......• The Parallax View •
The Tickling Object
Many times I am asked the obvious yet pertinent question about the title of my longest book: "so who or what is tickling the ticklish subject?" The answer, of course, is: the object - however, which object? This, in a nutshell (or, rather, as a nut within the shell), is the topic of the present book. The difference between subject and object can also be rendered as the difference between the two corresponding verbs, to subject (submit) oneself and to object (protest, oppose, make an obstacle). The subject's elementary, founding, gesture is to subject itself - voluntarily, of course: as both Wagner and Nietzsche, the two great opponents, were well aware of, the highest act of freedom is the display of amor fati, the act of freely assuming what is otherwise necessary. If, then, the subject's activity is, at its most fundamental, the activity of submitting oneself to the inevitable, the fundamental mode of object's passivity, of its passive presence, is that which moves, annoys, disturbs, traumatizes us (subjects): the object is at its most radical that which objects, that which disturbs the smooth run of things. 1 The paradox is thus that the roles are reversed (with regard to the standard notion of the active subject working on the passive object): the subject is defined by a fundamental passivity, and it is the object from which movement comes, i.e., which does the tickling. But, again, WHICH is this object? The answer is: the parallax object.
The common definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply "subjective," due to the fact that the same object which exists "out there" is seen from two different stations, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently "mediated," so that an "epistemological" shift in the subject's point of view always reflects an "ontological" shift in the object itself. Or, to put it in Lacanese, the subject's gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its "blind spot," that which is "in the object more than object itself," the point from which the object itself returns the gaze. "Sure, the picture is in my eye, but me, I am also in the picture": 2 the first part of this Lacan's statement designates subjectivization, the dependence of reality on its subjective constitution, while its second part provides a materialist supplement, reinscribing the subject into its own image in the guise of a stain (the objectivized splinter in its eye). Materialism is not the direct assertion of my inclusion into the objective reality (such an assertion presupposes that my position of enunciation is that of an external observer who can grasp the whole of reality); it rather resides in the reflexive twist by means of which I myself am included into the picture constituted by me - it is this reflexive short-circuit, this necessary REDOUBLING of myself as standing outside AND inside my picture, that bears witness to my "material existence." Materialism means that the reality I see is never "whole" - not because a large part of it eludes me, but because it contains a stain, a blind spot, which signals my inclusion in it.
Nowhere is this structure clearer than in the case of Lacan's objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. The same object can all of a sudden be "transubstantiated" into the object of my desire: what is to you just an ordinary object, is for me the focus of my libidinal investment, and this shift is caused by some unfathomable x, a je ne sais quoi in the object which cannot ever be pinned down to any of its particular properties. Objet a is therefore close to the Kantian transcendental object, since it stands for the unknown x, the noumenal core of the object beyond appearances, for what is "in you more than yourself." L'objet petit a can thus be defined as a pure parallax object: it is not only that its contours change with the shift of the subject; it only exists - its presence can only be discerned - when the landscape is viewed from a certain perspective. More precisely, the object a is the very CAUSE of the parallax gap, that unfathomable X which forever eludes the symbolic grasp and thus causes the multiplicity of symbolic perspectives. The paradox is here a very precise one: it is at the very point at which a pure difference emerges - a difference which is no longer a difference between two positively existing objects, but a minimal difference which divides one and the same object from itself - that this difference "as such" immediately coincides with an unfathomable object: in contrast to a mere difference between objects, the pure difference is itself an object. Another name for the parallax gap is therefore minimal difference, a "pure" difference which cannot be grounded in positive substantial properties. In Henry James's "The Real Thing," the painter-narrator agrees to hire the impoverished "true" aristocrats Major and Mrs. Monarch as models for his illustrations of a de luxe book. However, although they are the "real thing," their drawings appear a fake, so the painter has to rely more and more on a vulgar couple of the cheap Cockney model Miss Churm and the lithe Italian Oronte, whose imitation of the high-class poses works much better... is this not the unfathomable "minimal difference" at its purest?
