......• Mel Gibson at the Serbsky Institute
.........Slavoj Zizek

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


In the good old Soviet times, the Serbsky Institute in Moscow was the psychiatric flagship for punitive political control; its psychiatrists developed painful drug methods to make detainees talk and extract testimony for use in national security investigations. Underpinning the ability of psychiatrists to incarcerate people was an invented political mental disorder known as vyalotekushchaya‚ ("sluggish schizophrenia"). Psychiatrists described the disease as a person appearing quite normal most of the time but who would break out with a severe case of "inflexibility of convictions," or "nervous exhaustion brought on by his or her search for justice," or "a tendency to litigation" or "reformist delusions." The treatment involved intravenous injections of psychotropic drugs that were so painfully administered patients became unconscious. The overriding belief was that a person had to be insane to be against Communism. Is this psychiatric approach to politically problematic positions a thing of the past? Unfortunately, no: not only is the Serbsky Institute today happily thriving in Putin's Russia, but, as the recent incident with Mel Gibson indicates, it will soon open a branch in Malibu! Here is Gibson's own description of what happened to him on Friday, July 28 2006: "I drove a car when I should not have, and was stopped by the LA County Sheriffs. The arresting officer was just doing his job and I feel fortunate that I was apprehended before I caused injury to any other person. I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable." It is reported that Gibson said, "F------ Jews... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," and asked a deputy, "Are you a Jew?" Gibson apologized, but his apology was rejected by the Anti-Defamation League - here is what Abraham Foxman, director of the League, wrote: "Mel Gibson's apology is unremorseful and insufficient. It's not a proper apology because it does not go to the essence of his bigotry and his anti-Semitism. His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film The Passion of the Christ, that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham."

Later, Gibson offered a more substantial apology, announcing through a spokesman that he would undergo rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. He added: "Hatred of any kind goes against my faith. I'm not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing." Gibson said he is "in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display." This time, Foxman accepted his apology as sincere: "Two years ago, I was told by his publicist that he wants to meet with me and have an understanding. I'm still waiting. There is no course, there is no curriculum. We need in-depth conversation. It's therapy - and the most important step in any therapy is to admit that you have a problem, which is a step he's already taken."

Why lose our precious time on such a vulgar incident? For an observer of the ideological trends in the US, these events display a nightmarish dimension: the mutually reinforcing hypocrisy of the two sides, the anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists and the Zionists, is breath-taking. Politically, the reconciliation between Gibson and Foxman signals an obscene pact between anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalists and aggressive Zionists, whose expression is the growing support of the fundamentalists for the State of Israel (recall Pat Robertson's claim that Sharon's heart attack was the divine punishment for the evacuation of Gaza). The Jewish people will pay dearly for such pacts with the devil - can one imagine what a boost to anti-Semitism will get from Foxman's offer? "So if I now say something critical about Jews, I will be forced to submit to psychiatric therapy..."

What underlies the final reconciliation is, obviously, an obscene quid pro quo. Foxman's reaction to Gibson's outburst was not too severe and too demanding; on the contrary, it let Gibson all too easy off the hook. It accepted Gibson's refusal to take full personal responsibility for his words (his anti-Semitic remarks): they were not really his own, it was pathology, some unknown force that took over under the influence of alcohol. However, the answer to Gibson's question "where those vicious words came from?" is ridiculously simple: they are part and parcel of his ideological identity, formed (as far as one can say) in large extent by his father. What underlies Gibson's remarks was not madness, but a well-known ideology (anti-Semitism).

Consequently, what Gibson needs is not therapy, it is not the admission that "he has a problem," but the acceptance of his responsibility for his remarks - concretely, what he has to do is to ask himself in what way his outburst is linked to his version of Catholicism, and functions as its obscene underside. In other words, his hypocrisy is a small-scale replica of the hypocritical reaction of the Catholic Church to pedophilia flourishing in its ranks. When the Church representatives insists that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the Church's internal problem, and display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation, they are, in a way, right: the pedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that concerns merely the persons who, because of accidental reasons of private history with no relation to the Church as an institution, happened to chose the profession of a priest; it is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as such, that is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution. It does not concern the "private" unconscious of individuals, but the "unconscious" of the institution itself: it is not something that happens because the Institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a "straight" (not pedophiliac) priest who, after years of service, gets involved in pedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional Unconscious designates the obscene disavowed underside that, precisely as disavowed, sustains the public institution. (In the army, this underside consists of the obscene sexualized rituals of fragging etc. which sustain the group solidarity.) In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up the embarrassing pedophilic scandals; in defending itself, the Church defends its innermost obscene secret. What this means is that identifying oneself with this secret side is a key constituent of the very identity of a Christian priest: if a priest seriously (not just rhetorically) denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community, he is no longer "one of us" (in exactly the same way a citizen of a town in the South of the US in the 1920s, if he denounced the Ku Klux Klan to the police, he would exclude himself from his community, i.e., betray its fundamental solidarity). Consequently, the answer to the Church's reluctance should be not only that we are dealing with criminal cases and that, if the Church does not fully participate in their investigation, it is an accomplice after the fact; moreover, the Church AS SUCH, as an institution, should be investigated with regard to the way it systematically creates conditions for such crimes.

