......• How to Read Lacan •
.........8. The Perverse Subject of Politics: Lacan as a Reader of Mohammad Bouyeri

.........Slavoj Zizek

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Strictly speaking, perversion is an inverted effect of the phantasy. It is the subject who determines himself as an object, in his encounter with the division of subjectivity. [...] It is in so far as the subject makes himself the object of another will that the sado-masochistic drive not only closes up, but constitutes itself. [...] the sadist himself occupies the place of the object, but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert. [1]

This passage throws a new light on political totalitarianism. A true Stalinist politician loves mankind, but nonetheless performs horrible purges and executions - his heart is breaking while he is doing it, but he cannot help it, it is his Duty towards the Progress of Humanity. This is the perverse attitude of adopting the position of the pure instrument of the big Other's Will: it is not my responsibility, it is not me who is effectively doing it, I am merely an instrument of the higher Historical Necessity. The obscene jouissance of this situation is generated by the fact that I conceive of myself as exculpated for what I am doing: I am able to inflict pain on others with the full awareness that I am not responsible for it, that I merely fulfil the Other's Will. The sadist pervert answers the question "How can the subject be guilty when he merely realizes an objective, externally imposed, necessity?" by subjectively assuming this objective necessity, by finding enjoyment in what is imposed on him.

When confronted with the task of liquidating the Jews of Europe, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of SS, adopted the heroic attitude of 'Somebody has to do the dirty job, so let's do it!': it is easy to do a noble thing for one's country, up to sacrificing one's life for it - it is much more difficult to commit a crime for one's country. In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt provided a precise description of this twist the Nazi executioners accomplished in order to be able to endure the horrible acts they performed. Most of them were not simply evil, they were well aware that they are doing things which bring humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, "instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" [2] In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was the very temptation to succumb to the elementary pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, and their "ethical" effort was directed towards the task of resisting this temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate. My violation of spontaneous ethical instincts of pity and compassion is turned into the proof of my ethical grandeur: to do my duty, I am ready to assume the heavy burden of inflicting pain on others.

The same perverse logic operates in today's religious fundamentalism. When, on November 2 2004, the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist extremist (Mohammad Bouyeri), a letter was found stuck into a knife hole in his belly, addressed to his friend Hirshi Ali, a female Somalian member of the Dutch parliament known as a bitter fighter for the rights of Muslim women. [3] If there ever was a "fundamentalist" document, this is one. It begins with the standard rhetorical strategy of imputing terror to the opponent:

Since your appearance in the Dutch political arena you have been constantly busy criticizing Muslims and terrorizing Islam with your statements.

In Bouyeri's view, Hirshi Ali - not himself - is the "unbelieving fundamentalist," and in fighting her, one fights fundamentalist terror. This letter demonstrates how the sadistic stance, generating suffering and terror in its addressee, is only possible after the sadist subject makes himself the instrument-object of another's will. Let us look in more detail at the key passage of the letter which focuses on death as the culmination of human life:

There is but one certainty in our entire existence, and that is that everything comes to an end. A child who comes into this world and fills the universe with his first cries of life, will finally leave this world with a death rattle. A blade of grass which can stick out of the dark earth and is touched by the sunlight and fed by falling rain, will finally rot into dust and disappear. Death, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, is a shared theme of everything in creation. You, I, and the rest of creation cannot get loose from this truth.
There will come a Day when one soul will not be able to help another soul. A Day of horrible tortures and painful tribulations which will go together with the terrible cries being pressed out of the lungs of the unjust. Cries. Mrs. Hirshi Ali, which will cause chills to run up someone's spine, and cause the hair on their head to stand straight up. People will appear to be drunk with fear even though they aren't drunk. On that Great Day the atmosphere will be filled with fear.

The passage from the first to the second part is crucial here, of course; from the general platitude on how everything passes and disintegrates, how all living ends in death, to the much more constrained, properly apocalyptic, notion of this moment of death as the moment of truth, the moment at which every creature confronts its truth and is isolated from all its links, deprived of all solidary support, absolutely alone facing the merciless judgement of its Creator - this is why the letter goes on quoting the description of the Judgment Day from the Quran: "On that day man will flee from his brother. And the mother from the father. And the woman from her children. And everyone of them on that Day shall have an occupation which is enough for them. Faces (of the unbelievers) will be covered with dust on that Day. And they will be ringed in darkness. These are the sinful unbelievers."(Quran 80:34-42) Then comes the key passage, the staging of the central confrontation:

