......• Do We Still Live in a World? •

.............Slavoj Zizek

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In his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan invokes the "point of the apocalypse," the impossible saturation of the Symbolic by the Real of jouissance, the full immersion into massive jouissance. The same point can be made in Nietzschean terms - what is effectively Nietzsche’s eternal return of the same? Does it stand for the factual repetition, for the repetition of the past which should be willed as it was, or for a Benjaminiam repetition, a return-reactualization of that which was lost in the past occurrence, of its virtual excess, of its redemptive potential? There are good reasons to read it as the heroic stance of endorsing factual repetition: recall how Nietzsche emphatically points out that, when faced with every event of my life, even the most painful one, I should gather the strength to joyfully will for it to return eternally. If we read the thought of eternal return in this way, then Giorgio Agamben’s evocation of the holocaust as the conclusive argument against the eternal return retains its full weight: who can will it to return eternally? What, however, if we reject the notion of the eternal return of the same as the repetition of the reality of the past, insofar as it relies on an all too primitive notion of the past, on the reduction of the past to the one-dimensional reality of "what really happened," which erases the virtual dimension of the past? If we read the eternal return of the same as the redemptive repetition of the past virtuality? In this case, applied to the nightmare of the holocaust, the Nietzschean eternal return of the same means precisely that one should will the repetition of the potential which was lost through the reality of the holocaust, the potential whose non-actualization opened up the space for the holocaust to occur.

In order to grasp properly what takes place here, one has to take a detour through what Lacan called la jouissance de l’Autre – what is this mysterious jouissance? Imagine (a real clinical case, though) two love partner who excite each other by verbalizing, telling to each other, their innermost sexual fantasies to such a degree that they reach full orgasm without touching, just as the effect of "mere talking." The result of such excess of intimacy is not difficult to guess: after such a radical mutual exposure, they will no longer be able to maintain their amorous link – too much was being said, or, rather, the spoken word, the big Other, was too directly flooded by jouissance, so the two are embarrassed by each other’s presence and slowly drift apart, start to avoid each other’s presence. THIS, not a full perverse orgy, is the true excess: not "practicing your innermost fantasies instead of just talking about them," but, precisely, TALKING about them, allowing them to invade the medium of the big Other to such an extent that one can literally "fuck with words," that the elementary, constitutive, barrier between language and jouissance breaks down. Measured by this standard, the most extreme "real orgy" is a poor substitute.

And it is this dimension of the jouissance of the Other that is threatened by the prospect of "pure" jouissance. Is such a short-circuit not the basic and most disturbing feature of consuming drugs to generate experience of enjoyment? What drugs promise is a purely autistic jouissance, a jouissance accessible without the detour through the Other (of the symbolic order) – jouissance generated not by fantasmatic representations, but by directly attacking our neuronal pleasure-centers? It is in this precise sense that drugs involve the suspension of symbolic castration, whose most elementary meaning is precisely that jouissance is only accessible through the medium of (as mediated by) symbolic representation. This brutal Real of jouissance is the obverse of the infinite plasticity of imagining, no longer constrained by the rules of reality. Significantly, the experience of drugs encompasses both these extremes: on the one hand, the Real of noumenal (non-schematized) jouissance which by-passes representations; on the other hand, the wild proliferation of fantasizing (recall the proverbial reports on how, after taking a drug, you imagine scenes you never thought you were able to access – new dimensions of shapes, colors, smells...).

There is, however, another problem with the eternal return of the same. What would the digital virtualization of our lives, the shift of our identity from hardware to software, our change from finite mortals to "undead" virtual entities able to persist indefinitely, migrating from one to another material support, in short: the passage from human to posthuman, mean in Nietzschean terms? Is this posthumanity a version of the eternal return? Is the digital posthuman subject a version (a historical actualization) of the Nietzschean "overman"? Or is this digital version of posthumanity a version of what Nietzsche called Last Man? What if it is, rather, the point of indistinction of the two, and, as such, a signal of the limitation of Nietzsche’s thought? In other words, is the eternal return rooted in the human finitude (since the gap between virtuality and actuality only persists from the horizon of finitude), or does it stand for our uncoupling from finitude?

