. . . . . . From Proto-Reality to the Act •
. . . . . . . . . Slavoj Zizek
. . . . . . . . . Center for Theology and Politics

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Peter Dews' basic criticism of my reading of Schelling is that, by way of asserting the irreconcilable gap in all its guises-the distance that forever separates the radically inert, ahistorical Real from its ultimately delusive historicizations, the non-coincidence between the subject and the signifier, etc. - I remain blind to Schelling's basic thrust towards the deeper affinity between spirit and nature, and thus towards the possibility of reconciliation: the ultimate horizon of my reading is the incompatibility between the inert Real of the ground and the subject's freedom, while, already in his early philosophy of identity, Schelling's ultimate goal is to bring the two together, demonstrating how nature is the spirit unconscious of itself and spirit nature conscious of itself. The ultimate motif of this criticism is political: since my final horizon is that of an irreducible gap and tension, I am, despite my 'ostensibly left-wing stance', condemned to a vision of social life which is 'ultimately indistinguishable from the familiar forms of conservative Kulturkritik'. 1 Say, when I formulate today's tension between capitalist globalism and the fundamentalist/particularist reactions to it in the terms of the Schellingian opposition between expansion and contraction, I thereby condone a pessimist vision of the social life caught in a repetitious deadlock, without any prospect for the resolution of this tension. (Incidentally, this political sting, repeatedly made by Dews and propagated by others close to Radical Philosophy, this double suspicion or, rather, to put it bluntly, unproven insinuation that 1) in contrast to my 'official' leftist stance that I display in the Anglo- American West, parading there as a marxisant globetrotter, I show my true political colours in Slovenia, where I am advocating some dark irrationalist nationalism, and that 2) this irrationalist nationalism is philosophically grounded in (my version of) Lacanian theory, is the blind spot of Dews' philosophical argumentation, the point at which a disavowed, non-thematized, political passion erupts in the midst of philosophical argumentation.)

However, it is this very example (of today's tension between capitalist globalism and the fundamentalist/particularist reactions to it) which, when put in its context, belies Dews' criticism. The whole point of the chapter of The Indivisible Remainder 2 in which I deploy this example is that the tension/oscillation between expansion and contraction is not Schelling's last word: Schelling's notion of Ent-Scheidung, of the primordial decision/differentiation, designates precisely the act which breaks this vicious cycle of expansion/contraction. And my interpretation focuses on why Schelling repeatedly failed at this key point. Therein, perhaps, resides the central misunderstanding: the 'synthesis' between being and its ground is a pseudo-problem (in exactly the same way in which, from a strict Freudian view, it is meaningless to supplement psychoanalysis with 'psychosynthesis', as some revisionists tried to do). The problem Schelling was struggling with, the point of failure of the three consecutive drafts of Weltalter, was the very emergence of logos out of the vortex of the pre-ontological Real of drives, not the problem of how to bring the two dimensions together again.

It is here that we have to look for the central ambiguity of Schelling's thought: apropos of his claim that man's consciousness arises from the primordial act which separates the present/actual consciousness from the spectral, shadowy realm of the unconscious, one has to ask a seemingly naive, but crucial, question: what, precisely, is here unconscious? 'Unconscious' is not primarily the rotary motion of drives ejected into the eternal past; 'unconscious' is rather the very act of Ent-Scheidung by means of which drives were ejected into the past. Or, to put it in slightly different terms: what is truly 'unconscious' in man is not the immediate opposite of consciousness, the obscure and confused 'irrational' vortex of drives, but the very founding gesture of consciousness, the act of decision by means of which I 'choose myself', i.e., combine this multitude of drives into the unity of my self. 'Unconscious' is not the passive stuff of inert drives to be used by the creative 'synthetic' activity of the conscious ego; 'unconscious' in its most radical dimension is rather the highest deed of my self-positing, or, to resort to later 'existentialist' terms, the choice of my fundamental 'project' which, in order to remain operative, must be 'repressed', kept out of the light of day-or, to quote from the admirable last pages of the second draft of Weltalter:

The decision that in some manner is truly to begin must not be brought back to consciousness; it must not be called back, because this would amount to being taken back. If, in making a decision, somebody retains the right to reexamine his choice, he will never make a beginning at all. 3

What we encounter here is, of course, the logic of the 'vanishing mediator': of the founding gesture of differentiation which must sink into invisibility once the difference between the 'irrational' vortex of drives and the universe of logos is in place. The category of 'vanishing mediator' was introduced by Fredric Jameson apropos of Max Weber. 4 In political theory, the exemplary case of a 'vanishing mediator' is provided by the Hegelian notion of the historical hero who resolves the deadlock of the passage from the natural state of violence to the civil state of peace guaranteed by legitimate power. This passage cannot take place directly, in a continuous line, since there is no common ground, no intersection, between the state of natural violence and the state of civil peace; what is therefore needed is a paradoxical agent who, by means of violence itself, overcomes violence, i.e., the paradox of an act which retroactively establishes the conditions of its own legitimacy and thereby obliterates its violent character, transforming itself into a solemn founding act.

However, the supreme example of the 'vanishing mediator' is provided by the Jewish assertion of the unconditional iconoclastic monotheism: God is One, totally Other, with no human form. The commonplace position is here that pagan (pre-Jewish) gods were anthropomorphic (say, old Greek gods fornicated, cheated, and engaged in other ordinary human passions), while the Jewish religion, with its iconoclasm, was the first to thoroughly de-anthropomorphize divinity. What, however, if things are the exact opposite? What if the very need to prohibit man making images of God bears witness to the personification of God discernible in 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness' (Genesis 1.26) - what if the true target of Jewish iconoclastic prohibition is not previous pagan religions, but rather its own anthropomorphization/ personification of God? What if Jewish religion itself generates the excess it has to prohibit? It is the Jewish God who is the first fully personified God, a God who says 'I am who I am'. In other words, iconoclasm and other Jewish prohibitions do not relate to the pagan Otherness, but to the violence of Judaism's own imaginary excess-in pagan religions, such prohibition would have been simply meaningless. Making images has to be prohibited not because of the pagans; its true reason is the premonition that, if the Jews were to do the same as the pagans, something horrible would have emerged (a hint of this horror is given in Freud's hypothesis about the murder of Moses, this traumatic event on the denial of which the Jewish identity is raised). The prohibition to make images is therefore equivalent to the Jewish disavowal of the primordial crime: the primordial parricide is the ultimate fascinating image. 5 (What, then, does the Christian assertion of the unique image of the crucified Christ stand for?) 6

Anthropomorphism and iconoclasm are thus not simple opposites: it is not that pagan religions depict gods as simple larger-than-life human persons, while Judaism prohibits such a depiction. It is only with Judaism that God is fully anthropomorphized, that the encounter with Him is the encounter with another person in the fullest sense of the term-the Jewish God experiences full wrath, revengefulness, jealousy, etc., as every human being. This is why one is prohibited to make images of Him: not because an image would humanize the purely spiritual Entity, but because it would render it all too faithfully, as the ultimate neighbour-Thing. 7 Christianity only goes to the end in this direction by asserting not only the likeness of God and man, but their direct identity in the figure of Christ: no wonder man looks like God, since a man - Christ - is God. With its central notion of Christ as man-God, Christianity just makes 'for itself' the personification of God in Judaism. According to the standard notion, pagans were anthropomorphic, Jews were radically iconoclastic, and Christianity accomplishes a kind of synthesis, a partial regression to paganism, by introducing the ultimate icon-to-erase- all-other-icons, that of the suffering Christ. Against this commonplace, one should assert that it is the Jewish religion that remains an 'abstract/immediate' negation of anthropomorphism, and, as such, attached to it, determined by it in its very direct negation, whereas it is only Christianity that effectively 'sublates' paganism. The Christian stance is here: instead of prohibiting the image of God, why not, precisely, allow it, and thus render Him as just another human being, as a miserable man indiscernible from other humans with regard to his intrinsic properties? If one is permitted to indulge in a sacrilegious parallel, science-fiction horror movies practise two modes to render the alien Thing: either the Thing is wholly Other, a monster whose sight one cannot endure, usually a mixture of reptile, octopus and machine (like, precisely, the alien from Ridley Scott's film of the same name), or it is exactly the same as we, ordinary humans - with, of course, some 'barely nothing' which allows us to identify Them (the strange glimpse in their eyes; too much skin between their fingers...). Christ is fully a man only in so far as he takes upon himself the excess/remainder, the 'too much' on account of which a man, precisely, is never fully a man: his formula is not man = God, but man = man, where the divine dimension intervenes only as that 'something' which prevents the full identity of man to himself. In this sense, Christ's appearance itself effectively stands for God's death: with it, it becomes clear that God is nothing but the excess of man, the 'too much' of life which cannot be contained in any life form, which violates the shape (morphe) of anthropomorphism.

