......• The Parallax View •
The Birth of (the Hegelian) Concrete Universality Out of the Spirit of (Kantian) Antinomies
On the southern side of the demilitarized zone in Korea, there is a unique visitor's site: a theater building with a large screen-like window in front, opening up onto the North. The spectacle people observe when they take seats and look through the window is reality itself (or, rather, a kind of "desert of the real"): the barren demilitarized zone with walls etc., and, beyond, a glimpse of North Korea. (As if to comply with the fiction, North Korea has built in front of this theater a pure fake, a model village with beautiful houses; in the evening, the lights in all the houses are turned on at the same time, although nobody lives in them.) Is this not a pure case of the symbolic efficiency of the frame as such? A barren zone is given a fantasmatic status, elevated into a spectacle, solely by being enframed. Nothing substantially changes here - it is merely that, viewed through the frame, reality turns into its own appearance. A supreme case of such an ontological comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Cavallo, the economy minister. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo's building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina - the fact that a thing is its own best mask. What one encounters in tautology is thus PURE DIFFERENCE, not the difference between the element and other elements, but the different of the element FROM ITSELF.
The fundamental lesson of Hegel is that the key ontological problem is not that of reality but that of appearance: not "Are we condemned to the interminable play of appearances, or can we penetrate through their veil to the underlying true reality?", but: "How could - in the middle of the flat, stupid, reality which just IS THERE - something like APPEARANCE emerge?" The minimal ontology of parallax is therefore that of the Moebius band, of the curved space that is bent onto itself. That is to say, the minimum parallax constellation is that of a simple frame: all that has to intervene into the Real is an empty frame, so that the same things we saw before "directly" are now seen through the frame. A certain surplus-effect is thus generated which cannot simply be cancelled through "demystification": it is not enough to display the mechanism behind the frame, the stage-effect within the frame acquires an autonomy of its own. How is this possible? There is only one conslusion which can account for this gap: that there is no “neutral" reality within which gaps occur, within which frames isolate domains of appearances. Every field of "reality" (every "world") is always-already enframed, seen through an invisible frame. The parallax is not symmetrical, composed of two incompatible perspectives on the same X: there is an irreducible asymmetry between the two perspectives, a minimal reflexive twist. We do not have two perspectives, we have a perspective and what eludes it, and the other perspective fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective.
One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, the frame that enframes our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap - there is an invisible gap separating them. The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. This dimension in-between-the-two-frames is obvious in Kazimir Malevich (what is his Black Square on White Surface if not the minimal marking of the distance between the two frames?), in Edward Hopper (recall his lone figures in office buildings or diners at night, where it seems as if the picture's frame has to be redoubled with another window frame - or, in the portraits of his wife close to open window, exposed to sun rays, the opposite excess of the painted content itself with regard to what we effectively see, as if we see only the fragment of the whole picture, the shot with a missing counter-shot), and, again, in Edvard Munch's Madonna - the droplets of sperm and the small foetus-like figure from The Scream squeezed in-between the two frames. The frame is always-already redoubled: the frame within "reality" is always linked to another frame enframing "reality" itself. Once introduced, the gap between reality and appearance is thus immediately complicated, reflected-into-itself: once we get a glimpse, through the Frame, of the Other Dimension, reality itself turns into appearance. In other words, things do not simply appear, they appear to appear. This is why the negation of a negation does not bring us to a simple flat affirmation: once things (start to) appear, they not only appear as what they are not, creating an illusion; they can also appear to just appear, concealing the fact that they ARE what they appear.
It is this logic of the "minimal difference," of the constitutive non-coincidence of a thing with itself, which provides the key to the central Hegelian category of “concrete universality." Let us take a “mute" abstract universality which encompasses a set of elements all of whom somehow subvert, do not fit, this universal frame - is, in this case, the “true" concrete universal not this distance itself, the universalized exception? And vice versa, is the element which directly fits the universal not the true exception? Not only is, as the commonplace goes, universality based in an exception; Lacan goes here a step further: universality IS its exception, it "appears as such" in its exception. This is what Badiou et al deployed as the logic of the "surnumerary" element: the exception (the element with no place in the structure) which immediately stands for the universal dimension. Christianity first introduced this notion: Christ, the miserable outcast, IS man as such (ecce homo). Democracy - in its true grandeur, not in its post-political logic of administration and compromise among multiple interests - partakes in the same tradition: the "part of no part," those with no proper place within the social edifice, ARE directly the universality of "people."
Universality is not the neutral container of particular formations, their common measure, the passive (back)ground on which the particulars fight their battles, but THIS BATTLE ITSELF, the struggle leading from one to another particular formation. Recall Krzysztof Kieslowski's passage from documentary to fiction cinema: we do not simply have two species of cinema, documentary and fiction; fiction emerges out of the inherent limitation of the documentary. Kieslowski's starting point was the same as the one of all cineasts in the Socialist countries: the conspicuous gap between the drab social reality and the optimistic, bright image which pervaded the heavily censored official media. The first reaction to the fact that, in Poland, social reality was "unrepresented," as Kieslowski put it, was, of course, the move towards a more adequate representation of the real life in all its drabness and ambiguity - in short, an authentic documentary approach:
There was a necessity, a need - which was very exciting for us - to describe the world. The Communist world had described how it should be and not how it really was. /.../ If something hasn't been described, then it doesn't officially exist. So that if we start describing it, we bring it to life. 1
Suffice it to mention Hospital, Kieslowski's documentary from 1976, in which the camera follows orthopaedic surgeons on a 32-hour shift. Instruments fall apart in their hands, the electrical current keeps breaking, there are shortages of the most basic materials, but the doctors persevere hour after hour, and with humor... Then, however, the obverse experience set in, best captured by the slogan used recently to publicize a Hollywood movie: "It's so real, it must be a fiction!"- at the most radical level, one can render the Real of subjective experience only in the guise of a fiction. Towards the end of the documentary First Love (1974), in which the camera follows a young unmarried couple during the girl's pregnancy, through their wedding, and the delivery of the baby, the father is shown holding the newly born baby in his hands and crying - Kieslowski reacted to the obscenity of such unwarranted probing into the other's intimacy with the "fright of real tears." His decision to pass from documentaries to fiction films was thus, at its most radical, an ethical one:
Not everything can be described. That's the documentary's great problem. It catches itself as if in its own trap. /.../ If I'm making a film about love, I can't go into a bedroom if real people are making love there. /.../ I noticed, when making documentaries, that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more objects which interested me shut themselves off.
That's probably why I changed to features. There's no problem there. I need a couple to make love in bed, that's fine. Of course, it might be difficult to find an actress who's willing to take off her bra, but then you just find one who is. /.../ I can even buy some glycerine, put some drops in her eyes and the actress will cry. I managed to photograph some real tears several times. It's something completely different. But now I've got glycerine. I'm frightened of real tears. In fact, I don't even know whether I've got the right to photograph them. At such times I feel like somebody who's found himself in a realm which is, in fact, out of bounds. That's the main reason why I escaped from documentaries. 2
The crucial intermediary in this passage from documentary to fiction is Camera Buff (1979), the portrait of a man who, because of his passion for the camera, loses his wife, child, and job - the fiction film about a documentary film-maker. So there is a domain of fantasmatic intimacy which is marked by a "No trespass!" sign and should be approached only via fiction, if one is to avoid pornographic obscenity. This is the reason why the French Veronique in The Double Life of Veronique rejects the puppeteer: he wants to penetrate her too much, which is why, towards the film's end, after he tells her the story of her double life, she is deeply hurt and escapes to her father. 3 The »concrete universality« is a name for this process through which fiction explodes FROM WITHIN documentary, i.e., for the way the emergence of fiction cinema resolves the inherent deadlock of the documentary cinema. (Or, in philosophy, the point is not to conceive eternity as opposed to temporality, but eternity as it emerges from within our temporal experience - or, in an even more radical way, as Schelling did it, to conceive time itself as a subspecies of eternity, as the resolution of a deadlock of eternity.) 4
This brings us to the very heart of the concept of concrete universality: concrete universality is not merely the universal core that animates a series of its particular forms of appearance; it persists in the very irreducible tension, non-coincidence, between these different levels. Hegel is usually perceived as an "essentialist historicist," positing the spiritual "essence" of an epoch as a universal principle which expresses itself in a specific way in each domain of social life; say, the modern principle of subjectivity expresses itself in religion as Protestantism, in ethics as the subject's moral autonomy, in politics as democratic equality, etc. What such a view misses is what one is tempted to call temporal parallax: in the complex dialectic of historical phenomena, we encounter events or processes which, although they are the actualization of the same underlying "principle" at different levels, for that very reason cannot occur at the same historical moment.