When today’s subjectivity is celebrated as rootless, migratory, nomadic, hybrid, etc., does not digitalization provide the ultimate horizon of this migration, that of the fateful shift of hardware into software, i.e., of cutting the link that attaches a mind to its fixed material embodiment (a single individual’s brain), and of downloading the entire content of a mind into a computer, with the possibility of the mind turning into a software that can indefinitely migrate from one to another material embodiment and thus acquiring a kind of undeadness. The metempsychosis, the migration of souls, thus becomes a question of technology. The idea is that "we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals": by uploading yourself into a computer, you become "anything you like. You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air; you can walk through walls." [1] In the good old Freudian terms, we thus get rid of the minimum of resistance that defines (our experience of) reality, and enter the domain in which pleasure principle reigns unconstrained, with no concessions to the reality principle, or, as David Pearce put it in his quite appropriately titled book The Hedonistic Imperative:

/.../ nanotechnology and genetic engineering will eliminate aversive experience from the living world. Over the next thousand years or so, the biological substrates of suffering will be eradicated completely," since we shall achieve "the neuro-chemical precision engineering of happiness for every sentient organism on the planet. [2]

(Note the Buddhist overtones of this passage!) And, of course, since one of the definition of being-human is that disposing of shit is a problem, part of this new posthumanity will also be that dirt and shit will disappear:

/.../ a superman must be cleaner than a man. In the future, our plumbing (of the thawed as well as the newborn) will be more hygienic and seemly. Those who choose to will consume only zero-residue foods, with excess water all evaporating via the pores. Alternatively, modified organs may occasionally expel small, dry compact residues. [3]

Next comes the confused functions of our orifices: is the multi-purpose mouth" not "awkward and primitive"? – "An alien would find it most remarkable that we had an organ combining the requirements of breathing, ingesting, tasting, chewing, biting, and on occasion fighting, helping to threat needles, yelling, whistling, lecturing, and grimacing" – not to mention kissing, licking and sucking, thioralerotic confusion… Is the ultimate target here not penis itself, with its embarrassing overlapping of the highest (insemination) with the lowest (urination)?

With the prospect of the biogenetic manipulation of human physical and psychic features, the notion of "danger" inscribed into modern technology, elaborated by Heidegger, turned into a common currency. Heidegger emphasizes how the true danger is not the physical self-destruction of humanity, the threat that something will go terribly wrong with biogenetic interventions, but, precisely, that NOTHING will go wrong, that genetic manipulations will function smoothly – at this point, the circle will in a way be closed and the specific openness that characterizes being-human abolished. That is to say, is the Heideggerian danger /Gefahr/ not precisely the danger that the ontic will "swallow" the ontological (with the reduction of man, the Da /here/ of Being, to just another object of science)? Do we not encounter here again the formula of fearing the impossible: what we fear is that what cannot happen (since the ontological dimension is irreducible to the ontic) will nonetheless happen… And the same point is made in more common terms by cultural critics from Fukuyama and Habermas to McKibben worried about how the latest techno-scientific developments (which potentially made the human species able to redesign and redefine itself) will affect our being-human – the call we hear is best encapsulated by the title of McKibben’s book: "enough." [4] Humanity as a collective subject has to put a limit and freely renounce further "progress" in this direction. McKibben endeavors to empirically specify this limit: somatic genetic therapy is still this side of the enough point, one can practice it without leaving behind the world as we’ve known it, since we just intervene into a body formed in the old "natural" way; germline manipulations lie on the other side, in the world beyond meaning. When we manipulate psychic and bodily properties of individuals before they are even conceived, we pass the threshold into full-fledged planning, turning individuals into products, preventing them from experiencing themselves as responsible agents who have to educate/form themselves by the effort of focusing their will, thus obtaining the satisfaction of achievement - such individuals no longer relate to themselves as responsible agents… The insufficiency of this reasoning is double. First, as Heidegger would have put it, the survival of being-human of humans cannot depend on an ontic decision of humans. Even if we try to define the limit of the permissible in this way, the true catastrophe already happened: we already experience ourselves as in principle manipulable, we just freely renounce to fully deploy these potentials. But the crucial point is that, not only will with biogenetic planning our universe of meaning disappear, i.e., not only are the utopian descriptions of the digital paradise wrong, since they imply that meaning will persist; the opposite, negative, descriptions of the "meaningless" universe of technological self-manipulation is also the victim of a perspective fallacy, it also measures the future with inadequate present standards. That is to say, the future of technological self-manipulation only appears as "deprived of meaning" if measured by (or, rather, from within the horizon of) the traditional notion of what a meaningful universe is. Who knows what this "posthuman" universe will reveal itself to be "in itself"? What if there is no singular and simple answer, what if the contemporary trends (digitalization, biogenetic self-manipulation) open themselves up to a multitude of possible symbolizations? What if the utopia – the pervert dream of the passage from hardware to software of a subjectivity freely floating between different embodiments - and the dystopia - the nightmare of humans voluntarily transforming themselves into programmed beings - are just the positive and the negative of the same ideological fantasy? What if it is only and precisely this technological prospect that fully confronts us with the most radical dimension of our finitude?

