...... Deleuze and the Lacanian Real

...........Slavoj Zizek

[space] nav gif nav gif nav gif nav gif nav jpg nav gif nav jpg nav gif nav gif

Deleuze's Platonism: Ideas as Real

Why is structuralism serious? For the serious to be truly serious, there must be the serial, which is made up of elements, of results, of configurations, of homologies, of repetitions. What is serious for Lacan is the logic of the signifier, that is to say the opposite of a philosophy, inasmuch as every philosophy rests on the appropriateness, transparency, agreement, harmony of thought with itself. There is always some part hidden, in a philosophy, an I = I, which constitutes what Lacan called at some moment 'the initial error in philosophy," which consists in privileging this equality and thus making one believe that the 'I' is contemporary with itself, while its constitution is always after the emergence of its cause, of petit a. The unconscious means that thought is caused by the non-thought that one cannot recapture in the present, except by capturing it in its consequences. This is how Georges Dandin recaptures the consequence of stopped time when he stops to say: Tu l'as voulu, Georges Dandin! (You wanted it, Georges Dandin.) He makes time stop to recapture in the consequence what was caused by the non-thought. [1]

The only thing one cannot fully agree with in this quoted passage concerns Miller's (and Lacan's) all too quick and slick condemnation of philosophy: the very German idealist who articulated the infamous I=I, the formula of the I's self-identity Lacan is distancing himself from, Fichte, also made clear the subject's dependence on a cause which is de-centered with regard to the subject. Fichte was the first philosopher to focus on the uncanny contingency in the very heart of subjectivity: the Fichtean subject is not the overblown Ego=Ego as the absolute Origin of all reality, but a finite subject thrown, caught, in a contingent social situation forever eluding mastery. It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving, but also impetus, stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits to itself in order to stimulate its activity so that, by overcoming the self-posited obstacle, it asserts its creative power, like the games the proverbial perverted ascetic saint plays with himself by inventing ever new temptations and then, in successfully resisting them, confirming his strength. If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that "sticks in the throat" of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I. Anstoss thus designates the moment of the "run-in", the hazardous knock, the encounter of the Real in the midst of the ideality of the absolute I: there is no subject without Anstoss, without the collision with an element of irreducible facticity and contingency - "the I is supposed to encounter within itself something foreign." The point is thus to acknowledge "the presence, within the I itself, of a realm of irreducible otherness, of absolute contingency and incomprehensibility... Ultimately, not just Angelus Silesius's rose, but every Anstoss whatsoever ist ohne Warum." In clear contrast to the Kantian noumenal Ding that affects our senses, Anstoss does not come from outside, it is stricto sensu ex-timate: a non-assimilable foreign body in the very core of the subject - as Fichte himself emphasizes, the paradox of Anstoss resides in the fact that it is simultaneously "purely subjective" and not produced by the activity of the I. If Anstoss were not "purely subjective", if it were already the non-I, part of objectivity, we would fall back into "dogmaticism", i.e. Anstoss would effectively amount to no more than a shadowy remainder of the Kantian Ding an sich and would thus bear witness to Fichte's inconsequentiality (the commonplace reproach against Fichte); if Anstoss were simply subjective, it would present a case of the subject's hollow playing with itself, and we would never reach the level of objective reality, i.e. Fichte would effectively be a solipsist (another commonplace reproach against his philosophy). The crucial point is that Anstoss sets in motion the constitution of "reality": at the beginning is the pure I with the non-assimilable foreign body in its heart; the subject constitutes reality by way of assuming a distance towards the Real of the formless Anstoss and conferring on it the structure of objectivity. What imposes itself here is the parallel between the Fichtean Anstoss and the Freudian-Lacanian scheme of the relationship between the primordial Ich (Ur-Ich) and the object, the foreign body in its midst, which disturbs its narcissistic balance, setting in motion the long process of the gradual expulsion and structuration of this inner snag, through which (what we experience as) "external, objective reality" is constituted.

The temporality of the subject's cause is not that of the linear deployment of time (and of the corresponding notion of causality in which past causes determine the present); it is the temporality of a circular time in which "time stops" when, in a convoluted self-relating, the subject posits its own presupposed cause. Miller himself concedes this when he points out that the cause of desire is "a cause moreover which is posed by retroaction." It is in this precise sense that subject and object are correlative: the subject's emergence, his breaking of (cut into, suspension of) the linear causality of "reality" has a cause, but a cause which is retroactively posited by its own effect. It is this minimal retroactivity, not just some kind of structural "complexity," which allows us to pass from linear natural causality, no matter how complex it is, to structural causality proper.

