.........Slavoj Zizek

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

What is an act in the strict Lacanian sense of the term? Recall C.S. Lewis' description of his religious choice from his Surprised by Joy—what makes it so irresistibly delicious is the author's matter-of-fact "English" skeptical style, far from the usual pathetic narratives of the mystical rapture. C.S. Lewis' description of the act thus deftly avoids any ecstatic pathos in the usual style of Saint Theresa, any multiple-orgasmic penetrations by angels or God: it is not that, in the divine mystical experience, we step out (in ex-stasis) of our normal experience of reality: it is this "normal" experience which is "ex-static" (Heidegger), in which we are thrown outside into entities, and the mystical experience signal the withdrawal from this ecstasy. Lewis thus refers to the experience as the "odd thing;" he mentions its common location—"I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus"—the qualifications like "in a sense," "what now appears," "or, if you like," "you could argue that... but I am more inclined to think...," "perhaps," "I rather disliked the feeling"):

"The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, "I chose," yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, 'I am what I do.' Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling. 1

In a way, everything is here: the decision is purely formal, ultimately a decision to decide, without a clear awareness of WHAT the subject decides about; it is non-psychological act, unemotional, with no motives, desires or fears; it is incalculable, not the outcome of strategic argumentation; it is a totally free act, although one couldn't do it otherwise. It is only AFTERWARDS that this pure act is "subjectivized," translated into a (rather unpleasant) psychological experience.

In this precise sense, an act proper is also the very opposite of the violent passage a l'acte. What is a passage a l'acte? Perhaps, its ultimate cinematic expression is found in Paul Schrader's and Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, in the final outburst of Travis (Robert de Niro) against the pimps who control the young girl he wants to save (Jodie Foster). Crucial is the implicit suicidal dimension of this passage à l'acte: when Travis prepares for his attack he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending "You talkin' to me?" In a textbook illustration of Lacan's notion of the "mirror stage," aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one's own mirror-image. This suicidal dimension reemerges at the end of the slaughter scene when Travis, heavily wounded and leaning at the wall, mimics with the fore-finger of his right hand a gun aimed at his blood-stained forehead and mockingly triggers it, as if saying "The true aim of my outburst was myself." The paradox of Travis is that he perceives HIMSELF as part of the degenerate dirt of the city life he wants to eradicate, so that, as Brecht put it apropos of revolutionary violence in his The Measure Taken, he wants to be the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean.

Taxi Driver, Andrew Davis' The Fugitive provided a less ambiguous version of the violent passage a l'acte serving as a lure, a vehicle of ideological displacement. Towards the film's end, the innocent-persecuted doctor (Harrison Ford) confronts at a large medical convention his colleague (Jerome Kraabe), accusing him that he falsified medical data on behalf of a large pharmaceutical company. At this precise point, when one would expect that the shift would focus on the company—the corporate capital—as the true culprit, Kraabe interrupts his talk, invites Ford to step aside, and then, outside the convention hall, they engage in a passionate violent fight, beating each other till their faces are red from blood. The scene is telltale in its openly ridiculous character, as if, in order to get out of the ideological mess of playing with anti-capitalism, one should do a move which renders directly palpable the cracks in the narrative. Another aspect here is the transformation of the bad guy (Kraabe) into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity (which accompanies the dazzling spectacle of the fight) should replace the anonymous non-psychological drive of the capital: the much more appropriate gesture would have been to present the corrupted colleague as a psychologically sincere and privately honest doctor who, because of the financial difficulties of the hospital in which he works, was lured into swallowing the bait of the pharmaceutical company.

This problematic of the act confronts us with the necessity to risk a materialist appropriation of the religious tradition. When, in Being and Time, Heidegger insists that death is the only event which cannot be taken over by another subject for me—another cannot die for me, at my place—the obvious counterexample is Christ himself: did he not, in the ultimate gesture of interpassivity, take over for us the ultimate passive experience of dying? Christ dies so that we are given a chance of living forever... The problem here is not only that, obviously, we DON'T live forever (the answer to this is that it is the Holy Spirit, the community of believers, which lives forever), but the subjective status of Christ: when he was dying on the cross, did he KNOW about his Resurrection-to-come? If yes, then it was all a game, the supreme divine comedy, since Christ knew his suffering was just a spectacle with a guaranteed good outcome—in short, Christ was FAKING despair in his "Father, why did you forsake me?" If no, then in what precise sense was Christ (also) divine? Did God the Father limit the scope of knowledge of Christ's mind to that of a common human consciousness, so that Christ effectively thought he was dying abandoned by his father? Was he effectively occupying the position of the son from a supreme Jewish joke, in which a Rabbi turns in despair to God, asking him what he should do with his bad son who deeply disappointed him; God calmly answered: "Do the same as I did: write a new testament!"

