And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lynchean Worlds

In chapter 15 of Seminar XI, Lacan introduces the mysterious notion of the “lamella”: the libido as an organ without body, the incorporeal and for that very reason indestructible life substance that persists beyond the circuit of generation and corruption.(1) It is no accident that commentaries on this passage are rare (for all practical purposes nonexistent); the Lacan with whom we are confronted in this passage does not have a lot in common with the usual figure of Lacan which reigns in the domain of cultural studies. The Lacan of the lamella is “Another Lacan,” as Jacques-Alain Miller put it, a Lacan of drive not desire, of the real not the symbolic.

How are we to approach this notion of lamella? Let us risk a detour. If, today, the term “post-modernism” is of any theoretical use, then lamella is a post-modern notion par excellence—-the shift from the Lacan of the symbolic to the Lacan of the real is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. For that reason, one should not be surprised that lamella is the central preoccupation of the person whose work epitomizes post-modernism in cinema, David Lynch. And, in order to expose as clearly as possible Lynch’s Post-modernism, let us risk an additional detour via those who were, in all probability, the first post-modernists avant la letter: the Pre-Raphaelites.


In art history, the Pre-Raphaelites function as the paradoxical border case of avant-garde overlapping with kitsch. They were first perceived as bearers of an anti-traditionalist revolution in painting, breaking with the entire tradition from the Renaissance onwards, only to be devalued shortly thereafter—with the rise of Impressionism in France—as the very epitome of damp Victorian pseudo-romantic kitsch. This low rating lasted till the 1960s, i.e., until the emergence of post-modernism. How was it, then, that they became “readable” only retroactively, from the post-modernist paradigm?

In this respect, the crucial painter is William Holman Hunt, usually dismissed as the first Pre-Raphealite to sell out to the establishment, becoming a well-paid producer of sweetish religious paintings (The Triumph of the Innocents, etc.). However, a closer look unmistakably confronts us with an uncanny, deeply disturbing dimension of his work; his paintings produce a kind of uneasiness or indeterminate feeling that, in spite of their idyllic and elevated “official” content, there is something amiss.

Let us take the Hireling Shepherd, apparently a simple pastoral idyll depicting a shepherd engaged in seducing a country-girl, and for that reason neglecting to care for a flock of sheep (an obvious allegory of the Church neglecting its lambs). The longer we observe the painting, the more we become aware of a great number of details that bear witness to Hunt’s intense relationship to enjoyment, to life-substance, i.e., to his disgust at sexuality. The shepherd is muscular, dull, crude, and rudely voluptuous; the cunning gaze of the girl indicates a sly, vulgarly manipulative exploitation of one’s own sexual attraction; the all too vivacious reds and greens mark the entire painting with a repulsive tone, as if we were dealing with turgid, overripe, putrid nature. It is similar to Isabella and the Pot of Basil where numbers details belie the “official” Tragic-religious content (the snake-like head, the skulls on the brim of the vase, etc.). The sexuality radiated by the painting is damp, “unwholesome,” and permeated with the decay of death, and it plunges us into the universe of David Lynch, the filmmaker.

Lynch’s entire “ontology” is based upon the discordance or contrast between reality, observed from a safe distance, and the absolute proximity of the real. His elementary procedure consists in moving forward from an establishing shot of reality to a disturbing proximity which renders visible the disgusting substance of enjoyment, the crawling and twinkling of indestructible life—in short, the lamella. Suffice it to recall the opening sequence of Blue Velvet. After the shots that epitomize the idyllic small American town and the father’s stroke while he waters the lawn (when he collapses, the jet of water uncannily recalls surreal, heavy urination), the camera approaches the grass surface and depicts the bursting life, the crawling of insects and beetles, their rattling and devouring of grass. At the very beginning of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, we encounter the opposite technique which produces the same effect. First we see abstract white protoplasmic shapes floating in a blue background, a kind of elementary form of life in its primordial twinkling; then the camera slowly moves away and we become aware that what we were seeing was an extreme close-up of a TV screen.(2) Therein lies the fundamental feature of post-modern hyperrealism: the very over-proximity to reality brings about the “loss of reality.” Uncanny details stick out and perturb the pacifying effect of the overall picture.(3)

The second feature, closely linked to the first, is contained in the very designation “Pre-Raphaelitism”: the reaffirmation of rendering things as they “really are,” not yet distorted by the rules of academic painting first established by Raphael. However, the Pre-Raphaelites’ own practice belies this naive ideology of returning to the “natural” way of painting. The first thing that strikes the eye in their paintings is the feature which necessarily appears to us, accustomed to modern perspective-realism, as a sign of clumsiness. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings are somehow flat, lacking the “depth” of space organized along the perspective lines which meet in an infinite point; it is as if the very “reality” they depict were not a “true” reality but rather structured as a relief. Another aspect of this same feature is the “dollish,” mechanically composite, artificial quality of the depicted individuals: they somehow lack the abyssal depth of personality we usually associate with the notion of “subject.” The designation “Pre-Raphaelitism” is thus to be taken literally, as an indication of the shift from Renaissance perspectivism to the “closed” medieval universe.

In Lynch’s films, the “flatness” of the depicted reality responsible for the cancellation of infinite perspective openness finds its precise correlate or counterpart at the level of sound. Let us return to the opening sequence of Blue Velvet: its crucial feature is the uncanny noise that emerges when we approach the real. This noise is difficult to locate in reality. In order to determine its status, one is tempted to evoke contemporary cosmology which speaks of noises at the borders of the universe; these noises are not simply internal to the universe—-they are remainders or last echoes of the Big Bang that created the universe itself. The ontological status of this noise is more interesting than it may appear, since it subverts the fundamental notion of the “open,” infinite universe that defines the space of Newtonian physics. That is to say, the modern notion of the “open” universe is based on the hypothesis that every positive entity (noise, matter) occupies some (empty) space; it hinges on the difference between space as void and positive entities which occupy it, “fill it out.” Space is here phenomenologically conceived as something that exists prior to the entities which “fill it out.” If we destroy or remove the matter that occupies a given space, this space as void remains. The primordial noise, the last remainder of the Big Bang, is on the contrary constitutive of space itself: it is not a noise “in” space, but a noise that keeps space open as such. If, therefore, we were to erase this noise, we would not get the “empty space” which was filled out by it. Space itself, the receptacle for every “inner-worldly” entity, would vanish. This noise is, in a sense, the “sound of silence.” Along the same lines, the fundamental noise in Lynch’s films is not simply caused by objects that are part of reality; rather, it forms the ontological horizon or frame of reality itself, i.e., the texture that holds reality together. Were this noise to be eradicated, reality itself would collapse, from the “open” infinite universe of Cartesian-Newtonian physics, we are thus back to the pre-modern “closed” universe, encircled, bounded, by a fundamental “noise.”

We encounter this same noise in the nightmare sequence of The Elephant Man. It transgresses the borderline that separates interior from exterior, i.e., the extreme externality of a machine uncannily coincides with the utmost intimacy of the bodily interior, with the rhythm of heart palpitations. This noise also appears after the camera enters the hole in the elephant-man’s hood, which stands for the gaze. The reversal of reality into the real corresponds to the reversal of the look (the subject looking at reality) into gaze, i.e., it occurs when we enter the “black hole,” the crack in the texture of reality.


What we encounter in this “black hole” is simply the body stripped of its skin. That is to say, Lynch perturbs our most elementary phenomenological relationship to the living body, which is based on the radical line of separation between the surface of the skin and what is beneath it. Let us recall the uncanniness, and even disgust, we experience when we endeavor to imagine what goes on just under the surface of a beautiful naked body—muscles, glands, veins, etc. In short, our relating to the body implies the suspension of what lies beneath the surface, and this suspension is an effect of the symbolic order—-it can occur only insofar as bodily reality is struc-tured by language. In the symbolic order, we are not really naked even when we are without clothes, since skin itself functions as the “dress of the flesh.”(4) This suspension excludes the real of the life-substance, its palpitation; one of the definitions of the Lacanian real is that it is the flayed, skinned body, the palpitation of raw, skinless red flesh.

How, then, does Lynch perturb our most elementary phenomenological relationship to the bodily surface? By means of the voice, of a word which “kills,” which corrodes or breaks through the skin surface and directly cuts into the raw flesh-in short, by means of a word whose status is that of a real. This feature is at its most expressive in Lynch’s version of Herbert’s Dune. Suffice it to recall members of the space-guild who, because of their over-indulging in “spice,” the mysterious drug around which the story turns, become distorted beings with gigantic heads, worm-like creatures made of skinless, raw flesh, indestructible life-substance, a pure embodiment of enjoyment.