Of course you as an unbelieving extremist don't believe in the scene which is described above. For you this is just a fictitious dramatic piece out of a Book like many. And yet, Mrs. Hirshi Ali, I would bet on my life that you will break into a sweat of fear when you read this.
You, as unbelieving fundamentalist, of course don't believe that there is a Higher Power who runs the universe. You don't believe in your heart, with which you repudiate the truth, that you must knock and ask this Higher Power for permission. You don't believe that your tongue with which you repudiate the Direction of this Higher Power is subservient to His laws. You don't believe that this Higher Power grants life and Death.
If you really believed in all of this, then you will not find the following challenge a problem. I challenge you with this letter to prove that you are right. You don't have to do much for that, Mrs. Hirshi Ali: wish death if you are really convinced that you are right. If you do not accept this challenge, you will know that my Master, the Most high, has exposed you as a bearer of lies. 'If you wish death, then you are being truthful.' But the wicked ones 'never wish to die, because of what their hands (and sins) have brought forth. And Allah is the all-knowing over the purveyors of lies.' (2:94-95). To prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you, I shall wish this wish for you: Master give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom.

Each of these three paragraphs is a rhetorical pearl. In the first one, it is the direct jump from the fear we humans will experience when, at the moment of death, we will face God's final judgment, to the fear the addressee of this very letter (Hirshi Ali) will experience while reading it. This short-circuit between the fear instigated by the direct confrontation with god in the moment of truth, and the fear engendered here and now by reading this letter, is a trademark of perversion: Hirshi Ali's concrete fear of being killed, aroused by Bouyeri's letter, is elevated into an embodiment of the fear a mortal human being is expected to feel when confronted with the divine gaze. The pearl in the second paragraph is the precise example used to evoke the omnipotence of god: it is not only that Hirshi Ali doesn't believe in god - what she should believe is that even her very slander of god (the tongue with which she is doing it) is also determined by god's will. The true pearl is hidden in the last paragraph, in how the challenge addressed at Hirshi Ali is formulated: in its brutal imposition of (not only the readiness to die, but) the wish to die as the proof of one's truthfulness. We get here an almost imperceptible shift which signals the presence of the perverse logic: from Bouyeri's readiness to die for the truth to his readiness to die as direct proof of his truthfulness. This is why he not only does not fear death, but actively wishes to die: from "If you are truthful, you should not fear death," a pervert passes to "if you wish death, you are truthful." This section ends in an unbelievable taking-over of another's wish: "I shall wish this wish for you." Bouyeri's underlying reasoning is complex and yet very precise: he will do what he has to do 'to prevent myself of having the same wish coming to me as I wish for you' - what can this mean? Is it not that, by wishing death, he is doing precisely what he wanted to prevent? Doesn't he accept the same wish (that of death) that he wishes for her (he wishes her dead)?

The letter does not challenge Hirshi Ali on her false beliefs; the accusation is rather that she does not really believe what she claims to believe (her secular slanders), that she doesn't have what is called "the courage of her own convictions": "If you really believe what you claim to believe, then accept my challenge, wish to die!" This brings us to Lacan's depiction of the pervert: the pervert displaces division onto the Other. Hirshi Ali is a divided subject, inconsistent with herself, lacking the courage of her own beliefs. To avoid getting caught in such a division, the letter's author will embrace the death wish, taking upon himself what she should have believed. The letter's final proclamation should then not surprise us:

This struggle which has burst forth is different then those of the past. The unbelieving fundamentalists have started it and the true believers will end it. There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions: only DEATH will separate the Truth from the Lies.

There is no space left for symbolic mediation, for argumentation, reasoning, proclamations, preaching even - the only thing that separates Truth from Lie is death, the truthful subject's readiness and wish to die. No wonder Michel Foucault was fascinated by the Islamic political martyrdom. In it, he discerned the contours of a "regime of truth" different from the West's, a regime in which the ultimate indicators of truth are not factual adequacy, the consistency of reasoning, or the sincerity of one's confessions, but the readiness to die. [4] The late Pope John Paul II propagated the Catholic "culture of Life" as our only hope against today's nihilist "culture of death," whose manifestations are unbridled hedonism, abortions, drug addiction and blind reliance on scientific and technological development. Religious fundamentalism (not only Muslim, but also Christian) confronts us with another morbid "culture of death" which is much closer to the very heart of the religious experience than believers are ready to admit.

