The Taming of the Real: Zizek’s Missed Encounter with Kieslowski’s Insight

Frances L. Restuccia


The whole progress of the subject is then oriented around the Ding . . . the first outside. It is clearly a probing form of progress that seeks points of reference, but with relation to what? — with the world of desires. It demonstrates that something is there after all, and that to a certain extent it may be useful. Yet useful for what? — for nothing other than to serve as points of reference in relation to the world of wishes and expectations; it is turned toward that which helps on certain occasions to reach das Ding. That object will be there when in the end all conditions have been fulfilled — it is, of course, clear that what is supposed to be found cannot be found again. It is in its nature that the object as such is lost. It will never be found again."

                - Lacan, Ethics

This essay will eventually concentrate on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White, one of the films, in addition to Blue and Red, in his famous The Three Colors Trilogy. All three films stage traumatic loss and missed vital opportunities, crying out for psychoanalytic interpretation. Beyond interpretation: by reading White along the lines of Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis, we will see that the film poses a critical theoretical problem. On the one hand, White illustrates the psychoanalytic idea that it is necessary to break out of the vicious cycle of law and transgression through some form of ethical "authentic act," in an effort to avoid ceding one’s desire. The film likewise may be read as featuring such an authentic act not for its own sake but for the benefit of reconsolidating subjectivity in relation to newly found radical desire. However, both of these psychoanalytic outcomes are presented in White as running up against another key psychoanalytic precept–that there is no such thing as a sexual relation. For what purpose, to put it starkly, does one achieve desiring, even radically desiring, subjectivity, which necessarily leaves one in a state of dissatisfaction? And yet, given the intrinsic inadequacy of desire, if one turns to the authentic act per se, there is nothing but symbolic suicide. While such a "self"-shattering might be said to "position" one to have a sexual relation, it nevertheless must fail to yield one, since the sexual relation in Lacan is not yieldable. White thereby allows us to confront what may be the largest lacuna in psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis itself of course has not been entirely oblivious to it. Featuring Slavoj Zizek, this paper in large part addresses what Lacanians have to say about this frustrating ambivalence over compensation on the one side and desubjectivation on the other.


But it is important to note that one only has to make a conceptual shift and move the night spent with the lady from the category of pleasure to that of jouissance, given that jouissance implies precisely the acceptance of death — and there’s no need of sublimation — for the example to be ruined.

--Lacan, Ethics

In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, seminar VII, Lacan clearly promotes the view that moral action must be "grafted onto the real." Such a graft serves as a way of injecting "something new into the real" and thereby opening up "a path"; psychoanalysis, Lacan proposes, paves such a way (Lacan, 1997, 21). Lacan links our search for an "archaic . . . quality of indefinable pleasure" (jouissance), which animates the "unconscious instinct as a whole," with what is morally satisfying (Lacan, 1997, 42). Hence it makes perfect sense to call Lacanian ethics an ethics of the real: "the question of ethics," Lacan asserts, "is to be articulated from the point of view of the location of man in relation to the real" (Lacan, 1997, 11). In her book titled The Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan, Zupancic explains this notion as follows:

The heart of all ethics is something which . . . has nothing to do with the register of ethics. This ‘something’ goes by several different names — for Lacan, it is ‘the Real’; for Badiou, ‘the event’. These terms concern something which appears only in the guise of the encounter, as something that ‘happens to us’, surprises us, throws us ‘out of joint’, because it always inscribes itself in a given continuity as a rupture, a break or an interruption. According to Lacan, the Real is impossible, and the fact that ‘it happens (to us)’ does not refute its basic ‘impossibility’: the Real happens to us (we encounter it) as impossible, as ‘the impossible thing’ that turns our symbolic universe upside down and leads to the reconfiguration of this universe. Hence the impossibility of the Real does not prevent it from having an effect in the realm of the possible. This is when ethics comes into play, in the question forced upon us by an encounter with the Real: will I act in conformity to what threw me ‘out of joint’, will I be ready to reformulate what has hitherto been the foundation of my existence? . . . For Lacan, the accent is to be placed, first, on desire (‘Have you acted in conformity with the desire which inhabits you?’), for it is desire that aims at the impossible, the Real. (Zupancic, 2000, 235)

In a statement that no doubt has given rise to Zizek’s thinking on the topic of Lacanian ethics, Lacan points out that ethics begins beyond man’s submission to the law of the unconscious. His thesis is that, instead, the moral law is articulated with relation to the real insofar as it can be the guarantee of the Thing. It is via accessing das Ding in this way that we open up the flood gates of desire. The process seems inevitably to be painful, if for no other reason than that encountering the Thing involves unbearable pleasure: "[t]o the degree that it involves forcing an access to the Thing," Lacan tells us, "the outer extremity of pleasure is unbearable to us" (Lacan, 1997, 80). Again providing grist for Zizek’s ethical mill, Lacan stresses that we must rediscover our relation to das Ding beyond the law. Ordinary desire, then, would appear to be in the imaginary, an act of delusory sublimation. "At the level of sublimation," Lacan tells us, "the object is inseparable from imaginary and especially cultural elaborations. It is not just that the collectivity recognizes in them useful objects; it finds rather a space of relaxation where it may in a way delude itself on the subject of das Ding, colonize the field of das Ding with imaginary schemes" (Lacan, 1997, 98). For an ethical act to transpire, however, das Ding is to be penetrated rather than colonized. "Fundamentally narcissistic in character" (Lacan, 1997, 151), courtly love, which Lacan offers as a supreme example of sublimation, attempts to colonize das Ding by deliberately raising up an object, the Lady, to the dignified level of das Ding. As Lacan writes in Encore, "Courtly love is, for man . . . the only way to elegantly pull off the absence of the sexual relationship" (Lacan, 1998, 69). In doing so it fails to embrace death, which embrace Lacan posits is necessarily implied in any ethical engagement with jouissance.

