I. Through the Glasses Darkly (revisited, enlarged and re-edited)
John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), one of the neglected masterpieces of the Hollywood Left, is a true lesson in critique of ideology. It is the story of John Nada – Spanish for “nothing”! -, a homeless laborer who finds work on a Los Angeles construction site, but has no place to stay. One of the workers, Frank Armitage, takes him to spend the night at a local shantytown. While being shown around that night, he notices some odd behavior at a small church across the street. Investigating it the next day, he accidentally stumbles on several more boxes hidden in a secret compartment in a wall, full of sunglasses. When he later puts on a pair of the glasses for the first time, he notices that a publicity billboard now simply displays the word “OBEY,” while another billboard urges the viewer to “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” He also sees that paper money bears the words “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” Additionally he soon discovers that many people are actually aliens who, when they realize he can see them for what they are, the police suddenly arrive. Nada escapes and returns to the construction site to talk over what he has discovered with Armitage, who is initially uninterested in his story. The two fight as Nada attempts to convince and then force him to put on the sunglasses. When he does, Armitage joins Nada and they get in contact with the group from the church, organizing resistance. At the group’s meeting they learn that the alien’s primary method of control is a signal being sent out on television, which is why the general public cannot see the aliens for what they are. In the final battle, after destroying the broadcasting antenna, Nada is mortally wounded; as his last dying act, he gives the aliens the finger. With the signal now missing, people are startled to find the aliens in their midst.
There is a series of features one should take note of here, first among them the direct link of the classic Hollywood topic of the “invasion of the body snatchers,” aliens among us who, invisible to our gaze, already run our lives, to class antagonism, to ideological domination and exploitation – one cannot but be impressed by the down-to-earth depiction of the miserable shanty-town lives of poor workers. Then there is, of course, the beautifully-naïve mise-en-scene of ideology: through the critico-ideological glasses, we directly see the Master-Signifier beneath the chain of knowledge: we learn to see dictatorship IN democracy. There is, of course, a naïve aspect in this staging, reminding us of the not-so-well-known fact that, in the 1960s, the leadership of the CP of the USA, in order to account for its failure to mobilize workers, seriously entertained the idea that the US population is controlled by the secret use of drugs distributed through air and water supply. We do not need aliens and secret drugs or gasses – the FORM of ideology does the work without them. It is because of this form that the depicted scene nonetheless stages our daily truth. Look at the front page of our daily newspapers: every title, even and especially when it pretends just to inform, an implicit injunction. When you are asked to choose between liberal democracy and fundamentalism, it is not only that one term is obviously preferred – what is more important, the true injunction, is to see this as the true alternative, to ignore third options.
There is a further feature which makes this scene with “ideologico-critical spectacles” contemporary: in it, the ideological injunction is hidden, so that it can only be directly seen through the glasses. Such a relationship between visible and invisible is predominant in contemporary “consumerist” societies, in which we, subjects, are no longer interpellated on behalf of some big ideological identity, but directly as subjects of pleasures, so that the implied ideological identity is invisible. This is how the discourse of University functions: its truth, the Master’s injunction, is hidden beneath the bar. In the traditional discourse of the Master, where we are directly interpellated, the relationship is (almost symmetrically) inversed: the explicit text addresses us as followers of a big Cause, while the implied message delivered between the lines concerns the obscene surplus-jouissance with which we are bribed if we subject ourselves to the Cause: became a good Fascist… and you can steal from the Jews, beat and lynch them; become a Catholic priest, serve God… and you can play with a young boy as a dessert; get properly married… and an occasional discreet affair is tolerated. We can thus imagine the opposite ideological spectacles which would spell out this implicit obscene message: imagine an electoral poster of a nationalist-populist party which asks you to sacrifice for your country in danger, but when you put the glasses on, you see the profit you get from it, the spoils of your sacrifice – being allowed to humiliate foreigners, etc., as part of your patriotic duty. Or imagine a poster in a small racist town in the American South in the Ku Klux Klan era which calls on you to be a good Christian defending Western civilization, but when you put the glasses on, it tells you that you can rape black women, lynch black men…
We find yet another way to imagine the functioning of the ideological glasses: when we see a scene of starving children in Africa, with a call to do something and help them, the true message visible through the glasses would have been something like: “Don’t think, don’t politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!” It was already Rousseau who understood perfectly the falsity of multiculturalist admirers of foreign cultures – in Émile, he warned about a “philosopher who loves Tartars in order to be dispensed from loving his neighbors.”