A more complex literary case of this minimal difference is provided by the editorial fate of Tender Is the Night, Francis Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, the sad story of the disintegrating marriage between Nicole Warren, the rich American heiress, a schizophrenic victim of incest, and Richard Diver, a young brilliant psychiatrist who treated her in Switzerland. In the first edition, the novel begins years later at the Divers' villa on the French Riviera where the couple lives a glamorous life; the story is told from the perspective of Rosemary, a young American movie actress who falls in love with Dick, fascinated by the Divers' glitzy life style. Gradually, Rosemary gets hints of a dark underside of traumas and psychic breakdowns beneath the surface of the glamorous social life. At this point, the story moves back into how Dick encountered Nicole, how they got married in spite of her family's doubts, etc.; after this interlude, the story returns to the present, continuing the description of the gradual falling apart of Nicole's and Dick's marriage (Dick's desperate affair with Rosemary, etc., up to one of the most depressive and hopeless endings in modern literature). However, for the novel's second edition (the first printing was a failure), Fitzgerald tried to improve it by rearranging the material in chronological order: now, the novel begins in 1919 Zurich, with Dick as a young doctor called by a friend psychiatrist to take over the difficult case of Nicole. 3
Why is none of the two versions satisfying? Obviously, the first one is the more adequate one, not only for purely dramatic-narrative reasons (it first creates the enigma - what is the secret behind the glitzy surface of the Divers' marriage? - and then, after arousing the reader's interest, it proceeds to give the answer). Rosemary's external point of view, fascinated by the ideal(ized) couple of Dick and Nicole, is not simply external. Rather, it embodies the gaze of the social "big Other," the Ego-Ideal, for which Dick enacts the life of a happy husband who tries to charm everybody around him, i.e., this external gaze is internal to Dick, part of his immanent subjective identity - he leads his life in order to satisfy this gaze. What this implies, furthermore, is that Dick's fate cannot be accounted for in the terms of the immanent deployment of a flawed character: to present Dick's sad fate in this way (i.e., in the mode of a linear narrative) is a lie, an ideological mystification that transposes the external network of social relations into inherent psychological features. One is even tempted to say that the flashback chapter on the prehistory of Dick's and Nicole's marriage, far from providing a truthful account of the reality beneath the false glitzy appearance, is a retroactive fantasy, a kind of a narrative version of what, in the history of capitalism, functions as the myth of "primordial accumulation." 4 In other words, there is no direct immanent line of development from the prehistory to the glitzy story proper: the jump is irreducible here, a different dimensions intervenes.
The enigma is thus: why was Fitzgerald not satisfied with the first version? Why did he replace it with the clearly less satisfying linear narrative? Upon a closer look, it is easy to discern also the limitations of the first version: the flashback after the first part sticks out: while the jump from the present (French Riviera in 1929) to the past (Zurich in 1919) is convincing, the return to the present "doesn't work," is not artistically fully justified. The only consistent answer is therefore: because the only way to remain faithful to the artistic truth is to "bite the bullet" and admit defeat, i.e., to circumscribe the gap itself by way of presenting both versions. 5 In other words, the two versions are not consecutive, they should be red structurally (synchronously), like the two maps of the same village in the example from Levi-Strauss (developed in detail later). In short, what we encounter here is the function of parallax at its purest: the gap between the two versions is irreducible, it is the "truth" of both of them, the traumatic core around which they circulate, there is no way to resolve the tension, to find a "proper" solution. What first appears as a merely formal narrative deadlock (how, in what order, to tell the story), thus signals a more radical deadlock that pertains to the social content itself. Fitzgerald's narrative failure and oscillation between the two versions tells us something about the social reality itself, about a certain gap that is stricto sensu a fundamental social fact. The "tickling object" is here the absent Cause, the unfathomable X that undermines every narrative solution.
Since l'objet petit a is the object of psychoanalysis, no wonder that we encounter a parallax gap in the very core of psychoanalytic experience. When Jean Laplanche elaborates the impasses of the Freudian topic of seduction, he effectively reproduces the precise structure of a Kantian antinomy. On the one hand, there is the brutal empirical realism of the parental seduction: the ultimate cause of later traumas and pathologies is that children effectively were seduced and molested by adults; on the other hand, there is the (in)famous reduction of the seduction scene to the patient's fantasy. As Laplanche points out, the ultimate irony is that the dismissal of seduction as fantasy passes today for the "realistic" stance, while those who insist on the reality of seduction end up advocating all kind of molestations, up to satanic rites and extra-terrestrial harassments... Laplanche's solution is precisely the transcendental one: while "seduction" cannot be reduced just to subject's fantasy, while it does refer to a traumatic encounter of the other's "enigmatic message," bearing witness to the other's unconscious, it also cannot be reduced to an event in the reality of the actual interaction between child and his/her adults. Seduction is rather a kind of transcendental structure, the minimal a priori formal constellation of the child confronted with the impenetrable acts of the Other which bear witness to the Other's unconscious - and we are never dealing here with simple "facts," but always with facts located into the space of indeterminacy between "too soon" and "too late": the child is originally helpless, thrown into the world when unable to take care of itself, i.e., his/her surviving skills develop too late; at the same time, the encounter of the sexualized Other always, by a structural necessity, comes "too soon," as an unexpected shock which cannot ever be properly symbolized, translated into the universe of meaning. 6 The fact of seduction is thus that of the Kantian transcendental X, a structurally-necessary transcendental illusion.