The key to Christ is provided by the figure of Job, whose suffering prefigures that of Christ. The almost unbearable impact of the "Book of Job" resides not so much in its narrative frame (the Devil appears in it as a conversational partner of God, and the two engage in a rather cruel experiment in order to test Job's faith), but in its final outcome. Far from providing some kind of satisfactory account of Job's undeserved suffering, God's appearance at the end ultimately amounts to pure boasting, a horror show with elements of farcical spectacle—a pure argument of authority grounded in breathtaking display of power: "You see all what I can do? Can you do this? Who are you then to complain?" So what we get is neither the good God letting Job know that his suffering is just an ordeal destined to test his faith, nor a dark God beyond Law, the God of pure caprice, but rather a God who acts as someone caught in the moment of impotence, weakness at least, and tries to escape his predicament by empty boasting. What we get at the end is a kind of cheap Hollywood horror show with lots of special effects—no wonder that many commentators tend to dismiss Job's story as a remainder of the previous pagan mythology which should have been excluded from the Bible.

Against this temptation, one should precisely locate the true greatness of Job: contrary to the usual notion of Job, he is NOT a patient sufferer, enduring his ordeal with the firm faith in God—on the contrary, he complains all the time, rejecting his fate (like Oedipus at Colonus, who is also usually misperceived as a patient victim resigned to his fate). When the three theologians-friends visit him, their line of argumentation is the standard ideological sophistry (if you suffer, it is by definition that you MUST HAVE done something wrong, since God is just). However, their argumentation is not limited to the claim that Job must be somehow guilty: what is at stake at a more radical level is the meaning(lessness) of Job's suffering. Like Oedipus at Colonus, Job insists on the utter MEANINGLESSNESS of his suffering—as the title of Job 27 says: "Job Maintains His Integrity." As such, the Book of Job provides what is perhaps the first exemplary case of the critique of ideology in the human history, laying bare the basic discursive strategies of legitimizing suffering: Job's properly ethical dignity resides in the way he persistently detects the notion that his suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for his past sins or the trial of his faith, against the three theologians who bombard him with possible meanings—and, surprisingly, God takes his side at the end, claiming that every word that Job spoke was true, while every word of the three theologians was false.

And it is with regard to this assertion of the meaninglessness of Job's suffering that one should insist on the parallel between Job and Christ, on Job's suffering announcing the Way of the Cross: Christ's suffering is ALSO meaningless, not an act of meaningful exchange. The difference, of course, is that, in the case of Christ, the gap that separates the suffering desperate man (Job) from God is transposed into God himself, as His own radical splitting or, rather, self-abandonment. 2 What this means is that one should risk a much more radical than usual reading of Christ's "Father, why did you forsake me?" than the usual one: since we are dealing here not with the gap between man and God, but with the split in God himself, the solution cannot be for the God to (re)appear in all his majesty, revealing to Christ the deeper meaning of his suffering (that he was the Innocent sacrificed to redeem humanity). Christ's "Father, why did you forsake me?" is not the complaint to the OMNIPOTENT capricious God-Father whose ways are indecipherable to us, mortal humans, but the complaint which hints at the IMPOTENT God: it is rather like the child who, after believing in his father's powerfulness, with horror discovers that his father cannot help him. (To evoke an example from recent history: at the moment of Christ's crucifixion, God-the-Father is in a position somewhat similar to that of the Bosnian father, made to witness the gang rape of his own daughter, and to endure the ultimate trauma of her compassionate-reproaching gaze: "Father, why did you forsake me"...) In short, with this "Father, why did you forsake me?" it is God-the-Father who effectively dies, revealing his utter impotence, and thereupon rises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Ghost.

Since the function of the obscene superego supplement of the (divine) Law is to mask this impotence of the big Other, and since Christianity REVEALS this impotence, it is, quite consequently, the first (and only) religion to radically leave behind the split between the official/public text and its obscene initiatic supplement: in it, there is no hidden untold story. In this precise sense, Christianity is the religion of Revelation: everything is revealed in it, no obscene superego supplement is accompanying its public message. In old Greek and Roman religions, the public text was always supplemented by secret initiatic rituals and orgies; on the other hand, all attempts to treat Christianity in the same way (to uncover Christ's "secret teaching" somehow encoded in the New Testament or found in apocryphal Gospels) amounts to its heretic reinscription into the pagan Gnostic tradition.