Lauding knowledge of death rather than elegance, Lacan chastises Kant for assuming that–no matter how compellingly seductive the beloved–the gallows would deter everyone from satisfying sexual desire. What Kant misses, Lacan reveals, is that it is "not impossible that under certain conditions the subject . . . will not so much offer himself up to be executed . . . but will at least consider doing so" (Lacan, 1997, 108). Passion, or the exaltation of love, Lacan explains, might lead one to entertain this option. One might even be driven, Lacan also mentions, to accept this "eventuality on his leaving — for the pleasure of cutting up the lady concerned in small pieces, for example" (Lacan, 1997, 109). In general, here Lacan is trying to convey his notion of morality on the level of das Ding. In this register of morality, the subject hesitates to bear "false witness against das Ding," which is for Lacan the site of desire (Lacan, 1997, 110). And it is this desire–born from das Ding–that Lacan urges us ethically not to cede.

Yet we are left, I think, hanging: is (merely) to consider accepting the gallows for the sake of sleeping with one’s object of passion not to bear false witness against das Ding? Or must one go all the way? Is to cut up the lady into pieces despite the gravity of the punishment not to cede one’s desire? But surely Lacan is not advocating perversion, or literal suicide. Is the example of chopping up the lady, then, simply a metaphor for the kind of act one needs to commit to achieve in turn the kind of symbolic suicide that Zizek seems to promote? Lacan discusses an unbearable approach to a center, an absolute zero (that sounds like whiteness), as well as ostentatious forms of destruction. Does Karol in Kieslowski’s film White himself reach such an absolute zero point, whiteness, through the jouissance he finally is able to give to Dominique, at the expense of her imprisonment and apparent imminent death (the film’s figural equivalent of Lacan’s pervert’s cutting up of the lady into pieces) in addition to the at least temporary shattering of his own subjectivity? And does such desubjectivation itself ultimately work on behalf of Karol’s radicalized desire? Lacan seems to locate in Sadean crime the benefit of sweeping aside, to force "nature to start again from zero" (Lacan, 1997, 260).

In his analysis of Antigone, Lacan is preoccupied with the limit (Atè), the limit of the "second death," which he regards as tantamount to the phenomenon of the beautiful. Antigone’s living corpse emblematizes her second death, a sphere in which death encroaches upon life, suspending all transformation and generation, explains Lacan. Such a trespassing of death on life is necessary for the realization of desire; it is the second death that subtends life. One must have knowledge of the death instinct, Lacan tells us, which is why at the end of analysis, the analysand is meant to be in a state of "absolute disarray" (Lacan, 1997, 304). For there must be, if desire is to be realized, some beneficial crossing of the limit that establishes a fundamental relation to death.

Perhaps it is at this point in the Ethics seminar that we learn what it might mean to consider accepting the gallows as the payment for sleeping with one’s passionate object, since Lacan stresses the signifier, in its most radical form, as our method of accessing knowledge of death. "It is in the signifier and insofar as the subject articulates a signifying chain that he comes up against the fact that he may disappear from the chain of what he is" (Lacan, 1997, 295). It is to underscore the function of the signifier in enabling the subject’s access to death that Lacan has urged his seminar members to locate it in aesthetic form, in particular through the beautiful (which inheres in the signifying chain even as it resides on the edge of the real). The triumph of death as well as the being-for-death that Lacan attributes to Oedipus’s negation is, he comments, identical to the entrance of the subject supported by the signifier. Acting in conformity with one’s desire now appears not to mean getting hanged. Rather, it is to enter a zone from which one withdraws, paying a price of jouissance for the asset of desire.

Although Zizek occasionally puts emphasis on desiring subjectivity, he for the most part gives Lacan’s ethics a different spin–preferring the gallows, after all, so to speak. In Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek unequivocally distances himself from Lacanians who "reduce psychoanalysis to a kind of heroic assumption of a necessary, constitutive sacrifice–those for whom psychoanalysis ends when the analysand is able to accept a fundamental renunciation as a condition of access to desire (‘symbolic castration’)" (Zizek, 1992, 58). Zizek insists that Lacan’s "subjective destitution" has nothing to do with sacrifice, which would position the Other as addressee but is "an act of abandonment which sacrifices the very sacrifice" (Zizek, 1992, 59). In The Fragile Absolute, as in many other of his publications, Zizek celebrates the "authentic act," a traumatic event that occurs between Time and Eternity, as against its use-value in producing desire. Such an act or event "designates the direct intervention of the noumenal dimension in phenomenality" (Zizek, 2000, 95). In The Ticklish Subject, as part of a debate with Judith Butler, he clarifies that "to desire something other than its continued ‘social existence’, and thus to fall ‘into some kind of death’, to risk a gesture by means of which death is ‘courted or pursued’, indicates precisely how Lacan reconceptualized the Freudian death drive as the elementary form of the ethical act (Zizek, 1999, 263).

And to Zizek, this is "the whole point of Lacan’s reading of Antigone: Antigone effectively risks her entire social existence, defying the socio-symbolic power of the City embodied in the ruler (Creon), thereby ‘falling into some kind of death’ (i.e. sustaining a symbolic death, exclusion from the socio-symbolic space)" (Zizek, 1999, 263). Antigone’s admirable feminine gesture of "No!" to Creon, and in turn to state power, carries value in and of itself: "her act is literally suicidal, she excludes herself from the community, whereby she offers nothing new, no positive program–she just insists on her unconditional demand" (Zizek, 1992, 46). In Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek likewise commends Romeo and Juliet for not giving way on their desire: "by means of their suicidal gesture, they repeated the fundamental choice into which they were born by disowning their respective Names, separating themselves from the totality of S1-S2 and thereby choosing themselves as ‘worse’" (Zizek, 1992, 76). In this text Zizek goes so far as to point out that to Lacan "psychosis is a mode ‘not to give way as to our desire,’" since "it signals our refusal to exchange enjoyment for the Name of the Father" (Zizek, 1992, 77)! Zizek is also now infamously known for holding up the gesture of Keyser Soeze in The Usual Suspects of shooting his wife and daughter being held hostage as a way of changing, as Zizek puts it, "the co-ordinates of the situation" (Zizek, 2000, 150). What this act represents to Zizek is a cutting loose from the hero’s most precious object(s), to gain "free action" (Zizek, 2000, 150). The point, to Zizek, is the importance of renouncing "the transgressive fantasmatic supplement" that attaches us to a given social reality (Zizek, 2000, 149).

