Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Play it Again, Sam!

Zizek's most extensive explanation of ideological identification is to be found in the chapter Che Vuoi? of Sublime Object. He offers there a three-part account of the workings of ideology that in many regards corresponds to the three stages in the constitution of the master-signifier. In a first, instinctive conception of identification, we see it as taking place on the level of the Imaginary, in which we identify with the image of the Other. It is an image in which 'we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image repeating 'what we would like to be' (SO, 105). It is an image that we feel potentially reflects us: movie stars, popular heroes, great intellectuals and artists. However, as Zizek emphasizes, not only is this not factually true - we often identify with less-than-appealing characters - but this Imaginary identification cannot be grasped outside of Symbolic identification. In Symbolic identification, we identify not with the image but with the look of the Other, not with how we see ourselves in them but with how we are seen by them. We see ourselves through the way that others see us. We do not identify directly with ourselves but only through another. Zizek provides an example of this in Sublime Object when he speaks of religious belief. Here we do not believe directly but only because others do. We do not believe ourselves, but others believe for us. As Zizek writes: 'When we subject ourselves to the machine of a religious [we might also say social] ritual, we already believe without knowing it; our belief is already materialized in the external ritual; in other words, we already believe unconsciously' (SO, 43).

We find another example of this Symbolic identification in Woody Allen's film Play it Again, Sam, in which a neurotic and insecure intellectual (played by Allen) learns life lessons from a fictitious Bogart figure, who visits him from time to time. At the end of the film, in a replay of the famous last scene of Casablanca, after an affair with his best friend's wife, Allen meets her at an airport late at night and renounces her, thus allowing her to leave with her husband. When his lover says of his speech: 'It's beautiful', he replies: "It's from Casablanca. I've waited my whole life to say it." And it is at this point that the Bogart figure appears for the last time, saying that, by giving up a woman for a friend, he has 'finally got some class' and no longer needs him' (SO, 109). Now, the first point to realize here is that the Allen character is not so much speaking to the woman in this final scene as to Bogart. He is not acting selflessly in forsaking her but in order to impress Bogart. That is, he does not identify with Bogart on the Imaginary level - with whatever qualities he possesses - but with the Symbolic position he occupies. He attempts to see himself from where he sees Bogart. As Zizek writes: "The hero realizes his identification by enacting in reality Bogart's role from Casablanca - by assuming a certain 'mandate', by occupying a certain place in the intersubjective symbolic network" (SO, 110). More precisely, he identifies with Bogart's seeming position outside of the symbolic order. It is his apparent difference from other people that changes everything about him and converts those qualities that would otherwise be unattractive into something unique and desirable. It is just this that we see at the end of the film, when Allen has his last conversation with Bogart, telling him that he no longer needs him insofar as he has become like him: "True, you're not too tall and kind of ugly but what the hell, I'm short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own" (SO, 110).

However, this Symbolic is still not the final level of identification. Like every other master-signifier (freedom, democracy, the environment), Bogart always falls short, proves disappointing, fails to live up to his promise. As a result, we are forced to step in, take his place, complete what he is unable to. (It is this that we see at the end of the film when the Allen character says that he no longer needs Bogart.) And yet this is not at all to break with transference but is its final effect. (It is just when Allen is most 'himself' that he is most like Bogart.) As we have already seen in 'Why is Every Act?', it is not simply a matter of identifying with some quality or gaze of the Other as though they are aware of it. Rather, the full effect of transference comes about through an identification with something that the Other does not appear aware of, that seems specifically meant for us, that comes about only because of us. To use the language of the previous section, we do not so much identify with the Other as holder of the symbolic (as differentially defined from others, as master-signifier) as with what is in the Other 'more than themselves' (with what is different from itself, object a). If in the Imaginary we identify with the image of the Other, and in the Symbolic with the look of the Other, here in this final level we return almost to our original look upon the Other. Or it is perhaps the very undecidability as to whether the Other is looking at us or not that captivates us and makes us want to take their place.

To put this another way, because symbolic authority is arbitrary, performative, not to be accounted for by any 'real' qualities in its possessor, the subject when appealed to by the Other is always unsure (SO, 113). They are unsure whether this is what the Other really does want of them, whether this truly is the desire of the Other. And they are unsure of themselves, whether they are worthy of the symbolic mandate that is bestowed upon them. As Zizek writes:
The subject does not know why he is occupying this place in the symbolic network. His own answer to this Che vuoi? of the Other can only be the hysterical question: "Why am I what I'm supposed to be, why have I this mandate? Why am I... [a teacher, a master, a king...]?" Briefly: "Why am I what you [the big Other] are saying that I am?" (SO, 113)
And this is an ambiguity, a 'dialectic' (SO, 112), that Zizek argues is ineradicable. It is always possible to ask of any symbolic statement, like Freud's famous joke about a man telling another man he is going to Cracow when he is in fact going to Cracow (SO, 197): what does it mean? What is it aiming at? Why is the Other telling me this? It is always possible to find another meaning behind the obvious one. It is never possible to speak literally, to occupy the Symbolic without remainder, to have the empty place and what occupies it fit perfectly. It is a mismatch that Zizek associates with a certain enunciation outside of any enunciated. As he writes:
The question mark arising above the curve of 'quilting' thus indicates the persistence of a gap between utterance [the enunciated] and its enunciation: at the level of utterance you are saying this, but what do you want to tell me with it, through it? (SO, 111)
In other words, there is always a certain 'gap' or 'leftover' in any interpellation - but it is not a gap that can be simply got rid of, for it is just this that makes interpellation possible, that is the place from where it speaks. It is a gap that is not merely an empirical excess, something that is greater than any nomination - this is the very illusion of the master-signifier - but a kind of internal absence or void, a reminder of the fact that the message cannot be stated in advance but only after it has been identified with, is only a stand-in for that differentiality which founds the symbolic order. It is not something 'outside' or 'beyond' ideology, but that 'difference' that allows the master-signifier's naming of its own difference. (That is - and this is brought out by Zizek's successive parsing of Lacan's 'graph of desire' (SO, 100) in Che Vuoi? - if the Symbolic makes the Imaginary possible, so this other dimension, that of the Real, makes the Symbolic possible.) As Zizek says of this relationship between ideology and what appears 'outside' of it:
The last support of the ideological effect (of the way an ideological network of signifiers 'holds' us) is the non-sensical, pre-ideological kernel of enjoyment. In ideology, 'all is not ideology (that is, ideological meaning)', but it is this very surplus which is the last support of ideology. (SO, 124)