Apropos Christianity as "revealed religion," one should thus ask the inevitable stupid question: what is effectively revealed in it? That is to say, is it not that ALL religions reveal some mystery through the prophets to carry the divine message to humans; even those who insist on the impenetrability of the dieu obscur imply that there is some secret which resist in revelation, and in the Gnostic versions, this mystery which IS revealed to the selected few in some initiatic ceremony. Significantly, Gnostic reinscriptions of Christianity insist precisely on the presence of such a hidden message to be deciphered in the official Christian text. So what is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content, but, more specifically, that THERE IS NOTHING - NO SECRET - TO BE REVEALED BEHIND IT. To paraphrase Hegel's famous formula from his Phenomenology, behind the curtain of the public text, there is only what we put there. Or, to formulate it even more pointedly, in more pathetic terms, what God reveals is not his hidden power, but only his impotence as such.

Where, then, does Judaism stand with regard to this opposition? Is it not that God's final appearance in the Job story, in which he boasts about the miracles and monsters he generated, is precisely such an obscene fantasmatic spectacle destined to cover this impotence? However, things here are more complex. In his discussion of the Freudian figure of Moses, Eric Santner introduces the key distinction between symbolic history (the set of explicit mythical narratives and ideologico-ethical prescriptions that constitute the tradition of a community, what Hegel would have called its "ethical substance") and its obscene Other, the unacknowledgeable "spectral," fantasmatic secret history that effectively sustains the explicit symbolic tradition, but has to remain foreclosed if it is to be operative. What Freud endeavors to reconstitute in his Moses book (the story of the murder of Moses, etc.) is such a spectral history that haunts the space of Jewish religious tradition. One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted "between the lines," through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition. 3 Judaism's "stubborn attachment" (Judith Butler's term) to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement enabled the Jews to persist and survive for thousands of years without land and common institutional tradition: they refused to give up their ghost, to cut off the link to their secret, disavowed tradition. The paradox of Judaism is that it maintains fidelity to the founding violent Event precisely by NOT confessing, symbolizing it: this "repressed" status of the Event is what gives Judaism its unprecedented vitality.

Does, however, this mean that the split between the "official" texts of the Law with their abstract legal asexual character (Torah—the Old Testament, Mishna—the formulation of the Laws, and Talmud—the commentary of the Laws, all of them supposed to be part of the divine Revelation on the Mount Sinai), and Kabbalah (this set of the deeply sexualized obscure insights to be kept secret—recall the notorious passages about the vaginal juices) reproduce within Judaism the tension between the pure symbolic Law and its superego supplement, the secret initiatic knowledge?

A crucial line of separation is to be drawn here between the Jewish fidelity to the disavowed ghosts and the pagan obscene initiatic wisdom accompanying the public ritual: the disavowed Jewish spectral narrative does not tell the obscene story of God's impenetrable omnipotence, but its exact opposite: the story of His IMPOTENCE covered by the standard pagan obscene supplements. The secret to which the Jews remain faithful is the horror of the divine impotence—and it is THIS secret which is "revealed" in Christianity. This is the reason why Christianity can only occur after Judaism: it reveals the horror first confronted by the Jews. It is thus only through taking into account this line of separation between paganism and Judaism that one can properly grasp the Christian breakthrough itself.

What this means is that, in forcing us to face the abyss of the Other's desire (in the guise of the impenetrable God), in refusing to cover up this abyss with a determinate fantasmatic scenario (articulated in the obscene initiatic myth), Judaism confronts us for the first time with the paradox of human freedom. There is no freedom outside the traumatic encounter with the opacity of the Other's desire: freedom does not mean that I simply get rid of the Other's desire—I am as it were thrown into my freedom when I confront this opacity as such, deprived of the fantasmatic cover which tells me what the Other wants from me. In this difficult predicament, full of anxiety, when I know THAT the Other wants something from me, without knowing WHAT this desire is, I am thrown back into myself, compelled to assume the risk of freely determining the coordinates of my desire.

The same ethical struggle to sustain the meaninglessness of the catastrophe is the topic of Atom Egoyan's masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, arguably THE film about the impact of a trauma on a community. Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer, arrives in the wintry hamlet of San Dent to sign up the parents of children who died when their school bus plunged into an ice-covered lake. His motto is "there are no accidents": there are no gaps in the causal link of responsibility, there always HAS to be someone who is guilty. (As we soon learn, he is not doing this on account of his professional avarice. Stephens' obsession with the complete causal link is rather his desperate strategy to cope with the private trauma, which is sorting out responsibility for his own daughter Zoe, a junkie who despises him, although she repeatedly calls him demanding money: he insists that everything must have a cause in order to counteract the inexplicable gap which separates him from Zoe.) After Stephens interviews Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the bus, who says the accident was a fluke, he visits the families of the dead children, and some of them sign up with him to file a lawsuit. Among them are the parents of Nicole Burnell, a teenager who survived the crash as a paraplegic but remember nothing. Stephens' case depends on proving that the bus company or the school board were at fault, not Dolores' driving.