Likewise, we might assume that through his radical act of separation the protagonist of The Usual Suspects (as well as, oddly, the Greek heroine Antigone who relinquishes marriage, home, and family, not to mention Romeo and Juliet) "unplugs," in a Pauline, Christian vein. Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Fragile Absolute has to do with Zizek’s reading of Pauline agape as love "that enjoins us to ‘unplug’ from the organic community into which we were born" (Zizek, 2000, 121). It is from Christianity that Zizek derives his sense of the value of separation or of attaching to something that disturbs the balance of All, of "throw[ing] the balanced circuit of the universe off the rails" (Zizek, 2000, 121). Defined in Zizek’s terms, then, agape would appear to be what Karol achieves in Kieslowski’s White upon destroying Dominique, upon maneuvering events so that she becomes imprisoned and thereby removed from him, if not from the world. No doubt Dominique is Karol’s most precious object from which he cuts himself loose. By the end Karol would seem to have undergone a Christian uncoupling like that Zizek describes as possessing the power to suspend the obscene supplement of the laws of the symbolic order.

Let us retrace the steps to this possibility. I am not sure that we can believe him, but Karol tells the judge at his divorce hearing that he gave his wife pleasure before they were married. Upon getting married, though, Karol is unable to express his desire or to give his wife "pleasure." To use a skewed analogy, marriage would seem to exert the sort of counterproductive pressure on Karol that the existence of Viagra, as Zizek points out, puts on men today—you can, therefore you must. Karol seems caught up psychically in the law/transgression syndrome, in wanting to behave transgressively in the face of a law. When his desire for Dominique is "illegitimate," his body manifests desire; when his desire is legitimate, his body wilts. Or, perhaps more to the (theoretical) point is the idea that Karol’s "desire" for Dominique at first is merely that of imaginary sublimation: in a colonizing psychic gesture, he has raised her to the level of das Ding. But he has not yet experienced the pain necessary for opening up to the limit or obtained the knowledge of death required for the production of radical desire.

By the end, however, we are in a position to observe that there is no scarcity of "second deaths" in this film. White seems to be preoccupied with them. Karol’s Polish friend invites Karol to shoot him, to put him out of his misery of excessive pain; but Karol fakes the first shooting, and upon asking Mikolaj a second time if he is certain he wants to die, Karol is told "no." Having died, or seemed to have died, having entered a zone in which death appears to have trespassed on life, Mikolaj is infused with new life. He behaves like a boy filled with exuberance, as he and Karol slide on ice and shout for joy. Karol’s shrewd handling of the shooting of his friend enables the friend to encounter death, to situate himself for a few seconds between life and death, to be a kind of living corpse, and hence to rise again.

By faking his own death, locating a Russian corpse to stand in for his dead body, and arranging his own funeral, Karol too appears to undergo death without actually dying, in other words to walk the line between life and death. Because he has led people to assume that he is dead, Karol seems toward the end to be the walking dead, about to fly off to Hong Kong, having extricated himself from everything precious to him. It does appear that Karol goes to the limit by "renouncing what is most precious" to him, to use Zizek’s words. Moreover, his funeral works to reignite Dominique’s love for him, and he finally gives her unmistakable "pleasure"–i.e., the jouissance of whiteness. When she reaches orgasm, the screen goes fully blank/white.

Yet, instead of attempting to start up again with Dominique, by straightening out the mess he has made by feigning death and in turn revealing Dominique’s innocence, Karol leaves her in prison, now assumed to be at least implicated in Karol’s death. In the last scene, Dominique signals to Karol through a prison window that she is about to be hanged, to ascend a staircase to heaven, where (if I am reading her hand gestures correctly) Karol may join her to "marry" her (again). Now Dominique is situated in the same place as Antigone when the Greek heroine becomes a living corpse. Tears streaming down his face, Karol is deeply moved by this image of her. He seems located in the position of Sophocles’s chorus, when it is driven mad by the drama, going out of its mind, as it is moved to "desire made visible." "This is what appears at the moment when the long scene that leads up to the punishment takes place," Lacan writes (Lacan, 1997, 268). Dominique at first tried to explain to the police that Karol is still alive, but she enigmatically seems to acquiesce to their idea of his being dead, as if she knows that the only venue where she and Karol can have a relation is in heaven. At this moment, in other words, it seems as though "something beyond the limits of Atè has become [Dominique’s] good" (Lacan, 1997, 270). Like Antigone, Dominique crosses the border of Atè. We might even read Dominique, as Lacan does Antigone, as an "image of charity" (Lacan, 1997, 278), which brings us back to Zizek’s Christian conception of agape. (But this image works, adds Lacan, so long as "we confer on the word charity a savage dimension" [Lacan, 1997, 278].) Here we have an "uncoupling," of Karol and Dominique, that involves a terrible violence, which we might loosely accept is that of the "death drive, of the radical ‘wiping the slate clean’ as the condition of the New Beginning" (Zizek, 2000, 127). Like Romeo and Juliet, this pair of lovers has undergone an unplugging, beyond the confines of the law, in the domain of Love.