The Kantian Parallax
In his formidable Transcritique, 7 Kojin Karatani endeavors to assert the critical potential of such a "parallax view": when confronted with an antinomic stance in the precise Kantian sense of the term, one should renounce all attempts to reduce one aspect to the other (or, even more, to enact a kind of "dialectical synthesis" of the opposites); one should, on the contrary, assert antinomy as irreducible, and conceive the point of radical critique not a certain determinate position as opposed to another position, but the irreducible gap between the positions itself, the purely structural interstice between them. Kant's stance is thus "to see things neither from his own viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face the reality that is exposed through difference (parallax)." 8 (Is this not Karatani's way to assert the Lacanian Real as a pure antagonism, as an impossible difference which precedes its terms?) This is how Karatani reads the Kantian notion of the Ding an sich (the Thing-in-itself, beyond phenomena): this Thing is not simply a transcendental entity beyond our grasp, but something discernible only via the irreducibly antinomic character of our experience of reality. 9
Let us take Kant's confrontation with the epistemological antinomy which characterized his epoch: empiricism versus rationalism. Kant's solution is neither to chose one of the terms, nor to enact a kind of higher "synthesis" which would "sublate" the two as unilateral, as partial moments of a global truth (and, of course, nor does he withdraw to pure scepticism); the stake of his "transcendental turn" is precisely to avoid the need to formulate one's own "positive" solution. What Kant does is to change the very terms of the debate; his solution - the transcendental turn - is unique in that it, first, rejects the ontological closure: it recognizes a certain fundamental and irreducible limitation ("finitude") of the human condition, which is why the two poles, rational and sensual, active and passive, cannot ever be fully mediated-reconciled - the "synthesis" of the two dimensions (i.e., the fact that our Reason seems to fit the structure of external reality that affects us)always relies on a certain salto mortale or "leap of faith." Far from designating a "synthesis" of the two dimensions, the Kantian "transcendental" rather stands for their irreducible gap "as such": the "transcendental" points at something in this gap, a new dimension which cannot be reduced to any of the two positive terms between which the gap is gaping. And Kant does the same with regard to the antinomy between the Cartesian cogito as res cogitans, the "thinking substance," a self-identical positive entity, and Hume's dissolution of the subject in the multitude of fleeting impressions: against both positions, he asserts the subject of transcendental apperception which, while displaying a self-reflective unity irreducible to the empirical multitude, nonetheless lacks any substantial positive being, i.e., it is in no way a res cogitans. Here, however, one should be more precise than Karatani who directly identifies the transcendental subject with transcendental illusion:
yes, an ego is just an illusion, but functioning there is the transcendental apperception X. But what one knows as metaphysics is that which considers the X as something substantial. Nevertheless, one cannot really escape from the drive /Trieb/ to take it as an empirical substance in various contexts. If so, it is possible to say that an ego is just an illusion, but a transcendental illusion. 10
However, the precise status of the transcendental subject is not that of what Kant calls a transcendental illusion or what Marx calls the objectively-necessary form of thought. First, the transcendental I, its pure apperception, is a purely formal function which is neither noumenal nor phenomenal - it is empty, no phenomenal intuition corresponds to it, since, if it were to appear to itself, its self-appearance would be the "thing itself," i.e., the direct self-transparency of a noumenon. 11 The parallel between the void of the transcendental subject ($) and the void of the transcendental object, the inaccessible X that causes our perceptions, is misleading here: the transcendental object is the void beyond phenomenal appearances, while the transcendental subject already appears as a void. 12
Perhaps, the best way to describe the Kantian break towards this new dimension is with regard to the changed status of the notion of the "inhuman." Kant introduced a key distinction between negative and indefinite judgment: the positive judgment "the soul is mortal" can be negated in two ways, when a predicate is denied to the subject ("the soul is not mortal"), and when a non-predicate is affirmed ("the soul is non-mortal") - the difference is exactly the same as the one, known to every reader of Stephen King, between "he is not dead" and “he is un-dead." The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the “undead" are neither alive nor dead, they are precisely the monstrous “living dead." 13 And the same goes for "inhuman": "he is not human" is not the same as "he is inhuman" - "he is not human" means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while “he is inhuman" means something thoroughly difference, namely the fact that he is neither human nor inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as "humanity," is inherent to being-human. And, perhaps, one should risk the hypothesis that this is what changes with the Kantian revolution: in the pre-Kantian universe, humans were simply humans, beings of reason, fighting the excesses of animal lusts and divine madness, while only with Kant and German Idealism, the excess to be fought is absolutely immanent, the very core of subjectivity itself (which is why, with German Idealism, the metaphor for the core of subjectivity is Night, "Night of the World," in contrast to the Enlightenment notion of the Light of Reason fighting the darkness around). 