The long fight between Nada and Armitage, worthy of The Fight Club (another masterpiece of the Hollywood Left), which starts with Nada saying to Armitage: “I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start to eat that trash.” (The fight is taking place among overturned trash-bins.) The fight, which goes on for an unbearable 10 minutes, with moments of exchange of friendly smiles, is in itself totally “irrational” – why doesn’t Armitage accept to put the glasses on, just to satisfy his friend? The only explanation is that he knows that his friend wants him to see something dangerous, to attain a prohibited knowledge which would totally spoil the relative peace of his daily life. The violence staged here is a positive violence, a condition of liberation – the lesson is that our liberation from ideology is not a spontaneous act, an act of discovering our true Self. We learn in the film that, when one looks for too long at reality through critico-ideological glasses, one gets a strong headache: it is very painful to be deprived of the ideological surplus-jouissance. Marxists accept this aspect of struggle for dictatorship, they render it visible and openly practice it. Why? Let us return to the film: one you put the glasses on and see it, it no longer determines you. Which means that, before you see it through the glasses, you also saw it, but were not aware of it. To refer to the fourth missing term of Rumsfeld’s epistemology, the injunctions were your “unknown knowns”. This is why really seeing it hurts. The key feature here is that to see the true nature of things, we need the glasses: it is not that we should put ideological glasses off to see directly reality as it is”: we are “naturally” in ideology, our natural, immediate, sight is ideological. It is thus quite appropriate that the final gesture of the dying hero in John Carpenter’s They Live is that of giving finger to the aliens – a case of thinking with a hand which functions here as an autonomous “organ without body”, a gesture of “Up yours!”, the digitus impudicus (“impudent finger”) mentioned already in Ancient Roman writings.
This brings us to the proper base (almost in the military sense of the term) of ideology. When we read an abstract “ideological” proclamation, we are well aware that this is not how “real people” experience it: in order to pass from abstract propositions to people’s “real lives,” one has to add to the abstract propositions the unfathomable density of a life world context – and ideology are not the abstract propositions in themselves, ideology is this very life world density which “schematizes” them, renders them “livable.” Take military ideology: it becomes “livable” only against the background of the obscene unwritten rules and rituals (marching chants, fragging, sexual inuendos…) in which it is embedded. Which is why, if there is an ideological experience at its purest, its zero-level, it is at the moment when we adopt the attitude of wise ironic distance and laugh at the follies we are ready to believe – at this moment of liberating laughter, when we look down on the ridicule of our faiths, we are pure subjects of ideology, ideology exerts its pure hold on us. This is why, say, if one wants to observe today’s ideology at work, all one has to do is to watch some of the Michael Palin’s travel reports on BBC: their underlying attitude of benevolent ironic distance towards different customs, taking pleasure in observing local peculiarities while filtering out the truly traumatic data, is postmodern racism at its purest.
So when we talk about “objective spirit” (the substance of mores) as the cobweb of unwritten rules which determine what we can say/see/do, one should complicate further Foucault’s description of a discursive episteme: “objective spirit” also and above all determines what we know but have to talk about and act as if we don’t know, and what we don’t know but have to talk about and act as if we do know it; it determines what we have to know but have to pretend we don’t know. The rise of today’s so-called ethnic and religious fundamentalism is a rebellion against this thick network of manners which support freedoms in a liberal society. They do not fear the uncertainties of freedom and permissiveness – what they fear is, on the opposite, (what they experience as) the oppressive web of new regulations. (It would have been interesting to reread Marcel Proust against the background of this topic of unwritten customs: the problem of his In Search For a Lost Time is “How is aristocracy possible in democratic times, once the external marks of hierarchy are abolished?”, and his reply is: the complex network of unwritten informal habits (gestures, tastes) by means of which those who are “in” recognize “their own” and identify those who just pretend to belong to the inner circle and are to be ostracized.) 
