Schopenhauer saw us all as permanently pregnant with monsters, bearing at the very core of our being something implacably alien to it. He called this the Will, which was the stuff out of which we were made and yet was utterly indifferent to us, lending us an illusion of purpose but itself aimless and senseless. Freud, who was much taken with Schopenhauer, offered us a non-metaphysical version of this monstrosity in the notion of desire, a profoundly inhuman process which is deaf to meaning, which has its own sweet way with us and secretly cares for nothing but itself. Desire is nothing personal: it is an affliction that was lying in wait for us from the outset, a perversion in which we get involuntarily swept up, a refractory medium into which we are plunged at birth. For Freud, what makes us human subjects is this foreign body lodged inside us, which invades our flesh like a lethal virus and yet, like the Almighty for Thomas Aquinas, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
This ‘Thing’, as the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls it, with horror movies archly in mind, is otherwise known as the Real, in the Lacanian Holy Trinity of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. It is also the chief protagonist of the work of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who by drawing our attention to this most underprivileged of Lacan’s three categories, challenges his fashionable image as a ‘post-structuralist’ thinker. Zizek’s Lacan is not the philosopher of the floating signifier but a much tougher, alarming, uncanny sort of theorist altogether, who teaches that the Real which makes us what we are is not only traumatic and impenetrable but cruel, obscene, vacuous, meaningless and horrifically enjoyable. Zizek himself is both dauntingly prolific and dazzlingly versatile, able to leap in a paragraph from Hegel to Jurassic Park, Kafka to the Ku Klux Klan; but just as Lacan’s fantasy-ridden world of everyday reality conceals an immutable kernel of the Real, so Zizek’s flamboyant parade of topics recircles, in book after book, to this very same subject. The almost comic versatility of his interests masks a compulsive repetition of the same. His books, as in Freud’s notion of the uncanny, are both familiar and unfamiliar, breathtakingly innovative yet déjà lu, crammed with original insights yet perpetual recyclings of one another. If he reads Lacan as ‘a succession of attempts to seize the same persistent traumatic kernel’, much the same can be said of his own writing, which continually bursts out anew with Schelling or Hitchcock or the war in Bosnia but never shifts its gaze from the same fearful, fascinating psychical scene.
As Zizek sees it, the Real for Lacan is almost the opposite of reality, reality being for Lacan just a low-grade place of fantasy in which we shelter from the terrors of the Real, a Soho of the psyche. The natural state of the human animal is to live a phantasmal lie. Fantasy is not the opposite of reality: it is what plugs the void in our being so that the set of fictions we call reality are able to emerge. The Real is rather the primordial wound we incurred by our fall from the pre-Oedipal Eden, the gash in our being where we were torn loose from Nature, and from which desire flows unstaunchably. Though we repress this trauma, it persists within us as the hard core of the self. Something is missing inside us which makes us what we are, a muteness which resists being signified but which shows up negatively as the outer limit of our discourse, the point at which our representations crumble and fail.
Lacan’s infamous ‘transcendental signifier’ is just the signifier which represents this failure of representation, rather as the phallus for psychoanalysis represents the fact that it can always be cut off. The Real is what cannot be included within any of our symbolic systems, but whose very absence skews them out of shape, as a kind of vortex around which they are bent out of true. It is the factor which ensures that as human subjects we never quite add up, which throws us subtly out of kilter so that we can never be identical with ourselves. It is a version of Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself, and what is ultimately unknowable is Man himself.
The Real is desire, but for Lacan, so Zizek argues, more specifically jouissance or ‘obscene enjoyment’. This enjoyment, which sounds rather less suburban in French, is a sublimely terrifying affair. It is the lethal pleasure of what Freud calls primary masochism, in which we reap delight from the way that the Law or superego unleashes its demented sadism on us. Enjoyment, Lacan maintains, is the only substance which psychoanalysis recognises, and it is also Zizek’s unwavering obsession. Like Schopenhauer’s Will, it is a brute, self-serving affair, as devoid of meaning as the American waiter’s mechanical injunction:‘Enjoy!’ Like the waiter, the Law instructs us to enjoy, but does so in curiously intransitive mood: we are just to reap gratification for its own sake from the superego’s crazed, pointless dictats. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek sees ideological power as resting finally on the libidinal rather than the conceptual, on the way we hug our chains rather than the way we entertain beliefs. At the root of meaning, for both Freud and Lacan, there is always a sustaining residue of non-sense.