Today’s politics is more and more the politics of jouissance, concerned with the ways of soliciting or controlling and regulating jouissance. Is the entire of opposition between the liberal/tolerant West and the fundamentalist Islam not condensed in the opposition between, on the one side, the woman’s right to free sexuality, inclusive of the freedom to display/expose oneself and provoke/disturb man, and, on the other side, the desperate male attempts to eradicate or, at least, keep under control this threat (recall the ridiculous Taliban prohibition of metal heels for women – as if, even if women are entirely covered with cloth, the clinging sound of their heels would still provoke men)? And, of course, both sides ideologically/morally mystify their position: for the liberal West, the right to provocatively expose oneself to male desire is legitimized as the right to freely dispose of one’s body and to enjoy it as one wants, while for Islam, the control of feminine sexuality is, of course, legitimized as the defense of woman’s dignity against the threat of being reduced to an object of male sexual exploitation. So while, when the French State prohibited women to wear veils in the school, one can claim that, in this way, they were enabled to dispose of their body, one can also point out how the true traumatic point for the critics of Muslim "fundamentalism" was that there were women who did not participate in the game of making their bodies disposable for sexual seduction, for the social circulation/exchange involved in it. In one way or another, all other issues relate to this one: gay marriage and their right to adopt children, divorce, abortion… What the two opposite attitudes share is the extreme disciplinary approach, which is in each case differently directed: "fundamentalists" regulate in detail the feminine self-presentation to prevent sexual provocation; PC feminist liberals impose a no less severe regulation of behavior aimed at containing different forms of harassment.

In some "radical" circles in the US, a proposal to "rethink" the rights of necrophiliacs (those who desire to have sex with dead bodies) recently started to circulate – why should they be deprived of it? So the idea was formulated that, in the same way people sign permission for their organs to be use for medical purposes in the case of their sudden death, one should also allow them to sign the permission for their bodies to be given to necrophiliacs to play with them… Is this proposal not the perfect exemplification of how the PC stance realizes Kierkegaard’s old insight into how the only good neighbor is a dead neighbor? A dead neighbor – a corpse – is the ideal sexual partner of a "tolerant" subject trying to avoid any harassment: by definition, a corpse cannot be harassed; at the same time, a dead body DOES NOT ENJOY, so the disturbing threat of the excess-enjoyment to the subject playing with the corpse is also eliminated...

However, one should add a qualification here. What we have today is not so much the POLITICS of jouissance but, more precisely, the REGULATION (administration) of jouissance which is stricto sensu post-political. Jouissance is in itself limitless, the obscure excess of the unnameable, and the task is to regulate this excess. The clearest sign of the reign of biopolitics is the obsession with the topic of "stress": how to avoid stressful situations, how to "cope" with them. "Stress" is our name for the excessive dimension of life, for the "too-muchness" to be kept under control. (For this reason, today, more than ever, the gap that separates psychoanalysis from therapy imposes itself in all its brutality: if one wants therapeutic improvement, one will effectively get a much faster and efficient help from a combination of behavioral-cognitivist therapies and chemical treatment (pills).

How, then, are we to draw the line of distinction between the two excesses: the excess of the Fascist spectacle, of its passion with regard to the "normal" bourgeois life, or, today, the excess that pertains to "normal" capitalist reproduction itself, its constant self-revolutionizing; and the excess of Life itself? This duality reflects itself in the ambiguous status of the "undead": undeadness is simultaneously the name for the excess of drive AND the name for the vampyric pseudo-excess covering up the fact that "we are not really alive." Perhaps, the way to distinguish the constitutive ontological excess from the obscene excess-supplement is, again, by means of the logic of non-all, i.e., with regard to its relationship to the presupposed "normality": the obscene excess is the excess of exception which sustains "normality," while the radical ontological excess is a "pure" excess, excess to nothing, the paradox of an excess "as such," of something which is in itself excessive, with no presupposed normality.