So where is ideology? When we are dealing with a problem which is undoubtedly a real one, the ideological designation-perception introduces its invisible mystification. Say, tolerance designates a real problem – I am as a rule asked, when I oppose it: »But how can you be for intolerance towards foreigners, for antifeminism, for homophobia?« Therein resides the catch: of course I am not against it, but what I am against is the (today’s automatic) perception of racism as a problem of tolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The cause of this culturalization is the retreat, the failure of direct political solutions such as the Welfare State or various socialist projects: “tolerance” is their post-political ersatz. (The same goes for “harassment”: in today’s ideological space, the very real harassments (rape, bigotry…) are irreducibly intertwined with the narcissistic notion of the individual who experiences all proximity of others as an intrusion into his/her private space.) “Ideology” is, in this precise sense, a notion which, while designating a real problem, blurs a crucial line of separation.
This is also why Lacan claims: “I am not even saying ‘politics is the unconscious,’ but only ‘the unconscious is politics’.” The difference is crucial here. In the first case, the Unconscious is elevated into the “big Other” which exists: it is posited as a substance which really dominates and regulates political activity, in the sense of “the true mobile of our political activity are not ideology or interests, but unconscious libidinal motivations.” In the second case, the big Other itself loses its substantial character, it is no longer “THE Unconscious,” it changes into a fragile inconsistent field overdetermined by political struggles. During a public debate with Bernard-Henri Levy at NYPL, he made a pathetic case for liberal tolerance (“Would you not like to leave in a society where you can make fun of the predominant religion without the fear of being killed for it? Where women are free to dress the way they like and choose a man they love?” etc.etc.), while I made a similarly pathetic case for Communism (“With the growing food crisis, ecological crisis, uncertainties how to deal with intellectual property and biogenetics, with the rise of new Wall between countries and within each country, is there not a need to find as new way of collective action which radically differs from market as well as from state administration?”) – the irony of the situation was that, when the case is stated in these abstract terms, we both couldn’t but agree with each other. Levy, a hard-line liberal anti-Communist proponent of free market, ironically remarked that in this sense, even he is for Communism… This mutual understanding was the proof that we were both knee-deep in ideology: “ideology” is precisely such a reduction to the simplified “essence” which conveniently forgets what comes up with it as the price to be paid, the “background noise” which provides the density of its actual meaning. Such an erasure of the “background noise” is the very core of utopia.
What this “background noise” conveys is – more often than not – the obscenity of barbarian violence which sustains the public law and order. This is why Benjamin’s thesis that every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism has a precise impact on the very notion of being civilized: “to be civilized means to know one is potentially barbarian.”  Every civilization which disavows its barbarian potential already capitulated to barbarism. This is how one should read the report about a weird confrontation in Vienna of 1938, when SS thugs entered Freud’s apartment to examine it: the old dignified Freud standing across a young SS bull as a metaphor of what was the best in old European culture confronting the worst of the new emerging barbarism. One should nonetheless add to the clarity of this image that the SS perceived and legitimized themselves as the defense of European culture and its spiritual values against the barbarism of modernity with its focus on economy and sex, the barbarism which, for the Nazis, was epitomized by the name “Freud”… What this means is that Benjamin’s claim that every document of culture is at the same time a document of barbarism should be pushed a step further: what if culture itself is nothing but a halt, a break, a respite, in the pursuit of barbarity? This, perhaps, is one of the ways to read Paul Celan’s succinct paraphrase of Brecht: 
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much /implicitly/ told?”
The gap between the official text of the Law and its obscene supplement is not limited to Western cultures; in Hindu culture, it occurs as the opposition between vaidika (Vedic corpus) and tantrika: tantra is the obscene (secret) supplement to Vedas, the unwritten (or secret, non-canonic) core of the public teaching of Vedas, a publicly disavowed but necessary supplement. No wonder tantra is so popular today in the West: it offers the ultimate “spiritual logic of late capitalism”  uniting spirituality and earthly pleasures, transcendence and material profit, divine experience and unlimited shopping. It propagates permanent transgression of all rules, violation of all taboos, instant gratification as the path to Enlightenment; it overcomes old “binary” thought, the dualism of mind and body, claiming that the body at its most material (the site of sex and lust) IS the royal path to spiritual awakening. Bliss comes from “saying YES” to all bodily needs, not from thwarting them: spiritual perfection comes from the insight that we already are divine and perfect, not that we have to achieve this through effort and discipline. Body is not the stuff to be cultivated/belabored into an expression of spiritual truths, it immediately is the “temple for expressing divinity.” Note here the opposition to Tarkovsky’s spiritual materialism: for Tarkovsky, the very material corruption (decay, decomposing, rotting, inertia, dump, wet stuff) is spiritual, while here the ethereal incorruptibility of the flesh is celebrated. This tendency reaches its apogee with cyberspace: it is not a simple accidental fact that tantra is one of the constant references of the cyberspace New Age ideologists who insist on the fusion of body and spirituality in the guise of the virtual “incorporeal spiritual body” able to endure extreme pleasures. Our biological body itself is a hardware that needs re-programming through tantra as the new spiritual software to release (unblock) its potentials. Tantra notions are here translated into cyberspeak: phone wires become nadis of the virtual subtle corpus, computer terminals chakras (nodes of energy), the flow of vital prajna the infinite stream of informations – we thus obtain “a cyborgasm that combines the incorruptibility of cyberspace with the most this-worldly sensual pleasure of the self”: 
Real Tantric sex blows your mind completely because it takes you beyond all our conceptions of everyday reality. /…/ Understanding that our bodies are temples for expressing divinity we can /…/ expand, celebrate and share VIBRATIONAL ENGORGEMENT in every cell of our being /…/ blending sex and spirit. 