To put it in an even more pointed way: pagans were not celebrating images, they were well aware that the images they were making remained inadequate copies of the true divinity (recall the old Hindu statues of gods with dozens of hands, etc. - a clear example of how any attempt to render divinity in a sensual/material form fails by way of turning into a half-ridiculous exaggeration). In contrast to the pagans, it was the Jews themselves who believed/assumed that the (sensual/material) image of the divine Person would show too much, rendering visible some horrifying secret better left in shadow, which is why they had to prohibit it - the Jewish prohibition only has sense against the background of this fear that the image would reveal something shattering, that, in an unbearable way, it would be true and adequate. The same goes for the Christians: when already Saint Augustine opposed Christianity, the religion of love, to Judaism, the religion of anxiety, when he conceived of the passage from Judaism to Christianity as the passage from anxiety to love, he (again) projected onto Judaism the disavowed founding gesture of Christianity itself - what Christianity endeavours to overcome through the reconciliation in love is its own constitutive excess, the unbearable anxiety opened up by the experience of the impotent God who failed in His work of creation, i.e., to refer yet again to Hegel, the traumatic experience of how the enigma of God is also the enigma for God Himself - our failure to comprehend God is what Hegel called a 'reflexive determination' of the divine self-limitation.

And the same goes for the standard opposition between the Cartesian self-transparent subject of thought and the Freudian subject of the unconscious, which is perceived as anti-Cartesian, as undermining the Cartesian 'illusion' of rational identity. One should bear in mind that the opposite by reference to which a certain position asserts itself is this position's own presupposition, its own inherent excess (as is the case with Kant: the notion of diabolical evil which he rejects is only possible within the horizon of his own transcendental revolution). The point here is not so much that the Cartesian cogito is the presupposed 'vanishing mediator' of the Freudian subject of the unconscious (a thought worth pursuing), but that the subject of the unconscious is already operative in the Cartesian cogito as its own inherent excess: in order to assert the cogito as the self- transparent 'thinking substance', one has to pass through the excessive point of madness which designates the cogito as the vanishing abyss of substanceless thought. Along the same lines, the Jewish/Christian openness to the Other ('Love thy neighbour!') is thoroughly different from the pagan tribal hospitality: while the pagan hospitality relies on the clear opposition between the self-enclosed domain of my community and the external Other, what reverberates in the Jewish/Christian openness is a reaction against the traumatic recognition of the neighbour as the unfathomable abyssal Thing-the alien Thing is my closest neighbour himself, not the foreigner visiting my home. In Hegelese, the Jewish/Christian openness involves the logic of 'positing its presuppositions': it invites us to remain open towards an Otherness which is experienced as such only within its own horizon.