When Foxman offered to treat Gibson's outburst as a case of individual pathology which needs a therapeutic approach, he not only committed the same error as those who want to reduce cases of pedophilia to individual pathologies. Much worse, he contributed to the revival of the Serbsky Institute way of dealing with problematic political and ideological attitudes as phenomena that call for psychiatric intervention. In the same way that the overriding belief of the Serbsky Institute measures was that a person had to be insane to be against Communism, Foxman's offer implies that a person has to be insane to be anti-Semitic. This easy way out enables us to avoid the key issue: that, precisely, anti-Semitism in our Western societies was and is not an ideology displayed by insane people, but an ingredient of spontaneous ideological attitudes of perfectly SANE people, of our ideological SANITY itself. This, then, is where we stand today: a sad choice between Gibson and Foxman, between the obscene bigotry of fundamentalist beliefs and the no less obscene disqualification of problematic beliefs as cases of insanity that need therapy.

The ultimate irony is that what is threatened by such disqualification is nothing less than the notion of another human being as Neighbor, a key ingredient of the Jewish legacy: the other who is to be treated for his opinions is deprived of the dignity of a neighbor. Traces of this denigration of the Neighbor are also found elsewhere. Say, Sam Harris's (End of Belief) approach to torture is based on the distinction between our immediate being-impressed by the suffering of others and our abstract notion of others' suffering: it is much more difficult for us to torture a singular person than to drop a bomb from a far distance that would cause the even more painful death of thousands. We are thus all caught in a kind of ethical illusion, parallel to perceptual illusions; the ultimate cause of these illusions is that, although our power of abstract reasoning has developed immensely, our emotional-ethical responses remain conditioned by hundreds of thousands of years of old instinctual reactions of sympathy to suffering and pain that is directly witnessed. This is why shooting someone point-blank is for most of us much more repulsive than pressing a button that will kill a thousand absent people:

Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary. Still, it does not seem any more acceptable, in ethical terms, than it did before. The reasons for this are, I trust, every bit as neurological as those that give rise to the moon illusion. /.../ It may be time to take out our rulers and hold them up to the sky.

No wonder that Harris refers to Alan Derschowitz and his legitimization of torture. In order to suspend this evolutionary conditioned vulnerability to the physical display of other's suffering, Harris imagines an ideal "truth pill," an effective torture equivalent to decaf coffee or diet coke:

a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour's nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organization. Might we not be tempted to call it a 'truth pill' in the end? (Harris-197)

The very first lines - "a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their utter concealment" - introduces the typically postmodern logic of chocolate laxative: the torture imagined here is like a decaf coffee - we get the result without having to suffer unpleasant side-effects. The first reaction: at the Serbsky Institute, they have already invented a similar drug to torture dissidents, an injection into the prisoner's heart zone which slowed down his heart beating and caused terrifying anxiety - viewed from outside, the prisoner seemed just dozing, while he was going through a nightmare... The further problem is that Harris violates here his own rule when he focuses on September 11, and in his critique of Chomsky: the point of Chomsky is precisely the hypocrisy of tolerating the abstract-anonymous killing of thousands while condemning individual cases of the violation of human rights - why is Kissinger, when he ordered the carpet bombing of Cambodia that led to the death of tens of thousands, less a criminal than those responsible for the Twin Towers collapse? Is it not that because we are precisely victims of the "ethical illusion": the horror of September 11 was presented in detail in the media, while - to take another case - when the al-Jazeera TV shows shots of the results of the US bombing of Faludja it was condemned for its complicity with the terrorists...