What we should always bear in mind is that there is nothing »spontaneous« in such transgressive outbursts. A close look demonstrates that we truly enjoy smoking and drinking only in public, as part of a public “carnival,” the sacred suspension of ordinary rules. The same goes even for swearing and sex: none of them is at its most radical an activity in which we “explode” in spontaneous passion against the stifled public conventions – they are, on the contrary, both practiced “against the pleasure principle,” for the gaze of the Other. (A personal note: I like to swear only in public, never in private, where I find doing it stupid and inappropriate, indecent even.) Violating the public rules is thus not done by the private ego, but is enjoined by the same public rules which are in themselves redoubled, divided. This is what distinguishes such violations from tolerant wisdom: the stance of tolerant wisdom (like the proverbial Catholic attitude of ignoring – suggesting even – occasional infidelities if they help keeping the marriage) allows for private transgressions, for the transgressions outside the public gaze. 
How does one really become adult? By way of knowing when to violate the explicit rule one is committed to. So, with regard to marriage, one can well say that one becomes adult when one is able to commit adultery. The only proof of reason is occasional laps into “irrationality” (as Hegel knew very well). The only proof of taste is that one knows how to occasionally like things which do not meet the criteria of high taste; the one who strictly follows high taste thereby displays his lack of taste. (A person who expresses his admiration for Beethoven’s 9th symphony or other masterpieces of Western civilization immediately bears witness to his tastelessness – a true taste is displayed by praising a minor work by Beethoven as superior to his “greatest hits,” like my friend Mladen Dolar, an absolute Schubert fan who prefers Schubert’s unknown male-chorus peaces (celebrating hunters’ reunions, etc.) to his much better known songs.)
Perhaps, one should turn around the terms of Bertrand Russell’s well-known barber-paradox (does the barber who follows the rule of shaving all the people who do not shave themselves shave himself?) which led him to prohibit self-inclusion, i.e., inconsistent self-redoubling, as the only way to avoid contradiction: what if, on the contrary, the “consistent” sticking to one’s rules which is truly self-contradictory, i.e., which turns into its opposite? (If you want to follow high taste consistently, you display your tastelessness, etc.) And what if the only way to truly be reasonable or to truly display taste is to fully engage in self-redoubling, to self-reflexively violate the rule one follows (to occasionally lap into tastelessness or abandon reason)?
It is as if, in today’s permissive society, transgressive violations are permitted, but in a “privatized” form, as a personal idiosyncrasy deprived of its public-spectacle-ritual dimension. We can thus publicly confess all our private weird practices, but they remain our private idiosyncrasies. Perhaps, one should turn around here the standard formula of fetishist disavowal: “I know very well (to obey the rules), but nonetheless… (I occasionally violate them, since this is part of the rules).” In today’s permissive society, the predominant stance is rather: “I believe (that permanent hedonist transgressions are what makes life worth living), but nonetheless… (I know very well that these transgressions are not really transgressive, but just a fake coloring which re-asserts the grey social reality.”
II. Legalists versus Confucians
The philosopher who tried to undermine the very possibility of such unwritten obscene rules was Immanuel Kant: in his “Perpetual Peace,” he grounds what he calls the “transcendental formula of public law” (“All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.”) in the obvious reason that a secret law, a law unknown to its subjects, would legitimize the arbitrary despotism of those who exercise it: “A maxim which I cannot divulge without defeating my own purpose must be kept secret if it is to succeed; and, if I cannot publicly avow it without inevitably exciting universal opposition to my project, the necessary and universal opposition which can be foreseen a priori is due only to the injustice with which the maxim threatens everyone.” 