The Real is the ‘inruption’ of that nonsense into our signifying systems, and so a much crasser affair than language. But because it can never be signified, seen head-on, it is also a sort of nothing, detectable only through its effects, constructed backward after the event. We know it only from the way it acts as a drag on our discourse, as astronomers may identify a heavenly body only because of its warping effect on the space around it. For the Real to take on tangible embodiment, to crop up in the shape of voices or visions, is for us to become psychotic. The Real is the McGuffin, the joker in the pack, the sign that means nothing but itself. Every signifying system, so Zizek claims, contains a kind of super-signifier whose function is just to point to the fact that the system can’t be totalised. It is that system’s point of internal fracture, marking the space where it doesn’t quite gel. But this absence is what organises the whole system, and so is also a kind of presence within it. You can call this constitutive lack the human subject itself, which is necessary for any set of signs to work, yet which can never be fully encapsulated by them. But this, for Lacan, is also the function of the Real, whose very absence from consciousness is the cause of our carrying on trying to signify it there and always failing. If we failed to keep failing and trying again, if the repression was lifted and the Real burst to the surface, history would instantly cease. In this sense, the sheer impossibility of desire, the fact that we can only ever plug our lack with one poor fantasy object after another, is also what keeps us up and running. That fissure or hindrance in our being which is the Real is also what props up our identity.
This, one might claim, is a classically post-structuralist sort of doctrine. Post-structuralists have almost patented the paradox that what makes something impossible is also what makes it possible. As every English first-year student now knows, what makes a sign a sign is its difference from other signs; but this means that the difference which lends a sign its identity also makes it impossible for a sign to be complete in itself. Difference, as Jacques Derrida playfully puts it, both ‘broaches and breaches’ meaning. Or take the idea, much touted by Zizek, that blindness is the condition of insight, truth the upshot of misrecognition. For Nietzsche, it is only a blessed state of amnesia that enables us to act, since otherwise we would simply be paralysed by the nightmare of history. For Freud, we are shaped into human subjects only by a shattering repression of much that went into our making. It is this crippling forgetfulness which allows us to thrive. The roots of our conscious life must be absent from it if we are to function as subjects at all, rather as the law, if it is to maintain its august authority, must erase the fact that it was originally imposed by an arbitrary act of violence. The law cannot have been established legally, since there was no law before the law.
Zizek’s favourite philosopher, after Lacan, is Hegel, who can also be used to illustrate this paradox. For Hegel, truth is not so much the opposite of error as the result of it. The cunning of Reason lies in the fact that our blunders and oversights, did we but know it, have already been reckoned into account by truth itself, as the very process by which it is achieved. Truth looks like an end-product, but turns out to encompass the whole process of trial and error which led up to it. When we are able to look back and understand that those misrecognitions were essential to the whole enterprise, this is, according to Zizek’s rather heterodox view, the moment of truth or Absolute Idea. Similarly, when the analysand is able to free herself from the illusion that there is some truth quite separate from the business of transference, some transcendental knowledge of which the analyst has possession, then for the Lacanians she is en route to a cure. Zizek illustrates the point with the story of a man faking insanity in order to escape conscription, whose ‘psychosis’ takes the form of rummaging obsessively through a pile of documents saying, ‘That’s not it, that’s not it!’ When the doctors, convinced by this frenetic performance, finally present him with a certificate of exemption, he exclaims: ‘That’s it!’ What looked like the result of his behaviour was actually the cause of it, and this reversal of cause and effect is a staple of psychoanalytic theory which Zizek expounds – as he expounds everything else – with extraordinary brio and élan.
He is, in fact, the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general, to have emerged in Europe for some decades. The fact that he hails from a former Communist society is probably not accidental in this respect, since there was always a certain market for French theory in the Eastern bloc. If the secret police do not take kindly to talk of political resistance, you can always recode it as deconstructing totalities, subverting the Master-Signifier, opening up to the Other. Jacques Derrida had a following in Communist Poland and was arrested for trading on the philosophical black market in former Czechoslovakia. Beijing today boasts an Institute of Post-Modern Studies, where you can talk of difference and desire without unduly alarming the authorities. Zizek himself is one of a high-powered circle of Ljubljana Lacanians, a man with active political interests in the new Slovenia.