Another case of similar distortion is the corrupted kingdom of the evil Baron Harkonnen where we see faces whose surface is distorted in an uncanny way—sewn-up eyes and ears, etc. The face of the Baron himself is full of disgusting protuberances, “sprouts of enjoyment,” in which the inside of the body breaks through the surface. The unique scene, where the Baron attacks a young boy in an ambiguous oral-homoerotic way, also plays on this ambiguity of the relationship of the inside and the surface. The Baron attacks him by pulling out his heart-cork, so that blood starts to squirt out. (What we have here is Lynch’s typical child-fantasy notion of a human body as a balloon, a form made of inflated skin, with no substance behind it.) The skulls of the servants of the space-guild also start to crack when they run out of spice—-again a case of distorted, fractured surfaces. What is crucial here is the correlation between these cracks in the skull and the distorted voice: the guild-servant actually utters unintelligible whispers which are transformed into articulated speech only by means of the microphone or, in Lacanian terms, by passing through the medium of the Other. This delay—i.e., the fact that the sounds we utter are not speech in an immediate way, but only through the intervention of the external, machine-like, symbolic order—-is usually concealed; it is rendered visible only when the relationship between surface
and its beyond is perturbed.

In Twin Peaks, the dwarf in the Red Lodge speaks an incomprehensible, distorted English, rendered intelligible only with the help of subtitles that play the role of the microphone, i.e., the medium of the Other. What we have here is the hidden reversal of the Derridian critique of logocentrism in which the voice functions as the medium of illusory self-transparency and self-presence: the obscene, cruel, superego-like, incomprehensible, impenetrable, traumatic dimension of the voice which is a kind of foreign body perturbing the balance of our lives.(5)

The relationship to surface is also perturbed in the case of Paul’s—Dune’s hero’s—mystical experience of drinking the “water of life.” (Mysticism, of course, stands for the encounter with the real.) Here, again, the inside endeavors to invade the surface—blood drips not only from Paul’s eyes but also from the mouth of his mother and sister, who are aware of his ordeal by direct, non-symbolic, empathy. (The ruler’s counselors, the “living computers” who are able to read others’ thoughts and see into the future, also have strange blood-like stains around their lips.) Finally, there is the voice of Paul Atreid himself, which has a directly physical impact. By raising his voice, he is able not only to derange his adversary, but even to blow up the hardest rock. At the end of the film, Paul raises his voice and shouts back at the old priestess who tried directly to penetrate his mind; as Paul himself says, his word can kill, i.e., his speech is not only a symbolic act but can directly cut into the real. The disintegration of the “normal” relationship of bodily surface and its underside is strictly correlative to the change in the status of speech, to the emergence of a word which operates directly at the level of the real.


There is another crucial feature of this last scene. The old priestess reacts to Paul’s words in an exaggerated, almost theatrical way, so that it is not clear if she is reacting to his actual words or to the distorted, overblown way she perceives his words. In short, the “normal” relationship between cause (Paul’s words) and effect (the woman’s reaction to it) is perturbed here; it is as if there is a gap separating them, as if the effect never fits or corresponds to its alleged cause. The usual way to read this gap would be to conceive of it as an index of woman’s hysteria: women are not able to perceive clearly external causes, they always project into them their own distorted vision of them. Michel Chion, however, provides here a true stroke of genius and proposes a rather different reading of this disturbance.(6) One is tempted to “order” his rather non-systematic way of proceeding in his book on Lynch, by arranging it into three consecutive steps.

1) Chion’s starting point is the gap or discord between action and reaction that is always at work in Lynch’s films: when a subject—as a rule a man—addresses a woman or “electrocutes” her in some other way, the woman’s reaction is always somehow incommensurate with the “impulse” she receives. What is at stake in this incommensurability is a kind of short-circuit between cause and effect: their relationship is never “pure” or linear. We can never be quite certain to what extent the effect itself retroactively “colored” its own cause. We encounter here the logic of anamorphosis presented in an exemplary way in Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act II, Scene II) by the words of the Queen’s faithful servant Bushby:
Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon,
Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Finds shapes of grief more than himself to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what is not.
In her answer to Bushby, the Queen herself locates her fears in the context of causes and effects:
… conceit is still deriv’d
From some forefather grief; mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief;
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve:
‘Tis in reversion that I do possess;
But what it is, that is not yet known; what
I cannot name; ’tis nameless woe, I wot.(7)
The incommensurability between cause and effect thus results from the anamorphic perspective of the subject who distorts the “real” preceding cause, so that his act (his reaction to this cause) is never a direct effect of the cause, but rather a consequence of his distorted perception of the cause.

2) Chion’s next step consists of a “crazy” gesture worthy of the most daring Freudian interpretation: he proposes that the fundamental matrix, the paradigmatic case, of this discord between action and reaction is sexual (non)relationship between man and woman. In sexual activity, men “do certain things to women,” and the question to be raised is: is woman’s enjoyment reducible to an effect, is it a simple consequence of what men do to her? From the good old days of Marxist hegemony, one may perhaps be reminded of the vulgar, materialist, “reductionistic” endeavors to explain the genesis of the notion of causality on the basis of human practice, of man’s active relating to his environs: we arrive at the notion of causality by generalizing the experience of how, every time we accomplish a certain gesture, the same effect occurs in reality. Chion proposes an even more radical reductionism: the elementary matrix of the relationship between cause and effect is offered by the sexual relationship. In the last analysis, the irreducible gap that separates an effect from its cause amounts to the fact that “not all of feminine enjoyment is an effect of the masculine cause.” This “not-all” has to be conceived precisely in the sense of the Lacanian logic of not-all (pas-tout)(8): it in no way entails that a part of feminine enjoyment is not the effect of what men do to a woman. In other words, “not-all” designates inconsistency and not incompleteness: in the reaction of a woman, there is always something unforeseen. A woman never reacts as expected—all of a sudden, she does not react to something that, up to that time, infallibly aroused her, yet she is aroused by something that a man does in passing, inadvertently Woman is not fully submitted to the causal link. With her, this linear order of causality breaks down or, to quote Nicholas Cage when, in Lynch’s Wild at Heart, he is surprised by an unexpected reaction of Laura Dern’s: “The way your mind works is God’s own private mystery.”

3) The last step is in itself twofold: a further specification or narrowing-down, followed by a generalization. Why is it precisely woman who, by way of her incommensurate reaction to man’s impulse, breaks asunder the causal chain? The specific feature which seems reducible to a link in the causal chain, yet actually suspends and inverts it, is feminine depression—woman’s suicidal propensity to slide into permanent lethargy. Man bombards woman with shocks in order to stir her out of this depression.


At the center of Blue Velvet (and of all of Lynch’s opus), there is the enigma of woman’s depression. That the fatal Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini) is depressed goes without saying, since the reasons for it seem obvious: her child and husband were kidnapped by cruel Frank (Denis Hopper), who even cut off her husband’s ear, and he blackmails Dorothy by exacting sexual favors as the price for keeping her husband and child alive. The causal link seems thus clear and unambiguous. Frank is the cause of all troubles, he broke into the happy family and provoked the trauma; Dorothy’s masochistic enjoyment is a simple after-effect of this initial shock—the victim is so bewildered and thrown off by the sadistic violence she is subjected to, that she “identifies with the aggressor” and sets out to imitate his game. However, a detailed analysis of the most famous scene from Blue Velvet—the sadomasochistic sexual play between Dorothy and Frank, observed by Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) while he is hiding in the closet—requires us to reverse the entire perspective. The crucial question to be asked here is: for whom is this scene staged?

The first answer seems obvious: for Jeffrey. Isn’t it an exemplary case of achild witnessing parental coitus? Isn’t Jeffrey reduced to a pure gaze present at the act of his own conception (the elementary matrix of fantasy)? This interpretation can be supported by two peculiar features of what Jeffrey sees: Dorothy stuffing blue velvet into Frank’s mouth, and Frank putting an oxygen-mask on his mouth and then breathing heavily. Aren’t both of these visual hallucinations based on what the child hears? When eaves-dropping on parental coitus, the child hears hollow speaking and heavy, gasping breathing; he or she imagines that there must be something in the father’s mouth (perhaps part of the sheet, since he is in bed), or that he is breathing through a mask.(9) Yet what this reading leaves out is the crucial fact that the sadomasochistic game is thoroughly Staged and theatrical. Both of them—not only Dorothy who knows that Jeffrey is watching since she put him in the closet—act (or even overact) as if they knew they were being observed. Jeffrey is not an unobserved, accidental witness to a secret ritual; the ritual is, from the outset staged for his gaze. From this perspective, the true organizer of the game seems be Frank. His noisy, theatrical manner, bordering on the comical and recalling the movie-image of a villain, bears witness to the fact that he is desperately trying to fascinate and impress the third gaze. In order to prove what? The key is perhaps offered by Frank’s obsessive repeating to Dorothy: “Don’t you look at me!” Why shouldn’t she? There is only one answer possible: since there is nothing to see. There is no erection to see, since Frank is impotent.