The superego imperative to enjoy thus functions as the reversal of Kant’s Du kannst, denn du sollst! (You can, because you must!) – it relies on a "You must because you can!". That is to say, the superego aspect of today’s "non-repressive" hedonism (the constant provocation we are exposed to, enjoining us to go to the end and explore all modes of jouissance) resides in the way permitted jouissance necessarily turns into obligatory jouissance. However, the question here is: does the capitalist injunction to enjoy effectively aim at soliciting jouissance in its excessive character, or are we ultimately rather dealing with a kind of universalized pleasure-principle, with a life dedicated to pleasures? In other words, are the injunctions to have a good time, to acquire self-realization and self-fulfilment, etc., not precisely injunctions to AVOID the excessive jouissance, to find a kind of homeostatic balance? Are Dalai-Lama’s advices not advices how to maintain a balanced "proper measure" and avoid the disturbing extremes? The situation is here more complex: the problem is that, although the immediate and explicit injunction calls for the rule of pleasure-principle that would maintain homeostasis, the effective functioning of the injunction explodes these constraints into a striving towards excessive enjoyment.

Addendum on Badiou and his Logics of Worlds (Logiques des mondes)

There is no final solution on the horizon today, Capital is here to stay, all we can hope for is a temporary truce. That is to say, undoubtedly worse that this deadlock would have been a pseudo Deleuzian celebration of the successful revolt of the multitude.

There is a nice Hitchcockian detail in Finding Nemo: when the monstrous daughter of the dentist enters her father's office in which there is the aquarium with fishes, the music is that of the murder scene from Psycho. The link is more refined than the idea that the girl is a horror to small helpless animals: at the scene's end, Nemo escapes by being thrown into the wash basin hole. This is his passage from the world of the humans to his own life world (he ends up in the sea close to the building, where he rejoins his father), and we all know the key role of the motif of the hole in which water disappears in Psycho (the fade out of the water disappearing in this hole to Marion's dead eye, etc.). The hole in the wash basin thus functions as a secret passage way between the two totally disparate universes, the human one and the one of the fishes. This is true multiculturalism, this acknowledgement that the only way to pass to the Other's world is through what, in our world, appears as the shit exit, as the hole into the dark domain, excluded from our everyday reality, into which excrements disappear. The radical disparity of the two worlds is noted in a series of details-say, when the father dentist catches the small Nemo into his net, he thinks he saved Nemo, from certain death, failing to perceive that what made Nemo so terrified that he appeared on the brink of death was his own presence... However, the wager of the notion of Truth is that this obscene-unnameable link, secret channel, between worlds is not enough: there is a genuine "universal" Truth that cuts across the multitude of worlds.

Badiou's elaboration of the topic of world, the "logic of worlds" comes from his deeper insight into capitalism. The concept of world was necessitated by the need to think the unique status of the capitalist universe as worldless. He declares that our time is "devoid of world," [5] showing a distinct perception of how to understand the notion of capitalist globalization. Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global "capitalist world view," no "capitalist civilization'' proper, the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu and Buddhist); its global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth without meaning, as the "real" of the global market mechanism. Consequently, insofar as capitalism already enacts the rupture between meaning and truth, it can be opposed at two levels: either at the level of meaning (conservative reactions to re-frame capitalism into some social field of meaning, to contain its self-propelling movement within the confines of a system of shared "values'' which cement a "community" in its "organic unity") , or to question the real of capitalism with regard to its truth-outside meaning (what, basically, Marx did).

Another problem arises apropos truth: if, for Badiou, the truth event is always local, the truth of a determinate historical world, how are we to formulate the truth of a worldless universe? Is, as Toscano seems to indicate, this the reason why, 'in spite of his acknowledgment of the "ontological" break introduced by capitalism, Badiou avoids the topic of anti-Capitalist struggle, even ridiculing its main form today (the anti-globalization movement), and continues to define the emancipatory struggle in strictly political terms, as the struggle against (liberal) democracy as today's predominant ideologico-political form? "Today the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It is called Democracy." [6]

Alberto Toscano's critique of Badiou at this point nonetheless falls short:

In this respect, we disagree with Badiou's strong claim /.../ This is emphatically not because we think that Badiou's attack on the fetishism of democracy is problematic, but rather because we contend that despite chattering battalions of smug idolaters and renegade ideologues Badiou overestimates the inhibiting force, as an 'ideological, or subjective, formalization,' of the liberal democratic notion of equality. It is not the principle of democratic representation that hampers the political emancipation of subjects, but rather the deep-seated conviction that there is no alternative to the rule of profit. The cynicism of today's 'democratic' subjects, who know full well that they play a negligible role in the management of the commons and are entirely aware of the sham nature of the apparatuses of representation, is founded on the perceived inevitability of capitalism, not vice versa. [7]