This background is also perhaps relevant to his passion for the Real. Lacan, as we have seen, is not for Zizek a post-structuralist in the popular, packaged sense of the word (‘spaghetti structuralism’, as Zizek scornfully dubs it), which means dissolving everything into discourse. On the contrary, the whole point of the Real is to give language the slip, block it from the inside, bend the signifier out of true. For Lacan, language is forced up against the wall of the Real and made to turn out its empty pockets. Zizek, who enjoys finding arcane meanings in bits of cliché, would doubtless bark ‘Get Real!’ to those for whom language is all there is. But this concern for what defeats totality, for the way desire gets thwarted, for how an autocratic authority sadistically enjoins us to enjoy that condition: all of this can surely be read against the background of that mass blockage of desire, along with a cynical invitation to the masses to hug their chains, which was bureaucratic Communism.
There is a parallel here with that other Eastern European heretic, Milan Kundera. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera speaks of a contrast between the ‘angelic’ and the ‘demonic’, the former signifying too much meaning and the latter too little. Totalitarian states are angelic, fearful of obscurity, dragging everything into luminous significance and instant legibility; the demonic, by contrast, is marked by a cynical cackle which revolts against the tidy sense-making of tyranny by revelling in the brute meaninglessness of things. It is not hard to spot Lacan’s Symbolic Order in the former and his Real in the latter, or to understand why the sheer contingency of the Real, its trick of disrupting closed symbolic systems with a reminder of unsatisfied desire, should have an appeal to an Eastern European intellectual. What one might call Lacan’s ethical imperative – his injunction to the patient not to give up on his desire even while acknowledging its impossibility – sounds rather like the position of Polish Solidarity in its darkest days.
Indeed, for Lacan, the psychoanalytic cure is a little like the achievement of political independence. What troubles us most deeply in Lacan’s view is the fact that, though our desire is always the desire of the Other (i.e. drawn from the Other, as well as directed to it), we can never be entirely sure what it is that the Other is demanding of us, since any demand has to be interpreted, and so to be garbled by the duplicitous signifier. ‘What do they want of me, what am I expected to be?’ is the insistent query which for Lacan hollows our being into desire. The cured patient is the one who has given up on this unanswerable question, acknowledged that her desire is entirely self-grounding, embraced the utter contingency of her own being and relinquished the futile quest of having it confirmed from the outside. If this has a faint resemblance to getting out from under a political oppressor, it also, as Zizek reminds us, has more than a smack of the saint. The image of the cured patient, one might claim, is Samuel Richardson’s raped Clarissa, who by the end of his novel has turned her face to the wall, renounced the claims of others and embraced her death by withdrawing her body from libidinal circulation. To be cured of your psychic ailments, you really need to be a saint, which is perhaps one reason why psychoanalysis is such a lengthy, precarious affair.
There is another sense in which Zizek’s Marxist background is relevant. No acolyte of Lacan from Paris or Pittsburgh would have anything like Zizek’s political nous, a faculty you develop spontaneously in a place where the political is the colour of everyday life. Lacan himself, who advances an essentially tragic philosophy of life, had a lofty contempt for politics, indeed for history as such; whereas Zizek, who fails for the most part to comment on his mentor’s dandyish megalomania, is a post-Marxist who applies his psychoanalytic insights to racism, nationalism, anti-semitism, totalitarianism, the commodity form. It is hardly surprising that a psychoanalytic theorist of such virtuosity should have emerged from the ethnic conflicts of former Yugoslavia, just as Europe’s previous most fruitful encounter between Marx and Freud was the product of a Frankfurt School on the run from Nazi anti-semitism.