There is, however, a much more disquieting prospect at work here: the proximity (of the tortured subject) which causes sympathy and makes torture unacceptable is not a mere physical proximity, but, at its most fundamental, the proximity of the Neighbor (with all the Judeo-Christian-Freudian weight on this term), of the Thing which, no matter how far away it is physically, is always by definition "too close." Consequently, what Harris aims at with his imagined "truth pill" is nothing less than the abolition of the dimension of the Neighbor: the tortured subject is no longer a Neighbor, but an object whose pain is neutralized, reduced to a property that has to be dealt with in a rational utilitarian calculus (so much pain is tolerable if it prevents a much greater amount of pain) - what disappears here is the abyss of the infinity that pertains to a subject. It is thus significant that the book which argues for torture is also the book entitled The End of Belief - not, however, in the obvious sense of "You see, it is only our belief in God, the divine injunction to love your neighbor, that ultimately prevents us from torturing people!", but in a much more radical sense. Another subject (and, ultimately, subject as such) is for Lacan not something directly given, but a "presupposition," something presumed, an object of belief - how can I ever be sure that what I see in front of me is another subject, not a depthless flat biological machine? Lacan first deployed this abyss of Otherness in his Seminar III:

And why the Other with a capital O? For a no doubt mad reason, in the same way as it is madness every time we are obliged to bring in signs supplementary to those given by language. Here the mad reason is the following. You are my wife - after all, what do you know about it? You are my master - in reality, are you so sure of that? What creates the founding value of those words is that what is aimed at in the message, as well as what is manifest in the pretence, is that the other is there qua absolute Other. Absolute, that is to say he is recognized, but is not known. In the same way, what constitutes pretence is that, in the end, you don't know whether it's a pretence or not. Essentially it is this unknown element in the alterity of the other which characterizes the speech relation on the level on which it is spoken to the other.

For Lacan, who follows here Freud, this abyssal dimension of another human being - the abyss of the depth of another personality, its utter impenetrability - first found its full expression in Judaism with its injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. For Freud as well as for Lacan, this injunction is deeply problematic, since it obfuscates the fact that, beneath the neighbor as my mirror-image, the one who is like me, with whom I can empathize, there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of someone about whom I ultimately do not know anything - can I really rely on him? Who is he? How can I be sure that his words are not a mere pretence? In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my neighbors to my mirror-images or to the means on the path of my self-realization (as is the case in the Jungian psychology in which other people around me are ultimately reduced to the externalizations-projections of the disavowed aspects of my own personality), Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my neighbor - the neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. The core of this presence, of course, is the neighbor's desire, an enigma not only for us, but also for the neighbor himself. For this reason, Lacan's Che vuoi? is not simply an inquiry into "What do you want?" but more an inquiry into "What's bugging you? What is it in you that makes you so unbearable not only for us, but also for yourself, that you yourself obviously do not master?"

The notion of subject itself as a presupposition has to be placed in the series of "subjects supposed to..." Lacan first deployed to notion of the analyst as the "subject supposed to know" which arises through transference (supposed to know - what? the meaning of the patient's symptoms). However, he soon realizes that he is dealing with a more general structure of supposition, in which a figure of the Other is not only supposed to know, but can also believe, enjoy, cry and laugh, or even NOT know for us (from the Tibetan praying mills to TV canned laughter). This structure of presupposition is not infinite: it is strictly limited, constrained by the four elements of the discourse. S1 - subject supposed to believe; S2 - subject supposed to know; a - subject supposed to enjoy... and what about $? Do we get a "subject supposed to be subject"? What would this mean? What if we read it as standing for the very structure of supposition: it is not only that the subject is supposed to have a quality, to do or undergo something (to know, enjoy...) - the subject itself is a supposition, i.e., the subject is never directly "given," as a positive substantial entity, we never directly encounter it, it is merely a flickering void "supposed" between the two signifiers. (We encounter here again the Hegelian passage from subject to predicate: from the subject supposed to... to the subject itself as a supposition.) That is to say, what, precisely, is a "subject"? Let us imagine a proposition, a statement - how, when, does this statement get "subjectivized"? When some reflexive feature inscribes into it the subjective attitude - in this precise sense, a signifier "represents the subject for another signifier." The subject is the absent X that has to be supposed in order to account for this reflexive twist, for this distortion. And Lacan goes here to the end: the subject is not only supposed by the external observer-listener of a signifying chain; it is IN ITSELF A SUPPOSITION. The subject is inaccessible to itself as Thing, in its noumenal identity, and, as such, it is forever haunted by itself as object: what are all Doppelgaenger figures if not figures of myself as an object that haunts me? In other words, not only are others a supposition to me (I can only suppose their existence beneath the reflexive distortion of a signifying chain), I myself am no less a supposition to myself: something to be presumed (there must be an X that "I am," the "I or Id or Thing that thinks," as Kant put), and never directly accessible. Hume's famous observation that, no matter how close and deep I look into myself, all I will find there are specific ideas, particular mental states, perceptions, emotions, etc., never a "Self," misses the point: this non-accessibility to itself as an object is constitutive of being a "self."


© 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.