Kant and Freud both claim to repeat the Copernican turn in their respective domains. With regard to Freud, the meaning of this reference seems clear and simple: in the same way Copernicus demonstrated that our earth is not the centre of the universe, but a planet revolving around the sun, and in this sense 'decentred', turning around another centre, Freud also demonstrated that the (conscious) ego is not the centre of the human psyche, but ultimately an epiphenomenon, a satellite turning around the true centre, the unconscious or the id. With Kant, things are more ambiguous-at first, it cannot but appear that he actually did the exact opposite of the Copernican turn: is not the key premise of his transcendental approach that the conditions of possibility of our experience of the objects are at the same time the conditions of possibility of these objects themselves, so that, instead of a subject which, in its cognition, has to accommodate itself to some external, 'decentred', measure of truth, the objects have to follow the subject, i.e., it is the subject itself which, from its central position, constitutes the objects of knowledge? However, if one reads Kant's reference to Copernicus closely, one cannot fail to notice how Kant's emphasis is not on the shift of the substantial fixed centre, but on something quite different-on the status of the subject itself:

We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. 8

The precise German terms (die Zuschauer sich drehen - not so much 'turn around another centre' as 'turn/rotate around themselves' 9) make it clear what interests Kant: the subject loses its substantial stability/identity and is reduced to the pure substanceless void of the self-rotating abyssal vortex called 'transcendental apperception'. And it is against this background that one can locate Lacan's 'return to Freud': to put it as succinctly as possible, what Lacan does is to read the Freudian reference to the Copernican turn in the original Kantian sense, as asserting not the simple displacement of the centre from the ego to the id or the unconscious as the 'true' substantial focus of the human psyche, but the transformation of the subject itself from the self-identical substantial ego, the psychological subject full of emotions, instincts, dispositions, etc., to what Lacan called the 'barred subject ($)', the vortex of the self-relating negativity of desire. In this precise sense, the subject of the unconscious is none other than the Cartesian cogito. The same logic of 'reflexive determination' is at work in the passage from revolutionary terror (absolute freedom) to the Kantian moral subject in Hegel's Phenomenology (582ff.): the revolutionary subject experiences itself as mercilessly exposed to the whim of the terrorist regime-anyone can at any moment be arrested and put to death as 'traitor'. Of course, the passage to moral subjectivity occurs when this external terror is internalized by the subject as the terror of the moral law, of the voice of conscience. However, what is often overlooked is that, for this internalization to take place, the subject has to profoundly transform its identity: the subject has to renounce the very kernel of its contingent individuality, and to accept that the centre of its identity resides in its universal moral consciousness. In other words, it is only in so far as I cling to my contingent idiosyncratic identity as to the core of my being that I experience the universal law as the abstract negativity of an alien power that threatens to annihilate me; in this precise sense, the internalization of the law is merely the 'reflexive determination' of the shift that affects the core of my own identity. It is not the law which changes from the agency of external politcal terror to the pressure of the inner voice of conscience; this change merely reflects the change in my identity. Perhaps, something similar occurs in the passage from Judaism to Christianity: what changes in this passage is not the content (the status of God), but primarily the identity of the believer him- or herself, and the change in God (no longer the transcendent Other, but Christ) is just the 'reflexive determination' of this change.

Is this not also the implicit lesson of Thomas Hobbes' key insight apropos of the social contract? In order to be effective, the limitation of individuals' sovereignty - when they agree to transpose it onto the figure of the sovereign and thus end the state of war and introduce civic peace-must bestow unlimited power to the person of the sovereign. It is not enough to have the rule of the laws on which we all agree and which then regulate the interaction between individuals in order to avoid the war of all against all that characterizes the state of nature: for the laws to be operative, there must be a One, a person with the unlimited power to decide what the laws are. Mutually recognized rules are not enough-there must be a master to enforce them. Therein resides the properly dialectical paradox of Hobbes: he starts with the individual's unlimited right to self- preservation, contained by no duties (I have the unalienable right to cheat, steal, lie, kill... if my survival is at stake), and he ends up with the sovereign who has the unlimited power to dispose of my life, the sovereign whom I experience not as the extension of my own will, as the personification of my ethical substance, but as an arbitrary foreign force. This external unlimited power is precisely the 'reflexive determination' of my egotist subjective stance-the way to overcome it is to change my own identity...