Zizek reads Lacanian love in Encore "in the Pauline sense, as opposed to the dialectic of the Law and its transgression," which he regards as "masculine/phallic." Love is, on the other hand, feminine, involving, as Zizek writes, "the paradoxes of the non-All" (Zizek, 2000, 147). Lacan’s "impossible love" can only come into being in the beyond (meaning "non-All"), since in the symbolic order, a sexuated Lacanian "man" and a sexuated Lacanian "Woman" are defined in a way that precludes them from coalescing. Yet, again, it also seems to make paradoxical sense to locate Love beyond the phallic function in the place of the Woman who doesn’t exist–even as a sexual relation would need to be between a "man" and a "Woman."

In any case, the conclusion of the film White might be read as pointing in this Zizekian direction, as moving from a radical unplugging to a "beyond" in which Dominique and Karol, no longer subjectified, will finally find Love, beyond the law, within the paradoxes of the non-All. My guess is that this extreme direction seems Zizekian because Zizek finds the position of desire, even radical desire, to be insufficient. Wanting more, he concentrates on, pours his energy into, and glorifies the notion of the liberating "authentic act" without paying much attention to precisely where it leads. For committing such an act is to act ethically, as if an ethical act has to be an ultimate act — to be ethical — a non-functional act, a fragile absolute. Still, the ending of White also can be interpreted (as we have just seen) as pointing in a less extreme, though not less ethical (depending on where one places the emphasis in Lacanian ethics) direction: to the desire and renewed subjectivity of the protagonist, Karol. And these two possible conclusions–which exemplify the clash between an ethics of jouissance and an ethics of desire–raise the perplexing problem of what the subject is to do: plunge into satisfaction at the price of subjectivity or reconcile him/herself to a state of desire, even radical desire, where s/he is forever hungering for satisfaction? To what end?



[T]he sexual relation cannot be written (ne peut pas s’écrire). Everything that is written stems from the fact that it will forever be impossible to write, as such, the sexual relationship. It is on that basis that there is a certain effect of discourse, which is called writing.

Lacan, Encore

A book as "cutting edge" as Parveen Adams’s The Emptiness of the Image, on the relation of psychoanalysis and representation (Adams reads some extremely disturbing pieces of postmodern art in connection with the analytic scene), opts for the latter state: radical desire. In a completely non-naïve fashion, Adams shows chapter by chapter that releasing oneself from the object, confronting absence, and accepting lack are the keys to desirable desiring subjectivity. As her title hints, Adams is preoccupied with the emptying out of meaning, but emptying out is strictly a means of separating. And, once separation is achieved, "the subject has the space of desires. This separation involves the recognition of two lacks, lack in the subject, and lack in the object." Hence the subject is enhanced: "The separation of the subject from this object is not a deprivation of the subject, for the object had sustained desire only through its constitutive loss" (Adams, 1996, 50, 51).

Denial of castration, to Adams, only imposes "high costs" (Adams, 1996, 55). In fact, to Adams, anyone, or any text for that matter, that attempts to shut down the relation of loss and desire is apt to be perverse, resistant to the incest taboo (as Adams accuses Catherine MacKinnon’s Only Words of being). Adams reads Mary Kelly’s Interim as if it functioned like the analyst who "must fall from idealisation and become the support of objet petit a" or "embody the function of lack" (Adams, 1996, 79). Offering "moments of blindness" for the spectator to encounter, Kelly’s art allows "desire to emerge in the subject" (Adams, 1996, 89). Watching Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, we are freed from the pervert’s "scenario": again the object falls for the viewer. By detaching the gaze from the image and in turn us from that image, Francis Bacon’s artwork too effects castration.

While the Zizek I have been presenting is in the jouissance camp, it is possible to read him as more akin to Adams than I have made him seem. This is because, actually, Zizek is torn (and not just in The Fragile Absolute) between promoting some sort of sustained state of agape (uncoupling) and supporting the notion of a desiring subject. Fairly early in The Fragile Absolute, Zizek distinguishes between desire and love by explaining that there is "always a gap between the object of desire and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable," whereas in the case of love the object is not split off from its cause. With love, "the very distance between object and cause collapses" (Zizek, 2000, 21). In his subsequent line, Zizek seems to give away, albeit obscurely and in economic terms, a preference for desiring subjectivity: "And–back to Marx–what if his mistake was also to assume that the object of desire (unconstrained expanding productivity) would remain even when it was deprived of the cause that propels it (surplus-value)?" (Zizek, 2000, 21), recognizing finally, I think, that once object and cause are conflated, as they are in Love, there is nothing but collapse.

Here, then, despite his stated aversion to the psychoanalytic idea of symbolic castration as the condition of access to desire, Zizek overlaps with Adams: it is preferable to be a lacking subject than not to exist. This position also extends Zizek’s own thinking at the end of The Plague of Fantasies, where he states that Lacan’s ne pas céder sur son désir "in no way condones suicidal persistence in following one’s Thing; on the contrary it enjoins us to remain faithful to our desire as sustained by the Law of maintaining a minimal distance towards the Thing — one is faithful to one’s desire by maintaining the gap which sustains desire, the gap on account of which the incestuous Thing forever eludes the subject’s grasp" (Zizek, 1997, 239). Zizek next puts the ethical difference between "stopping short of the lethal domain of jouissance, and the reverse attitude of ‘going right to the end’, unconditional insistence which follows its course irrespective of all ‘pathological’ considerations," in terms of the distinction between desire and drive. And by this stage in his discussion (although he qualifies the earlier comment on being faithful to desire as sustained by the Law with the phrase "[a]pproached from a Kantian standpoint"), Zizek would seem to be reading drive as pathological and (again) desire as the trajectory to be on. Is this not, he then asks, the difference between modernity and postmodernity? Here (as opposed to The Fragile Absolute where the roles of these genres seem to me reversed), Zizek reads uncompromising modernist rigor that implores us to go "right to the end" as different from postmodern ambiguity that teaches us "the artifice of surviving the experience of a radical Limit, of circulating around the lethal abyss without being swallowed up by it." In this penultimate sentence in The Plague of Fantasies, we are urged again to desire through encircling the abyss rather than to drive into it. But at the last moment, Zizek wavers, as he surmises Lacan wavers. "Is not, " Zizek writes, "Lacan’s entire theoretical edifice torn between these two options: between the ethics of desire/Law, of maintaining the gap, and the lethal/suicidal immersion in the Thing?" (Zizek, 1997, 239).