Read this way, the scene acquires quite a different meaning: Frank and Dorothy feign a wild sexual act in order to conceal from the child the fact that his father is impotent; all Frank’s shouting and swearing, his comical- spectacular imitation of coital gestures, is designed to mask its opposite. In traditional terms, the accent shifts from voyeurism: Jeffrey’s gaze is but an element in the exhibitionist’s scenario. Instead of a son witnessing parental coitus, the father desperately attempts to convince his son of his potency.

There is, however, a third possible reading, centered on Dorothy. What I have in mind here are not anti-feminist commonplaces about feminine masochism, claiming that women secretly enjoy being brutally mistreated, etc. My point is rather the following: what if—bearing in mind that, with woman, the linear causal link is suspended, and even reversed—depression is the original fact? What if depression comes first, and all subsequent activity—i.e., Frank’s terrorizing of Dorothy—far from being its cause, is rather a desperate “therapeutic” attempt to prevent her from sliding into the abyss of absolute depression, a kind of “electroshock” therapy which endeavors to attract her attention? The crudeness of his “treatment” (the kidnapping of husband and son; the cutting off of the husband’s ear; the required participation in the sadistic sexual game) simply corresponds to the depth of her depression; only such rude shocks can keep her active.

In this sense, Lynch can be said to be a true anti-Weininger. In Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, the paradigm of modern anti-feminism, woman proposes herself to man, endeavoring to attract and fascinate his gaze and thus drag him down from spiritual heights into the lowliness of sexual debauchery. For Weininger, the “original fact” is man’s spirituality, whereas his fascination with woman results from his Fall; for Lynch, the “original fact” is woman’s depression, her sliding into the abyss of self-annihilation and absolute lethargy, whereas man, on the contrary, proposes himself to woman as the object of her gaze. Man “bombards” her with shocks in order to arouse her attention and thereby shake her out of her numbness in short, in order to reinclude or reinstate her in the “proper” order of causality.

The tradition of such a stiff, lethargic woman aroused from her numbness by a man’s call was alive and well in the nineteenth century. Suffice it to recall here Kundry from Wagner’s Parsifal who, at the beginning of Act II and Act III, is awakened from a catatonic sleep (first through Klingsor’s rude summons, then through Gurnemanz’s kind care). And from “real” life, consider the unique figure of Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris and the mistress of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The famous photo of Jane Morris from 1865 presents a depressive woman, deeply absorbed in her thoughts, who seems to await man’s impulse to shake her from her lethargy; this photo perhaps offers the closest approach to what Wagner had in mind when he created this figure of Kundry.(10)

What is of crucial importance is the universal, formal structure at work here: the “normal” relationship between cause and effect is inverted. The “effect” is the original fact, which comes first, and what appears as its cause—the shocks which allegedly set in motion the depression—is actually a reaction to this effect, a struggle against depression. The logic is once again that of a “not-all.” “Not-all” of depression results from the causes which trigger it; yet at the same time there is nothing, no element of depression, which is not triggered by some external active cause. In other words, everything in depression is an effect-everything except depression as such, i.e., except the form of depression. The status of depression is thus strictly “transcendental”: depression provides the a priori frame within which causes can act the way they do.(11)

It may appear that I have simply reproduced the most common prejudice about female depression, i.e., the notion of a woman who can be aroused only by a man’s stimulation. There is, however, another way to look at it. Doesn’t the elementary structure of subjectivity consist in the fact that not-all of the subject is determined by the causal chain? Isn’t the subject the very gap that separates the cause from its effect? Doesn’t it emerge precisely insofar as the relationship between cause and effect cannot be accounted for?(12) In other words, what is this feminine depression that suspends the causal link, the causal enchainment of our acts to external stimuli, if not the founding gesture of subjectivity, the primordial act of freedom, of breaking up our insertion into the nexus of causes and effects.(13) The philosophical name for this “depression” is absolute negativity, i.e., what Hegel called “the night of the world,” the withdrawal of the subject into itself . In short, woman, not man, is the subject par excellence. And the link between depression and the bursting of the indestructible life-substance is also clear: depression and withdrawal-into-self is the primordial act of retreat, of acquiring a distance from the indestructible life-substance, which makes it appear as a repulsive scintillation.


In conclusion, emphasis should be laid on the inherent political dimension of this notion of enjoyment, i.e., on the way the lamella, this kernel of enjoyment, functions as a political factor. Let us approach this dimension by way of one of the enigmas of cultural life in post-Socialist Eastern Europe: why does Milan Kundera even now, after the victory of democracy, suffer a kind of excommunication in Bohemia? His works are rarely Published, the media pass over them in silence, and everybody is somehow embarrassed to speak about him. In order to justify such treatment, one rakes up old stories about his hidden collaboration with the Communist regime, about his taking refuge in private pleasures and avoiding the righteous battle á la Havel, etc. However, the roots of this resistance are deeper—Kundera conveys a message unbearable to “normalized” democratic consciousness.

In a first approach, the fundamental axis that structures the universe of his works seems to be the opposition between the puffy, pretentious Pathos of official Socialist ideology and the islands of everyday private life, its small joys and pleasures, laughter and tears, beyond the reach of ideology. These islands enable us to assume a distance that renders visible the ideological ritual in its vain, ridiculous pretentiousness and grotesque meaninglessness: it is not worth the trouble to recalcitrate against the official ideology with pathetic speeches on freedom and democracy. Sooner or later, this leads to a new version of the “Big March,” of ideological obsession. If Kundera is reduced to this attitude, it is easy to dismiss him by confronting him with Vaclav Havel’s fundamental “Althusserian” insight into how the ultimate conformist attitude is an “apolitical” distance which, while publicly obeying the imposed ritual, privately indulges in cynical irony. It is not sufficient to ascertain that the ideological ritual is a mere appearance which nobody takes seriously; this appearance is essential in its very capacity of appearance, which is why one has to take a risk and refuse to participate in the public ritual. (See Havel’s famous example, from his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” of a common man, a greengrocer, who of course does not believe in Socialism, and yet, when the occasion demands it, dutifully decorates the windows of his store with official Party slogans, etc.)

One therefore has to go further by taking into account the fact that there is no way to simply step out of ideology. The private indulgence in cynicism and the obsession with private pleasures are all ways in which totalitarian ideology is at work in “non-ideological” everyday life; life is determined by ideology, and ideology is “present in it in the mode of absence,” if we may resort to this syntagm from the heroic epoch of structuralism. The depolitization of the private sphere in late Socialist societies is “compulsive,” marked by the fundamental prohibition of free political discussion; for that reason, it always functions as an avoidance of what is truly at stake’ This accounts for the feature which immediately strikes the eye in Kundera’s novels: the depoliticized private sphere is in no way the free domain of innocent Pleasures. There is always something damp, claustrophobic, inauthentic, and even desperate in this striving for sex and other pleasures. In this respect, the lesson of Kundera’s novels is the exact opposite of a naive reliance on the innocent private sphere: totalitarian Socialist ideology vitiates from within the very sphere of privacy in which we take refuge.

This, however, is far from being all there is to it. We must take another step here, since the lesson we learn from Kundera is even more ambiguous. Notwithstanding the dampness of the private sphere, the fact remains that the totalitarian situation gave rise to a series of phenomena attested to by numerous chronicles of everyday life in the Socialist East. In reaction to totalitarian ideological domination, there was not only a cynical escape into the “good life” of private pleasures, but also an extraordinary flourishing of authentic friendship, visits, dinners, passionate intellectual conversations in closed societies—features which usually fascinated visitors from the West. The Problem, of course, is that there is no way to draw a clear-cut line between the two sides: they are the front and back of the same coin which is why, with the advent of democracy, they both disappear. It is to Kundera’s credit that he does not conceal this ambiguity: the spirit of “Middle Europe,” of authentic friendship and intellectual sociability, survived in Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland only as a form of resistance against totalitarian ideological domination.