There is thus always a gap between interpellation and any defined symbolic meaning. Any named cause can only come up short; there is always a difference between enunciation and utterance. And yet, as we saw with the master-signifier, interpellation works best when it appears mysterious, nonsensical, incomplete, not only to us but even to the Other. For it is just this that appears to open it up to us, allow us to add to it, make it our own. It is just in its lack and unknowability that it calls upon us to realize it, take its place, say what it should be saying. However, as we saw in our Introduction, whatever we do in response to it will always in retrospect be seen to be what it was already about. It is in its 'emptiness' that it is able to speak to all future interpretations of it, that any 'going beyond' is able to occur only in its name. It is not so much a match between a subject entirely contained within the Symbolic and a master-signifier that quilts the entire social field without remainder that we have here, but a match between a subject that feels themselves outside of the Symbolic and a master-signifier that is always different from itself. We identify not so much with any enunciated as with the position of enunciation itself. The fact that the Other does not have it, is divided from itself, is not a barrier to identification but its very condition, for just as we are completed by the Other, so this Other is completed by us. As Zizek writes:
This lack in the other gives the subject - so to speak - a breathing space; it enables him to avoid total alienation in the signifier not by filling out his lack but by allowing him to identify himself, his own lack, with the lack in the other. (SO, 122)
This is the ambiguity of that fantasy with which Zizek says we fill out the gap in interpellation, just as that 'sublime object' fills out what is missing in the master-signifier. And, as with the master-signifier, the particular fantasy that Zizek takes up in order to analyse this is the anti-Semitic one. That is, in terms that almost exactly repeat what we said earlier about a certain 'in Jew more than Jew' that supplements the master-signifier of the Jew, so here with interpellation there is a kind of fantasy that behind any actual demand by Jews there is always another, that there is always something more that they want (SO, 114). But, again, the crucial aspect of this fantasy - as we have seen earlier with our mythical Jewish neighbour, Mr Stern - is that Jews themselves do not have to be aware of this. This is the meaning of Zizek's argument connecting Jews as the privileged target of such racist fantasies and the particular form of their religion. He is precisely not making the point that there is anything actually in their beliefs that would justify or explain these fantasies, but rather that the Jewish religion itself 'persists in the enigma of the Other's [that is, God's] desire' (SO, 115), that this Other is also a mystery to Jews themselves, that to paraphrase Hegel the mystery of the Jews is a mystery to Jews themselves. Nevertheless, it is this fantasy that Jews somehow do know what they want that operates as a supplement to interpellation. It attempts to fill out the void of the question Che vuoi? with an answer. And even if we have to speak for the Other ourselves, admit the knowledge they do not recognize, this is not to break the anti-Semitic fantasy but only to render it stronger. The very incompleteness of our interpellation, the fact that things make no sense to us or that we can take a cynical distance on to the values of our society, is not at all to dispel the promise of some underlying meaning but only to make us search for one all the more.

And yet, if this distance from society and our positing of the Other are how we are interpellated, all this can also be read another way, as opening up a certain 'outside' to the system. It is not simply a matter of doing away with the ideological fantasy but of thinking what makes it possible. For if the Jew as fantasy, just as the Jew as object a, is able to recoup otherness and return it to the system, it also points to something else that would be required to make this up. That is, if the Jew as object a or fantasy allows the master-signifier or interpellation to be named as its own difference, it also raises the question of what allows it to be named. And it is this, finally, that Lacan means by his famous statement that 'There is no Other of the Other' (E, 311). It does not mean that there is no guarantee to the Other but that there is no final guarantee, that any such guarantee would always have to be underwritten in turn from somewhere else. It means that the same element that closes off the system also opens it up, in a kind of infinite regress or psychotic foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father. And it is at this point, as we say, that the entire system becomes ambiguous, that the same element that provides an answer to the Che vuoi? also restates the question (SO, 124). 6 And what this in turn raises - in a theme we pursue throughout this book - is that, beyond thinking of the Jew as an exception that allows the universal to be constituted, we have the Jew as the sinthome of a drive: the universal itself as its own exception (ME, 49). It is close to the ambiguity of Zizek's own work, in which the critique he proposes of the system almost repeats the system's own logic; but in repeating the system in this manner he also opens it up to something else. Again, taking us back to questions we first raised in our Introduction - that we can reveal the 'emptiness' at the heart of the Symbolic only by filling it in; that it is never to be seen as such but only as a retrospective effect - we would say that not only is any act or positing of the Symbolic only a repetition of it, but that it is only through such a repetition that we might produce an 'act'.
- Rex Butler, "Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier?"


beamish said...

If it bleeds, we can kill it.

-FJ said...

If it bleeds and you don't kill it, it will only grow stronger.