The question we should confront here is what, then, does the pervert miss, in his endeavor to absolutely separate the Truth from Lies? The answer is, of course: the truth of the lie itself, the truth that is delivered in and through the very act of lying. Paradoxically, the pervert's falsity resides in his very unconditional attachment to truth, in his refusal to hear the truth resonating in a lie. In All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare provided a breathtakingly refined insight into the entanglement of truth and lies. Count Bertram, who on the King's orders was forced to marry Helen, a common doctor's daughter, refuses to live with her and consummate the marriage, telling her that he will agree to be her husband only if she removes the ancestral ring from his finger and bears his child; at the same time, Bertram tries to seduce the young and beautiful Diana. Helen and Diana concoct a plan to bring Bertram back to his lawful wife. Diana agrees to spend the night with Bertram, telling him to visit her chamber at midnight; there, in darkness, the couple exchange their rings and make love. However, unknowingly to Bertram, the woman with whom he spent the night was not Diana but Helen, his wife. When they are later confronted, he has to admit that both of his conditions for recognizing the marriage are met. Helen removed his ancestral ring and bears his child. What, then, is the status of this bed-trick? At the very end of Act III, Helen herself provides a wonderful definition:

Why then to-night
Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed
And lawful meaning in a wicked act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact:
But let's about it.

We are effectively dealing both with a "wicked meaning in a lawful deed" (what can be more lawful than a consummated marriage, a husband sleeping with his wife? And yet the meaning is wicked: Bertram thought he is sleeping with Diana) and a "lawful meaning in a wicked act" (the meaning - Helen's intention - is lawful, to sleep with her husband, but the act is wicked: she deceives her husband, who does it thinking he is cheating on her). Their affair is "not sin, and yet a sinful fact": not sin, because what happened is merely a consummation of marriage; but a sinful fact, something that involved intentional cheating from both partners. The true question here is not merely whether "all's well that ends well," whether the final outcome (nothing wrong effectively happened, and the married couple is reunited, the marriage bond fully asserted) cancels the sinful tricks and intentions, but a more radical one: what if the rule of law can only be asserted through wicked (sinful) meanings and acts? What if, in order to rule, the law has to rely on the subterranean interplay of cheatings and deceptions? This, also, is what Lacan aims at with his paradoxical proposition il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel (there is no sexual relationship): was not Bertram's situation during the night of love the fate of most married couples? You make love to your lawful partner while "cheating in your mind," fantasizing that you are doing it with another partner. The actual sex-relationship has to be sustained by this fantasmatic supplement.

As You Like It proposes a different version of this logic of double deception. Orlando is passionately in love with Rosalind who, in order to test his love, disguises herself as Ganymede and, as a male companion, interrogates Orlando about his love. She even takes on the personality of Rosalind (in a redoubled masking, she pretends to be herself, to be Ganymede who plays to be Rosalind) and persuades her friend Celia (disguised as Aliena) to marry them in a mock ceremony. In this ceremony, Rosalind literally feigns to feign to be what she is: truth itself, in order to win, has to be staged in a redoubled deception - in a homologous way to All's Well in which marriage, in order to be asserted, has to be consummated in the guise of an extramarital affair.

Appearance similarly overlaps with truth in one's ideological self-perception. Recall Marx's brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the "anonymous kingdom of the Republic". [5] The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they generated royalist slips of tongue and ridiculed the Republic to let it be known that their true aim was to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social impact of their rule. They unknowingly established the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much (by for instance guaranteeing the safety of private property). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their "inner" royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their sincere royalism was the fantasmatic support of their actual republicanism - it was what provided the passion to their activity. Is it not, then, that the deputees of the Party of Order were also feigning to feign to be republicans, be what they really were?

From the Lacanian perspective, what then is appearance at its most radical? Imagine a man having an affair about which his wife doesn't know, so when he is meeting his lover, he pretends to be on a business trip or something similar; after some time, he gathers the courage and tells the wife the truth that, when he is away, he is staying with his lover. However, at this point, when the front of happy marriage falls apart, the mistress breaks down and, out of sympathy with the abandoned wife, avoids meeting her lover. What should the husband do in order not to give his wife the wrong signal? How not to let her think that the fact that he is no longer so often on business trips means that he is returning to her? He has to fake the affair and leave home for a couple of days, generating the wrong impression that the affair is continuing, while, in reality, he is just staying with some friend. This is appearance at its purest: it occurs not when we put up a deceiving screen to conceal the transgression, but when we fake that there is a transgression to be concealed. In this precise sense, fantasy itself is for Lacan a semblance: it is not primarily the mask which conceals the Real beneath, but, rather, the fantasy of what is hidden behind the mask. So, for instance, the fundamental male fantasy of the woman is not her seductive appearance, but the idea that this dazzling appearance conceals some imponderable mystery.