Perhaps yet another step can be ventured here. The very subordination to the Socialist order brought about a specific enjoyment, not only the enjoyment provided by our awareness of living in a universe in which here IS no uncertainty since the System has (or claims to have) an answer for everything, but above all enjoying the very stupidity of the System—relishing the emptiness of official rituals and the worn-out stylistic figures of the predominant ideological discourse. (Suffice it to recall here the extent to which certain key Stalinist syntagms became ironic figures of speech even among Western intellectuals: “objective responsibility,” etc. “Stalinism” confronts us with what Lacan designated as the imbecility inherent in the signifier.) The contemporary Russian composer Alfred Schnittke succeeded in exposing this feature in his opera Life with an Idiot. The opera tells the story of an ordinary married man (known as “I”) who, as a punishment imposed by the Party, is forced to bring someone from an insane asylum to live with his family. The idiot, Vava, who has the appearance of a normal, bearded, bespectacled intellectual and prattles meaningless political phrases all the time, soon shows his true colors as an obscene intruder by first having sex with I’s wife and then with I himself. Insofar as we are living in a universe of language, we are condemned to this imbecility: we can assume a minimal distance from it, thus rendering it more bearable, but we can never get rid of it.

The ambiguity of Kundera’s universe in which Socialist “repression” creates the conditions for authentic happiness is perhaps best rendered at the end of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philip Kaufman’s unjustly depreciated film version of the novel resorts to a temporal displacement that successfully condenses the end of Kundera’s novel. Late at night, the hero, a dissident doctor exiled to the Czech countryside, returns home with his wife from a dance in a small nearby town; the last sight of them is a point-of-view shot of the dark macadam road illuminated by the lights of their truck. The film suddenly cuts to California a couple of weeks later; their friend Sabina, who lives there as a sculptor, receives a letter informing her of their death in a traffic accident while returning home from a dance, and comments that “they must have been happy at the time of their death.” The film then cuts back to the previous scene, a simple continuation of the point-of-view shot, from the driver’s seat, of the road into which our gaze penetrates.

The sublime effect of this last shot results from a temporal displacement: it hinges on the coexistence of the spectator’s knowledge that the hero and his wife are already dead, with their forward-moving gaze on a strangely illuminated road. The point is not only that the allure of this strange illumination acquires the meaning of death, but rather that this last point-of-view shot belongs to people who are still alive, although we know that they are already dead. After the flash-forward to California informing us of their death, the hero and his wife dwell in the domain “between two deaths”,the same shot which was, prior to the flash-forward, a simple point-of-view shot of living subjects, now renders the gaze of the “living dead.”
1. See pp. 197-198. For a reading of this passage, see chapter 5 of Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993.

2. The same procedure was applied by Tim Burton in the outstanding credits-sequence of Batman: the camera errs along nondescript, winding, unsmooth metal funnels; after it gradually backs off and acquires a “normal” distance from its object, it becomes clear what this object actually is: the tiny Batman badge.

3. The counte to this Lynchian attitude is perhaps the philosophy of Leibniz: Leibniz was fascinated by microscopes because they confirmed to him that what appears from the “normal,” everyday point of view to be a lifeless object, is actually full of life. One has but to take a closer look at it, i.e., to observe the object from absolute proximity: under the lens of a microscope, one can perceive the wild crawling of innumerable tiny living things. Cf. chapter 2 of Miran Bozovic, Der grosse Andere: Gotteskonzepte in der Philosophie der Neuzeil, Vienna and Berlin, Turia und Kant, 1993.

4. The exception is provided here by the naked body of Isabella Rossellini towards the end of Blue Velvet: when, after the endured nightmare, she leaves the house and approaches Jeffrey, it is as if a body belonging to another, dark, nightly, infernal realm all of a sudden found itself in our “normal” daily universe, out of its own element, like a stranded octopus or some other creature from the deep sea-a wounded, exposed body whose material presence exerts an almost unbearable pressure on us.

5. It was Chaplin’s Great Dictator which already bore witness to a homologous disturbance in the relationship between the voice and the written word: the spoken word (the speeches of the dictator Hynkel) is obscene, incomprehensible, and absolutely incommensurate with the written word.

6. See Michel Chion, David Lynch, Paris, Cahiers du Cinema, 1992, especially pp. 108-117 and 227-228.

7. For a more detailed reading of these lines from Richard II, see chapter 1 of Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991.

8. As to this logic, see Lacan’s Seminar XX.

9. In the analysis of films, it is therefore crucial to expose homogeneous, continuous, diegetic reality as a product of “secondary elaboration,” i.e., to discern in it the part of (symbolic) reality and the part of fantasy hallucination. Suffice it to recall Home Alone. The entire film hinges on the fact that the boy’s family—his proper intersubjectfve environs, his Other—and the two burglars that threaten him when the family is away never cross paths. The burglars enter the scene when the boy finds himself alone, and when, at the end of the film, the family returns home, all traces of the burglars’ presence almost magically evaporate, although, as a result of their confrontation with the boy, practically the entire house should lie in ruins. The very fact that the burglars’ existence is not acknowledged by the Other, undoubtedly bears witness to the fact that we are dealing with the boy’s fantasy. The moment the two burglars enter the scene, we change terrain and jump from social reality into the fantasy universe in which there is neither death nor guilt; into the universe of silent slapstick pictures and cartoons, in which a heap of iron falls on your head, yet all you feel is a slight bump; in which a gallon of gasoline explodes on your head, yet the only damage you suffer is that some of your hair is burned. Perhaps this is how one has to conceive of Macaulay Culkin’s notorious scream: not as an expression of his fear of the burglars, but rather as an expression of his horror at the prospect of being thrown (again) into his own fantasy universe.

10. One also encounters this motif of a woman shaken out of her lethargic numbness where one would not normally look for it—in Henry James’ Aspern Papers, for example. The narrator forces his way into a decaying Venetian palazzo, the home of two ladies, an old American who was in her youth, ages ago, a mistress of the great American poet Aspem, and her somewhat younger niece. He uses every possible ruse to obtain the object of his desire: a bundle of Aspem’s unknown love letters carefully kept by the old lady. What he fails to take into account, obsessed as he is by the object of his desire, is his own impact on life in the decaying palazzo; he brings with him a spirit of vivacity which awakens the two ladies from their lethargic vegetation and even stirs up, in the younger one, sexual lust.

11. The logic here is exactly homologous to that articulated by Deleuze apropos of the Freudian duality of the pleasure (and reality) principle and its “beyond,” the death-drive. (What is the depression of Lynch’s heroines if not a manifestation of the death drive?) Freud’s point is not that there are phenomena that cannot be accounted for by the pleasure and reality pn`nciple (it is easy for him to demonstrate, apropos of every example of “pleasure in pain,” apparently running counter to the pleasure principle, the hidden narcissistic gain conveyed by the renunciation of pleasure), but rather that, in order to account !or the verg functioning of the pleasure and real/lg principles, we are obliged to posit the more fundamental dimension of the “death drive” and the compulsion-to-repeat which hold open the space where the pleasure principle can exert its rule. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” in Masochism, New York, Zone Books, 1991.

12. This “unaccountability” is what Freud was aiming at with his concept of overdetermination: a contingent external cause can trigger unforeseen catastrophic consequences by stirring up the trauma which always already glows under the ashes, i.e., “insisting” in the unconscious.

13. This suspension of linear causality is at the same time the constitutive feature of the symbolic order. In this respect, the case of Jon Elster is very instructive. Within the framework of the “objective” socio-psychological apProach, Elsfer endeavors to isolate the specific level of mechanism, located between a merely descriptive or narrative ideographic method and the construction of general theories: “A mechanism is a specific causal pattern that can be recognized after the event but rarely foreseen. . . . It is less than a theory, but a great deal more than a description” (Jon Elster, Political Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 3 and 5).
- -Slavoj Zizek, "Slavoj Zizek on David Lynch"

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Abundance or Empty Politic?

Substitute Progressivism or Conservatism (or any other ideology) for the Inerrant Bible in this video's example. An Objet Petit 'a is at the center of ALL democratic politics. Their is no "Master Signifier", only S2.

Boyeus Ex Machina

What is freedom?

Hate the Future, love the Past! Love the Past, hate the Future! Tossed between Scylla and Charybdis!