"You wanted it, Georges Dandin." quoted by Miller is a line from Molière in which the subject is reminded that the present deadlock that befalls him is the un-intended outcome of his own past acts; Miller gives it an additional twist: the subject should recapture in the consequence that he encounters in reality the results of their absent and non-thought cause - in the case of Billy Bathgate, he should recapture in the two "real" objects, the novel and the film, the consequences of their virtual cause, the spectral "better novel."

Deleuze characterized his reading of philosophers as guided by the tendency "to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery" or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed." [2] Deleuze is here deeply Lacanian: does Lacan not do the same in his reading of "Kant with Sade"? Jacques-Alain Miller once characterized this reading with the same words as Deleuze: the aim of Lacan is "to take Kant from behind," to produce the Sadean monster as Kant's own offspring. (And, incidentally, does the same not go also for Heidegger's reading of pre-Socratic fragments? Is he also not "taking from behind" Parmenides and Heraclitus? Is his extensive explanation of Parmenides' "Being and thought are the same" not one of the greatest buggeries in the history of philosophy?) The term "immaculate conception" is to be linked to the notion, from The Logic of Sense, of the flow of sense as infertile, without a proper causal power: Deleuzian reading does not move at the level of the actual imbrication of causes and effects; it stands to "realistic" interpretations as anal penetration does with regard to "proper" vaginal penetration.

This Deleuzian procedure has an unexpected theological precedent - not the Christian immaculate conception, to which he himself refers, but the Jewish legend about the birth of the Messiah, reported by Joseph in a monoscript from the 13th century. God wants to give birth to the Messiah, but knows that all of the forces of evil are waiting in front of the vagina of Shekina to kill the Messiah the minute he is born. So God goes at night to his mistress, Lilith, the symbol of evil, and penetrates her anally (the expression used can also mean that he pees into her vagina). The Messiah will come from Lilith after anal sex: this is the way God tricks the forces of evil, by bringing the Messiah through evil. [3] If the founding move that establishes a symbolic universe is the empty gesture, how is a gesture emptied? How is its content neutralized? Through repetition. Giorgio Agamben tried to indicate this process with the notion of profanation: in the opposition between sacred and secular, profanation of the secular does not equal secularization; profanation puts the sacred text or practice into a different context, it subtracts it from its proper context and functioning. As such, profanation remains in the domain of the non-utility, merely enacting a "perverted" non-utility. To profanate a mass is to perform a black mass, not to study the mass as object of the psychology of religion. In Kafka's The Trial, the weird extended debate between Joseph K. and the Priest about the Law (which follows the parable of the Door of the Law) is deeply profanatory - one can even say that Kafka is the greatest profanator of the Jewish Law. As such, profanation - not secularization - is the true materialist undermining of the Sacred: secularization always relies on its disavowed sacred foundation, which survives either as exception or as a formal structure. Protestantism realizes this split between the Sacred and the secular at its most radical: it secularizes the material world, but keeps religion apart, plus it introduces the formal religious principle into the very capitalist economy. (Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for the Stalinist Communism - it is secularized, not profaned religion.)

Here one should perhaps supplement Agamben: if we conceive profanation as the gesture of extraction from the proper life-world context and use, is not such an extraction also THE VERY DEFINITION OF SACRALIZATION? Say, apropos of poetry: is not the "birth" of poetry when a phrase or group of words is "decontextualized" and gets caught into an autonomous repetitive insistence? When, instead of "come here," I say "come, come here," is this not the minimum of poeticization? There is thus a zero-level at which profanation cannot be distinguished from sacralization. So we have here again the same paradox of displaced classification as the one of passive, active, and middle verbs analyzed by Emile Benveniste (the original opposition is not the one between passive and active, with the middle intervening as a third mediating/neutral moment, but between active and middle): the original opposition is between secular-everyday-utile and the Profane, and the "Sacred" stands for the secondary shift/mystification of the Profane. The emergence of the human/symbolic universe resides in the minimum gesture of the "profanatory decontextualization" of a signal or gesture, and "sacralization" comes afterwards, as an attempt to gentrify, to domesticate, this excess, this rapturous impact, of the profane. In Japanese, bakku-shan signifies "a girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front" - is the relationship between profane and sacred not something like this? A thing which appears (is experienced as) sacred when viewed from behind, from a proper distance, is effectively a profane excess... To paraphrase Rilke, Sacred is the last veil that conceals the horror of the Profane.