In order to exemplify the structure of such redoubled deception, Lacan evoked the anecdote about the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two painters from the ancient Greece, about who will paint a more convincing illusion. [6] First, Zeuxis produced such a realistic picture of grapes that birds were lured into picking at it to eat the grape. Next, Parrhasios won by painting on the wall of his room a curtain, so that Zeuxis, when Parrhasios showed him his painting, asked him: "OK, now please pull aside the veil and show me what you painted!" In Zeuxis's painting, the illusion was so convincing that image was taken for the real thing; in Parrhasios' painting, the illusion resided in the very notion that what we see in front of us is just a veil covering up the hidden truth. This is also how, for Lacan, feminine masquerade works: she wears a mask to make us react like Zeuxis in front of Parrhasios' painting - OK, put down the mask and show us what you really are! In a homologous way, we can imagine Orlando, after the mock wedding ceremony, turning to Rosalind-Ganymede and telling her: "You played Rosalind so well that you almost made me believe to be her; you can now return to what you are and be Ganymede again." It is not an accident that the agents of such double masquerade are always women: a man can only pretend to be a woman; only a woman can pretend to be a man who pretends to be a woman, as only a woman can pretend to be what she is (a woman). To account for this specifically feminine status of pretending, Lacan refers to a woman who wears a concealed fake penis in order to evoke that she is phallus:

Such is woman concealed behind her veil: it is the absence of the penis that makes her the phallus, the object of desire. Evoke this absence in a more precise way by having her wear a cute fake one under a fancy dress, and you, or rather she, will have plenty to tell us about. [7]

The logic is here more complex than it may appear: it is not merely that the obviously fake penis evokes the absence of the 'real' penis; in a strict parallel with Parrhasios' painting, the man's first reaction upon seeing the contours of the fake penis is: "Put this ridiculous fake off and show me what you've got beneath!" The man thereby misses how the fake penis is the real thing: the "phallus" that the woman is, is the shadow generated by the fake penis, i.e., the spectre of the non-existent 'real' phallus beneath the cover of the fake one. In this precise sense, the feminine masquerade has the structure of mimicry, since, for Lacan, in mimicry, I do not imitate the image I want to fit into, but those features of the image which seem to indicate that there is some hidden reality behind. As with Parrhasios, I do not imitate the grapes, but the veil: "Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind." [8] The status of phallus itself is that of a mimicry. Phallus is ultimately a kind of stain of the human body, an excessive feature which does not fit the body and thereby generates the illusion of another hidden reality behind the image.

This brings us back to perversion. For Lacan, a pervert is not defined by the content of what he is doing (his weird sexual practices). Perversion, at its most fundamental, resides in the formal structure of how the pervert relates to truth and speech. The pervert claims direct access to some figure of the big Other (from God or history to the desire of his partner), so that, dispelling all the ambiguity of language, he is able to act directly as the instrument of the big Other's will. In this sense, both Osama bin Laden and President Bush, although politically opponents, share the structures of a pervert. They both act upon the presupposition that their acts are directly ordered and guided by divine will.

The recent of religious fundamentalism in the US - around half of the US adults have beliefs than can be considered "fundamentalist" - is sustained by the predominance of a perverse libidinal economy. A fundamentalist does not believe, he knows it directly. Both liberal-sceptical cynics and fundamentalists share a basic underlying feature: the loss of the ability to believe, in the proper sense of the term. What is unthinkable for them is the groundless decision which installs every authentic belief, a decision which cannot be grounded in the chain of reasons, in positive knowledge. Think of Anne Frank who, in the face of the terrifying depravity of the Nazis, in a true act of credo qua absurdum asserted her belief that there is a divine spark of goodness in every human being, no matter how depraved he or she is. This statement does not concern facts, it is posited as a pure ethical axiom. In the same way, the status of universal human rights is that of a pure belief: they cannot be grounded in our knowledge of human nature, they are an axiom posited by our decision. (The moment one tries to ground universal human rights in our knowledge of humanity, the inevitable conclusion will be that men are fundamentally different, that some have more dignity and wisdom than others.) At its most fundamental, authentic belief does not concern facts, but gives expression to an unconditional ethical commitment.

