Aware of the rumours that a lot of Croats lead miserable unhappy lives, while he and his cronies amass wealth, Tudjman says: ‘What if I were to throw a cheque for a million dollars out of the window, to make at least one Croat, who will catch it, happy?’ His flattering wife says: ‘But Franjo, my dear, why don’t you throw out two cheques for half a million each, and thus make two Croats happy?’ His daughter adds: ‘Why not four cheques for a quarter of a million each, and make four Croats happy?’ and so on, until finally, his grandson – the proverbial innocent youth who unknowingly blurts out the truth – says: ‘But Grandpa, why don’t you simply throw yourself out of the [p. 53] window, and thus make all the Croats happy?’ Here we have it all: the indefinite signifiers approach the impossible limit by subdividing, like Achilles trying to catch up with the tortoise, then this endless series caught in the logic of ‘spurious infinity’ is totalized, closed, completed, by the fall of the body whose Real stands for the subject himself . Through the suicidal fall of his body, the subject does not ‘include himself out’ but, on the contrary, totalizes the series by, as it were, excluding himself in. The body here is literally the ‘indivisible remainder’ that fills in the gap of the endless division. [p. 54]

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