Recall the old topic of the relationship between Protestantism, Kantian philosophical revolution and the French political revolution. Rebecca Comay recently refuted the myth that Hegel's critique of the French Revolution can be reduced to a variation of the "German" idea of how the Catholic French had to perform the violent "real" political revolution because they missed the historical moment of Reformation which already accomplished in the spiritual sphere the reconciliation between the spiritual Substance and the infinite subjectivity sought after in social reality by the revolutionaries. In this standard view, the German ethico-aesthetic attitude "sublates" revolutionary violence in the inner ethical order, thus enabling the replacement of the abstract "terrorist" revolutionary freedom by the concrete freedom of the State as an aesthetic organic Whole. However, already the temporality of this relationship between the French political revolution and the German spiritual reformation is ambiguous: all three possible relations seem to overlap here. First, the idea of "sublation" points towards a succession: the French "immediate" unity of the Universal and the Subject is followed by its sublation, the German ethico-aesthetic mediation. Then, there is the idea of a simultaneous choice (or lack thereof) which made the two nations follow a different path: the Germans opted for Reformation, while the French remained within the Catholic universe and had thus to take the tortuous route of violent revolution. However, the empirical fact that Kant's philosophical revolution precedes the French Revolution is also not just an insignificant accident - in the spectacle of revolutionary Terror, the Kantian ethics itself encounters the ultimate consequence of its own "abstract" character, so that Kant's philosophy should be read retroactively, through the prism of the French Revolution which enables us to perceive its limitations:
If /the Kantian moral view/ presents itself as the narrative successor to the revolution, this is not because it logically fulfils or supersedes it: Kant's critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the revolution that it chronologically, of course, anticipates only insofar as his text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project of modernity to its most extreme trial. /.../ the revolution itself inflicts on Kant's own text a kind of retroactive trauma. 5
What this means is that the revolutionary Terror is a kind of obscene double of Kant's ethical though: its destructive violence merely "exernalizes" the terrorist potential of Kant's thought. This is why - and therein resides Hegel's central insight - it is hypocritical to reject the "excesses" of the French Revolution from the standpoint of the "German" moral view: all its terrifying features found its counterpart in, are contained and REPEATED within, the Kantian spiritual edifice (and the term "repetition" has to be given here the entire weight of Freud's Wiederholungszwang):
/.../ the purity of the moral will can be no antidote to the terrifying purity of revolutionary virtue. All the logical problems of absolute freedom are essentially carried over into Hegel's analysis of Kantian morality: the obsessionality, the paranoia, the suspicion, the evaporation of objectivity, within the violent hyperbole of a subjectivity bent on reproducing itself within a world it must disavow. 6
So, insofar as we are dealing here with a historical choice (between the "French" way of remaining within Catholicism and thus being obliged to engage in the self-destructive revolutionary Terror, and the "German" way of Reformation), this choice involves exactly the same elementary dialectical paradox as the one, also from The Phenomenology of Spirit, between the two readings of "the Spirit is a bone" which Hegel illustrates by the phallic metaphor (phallus as the organ of insemination or phallus as the organ of urination): Hegel's point is NOT that, in contrast to the vulgar empiricist mind which sees only urination, the proper speculative attitude has to choose insemination. The paradox is that the direct choice of insemination is the infallible way to miss it: it is not possible to choose directly the "true meaning", i.e. one HAS to begin by making the "wrong" choice (of urination) - the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, "wrong," reading.
And the same goes for social life in which the direct choice of the "concrete universality" of a particular ethical life-world can only end in a regression to pre-modern organic society that denies the infinite right of subjectivity as the fundamental feature of modernity. Since the subject-citizen of a modern state can no longer accept his immersion in some particular social role that confers on him a determinate place within the organic social Whole, the only way to the rational totality of the modern State leads through revolutionary Terror: one should ruthlessly tear up the constraints of the pre-modern organic "concrete universality," and fully assert the infinite right of subjectivity in its abstract negativity. In other words, the point of Hegel's analysis of the revolutionary Terror is not the rather obvious insight into how the revolutionary project involved the unilateral direct assertion of abstract Universal Reason, and was as such doomed to perish in self-destructive fury, since it was unable to organize the transposition of its revolutionary energy into a concrete stable and differentiated social order; Hegel's point is rather the enigma of why, in spite of the fact that revolutionary Terror was a historical deadlock, we have to pass through it in order to arrive at the modern rational State. So, back to the choice between the Protestant "inner revolution" and the French violent political revolution, this means that Hegel is far from endorsing the German self-complacent superiority ("we made the right choice and can thus avoid revolutionary madness"): precisely because Germans made the right choice at a wrong time (TOO EARLY: in the age of Reformation), they cannot gain access to the rational State that would be at the level of true political modernity.
One should make a step further here: it is not only that the universal Essence articulates itself in the discord between its particular forms of appearance; this discord is propelled by a gap that pertains to the very core of the universal Essence itself. In his book on modernity, Fredric Jameson refers to the Hegelian "concrete universality" is his concise critique of the recently fashionable theories of "alternate modernities":
How then can the ideologues of 'modernity' in its current sense manage to distinguish their product - the information revolution, and globalized, free-market modernity - from the detestable older kind, without getting themselves involved in asking the kinds of serious political and economic, systemic questions that the concept of a postmodernity makes unavoidable? The answer is simple: you talk about 'alternate' or 'alternative' modernities. Everyone knows the formula by now: this means that there can be a modernity for everybody which is different from the standard or hegemonic Anglo-Saxon model. Whatever you dislike about the latter, including the subaltern position it leaves you in, can be effaced by the reassuring and 'cultural' notion that you can fashion your own modernity differently, so that there can be a Latin-American kind, or an Indian kind or an African kind, and so on. /.../ But this is to overlook the other fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself. 7
The significance of this critique reaches far beyond the case of modernity - it concerns the fundamental limitation of the nominalist historicizing. The recourse to multitude ("there is not one modernity with a fixed essence, there are multiple modernities, each of them irreducible to others...") is false not because it does not recognize a unique fixed "essence" of modernity, but because multiplication functions as the disavowal of the antagonism that inheres to the notion of modernity as such: the falsity of multiplication resides in the fact that it frees the universal notion of modernity of its antagonism, of the way it is embedded in the capitalist system, by relegating this aspect just to one of its historical subspecies. (One should not forget that the first half of the XXth century already was marked by two big projects which perfectly fit this notion of "alternate modernity": Fascism and Communism. Was not the basic idea of Fascism that of a modernity which provides an alternative to the standard Anglo-Saxon liberal-capitalist one, of saving the core of capitalist modernity by casting away its "contingent" Jewish-individualist-profiteering distortion? And was not the rapid industrializtation of the USSR in the late 1920s and 1930s also not an attempt at modernization different from the Western-capitalist one?) And, insofar as this inherent antagonism could be designated as a "castrative" dimension, and, furthermore, insofar as, according to Freud, the disavowal of castration is represented as the multiplication of the phallus-representatives (a multitude of phalluses signals castration, the lack of the one), it is easy to conceive such a multiplication of modernities as a form of fetishist disavowal.