Perhaps it is out of Zizek’s impulse to break this stalemate that yet a third possibility comes into play in The Fragile Absolute. While one emphasis is clearly on a terrifyingly violent uncoupling entailed in symbolic death, in distinguishing idealization and sublimation, Zizek also issues what sounds like a quite mundane injunction. "[T]rue love accepts the beloved the way she or he is, merely putting her/him into the place of the Thing, the unconditional Object. As every true Christian knows, love is the work of love — the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ . . . . Through the Christian work of compassionate love, we discern in what was hitherto a disturbing foreign body, tolerated and even modestly supported by us so that we were not too bothered by it, a subject, with its crushed dreams and desires" (Zizek, 2000, 128-29). We "magically love the beloved one for itself, finding in it the very point from which [we] find it worthy of love" (Zizek, 2000, 21).1 Clearly not a question of symbolic suicide, is this so-called love theoretically in fact desire, radical desire, a version of courtly love (i.e., imaginary desire), or something new?

In a very intriguing conference paper titled "Signs and Lovers," Alenka Zupancic shares Zizek’s emphasis on what she calls "possible love," where jouissance gets humanized.2 Finding in comedy (rather than tragedy) a paradigm for Lacanian love, Zupancic conflates loving someone with loving someone "for what he is," which to her (somehow) involves moving "directly to the Thing." This, to Zupancic, "always means to find oneself with a ridiculous object, an object that sweats, snores, farts, and has strange habits." Yet it also signifies continuing to find in this object "something more." And there is a third step: "To love means to perceive this gap or discrepancy and . . . to have an irresistible urge to laugh at it." To experience "real love" is not to be "dazzled or blinded" by it–that would be sublime love–but to take in "its ridiculous, banal aspect." Zupancic’s paradoxical point is that transcendence must be preserved in the accessibility of the beloved. Zupancic holds high what she calls "love as sublimation," which involves the banal and sublime perceived simultaneously on the same level. The "miracle of love" for her consists in "falling . . . because of the real which springs from the gap introduced by this parallel montage of two semblances or appearances."

This last description, however, closely resembles what Parveen Adams italicizes in her analyses in The Emptiness of the Image: the dilation of a gap that, to Adams, unveils castration. The mobility of synaesthesia, specifically the hearing of a scream in Francis Bacon’s "Head VI," overthrows "the day-to-day fluency of the world and our place in it," so that a gap is opened up. My reason for reinvoking Adams here is to bring into relief that, while Zupancic and Adams agree that Lacan favors the subject of lack, Zupancic oddly deduces from her own stress on falling–due to the real that results from the gap introduced by the juxtapositon of the banal with the sublime–a possible love. The real must not be disavowed, cautions Zupancic, which means to her (what is a contradictory non sequitur to me) that the impossible happens. The impossible therefore must not be rejected.

Zupancic contrasts desire, where the other remains unattainable, with love, which to her renders the real of desire accessible. She bases this conclusion on a single statement in Lacan’s Anxiety seminar, in which he asserts: "Only love-sublimation makes it possible for jouissance to condescend to desire" (Lacan, May 13, 1963 lecture). It is this proposition alone that Zupancic reads as indicating that love humanizes jouissance. But it curiously turns out that such "love-sublimation" is actually desublimation, pertaining to drive (rather than elevating an object to the level of das Ding as in courtly love). Desublimation that allows drive to find satisfaction different from its aim is, to Zupancic, what happens in love: "In love, we do not find satisfaction in the other that we aim at, we find it in the space, or gap between . . . what we see and what we get (the sublime and the banal object)."

And yet, at the very end of her paper, Zupancic speaks of love in a way that returns it to the status of desire. "Love," she asserts, transforms jouissance into "something that we can actually desire"; but desire of course has always been desire for jouissance. Moreover, Zupancic invokes the well-known Lacanian notion that "love makes up for the sexual relationship (as nonexistent)." Since Lacan also features in Encore his point that language compensates for the sexual relationship, that "what is at stake for us is to take language as (comme) that which functions in order to make up for the absence of the sole part of the real that cannot manage to be formed from being (se former de l’être) — namely, the sexual relationship" (Lacan, 1998, 49), it is hard not to read "love" here again as desire, since for Lacan Love exceeds language, never gets written. "Love," Lacan has famously informed us, "is impossible," which proposition effloresces into his idea immediately following (within the same sentence) that "the sexual relationship drops into the abyss of nonsense" (Lacan, 1998, 87).3

Yet perhaps Zupancic (whom I hesitate to dismiss) deserves credit for locating in Lacan a possible "love" situated between desire, naïve desire for objet a, and impossible Love, the love in the beyond that Lacan refers to at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts, where he pays homage to a Love that he insists he has by no means downgraded but posits "in that beyond." Here Lacan speaks of "a limitless love" that can only emerge (inadequately) in signification, since it is "outside the limits of the law, where alone it may live [/thrive]" (Lacan, 1981, 276). To grasp a possible love between desire and Love–courageous love, I will call it, which Zupancic may be onto–we need to examine the last section of Encore. Here, Lacan first explains that and why there is no such thing as a sexual relationship: "because one’s jouissance of the Other taken as a body is always inadequate–perverse, on the one hand, insofar as the Other is reduced to object a, and crazy and enigmatic, on the other, I would say." Next Lacan describes what puts love to the test: that is, confronting this very impasse, of the lack of the sexual relationship (as just explained), confronting in other words "this impossibility by which a real is defined." "Regarding one’s partner," Lacan informs us, all that love can "actualize" is "called courage with respect to this fatal destiny" (Lacan, 1998, 144).