So what would the profanation of Christianity be? What if Christ himself - the embodiment of God in a ridiculous mortal, the comical aspect of it - already IS the profanation of divinity? What if, in contrast to other religions which can be profaned by men, only in Christianity God profanes HIMSELF?

Laclau's duality of difference and equivalence remains caught in the logic of external opposition. What Laclau doesn't develop is the conceptual mediation of the two opposites, i.e., how the very logic of difference (differentiality: the identity of each element resides only in its difference towards all others) IMMANENTLY leads to antagonism. Differentiality, in order to remain pure (i.e., to avoid the reference to any kind of external support in the guise of some element which is not grounded in differences but sustains itself in its identity), has to include a marker of the difference between the field (of differences) itself and its outside, i.e., a "pure" difference. This "pure" difference, however, already has to function as antagonism, i.e., it is what curtails/thwarts the identity of each of the elements. This is why, as Laclau put it, external difference is always also internal difference: it is not only that the difference between the field itself and its outside has to be reflected into the field itself, preventing its closure, thwarting its fullness; it is also that the differential identity of every element is simultaneously constituted and thwarted-curtailed by the differential network.

In Henning Mankel's police procedural series, Inspector Kurt Wallander has a father whose means of survival is painting - he paints all the time, in hundreds of copies, the same painting, the forrest landscape over which the sun never set (therein resides the "message" of the painting: it is possible to hold the sun captive, to prevent it from setting, to freeze a magical moment, extracting its pure appearance from nature's eternal circular movement of generation and degeneration. There is, however, a "minimal difference" in these otherwise identical paintings: in some of them, there is a small grouse in the landscape, while others are without the grouse, as if eternity itself, frozen time, has to be sustained by a minimal variation, a kind of stand-in of painting's reality for what really distinguishes each painting, its unique purely virtual intensity.

If "individuation is a relation conceived as a pure or absolute between, a between understood as fully independent of or external to its terms - and thus a between that can just as well be described as 'between' nothing at all" (Hallward 154), its status is then that of a pure antagonism. Its structure was deployed by Lacan apropos sexual difference which, as a difference, precedes the two terms between which it is the difference: the point of Lacan's "formulas of sexuation" is that both masculine and feminine position are two ways to avoid the deadlock of the difference as such. This is why Lacan's claim that sexual difference is "real-impossible" is strictly synonymous with his claim that "there is no sexual relationship." Sexual difference is for Lacan not a firm set of "static" symbolic oppositions and inclusions/exclusions (heterosexual normativity that relegates homosexuality and other "perversions" to some secondary role), but the name of a deadlock, of a trauma, of an open question, of something that RESISTS every attempt at its symbolization. Every translation of sexual difference into a set of symbolic opposition(s) is doomed to fail, and it is this very "impossibility" that opens up the terrain of the hegemonic struggle for what "sexual difference" will mean. And the same goes for the political difference (class struggle): the difference between Left and Right is not only the difference between the two terms within a shared field, it is "real" since it is not possible to provide its neutral description - the difference between the Left and the Right appears differently if perceived from the Left and from the Right: for the first, it signals the antagonism which cuts across the entire social field (the antagonism concealed by the Right), while the Right perceives itself as the force of moderation and social stability and organic unity, with the Left reduced to the position of an intruder that disturbs this organic stability of the social body - for the Right, the Left is as such "extreme."

Let us all here yet another time Levi-Strauss's exemplary analysis, from his Structural Anthropology, of the spatial disposition of buildings in the Winnebago, one of the Great Lake tribes. 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... The central point of Lévi-Strauss 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. Is it necessary to add that things stand exactly the same with respect to sexual difference: "masculine" and "feminine" are like the two configurations of houses in the Levi-Straussian village? And in order to dispel the illusion that our "developed" universe is not dominated by the same logic, let us return to our example of political struggle, of the splitting of our political space into Left and Right: a Leftist and a Rightist behave exactly like members of the opposite sub-groups of the Levi-Straussian village. They not only occupy different places within the political space; each of them perceives differently the very disposition of the political space - a Leftist as the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism, a Rightist as the organic unity of a Community disturbed only by foreign intruders.