Thing, however, soon get ambiguous in Kant. As every Kant scholar knows apropos his prohibition to lie, one has always to be very attentive about exceptions to his universal maxims. In the Second Supplement to his “Perpetual Peace,” Kant asks a naïve question: can the contract between states which obliges them to perpetual peace have a secret clause? Although he admits that a secret article in contracts under public law is objectively a contradiction, he allows an exception for subjective reasons. This clause is not what one would have expected, a clause allowing dirty realpolitical compromises in order to maintain peace, like to infamous secret clause of the Soviet-German Treaty from 1939 regulating the partition of Poland and other Eastern European states. It is, rather, something which may appear much more innocent, even ridiculous to make it the topic of a secret clause: “The opinions of philosophers on the conditions of the possibility of public peace shall be consulted by those states armed for war.” Why should this clause remain secret? If made public, it would appear humiliating to the legislative authority of a state: how can the supreme authority, to whom “we must naturally attribute the utmost wisdom,” seek instruction from its subjects? This may sound ridiculous, but do we not respect it even today? When Habermas was in England during Blair’s government, did Tony Blair not invite him to a discrete diner which was not reported in the media? Kant was thus right: this clause should remain secret, because it does something more horrible than bringing out the dark cynical underside of legal power (in today’s cynical era, a state power can proudly admit its dark side, flirting with the fact that it is discreetly doing dirty things it is better for us not to know them) – it brings out the blindness, stupidity and ignorance of power, a blindness which is not personal but institutional: in spite of hundreds of highly-educated experts, the result of the US invasion of Iraq are catastrophic.
There is, however, a problem with Kant’s thesis: what was unthinkable for Kant was the modern “totalitarian ideology” as opposed to mere authoritarian lust for power: the will to impose on reality a theoretical vision of a better world. In totalitarian regimes like Stalinism, rulers were effectively listening too much to philosophers’ advices – and was the same not true already for Robespierre who listened to (relied on) Rousseau, so much beloved by Kant? And the story goes on till today: Brecht, Sartre, Heidegger… thanks god that those in power do not listen to philosophers’ advices too much! In the 1960s, when China exploded its first atomic bomb, Karl Jaspers advocated a big atomic arms attack on China to prevent it becoming a threat to world peace. Back in China itself, the king of Qin who ruthlessly united China and, in 221 BC, proclaimed himself its First Emperor, this arch-model of “totalitarian” rule, also relied so heavily on the advice of the “Legalist” philosophers that one can see in him the first case of a state order imposed on a society by a conscious and well-planned decision to break with past traditions and impose a new order conceived in theory:
The king of Qin was not necessarily the brains of the outfit – his advisers, free of the strictures of courtly life, were the ones who had masterminded his rise to power. The plan to install him as the ruler of the world had commenced before he was even born, with the contention of long-dead scholars that the world required an enlightened prince. It had proceeded with /…/ an alliance of scholars in search of a patron who might allow them to secure their own political ends. Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, became the First Emperor with the help of great minds. 
These Legalists – first among them Han Fei and the great Li Si – emerged out of the crisis of Confucianism. When, in 5th to 3rd centuries BC, China went through the period of the “Warring States,” Confucians perceived as the ultimate cause of this slow but persistent decay the betrayal of old traditions and customs. Confucius was not so much a philosopher as a proto-ideologist: what he was interested in were not metaphysical Truths but a harmonious social order within which individuals can lead happy and ethical lives. He was the first to clearly outline what one is tempted to call the elementary scene of ideology, the zero-level of ideology. This zero-level consists of asserting the (nameless) authority of some substantial Tradition; of referring to an original time when this Tradition still fully reigned (when “a king was really a king, a father really a father,” etc.), in contrast to which the present appears as the time of decay, of the disintegration of organic social ties, of the growing gap between things and words, between individuals and their titles or social roles. No wonder Confucius represented his teachings as lessons transmitted from antiquity; the fact that it is easy to demonstrate how he often did the exact opposite and proposed something new, i.e., that the tradition he referred to was what Eric Hobsbawn called an “invented tradition,” makes his insistence that he is “a transmitter and not a maker” all the more symptomatic: his reference to tradition is not a fact, but a necessary structural illusion.