However, back to Schelling, the radical breakthrough of his philosophy resides in the very notion of the proto-ontological domain of drives: this domain is not simply nature, but the spectral domain of the not-yet-fully-constituted reality. Schelling's opposition of the Real of drives (the ground of being) and being itself thus radically displaces the standard philosophical couples of nature and spirit, the real and the idea, existence and essence, etc. This notion is crucial not only with regard to the history of ideas, but even with regard to art and our daily experience of reality. Recall the extended stains which 'are' the yellow sky in late Van Gogh or the water or grass in Munch: this uncanny 'massiveness' pertains neither to the direct materiality of the colour stains nor to the materiality of the depicted objects-it dwells in a kind of intermediate spectral domain that Schelling called geistige Koerperlichkeit, spiritual corporeality.

Perhaps the most fruitful reverberations of this notion are to be found in the topic of alternate realities in modem narratives. Say, the universe of alternate realities in Krzysztof Kieslowski's films is thoroughly ambiguous. On the one hand, its lesson seems to be that we live in a world of alternate realities in which, as in a cyberspace game, when one choice leads to a catastrophic ending, we can return to the starting point and make another, better, choice - what was the first time a suicidal mistake, can be the second time done in the correct way, so that the opportunity is not missed. In The Double Life of Veronique, Veronique learns from Weronika, avoids the suicidal choice of singing and survives; in Red, Auguste avoids the mistake of the judge; even White ends with the prospect of Karol and his French bride getting a second chance and remarrying. The very title of Annette Insdorf's recent book on Kieslowski (Double Lives, Second Chances) points in this direction: the other life is here to give us a second chance, i.e., 'repetition becomes accumulation, with a prior mistake as a base for successful action'. 10 However, while this universe sustains the prospect of repeating past choices and thus retrieving missed opportunities, it can also be interpreted in the opposite, much darker, way. There is a material feature of Kies_lowski's films which has long attracted the attention of perspicacious critics; suffice it to recall the use of filters in A Short Film about Killing:

The city and its surroundings are shown in a specific way. The lighting cameraman on this film, Slawek Idziak, used filters which he'd made specially. Green filters so that the colour in the film is specifically greenish. Green is supposed to be the colour of spring, the colour of hope, but if you put a green filter on the camera, the world becomes much crueller, duller and emptier. 11

Furthermore, in A Short Film about Killing, the filters are used 'as a kind of mask, darkening parts of the image which Kies_lowski and Idziak did not wish to show'. 12 This procedure of having 'large chunks smogged out' 13 - not as part of the formulaic depiction of a dream or a vision, but in shots rendering the grey everyday reality-directly evokes the Gnostic notion of the universe which was created imperfect and is as such not yet fully constituted. The closest one can get to this notion in reality is, perhaps, the countryside in extreme places like Iceland or the Land of Fire at the southernmost point of Latin America: patches of grass and wild hedges are interspersed by barren raw earth or gravel, fissures out of which sulphuric steam and fire gush out, as if the pre- ontological primordial chaos is still able to penetrate the cracks of the imperfectly constituted/formed reality.

Kieslowski's universe is a Gnostic universe, a not-yet-fully-constituted universe created by a perverse and confused, idiotic God who screwed up the work of creation, producing an imperfect world, and then trying to save whatever can be saved by repeated new attempts-we are all 'children of a lesser God'. In mainstream Hollywood itself, this uncanny in-between dimension is clearly discernible in what is arguably the most effective scene in Alien 4: Resurrection: the cloned Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) enters the laboratory room in which the previous seven aborted attempts to clone her are on display-here she encounters the ontologically failed, defective versions of herself, up to the almost successful version with her own face, but with some of her limbs distorted so that they resemble the limbs of the alien Thing-this creature asks Ripley to kill her, and, in an outburst of violent rage, Ripley effectively destroys the entire horror show... This idea of multiple imperfect universes can be discerned at two levels in Kies_lowski's oeuvre: 1) the botched character of reality is depicted in his films, as well as the ensuing repeated attempts to (re-)create a new, better, reality; 2) with regard to Kieslowski himself as author, we also have the repeated attempts to tell the same story in a slightly different way (not only the difference between TV and movie versions of Dekalog 5 and 6, but also his idea to make 20 different versions of Veronique and play them in different theatres in Paris - a different version for each theatre). In this eternally repeated rewriting, the 'quilting point' is forever missing: there never is a final version, the work is never done and actually put in circulation, delivered from the author to the big Other of the public. (Is the recent fashion of the later release of the allegedly more authentic 'director's cut' not also part of the same economy?) What does this absence of the final version mean - this everlasting deferral of the moment when, like God after His six days of work, the author can say 'It's done!' and take a rest?