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Sorrow touches me
Sorrow at my loneliness
For want of another soul
To make me whole
Plumbing the depths of despair
In search of that missing piece
That will banish sorrow forever
But fail in that endeavour
Finding solace is always just out of reach
An outstretched hand away
There simply for the taking
Then I’m left aching
What was seemingly solid and tangible
Evaporated into the ether
So I will begin again tomorrow
The search for the end of sorrow
- Paul Curtis, "Sorrow" (2016)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Urban Adaptations

The city of dreams,
The city of screams.
The city of riches and poor,
The city of accidents and cure.

The lifestyle you can die to live,
Hotels, malls and night clubs give.
Tall buildings is the view you'll see here,
But taller are the dreams of people who live there.

Everyone in the city wants to touch the sky,
As they feel it is not too high.
Work is the only thing they've time to give,
They've truly forgot they have a life to live.

The city never stops,
Whether it is calamities or blasts.
It's not because they don't fear,
It's because they need food to eat and clothes to wear.

The city of glamour and fashion,
The city of love and attraction.
The city has got its own style,
And it changes from mile to mile.

The city dreams to be like Shanghai,
It is very popularly known as
- Sandeep Makhija, "Mumbai - The Dream City..."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Changing Urban Landscapes

Inhabitants of the city wake before light,
Indifferent to the sun’s schedule.
Their veiled desires turn industrial gears,
Lubricated by adultery, hidden vices, and beers.

Days in the factory cause nights of burden,
Attempting to fix broken parts of the family.
They perpetuate this zombies' assembly line,
One clock-in away from serving eternal time.

Though the sun is down, products are still forged
By these hands that the boss’s bankroll affords.
The chill of dusk creeps into busy streets,
Forever freezing dreams as tomorrow repeats.
- Caden Mulligan, "An Industrial Routine"

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dialing in the Fantasmatic Coordinates

Often things begin as a fake, inauthentic, artificial, but you get caught into your own game. And that is the true tragedy of Vertigo. It’s a story about two people who, each in his or her own way, get caught into their own game of appearances. For both of them, for Madeleine and for Scottie, appearances win over reality. What is the story of Vertigo? It’s a story about a retired policeman who has a pathological fear of heights because of an incident in his career, and then an old friend hires him to follow his beautiful wife, played by Kim Novak.

The wife mysteriously possessed by the ghost of a past deceased Spanish beauty, Carlotta Valdes. The two fall in love. The wife kills herself. The first part of Vertigo, with Madeleine’s suicide, is not as shattering as it could have been, because it’s really a terrifying loss, but in this very loss, the ideal survives. The idea of the fatal woman possesses you totally. What, ultimately, this image, fascinating image of the fatal woman stands for is death. The fascination of beauty is always the veil which covers up a nightmare. Like the idea of a fascinating creature, but if you come too close to her, you see shit, decay, you see worms crawling everywhere.

The ultimate abyss is not a physical abyss, but the abyss of the depth of another person. It’s what philosophers describe as the night of the world. Like when you see another person, into his or her eyes, you see the abyss. That’s the true spiral which is drawing us in.

Scottie alone, broken down, cannot forget her, wanders around the city looking for a woman, a similar woman, something like the deceased woman, discovers an ordinary, rather vulgar, common girl. The douement of the story, of course,is along the lines of the Marx Brothers’ joke, This man is an idiot. “The newly found woman looks like Madeleine, acts like Madeleine, the fatal beauty. We discover she is Madeleine. What we learn is that Scottie’s friend, who hired Scottie, also hired this woman, Judy, to impersonate Madeleine in a devilish plot to kill the real Madeleine, his wife, and get her fortune.

We could just see a lot of each other.

Why? ‘

Cause I remind you of her? It’s not very complimentary.

The profile shot in Vertigo is perhaps the key shot of the entire film. We have there Madeleine’s, or rather Judy’s, identity in all its tragic tension. It provides the dark background for the fascinating other profile of Madeleine in Ernie’s restaurant. Scottie is too ashamed, afraid to look at her directly. It is as if what he sees is the stuff of his dreams, more real in a way for him than the reality of the woman behind his back.

That’s not very complimentary, either.

I just want to be with you as much as I can, Judy.

When we see a face, it’s basically always the half of it. A subject is a partial something, a face, something we see. Behind it, there is a void, a nothingness. And of course, we spontaneously tend to fill in that nothingness with our fantasies about the wealth of human personality, and so on. To see what is lacking in reality, to see it as that, there you see subjectivity. To confront subjectivity meansto confront femininity. Woman is the subject. Masculinity is a fake. Masculinity is an escape from the most radical, nightmarish dimension of subjectivity.

I’m trying to buy you a suit.
But I love the second one she wore.
And this one, it’s beautiful.
No, no. They’re none of them right.
I think I know the suit you mean.
We had it some time ago.
Let me go and see.
We may still have that model. Thank you.
You’re looking for the suit that she wore, for me.
I know the kind of suitthat would look well on you.
No, I won’t do it!
Judy.It can’t make that much differenceto you.
I just want to see what…

No, I don’t want any clothes.I don’t want anything.
Here we are.-Yes, that’s it. When Judy, refashioned as Madeleine, steps out of the door, it’s like fantasy realised. And, of course, we have a perfect name for fantasy realised. It’s called “nightmare”. Fantasy realised. What does this mean? Of course, it is always sustained by an extreme violence. The violence in this case of Scottie’s brutal refashioning of Judy, a real, common girl, into Madeleine. It’s truly a process of mortification, which also is the mortification of woman’s desire.

It is as if in order to have her, to desire her, to have sexual intercourse with her, with the woman, Scottie has to mortify her, to change her into a dead woman. It’s as if, again, for the male libidinal economy, to paraphrase a well-known old saying, the only good woman is a dead woman. Scottie is not really fascinated by her, but by the entire scene, the staging. He is looking around, checking up, are the fantasmatic co-ordinates really here? At that point when the reality fully fits fantasy, Scottie is finally able to realise the long-postponed sexual intercourse. So the result of this violence is a perfect co-ordination between fantasy and reality. A kind of direct short-circuit.
- Slavoj Zizek, "A Pervert's Guide to Cinema"

Seasonal Variations

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
Spring's honied cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.
- John Keats, "The Human Seasons"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


That is the difference between desire and drive: desire is grounded in its constitutive lack, while drive circulates around a hole, a gap in the order of being….At the immediate level of addressing individuals, capitalism, of course, interpellates them as consumers, as subjects of desire, soliciting in them ever new perverse and excessive desires (for which it offers products to satisfy them); furthermore, it obviously also manipulates the “desire to desire,” celebrating the very desire to desire ever new objects and modes of pleasure. However, even if it already manipulates desire in away which takes into account the fact that the most elementary desire is the desire to reproduce itself as desire (and not to find satisfaction), at this level, we have not yet reached drive. Drive inheres to capitalism at a more fundamental, systemic, level: drive is that which propels the whole capitalist machinery, it is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Parallax View"

Monday, January 18, 2016


How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
- William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 97" (1609)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Trump, 2016, and the Neo-Negation of Government

...the First Negation
In "States of Injury", Wendy Brown refers to the same logic of the dialectical process when she emphasizes how the first reaction of the oppressed to their oppression is that they imagine a world simply deprived of the Other that exerts oppression on them - women imagine a world without men, African-Americans a world without whites, workers a world without capitalists... The mistake of such an attitude is not that it is 'too radical', that it wants to annihilate the Other instead of merely changing it; but, on the contrary, that it is not radical enough: it fails to examine the way the identity of its own position (that of a worker, a woman, an African-American...) is 'mediated' by the Other (there is no worker without a capitalist organizing th production process, etc.), so that if one is to get rid of the oppressive Other, one has substantially to transform the content of one's own position. That is the fatal flaw of precipitate historicization: those who want 'free sexuality delivered of the Oedipal burden of guilt and anxiety' proceed in the same way as the worker who wants to survive as a worker without a capitalist; they also fail to take into account the way their own position is 'mediated' by the Other. The well-known Mead-Malinowski myth of the free, non-inhibited sexuality reigning in the South Pacific provides an exemplary case of such an 'abstract negation': it merely projects into the spatio-historical Other of 'primitive societies' the fantasy of a 'free sexuality' rooted in its own historical context. In this way, it is not 'historical' enough: it remains caught in the coordinates of one's own historical horizon precisely in its attempts to imagine a 'radical' Otherness - in short, anti-Oedipus is the ultimate Oedipal myth...