According to Confucius, people live their lives within parameters firmly established by Heaven (which, more than a purposeful Supreme Being, designates the higher natural order of things with its fixed cycles and patterns). Men are nonetheless responsible for their actions, especially for their treatment of others: we can do little or nothing to alter our fated span of existence, but we determine what we accomplish and what we are remembered for. Heaven rules the physical universe through ming, or “destiny,” which is beyond human understanding and control, and it rules the moral universe, the universe of human behavior, through T’ien ming, or “The Mandate of Heaven.” This “Mandate of Heaven” is based on the idea that Heaven is primarily concerned with the well-being of humans and human society; in order to bring about this well-being, Heaven institutes government and authority. Heaven gives its mandate to a family or individual to rule over other human beings with justice and fairness; rulers are to make the welfare of their people their principal concern. When rulers or a dynasty fail to rule in this manner, Heaven removes its mandate from that ruler and bestows it on another. – Is, then, “Heaven” not the Chinese name for the big Other? Is not, in this sense, the Communist Party rule legitimized by the “Mandate of Heaven,” obliging the Communists to rule so that they make the welfare of their people their principal concern? (A truly radical revolutionary subject should precisely drop this reference to Heaven: there is no Heaven, no higher cosmic Law which would justify our acts. So when Mao Zedong said “There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent,” he thereby made a point which can be precisely rendered in Lacanian terms: the inconsistency of the big Other opens up the space for the act.)
Most troubling to Confucius was his perception that the political institutions of his day had completely broken down. He attributed this collapse to the fact that those who wielded power as well as those who occupied subordinate positions did so by making claim to titles for which they were not worthy. When asked about the principles of good government, Confucius is reported to have replied: “Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” In Europe, we call this a corporate vision: society is like a body where each individual has to stay at his proper place and play his particular role. This is the very opposite of democracy: in democracy, nobody is constrained to his or her particular place, everybody has the right to participate in universal affairs, to have his word in the deliberations about where our society goes. No wonder, then, that Confucius’ description of the disorder he sees in society around him – “Rulers do not rule and subjects do not serve” – provides a good description of a democratic society in which the united subjects rule and the nominal rulers serve them.
Confucius proposes here a kind of proto-Althusserian theory of ideological interpellation: the ideological “big Other” (Tradition), embodied in its apparatuses (rituals), interpellates individuals, and it is up to the individual to live and act in accordance with the title makes him what he is. If I claim for myself a title and attempt to participate in the various hierarchical relationships to which I would be entitled by virtue of that title, then I should live up to the meaning of that title. Confucius’ analysis of the lack of connection between things and their names and the need to correct such circumstances is usually referred to as his teaching on zhengming, the “rectification of names” (this name itself is a symptomatic misnomer: what should be rectified are acts – they should be made to correspond to their names):
If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything. 
Confucius, who always calls for the respect of tradition, rituals and politeness, here undermines the very thing he defends. Are not all good manners based on the fact that “what is said is not what is meant”? When, at a table, I ask my colleague “Can you please give me salt?”, I do not say what I mean. I say to him if he CAN do it, but what I really mean he that he simply should DO it. If my colleague wanted to be really brutal, he would answer my request by “Yes, I can,” and do nothing. So when Confucius writes: “Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual,” he asks us precisely to “say what we don’t mean”: rituals are to be followed, not understood, when we obey them, we repeat formulas whose true meaning is always obscure to us.
What “Legalist” did was to drop the very coordinates of such a perception of the situation: for the Confucians, the land was in chaos because old traditions were not obeyed, and states like Qin with their centralized-military organization dismissive of the old customs were perceived as the embodiment of what is wrong. However, in contrast to his teacher Xunzi who regarded nations like Qin as a threat to peace, Han Fei “proposed the unthinkable, that maybe the way of the Qin government was not an anomaly to be addressed, but a practice to be emulated.“  The solution resided in what appeared as problem: the true cause of the troubles was not the abandonment of old traditions, but these traditions themselves which daily demonstrated their inability to serve as guiding principles of social life – as Hegel put it in the “Foreword” to his Phenomenology of Spirit, the standard by means of which we measure the situation and establish that the situation is problematic, is part of the problem and should be abandoned. Han Fei applied the same logic to the fact that (the majority of) men are evil by nature, not ready to act for the common Good: instead of bemoaning it, he saw the human evil as a chance for state power, as something that a power enlightened by the right theory (a theory which describes things the way they really are, “beyond good and evil”) can steer by applying on it a proper mechanism:
Where Xunzi saw an unfortunate observation, that men were evil by nature, Han Fei saw a challenge for the institution of stern laws to control this nature and use it to the benefit of the state. 