14 So when, in the pre-Kantian universe, a hero goes mad, it means he is deprived of his humanity, i.e., the animal passions or divine madness took over, while with Kant, madness signals the unconstrained explosion of the very core of a human being. (In Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa's sister Grete designates her brother-turned-insect a monster - the German word used is ein Untier, an inanimal, in a strict symmetry to inhuman. What we get here is the opposite of inhuman: an animal which, while remaining animal, is not really animal - the excess over the animal in animal, the traumatic core of animality, that can only emerge "as such" in a human which became animal.) 15
Which, then, is this new dimension that emerges in the gap itself? It is that of the transcendental I itself, of its "spontaneity:" the ultimate parallax, the third space between phenomena and noumenon itself, is the subject's freedom/spontaneity, which - although, of course, it is not the property of a phenomenal entity, so that it cannot be dismissed as a false appearance which conceals the noumenal fact that we are totally caught in an inaccessible necessity - is also not simply noumenal. In a mysterious subchapter of his Critique of Practical Reason entitled "Of the Wise Adaptation of Man's Cognitive Faculties to His Practical Vocation," Kant endeavors to answer the question of what would happen to us if we were to gain access to the noumenal domain, to the Ding an sich:
... instead of the conflict which now the moral disposition has to wage with inclinations and in which, after some defeats, moral strength of mind may be gradually won, God and eternity in their awful majesty would stand unceasingly before our eyes. /.../ Thus most actions conforming to the law would be done from fear, few would be done from hope, none from duty. The moral worth of actions, on which alone the worth of the person and even of the world depends in the eyes of supreme wisdom, would not exist at all. The conduct of man, so long as his nature remained as it is now, would be changed into mere mechanism, where, as in a puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures. 1
In short, the direct access to the noumenal domain would deprive us of the very "spontaneity" which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom: it would turn us into lifeless automata, or, to put it in today's terms, into "thinking machines." The implication of this passage is much more radical and paradoxical than it may appear. If we discard its inconsistency (how could fear and lifeless gesticulation coexist?), the conclusion it imposes is that, at the level of phenomena as well as at the noumenal level, we - humans - are a “mere mechanism" with no autonomy and freedom: as phenomena, we are not free, we are a part of nature, a “mere mechanism," totally submitted to causal links, a part of the nexus of causes and effects, and as noumena, we are again not free, but reduced to a "mere mechanism." (Is what Kant describes as a person which directly knows the noumenal domain not strictly homologous to the utilitarian subject whose acts are fully determined by the calculus of pleasures and pains?) Our freedom persists only in a space IN BETWEEN the phenomenal and the noumenal. It is therefore not that Kant simply limited causality to the phenomenal domain in order to be able to assert that, at the noumenal level, we are free autonomous agents: we are only free insofar as our horizon is that of the phenomenal, insofar as the noumenal domain remains inaccessible to us.
Is the way out of this predicament to assert that we are free insofar as we ARE noumenally autonomous, BUT our cognitive perspective remains constrained to the phenomenal level? In this case, we ARE “really free" at the noumenal level, but our freedom would be meaningless in we were also to have the cognitive insight into the noumenal domain, since that insight would always determine our choices - who WOULD choose evil, when confronted with the fact that the price of doing evil will be the divine punishment? However, does this imagined case not provide us with the only consequent answer to the question “what would a truly free act be," a free act for a noumenal entity, an act of true noumenal freedom? It would be to KNOW all the inexorable horrible consequences of choosing the evil, and nonetheless to choose it. This would have been a truly “non-pathological" act, an act of acting with no regard for one's pathological interests... Kant's own formulations are here misleading, since he often identifies the transcendental subject with the noumenal I whose phenomenal appearance is the empirical "person," thus shirking from his radical insight into how the transcendental subject is a pure formal-structural function beyond the opposition of the noumenal and the phenomenal.