Courage subsequently gives way to recognition. And what appears to be recognized, in this form of love, is the way that the sexual relationship — "that has now become a subject-to-subject relationship" — "stops not being written." Lacan has already associated this formulation with contingency, as opposed to necessity–(the latter of) which "doesn’t stop being written." At this stage, we must distinguish, then, between a sexual relationship that stops not being written, or is on the verge of being written, but isn’t quite yet written (contingency) and one that doesn’t stop being written, i.e., always gets written (necessity). Though it seems peculiar to align the sublime with the contingent, perhaps in this distinction between contingency and necessity, we can find a rough analogue of Zupancic’s distinction between what we see, the sublime, and what we get, the banal, which distinction she says defines the gap in which we experience love. Indeed, Lacan attaches love to this suspension between contingency ("stops not being written") and necessity ("doesn’t stop being written") (Lacan, 1998, 144-45).

In the last part of Encore, in acknowledging the encounter that "momentarily gives the illusion that the sexual relationship stops not being written" (Lacan, 1998, 145), Lacan describes a confrontation with the abyss that Adams locates in the viewer’s engagement with an anamorphotic element in a work of art and that Zizek writes about in terms of agape or unplugging. But these are not states in which a subject may remain a subject (they are instead deliberate moments of desubjectivation), so that any love encountered through them (subsisting as Lacan writes "on the basis of the ‘stops not being written’") that wishes to be maintained eventually must shift to "doesn’t stop being written," must slide, in other words, from contingency (the encounter) to necessity. For this is the substitute, Lacan tells us, that "constitutes the destiny as well as the drama of love." All of this may still sound vaguely like a confirmation of Zupancic’s point that love hovers in the space between the sublime (or the contingent) and the banal (or necessity). But if we look closely, we see that Lacan is referring now to a substitute–whose "path" is that of "existence" and "not of the sexual relationship, but of the unconscious, which differs therefrom" (Lacan, 1998, 145).

Our choices seem to remain the same as those with which I began, those sketched in Kieslowski’s White. To assume the oxymoronic possibility of Love is to attempt to have exactly what Lacan proclaimed a fantasy at best, a sexual relation that doesn’t exist; it is to presume to materialize the immaterial Real. Though he may seem to, Lacan never budges on the issue of the existence of the sexual relation, which he unequivocally defines as "that which ‘doesn’t stop not being written.’ There is an impossibility therein" (Lacan, 1998, 144). We may encounter it in a moment in which it "stops not being written" (contingency); but because it "’doesn’t stop not being written,’" we must accept a substitute (necessity)–the "doesn’t stop being written"–which (again) Lacan carefully qualifies as being not on the path of the sexual relation but on that of the unconscious. Perhaps it is at this point, then, that we can comprehend what it means to accept a sublimated love that "makes it possible for jouissance to condescend to desire" (Lacan, May 13, 1963 lecture), still missing out on impossible Love, as it is on the path of the inarticulable sexual relation. That is, we are left to write ceaselessly about the Love that ultimately cannot stop not being written. Theoretically, if writing about the sexual relation could stop not being written, it would capture the sexual relation. But, since such an adequation between writing and the sexual relation necessarily fails, writing forever only attempts to grasp it.

With her emphasis on a co-existence of the banal and the sublime in love, Zupancic turns Lacan into Nabokov. With their emphasis on love as work, and the need to accept the beloved’s defects, Zupancic and Zizek banalize Lacan to the point of non-recognition.4 Are the labor of love and openness to the beloved’s defects what the tempestuous authentic act, the denuding of one’s subjectivity comes to mean? Zupancic enjoins her reader not to disavow the impossible; and yet, to humanize it is to channel it in a way that leaves a remainder from which we are then entirely distracted. For once the Real is transformed into the possible, it is lost again–a new residue forms.5



Strengthening the categories of affective normativity produces disturbing results.

--Lacan, Ethics


Zizek then, at times, joins Zupancic in advocating acceptance of the beloved, "the way he or she is"–a stance that falls, I would say, neither in the category of the ethics of desire nor in that of the ethics of jouissance but perhaps in that of the ethics of the banal. In a recent issue of Lacanian Ink, he expresses deep indebtedness to Zupancic for offering him her formula of love as "accessible transcendence." In an article titled "Il n’y a pas de rapport religieux," Zizek plays his usual trick of trying to lure the reader into a perspective that he eventually exposes as wrong. This time it’s that Lacan appears to fit perfectly the logic that "illusory fullness of the imaginary fantasy" covers "up a structural gap" and that psychoanalysis asserts the heroic acceptance of the fundamental gap and/or structural impossibility as the very condition of desire." "Is this, exactly," Zizek proceeds teasingly to say, "not the ‘ethics of the Real’–the ethics of accepting the Real of a structural impossibility?" But, in an about face, he then sets us straight: Lacan, it turns out, aims at just the opposite.

[L]et’s take the case of love. Lovers usually dream that in some mythical Otherness ("another time, another place"), their love would have found its true fulfillment, that it is only the present contingent circumstances which prevent this fulfillment; and is the Lacanian lesson here not that one should accept this obstacle as structurally necessary, that there is NO "other place" of fulfillment, that this Otherness is the very Otherness of the fantasy? No: the "Real as Impossible" means here that THE IMPOSSIBLE DOES HAPPEN, that "miracles" like Love (or political revolution: "in some respects, a revolution is a miracle," Lenin said in 1921) DO OCCUR. From "impossible TO happen" we thus pass to "the impossible HAPPENS"–this, and not the structural obstacle forever deferring the final resolution, is the most difficult thing to accept: "We’d forgotten how to be in readiness for miracles to happen."