Nicole, estranged and cynical since the accident, sees her parents succumbing to greed and Stephens' dark influence. Her father has been molesting her for years; where she once believed in his love, she now sees only exploitation. At the inquest, she decides to lie, testifying that Dolores was driving too fast—Stephens' case is thus ruined. While Nicole is now forever isolated from the community, she will be from now on able to guide her own future, In the film's last scene which takes place two years later, Dolores, now driving a minibus at a nearby airport, meets Stephens on his way to rescue his daughter yet again; they recognize each other, but prefer not to speak. In the film's final lines, Nicole's voice-over accompanies this encounter of Stephens and Dolores: "As you see each other, almost two years later, I wonder if you realize something, I wonder if you realize that all of us—Dolores, me, the children who survived, the children who didn't—that we're all citizens of a different town now. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter."

At first glance, Stephens looks like the film's protagonist: the film begins with his arrival in town, he is involved with the climax, and much of the first half is seen from his point of view. It is Stephens, passion which drives the lawsuit, the dramatic spine of the story—it thus seems that we shall get the standard Hollywood narrative in which the larger tragedy (the bus accident) just offers the background for the true focus, the protagonist's coming to terms with his own trauma. However, halfway through, Egoyan lifts our expectations with a major shift in point of view: when Nicole leaves the hospital as a paraplegic, the story becomes HERS, and Stephens is re-positioned as her antagonist. Is, then, Nicole's lie an act of saving the community, enabling the townspeople to escape the painful judicial examination which would have torn their lives apart? Is it not that, through it, the community is allowed to absolve itself, i.e. to avoid the SECOND trauma of the symbolization of the accident, and to enter the fantasmatic bliss of the "sweet hereafter" in which, by an unspoken pact among them, the catastrophe is silently ignored? Is it in this sense that her lie is an ACT in the strict sense of the term: an "immoral" lie which answers the unconditional call of Duty, enabling the community to start again from zero? 4 Is this not the basic lesson of the film, namely that our social reality as such is a "sweet hereafter" based on a constitutive lie? The young incestuous girl, with her lie, enables a community to reconstitute itself—we all live in a "sweet hereafter," social reality itself is a "sweet hereafter" based on the disavowal of some trauma. The townspeople who survive as a community connected with a secret bond of the disavowed knowledge, obeying their own secret rules, are not the model of a pathological community, but the very (unacknowledged) model of our "normal" social reality. Like in Freud's dream about Irma's injection, in which social reality (the spectacle of the three doctors-friends proposing contradictory excuses for the failure of Freud's treatment of Irma) there emerges the "sweet hereafter" following the traumatic confrontation with the trauma of Irma's deep throat.

However, such a reading simplified too much the film's texture. Does the traumatic accident derail the idyllic life of the small town community? It seems that the opposite is the case: before the catastrophic accident, the community was far from idyllic—its members indulged in adultery, incest, etc., so that the accident, by way of localizing the violence in the external/contingent traumatic bus accident, by way of displacing it onto this accident, retroactively rendered the community edenic. However, such a reading also misses the point. The key indication of the community life is provided by the way the daughter/father incest (which went on before the accident) is presented: strangely, this ultimate transgression is rendered as totally NON-TRAUMATIC, as part of everyday intimate relations. We are in a community in which incest is "normal." Perhaps, then, this allows us to risk a Levi-Straussian reading of the film: what if its structuring opposition is the same as the one which Levi-Strauss identities in his famous analysis of XI the Oedipus myth, 5 namely the opposition between overvaluation and undervaluation of the kinship ties, concretely: between incest and losing children in an accident (or, in the case of the lawyer Stephens, losing ties with a junkie daughter)? The key insight of the story concerns the link between the two opposites: it is as if, since parents are so attached to their children, following the proverbial obsessional strategy, they prefer to strike preemptively, i.e. to stage themselves the loss of the child in order to avoid the unbearable waiting for the moment when, upon growing up, the child will abandon them. This notion is expressed clearly by Stephens in a side story not used by Egoyan, when he muses on his disavowed decision to let her young daughter in a store: "I must have known that if my child was indeed to be lost to me, then I would need all my strength just to survive that fact, so I had decided ahead of time not to waste any of my strength trying to save what was already lost." 6