This mistake tells us a lot about the Hegelian 'negation of the negation': its matrix is not that of loss and its recuperation, but simply that of a process of passage from state A to state B: the first, immediate 'negation' of A negates the position of A while remaining within its symbolic confines, so it must be followed by another negation, which then negates the very symbolic space common to A and its immediate negation (the reign of a religion is first subverted in the guise of a theological heresy; capitalism is first subverted in the name of a 'reign of Labour'). Here the gap that separates the negated system's 'real' death from its' 'symbolic' death is crucial; the system has to die twice.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Ticklish Subject"

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Nod to Bowie and Brecht

...with lessons for anyone with an attention span long enough to endure the latest SOTU address from Washington

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


The place where a great city stands is not the place of stretch'd wharves, docks, manufactures, deposits of produce merely,
Nor the place of ceaseless salutes of new-comers or the anchor-lifters of the departing,
Nor the place of the tallest and costliest buildings or shops selling goods from the rest of the earth,
Nor the place of the best libraries and schools, nor the place where money is plentiest,
Nor the place of the most numerous population.

Where the city stands with the brawniest breed of orators and bards,
Where the city stands that is belov'd by these, and loves them in return and understands them,
Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds,
Where thrift is in its place, and prudence is in its place,
Where the men and women think lightly of the laws,
Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases,
Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons,
Where fierce men and women pour forth as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves,

Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority,
Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, and President, Mayor, Governor and what not, are agents for pay,
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves,
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs,
Where speculations on the soul are encouraged,
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as the men,
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men;
Where the city of the faithfulest friends stands,
Where the city of the cleanliness of the sexes stands,
Where the city of the healthiest fathers stands,
Where the city of the best-bodied mothers stands,
There the great city stands.
- Walt Whitman, "The Great City"

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


COME, I will make the continent indissoluble;
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon;
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.


I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies;
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other’s necks;
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.


For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs,
In the love of comrades,
In the high-towering love of comrades.
-Walt Whitman, "A Song"

Monday, January 11, 2016


*companion upbringing


“In the words of Aristotle: ‘catastrophe is an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed,’”
from Wikipedia

Friday, January 8, 2016

Feed Me, Seymore!

I've taken down a write I liked
I put troll heads upon a spike.

But rather than highlight these guys
I've decided that's not wise!

We think we HELP the trollish prey
While we scare new folks away

I just had a conversation
With one of my favorite relations

My bro in law is expert
In handling the ones who hurt

He works as a computer whiz
And here's the advice that he gives

When in doubt, remember, souls,
They love the light...
- SoulSurvivor, "To Write or Not to Write" (8/16/15)

Visualization of the Day

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tory Visions

Benjamin West, "The Death of General Wolfe" (1770)
from Wikipedia
Butler's Rangers (1777–1784) was a British provincial regiment composed of Loyalists (or "Tories") in the American Revolutionary War, raised by Loyalist John Butler.

Most members of the regiment were Loyalists from upstate New York. Among the regiment were black former slaves; the total number of black soldiers in Butler's Rangers is unknown, with estimates ranging from two to "more than a dozen". While some blacks served in other units and as sappers in the Engineer Corps and in the Royal Artillery, Sir William Howe banned the enlistment of blacks and ordered the disbanding of existing black regiments.[1]

The Rangers were accused of participating in — or at least failing to prevent — the Wyoming Valley massacre of July 1778 and the Cherry Valley massacre of November 1778 of white settlers (including some Loyalists) by Joseph Brant's Iroquois. These actions earned the Rangers a reputation for exceptional savagery. They fought principally in western New York and Pennsylvania, but ranged as far west as Ohio and Michigan and as far south as Virginia.

Their winter quarters were constructed on the west bank of the Niagara River in what is now the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Although the building that houses The Lincoln and Welland Regiment Museum in that community is traditionally known as "Butler's Barracks", it is not the original barracks and never housed Butler's Rangers. It was built in the years following the War of 1812 to house the Indian department and received the name because Butler had been a Deputy Superintendent in that department.
Joseph Brant and King Hendrick are both depicted in "The Death of General Wolfe". King Hendrick was, IMO, aka Sir William Johnson, and Joseph Brant, aka Sir Guy Johnson. Joseph Brant's Iroquois name was Thayendanegea (translated "He who places two bets")
Johnson Coat of Arms
Benjamin West, "General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American" (1768)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Something is Changing in the Status of Belief

Chance: In class and in your public lectures here at Chicago, you've frequently talked about culture and have done so in two ways: first, in terms of belief as you have theorized it in your earlier work, and secondly in terms of Hegel's notion of habit. How are you thinking culture in Lacanian terms?

Zizek: Traditionally, Lacanians like to identify culture simply as the symbolic system, within which there is a linguistically limited horizon of meaning, but I think two things should be added.

First, what is for me the zero-sum of culture, if I improvise, is what to do about embarrassing excesses. When somebody does something embarrassing, burps after eating for example, culture is how you react to it in a polite way. To be very vulgar, all seduction rituals are the cultured way of dealing with the fact that people would like to copulate with each other. Now, someone will say, "wait a minute, to feel something as embarrassment, culture must already be there." No, I don't think so. Somehow, embarrassment is first. In other words, we have to presuppose an excess, again, embarrassment apropos of something disgusting, non-social, or an excess of obscenity or enjoyment.

So again, this would be the first specification: to put it in bombastic Lacanian terms, first the excess of the real, embarrassment, shock - and culture is how you deal with it. This is why Lacan in a nice, tasteless way put it that one measure of the passage from the animal to the human kingdom is what to do with shit. He always liked this example, that an animal by definition just shits wherever, for humans shit is always an embarrassment. It always amused me when I was a boy that, at circuses, you have animals, horses and especially elephants that take a big shit and usually you see people hidden behind them ready to make the shit quickly disappear. Animals don't care. The problem with humans is what to do with this embarrassment.

The second thing that interests me, which is a much more concrete historical analysis, is why there is such an obsession with culture today. Why is it that today not only do we have culture studies but everything - and by everything I mean at least the humanities and for some people even the hard sciences - has become a subspecies of cultural studies? In the hard sciences, people will say following Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, their history is the history of culture, of paradigm shifts and so on. Everything becomes culture.

Chance: How is this linked to your notion of belief?

Zizek: Again, this is linked to my notion of belief, to the idea that something is changing in the status of belief. Today, the predominant form is a belief that culture is the name of a belief, which is no longer taken seriously. Culture means, for example, I am a Jew, and although I don't think there was a stupid god coming down and shouting some stupid things to people on Mount Sinai, I nonetheless say out of respect for my lifestyle or whatever, I don't eat pork. This is culture.

To complicate things even further, I think two traps should be avoided here. Among other things, I have tried to focus my work on one of these traps in the last few years. First, it is too simple to say, "does this mean once before people were taking culture seriously." No. Not only conservatives, but even progressives like to criticize the present, evoking, "oh, but once it was different, things were more authentic." No, it wasn't. It is not that before people did believe. If anything, they believe more today. It's just that the modality of distance was different. Before, it wasn't a matter of belief. Rather, it was a feeling of being more attached to, and having more respect for, the power of appearance of ritual as such. Something changed today at that level, I think. So paradoxically these external signs of belief - "nobody takes anything seriously" - if anything, points to how it's more difficult today for us to trust the symbolic ritual, the symbolic institution. But again, there is no time when people 'really meant it.'

What I know from anthropology, I may be wrong, is that all the great errors started with a phenomenological evolutionary illusion. I think when researchers found a certain gap between reality and beliefs or between form and content, they always thought, "ah, we have a later descendent state of evolution, there must have been some point earlier when people meant it." The dream is that there was an original moment when people really 'meant it.' An example I know from my Marxist past, in anthropology you must know him from the 19th century, Lewis Henry Morgan. I remember from my youth that Engels among other classical Marxists relied on him. Morgan found that in some tribes all the men in one tribe referred to the women of the other tribe as their 'sister wives.' From this he deduced, that this is the linguistic remainder of some primordial form of marriage. The incest prohibition already in place, you were not allowed to have sex with women in your tribe, but only with the women in another tribe. The women were exchanged in a block, collectively. It was basic incest, but regulated. The way I heard it, anthropologists later proved that there never was this nice regulated collective orgy. That is to say, the wrong conclusion was that from this name 'sister wives' you conclude that there was a point when it was really meant. No, the gap is here from the very beginning.