The philosophical consequences of this Kantian parallax are fully explored in the notion of ontological difference, the focus of Heidegger's entire thought, which can only be properly grasped against the background of the motif of finitude. There is a double doxa on Heidegger's ontological difference: it is a difference between the What, the essence of beings, and the mere That-ness of their being - it liberates beings from being subordinated to any ground/arché/goal; furthermore, it is a difference not merely between (different levels of) beings, of reality, but between the All of reality and something else which, with regard to reality, cannot but appear as "Nothing"... This doxa is deeply misleading.
With regard to the notion of ontological difference as the difference between WHAT things are and the fact THAT they are, the doxa says that the mistake of metaphysics is to subordinate being to some presupposed essence (sense, goal, arché...) embodied in the highest entity, while ontological difference "de-essentializes" beings, setting them free from their enslavement to Essence, letting-them-be in their an-archic freedom - prior to any "what-for? why?" etc., things simply ARE, they just OCCUR... However, if this were Heidegger's thesis, then Sartre, in his Nausea, would also outline ontological difference at its most radical - does he not describe there the experience of the stupid and meaningless inertia of being at its most disgusting, indifferent to all our (human) meanings and projects? For Heidegger, in contrast to Sartre, "ontological difference" is, rather, the difference between the entities' stupid being-there, their senseless reality, and their horizon of meaning.
There is a link between ontological and sexual difference (conceived in a purely formal-transcendental way, along the lines of Lacan's "formulas of sexuation," of course). 17 The male side - universality and exception - is literally "meta-physical" (the entire universe, all of reality, is grounded in its constitutive exception, the highest entity which is epekeina tes ousias), while the ontological difference proper is feminine: reality is non-all, but there is nothing beyond-outside it, and this Nothing is Being itself. Ontological difference is not between the Whole of beings and their Outside, as if there is a Super-Ground of the All. In this precise sense, ontological difference is linked to finitude (Heidegger's original insight and link to Kant), which means that Being is the horizon of finitude which prevents us from conceiving beings in their All. Being cuts from within beings: ontological difference is not the "mega-difference" between All of beings and something more fundamental, it is always also that which makes the domain of beings itself "non-all." - Apropos "telling all the truth," one should again apply the Lacanian paradoxes of the non-All; that is to say, one should strictly oppose two cases. Because truth is in itself non-all, inconsistent, "antagonistic," every telling of "all the Truth" has to rely on an exception, on a secret that is withheld; the opposite case, the telling of non-all truth, does not imply that we keep some part of truth secret - its obverse is that there is nothing we did not tell. 18
What this also means is that ontological difference is not "maximal," between all beings, the highest genus, and something else/more/beyond, but, rather, "minimal," the bare minimum of a difference not between beings but between the minimum of an entity and the void, nothing. Insofar as it is grounded in the finitude of humans, ontological difference is that which makes a totalization of "All of beings" impossible - ontological difference means that the field of reality is finite. Ontological difference is in this precise sense "real/impossible": to use Ernesto Laclau's determination of antagonism, in it, external difference overlaps with internal difference. The difference between beings and their Being is simultaneously a difference within beings themselves; that is to say, the difference between beings/entities and their Opening, their horizon of Meaning, always also cuts into the field of beings themselves, making it incomplete/finite. Therein resides the paradox: the difference between beings in their totality and their Being precisely "misses the difference" and reduces Being to another "higher" Entity. The parallel between Kant's antinomies and Heidegger's ontological difference resides in the fact that, in both cases, the gap (phenomenal/noumenal; ontic/ontological) is to be referred to the non-All of the phenomenal-ontic domain itself. However, the limitation of Kant was that he was not able to fully assume this paradox of finitude as constitutive of the ontological horizon: ultimately, he reduced transcendental horizon to a way reality appears to a finite being (man), with all of it located into a wider encompassing realm of noumenal reality.