Jameson's critique of the notion of alternate modernities thus provides a model of the properly dialectical relationship between the Universal and the Particular: the difference is not on the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal. The Universal is not the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities; the Universal "as such" is the site of an unbearable antagonism, self-contradiction, and (the multitude of) its particular species are ultimately nothing but so many attempts to obfuscate/reconcile/master this antagonism. In other words, the Universal names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem. Say, the concept of State names a certain problem: how to contain the class antagonism of a society? All particular forms of State are so many (failed) attempts to propose a solution for this problem.
This is how one should answer the standard critique of the Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall St Paul's famous "There are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks") involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept to be included into the Christian community. In other "particularistic" religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are condescendingly looked upon. The Christian motto "All men are brothers," however, means ALSO that "Those who are not my brothers ARE NOT (EVEN) MEN." Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing the entire humanity - the catch is here that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with the privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while the Christian universalism tendentially excludes non-believers from the very universality of the humankind...
But the Christian universality is not the all-encompassing global medium where there is a place for all and everyone - it is rather the STRUGGLING universality, the site of a constant battle. Which battle, which division? To follow Paul: NOT the division between Law and sin, but between, on the one side, the TOTALITY of Law and sin as its supplement, and, on the other side, the way of Love. Christian universality is the universality which emerges at the symptomal point of those who are "part of no-part" of the global order - this is where the reproach of exclusion gets it wrong: the Christian universality, far from excluding some subjects, is formulated from the position of those excluded, of those for whom there is no specific place within the existing order, although they belong to it; universality is strictly co-dependent with this lack of specific place/determination.
Or, to put it in a different way: the reproach to Paul's universalism misses the true site of universality: the universal dimension he opened up is not the "neither Greeks nor Jews but all Christians," which implicitly excludes non-Christians; it is rather the difference Christians/non-Christians itself which, AS A DIFFERENCE, is universal, i.e., which cuts across the entire social body, splitting, dividing from within every substantial ethnic etc. identity - Greeks are cut into Christians and non-Christians, as well as Jews. The standard reproach thus in a way knocks on an open door: the whole point of the Paulinian notion of struggling universality IS that the true universality and partiality do not exclude each other, but that universal Truth is only accessible from a partial engaged subjective position.
Another name for this cut across the entire social body is, of course, antagonism; the logic of irreducible antagonism was lately developed by Ernesto Laclau in contrast to the Hegelian concrete universality which, allegedly, "sublates" (overcomes) all antagonisms in a higher mediated unity. Is, however, this effectively the case, or does, on the contrary, the reference to Hegel enable us to discern a flaw in Laclau's theory itself? The philosophical/notional limitation of Laclau's couple of two logics, that of difference and that of antagonism, is that he treats them as two externally opposed poles. When Laclau elaborates his fundamental opposition between the logic of difference and the logic of equivalence, he asserts the coincidence of the opposites: the two logics are not simply opposed, but each logic, brought to its extreme, converts into its opposite. 8 That is to say, as he repeatedly points out, a system of pure differentiality (a system totally defined by the differential structure of its elements, with no antagonism and/or impossibility traversing it) would lead to a pure equivalence of all its elements - they are all equivalent with regard to the void of their Outside; and, at the other extreme, a system of radical antagonism with no structure at all but just the pure opposition of Us and Them would coincide with a naturalized difference between Us and Them as the positively existing opposed species... However, from a Hegelian standpoint, this logic continues to rely on the two externally opposed poles - the fact that each of the opposites, in the abstraction from the other (i.e., brought to the extreme at which it no longer needs the other as its opposite), falls into this other, merely demonstrates their mutual reliance. What we need to do is to make a step further from this external opposition (or mutual reliance) into the direct internalized overlapping, which means: not only does one pole, when abstracted from the other and thus brought to extreme, coincide with its opposite, but there is no "primordial" duality of poles in the first place, only the inherent gap of the One. Equivalence is primordially not the opposite of difference, equivalence only emerges because no system of differences can ever complete itself, it »is« a structural effect of this incompleteness. 9 The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus also secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: »transcendence« is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inhers to immanence itself. In the same way, the tension between the Same and the Other is secondary with regard to the non-coincidence of the Same with itself.
What this means is that the opposition of two logics, that of antagonism and that of difference, is the deployment of a logically preceding term, of the inherent »pure« difference, the minimal difference which marks the non-coincidence of the One with itself. This non-coincidence, this »pure difference,« can either unravel into a multitude of entities forming a differential totality, or split into the antagonistic opposition of two terms. And this duality again follows the logic of Lacan's formulas of sexuation - contrary to expectations, the differential multitude is »masculine,« while the antagonism is »feminine.« The primordial gap is thus not the polar opposition of two principles (masculine and feminine, lightness and darkness, opening and closure...), but the minimal gap between an element and ITSELF, the void of its own PLACE of inscription. It is this gap that Schelling aims at when he distinguishes between Existence and its impenetrable Ground, and this is why he is right in rejecting the accusation of dualism: Schelling remains a monist, there is only One, the gap is inherent to this One itself, not as the gap between its two opposite aspects, but as the gap between One and the Void. 10
The Master-Signifier and its Vicissitudes
In Lacanian terms, the space of the Laclauian logic of hegemony is that of the tension between the empty Master-Signifier and the series of "ordinary" signifiers which struggle to fill in the Master-Signifier with particular content: the struggle for Democracy (today's Master-Signifier) is in what will it mean, which kind of democracy will hegemonize the universal notion.
So what is a Master-Signifier? Let us imagine a confused situation of social disintegration, in which the cohesive power of ideology loses its efficiency: in such a situation, the Master is the one who invents a new signifier, the famous "quilting point," which again stabilizes the situation and makes it readable; the university discourse which then elaborates the network of Knowledge which sustains this readability by definition presupposes and relies on the initial gesture of the Master. The Master adds no new positive content - he merely adds a signifier which all of a sudden turns disorder into order, into "new harmony," as Rimbaud would have put it. Think about anti-Semitism in Germany of the 1920s: people experienced themselves as disoriented, thrown into undeserved military defeat, economic crisis which melted away their life-savings, political inefficiency, moral degeneration... and the Nazis provided a single agent which accounted for it all - the Jew, the Jewish plot. Therein resides the magic of a Master: although there is nothing new at the level of positive content, "nothing is quite the same" after he pronounces his Word... Recall how, in order to illustrate le point de capiton, Lacan quotes the famous lines from Racine's Athalie: Je crains Dieu, cher Abner, et je n'ai point d'autre crainte. "I fear God, my dear Abner, and have no other fears." - all fears are exchanged for one fear, i.e., it is the very fear of God which makes me fearless in all other worldly matters. The same reversal that gives rise to a new Master-Signifier is at work in ideology: in anti-Semitism, all fears (of economic crisis, of moral degradation...) are exchanged for the fear of the Jew - je crains le Juif, cher citoyen, et je n'ai point d'autre crainte... And is not the same logic also discernible in a horror film like Spielberg's Jaws? I fear the shark, my friend, and have no other fears...
So when, in his (forthcoming) Logique des mondes, in order to designate the moment of pure subjective decision/choice which stabilizes a world, Badiou proposes the concept of "point" as a simple decision in a situation reduced to a choice of Yes or No, he implicitly refers to Lacan's point de caption, of course - and does this not implicate that there is no "world" outside language, no world whose horizon of meaning is not determined by a symbolic order? The passage to truth is therefore the passage from language ("the limits of my language are the limits of my world") to LETTER, to "mathemes" which run diagonally across a multitude of worlds. The postmodern relativism is precisely the thought of the irreducible multitude of worlds each of them sustained by a specific language-game, so that each world "is" the narrative its members are telling themselves about themselves, with no shared terrain, no common language between them; and the problem of truth is how to establish something that, to refer to terms popular in modal logic, remains the same in all possible worlds.