What one should add here, in defence of Badiou, is that it is not directly "the deep seated conviction that there is no alternative to the rule of profit" which "hampers the political emancipation of subjects": what prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely the belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism. Here, Lenin's stance against "economism" as well as against "pure" politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude towards economy in (what remains of) the Left: on the one hand, the "pure politicians" who abandon economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other hand, the economists, fascinated by the functioning of today's global economy, who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper. Today, more than ever, we should here return to Lenin: yes, economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of the global capitalism but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is "anticapitalist," up to the Hollywood "socio-critical" conspiracy movies (from The Enemy of the State to The Insider) in which the enemy are the big corporations with their ruthless pursuit of profit, the signifier "anticapitalism" has lost its subversive sting. What one should problematize is rather the self-evident opposite of this "anticapitalism": the trust in the democratic substance of the honest Americans to break up the conspiracy. this is the hard kernel of today's global capitalist universe, its true Master Signifier: democracy. And are the latest statements of Negri and Hardt not a kind of unexpected confirmation of this Badiou's insight? Following a paradoxical necessity, their very (focusing on) anti-capitalism led them to acknowledge the revolutionary force of capitalism, so that, as they put it recently, one no longer needs to fight capitalism, because capitalism is already in itself generating communist potentials-the "becoming-communist of capitalism," to put it in Deleuzian terms...

What we are dealing with here is another version of the Lacanian il n'y a pas de rapport...: if, for Lacan, there is no sexual relationship, then, for Marxism proper, there is no relationship between economy and politics, no "meta-language" enabling us to grasp from the same neutral standpoint the two levels, although-or, rather, because-these two levels are inextricably intertwined. The "political" class struggle takes place in the midst of economy (recall that the very last paragraph of Capital III, where the text abruptly stops, tackles the class struggle), while, at the same time, the domain, of economy serves as the key enabling us to decode political struggles. No wonder that the structure of this impossible relationship is that of the Moebius band: first, we have to progress from the political spectacle to its economic infrastructure; then, in the second step, we have to confront the irreducible dimension of the political struggle in the very heart of the economy.

It is this parallax gap that also accounts for the two irreducible dimensions of modernity: "political" is the logic of domination, of regulative control ("biopolitics," "administered world"); "economic" is the logic of the incessant integration of the surplus, of constant "deterritorialization." The resistance to the Political domination refers to the "supernumerary" element which cannot be accounted for in the terms of the political order but how are we to formulate resistance to the economic logic of reproduction through excess? (And, let us not forget, this excess is strictly correlative to the excess of power itself over its "official" representative function.) The Leftist dream throughout the XXth century was activated through the subordination of the economic to the political (State control of the process of production). In their last works, Negri and Hardt seem to succumb to the opposite temptation, to shifting the focus on economic struggle, in which one can rely on State.

And therein resides the deadlock of Badiou's politics, after he proclaimed the end of the Jacobinian revolutionary paradigm:-while he is aware that the anti-Statist revolutionary Party politics which aimed at taking over and demolishing the State apparatus is exhausted-he refuses to explore the revolutionary potentials of the "economic" sphere (since, for him, this sphere belongs to the order of Being and does not contain potential "evental sites"); for this reason, the only way left is that of a "pure" political organization which operates outside the constraints of the State and, basically, limits itself to mobilizable declarations... The only way out of this deadlock is to restore to the "economic" domain the dignity of Truth, the Potential for Events.


[1] J. Storrs Hall, quoted in Bill McKibben, Enough. Staying Human in an Engineered Age, New York: Henry Holt and Company 2004. p. 102.

[2] Quoted in Enough, p. 102-103.

[3] Robert Ettinger, quoted in Enough, p. 110.

[4] op. cit..

[5] Alain Badiou, "The Caesura of Nihilism," lecture delivered at the University of Essex, 09/10/2003.

[6] Alain Badiou, "Prefazione all'edizione italiana," in Metapolitica, Napoli: Cronopio, 2002, p. 14.

[7] Alberto Toscano, "From the State to the World? Badiou and Anti-Capitalism," Communication & Cognition, vol. 36, 2003.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

Slavoj Zizek's Chronology

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