The 'virtualization' of our life experience, the explosion/dehiscence of the single 'true' reality into the multitude of parallel lives, is strictly correlative to the assertion of the proto-cosmic abyss of chaotic, ontologically not-yet-fully-constituted reality-this primordial, pre-symbolic, inchoate 'stuff' is the very neutral medium in which the multitude of parallel universes can coexist. In contrast to the standard notion of one, fully determined and ontologically constituted reality, with regard to which all other realities are its secondary shadows, copies, reflections, 'reality' itself is thus multiplied into the spectral plurality of virtual realities, beneath which lurks the pre-ontological proto-reality, the Real of the unformed ghastly matter-and, as we have seen, the first to clearly articulate this pre-ontological dimension was Schelling with his notion of the unfathomable ground of God, something in God that is not-yet-God, not yet the fully constituted reality.

This paper was first published Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 5 (2000), 141-48; it was written in response to Peter Dews, 'The Eclipse of Coincidence', Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 4 (1999), 13-23.


1 Dews, 'The Eclipse of Coincidence', 22.
2 Slavoj Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (London and New York: Verso, 1996), 13-91.
3 F.W.J. von Schelling, Die Weltalter (second draft 1813), trans. Judith Norman, in Slavoj Zizek and F.W.J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 182.
4 Fredric Jameson, 'The Vanishing Mediator; or, Max Weber as Storyteller', in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986. Volume 2: Syntax of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 3-34.
5 See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta: Figures of Wagner, trans. Felicia McCarren (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).
6 Similar is the case of Nazi anti-Semitism: the standard (pseudo-) explanation for the growing acceptance of Nazi ideology in the Germany of the 1920s is that the Nazis were deftly manipulating ordinary middle-class people's fears and anxieties generated by the economic crisis and fast social changes. The problem with this explanation is that it overlooks the self-referential circularity at work here: yes, the Nazis certainly did deftly manipulate fears and anxieties- however, far from being simple pre-ideological facts, these fears and anxieties were already the product of a certain ideological perspective. In other words, Nazi ideology itself (co-)generated anxieties and fears against which it then proposed itself as a solution.
7 Along these lines, one is tempted to claim that Judaism is caught in the paradox of prohibiting what is already in itself impossible: if one cannot render God through images, why prohibit images? To claim that, by making images of Him, we do not show a proper respect for Him, is all too simple, since, as we know from psychoanalysis, respect is ultimately the respect for the Other's weakness - to treat someone with respect means that one maintains a proper distance towards him/her, avoiding acts which, if accomplished, would unmask his/her stance as an imposture. Say, when a father boasts to his son that he could run fast, the respectful thing to do is not to defy him to do it, since this would reveal his impotence. In other words, the idea that iconoclasm expresses respect for the divine Other makes sense only as the indication of the divine Other's impotence or limitation.
8 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. J.M.D. Meiklejohn (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1934), 12.
9 For a good account of the incorrect translations of this key passage, see Gerard Guest, La tournure de l'événement (Berlin: Duncker und Humboldt, 1994).
10 Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances. The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Miramax, 1999), 165.
11 Danusia Stok (ed.), Kieslowski on Kieslowski (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), 161.
12 Charles Eidsvik, 'Dekalog 5 and 6 and the Two Short Films', in Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, ed. Paul Coates (Trowbridge: Flick, 1999), 85.
13 Eidsvik, 'Dekalog 5 and 6 and the Two Short Films', 85.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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