One can see, now, in what precise sense one is to conceive of Lacan's thesis according to which, what is "primordially repressed" is the binary signifier (that of Vorstellungs-Repraesentanz): what the symbolic order precludes is the full harmonious presence of the couple of Master-signifiers, S1-S2 as yin-yang or any other two symmetrical "fundamental principles." The fact that "there is no sexual relationship" means precisely that the secondary signifier (that of the Woman) is "primordially repressed," and what we get in the place of this repression, what fills in its gap, is the multitude of the "returns of the repressed," the series of the "ordinary" signifiers. In Woody Allen's Tolstoy-parody War and Love, the first association that automatically pops up, of course, is: "If Tolstoy, where is then Dostoyevski?" In the film, Dostoyevski (the "binary signifier" to Tolstoy) remains "repressed" - however, the price paid for it is that a conversation in the middle of the film as it were accidentally includes the titles of all main Dostoyevski's novels: "Is that man still in the underground?" "You mean one of the Karamazov brothers?" "Yes, that idiot!" "Well, he did commit his crime and was punished for it!" "I know, he was a gambler who always risked too much!" etc.etc. Here we encounter the "return of the repressed," i.e. the series of signifiers which fills in the gap of the repressed binary signifier "Dostoyevski."
This is why the standard deconstructionist criticism according to which Lacan's theory of sexual difference falls into the trap of "binary logic" totally misses the point: Lacan's la femme n'existe pas aims precisely at undermining the "binary" polar couple of Masculine and Feminine - the original split is not between the One and the Other, but is strictly inherent to the One, it is the split between the One and its empty place of inscription (this is how one should read Kafka's famous statement that the Messiah will come one day after his arrival). This is also how one should conceive the link between the split inherent to the One and the explosion of the multiple: the multiple is not the primordial ontological fact; the "transcendental" genesis of the multiple resides in the lack of the binary signifier, i.e., the multiple emerges as the series of attempts to fill in the gap of the missing binary signifier. The difference between S1 and S2 is thus not the difference of two opposed poles within the same field, but, rather, the cut within this field - the cut of the level at which the process occurs - inherent to the one term: the original couple is not that of two signifiers, but that of the signifier and its reduplicatio, i.e., the minimal difference between a signifier and the place of its inscription, between one and zero. 11
The same self-reflexivity is crucial for the status of the gaze itself: gaze turns into an object when it passes "from inquisitiveness, from the gaze into the interior, to the gaze ex qua - from inside to outside. This turning constitutes a fundamental upheaval: it assumes that one goes from a kind of public gaze on "intimate scenes" to the entry of the gaze itself into the secret, the intimate - this would also be the ultimate moment necessary for the entry of the voyeur." 12 The homology with the figure of the Master (agent of symbolic prohibition) is indicative here: in the same way that Father qua the agent of prohibition (preventing the subject's free access to libidinal objects) himself has to be prohibited (as a libidinal object), the gaze which looks for satisfaction in peering into intimate domain of private secrets has itself to turn into a secret, into something that strives to remain hidden, invisible in the public space. - What this reflexivity of the symbolic order (the fact that this order involves the minimal difference between an element and its structural place) does to the ethical choice is to introduce its redoubling: the choice is never simply the one between doing one's duty or following one's striving for »pathological« pleasures and satisfactions; this elementary choice is always redoubled by the one between elevating my striving for pleasures itself into my supreme Duty, and doing my Duty not for the sake of Duty but because it gives me satisfaction to do it. In the first case - pleasures are my duty -, the »pathological« striving for pleasures is located into the formal space of Duty, while, in the second case - duty is my pleasure - doing my duty is located into the formal space of »pathological« satisfactions. - Derrida is thus fully justified in emphasizing the self-reflexivity of the prohibition with regard to the Law - the Law not only prohibits, it is ITSELF prohibited:
The law is prohibition: this does not mean that it prohibits, but that it is itself prohibited, a prohibited place /.../ one cannot reach the law, and in order to have a rapport of respect with it, one must not have a rapport with the law, one must interrupt the relation. One must enter into relation only with the law's representatives, its examples, its guardians. These are interrupters as much as messengers. One must not know who or what or where the law is. 13
In one of his short fragments, Kafka himself pointed out how the ultimate secret of the Law is that it does not exist - another case of what Lacan called the inexistence of the big Other. This inexistence, of course, does not simply reduce the Law to an empty imaginary chimera; it rather makes it into an impossible Real, a void which nonetheless functions, exerts influence, causes effects, curves the symbolic space. So when Derrida wrote:
the inaccessible transcendence of the law, before which and prior to which man stands fast, only appears infinitely transcendent and thus theological to the extent that, nearest to him, it depends only on him, on the performative act by which he institutes it. /.../ The law is transcendent and theological, and so always to come, always promised, because it is immanent, finite, and thus already past." 14
The ambiguity of this statement is crucial: does it mean that this appearance of transcendence is a necessary illusion, a structural misperception (as Deleuze also claims in his reading of Kafka)? Is it then possible to break out of this misreading, to fully assume that “it all depends only on me"? And does this not happen precisely in Christianity? Is THIS not the core of incarnation? - The obverse aspect of this reflexivity resides in the fact that what Lacan calls "Master Signifier" is the reflexive signifier that fills in the very lack of the signifier. Spinoza's own supreme example of "God" is here crucial: when conceived as a mighty person, god merely embodies our ignorance of true causality. Examples from the history of science abound here - from flogiston (a pseudo-concept which just betrayed the scientist's ignorance of how light effectively travels) to Marx's »Asiatic mode of production« (which is a kind of negative container: the only true content of this concept is »all the modes of production which do not fit Marx's standard categorization of the modes of production«), not to mention today's popular "post-industrial society" - notions which, while they appear to designate a positive content, merely signal our ignorance.
However, did we not oscillate here between two opposed versions? In the first version, the binary signifier, the symmetric counterpart of S1, is "primordially repressed," and it is in order to supplement the void of this repression that the chain of S2 emerges, i.e., the original fact is the couple of S1 and the Void at the place of its counterpart, and the chain of S2 is secondary; in the second version, in the account of the emergence of S1 as the "enigmatic term," the empty signifier, the primordial fact is, on the contrary, S2, the signifying chain in its incompleteness, and it is in order to fill in the void of this incompleteness that S1 intervenes. How are the two versions to be coordinated? Is the ultimate fact the vicious circle of their mutual implication? What if, yet again, these two versions point towards the logic of Lacan's "formulas of sexuation"? Contrary to our expectations, it is the first version - the multitude emerges in order to fill in the void of the binary signifier - which is "feminine," i.e., which accounts for the explosion of the inconsistent multitude of the feminine non-All, and it is the second version which is "masculine", i.e., which accounts for how a multitude is totalized into an All through the exception which fills in its void.
We thus generated the four constituents of a discourse: S1, S2, $, a; their interaction, of course, always implies a more complex cobweb. 15 How, then, does objet a function in this tension between the Master-Signifier and the series of "ordinary" signifiers that struggle to hegemonize it? While Ernesto Laclau is on the right track when he emphasizes the necessary role of objet a in rendering an ideological edifice operative, 16 he curtails the true dimension of this role when he constrains it to the fact of hegemony (of how the void of the Master-Signifier has to be filled in with some particular content). Things are much more precise here: since objet a is (also) the object of fantasy, the catch lies in what one is tempted to call, with Kant, the role of "transcendental scheme" played by objet a - a fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates, i.e. it literally "teaches us how to desire."