(Zizek, 2001, 85)

Over the years, however, Zizek has been equally invested in promoting symbolic death (as we have seen, and as he is still doing in this Lacanian Ink piece), although now symbolic death operates for the bathetic sake of accepting others or even for "reintegration into the social universe." This is how, in any case, in his book on Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Between Theory and Post-Theory, Zizek reads all three films, Blue, White, and Red. To Zizek, Karol in White initially is "reduced to nothing, robbed of his wife and all his possessions"; but, upon staging his own funeral, Karol moves toward "reintegration," regaining "his wealth and his wife" (Zizek, 2001, 161-62). (In fact, Karol regains his wealth prior to his fake funeral; and this film offers no evidence of sustained reunion with his wife, Dominique.) Zizek’s reading of Blue, in which Julie progresses from symbolic death to a reassertion of life, could lead us to consider that what Zizek wishes to get at is a move from jouissance to desire (what I suppose might be designated either as an ethics of desire or an ethics of jouissance, so long as the idea is that an encounter with the Real opens the flood gates of desire). To Zizek, in the end Julie lovingly embraces others–"she is reconciled with the universe" (Zizek, 2001, 171). But, on second thought, how is such reconciliation tantamount to, even compatible with, a state of radical desire? Zizek translates agape as an unplugging into an agape that promotes a mere plugging away. Not only does Julie’s supposed full embrace of the universe sound totalizing (imaginary); but reconciliation bears no trace of the self-destructive experience of agape as uncoupling, as an encounter with death. With his description of Julie’s "loving embrace," Zizek reveals a wish to have love, to solve the conflict I have italicized, but the problem is that this compassionate love (unlike radical desire, desire for death), especially in its full embrace of the universe, lacks a tie to death.

From Zizek’s book on Kieslowski, I do sense that he finds powerfully seductive and philosophically if not practically compelling, despite the lip-service paid to reconciliation with the universe and "reintegration," what Zizek calls "mission." Zizek believes that the ethical choice Kieslowski offers is between "calm life" and "mission" and that Kieslowski himself opted for the latter. The filmmaker’s choice was that of the Polish Weronika (in the film The Double Life of Veronique): "aware of his heart condition," Kieslowski nevertheless pursued "art/vocation"–film-making–and then died of a heart attack (Zizek, 2001, 137). In contrast, the French Veronique compromises her desire, choosing life over "the cause"–ethical betrayal. Zizek spends a great deal of time in The Fright of Real Tears exposing the way that various films (not only Kieslowski’s) lay out the choice between what he also calls morality versus ethics (or life and mission), "the pleasure principle and the (death) drive beyond the pleasure principle: between a ‘good life’ oriented toward happiness, the ‘care of the self’, the wisdom of moderation, etc., and a life caught in a compulsion which we are compelled to follow irrespective of our own good" (Zizek, 2001, 149). Zizek’s very articulation of the alternatives gives away his preference, although it is a preference he eventually argues that Kieslowski surpasses.

Initially, Zizek reads The Three Colours Trilogy as giving rise to desire–"realized" not "fulfilled" desire, "actualized, rendered visible, as desire." In particular, in these Kieslowski films, "feminine desire" is born out of "the spirit of mourning and melancholia" (Zizek, 2001, 160). But that is just one level, Zizek clarifies; the more radical level on which the Colours trilogy signals a rupture has to do with a third term, beyond the dichotomy of life and mission. We have already referred to it at length: symbolic death, entry into or "passing through" the domain between two deaths. ("Mission" turns out to be a death-driven compulsion as opposed to symbolic death.) In the Trilogy, according to Zizek, Paulinian agape as symbolic death is given "its ultimate cinematic expression" (Zizek, 2001, 169). However: what all of this eventually boils down to is "reconciliation," "successful reintegration into the social space" (Zizek, 2001, 165). Julie, in Blue, is shown in the last shot of the film as being on the verge of such a mourning, which translates into restoring her "fantasy frame" (Zizek, 2001, 169).

Questions abound. First: how does Julie graduate from this Hegelian night of the world to "loving acceptance of others," to reconciliation with the universe? Second: how does such reconciliation, Julie’s "boundless expansion" (Zizek, 2001, 171), "restitute" her fantasy frame? The former would seem to involve her stance toward the world ("a Yes! to life in its mysterious synchronic multitude" [Zizek, 2001, 172]), the latter her particular psychic structure. Julie’s affirmation of life, solidarity, would appear to have little to do with a new fantasmatic supplement that protects her from the lack of a sexual relation. Zizek reads Julie as moving from the "void of the pure Gaze" to "mystical communion" or "the sublime mystical vision of agape" (Zizek, 2001, 175-76), that is, to a Paulinian vision of love that in turn somehow constructs, what Zizek seems to me simply to tack on, a protective fantasy. But, then, third: how distinct is such a protective fantasy–where the raw Real is tamed, as Zizek says it is in such a scenario–from what "life" stands for in the earlier mentioned antithesis or choice between life and mission? Have we not come full circle back to the earlier downgraded "‘care of the self,’ the wisdom of moderation," etc., what was supposedly inferior to "mission"? As the figures in Kieslowski’s trilogy move from the fright of real tears to outbursts of fictional or staged tears–"tears of regained distance" (Zizek, 2001, 178)–are they not merely "renormalized," as Zizek characterizes the Judge at the end of Red (Zizek, 2001, 179).

Although Zizek claims that in order to arrive at the "mystical communion of agape, we have first to pass through the zero-point of ‘the night of the world’" (Zizek, 2001, 175), he offers no conception of the bridge between the two or even of how one serves as a catalyst for the other. In tracing Julie’s psychic journey, Zizek implies that she simply loses her fantasy’s protective shield after the car accident and needs to reconstruct it. Traversal of fantasy is not the point. Zizek is explicit about this: we are tempted to regard the trajectory of Blue, he writes, "not as the traversing of fantasy, but as the gradual reconstitution of the fantasy that allows us access to reality" (Zizek, 2001, 176). Julie must "simply" duplicate what she has lost, making engagement with the dark night of the world seem superfluous ultimately, a vehicle that merely catapults her back to where she started.