Racism, nationalism, anti-semitism are where the abstruse categories of psychoanalysis are brought home to everyday political life. And Zizek, who was writing at one point with the Bosnian war on his doorstep, has a sense of the Realpolitik of the psyche quite foreign to the gentrified, consumerist, post-ideological Western world for which he has such proper contempt. If he is more unabashedly theoretical than the typical Anglo-Saxon intellectual, he is also a lot more practical. He is even getting a little restive these days with his own post-Marxism, chiding its neglect of the economic in traditional Marxist style. He is startlingly casual – indeed, for such a profoundly sophisticated thinker, almost naive – in the way that he moves so directly from the psychoanalytic to the political, a frontier along which many a fellow theorist has preferred to pussyfoot. Fetishism, scapegoating, splitting, foreclosure, disavowal, idealising, projection: if these are the familiar mechanisms of the Freudian psyche, they are also mass movements, political strategies, military campaigns. Writing during the Bosnian war in Metastases of Enjoyment (1994) of a New Zealand tribe who invented a grotesque war dance for the delectation of some visiting anthropologists, he notes that ‘David Owen and companions are today’s version of the expedition to the New Zealand tribe: they act and react exactly in the same way, overlooking how the entire spectacle of “old hatreds suddenly erupting in their primordial cruelty” is a dance staged for their eyes, a dance for which the West is thoroughly responsible.’
‘I am convinced of my proper grasp of some Lacanian concept,’ Zizek writes, ‘only when I can translate it successfully into the inherent imbecility of popular culture.’ His works are awash with allusions to detective fiction and David Lynch, movies and musicals. A particularly tricky aspect of Schelling’s notion of freedom is illuminated by the Flintstones, while Kant’s doctrine of the transcendental unity of apperception is exemplified by vampire novels. An aesthetic distinction between classical and avantgarde music is illustrated by whether or not the audience coughs and shuffles at the end of a movement. Commentaries on the films of Hitchcock – Zizek’s King Charles’s head, one might say – almost outnumber his analyses of Hegel. In a fine essay on Psycho in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), a collection of Hitchcock essays by various hands, he treats us to a Lacanian analysis of the moment when the camera first looks down from above on the private eye being attacked by the disguised Anthony Perkins, then cuts to a shot of the stabbed detective hurtling backwards down the staircase. The bird’s-eye shot, so Zizek informs us, lays bare an apparently transparent reality, into which the opaque ‘Thing’ or enigmatic murderer suddenly intrudes; what follows, shockingly, is a shot of the murder victim from the ‘impossible’ viewpoint of the Thing itself.
The striking feature of Zizek’s use of popular culture is its lack of coyness. Unlike his wilfully hermetic Parisian maître, his writing is splendidly crisp and lucid, even if his books can be fearsomely difficult. The difficulties belong to the ideas, not to the expression, a distinction between signified and signifier at which the wilder kind of post-structuralist would doubtless baulk. There is no sense that he is strenuously popularising – or of some contrived Post-Modern pastiche; soap operas and Disney cartoons are just part of his intellectual furniture, objects of his promiscuous inquiries as familiar as God, Kant or consumerism. His style is deep and light simultaneously, shot through with an intense political seriousness but never at all portentous. His prose resonates with the feel of a markedly idiosyncratic personality, but is curiously without self-display. The fact that he is so compulsively obsessional about both Lacan and Hitchcock is a kind of tacit running joke, something so embarrassingly obtrusive that it would be boring for either author or reader even to mention it.
Indeed, jokes form some of Zizek’s primary philosophical examples. He has a good line in sardonic East European political humour, as when he remarks that the difference between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was that whereas in the former the people walked while their elected representatives drove cars, in the latter, more liberalised version of Communism, the people themselves drove cars through their elected representatives. To illustrate the dialectic of presence and absence, he recounts the story of a guide conducting some visitors round an East European art gallery and halting before a painting entitled Lenin in Warsaw. There is no sign of Lenin in the picture; instead, it depicts Lenin’s wife in bed with a handsome young member of the Central Committee. ‘But where is Lenin?’ inquire the bemused visitors, to which the guide gravely replies: ‘Lenin is in Warsaw.’
Zizek thinks Hegel and Lacan entirely compatible, partly because he reads the former through the latter in a heretical deconstruction of Hegel’s supposed holism. Indeed the flavour of his mind is thoroughly Hegelian, continually on the prowl for antitheses inverting themselves into identities, in a set of dialectical guerrilla raids on common sense. Some random examples: it is not that order and disorder are opposites, but that the imposition of a (purely contingent) order on chaos is itself the highest mode of disorder. The Lacanian Other – the Symbolic Order, or language as a whole – can have no Other to itself, which is to say that there can be no ultimate guarantee of the field of meaning. Multiculturalism is just a kind of racism in reverse, respecting another’s culture from the distancing, unchallenged vantage-point of one’s own. The law must be irrational, since if there were reasons for obeying it it would lose its absolute authority. The unconscious is not the opposite of consciousness, but the founding act of repression by which consciousness is established in the first place.