What fascinates me in this example also is the logic of institution. By institution, I mean how, in order for something to function as a belief, you cannot simply say, "okay, let's pretend." In my book, I think the Ticklish Subject (Verso, 1999), I have a wonderful anecdote, which for me again tells about what culture is as an institution. It is a crazy story about elections some fifteen years ago in my country, Slovenia. An ex-friend of mine, who was a candidate told me - okay, he had to do these democratic games like kissing the asses of local constituents - an old lady came to him and said if he wanted her vote he would have to do her a favor. She was obsessed with the idea that something was wrong with her house number (number 24, not even 13), that this number brings misfortune. There was a burglary twice, lightning struck the house, and she's convinced that it's because of the number. She said, can she arrange with the city authorities to change the number, to 23a or something, just not 24. He said to her, "But lady, why even go through all this mess? Why don't you simply paint a new number and change it yourself?" She said, "No, it must be done properly." Though it was only superstition, to be effective it must be done properly through the institution. The must be a minimum reification to take the game seriously.

Chance: Is this a project for anthropology?

Zizek: This returns to another aspect of your question. That is, another lesson of all these notions of culture is the irreducibility of alienation. We should abandon this old phenomenological - and for some people, Marxist motive - that every institutionalization means reification in two directions, the past and the future. For the past, it is the idea that we should try to reconstitute a moment when it was not alienated, when it was 'meant seriously.' For the future, it is to isolate the moment, to dream or to work toward the moment when this transparency and authenticity of meaning will be reinstalled. No, we should also see the liberating aspect of it.

To return here to what I know of anthropology, when anthropology about half a century ago shifted from "let's observe the mating rituals in Southern Samoa or South Pacific" or whatever, to focusing on our daily life rituals. You remember Florida, the scandal elections and the first Bush victory. A guy somewhere from Africa wrote an article imitating that sort of journalistic report, you know, an enlightened Western journalist goes to Africa, where they allegedly have some election and he mocks the election, "ha, ha, what corruption." Well, this guy wrote about Florida in the same way, saying there are votes disappearing, the brother of the candidate is the local government, you know, describing Florida as a provincial Banana Republic case of cheating. It was a wonderful result. It was anthropology at its best.

I think this is what interests me, the anthropology of our lives. Not only is this a politically correct procedure - in this exceptional case, I use the term 'politically correct' in a positive way - but also I find it always a subversive procedure. The starting point is always the implicit racism of the anthropologist: you look at a foreign culture, you study them with this detachment, "oh what strange rituals" and so on. The phenomenological humanist temptation would be to say, "No, in this engaged participating fieldwork, we should immerse ourselves, become one of them to really understand them." This series of presuppositions we should reject. What does it mean that we should be one of them to understand them? They usually don't understand themselves - isn't it the basic experience that people as a rule follow rituals that are just a part of tradition, which they themselves don't get? I think the anthropology of our lives is the true breakthrough from this implicitly racist attitude of studying the eccentricity of others, to adopt the same view of ourselves. It is much better as a double alienation.

This is connected to another central motive of my work, this obsession with not only rules but also habits, which tell you how to obey or disobey rules. Especially social prohibitions never mean what they appear to mean. This is an incredibly wealthy topic of ideology for contemporary anthropology. Why is it so important? Precisely because we live in an era of so-called post-ideology. I claim that at precisely this level, ideology has survived.

My interest in anthropology, what always fascinated me was people never mean what they say and in order to be a part of a culture you have to get this gap. There is an important role of obscenities here. Let me tell you a comic adventure. This weekend, I was with Fred Jameson at Duke and there Fred invited an old, very distinguished Argentine gentleman - I will not tell you the name it's too embarrassing - because of my wife, who is also Argentinean. This gentleman, you would be afraid of using the f-word in front of him, so I said to myself, okay, can I make him say something dirty? And I did seduce him, you know how? The specificities of Argentine Spanish are very different from say Venezuelan Spanish or Mexican Spanish. So, I told him how I tried to learn Spanish, and then I made my first step into obscenity. I told him I knew the word 'cojo,' which in Spanish simply means 'to catch' something, like "how do I catch a taxi?" Now, this word will be important because I told him I heard somewhere in Argentina there is a series of jokes, where a stupid Spaniard comes to Argentina and asks, "Where do I catch a taxi?" In Argentinean Spanish, 'catch' here means the f-word. Then, the distinguished gentleman smiled briefly and I saw that he knew a really dirty example. And I like it how he broke down. After two or three minutes, he broke down and said, "It's against my nature but I must tell you Argentines have an even more dirty joke..." which is that a Spanish guy says, "How do you catch a cab?," which means to fuck a taxi, and the Argentine says, "Well, the only practical way I can imagine is the exhaust pipe." I was so glad that this distinguished gentleman, that I made him say this joke. For me, this is culture. For me, it is not a violation, but the closest you can get to authentic communication.


Chance: I wanted to talk about Lacanian ethics and about Lacan's injunction to be consistent with your desire -

Zizek: The thing about Lacan's injunction is what if your desire is not consistent? In other words, the way I read Lacan is that more and more in his late work he devalues desire, desire itself as not an ethical category. The Lacan of the fifties and sixties, it is the ethics of desire to not compromise your desire. But later, more and more he emphasizes that desire is a priori something hypocritical, inconsistent. In this sense, desire mostly thinks with a secret code that you will not get, the whole economy is to avoid the realization of desire, which is why Lacan understood that fantasy is a realization of desire. He doesn't mean realization of desire in the sense of getting what you desire, like I want to eat strawberry cakes and I in the fantasy imagine myself realizing it. For Lacan, it is to stage a scene where that desire as such emerges. What would be a nicer example, let's say I have a desire to eat strawberries but as always with desires, you have this suspicion, what if I will be disappointed. A fantasy would be, for example, I am there sleeping and somebody brings me strawberries, then I taste one, then I stop and it goes on. This 'going on' - I never fully have the strawberries - is fantasy. You don't realize desire - getting your dirty mouth full of strawberries - you just stage this scene on a pleasant, hopeful state of desire, on the verge of satisfaction but not yet there. There is a pleasant obstacle preventing it all the time. This is fantasy.

Chance: How does this ethical injunction, both in the early and late Lacan, play out in the political realm, specifically thinking about it in relation to the cartoon depictions of Mohammad, a debate that opposed unlimited freedom of the press to respect for the other?

Zizek: Do you see the piece I wrote - not in The New York Times, which was censored - but "Antinomies of Tolerant Reason"? (See HYPERLINK "http://www.lacan.com" www.lacan.com)

You know, many leftists were mad at me there. They thought I made too many compromises with Western liberals, too much anti-Muslim compromise. But the reason I did it was that I got a little bit sick and tired with these politically correct Western liberals - didn't you notice this hypocrisy? I noticed it was the same people, who in the West are so sensitive - like I look at you and it already can be harassment - and all of sudden, they say it is a different culture, blah, blah, blah. I hate that even some feminists now are turning to culture as one of the standard defenses of Islam. In the West, we at least have formal equality of women. I am very sorry but there, you have a culture, at least in the predominant mode that is so openly anti-feminine. My god, but they are openly doing what we here are trying to unearth as the anti-feminism beneath the emancipated feminine. My god, are we now even prohibited from stating the obvious?

Do you know this famous, eternal politically correct example of clitoridechtomy? This example is not Islam - it is a ritual independent of Islam. But I remember some Muslim women claiming: isn't it that in the West in order to be attractive to men, women have to remain slim, seductive; isn't this a global clitoridechtomy; isn't it much worse? There, it's only the clitoris, here, it's as if your entire body is clitoridechtomized. I hate this - I remember when I was a youth what the facts were about the Gulag. People would say: but at least here, you are in or out of the Gulag; isn't it that the whole United States is one ideological Gulag? You know, this cheap counter universalization. I don't buy it - this is what I try to say in that text. The first thing is to admit a genuine deadlock and to stop this hypocrisy.

In that text, I hope it is obvious this fury I have at this logic of respect. Sometimes, respect is the most disrespectful category. Respect here is like telling a child false things so not to hurt him. Here, respect means not taking him seriously. I think a lot of the people who preach, "you should show restraint, show respect to Islam," are enacting the worst sort of patronization. Paradoxically, violent critics of Islam, on the most elementary level, show more respect for Islam than those who, out of respect, do not attack it. I am not saying we should turn to this, but at least those critics take people seriously as believers.


Chance: What does it mean to return to big theory?

Zizek: You remember, years ago it was fashionable to say big theory overlooks its own historical, concrete, anthropological conditions and presuppositions. That it is naive. Foucault has this attitude in its utmost when he says, before asking what's the meaning of the universe, you should ask in what historical context is it even possible to ask this question. So direct truth questions become questions about the concrete historical conditions in which one can raise such a question. I think this was a deadlock.