One of the great achievements of contemporary Leftist political theory (Althusser, Balibar, Negri) was to rehabilitate Macchiavelli, to save him from the standard “Macchiavelist” reading. Since Legalists are often presented as ur-Macchiavelists, one should do the same with them, extricating a radical-emancipatory kernel from their predominant image as proto-“totalitarians.” A quick glance at the three central premises of the Legalist doctrine makes this kernel clear:
“Fa”: law or principle. The law code must be clearly written and made public. All people under the ruler are equal before the law. Laws should reward those who obey them and punish accordingly those who dare to break them. The system of law ran the state, not the ruler. – These are unambiguous trademarks of anti-feudal egalitarianism: laws must be public, known to everyone; all are equal in the eyes of the law; the legal system stands even higher than the ruler.
“Shu”: tactic or art. Special tactics and “secrets” are to be employed by the ruler to make sure others don’t take over control of the state; especially important is that no one should fathom the ruler’s motivations, and thus no one can know which behavior might help him getting ahead, except for following the laws. – This “Macchiavelian” point also has an egalitarian-emancipatory core: if the ruler’s motivations are unknown, all that remains are the laws themselves.
“Shi”: legitimacy, power or charisma. It is the position of the ruler, not the ruler himself, that holds the power. Therefore, analysis of the trends, the context, and the facts are essential for a real ruler… Is this not the first version of the insight, formulated by great European modern thinkers from Pascal to Marx, that people do not treat some person as a king because he is a king, but this person is a king because he is treated as one? Charisma is the “performative” result of symbolic social practices, not a natural (or spiritual) property of the person who exerts it.
In (theory and) practice, this three principles were, of course, given a “totalitarian” twist: a ruler has to have at his disposal an excessive number of laws which, although each of them is in itself public, clear and unambiguous, partially contradict each other; with such a complex framework of laws where a submission to one law readily brings one into conflict with another, a mere accusation finds almost anyone of any station in violation of something, with their innocence difficult if not impossible to prove. This enables the ruler’s agents to practice “shu,” the tactic or art of choosing what law would be enforced in a specific situation: power is enacted not only by prosecution of the law, but also selection of which law to prosecute, and by the absence or cessation of prosecution due to some other contravening law. Such a selective enforcement of laws ultimately occurred at the pleasure of the ruler: in this way the mystery of the Emperor’s pleasure was communicated to the masses. The lesson is pure Lacan: it is in the inconsistency of the Other (the system of Laws), in the contingency that dwells in its very heart, that the Other’s impenetrable desire, as well as its jouissance, are located.
One should note here a thing unthinkable for our Western tradition: the two opposed theories, Confucianism and Legalism, share the deeply materialist premise. For both of them, the truth of ideology does not matter, it is even implied that ideological myths are “beautiful lies”; what matters is how ideological myths and rituals function, their role in sustaining social order. – It is also interesting to note how the Chinese Legalists, these proto-“totalitarians,” already formulated a vision later propounded by liberalism, the vision of the state power that, instead of relying on people’s mores, submits them to a mechanism which makes their very vices work for the common Good. For all those who dismiss such a “totalitarian” notion of state power as a neutral mechanism steering individuals, one can thus imagine a new version of the Kantian secret clause: “Pretend publicly to consult philosophers, but do not trust their word!”
 I owe this reference to Proust to Mladen Dolar.
 Pascal Bruckner, La Tyrannie de la pénitence, Paris: Grasset 2006, p. 53.
 Poems of Paul Celan, New York: Persea Books 2002, p. 319.
 Hugh B. Urban, Tantra. Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion, Berkeley: University of California Press 2003, p. 22, 207.
 Urban, op.cit., p. 252-4.
 “Sexual Energy Ecstasy,” quoted in op.cit., p. 253.
 I rely here on the reflections of Robert Pfaller.
 Jonathan Clements, The First Emperor of China, Chalford: Suton Publishing 2006, p. 16.
 Analects 13:3
 Clements, op.cit., p. 34.
 Op.cit., p. 77.
Art: Les Helmers