The following captures something of his characteristic intellectual style: ‘At first glance it would seem that the sausage in the hot dog wedges apart the two pieces of roll. But the roll itself is nothing but a “space” which the sausage creates around it, the phantasmal “frame” or support of the sausage without which it would vanish to nothing. On the other hand, the sausage itself can be seen as no more than an embodied gap between the two pieces of bread, the mere pretext or occasion which prevents them from ever uniting.’ This is my parody rather than Zizek’s own words, but much odder passages are to be found in his work.
Zizek is especially deft-fingered when it comes to dismantling the opposition between the universal and the particular. The universal, he points out, must exclude particularity, and so can’t really be as universal as it supposes. We have access to universals only because we are situated within a specific culture, a point which both rationalists and relativists might do well to ponder. Cultural relativism, Zizek notes, is much vexed by our supposed inability to gain access to the ‘other’; but what if this other were inherently incomplete, and so in any case unknowable as a whole? What if what I share most deeply with the other is just the fact that I, too, am never self-transparent, never complete, never wholly bound to my own cultural context but always to some degree out of joint with it? What I and the other have in common is the fact that there is always something which eludes our grasp (Lacan’s ‘big Other’), and it is in the overlapping of these twin absences that we can meet. It is when we are able to discern the blindspot of another culture, its point of failure, that we are most at one with it, since it is just such an internal limit which constitutes our own forms of life, too.
In his latest two books, Zizek has turned to the study of the German philosopher, F.W.J. von Schelling, who over the past few years has been shot from Teutonic obscurity to something like philosophical stardom. Zizek, naturally, finds a lot of Lacan in Schelling, as he finds him in everything; but he also makes some rather extravagant claims for Schelling as a precursor of ‘the entire post-Hegelian constellation’, from Marxism and existentialism to deconstruction and New Age obscurantism. He is especially fascinated by Schelling’s highly esoteric theology – unsurprisingly in a way, for what is the Real, this kink or deviation at the heart of things without which they would not work, but the fortunate Fall or felix culpa? The Real is a psychoanalytic version of Original Sin, and Schelling boldly applies this notion to God as well, who like us is never fully himself, plagued by a foreign body at the core of his being which is (one should have guessed it) precisely what allows him to be the Almighty. That the Creator is also afflicted by the Real is perhaps some small comfort to his creatures. It is curious that conservative pessimists who find no problem with the doctrine of Original Sin would doubtless dismiss both Lacan and Zizek as theoretical nihilists.
‘If we were able to penetrate the exterior of things,’ Schelling comments, ‘we would see that the true stuff of all life and existence is the horrible.’ One can see, then, why he is Zizek’s sort of thinker. But Zizek never really takes time off from his explorations to reflect on just what a hideous view of human life he is delivering us, or on how this is compatible with the political dissent which he clearly still embraces. How is ‘Lacanian radical’ not to be as oxymoronic a phrase as ‘military intelligence’? The view from the Real is admittedly no more horrible than what Anglican vicars are supposed to believe, but then Anglican vicars are not noted for their political radicalism. Just as human existence for Lacan is the fantasy by which we plug the terrifying void of the Real, so Zizek’s chirpy wit and anecdotal relish serve in part to mask the obscene vision of humanity he offers.
If the only topic psychoanalysis recognises is enjoyment, the same might finally be said of Zizek the writer. His books have an enviable knack of making Kant or Kierkegaard sound riotously exciting; his writing bristles with difficulties but never serves up a turgid sentence. The demotic companionability of his style is an implicit rebuke to the high-minded terrorism of so much French theory. Lacan may insist that the analyst is an empty signifier, that he holds no secret key to the patient’s unhappiness, but his posturing rhetoric belies any such disavowal. ‘Enjoy!’ is Zizek’s implicit injunction to the reader, as he shifts within a single chapter from Mozart to time travel, hysteria to Judaism, Marx to Marlboro ads, while managing somehow to sustain a coherent argument. In his case too, however, form and content are subtly at variance. The mercurial sparkle of his work is at odds with its bleak, mechanically recurrent content, for which enjoyment, in the Real, is where we encounter the least delectable truths of all.