In this precise sense, sexual (or political) difference is the "dark precursor", never present, a purely virtual "pseudo-cause", the X which always (constitutively) "lacks at its own place" (all its actualizations already displace it) and, as such, distributes the two actual series (masculine and feminine in sexuality, the Right and the Left in politics). In this sense, Lacan advocates a non-relational concept of phallus: the phallic signifier "founds sexuality in its entirety as system or structure": it is in relation to the phallic object

that the variety of terms and the variation of differential relations are determined in each case /.../. The relative places of the terms in the structure depend first on the absolute place of each, at each moment, in relation to the object=x that is always circulating, always displaced in relation to itself /.../. Distributing the differences through the entire structure, making the differential relations vary with its displacements, the object=x constitutes the differentiating element of difference itself. [4]

Here, however, one should be careful to avoid the same trap as the one that lurks apropos Deleuze's notion of "pure past" this fixed element which, as the "absent cause", distributes the elements, is a purely virtual element which is present only in its effects and is, as such, retroactively posited (pre-supposed) by its effects; it has no substantial independent existence prior to this process.

This brings us to the dimension of symbolic castration: phallus as the signifier of the pure virtuality of meaning has to be a "signifier without signified": it is non-sense, the absence of any determinate meaning, which stands for the virtuality of pure meaning. (Or, to put it in more Deleuzian terms: the very counter-actualization, the move backwards from actuality to the virtual field that is its transcendental condition, has to occur WITHIN actuality, as a displacement, disorder, out-of-joint, of the elements within this order.) This is why it is not nonsensical to speak about "signifier without signified": this absence of meaning is in itself a positive feature, inscribed into the field of meaning as a hole gaping in its midst. (In a homologous way, Jews are the "phallic" nation, the "phallic" element among nations: they are a nation without land, but so that this absence is inscribed into their very being, as the absolute reference to the virtual land of Israel.)

Art "allows for an absolute and genuinely transformative liberation-expression, precisely because what it liberates is nothing other than the liberating itself, the movement of pure spiritualization or dematerialization" (Hallward 122): what has to be liberated is ultimately liberation itself, the movement of "deterritorializing" all actual entities. This self-relating move is crucial - and, along the same lines, what desire desires is not a determinate object but the unconditional assertion of desiring itself (or, as Nietzsche put it, the will is at its most radical the will to will itself).

Therein resides the ultimate irony of Deleuze's critique of Hegel: when, against Hegel, Deleuze claims that creation "is immediately creative; there is no transcendent or negating subject of creation that might need time in order to become conscious of itself or otherwise catch up with itself" (Hallward 149), he thereby imputes to Hegel a substantialization-reification which is not there and, in this way, obliterates precisely that dimension in Hegel which is the closest to Deleuze himself. Hegel repeatedly insists that Spirit is "a product of itself": it is not a pre-existing Subject intervening into objectivity, sublating-mediating it, but the result of its own movement, i.e., pure processuality. As such, it does not need time to "catch up with itself," but simply to generate itself.

In order to describe the blind "seer" (blind to actual reality but sensible to the virtual dimension of things), Deleuze resorts to a wonderful metaphor of a spider deprived of eyes and ears but infinitely sensitive to whatever resonates through his virtual web: "Actual or constituted forms slip through the web and make no impression, for the web is designed to vibrate only on contact with virtual or intensive forms. The more fleeting or molecular the movement, the more intense its resonance through the web. The web responds to the movements of a pure multiplicity before it has taken on any definite shape." (Hallward 118)

When Deleuze talks about a process which creates and sees in a single movement, he thereby consciously evokes the formula of intellectual intuition, the prerogative of God alone. Deleuze pursues a pre-critical agenda, passionately defending Spinoza's and Leibniz's metaphysical "realism" (direct insight into the very core of things in themselves) against Kant's "critical" limitation of our knowledge to the domain of phenomenal representations. However, the Hegelian reply to this would have been: what if the distance of re-presentation, the distance that renders the thing inaccessible to us, is inscribed into the very heart of the thing itself, so that the very gap that separates us from the thing includes us into it - therein resides the core of the Hegelian Christology, in which our alienation from God coincides with the alienation of God from himself. Deleuze says that propositions do not describe things but are the verb al actualization of those things, i.e. these things themselves in their verbal mode - would Hegel not claim, in the same way, that our re-presentation of God is God himself in the mode of representation, that our erroneous perception of God is God himself in erroneous mode?

Here is how Hallward formulates the core of Deleuze's critical rejection of Hegel: "whereas according to Hegel any given 'thing differs with itself because it differs first with all that it is not,' i.e. with all the objects to which it relates, Deleuze's Bergson affirms that a 'thing differs with itself first, immediately,' on account of the 'internal explosive force' it carries within itself." If ever there was a straw-man, it is Deleuze's Hegel: is not Hegel's basic insight precisely that every external opposition is grounded in the things immanent self-opposition, i.e., that every external difference implies self-difference? A finite being differs from other (finite) things because it is already not identical with itself.