For both liberal cynics and religious fundamentalists, religious statements are quasi-empirical statements of direct knowledge: fundamentalists accept them as such, while skeptical cynics mock them. No wonder religious fundamentalists are among the most passionate digital hackers, and always prone to combine their religion with the latest results of sciences. For them, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge. The occurrence of the term "science" in the very name of some of the fundamentalist sects (Christian Science, Scientology) is not just an obscene joke, but signals this reduction of belief to positive knowledge. The case of the Turin Shroud (a piece of cloth that was allegedly used to cover the body of the dead Christ and has stains of his blood) is indicative here. Its authenticity would be a horror for every true believer (the first thing to do would be to analyze the DNA of the blood stains and resolve empirically the question of who Jesus's father was), while a true fundamentalist would rejoice in this opportunity. We find the same reduction of belief to knowledge in today's Islam where hundreds of books by scientists abound which "demonstrate" how the latest scientific advances confirm the insights and injunctions of Quran: the divine prohibition of incest is confirmed by recent genetic knowledge about the defective children born of incestuous copulation. The same goes for Buddhism, where many scientists vary the motif of the "Tao of modern physics", of how the contemporary scientific vision of reality as a substanceless flux of oscillating events finally confirmed the ancient Buddhist ontology. [9] One is compelled to draw the paradoxical conclusion: in the opposition between traditional secular humanists and religious fundamentalists, it is the humanists who stand for belief, while fundamentalists stand for knowledge. This is what we can learn from Lacan with regard to the ongoing rise of religious fundamentalism: its true danger does not reside in the fact that it poses a threat to secular scientific knowledge, but in the fact that it poses a threat to authentic belief itself.

Perhaps, the proper way to conclude this book is to mention the case of Sophia Karpai, the head of the cardiographic unit of the Kremlin Hospital in the late 1940s. Her act, the opposite of the perverse elevation of oneself into an instrument of the big Other, deserves to be called a proper ethical act in the Lacanian sense. Her misfortune was that it was her job to take twice the electrocardiogram of Andrei Zhdanov, on July 25 1948 and on July 31, days before Zhdanov's death because of a heart failure. The first EKG, taken after Zhdanov displayed some heart troubles, was inconclusive (heart attack could be neither confirmed nor excluded), while the second one surprisingly showed a much better picture (the intraventricular blockage disappeared, a clear indication that there was no heart attack). In 1951, she was arrested with the charge that, in conspiracy with other doctors treating Zhdanov, she falsified the data, erasing the clear indications that a heart attack did occur, depriving Zhdanov of the special care needed by a victim of heart attack. After harsh treatment, including continuous brutal beating, all other accused doctors confessed. "Sophia Karpai, whom her boss Vinogradov had described as nothing more than 'a typical person of the street with the morals of the petty bourgeoisie,' was kept in a refrigerated cell without sleep to compel a confession. She did not confess." [10] The impact and significance of her perseverance cannot be overestimated: her signature would have dotted the i on the prosecutor's case on the "doctor's plot," immediately setting in motion the mechanism that, once rolling, would lead to the death of hundreds of thousands, maybe even to a new European war (according to Stalin's plan, the "doctor's plot" should have demonstrated that the Western intelligence agencies tried to murder the top Soviet leaders, and thus served as an excuse to attack Western Europe). She persisted just long enough for Stalin to enter his final coma, after which the entire case was immediately dismissed. Her simple heroism was crucial in the series of details which,

like grains of sand in the gears of the huge machine that had been set in motion, prevented another catastrophe in Soviet society and politics generally, and saved the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people. [11]

This simple persistence against all odds is ultimately the stuff ethics is made of - or, as Samuel Beckett puts it in the last words of the absolute masterpiece of 20th Century literature, The Unnameable, a saga of the drive that perseveres in the guise of an undead partial object: "in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. [12]


[1] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 185..

[2] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1963, p. 98.

[3] Available at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/320.

[4] Janet Avery and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2005.

[5] See Karl Marx, "Class Struggles in France," Collected Works, Vol. 10, London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978, p. 95.

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 103.

[7] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, p. 310.

[8] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 99.

[9] One of the ridiculous excesses of this joint venture of religious fundamentalism and scientific approach is taking place today in Israel where a religious group convinced in the literal truth of the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah will come when a calf with totally red is born, is spending enormous amounts of energy to produce, through genetic manipulations, such a calf.

[10] Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin's Last Crime, p. 307.

[11] ibid, p. 297.

[12] Samuel Beckett, Trilogy, London: Calder Publications 2003, p. 418.

Jacques Lacan's Bibliography in English

Jacques-Alain Miller's Bibliography in English

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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