The role of fantasy is thus in a way homologous to that of the ill-fated pineal gland in Descartes' philosophy, this mediator between res cogitans and res extensa: fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality, i.e. it provides a "scheme" according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. This role of fantasy hinges on the fact that "there is no sexual relationship," no universal formula or matrix guaranteeing a harmonious sexual relationship with one's partner: on account of the lack of this universal formula, every subject has to invent a fantasy of his own, a "private" formula for the sexual relationship - for a man, the relationship with a woman is possible only inasmuch as she fits his formula. In an exactly homologous way, objet a is the "sublime object of ideology": it serves as the fantasmatic support of ideological propositions - say, the anti-abortion struggle is "schematized" in the figure of a successful professional woman who suppresses her maternal vocation in order to pursue her career; or, in the UK under John Major's Conservative government, the single unemployed mother was proposed by the media as the singular cause of all social illnesses (Are taxes too heavy? It is because the state has to support unemployed single mothers! Is there too much juvenile delinquency? It is because single mothers, lacking the firm paternal authority, cannot provide proper moral education...).
The crucial point here is that, in this tension between a universal statement and its fantasmatic support, the "truth" is on the side of the universality. Recall Marx's brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-REPUBLICAN Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (Orleanists and Legitimists) in the "anonymous kingdom of the Republic." 17 The parliamentary deputees of the Party of Order perceived their republicanism as a mockery: in parliamentary debates, they all the time generated royalist slips of tongue, ridiculed the Republic, etc. - to let it be known that their true is to restore the kingdom. What they were not aware of is that they themselves were duped as to the true social signification of their rule: what they were effectively doing was to establish the conditions of bourgeois republican order that they despised so much deep in themselves (guaranteeing the safety of private property, etc.). So it is not that they were royalists who were just wearing a republican mask: although they experienced themselves as such, it was their very "inner" royalist conviction which was the deceptive front masking their true social role. In short, far from being the hidden truth of their public republicanism, their "sincere" royalism was the fantasmatic support of their ACTUAL republicanism - it was what provided the "passion" to their activity. 18
Furthermore, it is not enough to say that every ideological universal functions as an empty signifier which has to be filled in with (hegemonized by) a particular content, i.e., to demonstrate how all positive content is a contingent fill-in of the void of the empty signifier; one should move beyond this gap between empty signifier and determinate content and ask a more radical question: how, through what violent gesture, does the very void of the empty signifier arise? This empty space of universality arises from the radical inadequacy (non-coincidence, inherent gap) of a Particular with itself. In other words, not only has the structural lack/void of all universality to be filled in by a particular content, its stand-in; it is this empty universality itself which is a stand-in for the radical non-coincidence of the particular to itself, for a missing particular, the element whose addition would make the particular "full," coinciding with itself.
Soave sia il vento
Such a convoluted topology is what is totally absent from Spinoza's thought. Does Spinoza not formulate the highest parallax? The substance is One, and the difference between mind and body, its two modes, is purely that of parallax: "body" or "mind" are the same Substance perceived in a different mode. There is nonetheless a key difference between Spinoza and Hegel here: for Spinoza, the parallax is symmetric (there is no point of contact or of passage between the two modes, each of them just renders visible the same network in a different mode), while for Hegel, the two levels involved in a parallax shift are radically asymmetric: one of the two levels appears to be able to stand on itself, while the other stands for the shift as such, for the gap itself between the two. In other words, Two are not simply One and One, since Two stands for the very move/shift from One to Two. (A simplified example: in the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, proletariat stands for the struggle as such.) The passage from the Spinozean One qua the neutral medium/container of its modes and the One's inherent gap is the very passage from Substance to Subject. 19
The standard critical procedure today is to mobilize the opposition of man and subject: the notion of subjectivity (self-consciousness, self-positing autonomy, etc.) stands for a dangerous hubris, a will to power, which obfuscates and distorts the authentic essence of man; the task is thus to think the essence of man outside the domain of subjectivity. What Lacan tries to accomplish seems to be the exact opposite of this standard procedure: in all his great literary interpretations, from Oedipus and Antigone through Sade's Juliette to Claudel's The Hostage, he is in search of a point at which we enter the dimension of the "inhuman," a point at which "humanity" disintegrates, so that all that remains is a pure subject. Sophocles's Antigone, de Sade's Juliette, Claudel's Sygne - they are all these figures of such an "inhuman" subject (in contrast to their "human" counterpoint: Ismene, Justine...). To paraphrase Nietzsche, what one should render problematic is what is in us "human, all too human." One should not be afraid to apply this insight also to politics: it is all too simple to dismiss Nazis as inhuman and bestial - what if the problem with the Nazis was precisely that they remained "human, all too human"?20
One of the curious stories about Hitler reported in the (in)famous record of his "table conversations" is that, one morning in the early 1940s, he awakened terrified and then, while tears were running down his cheeks, explained the nightmare that haunted him to his doctor: "In my dream, I saw the future overman - they are so totally ruthless, without any consideration for our pains, that I found it unbearable!" The very idea of Hitler, our main candidate for the most evil person of all times, being horrified at a lack of compassion, is, of course, weird - but, philosophically, the idea makes sense. What Hitler was implicitly referring to is the Nietzschean passage from Lion to Child: it is not yet possible for us, caught as we are in the cobweb of the reflective attitude of nihilism, to enter the "innocence of becoming," the full life beyond justification; all we can do is to engage in "self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness," 21 i.e., to bring the moralistic will-to-truth to its self-cancellation, to become aware of the truth about will-to-truth itself (that it is an illusion of and for the weak). We "cannot create new values," we can only be the Lion who, in an outburst of active nihilism, clears the table and thus "creates freedom for new creation"; 22 it is after us that the Child will appear, who will mark "a new Beginning, a sacred Yes." 23
The field of comedy is defined by two strangely opposed features: on the one hand, comedy is usually perceived as the intrusion of the vulgar materiality of ordinary life into high pretentious dignity - it cannot but produce a comic effect when the Leader, entering a Hall to preside a formal meeting, slips on the proverbial banana peel; on the other hand, there is a strange immortality that pertains to comic figures, homologous to the ability of the Sadean victims to survive all their misfortunes - back to our example of the Leader slipping on a banana peel, the truly comic thing is that, even after he slips, he is able to retain his dignity and goes on as if nothing happened... (if this is not the case, then we are rather dealing with a sad, if not outright tragic, spectacle of a Leader deprived of his dignity). How are we to think these two features together? Alenka Zupancic 24 provides a properly Hegelian answer: it is true that the space of the comic is the space between the dignified symbolic mask and the ridiculous vulgarity of common life with its petty passions and weaknesses; however, the properly comic procedure is not simply to undermine the dignified mask (or task or sublime passion) through the intrusion of everyday reality, but a kind of structural short-circuit or, rather, exchange of places between the two in which the very dignified mask/task/passion appears as a pathetic idiosyncrasy, as a properly human weakness. Recall the standard generic comic heroes (Miser, Drunkard, Seducer): it is this very attachment to some excessive task/passion which makes them human. Which is why Chaplin was right in his Great Dictator: Hitler's hubris was not "inhuman," out of the range of the sympathy for common men pleasures and weaknesses - Hitler was "human, all too human," his political hubris was an "all too human" idiosyncrasy which makes him ridiculous. In short, Hitler was a burlesque figure of Evil Dictator who belong into the same series with Seducer, Miser, and Deceiving Servant.
Which, then, is the elementary dimension of subjectivity? Rebecca Comay drew attention to how, in Hegel's reading, the self-destructive fury of the revolutionary Terror as the actualization of Absolute Freedom simultaneously abolishes every Beyond, while reducing death to a meaningless chopping-off of a cabbage-head, AND remains haunted by an obscene spectral Beyond which returns in the guise of the "undead" apparitions:
The obsessive fantasies of survival entertained by the popular imaginary of the guillotine, and that preoccupied both literature and medical science from the 1970s, are but the inversion and confirmation of the living death to which life had seemingly been reduced - thus the proliferation of blushing heads, talking heads, suffering heads, heads that dreamed, screamed, returned the gaze, the disembodied body parts, detached writing hands, the ghosts and ghouls and zombies that would fill the pages of gothic novels throughout Europe. 25
Does this not bring us back to the famous passage from the beginning of Hegel's Jenaer Realphilosophie about the "night of the world"?