Deleuze accepts the Leibnizean hierarchy of monads: the difference between monads is ultimately quantitative, i.e., every monad is substantially the same, it expresses the whole infinite world, but with a different, always specific, quantitative intensity and adequacy: at the one - lowest - extreme there are "darkened monads" with only one clear perception, their hatred of God; at the other - highest - extreme, there are "reasonable monads" which can open themselves to reflect the entire universe. What, in a monad, resists the full expression of God is its stubborn attachment to its creatural delusion, to its particular (ultimately material) identity. Humanity occupies here the place of the highest tension: on the one hand, humans are, even more than other living beings, caught in the thrall of absolute egotism, obstinately focused on the preservation of the identity of their Self (which is why, for Deleuze, the highest task of philosophy is to elevate man above his human condition, to the "inhuman" level of the "overman"); on the other hand, Deleuze agrees with Bergson that man stands for a unique breakthrough and the highest point in the evolution of life - with the emergence of consciousness, a living being is finally able to by-pass its material (organic) limitations and advance to a purely spiritual plan of the unity with the divine All... From a Hegelian standpoint, one can say that what Deleuze fails to fully perceive is what, among others, Schelling saw clearly: the ultimate identity of these two features, of the lowest and the highest: it is precisely THROUGH his stubborn attachment to his singular Self that a human individual is able to extract himself from the particular convolutions of actual life (with its circular movement of generation and corruption) and enter in relation with virtual eternity. This is why (insofar as another name for this egotistic stubborn attachment is Evil) Evil is a formal condition of the rise of the Good: it literally creates the space for the Good.

For example, in the social sphere, this is how economy exerts its role of determining the social structure "in the last instance": economy in this role is never directly present as an actual causal agent, its presence is purely virtual, it is the social "pseudo-cause", but, precisely as such, absolute, non-relational, the absent cause, something that is never "at its own place": "that is why 'the economic' is never given properly speaking, but rather designates a differential virtuality to be interpreted, always covered over by its forms of actualization" (DR 186). It is the absent X which circulates between the multiple series of the social field (economic, political, ideological, legal...), distributing them in their specific articulation. One should thus insist on the radical difference between the economic as this virtual X, the absolute point of reference of the social field, and the economic in its actuality, as one of the elements ("subsystems") of the actual social totality: when they encounter each other, i.e., to put it in Hegelese, when the virtual economic encounters in the guise of its actual counterpart itself in its "oppositional determination", this identity coincides with absolute (self)contradiction.

This brings us to the central paradox of Deleuze's thought: perhaps the most succinct definition of his philosophy would have been that it is a "Fichteanized Spinozism" - and we should just bear in mind that Fichte was (perceived himself as) the absolute anti-Spinozist. In Deleuze's notion of pure Life as the flux of virtual creativity, Spinoza's substance as causa sui overlaps with the Fichtean self-positing of the pure absolute I:

The concept posits itself to the same extent that it is created. What depends on a free creative activity is also that which, independently and necessarily, posits itself in itself: the most subjective will be the most objective. (WP 11)

This purely virtual self-referential creating moves at infinite speed, since it needs no externality in/through which to mediate its self-positing movement: "Infinite speed thus describes a movement that no longer has anything to do with actual movement, a purely virtual 'movement' that has always reached its destination, whose moving is itself its own destination." [5]

dissolve the pseudo-link of desire with pleasure as its extrinsic measure. Pleasure is in no way something that can only be reached via the detour of pain, but that which has to be delayed to the maximum since it is something which interrupts the continuous process of the positive desire. There is an immanent joy of desire, as if desire fills itself with itself and its contemplations, and which does not imply any lack, any impossibility. (MP-192)

And the same goes for the courtly love: its eternal postponement of fulfillment does not obey a law of lack or an ideal of transcendence: here also, it signals a desire which lacks nothing, since it finds its fulfillment in itself, in its own immanence; every pleasure is, on the contrary, already a re-territorialization of the free flux of desire. (193)


[1] Jacques-Alain Miller, "Detached Pieces," lacanian ink 28, Fall 2007, p. 37.

[2] Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1997, p. 6.

[3] Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 185-6.

[5] Peter Hallward, Out of This World, London: Verso, 2006, p. 142.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

© lacan.com 1997/2007
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. Available only through EBSCO Publishng, Inc.
It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.