Crucial is thus the shift of the place of freedom from the noumenal beyond to the very gap between phenomenal and noumenal - is this shift not the very shift from Kant to Hegel, from the tension between immanence and transcendence to the minimal difference/gap in the immanence itself? Hegel is thus not external to Kant: the problem with Kant was that he produced the shift but was not able, for structural reasons, to formulate it explicitly - he "knew" that the place of freedom is effectively not noumenal, but the gap between phenomenal and noumenal; AND he could not put it so explicitly, since, if he were to do it, his transcendental edifice would have collapsed. However, WITHOUT this implicit "knowledge," there would also have been no transcendental dimension, so that one is forced to conclude that, far from being a stable consistent position, the dimension of the Kantian "transcendental" can only sustain itself in a fragile balance between the said and the unsaid, through producing something the full consequences of which we refuse to articulate, to "posit as such." 19 What this means is that Karatani is wrong in the way he opposes Kant and Hegel: far from overcoming the parallax logic, Hegel brings it from the Kantian "in itself" to "for itself." It is only Hegel who can think the parallax in its radicality, as the priority of the inherent antagonism over the multiple/failed reflection of the transcendent/impossible Thing.
Recall Claude Levi-Strauss's exemplary analysis, from his Structural Anthropology, of the spatial disposition of buildings in the Winnebago, one of the Great Lake tribes, might be of some help here. The tribe is divided into two sub-groups ("moieties"), "those who are from above" and "those who are from below"; when we ask an individual to draw on a piece of paper, or on sand, the ground-plan of his/her village (the spatial disposition of cottages), we obtain two quite different answers, depending on his/her belonging to one or the other sub-group. Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first sub-group (let us call it "conservative-corporatist") perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second ("revolutionary-antagonistic") sub-group perceives his/her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier... 20 The point Levi-Strauss wants to make is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer's group-belonging: the very splitting into the two "relative" perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant - not the objective, "actual" disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to "internalize", to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole. The two perceptions of the ground-plan are simply two mutually exclusive endeavors to cope with this traumatic antagonism, to heal its wound via the imposition of a balanced symbolic structure. It is here that one can see it what precise sense the Real intervenes through anamorphosis. We have first the "actual," "objective," arrangement of the houses, and then its two different symbolizations which both distort in an anamorphic way the actual arrangement. However, the "real" is here not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of some social antagonism which distorts the tribe members' view of the actual arrangement of the houses in their village.
The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted; it is SIMULTANEOUSLY the Thing to which direct access is not possible AND the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the Thing which eludes our grasp AND the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first to the second standpoint. Recall the old well-known Adorno's analysis of the antagonistic character of the notion of society: in a first approach, the split between the two notions of society (Anglo-Saxon individualistic-nominalistic and Durkheimian organicist notion of society as a totality which preexists individuals) seems irreducible, we seem to be dealing with a true Kantian antinomy which cannot be resolved via a higher "dialectical synthesis," and which elevates society into an inaccessible Thing-in-itself; however, in a second approach, one should merely take not of how this radical antinomy which seems to preclude our access to the Thing ALREADY IS THE THING ITSELF - the fundamental feature of today's society IS the irreconcilable antagonism between Totality and the individual. What this means is that, ultimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: is has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective, perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. The parallax Real is thus opposed to the standard (Lacanian) notion of the Real as that which "always returns at its place," i.e., as that which remains the same in all possible (symbolic) universes: the parallax Real is rather that which accounts for the very multiplicity of appearances of the same underlying Real - it is not the hard core which persists as the Same, but the hard bone of contention which pulverizes the sameness into the multitude of appearances. In a first move, the Real is the impossible hard core which we cannot confront directly, but only through the lenses of a multitude of symbolic fictions, virtual formations. In a second move, this very hard core is purely virtual, actually non-existing, an X which can be reconstructed only retroactively, from the multitude of symbolic formations which are "all that there actually is." 21
In philosophical terms, the topic of parallax confronts us with the key question of the passage from Kant to Hegel. There are two main versions of this passage (which is still one of the great dividing lines among philosophers: those - mostly of the analytic orientation - who think that Kant is the last one who "makes sense," and that the post-Kantian turn of German Idealism is one of the greatest catastrophes, regressions into meaningless speculation, in the history of philosophy, and those for whom the post-Kantian speculative-historical approach is the highest achievement of philosophy):
1. Kant asserts the gap of finitude, transcendental schematism, the negative access to the Noumenal (via Sublime) as the only possible one, etc., while Hegel's absolute idealism closes the Kantian gap and returns to pre-critical metaphysics;
2. it is Kant who goes only half the way in his destruction of metaphysics, still maintaining the reference to the Thing-in-itself as external inaccessible entity, and Hegel is merely a radicalized Kant, who makes the step from negative access to the Absolute to Absolute itself as negativity. Or, to put it in the terms of the Hegelian shift from epistemological obstacle to positive ontological condition (our incomplete knowledge of the thing turns into a positive feature of the thing which is in itself incomplete, inconsistent): it is not that Hegel "ontologizes" Kant; on the contrary, it is Kant who, insofar as he conceives the gap as merely epistemological, continues to presuppose a fully constituted noumenal realm existing out there, and it is Hegel who "deontologizes" Kant, introducing a gap into the very texture of reality.