Zizek concludes The Fright of Real Tears with a fairly cryptic statement that the choice Kieslowski offers–between "resignation at the missed encounter" that posits the gap and "the closed loop of fantasy" that fills the gap (Zizek, 2001, 181)–is a non-choice. He seems to believe that we must adopt a protective fantasy, but since he regards the following statement as "the most concise version of the ultimate paradox of the Kieslowskian multiple universe" (Zizek, 2001, 181), it appears that the two choices are imbricated. Speaking of the long, happier version of Decalogue 6, Kieslowski said, as Zizek notes, that "Possibilities are open, in the cinema version. The ending is such that everything is still possible, although we already know that nothing is possible" (Zizek, 2001, 181). I take this to suggest that, operating fetishistically, fantasy protects us from the knowledge that we have missed the encounter. Zizek’s footnote about a Maugham short story, "The Colonel’s Lady," reinforces this interpretation. An old gentleman discovers poems by his wife that seem to expose a recent affair, but she explains that the young lover is actually the old gentleman himself as she recalls him from the early passionate days of their relationship. The couple is reconciled happily, recoupled. Zizek’s implication seems to be that the old gentleman is offered a protective fantasy on the edge of the truth that his wife’s response is a falsehood. We have traveled far from Zizek’s exaltation of Antigone as the queen of ethics. That is, I bring all this up to highlight the gap between Zizek’s authentic act and what he has it resulting in: a fantasy shield that thinly veils a sordid deception.

Defined as unplugging, agape would no longer seem to be in the picture (agape as plugging into the universe seems also to have dropped out), except insofar as it mysteriously, automatically transports the subject to a position of 1. missed encounter or 2. protective fantasy or, best of all? 3. protective fantasy that barely covers over the missed encounter–all of which (to me) lead to the real fright of perpetual dissatisfaction. Either "one" is subjectively obliterated (agape as unplugging), on the one hand, or reconciled to missing the encounter and/or locked in fantasy (agape as personal reconciliation, rather than reconciliation with the universe), on the other. And that, in my view, is the dilemma that White astutely poses. One can have enjoyment–whiteness in the film–only at the expense of existence, or one can have dissatisfied existence, which Karol seems to have achieved at the end, as he projects his newly charged psychic vision toward his imprisoned wife. Having accessed das Ding that in turn opens wide the flood gates of his desire, Karol is finally ensconced in a fantasy structure that points toward Dominique as objet a in the place of the gaze, rather than being in the (white) void of the gaze, as he was while immersed in the enjoyment of his encounter with Love. Imprisoned in her tower, Dominique even seems to stand for the Lady of courtly love, raised to the dignity of das Ding. And this state of things, it seems to me, rather than (as Zizek indicates) joy over his new protected position of distance, is more likely to be what Karol sheds tears over: i.e., the impossibility of Love.



1. This assertion gives me pause, for when we desire, do we not then too take the beloved to be one with the cause? Can the beloved ever actually be united with the cause of our desire, the cause of our desire being a structural matter, the missing piece, objet a?

2. This talk was given at the May 2000 APW (Affiliated Psychoanalytic Workgroups) Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

3. Nevertheless, in an essay called "The Perforated Sheet," Zupancic reduces "love" to performing separation that facilitates a "new subjectivation" (Zupancic, 2000, 288). So, again, Adams’s castration/separation as the enabler of desire comes into odd alignment with Zupancic’s "love."

4. While I couple Zizek and Zupancic here, we must note their difference from each other. Zizek speaks of an endless oscillation between unplugging and "plugging," whereas Zupancic has found laughable love through accessing the gap between unplugging and "plugging."

5. A philosophical account of a similar position may be found in the work of Alain Badiou. In "What is Love?" Badiou proposes that love is not a substitute but a supplement, not a relation but a production–of the truth that Two are "at work in the situation" (Badiou, 2000, 266). Love negotiates the paradox of the truth of radical disjunction, making a truth of dis-conjunction, without a third position. Love is declared; a void is invoked–i.e., the unknown of the disjunction.

But how does the disjunction retain its disjointedness upon encountering this void? Are the usual problems of the impasse produced by the dissatisfaction of desire, on the one side, and the impossibility of Love (desubjectivation), on the other, solved here? Badiou argues for the simultaneity of Twoness and infinity without facing that the Two cannot enjoy infinity, or even an encounter with it, without dissolving as Two. How do Two partake of the unified truth of the amorous without dissolving into a non-quotidian real threatening to their two distinct knowledges that Badiou insists on? Like Zupancic, Badiou, in attempting to access the real, "disavows" it, as he pushes out the real beyond the boundary that he makes visible.


Works Cited

Adams, Parveen. 1996. The Emptiness of the Image: Psychoanalysis and Sexual

Difference. London: Routledge.

Badiou, Alain. 2000. "What is Love?" In Sic 3: Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl.

Durham: Duke UP.

Lacan, Jacques. 1998/1975. Encore: 1972-73. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton.

----------. 1997/1986. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Potter.

New York: Norton.

----------. 1981/1973. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan

Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2001. "Il n’y a pas de rapport religieux." Lacanian Ink 18 (spring): 80-


----------. 2001. The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski: Between Theory and

Post-Theory. London: British Film Institute.

----------. 2000. The Fragile Absolute: or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting

for?. London: Verso.

----------. 1999. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New

York: Verso.

----------. 1997. The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso.

----------. 1992. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan In Hollywood and Out. London:


Zupancic, Alenka. 2000. Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. New York: Verso.

----------. 2000. "Signs and Lovers." Talk presented at APW (Affiliated Psychoanalytic

Workshops). Atlanta, Georgia.

----------. 2000. "The Case of the Perforated Sheet." In Sic 3: Sexuation. Ed. Renata

Salecl. Durham: Duke UP.