The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity - an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him - or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here - pure self - in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head - there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye - into a night that becomes awful. 26
28 This "inter-space," the gap constitutive of a human being, appears at three levels:
1. first, as the "vanishing mediator" between Nature and Culture, the "inhuman" excess of freedom which is to be disciplined through culture. This zero-degree of "humanization" can be formulated in Hegelian terms as the reflexive reversal of the human animal (Mensch-Tier) into the animal man (Tier-Mensch): the shift of the structural place of the SAME element from the EXCESS to the NEUTRAL BASE, zero-level, i.e. from the human excess which distorts animality to the zero-level of humanity. 29
2. then, as the Real of antagonism, the difference which paradoxically precedes what it is a difference OF, the two terms being a reaction to the difference, two ways to cope with its trauma.
3. finally, as the "minimal difference" on account of which an individual is never fully himself, but always only "resembles him/herself" - Marx brothers were right: "You look like X, so no wonder you ARE X..." What this means, of course, is that there is no positive-substantial determination of man: man in the animal which recognizes itself as man, what makes him human is this formal gesture of recognition as such, not the recognized content. Man is a lack which, in order to fill itself in, recognizes itself as something.
This triad, of course, is that of the Universal-Particular-Individual: the Vanishing Mediator constitutive of the Universality of Humankind; the "particular" division into species (sexual difference, class difference) which cuts into the universality; the minimal distance, non-coincidence-with-itself, constitutive of the Individual.
In da Vinci's Mona Lisa, there is a strange discrepancy between figure and background: there is no continuity between the two, between the figure of Mona Lisa and the strangely complex, almost Gothic, background of trees, rocks, etc. It is as if, effectively, Mona Lisa stands in front of a painted background, not in real environs: the painted background stands for the void which is filled in with painting. 30 Does this same discrepancy not account also for the strange attraction of the old Hollywood films from 30s and 40s in which actors are so obviously acting in front of a projected background? Recall the systematic use of this device in Hitchcock: Ingrid Bergman skiing down a mountain slope in front of a ridiculously discrepant snowy background in Spellbound; Ingrid Bergman again, driving a car in a studio with the uncoordinated background of a night landscape passing by in Notorious; up to two exemplary cases from the late Hitchcock (the dining-car table conversation between Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint with a Hudson Bay background in which we pass three times the same barn in North-by-Northwest; Tippi Hedren riding a horse in Marnie). Although it is easy to project a conscious strategy into what may have been Hitchcock's simple sloppiness, it is difficult to deny the strange psychological resonance of these shots, as if the very discord between figure and background renders a key message about the depicted person's subjectivity. It was above all Orson Welles who perfected the expressive use of this technique: one of his standard shots is the American shot of the hero too close to the camera, with the blurred background which, even if it is a "true" background, nonetheless generates the effect of something artificial, acquiring a spectral dimension, as if the hero is not moving in a real world, but in a phantasmagoric virtual universe... And does the same not go for modern subjectivity? Perhaps, it is a crucial fact that Mona Lisa was painted at the dawn of modernity: this irreducible gap between the subject and its "background," the fact that a subject never fully fits its environs, is never fully embedded in it, defines subjectivity.
In his Seminar XI, Lacan denounces the "essential flaw in philosophical idealism":
There is no subject without, somewhere, aphanasis of the subject, and it is in this alienation, in this fundamental division, that the dialectic of the subject is established. In order to answer the question I was asked last time concerning my adhesion to the Hegelian dialectic, is it not enough that, because of the vel, the sensitive point, point of balance, there is an emergence of the subject at the level of meaning only from its aphanasis in the Other locus, which is that of the unconscious?" 31
Is it not a tell-tale detail that, in order to designate the subject's fundamental division, he has to resort to the Hegelian term "dialectic"? What is the core of the Hegelian dialectic of the subject if not the very fact that, whenever a subject "posits" a meaning (a project), the truth of this gesture escapes him and persists on another locus, from which it undermines his project?
True, the Hegelian subject is "ecstatic," its mediation opens it up to otherness, shifting, loss of self-identity; however, there is a crucial step further to be accomplished here. Not only is the subject always-already dispossessed-ecstatic, etc., this ecstasy IS the subject, i.e., the subject is the $ void which emerges when a substance is "dispossessed" through ecstasy. Hair-splitting as it may appear, this distinction is crucial: is the status of the subject always limited, dispossessed, exposed, or is the subject itself a name for/of this dispossession? From the subject's limitation, we have to move to limit itself as the name for the subject. This is why it is not enough to say that, in Hegel, there is a move of »self-castration,« that the subject castrates itself - who is this Self? The problem is that this Self only emerges is the outcome, the result, of castration. This is how the key moment in a dialectical process is the »transubstantiation« of its focal point: what was first just a predicate, a subordinate moment of the process (money), becomes its central moment, retroctively degrading its presuppositions, the elements out of which it emerged, into its subordinate moments, elements of its self-propelling circulation. And this is also how one should approach Hegel's outrageously "speculative" formulations about Spirit as its own result, a product of itself: while "Spirit has its beginnings in nature in general,"
the extreme to which spirit tends is its freedom, its infinity, its being in and for itself. These are the two aspects but if we ask what Spirit is, the immediate answer is that it is this motion, this process of proceeding from, of freeing itself from, nature; this is the being, the substance of spirit itself. 32
Spirit is thus radically de-substantialized: Spirit is not a positive counter-force to nature, a different substance which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff, it is NOTHING BUT this process of freeing-itself-from. Hegel directly disowns the notion of Spirit as some kind of positive Agent which underlies the process:
Spirit is usually spoken of as subject, as doing something, and apart from what it does, as this motion, this process, as still something particular, its activity being more or less contingent /.../ it is of the very nature of spirit to be this absolute liveliness, this process, to proceed forth from naturality, immediacy, to sublate, to quit its naturality, and to come to itself, and to free itself, it being itself only as it comes to itself as such a product of itself; its actuality being merely that it has made itself into what it is. 33
If, then, "it is only as a result of itself that it is spirit," 34 this means that the standard talk about the Hegelian Spirit which alienates itself to itself and then recognizes itself in its otherness and thus reappropriates its content, is deeply misleading: the Self to which spirit returns is produced in the very movement of this return, or, that to which the process of return is returning to is produced by the very process of returning. Recall here the unsurpassed concise formulations from Hegel's Logic on how essence
presupposes itself and the sublating of this presupposition is essence itself; conversely, this sublating of its presupposition is the presupposition itself. Reflection therefore finds before it an immediate which it transcends and from which it is the return. But this return is only the presupposing of what reflection finds before it. What it thus found only comes to be through being left behind /.../. For the presupposition of the return-into-self - that from which essence comes, and is only as this return - is only in the return itself. 35
When Hegel says that a Notion is the result of itself, that it provides its own actualization, this claim which, in a first approach, cannot but appear extravagant (the notion is not simply a thought activated by the thinking subject, but posesses a magic property of self-movement...), is to be approached as it were from the opposite side: the Spirit as the spiritual substance is a substance, an In-itself, which sustains itself ONLY through the incessant activity of the subjects engaged in it. Say, a nation exists ONLY insofar as its members take themselves as members of this nation and act accordingly, it has absolutely no content, no substantial consistence, outside this activity; and the same goes for, say the notion of Communism - this notion "generates its own actualization" by way of motivating people to struggle for it.
