Friday, January 18, 2013

In the Name of the Father...

...a response to FreeThinke

So what then is superego, what is this superego injunction which is replacing more and more the old symbolic law of prohibition? Superego is the reversal of the permissive "You May!" into the prescriptive "You Must!", the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. We all know the formula of Kant s unconditional imperative: "Du canst, denn du sollst". You can do your duty, because you must do it. Superego turns this around into "You must, because you can." Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Viagra, the potency pill that promises to restore the capacity of male erection in a purely biochemical way, bypassing all problems of psychological inhibitions and so on. Now Viagra takes care of the erection, there is no excuse, you can enjoy sex so you should enjoy it, otherwise you are guilty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the New Age wisdom of recovering the spontaneity of your true self seems to offer a way out of this superego predicament. However, what do we get effectively? Is this attitude not secretly sustained by the superego imperative? You must do your duty of achieving full self–realization and self–fulfillment because you can. This is the reason why we feel, at least I do, a kind of terrorist pressure beneath the compliant tolerance of New Age preachers. They seem to preach peace and letting go and so on but there is an implicit terrorist dimension in it. So what is superego? The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. It can be overcome in two opposite ways. On one hand, we have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so–called totalitarian post–traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you "Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not." It tells you not only "You must obey my orders and do your duty" but "You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it." It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him. This passage from traditional authoritarian power to modern totalitarianism can be precisely rendered through superego in an old joke of mine. Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? "I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty." A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: "You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to." Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say "I have a choice, I will not do it." I promise your father will say "What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how she loves you? How could you do this to her?" That’s superego. On the other hand, we have the opposite paradox of the pleasure itself whose pursuit turns into duty. In a permissive society, subjects experience the need to have a good time, to really enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and consequently feel guilty for failing to be happy. The concept of the superego designates precisely this mysterious overlapping in which the command to enjoy overlaps with the duty to enjoy yourself. Maybe we can in this way distinguish the totalitarian from the liberal–permissive superego. In both cases, the message is "You may enjoy, but because you may, you must". In both cases you pay a price for this permission. In permissive liberalism, the "you may" of freely inventing yourself is paid for when you get caught in the cobweb of prohibitions concerning the well’being of yourself and your neighbors. We can do whatever we want today, hedonism and so on, but the result is that we have at the daily level so many prohibitions so as not to prevent others from enjoying. You are constantly told what to eat and drink, no fat, no smoking, safe sex, prohibition to enjoy the other, prohibition of sexual harassment, and so on, life is totally regulated. In an exactly symmetrical way, in totalitarianism the official message is "You should obey." Neo–fundamentalists like to present themselves as "In today’s world there are no firm values, and we offer you safe haven, roots in firm values." This explains the so-called neo–fundamentalist appeal: As sociologists say, in postmodernity, in a reflexive society, there are no firm values, no nature or tradition, people who are used to a firm set of values get lost, long for safe haven… The other aspect of it is the exact opposite. It’s the postmodern subject of total permissiveness who gets caught up in so many prohibitions that precisely in order to be happy, the secret message between the lines of the totalitarian appeal to follow the master is, "If you follow me, you may." You may with impunity rape, sexually harass, kill, etc. I know this from personally talking to some years ago members of the old regime in Belgrade. There message was, "Before we were living this regulated life. Now at the point of us becoming Serb ethnic fundamentalists is that we may." Even before Adorno and Horkheimer, Brecht was attentive to this falsely liberating aspect of fundamentalism. Totalitarianism is not only "safe haven, firm values, we give you a sense of stability", it’s also a kind of false liberation. Which is why in an article from a year ago I offered as a metaphor for totalitarianism, the German fat free salami, whose slogan is Du Darfst. If you obey me, Du Darfst, you can have your salami without fat. Let’s go on. What happens in this superego universe of weak paternal authority? I think the references to two films are of some interest here. On one hand, Roberto Benigni’s "Life is Beautiful", in which the father in the concentration camp constructs a web of fantasies to protect his son from the trauma of the camp. On the other hand, Thomas Vinterberg’s "Celebration", in which the father is not only not the protector against the trauma but the source of the trauma, the rapist father. In one case we have a father assuming an almost maternal protective role and who relies on pure symbolic appearance, creating a protective web for his son, a father who is a kind of ersatz placebo. On the other hand, a father whose core we arrive at through the dismantling of all protective fictions — at the end the father is unmasked and confesses to be the brutal rapist, having sexual exploited his children, a kind of true revival of the Freudian Ur–Father from "Totem and Taboo". It’s my old thesis that Freud was right, he just got it in the wrong temporal succession. I claim that in this obsession with false memory syndrome, imagining some brutal raping father, it is not that, as Freud thought, the we have first in some mystical past the rapist father who possessed all the women of the tribe and then through the murder of the father, the father returns as symbolic authority. It’s rather the opposite. The symbolic authority disintegrates and what fills in its void is this brutal Ur–Father. It’s the modern totalitarian masters who are much closer to this Ur–Father figure. So what about these two father figures? It is crucial to avoid the trap of conceiving these two fathers along the axis of appearance vs. reality. It’s not that Benigni’s good father is a pure appearance of the protective maternal father and then that when we scratch the surface we get the violent real father. "Celebration" tells us a lot about how today, in the false memory syndrome of remembering being molested by one’s parents, Freud’s Ur–Father is resuscitated. "Celebration" tells us this precisely through its artificial character. The ultimate paradox of the film is that it’s the ultimate nostalgia. This horror of the rapist father, instead of shocking us, it articulates a kind of nostalgic longing for the good old times when we had fathers who really had force, and when it was really possible to experience such traumas.
- Salvoj Zizek, "The SuperEgo and the Act"