In other words, Hegel's move is not to "overcome" the Kantian division, but, rather, to assert it "as such," to drop the need for its "overcoming," for the additional "reconciliation" of the opposites, i.e., to gain the insight - through a purely formal parallax shift - into how positing the distinction "as such" already IS the looked-for "reconciliation." The limitation of Kant is not in his remaining within the confines of finite oppositions, in his inability to reach the Infinite, but, on the contrary, in his very search for a transcendent domain beyond the realm of finite oppositions: Kant is not unable to reach the Infinite - what he is unable of is to see how he ALREADY HAS what he is looking for. This reversal provides the key for the infamous "Hegelian triad."
When talking about the "Hegelian triad," the first thing to do is to forget the story about alienation, loss of the original organic unity, and the return to a "higher" mediated unity. To get a more appropriate idea of it, it is worth recalling the sublime reversal found, among others, in Charles Dickens' The Great Expectations? When, at his birth, Pip is designated as a "man of great expectations," everybody perceives this as the forecast of his worldly success; however, at the novel's end, when he abandons London's false glamour and returns to his modest childhood community, we become aware that he did live up to the forecast that marked his life - it is only by way of finding strength to leave behind the vain thrill of London's high society that he authenticates the notion of being a "man of great expectations". We are dealing here with a kind of Hegelian reflexivity: what changes in the course of the hero's ordeal is not only his character, but also the very ethical standard by which we measure his character. And did not something of the same order happen at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, when Muhammad Ali lighted the Olympic fire with the torch held by his hand shaking heavily on account of his severe illness - when the journalists claimed that, in doing this, he truly was "The Greatest" (a reference to Ali's boasting self-designation decades ago, the title of the film about himself in which he starred and of his autobiography), they, of course, wanted to emphasize that Muhammad Ali achieved true greatness now, through his dignified endurance of his debilitating illness, not when he was enjoying the full swing of popularity and smashing his opponents in the ring... This is what "negation of negation" is: the shift of perspective which turns failure into true success.
The predominant way to assert the actuality of Hegel, i.e., to save him from the reproach that his system is a totally outdated metaphysical madness, is to read his thought as an attempt to establish the normative conditions or presuppositions of our cognitive and ethical claims: Hegel's logic is not a system of universal ontology, but just a systematic deployment of all ways available to us to make claims about what there is, and of the inherent inconsistencies of these ways. In this reading, Hegel's starting point is the fact that the fundamental structure of the human mind is self-reflective: a human being does not simply act, it (can) act(s) upon rational freely assumed norms and motivations, which means that, in order to account for our statements and attitudes, one cannot ever simply refer to some positive data (natural laws and processes, divine Reason, God's Will...) - each of these reference has to be JUSTIFIED, its normative binding power has to be somehow ACCOUNTED FOR. - The problem with this elegant solution is that, in contrast to the robust direct metaphysical reading of Hegel as rendering the structure of the Absolute, it is too modest: it silently reduces Hegel's logic to a system of global epistemology, of all possible epistemological stances, and what gets lost to it is the intersection between the epistemological and ontological aspects, the way "reality" itself is caught in the movement of our knowing it (or, vice versa, how our knowing of reality is embedded in reality itself, like journalist embedded with the US Army units in Iraq).
1 Furthermore, the very term "subject" has three main meanings: subject as an autonomous agent; subject as this same agent submitted ("subjected") to some power; topic, "subject matter." It is not difficult to recognize in these three meanings the triad of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary: pure subject as the "answer of the real"; a subject of the signifier, submitted to - caught into - the symbolic order; the imaginary stuff that provides the matter, the "content," of the subject.
2 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton 1979, p. 63.
3 For a condensed overview of the problem of the two versions of Tender Is the Night, see Malcolm Cowley's "Introduction" to the Penguin edition (Harmondsworth 1948).