The relation between Kant and Hegel is here very precise, and one should avoid the temptation to reducing it to the simple opposition between Kantian »ethical narcissism« and Hegelian trust in the ethical substance. It is with regard to the central place of salto mortale that Adorno moves too fast in his critical rejection of Kant's so-called »ethical narcissism,« the Kantian stance of following one's ethical principles independently of consequences in the real world, of rejecting consequences as the criterion of moral value as »pathological,« of insisting on the purity of my Will, of my intention, as the ultimate criterion. 36 The opposite view usually attributed to Hegel, the view that the »truth« of my acts is disclosed in its actual consequences, in the way it is received by (inscribed into) the ethical substance, is also problematic insofar as it presupposes a preestablished harmony between (individual) subject and substance, the fundamentally »benevolent« status of the substance. What if, however, I CANNOT fully recognize myself in the social substance - not because of my narcissism, but because the social substance of myself IS »evil,« and as such inverts all my acts into the opposite of what they intended to achieve? In other words, if the intention of my act is thwarted, should the entire blame be put on me? Hegel was well aware of this deadlock, which is why, in his Philosophy of Right, he admits that the »mob« has the right to revolt against "social substance."
It was Bernard Williams who formulated a third position, beyond the alternative »the purity of intention - actual consequences,« the alternative which focuses on the irreducible contingency of our situation, on how the value of our acts relies on an irreducible contingency - a scandalous result, because, against Kant, it clams that a pathological stain is irreducible to ethics, and, against Hegel, it rejects the trust into ethical substance. Williams 37 is unique in advocating a position which questions the Kantian universalist apriorism as well as utilitarianism - what these two opposed positions share is the idea of some "common currency," universal medium which allows us to judge all moral experiences, either the moral Law or utility. While being well aware of the limitation of utilitarianism (the reference to "greater good" can justify injustices to individuals), Williams, in his critique of "moral self-indulgence," also perceives the basic weakness of those who reject morally distasteful acts, even if they would benefit people (in contrast to a consequent utilitarian who can find strong reasons for doing something which he finds morally distasteful): there is always "the suspicion that what the agent cares about is not so much other people, as himself caring about other people." 38 His more fundamental point is directed against the partisans of “rational deliberation as directed to a life-plan," (Rawls, exemplarily), who insist that we are responsible to ourselves as one person over time, which is why a rational individual is always to act so that he need never blame himself no matter how things finally transpire. Williams' counter-argument is here dialectical in the strict Hegelian sense - he draws attention to how such a position ignores the fact that
what one does and the sort of life one leads condition one's later desires and judgments. The standpoint of that retrospective judge who will be my later self will be the product of my earlier choices. So there is no set of preferences both fixed and relevant, relative to which the various fillings of my life-space can be compared. 39
What this means is that temporality (and thereby contingency) are irreducible in moral judgments:
The perspective of deliberative choice on one's life is constitutively from here. Correspondingly the perspective of assessment with greater knowledge is necessarily from there, and not only can I not guarantee how factually it will be then, but I cannot ultimately guarantee from what standpoint of assessment my major and most fundamental regrets will be. 40
One should be careful not to miss the point here: one cannot guarantee it precisely because one cannot account in advance for how one's present acts will affect one's future retrospective view.
From this perspective, the Kantian emphasis on autonomy itself can be read not so much as an expression of "ethical narcissism," as, more, an acknowledgement of our unsurpassable limitation: since I always act in a situation which is ultimately opaque and thus cannot master the consequences of my acts, all I can do is to act with sincere intentions... Kant is thus not simply the ethical philosopher in stipulating that the purity of the inner intention is the only criterion of the moral character of my act: he is well aware that, in order for my moral activity to have any sense at all, we have to presuppose a deep affinity or harmony between our moral intentions and the objective structure of reality - therein resides the role of the postulates of pure practical reason. And it is here that the "moral luck" apparently excluded by Kant returns with a vengeance: Kant admits that we cannot effectively practice morality while constraining ourselves to only our inner intention, totally dismissing actual consequences - we are compelled to engage in a kind of "leap of faith" and commit ourselves to a fundamental trust into the friendly structure of reality. One cannot but recall here the wonderful "Soave sia il vento" trio from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, with its appeal to the "elements" (of the real) to respond benignly to our desires:
Gentle be the breeze,
calm be the waves,
and every element
to our desires. 41
- an appeal sustained by the suspicion that the there is no match between our desires and reality, that their discord is irreducible, that our desires themselves are in no way gentle, that they tend to explode in a violence and thus to provoke an even more violent answer of the Real.
If we read Kant in this way, focusing on the need to wage a salto mortale, then the opposition of autonomy and throwness/unaccountability loses its edge: the subject's throwness/unaccountability is the very condition of his autonomy. One should refer here to Lacan's logic of "non-all": the position of true autonomy is not "I am responsible for everything," but, rather, "there is nothing for which I am not responsible," the counterpart of which is "I am not responsible for All": precisely because I cannot have an overlook over All, there is nothing for which I can exempt myself from my responsibility. (And vice versa, of course: if I am responsible for everything, than there most be something for which I cannot be responsible.)
Another aspect of the thesis that contingency is irreducible in moral activity is the gap that forever separates MUST from OUGHT: "Ought is related to must as best is related to only." 42 We arrive at what we must do after a long and anxious consideration of alternatives, and "can have that belief while remaining uncertain about it, and still very clearly seeing the powerful merits of alternative courses." 43 This also opens up the space of manipulation, like when a bargaining partner or outright blackmailer say that "deplorably," this leaves him with no alternative to taking an unpleasant action. The falsity of this position resides in the fact that, when we "must" do something, it is not only that, within the limits that our situation sets to deliberation, we "cannot do otherwise but this": the character of a person is not only revealed in that he does what he must, but also "in the location of those limits, and in the very fact that one can determine, sometimes through deliberation itself, that one cannot do certain things, and must do others." 44 And one IS responsible for one's character, i.e., for the choice of coordinates which prevent me from doing some things and impel me to do others. This brings us to the Lacanian notion of act: in an act, I precisely redefine the very coordinates of what I cannot and must do.
When Lacan asserts that ethics belongs to the Real, is it not that, to put it in Kantian terms, he claims that, in our fleeting temporal phenomenal reality with no ultimate ontological grounding, the ethical, the unconditional demand of duty, is our only contact with the Eternal (noumenal)? The question is thus not simply that of how does Ought emerge out of Is, the positive order of Being, or of how to assert the ethical as external - irreducible - to the order of Being (the Levinasian topic of "beyond Being"), but that of the place of Ought within the very order of Being: within what ontology is the ethical dimension proper possible without being reduced to an epiphenomenon (in the style of Spinoza for whom Ought simply signals the limitation of our knowledge)? In other words, it is misleading to ask the question of how to overcome the gap that separates Being from the Ought, Sein from Sollen, facticity from the domain of norms: there is no need for an additional "synthesis" here - the question to be asked is rather: how does the dimension of Sollen emerge in the midst of Being, how does the positivity of Being engender the Ought. This explanation of how the GAP emerges is already the sought-for synthesis, in the same way that it is meaningless to supplant psychoanalysis with "psycho-synthesis" - psycho-ANALYSIS already IS this "synthesis."
1 Kieslowski on Kieslowski, edited by Danusia Stok, London: Faber and Faber 1993, p. 54-55.
2 Op. cit., p. 86.
3 For a more detailed account of this passage, see Chapter 1 of Slavoj Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears, London: BFI 2001.
4 The problem with “abstract" universal terms like hybridity and nomadic subjectivity is that they tend to nivellize, to render invisible, the antagonism that cuts across their content: when hybridity covers the globe-trotting academic as well as the refugee from a war torn country, it does something similar to obfuscating the gap that separates starving from dieting.
5 Rebecca Comay, "Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror," South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004), p. 393.
6 Op.cit., p. 392.
7 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, London: Verso Books 2002, p. 12.
8 See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London: Verso Books 1985.
9 In a homologous way, with regard to sexual difference, woman is not the polar opposite of man, there are women because man is not fully itself.