Today's big theory is no longer a naive big theory. It's not saying "let's forget about historical context and again ask, does god exist, or are we free." No, the point is that concrete theory - the idea that we cannot ask metaphysical questions, only historical questions - had a skeleton in the closet: it has its own big theory presuppositions. Usually, even some rather primitive historicist, relativist ideas, for example, everything depends on historical circumstances or interactions, there are no universalities, and so on. So for me, it's about not forgetting from where one speaks. It's about including into reflection, into historical reflection, the very historicism, which was unquestioned in this eternal, Foucauldian model. I find it so boring. It's so boring to say, "no, you shouldn't ask are we free, the only question is what does it mean in our society to ask the question are we free."

Chance: The presence of cognitive science is increasingly felt in anthropology. What particular problems does cognitive science pose for social sciences?

Zizek: Big theory brings us nicely to cognitive science because what it so tickling about them is precisely this question of freedom - does it mean we are not free? It's interesting that all the debates about cognitive sciences - the image of the human being emerging from all these interactions, from the brain sciences or more abstract mind sciences - is about are we free.

I don't know about social sciences, but I know about my field, psychoanalysis. I dealt with cognitive sciences extensively in my last book (See The Parallax View, MIT Press 2006). I think firstly, they should be taken seriously. They should not be dismissed as just another naive, naturalizing, positivist approach. The question should be seriously asked, how do they compel us to redefine the most basic notions of human dignity, freedom? That is to say, what we experience as dignity and freedom is it all just an illusion, as they put it in computer user terms, a user's illusion. Meaning, for example, when you write a text on a computer, you have this user's illusion scrolling up or down that there is text above or below. There is no text there. Is our freedom the same as a user's illusion or is there a freedom?

The thing to do - and I'm not saying I did it, I'm saying I am trying to do it - is to take these sciences very seriously, and find a point in them where there is a need for an intervention of concepts developed by psychoanalysis. I think - I hope - that I isolated one such point. I noticed how, when they tried to account for consciousness, they all have to resort to almost always the same metaphor of this autopoesis, self-reflexive move, some kind of self-relating, self-referring closed circuit. They are only able to describe it metaphorically. What I claim is that this is what Freud meant by death drive and so on.

But it's not that we psychoanalysts know it and can teach the idiots. I think this is also good for us - and by us I mean, my gang of psychoanalytically oriented people. It compels us also to formulate our terminology, to purify our technology as it were.


Chance: What, if anything, is neoliberalism?

Zizek: You must know, and it has often been noted, that the big shift in the study of the human mind from traditional approaches to modern cognitivism mirrors perfectly the shift from bureaucratic capitalism to neoliberal capitalism with its flexibility and plasticity. It's so interesting to notice how many cognitivists that I've read even say this openly. They say that traditional science of mind was production oriented, organizing up and down, like traditional bureaucratic capitalism. Today, it's like this digital, flexible capitalism - you don't have one central deciding point, you have free interaction, nomadic plasticity and so on. I found this very interesting.

Catherine Malabou wrote a wonderful book called What to Do With the Human Brain. She develops, in a very nice way, that plasticity can have two meanings. One meaning is this neoliberal plasticity. Basically, it's an accommodating plasticity: how to succeed on the market, how to adopt new identity. But there is a more radical plasticity, where the point is not just an adaptive plasticity. It's a plasticity that not only adapts itself to existing circumstances but also tries to form a margin of freedom to intervene, to change the circumstances.

The same would go for me for neoliberalism. My point would be first, there obviously exists something like neoliberalism. That is to say, it is a fact that at the level of relations between the states, within singular economies new rules of capitalism are emerging today.

But my first doubt would be about the process of describing the fact that something new is emerging. I don't think it is adequately described by the way neoliberalism describes itself. For example, saying "the rule is no longer state intervention, but free interaction, flexibility, the diminishing role of the state." But wait a minute, is this really going on? I mean, take Reagan's presidency and Bush's presidency today. While bombasting against big spending Democrats - that is to say, big state - the state has never been as strong as it is today and there is an incredible explosion of state apparatuses. State control today is stronger than ever. That would be my automatic reaction: yes, there is something new but, when covered by the label neoliberalism, it is not adequately described. The self-perception of today's era as neoliberal is a wrong self-perception.

Even leftist critics all too often accept this self-description on its own terms and then proceed to criticize it, saying, "no, we can't leave everything to the market." Wait a minute, who is leaving everything to the market? If we look at today's American economy, how much support there is for American farmers, how much intervention, military contracts, where is there any free market? I mean, sorry, but I don't see much free market here.

Just look at this paradox, which I think is the nicest icon of what goes on today. You know the problem of cotton in the state of Mali I think, which is the producer of cheap cotton far better than the United States' cotton. The country is going to ruin because, as you know, the American cotton producers get more state support than the entire Gross Domestic Product of the state of Mali. And they say there, we don't want American help, what we want is just when you preach about corrupt state intervention and the free market, you play by your own rules. You know, there's so much cheating going on here.

So that would be the kind of anthropological study that's needed: what neoliberalism really means. That's what we have to do.

Zizek Picks

Most important book published in the last six months: On Creaturely Life by Eric Santner

It will sound hypocritical but really, I would say On Creaturely Life. If you go further back to 2005, it would be The Persistence of Subjectivity by Robert Pippin.

Most important film released in the last six months: Manderlay directed by Lars Von Trier

My god, this is a tough question. My problem is, as much as I love even commercial Hollywood, I really don't remember one in particular. It's a weird film but I like it, the last Lars Von Trier, Manderlay. Need I add that I haven't seen it, but a priori I don't deal with empirical things.

Favorite obscure text: Sex and Character by Otto Weininger

Sex and Character. It's obscure today but remember that this book was published in 1903 and was reprinted like fifty times. Then, it was a megabook. It's vicious - radically anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, anti-whatever-you-want but I think it's shattering.

Most underrated philosopher: Hegel

It will sound crazy because he is one of the most overrated philosophers, but I think, Hegel. Because for the last two hundred years, every philosopher defines himself as somehow wanting to go over Hegel. He's this universal punching bag. Known as he is, he is still the most underrated.

Favorite politician of all time? Lenin and Cromwell

My answer is so boring. It's boring, it's stupid, it's provocative, I'm ashamed to pronounce it: Lenin. You know, many naive leftists, who want to maintain their democratic credentials, would say some tragic victim like Allende. I think there is no perspective there. I have a cynical idea that Pinochet's coup d'etat came at the right point. Imagine what would have happened if someone like Clinton and not that stupid Nixon-Kissinger gang were in power. Someone like Clinton would have gotten the formula: annoy him economically, wait for the true economic crisis to explode and then Allende would either have to opt for a three-way neoliberalism and play all those emancipatory welfare games. Or, he would have to turn Castro, get really tough and lose. Don't you think they struck at the right point to redeem him? So I don't respect this kind of person.

I would love to have somebody else - I have such traditional tastes. Okay, again, it's traditional but if you go back further, Freud loved him: Oliver Cromwell. I like it the way he ruthlessly went from first using the Parliament to cut off the head of the king, to then disbanding Parliament.

What surprises me is this myth that Cromwell was this cruel Puritan. Not only did he have personal integrity, but contrary to royalist myth, he was not revengeful. To put it naively, he was even personally kind. It may also come as a surprise how religiously tolerant he was. This is a myth, you know, this pale-lips Puritan just killing all the Catholics and everybody else. No, he was striving very much, for his vision was a kind of secular plurality of religions. He was a genuine tragic, tragic figure, I think.
Source- Chance Interview with Slavoj Zizek: "On Culture and Other Crimes"

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Social Tensions Baked into Capitalism

There is a tension that exists,
Here between you and I.
Its like a string pulled tight,
Ready to be snap at any moment.
It's forever there,
Taunting both of us.
We try to ignore it,
And pretend that it doesn't exist.
But it's there,
Every time you look at me,
When your eyes lock on mine.
Your words have a double meaning,
As do Mine.
Desperately we try to ignore the tension,
But its only a matter of time.
- Cheyenne, "Tension" (9/17/15)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Back to Digging the Rut....

A sketchpad on your lap
then lines became alive
There are smudges on the edges
and coals on eraser.

It's very important
to keep eyes into the wild
to smell that juicy lemon
and to taste in everyone's mouth.

But the time came..

When it's hard to persist
that seeing everyone's mouth
asking what's beyond
You try to give colors
but nothing seems profound
You try to give emotions
but everyone looks numb.

You keep asking
if the contrast are right
or the colors are just dumb
are my feet left untracked?
- Coco Li, "Artist in rut"