4 Even the "complete" narrative of the second edition is structured around a black hole: it jumps directly from the events that led to marriage to the couple living at the Riviera, with their marriage already starting to disintegrate: the first few "happy years" are left out.
5 For this reason, one is tempted to propose that the only feasible solution would have been to do something similar to what Luis Bunuel did in his Mexican adaptation of Wuthering Heights from the early 50s (there, the story begins with Heathcliff's return - the past events are only evoked something mysterious that happened years ago between Heathcliff and Cathy, never directly shown or even narrated): to leave out completely the past, and to merely evoke it as a dark spot, as something indescribable, the "absent Cause" of the story.
6 See Jean Laplanche, New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1989.
7 See Kojin Karatani, Transcritique. On Kant and Marx, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2003.
8 Karatani, op.cit., p. 3.
9 And, as René Girard pointed out, is the first full assertion of the ethical parallax not the Book of Job, in which the two perspective are confronted (the divine order of the world and Job's complaint), and neither is the "truthful" one - the truth resides in their very gap, in the shift of perspective. See René Girard, Job: The Victim and His People, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1987.
10 Karatani, op.cit., p. 6.
11 See Chapter 1 of Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With the Negative, Durham: Duke University Press 1993.
12 Along these lines, The paradox of Kant's Ding an sich is that it is at the same time the excess of receptivity over intellect (the unknowable external source of our passive sensible perceptions) AND the purely intelligible content-less construct of an X without any support in our senses.
13 So why does Kant call judgements like »The soul is non-mortal« infinite? Because, in contrast to »The soul isn't mortal,« it covers an infinite set, not only the limited set of »immortal souls« as one of the species of the genus »souls,« the other species being the »mortal souls,« but the open-ended, illimited, set of souls which belong to the third domain, neither mortal nor immortal. For a closer elaboration of this distinction, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With the Negative.
14 Perhaps, the satisfaction obtained by the cutters ("self-harmers") does not pertain so much to the way the feeling of intense bodily pain returns us back to reality, but, rather, to the fact that cutting oneself is a form of making a mark: when I make a cut into my arm, the »zero« of the subject's existential confusion, of her blurred virtual existence, is transformed into the »one« of a signifying inscription.
15 When Lacan defines himself as anti-philosopher, as insurging himself against philosophy, this is again to be conceived as a Kantian indefinite judgment: not "I am not a philosopher," but "I am a not-philosopher," i.e., I stand for the excessive core of philosophy itself, for what is in philosophy more than philosophy (which is why his main references are philosophical - in the index of ...crits, Hegel outnumbers Freud!).
16 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, New York: Macmillan 1956, p. 152-153.
17 See On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore, New York: Norton 1999.
18 Can "multitude" in its opposition to crowd also not be conceived along the lines of the Lacanian non-All? Is multitude non-all, while there is nothing outside it, nothing that is not its part, and is crowd multitude under the sign of One, the "common denominator" of identification?
19 The same goes, say, for the fact that, in the Kantian dialectic of the Sublime, there is no positive Beyond whose phenomenal representation fails: there is nothing "beyond," the "Beyond" is only the void of the impossibility/failure of its own representation - or, as Hegel put it at the end of the chapter on consciousness in his Phenomenology of Spirit, beyond the veil of the phenomena, the consciousness only finds what it itself has put there. Again, Kant "knew it" without being able to consistently formulate it.
20 Claude Levi-Strauss, "Do Dual Organizations Exist?", in Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books 1963), p. 131-163; the drawings are on pages 133-134. For a more detailed analysis of this example, see Chapter III of Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2003.
21 Lacan's thought moves from the "internal externality" - the famous "ex-timacy" - of the Real qua Thing to the Symbolic (the Real as the inaccessible traumatic core around which symbolic formations circulate like flies around the light which burns them if they approach it too much), to the absolute inherence of Real to Symbolic (the Real has no subsistence, no ontological consistency of its own, it is NOTHING BUT the inherent inconsistency, gap, of the Symbolic). This, however, does not solve the key materialist question: if Real has no subsistence of its own, if it is inherent to Symbolic, how, then, are we to thing the emergence-explosion of the Symbolic out of the pre-symbolic X? Is the only solution to naïve realism really a kind of "methodological idealism" according to which, "the limits of our language are the limits of our world," so that what is beyond the Symbolic is strictly unthinkable?
© lacan.com 1997/2006
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright. Available only through EBSCO Publishing, Inc.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.