10 See F.W.J. Schelling, "Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom," in Philosophy of German Idealism, ed. by Ernst Behler, New York: Continuum 1987.
11 For a closer elaboration of this reflexive structure, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2003.
12 Gerard Wajcman, "The Birth of the Intimate (II)," lacanian ink 24-25, New York 2005, p. 44.
13 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, New York: Routledge 1992, p. 201. In one of the supreme cases of signifier's irony, the (real!) name of the big-breasted sex-symbol of today's Slovene pop music is Natalija Verboten - the German word for "prohibited": the Thing is not simply prohibited, it is immediately the very emblem of prohibition, its agent. Therein resides the reflexivity of prohibition: what is ultimately prohibited is the very agent of prohibition, NOT the Thing the access to which is prevented by this agent.
14 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, New York: Routledge 2002. p. 270.
15 Let us take an unexpected example: why do Visions de l'amen, Olivier Messiaen's masterpiece for two pianos from 1943, consist of seven movements? He himself mentions four main versions of Amen: the Amen of creation ("So be it!"), the Amen of acceptance (of the divine will by the creatures), the Amen of desire, the Amen of paradisical bliss - are these four not Lacan's four elements of discourse (S1, S2, $, a)? So why the other three? First, the Amen of acceptance is split into the Amen of creatures which pronounce their acceptance of their existence to their Creator ("Here we are, as you interpellated us!"), and the Amen of Christ's acceptance of his suffering by means of which he will redeem the creatures. Secondly, the Amen of desire is inherently split into two aspects/sides of desiring, the pure and peaceful spiritual longing and the frantic torment of passion; these two are then externalized in two further movements: the Amen of the song of angels, saints and birds (who exert pure spiritual desire), and the Amen of the day of Judgment (in which ordinary humans will pay the price for their sinful passions). The whole is thus structured in a perfect symmetrical way: in the middle, the Amen of desire, by far the longest movement marked by an inherent split and surrounded by two triads, God-Creatures-Christ (Master and the split of the acceptance of the Servant) and Angels-Judgment-Paradise (the division of the subject between pure and "pathological" desire and the reconciliation of the paradisical bliss). We begin with the One of the Master, followed by the triple split (of the serving creatures; of desire; of subjectivity), and conclude by the Sameness of paradisical bliss. Although deeply Christian, the structure of Visions de l'amen thus simultaneously renders the most elementary signifying structure.
16 See Ernesto Laclau, "The Populist Reason," Umbr(a) 2004.
17 See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, Volume 1, Moscow: Progress Publishers 1969, p. 95.
18 In a social link, affects (collective hatred, love of a Leader, panic, and other "passions") thus also cheat - except anxiety which (as Freud put it in his essay on "Fetishism" - see Sigmund Freud, Studienausgabe, Band III, Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag 2000, p. 384) arises when we experience the fact that "the throne is empty." Is, then, enthusiasm the opposite of anxiety? Is it simply that the relationship between anxiety and enthusiasm is that of a proper distance: in enthusiasm, the object remains at a proper distance, while anxiety arises when it gets too close?
19 Blinded as we all are with the "French" Spinoza in all his different guises, from Althusser through Deleuze to Negri, one should not forget OTHER readings of Spinoza which played a crucial role in theoretical orientations whose very mention gives shudder to "postmodern" Leftists. First, Spinoza was a crucial reference in the work of Georgi Plekhanov, the key theoretical figure of Russian Social Democracy, who, a century ago, was the first to evelate Marxism into an all-encompassing world-view (incidentally, he also coined the term "dialectical materialism) - against Hegel, he designated Marxism as "modern Spinozism"... Then, the reference to Spinoza is central for the work of Leo Strauss, the father figure of today's US neo-conservatives: for Strauss, Spinoza provides a model for the split between popular ideology appropriate for ordinary people and true knowledge that should remain accessible only to the few. Last but not least, Spinoza's anti-Cartesian teaching on the human soul is considered an authority among some most influential of today's cognitivists and brain scientists - Antonio Damasio even wrote a popular book Looking for Spinoza. It is thus as if every postmodern "French" figure of Spinoza is accompanied by an obscene disavowed double or precursor: Althusser's proto-Marxist Spinoza - "with Plekhanov"; Negri's anti-Empire Spinoza of the multitude - "with Leo Strauss"; Deleuze's Spinoza of affects - "with Damasio"...
20 Apropos Kant, Dieter Henrich deployed this same difference as the difference between person and subject - see Dieter Henrich, Bewusste Leben, Stuttgart: Reclam 1999, p. 199.
21 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1978, p. 173
22 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, New York: Anchor Books 1956, p. 255.
23 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, New York: Random House 1968, p. 288.
24 See Alenka Zupancic, The Shortest Shadow, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2004.
25 Rebecca Comay, Op. cit., p. 386.
26 G.W.F. Hegel, "Jenaer Realphilosophie," in Fruehe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204.
27 In more general terms, the spectral Real appears in three versions: the shadow of the spectral entities which accompanies fully constituted reality; the inscription of the gaze itself into the perceived reality; the multiplication of realities themselves, i.e. the idea that what we perceive as reality is just one in the multitude of alternatives. The link between these three versions is easy to establish: the gap which separates reality from its proto-ontological spectral shadow is not simply "ontological" (in the naïve sense of the inherent properties of the objects themselves); it concerns the way the subject relates to reality - in short, this gap marks the inscription of the subject's gaze into the perceived reality. To put it in standard Kantian terms, reality is accompanied by its spectral shadows only insofar as it is already in itself transcendentally constituted through the subject. And the moment gaze is included in the picture, we no longer have ONE fully constituted reality accompanied by its multiple shadows, but a multitude of realities which emerge against the background of the indistinct pre-ontological Real. The inscription of the gaze itself into the perceived reality is thus the "vanishing mediator" between the two extremes, the ONE reality accompanied by proto-ontological spectral shadows and MULTIPLE realities emerging out of the abyssal plasticity of the Real.
28 See Giorgio Agamben, L'ouvert, Paris: Payot et Rivages 2002, p. 57.
29 See Darian Leader, Stealing Mona Lisa, London: Faber and Faber 2002, p. 89.
30 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton 1979, p. 221.
31 G.W.H. Hegel, Hegel's Philosophie des subjektiven Geistes, Dordrecht: Riedel 1978, p. 6-7.
34 Hegel's Science of Logic, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International 1989, p. 402. Various nationalist movements with their striving to »return to the origins« are exemplary here: it is the very return to the »lost origins« which literally constitutes what was lost, and, in this sense, the Nation/notion - as a spiritual substance - is the "product of itself."
35 See Theodor W. Adorno, Nachgelassene Schriften, Bd.10, Probleme der Moralphilosophie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1996.
36 See Bernard Williams, Moral Luck, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press 1981.
37 Williams, op.cit., p. 45.
38 Williams, op.cit., p. 34.
39 Williams, Op.cit., p. 35.
40 Soave sia il vento, / Tranquilla sia l'onda / Ed ogni elemento / Benigno responda / Ai nostri desir. The trap one has to avoid here is that of reading this trio as a proof that Mozart was the last of the pre-modern (pre-Romantic) composers who still believed in the pre-established harmony between the turmoils of our inner lives and the ways of the world. On the contrary, Mozart was the first post-classicist, truly modern, composer: his appeal to the elements to respond gently to our desires already implies the Romantic gap between subjectivity and the ways of the world.
41 Williams, Op.cit., p. 125.
42 Williams, Op.cit., p. 126.
43 Williams, Op.cit., p. 130.
44 More closely, with regard to morals, Kant rejects both the rationalist notion of a transcendent (metaphysical or communal) substantial Good as well as the individualist-utilitarian notion of ethics grounded in the calculus of pleasures, profits and emotions - they are all "heteronomous." If we are to arrive at autonomous ethics, one should bracket BOTH communal substantial notions of Good and individual "pathological" pleasures and emotions.
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