The reference of the film is, of course, Robert Browning's famous poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin, repeatedly quoted through the film by Nicole, with the longest quote occurring when father takes her into the barn for sex. And the ultimate proto-Hegelian paradox (identity of the opposites) is that it is Stephens himself, the angry outsider, who is the true Pied Piper in the film. That is to say, the way the community survived the loss was to replace the dead child with the dreamed one: "It's the other child, the dreamed baby, the remembered one, that for a few moments we think exists. For those few moments, the first child, the real baby, the dead one, is not gone; she simply never was. 7 What the successful litigation pursued by Stephens would have brought about is the disturbance of this fragile solution: the pacifying specter of the dreamed child would have disintegrated, the community would have been confronted with the loss as such, with the fact that their children DID exist and now NO L0NGER DO. So if Stephens is the Pied Piper of the film, his threat is that he will snatch away not the real children, but the dreamed ones, thus confronting the community not only with the loss as such, but with the inherent cruelty of their solution which involves the denial of the very existence of the lost real children. Is, then, this the reason Zoe lied? In a true stroke of a genius, Egoyan wrote an additional stanza in the Browning style, which Nicole recites over a close-up of her father's mouth after she has falsely implicated Dolores:

"And why I lied he only knew But from my lie this did come true Those lips from which he drew his tune Were frozen as the winter moon."

These frozen lips, of course, stand not only for the dead children, but also for Nicole's rejection of being further engaged in the incest: only her father knew the truth about why she lied at the hearing—the truth of her lie being a NO! to her father. And this NO! is at the same time a NO! to the community (Gemeinschaft) as opposed to society (Geseilschaft). When does one belong to a community? The difference concerns the netherworld of unwritten obscene rules which regulate the "inherent transgression" of the community, the way we are allowed/expected to violate its explicit rules. This is why the subject who closely follows the explicit rules of a community will never be accepted by its members as "one of us": he does not participate in the transgressive rituals which effectively keep this community together. And society as opposed to community is a collective which can dispense with this set of unwritten rules—since this is impossible, there is no society without community. This is where the theories which advocate the subversive character of mimicry get it wrong; according to these theories, the properly subversive attitude of the Other—say, of a colonized subject who lives under the domination of the colonizing culture—is to mimic the dominant discourse, but with a distance, so that what he does and says is like what the colonizers themselves do... almost like it, with an unfathomable difference which makes his Otherness all the more palpable. One is tempted to turn this thesis around: it is the foreigner emulating faithfully the rules of the dominant culture he wants to penetrate and identify with, who is condemned forever to remain an outsider, because he fails to practice, to participate in, the self-distance of the dominant culture, the unwritten rules which tell us how and when to violate the explicit rules of this culture. We are "in," integrated in a culture, perceived by their members as "one of us," only when we succeed in practicing this unfathomable DISTANCE from the symbolic rules—it is ultimately only this distance which exhibits our identity, our belonging to the culture in question. And the subject reaches the level of a true ethical stance only when he moves beyond this duality of the public rules as well as their superego shadow; in John Irving's The Cider-House Rules, these three levels of ethics are staged in an exemplary way. First, we get the straight morality (the set of explicit rules we choose to obey—Homer Wells, the novel's hero, chooses never to perform an abortion); then, we experience its obscene underside—this is what takes place in the "cider house" in which, while on seasonal work there, Homer learns that explicit rules are sustained by more obscene implicit rules with which it is better not to mess); finally, when, based on this experience, Homer acknowledges the necessity to BREAK the explicit moral rules (he performs an abortion), he reaches the level of ethics proper. And does the same not go also for Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter? Is Nicole's act not the gesture of asserting her distance towards both poles, the larger society as well as the "sweet hereafter" of the traumatized community and its secret rules?


1. C.S.Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Fontana Books, 1977, p. 174-5.
2. For a closer elaboration of this crucial point, see Chapter 4 of Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, London: Routledge 2001.
3. See Eric Santner, "Traumatic Revelations: Freud's Moses and the Origins of Anti-Semitism," in Renata Salecl, ed., Sexuation, Durham: Duke UP 2000. For my own Lacanian elaboration of this point, see Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso Books 2000.
4. I owe this point to Christina Ross, McGill University, Montreal.
5. See Claude LÚvi-Strauss, "The Structural Analysis of Myth," in Structural Anthropology, New York: Basic Book, 1963.
6. Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter, New York: Harper 1992, p. 54.
7. ibid, p. 125-6.

© lacan.com 1997/2005
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. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.